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Ofsted and a question of stoning

    The government’s attempt to nip extremism in the bud is having an increasing knock-on effect on strictly Orthodox Jewish schools.

    Its “British values” agenda is intended to promote respect and tolerance for other cultures and faiths among children – in contrast to sectarian ideologies seen as a stepping-stone to militancy.

    But how school inspectors interpret “British values” has become a source of friction between Jewish schools on the religious right and the educational authorities. In particular, Charedi schools have been left bristling at inspection reports which seem to suggest they ought to be teaching their children about same-sex relationships.

    A new report into Muslim independent school raises other questions about inspection criteria. The Jamiatul Ummah secondary school in East London is the subject of a critical report for the third time in 15 months.

    In the latest inspection, Ofsted has complained of three books found in the school’s library which could “undermine the active promotion of the rule of British law and respect for other people”.

    The books, inspectors said, “promote inequality of women and punishments, including stoning to death, which are illegal in Britain and do not reflect the school’s ethos of tolerance and integration”.

    Without seeing the books in question, it is impossible to say any more about their content.

    However, one has to remember that stoning is a biblical punishment too, to be meted out to Shabbat-breakers and certain sexual offenders.

    Now capital punishment has effectively been off the rabbinic books for the better part of two millennia. And some of the talmudic rabbis clearly shied away from it, expressing their view that a Sanhedrin which put even one person to death in 70 years should be considered a bloody court.

    Nevertheless, children reading the Torah are exposed to the view that stoning is a divinely prescribed sanction. Such laws are no longer in force but it is not the mainstream Orthodox position that they have been formally renounced.

    Of course, it is highly unlikely that Ofsted are going to demand that Chumashim be taken off the shelves. But some Orthodox Jewish organisations argue that inspectors have been failing to distinguish between extremism and religious conservatism – and this latest example is hardly likely to dispel their concerns.

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