Is Britain’s Jewish community becoming collateral damage in the government’s flailing attempt to combat Islamist extremism?
Yesodey Hatorah is a Charedi girls’ school in Stamford Hill with excellent academic results. Recently, it was inspected by Ofsted. According to the school, the inspectors had one thing on their minds: the school’s approach to sex education on which they questioned pupils.
But Yesodey Hatorah doesn’t have sex education because this is contrary to the Charedi value of extreme modesty.
Ofsted says its inspectors “know how to hold these conversations in a sensitive and age-appropriate way”. However, on the Unherd website the columnist and priest Giles Fraser who visited the school wrote that pupils were very upset.
“This felt like an attack,” one said, “because under no circumstances did we want to discuss things that we were brought up our entire lives not to discuss.” One parent wrote of Ofsted’s attempt to force “an alien discussion with our girls of their private bodies and of intimate relationships with strangers” which “serves to undermine our beliefs in every possible way.”
The school claims that Ofsted returned for a second unexpected inspection after Humanists UK complained that a GCSE textbook had been redacted to remove mention of homosexuals or women socialising with men. The inspectors say it took place because of new evidence “which included parental complaints” and which was “unrelated to any coverage from the humanists”.
“Faith schools are entirely at liberty to teach the tenets of their faith on social issues,” Ofsted says. “However, they must also comply with the law and ensure that pupils are properly prepared for life in modern Britain.”
Yesodey Hatorah’s principal, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has now written an anguished letter to the Prime Minister. Ofsted’s interpretation of the law, he wrote, “puts us at odds with the society in which we have lived as loyal British citizens for decades”.
A number of orthodox schools have been given a bad inspectors’ report because they don’t teach about gay relationships.
Ofsted says that if pupils aren’t taught about such differences, they are less likely to be tolerant of others. Yet there’s no evidence of this.
Where the ultra-orthodox are intolerant, it’s usually towards other Jews. If they come into contact with non-Jews, they are hardly likely to speculate about their sexuality.
The core of this problem lies elsewhere — in the government’s attitude to Islamist extremism. At a meeting with Jewish communal leaders in 2006, the Prime Minister David Cameron asked them for “latitude” as the government got “stuck into” this problem.
His approach had to be fair and equitable, he told them, across all communities. This might mean, he acknowledged, that some measures would affect the Jewish community even though he fully recognised it was a model of integration.
So the Jews were to pay the price for the failings of others. The mistake made by both Cameron and Theresa May has been their refusal to accept that the extremist religious threat lies within the Islamic world alone.
Instead, they have defined the problem as one of general cultural differences. Wrong. The problem has arisen where children are taught to hate western society and to aspire to replace it.
To the secular mind, however, all cultures that reject liberal assumptions are an equal threat to others. Recently Dame Louise Casey, who reported for the government on integration, told The Times she would scrap all faith schools that didn’t teach progressive values “around our laws on women, equalities, gay marriage — all of it.”
Yet her view of gender roles, sexual openness or gay rights is not fundamental to British or western values. It derives from secular ideology, which is now being enforced on Charedi schools.
These are not to be allowed to preserve the sexual innocence of their children. They are not to be allowed to practise their own precepts within their own unthreatening community. They are being forced to conform to secular zealotry.
The problem the government has in its sights is therefore not a threat to society. The problem it’s actually trying to eradicate is the existence of religious difference.
A policy ostensibly against intolerance is therefore itself profoundly intolerant.
The ultra-orthodox require just one thing of the state – that it leaves them alone. Now these British Jews are being forced to consider whether they actually have a future in the country which was once the crucible of liberalism, a principle it has so distressingly abandoned.
Melanie Phillips is a Times columnist