Family & Education

Muslim and Jewish students learn new approach to Middle East

What happened when boys from a Muslim academy went to JCoSS?


“If you said to most people we should get a bunch of Muslim students from an Islamic school and a bunch of Jewish students together and sit them down to debate Israel and Palestine,” said Michael Davies, “I think there would be a very sharp intake of breath.”

Since founding Parallel Histories, an online resource which teaches children the history of the Israel-Arab conflict from both viewpoints, he had yet to bring pupils of both faiths together in the same classroom.

But on Monday, a group of boys from the Abrar Academy, an independent Islamic school in Preston, Lancashire, came face-to-face with their Jewish counterparts at JCoSS in North London.

Mr Davies, a former history teacher at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, said: “The downside of doing something like this is enormous. The risk is that these young people will get into shouting matches, and end up saying very hurtful, uncivilised and racist things.

“Professionally, as a teacher, why would you put yourself into a position where that could happen? There are lots of easier things to do. So my job is to provide a framework to minimise the chance of that happening.”

One way he did this was to get the children to debate the issue from the “other” side — producing the curious spectacle of Jewish pupils arguing that decades of oppression has left the Palestinians with no option but to launch the First Intifada.

Arguing in support of Israel’s use of force during that conflict, one Abrar Academy boy said: “A lot of the time, Israel has been demonised and Palestine victimised. 
“The things the Palestinians were doing weren’t seen as bad as what Israel was doing, and so it was not covered as much in the media.

“We have to remember there was still antisemitism in Europe after the Holocaust and that also fuelled hate for Israel, and that influenced media coverage.”

Benjamin de Jong, the JCoSS teacher who arranged the visit, explained the point of the exercise was not the debate itself, but rather to equip the children with the skills they will need after they leave their respective schools, where most people are in agreement on everything.

Mr de Jong said: “The reality is that, as a school, we have to try to be apolitical. But we’re also a Zionist, Jewish school. We have to teach our students to face the realities of the world.

“But equally, it’s just as much about the kids from Abrar as it is about ours. They will go home, having been in a real Jewish school and met real-life Jews.”

The Abrar Academy was established in 2009 by Hadhrat Shaikh Maulana Fazlehaq Wadee, a scholar of the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam.

It educates approximately 120 boys in both secular and religious study. Pupils, aged 11 to 21, wear Islamic tunics and many of them board at the school, a former Methodist church.

Zahid Randera, one of Abrar’s debaters, told the JC: “Especially us being a Muslim school, we wanted to put our own ideas forward and articulate something meaningful.
“This project was a chance to explore Israel-Palestine and form our own opinions, without just taking what is fed to us in the media.

“It’s useful in that it gives us an idea of why other groups feel the way they do. It’s brought us together in a way that is quite unexpected. It’s been a learning experience.”
Also participating in the debates was a contingent from Lancaster Royal Grammar. 

James Weir, an A-level pupil, said, “Everyone’s been incredibly open so far. We’ve found, actually, that the Abrar lot have been way more open than us, in some ways. They taught us quite a lot.

“When you study it, you learn the facts. It’s a very difficult topic — it’s living history and it’s very complicated. And you realise that you can look at the same thing and see two completely different things.” 

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