I welcome the government’s acknowledgment in its Integrated Communities Strategy that the UK is worryingly divided in several ways; including race, faith and socio-economic status. It is vital that £50 million will now accompany policy to ensure long term delivery.
It is indeed concerning that three quarters of a million people living in Britain do not speak good English. I welcome the strategy’s intention to change this; it is a self-evident truth that people living in any nation should speak that country’s main language.
It is impossible to have a serious dialogue about integration without making plans for people to be able to communicate with their neighbours, with potential colleagues and to participate in the democratic process. This heightens the need for difficult conversations between communities as well as the advantages of getting to know each other.
However, the language in which integration is encouraged should emphasise its benefits. Cohesion benefits both those integrating and society as a whole, which gains from additional cultures, abilities and experiences. People should learn English, not just to benefit from society, but so that society can learn from them.
I remember living in Israel during the process of integrating more than a million Russian Jews. We can learn much from this experience. This process was not flawless, but, vitally, no one was taken aback by the explicit articulation of the prioritisation of immigrants learning Hebrew. Language is the first step to full integration; speaking English is not a punishment, it is the foundation stone of a cohesive Britain.
One of the strategy’s key initial "integration areas" is Bradford, where I have loved spending much time over the past three years, particularly with Muslim communities. Bradford can already boast multiple projects aimed at integration including Real Conversations, which I have the pleasure of leading together with the Islamic Society of Britain. Another example is the fantastic schools Linking Network, supported by the Pears Foundation. I have learnt so much from Muslim colleagues there.
Any move to promote "British values" must be drawn from a desire to learn from each other rather than to shut down cultural differences. The Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, rightly describes the UK as a "rich tapestry of diverse communities". As the fabric binding the nation’s communities together has become increasingly frayed, it’s vital we all pitch in to make this strategy as good as it can be. Our community has a huge amount of experience and lots to say on this topic; we should make our voices heard in this next stage of consultation.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism