We must not shield children from the diverse ways of living a British life

Exposing pupils to different ideas does not need to undermine a school's Jewish character, Daniel Finkelstein says

November 01, 2018 11:50

The nature of rights is that they clash. My right to free speech clashes with your right to privacy. Your right to welcome who you want into your home clashes with my right not to be discriminated against. And finding a way through can be tricky.

In the recent case over Ashers Baking Company, the courts have done brilliantly. A customer, who happened to be gay, asked for his cake to be iced with a political message supporting gay marriage. The bakery refused and everyone got lawyered up.

The court judged that the bakery was not entitled to discriminate between its customers and refuse to serve gay people.

But it was and is entitled to refuse to express opinions it doesn’t hold. So it couldn’t refuse the customer his cake because the customer was gay or even because he supported gay marriage. But Ashers didn’t have to write on the cake a political message about gay marriage that the bakery disapproved of.

This was judicious. And it is easy to see how it might end up being of direct importance to the Jewish community. Say that someone asked a kosher bakery to sell them a cake with a message denying the Holocaust.

But at the moment we Jews are struggling with a somewhat different clash of rights and it is proving more difficult to find a way through.

The education authorities — both the Department and Ofsted — have grown concerned about the teaching of alternative lifestyles in religious schools. Are children being taught about gay people, about trans issues and about gay marriage?

Ofsted in particular is being fairly insistent that they must be, while the Education Secretary is pondering how best to proceed. Many orthodox schools, particularly Charedi ones are resistant. 

So what to do?

There is the right, an important one, for people to practise their religion and bring up their children in their faith. And then there is the clashing right of the children themselves to have knowledge of the world and to understand their own sexuality and those of people that they meet.

A rather similar question arises over teaching children about Darwin’s theory of evolution which one Rabbi described to me, in some despair, as an instruction to undermine the concept underpinning Shabbat. 

Yet what about the right of children to be taught scientific truth?

In the end, one has to make choices. So here are mine. The foundation of British citizenship is civic equality, the idea that we are all equal under the law. Every child brought up in this country has this as their birthright.

In order to take up this inheritance, young people have to be aware of all the many diverse ways of living a British life. In particular they must be able to understand themselves and who they are.

This information cannot be withheld from them because the educational authorities disapprove of a particular way of life.

The idea that there are no young Charedi people who are gay is obviously absurd and it is cruel to deny them a chance to appreciate who they are.

The same goes for evolution. Children need to be taught scientific fact and the theory of evolution is fundamental. I am very sympathetic to parents wishing to raise their children in their own faith but they can’t be allowed to do this by withholding the truth from them.

As adults, young people will be able to make up their mind how they behave and what they wish to believe. But as children they must be given the tools that allow them to make those choices.

This does not need to undermine the Jewish character of the school. Shabbat isn’t being abolished and homosexuality isn’t being made compulsory. But what is being abolished is ignorance and what must be compulsory is knowledge.

We are very proud as a community of the way we have integrated into British life. This is a test of it. Can we have religious schools that accept the basic requirements of modern British society without losing their way?

I would add a further point.

We will not forever be able to hold back civic equality or scientific knowledge.

If we don’t find ways to cope with it, and to integrate its understandings into our faith, then we will not survive as a people.

November 01, 2018 11:50

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