Lee Harpin

Well done, JFS - debates on contentious issues are the best kind of education

Teacher at the centre of a dispute about anti-Zionist views has sparked intelligent discussion among pupils

November 24, 2017 13:36

As a parent you hear much about bad teachers and very little about the good ones.

Mr Saunders – the JFS teacher at the centre of a row about alleged anti-Zionist comments made at a lunchtime debate at the school – had been brought to my attention firmly by both my son in the sixth-form and my daughter in Year 9.

“He has made history interesting again,” I was told. “He is ferocious in debate.”

I have never met or spoken to Mr Saunders. But from what I can tell, part of his appeal as a teacher appears to be his belief that often contentious and delicate issues should be raised among his students in order to spark intelligent debate.

My daughter had only last week raised the issue of the treatment of British troops by their military leaders during the First World War. The topic was part of a history lesson ahead of Remembrance Sunday. It clearly resonated with my daughter as she wished to discuss the matter further at home. I approved.

Beyond the sometimes rigid modern Orthodox Jewish framework in operation at JFS there is also room for free speech and challenging debate, it would seem.

I was encouraged by my son's enthusiasm for what he insisted had been a “heated” debate earlier this week following a lunchtime talk given by respected academic and author David Hirsh.

Dr Hirsh, I am told, had enthusiastically promoted the content of his recent book Contemporary Left Antisemitism to around 50 students, many of whom were studying the school’s politics A level course in Mr Saunders's class.

What happened next remains a matter of debate and, indeed, an inquiry at JFS.

Dr Hirsh has chosen to speak publicly about his anger at the manner in which Mr Saunders decided to raise alleged intellectual deficiencies in his work.

The Goldsmiths sociology lecturer was also shocked to hear the teacher query why the Ha’avara Agreement had not been examined by Dr Hirsh in his book or in his talk.

Most damningly, he alleges Mr Saunders “strongly defended” Ken Livingstone's claim that Adolf Hitler backed Zionism.

Mr Livingstone is currently suspended from the Labour Party over the claim.

Dr Hirsh has been supported in his account of the meeting by former JC journalist Martin Bright, who also attended the event.

I have been contacted by no fewer than six JFS students who attended the talk and are aware that I write for the JC. I have quizzed my own son repeatedly over what he heard during the exchange between the two men.

Surprisingly, no one so far has said they heard Mr Saunders defend Mr Livingstone.

“Mr Saunders never directly addressed Ken Livingstone's comments”, was the unanimous opinion of the students I have heard from.

Two said their teacher had mentioned the Ha’avara Agreement “merely to add context and point out the possible fallacies in Dr Hirsh’s presentation”.

One student told me that in a debrief following the debate, Mr Saunders – a former JFS student himself – openly expressed his “love” for the State of Israel, but insisted “loving a country is also about admitting its mistakes”.

“Mr Saunders was saying it’s important to have all the facts before looking into whether criticism of Israel was antisemitic or not,” another added.

A third said: “the sixth-form student community at JFS is a place of intellectual discussion and debate; no views are invalid but rather every view should be talked about and evaluated.”

Whoever did choose to lodge the complaint about Mr Saunders – and at least one person must have, given the JFS inquiry – may well be keeping quiet in the face of a minor storm.

And while I have no wish to prejudice the outcome of the inquiry, it should be hoped that Dr Hirsh, who I have come to respect as a writer and campaigner on antisemitism, and Mr Saunders are both able to move on from this affair without further bitterness or repercussion.

JFS should ultimately be commended for hosting intellectual debates of this calibre, even if the school may now wish to consider the way in which contentious opinions are aired at future events.

Most of the sixth-form will next year find themselves on university campuses where anti-Zionist sentiment is commonplace.

There is no better way to counter anti-Israel fanaticism than by preparing young adults for the arguments and the atmosphere that lay ahead.

November 24, 2017 13:36

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