Life & Culture

Sian Berry: Standing firm against faith schools


Siân Berry has very little chance of being elected London Mayor in May.

This week, the bookies rated the Green party candidate's chances at just 150-1, leaving her trailing behind Labour's Sadiq Khan, Zac Goldsmith of the Conservatives, George Galloway of Respect and the Liberal Democrats' Caroline Pidgeon - but a margin above Ukip representative Peter Whittle.

This, I suspect, may be music to the ears of much of London's Jewish community and pro-Israel contingent.

For if Berry were to be elected, the 41-year-old activist would hope, among other policies, to clamp down on faith schools, support boycotts of Israel and cancel next year's Tel Aviv festival in London.

Beyond that, she has called for a review of the government's anti-radicalisation Prevent policy in schools and tells me that Cage - the controversial group whose director once described Daesh terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (or Jihahi John) as a "beautiful young man" - are on the "right side of trying to make sure that we don't demonise people further".

I meet Berry for coffee in Notting Hill. She walks in fresh-faced, with her long hair effortlessly clipped back. Armed with a backpack and large handbag, she's joined by Jennifer Nadel, the Green's West Central London Assembly candidate (who happens to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor). The two blondes say they are readying themselves to visit a nearby estate which is under threat by developers.

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of those across London," says Berry, peering over her cappuccino.

We touch on her main policies, from combating air pollution to housing more refugees in the overcrowded metropolis. But really, we are here to talk about the party's struggling relationship with the Jewish community.

For a start, Berry openly admits that she is not a fan of state-aided faith schools. While demand for Jewish education across the capital has soared, Berry, a self-professed "humanist", believes: "Everything the state gets involved in should be secular. [Faith schools are] a process of separating people and that's not a good thing.

"People need to meet people of all religions and all races in their formative years. We should all be learning about all the religions - and what it is like to have no religion. People learning together is good, too. People should send children to schools where they can meet all other Londoners."

It's not hard to see why many of her party's policies, and the people promoting them, would alienate prospective voters in the community.

Leader Natalie Bennett last year told the JC she would fully support a cultural, academic and economic boycott of Israel, despite having never been to the country.

Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, failed to stop protesters shutting the Israeli-owned EcoStream store in her Brighton constituency and deputy leader Shahrar Ali was once filmed at an anti-Israel rally saying: "Just because you observe the niceties of Holocaust Memorial Day, it does not mean you have learned the lessons of history."

Beyond that, the party has passed a resolution to officially endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. So it is no surprise that the Greens are the only mainstream party not to have a "friends of Israel" sub-group.

Berry herself has never been to Israel and accepts that her party's policies may have alienated community support.

But still, she suggests: "We take a very principled stand on human rights and international law. It isn't our intention to alienate Jewish people. It is very much a focus on the actions of the Israeli government."

She is supportive of BDS as a peaceful method of protest, but shrinks away from the thought of the movement targeting Israeli goods without cause. "That does risk turning into antisemitism," she says, adding: "It's really important to have clear targets when you're campaigning.

"If you are trying to change the policy of the Israeli government, you should pick some of the worst offenders. Like a company running prisons that the UN has said have a human rights issue. We need to be focused on some of the bigger companies that work in the UK [also] arms in particular."

Currently front-runners in the mayoral race, both Khan and Goldsmith have openly said they would back the Tel Aviv festival, which is set to celebrate bilateral trade and social links in London for the first time next year. Indeed, only Galloway has unsurprisingly pledged to launch "the mother of all protests" when it arrives.

Berry, however, suggests it might be better to cancel the festival, and run something that pays homage to London's Jewish community.

"If that particular festival is causing tension, maybe we would be better off supporting something that is more about bringing people together," she muses. "Celebrating London's massive Jewish community in a different way than supporting trade links with companies".

She adds: "I don't know if I would or wouldn't cancel the festival. If you've got a limited budget for cultural events, which we do have, I think the thing to be spending money on in London are the things that bring people together, especially when we have such a divided community."

When it comes to bringing people together, Berry says the Greens are at the forefront of calling for more people fleeing Syria to be let into the UK. She rejects any comments that equate the influx with the rise of radical Islam across Europe, adding that it is home-grown terrorists that have proved to be the biggest threat.

But, like the National Union of Teachers, who on Monday passed a resolution to reject Prevent in schools, Berry tells me: "We need to rethink the Prevent strategy.

"We do need a programme to combat radicalisation, but it has to be one that brings Londoners together," she continues, saying that the government policy, which encourages teachers to report suspicious students to authorities, censors free debate in class.

She argues there needs to be more awareness of "some of the reasons why people might be tempted and turned by propaganda".

She adds: "They need to feel valued by London. If they feel Islamophobia on the streets, that just reinforces that they are seeing."

This, I say, is an argument put forward by organisations like Cage - which claims to be an advocacy group for those affected by the "War on Terror".

But, while conceding that "some of the language they use can be a bit inflammatory sometimes," Berry says Cage have been unfairly demonised.

"I think they do represent some of the people who have been treated incredibly unfairly by the system from a human rights perspective. They do some good work."

If elected, she would call for more refugees to be allowed into the capital as "a matter of international law". With overcrowding and soaring property prices forcing Londoners to move out to St Albans and beyond, where would she house them?

"London is one of the best places to bring people. We have the public services to support a highly diverse community, including language services and specialist social workers.

"We are able to help people in their own language with cultural sensitivity," she adds. "Of course we can find temporary space…"

Where? I ask. North London? South, East, West?

"All over the city - it's being mapped out at the moment," retorts Berry, a councillor for Highgate in Camden.

She continues: "I don't like anything that links the refugee crisis with the bombings. People fleeing war are desperate people. There's no link between them and the people committing terrorist atrocities. The people carrying out terrorist atrocities are largely settled in the countries already… trying to draw that link is racist."

Berry says the best way of combating the rise of radical Islam across the UK, including London, is by "welcoming refugees. The best thing is to see people running away from ISIS and being welcomed by Europeans."

Despite polls, Berry believes the Greens still have a vital role to play in London, especially when it comes to fighting air pollution, promoting eco-friendly cafés, community social centres and small businesses. "Boris Johnson is good for the big business in London but the smaller ones feel shut out of his economic policies," she says.

By her own admission, the "Corbyn effect" has helped galvanise support from young members. "I do think people are crying out for a different kind of politics that they can get more involved in. That's what drew so many people to join the Labour party to support Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn't so much about him as it was for the need for a different kind of politics. We are certainly part of the same movement."

Berry - who was endorsed by both the Independent and the Observer when she stood for mayor in 2008 (she came fourth), has met Khan and Goldsmith to discuss her party's red lines: a halt to road building, airport expansion and enforced council estate buildings as well as reducing inequality in the city. In the past, the Greens have suggested supporters vote for another candidate as their "second preference". In April, a vote will decide which, if any, candidate will be endorsed as a second choice. Berry accepts that despite his good record on the environment, Goldsmith is "unlikely" to be recommended.

"The Greens are largely a left-wing party and Goldsmith does vote with the government most of the time. Even if he agreed to all our red lines, we might well have a debate, but…"

With that, she drinks up, picks up her bag and heads to the estate having readied herself for a rigorous day of campaigning - an activity in which, I suspect, she is most at home.

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