Anti-semitism still an issue

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Jewish parents want children to be part of British society, writes James Heartfield

At Christmas, the following was read out to a nursery class in London:"And the wicked King Herod, King of the Jews, wanted to kill the baby Jesus."

The teacher, innocently, thoughtlessly, repeating it from an attractive pop-up book. At assembly, children at Lucas Shapiro's school were asked to identify their culture. He was the only Jew.

Jews have featured in the lives of school children as long as Britain has been a Christian country - but not always in a flattering light. Jews were mostly isolated by prejudice. Today, the recent history of the Jews is often taught in schools - notably the history of the Holocaust.

The population reached 300,000 in 1914, and 400,000 in 1945. At the last census, 267,000 identified themselves as Jews, slipping down from third to fourth religion behind Sikhs.

This year, Jews are celebrating the 350th anniversary of the readmittance of Jews to Britain, under Oliver Cromwell, thanks to an appeal by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel. The Sephardic community of the 18th and 19th centuries (expellees originally from Spain, often arriving via Holland) included Knights of the realm, like stock trader Sir Moses Montefiore, economist David Ricardo MP, and even a prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, though the price of acceptance was often conversion.

At the end of the 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews escaping poverty and pogroms in east Europe joined them. Conservative politicians and labour leaders alike attacked them. "You are our brothers," said dockworkers' champion Ben Tillett, "but we wish you had not come."

London's east end was home to East European Jews, like actor Steven Berkoff and playwright Harold Pinter, both ex-Hackney Downs boys, but by the 1960s most had moved to the north London suburbs.

Political affiliations shifted, too, from left to right. Harold Macmillan sneered: "Out go the Etonians, in come the Estonians," about the Jews in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet.

Most live in outer London (196,000), with smaller communities in greater Manchester (27,800), Leeds (10,000) and Glasgow (5600). The composition of British Jewry, by self-designation, is 9 per cent orthodox, 31 per cent traditional, 15 per cent progressive, 18 per cent "just Jewish", and 26 per cent secular.

Sandra Teacher, who works in schools on inter-faith matters, is an orthodox Jew. She says that Jews want their children to attend community schools, to be a part of British society. There are 13,000 places in 36 Jewish faith schools for the 33,000 Jewish children in Britain.

According to Ms Teacher, northwest London is the place that you are most likely to find Jewish children in community schools, especially Barnet, where 14.8 per cent of the population is Jewish. Recently, the Jewish Free school moved from Camden to Kenton in Middlesex. King David's in Birmingham is a Jewish faith school, but only 45 per cent are Jews, and 37 per cent Muslims, and the gentile head wears a Jewish prayer cap at school. In Leeds, Jews have been campaigning to get the authority to pay for 30 children to be bused to Manchester after the last faith school closed, but most parents depend on community schools, or the private sector.

The Jewish sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and continues throughout Saturday. For orthodox Jews, it is unfair to organise sports days or visits on Saturdays. The Board of Deputies has pleaded with schools to check the calendar of High Holy Days. One head refused to budge on a school trip to the Isle of Wight that clashed with the Day of Atonement. It is an error that can make Jewish children feel singled out. Sats and GCSEs often clash with the Pentecost, and special provisions should be made.

Anti-semitism still arises. It is sometimes in a reaction to classes on the Holocaust (GCSE history) or Anne Frank (in junior schools) - lessons that need to be thought through - that Jewish children are bullied. Time was that the hostility would have come from right-wingers.

Today, Jews are more likely to be made to feel uncomfortable about Israel by radicals and Muslims. It is hard to disentangle Zionism from Judaism since most Jews see Israel as their country, surrounded on all sides by Arab or Muslim states.

RESOURCES

Board of Deputies of British Jews, The Board of Deputies, 6 Bloomsbury Square, London, WC1A 2LP. Tel: 020 7543 5400; fax: 020 7543 0010; www.bod.org.uk.

Jewish Education Bureau (provides classroom resources), 8 Westcombe Avenue, Leeds LS8 2BS. Tel: 0870 800 8532; fax: 0870 800 8533; email: jeb@jewisheducationbureau.co.uk; www.jewisheducationbureau.co.uk.

The Jewish Chronicle, weekly newspaper for the Jewish community: www.thejc.com.

TENETS

The Jewish faith is not a proselytising religion.

The people of Israel were chosen by God.

It is monotheistic: "You shall have no other gods beside me."

The Torah is contiguous, with the first five books of the Bible written on a scroll, it is sacred in Jewish worship.

The Ten Commandments given to Moses are the laws of the Jewish people.

Jewishness passes down the matrilineal line.

Most Jews in Britain today are Ashkenazi (from Hebrew for Germany, Ashkenaz).

A minority are Sephardic (from the Hebrew for Spain, Spharad).

Jewry divides into orthodox (including the ultra-orthodox, Chasidim (Hasidism) who came from Poland and mostly live in Stamford Hill), reform and secular, ethnically, but not religiously Jewish.

Orthodox Jews follow kosher dietary laws, observe the Sabbath strictly, and rules of purification that forbid handshaking across the sexes, and cover their heads.

Passage into maturity is observed with rites: bar mitzvah for a boy at 13, bat mitzvah for a girl at 12.

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