Fight the good fight

16th February 1996 at 00:00
As a parent who regards religion as important, I sympathise with the recent decisions by Muslim parents in Batley and Birmingham to withdraw their children from primary "mainstream" RE. I sympathise but I do not agree.

I am Jewish and I am bringing my children up to think of themselves as Jewish. Jewish identity, Jewish history, Jewish culture and the Jewish community are important factors in the way in which the family is oriented towards the world. Above all, Jewish worship is a practice with which I feel comfortable and to which I am encouraging my children.Yet I do not mind them participating in Christian acts of worship, still less in learning about other religions.

I would rather my children learned about other people's religions through a proper syllabus rather than through gossip, just as I would rather other children learned about our religion through proper lessons rather than through sniggers about Jewish avarice and conspiracy.

Simply to dispel anti-Semitism would be a good enough reason for me for non-Jewish children to learn about the Jewish religion, just as simply to challenge anti-Muslim feeling should be a good enough reason to learn some truths about Islam for non-Muslim children. But then, how can I expect others to learn about us if we do not learn about them? Religious education should not be a closed curricular shop but a swap-shop.

But multi-faith RE should go deeper than this. Just as I know that my religion has many deep and beautiful enrichments to offer even those who do not share in it, so I am able to believe that glimpses of other faiths can offer my children understandings of the way other human beings have come to terms with the mysteries and dangers of the cosmos. But I don't feel those glimpses will compromise their Jewish identity. I do not think primary children are too young to know that other people have different answers. I do not mind their participating in the Nativity play; to me this is a respectful celebration of others' beliefs. I can't let them say that Jesus is the Son of God, for we don't believe that, but we are not going to object to other people demonstrating that belief. We can sit calmly through other people's prayers, just as we would expect visitors to our synagogue to sit through ours.

On Sundays my children attend religion school. There they learn what it is to be Jewish, about customs, practices, history, spirituality, language and liturgy. Many children of other faiths go to religion schools attached to religious institutions. This is so-called "confessional" education. It is not the kind of education which ought to be offered in a multi-faith primary .

In fact, I am positively glad that my children can sample Diwali at a primary-school assembly or hear about the story of Easter. These stories and practices have cultural resonances which still permeate art, literature and language in this country. In no way do I feel that our Jewish faith and identity is tainted by exposure to this knowledge. In all kinds of ways, we learn who we are partly by learning who we are not.

The Muslim parents in Batley want their children to be taught in school that Islam is the true faith. I think they are wrong to want that belief transmitted in a state school.The way forward for religious people in a secular society is to be sure inside themselves about their beliefs. They should not fight other knowledge, they should fight the good fight against ignorance and lies.

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