The Jewish students redrawing the map

23rd May 2014 at 01:00
Pupils criticise their schools for ignoring Palestinian territories

Leading Jewish state schools have been accused of showing political bias, which contravenes the law, by using maps that do not show the boundary lines between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Schools are promoting a false picture of the political realities of the Middle East and failing to properly educate young people, according to a student-led campaign.

The controversy was sparked after JFS in north-west London, one of the UK's most prominent Jewish secondary schools, hung maps of Israel that did not recognise the existence of separate Palestinian territories in displays around the building.

Isaac Virchis, who is studying for his A-levels at JFS, has joined 15 other school and university students to launch a campaign calling on all institutions to refrain from indoctrination.

"The reason the borders need to be on the map is not a political reason but an educational reason," he said. "It reflects the geopolitical reality of the region. If you have to make a political statement, you should make one that's true."

So far, the students have contacted 16 Jewish state schools, asking them to join their Sign on the Green Line campaign. The Green Line refers to the pre-1967 boundary that marks out the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. No school has yet agreed to sign up, although two have said that they will reconsider the resources they use.

The campaign follows claims last month that a number of high-performing Jewish schools may withdraw from the state sector after being told that they cannot alter GCSE science papers to fit in with their religious beliefs ("Jewish schools may exit state sector in faith row", 25 April). Exam regulator Ofqual imposed a ban on redacting questions on evolution after it discovered that the practice had been endorsed by a major exam board.

Tensions are also running high over the freedoms of state schools to respond to the beliefs of parents, with investigations ongoing into claims of the "Islamification" of secular state schools in Birmingham.

The students behind Sign on the Green Line have sought legal advice from a QC at Matrix Chambers in London, who told them that schools must not indoctrinate students with particular political beliefs. Where an issue is under discussion, schools are legally obliged to provide students with a balanced view of the facts so that they can form their own opinions.

"Educationally, misinforming people is terrible," said Ella Taylor, a Year 12 student at JFS who is also a member of the campaign. "A lot of kids go to university having a very blurred, politically driven, not quite correct vision of what's going on. You're in a much better position to discuss what's going on if you're equipped with the right facts and information.

"The confusion exists because lots of people have different visions of what they want Israel to be. But whatever you want to see in the future, this is what exists now."

A number of schools, including Hasmonean High School in north-west London, said that they could not sign up to the campaign because that would be a political act. JFS was not available for comment as TES went to press.

The Reform Judaism movement is among the organisations to have signed up to the campaign. Libby Burkeman, its director of informal education, said: "This campaign is about being open and honest in our education, so that we're educating with integrity. It's about giving people the tools to make well-informed decisions."

But the Zionist Federation, an advocacy organisation working with Jewish schools, has criticised the campaign as divisive and unhelpful. "It suggests that you can draw a line between people who are pro-peace and people who are anti-peace," a spokesman said. "British Jewry overwhelmingly supports the idea of a two-state solution, creating a national home for Palestinian people alongside a national home for Jewish people.

"But even if you're for a two-state solution, it doesn't mean that you necessarily adhere to every millimetre of the Green Line itself."

The Board of Deputies of British Jews refused to comment on the issue, saying that it did not mix its education work with political issues.

Mr Virchis acknowledged that the nature of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict meant there would always be disagreement. But he said: "Schools should not be scared of engaging in dialogue, and thinking and evaluating the way that they educate. Hopefully then the education becomes better."

Multiple narratives

Emma Pearson, from the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine, writes:

Education about Israel-Palestine is too often conducted by rote, covering the pre-approved truths of community, family or religious group.

While this method may work for Latin verb tables, it is frankly disastrous when it comes to understanding the dynamics of a protracted conflict.

A better form of political education involves studying multiple narratives. By asking organisations to acknowledge the armistice line as historical fact, though not necessarily as final borders, the Sign on the Green Line campaigners embody a new and promising trend: a passion for complete accuracy in educating about the geopolitics of this region.

A broader education for Jewish youth today might just make a difference at tomorrow's negotiating table.

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