Schools face classroom minefield over Gaza

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Half of Jewish teachers feel uncomfortable discussing conflict with pupils and colleagues

Teachers at some schools are facing a sensitive task responding to Muslim and Jewish pupils' reactions to the conflict in Gaza.

A survey of Jewish teachers in England found that half have felt uncomfortable talking to colleagues and pupils about the fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic extremist group Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Council of Great Britain says teachers have needed to comfort pupils who have been upset by graphic coverage of death and destruction on satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera. Tahir Alam, the council's education spokesman and a school governor in Birmingham, said it had been traumatising for some pupils. "It's been quite a factor in schools I have spoken to," he said. "While coverage by CNN or the BBC is quite sanitised, this isn't the case with other channels.

"This has led to teachers using the conflict as a moral lesson, which although a useful example is obviously sad for them. I know it has been a topic of many assemblies."

Staff and students at many Islamic schools have been raising money for children in Gaza of all religions, Mr Alam said.

But some schools with Jewish pupils told The TES they had been trying not to discuss the conflict in lessons or assemblies.

Jewish schools have been urged to step up their security measures by the Community Security Trust, which provides advice to Jewish organisations. It said that it had already received a handful of official reports of anti-Semitic verbal assaults against Jewish pupils in the first weeks of term.

Mark Gardner, the trust's director of communications, said: "We've also heard many anecdotes that Jewish pupils in state and private schools - not in Jewish schools - are feeling isolated, feeling a chill, because of their position at this time."

The Jewish Teachers Association, which represents about 200 teachers in England, said some of its members had felt uncomfortable because colleagues had promoted anti-Israel rallies in the staffroom.

A small-scale survey by the association of its members found that 45 per cent had heard the Gaza conflict discussed, formally or informally, in the classroom and half had heard discussions in the staffroom.

Half did not want to talk about it at all in school, but one citizenship teacher had enjoyed small group discussions with pupils as it give a chance to look at human rights.

Bill Greenshields, the NUT president, attacked Israel's actions in Gaza in The TES last week, though he also criticised the "random brutality" of Hamas rocket attacks.

Daniel Needlestone, chair of the Jewish Teachers Association, said it had been angered by the letter, which would dissuade Jewish teachers from joining the union.

Letters, pages 36-37


Few schools in England have large numbers of both Jewish and Muslim pupils, but the independent City of London School, close to St Paul's Cathedral, does.

There the Gaza conflict has attracted so much interest that the boys' school is planning to hold a debate between pupils about it. David Levin, the headteacher, said it seemed an appropriate way to tackle the sensitive topic. "We didn't want it to be a distraction in the classroom for teachers," he said.

"We are a multi-faith school, so I expect this debate will be a bit more passionate than usual, but there is no way it will lead to ugly exchanges. We are in the heart of the City, so we always have a heightened sense of security, but that hasn't changed," he added.

Pupils in primaries have been less likely to discuss the conflict with teachers. But work is taking place to improve relations between London's Jewish and Islamic primaries. Children from two were due to meet yesterday as part of a linking project organised by the Jewish Council for Racial Equality.

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