Following two weeks of unabated and frankly terrifying attacks on Jewish people, Jewish buildings and indeed Jewish identity in the UK, last week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured) offered hope. Rather than simply condemning the huge spike in Jew-hatred, Williamson has gone a step further than perhaps any other leader by identifying a key remedy – Addressing antisemitism head on in schools. If Williamson’s justified concerns are translated into action, it could signal the UK taking a leading role in the European and indeed the global fight against the world’s ‘oldest hatred’, writes Robert Singer.
Thankfully, leaders have made clear that there is no place in the UK for Jew-hatred. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan were among those across the political spectrum to unequivocally condemn the 600 per cent rise in Antisemitic incidents, which have seen a rabbi physically assaulted, calls for “Jewish blood” and a sickening pledge to rape Jewish women.
Sadly, this worrying trend is far from confined to the UK. Time and again, in cities across the world, Jews have been targeted under the feeble pretense of criticizing Israel. In some countries, such as Germany and France, governments have taken short-term measures to alleviate the threat, banning demonstrations where necessary and using legislation to prosecute racists.
Williamson though, is demonstrating a more nuanced, long-term approach. In a letter to headteachers and school leaders, he made clear that schools are not only expected to deal properly with an “atmosphere of intimidation” for Jewish students and teachers. Crucially, Williamson also said that schools also have a responsibility to educate in an impartial and balanced fashion, rejecting materials or organizations that “publicly reject Israel’s right to exist”. In other words, Williamson understands that the disease of antisemitism flourishes in an educational void. The antisemitic violence and chaos on Britain’s streets was born out of ignorance, a lack of knowledge which can be remedied in the classroom.
He is perhaps the first leader not only in the UK, but internationally, to recognize this and call for a revised educational approach to combat antisemitism. In over a decade of work at World ORT, one of the world’s largest educational networks operating in five continents, I have witnessed first-hand how quality, balanced education can change lives and indeed the world. While legislation and law-enforcement are the immediate tools to keep Jewish communities safe, only education can guarantee their future.
Therefore, Gavin Williamson and the government he represents must not lose momentum. The UK has always played a unique role in fighting Jew-hatred. The country proudly stood almost alone at one point in the fight against Nazism. British soldiers were among the first to eventually liberate the concentration camps and uncover the horrifying depths to which antisemitism can descend. Should Williamson’s words be turned into action, then the UK can again become a standard-bearer in the fight against antisemitism.
To this end, the following three-point action plan for UK education can provide an effective framework. Firstly, headteachers and school staff must be able to define antisemitism. They must recognize what it is they are guarding against. Time and again in recent weeks, naked antisemitism has been dressed up as anti-Zionism. It is crucial to be able to distinguish where criticism of Israel ends and antisemitism begins. Fortunately, the globally recognized International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism makes clear that “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is antisemitic.
Secondly, headteachers and teaching staff must be equipped to identify how antisemitism manifests itself in the classroom, in the playground and among pupils on social media. They must also be given the tools to respond appropriately.
Thirdly, educating about contemporary antisemitism must become part of the school curriculum. While ongoing, impressive efforts in Holocaust education are crucial, young people must understand that antisemitism isn’t confined to history. As recent events have shown, it is very much alive and kicking. Quite rightly, hundreds of UK schools have adapted their curricula accordingly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Tragically, the time has come for schools to teach that Jewish rights are equal too.
Quite simply, Jewish communities should never have to live in fear. Like so many others, Jews in the UK and across Europe are worried. Action is needed now, which can not only alleviate immediate concerns, but which will make clear that antisemitism won’t rear its ugly head again in the future. Education is the key to making this happen. Turning Gavin Williamson’s sentiments into concrete educational action would be a powerful statement that the UK is prepared to lead Europe and the world in finally consigning the ‘oldest hatred’ to history.