The values of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are deep seated British values but in this last month they seem to have been denied to those who wish to speak for and support the Jewish community and Israel.
The violent and intimidating protests outside a pro-Israel event at Kings College London were a disturbing example of how little restraint and respect exists amongst those for whom protest against Israel is the prime objective. I welcome the rapid response of the Police and the commitment by the King’s College Vice Chancellor to bring disciplinary action against perpetrators and to invite the speaker to return.
There was a vindictive complaint to the BBC because, in his personal capacity, the then Director of Television, Danny Cohen, had signed a letter calling for culture to be used for co-existence rather than boycotts. According to the complainants, this risked the BBC’s impartiality. The argument was, in my view, hogwash. How could a public rejection of boycotts, in a personal capacity, have anything to do with impartiality? Their utterly partial view of the BBC’s duty of impartiality was clearly more important than Mr Cohen’s right to free speech.
This observation was on the agenda recently at the specially arranged debate at Exeter University on “The Treatment of Israel in Academic Discourse in UK Universities”. This debate was hosted by the Vice Chancellor and was the second part of an agreement that we reached with him last year around the time of a three day conference at the University on Israel as a “Settler Colonialist project”. That this potentially controversial debate was conducted peacefully and with respect was a credit to the work that the JLC and the University have done together.
The issue of British values is now an especially topical subject in the field of education and particularly in connection with inspections of schools. We have read much recently of OFSTED inspecting schools and measuring them against how they deliver “British Values”.
The Equality Act 2010 defines ‘Protected Characteristics’ such as race, age, sex, pregnancy and sexual orientation which must be tolerated in our schools. What has been difficult is applying some of the finer details of “British Values” within our schools. There have been reports in the media of schools being given a lower grade because of students not being taught about such issues as same sex marriage or gender reassignment. Stories about such inspections have caused alarm in Jewish schools, and across faith communities.
For the first time, last week, I heard a Government Minister offer a wider definition of “British Values”. I was the MC at the Inaugural Jewish School Awards, organised by our division, the Partnership for Jewish Schools. Amidst a wonderful celebration of excellence in the education offered at our Jewish schools, we were privileged to be addressed by Nick Gibb MP, the Minister of State for Schools. In his speech, he gave a definition of British Values. He listed British values as those of Democracy; the Rule of Law; Individual Liberty and Mutual Respect and Tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.
If these are indeed the definition of British values, then I am certain that 98% of schools within the Jewish community would be equipping their students with those values. Each of them finds a counterpart in Jewish teaching. If OFSTED were to confine its inspections to these British values, there would be no downgrading or failing of any Jewish schools.
But there was one sentence, at the end of the Minister’s speech at the Jewish School Awards, which, in my belief, revealed the basis on which OFSTED is currently creating challenges for faith schools in all communities.
He said “Though defined by their faith, it remains important that such schools sit within a wider appreciation of British cultural life, and they must prepare pupils for life in Britain’s modern liberal democracy”. These words in italics are at the crux of the problems with OFSTED inspecting against changing, subjective British values. These words are capable of being interpreted broadly by an Inspector depending on how he or she perceives Britain’s modern liberal democracy.
This distinction between tolerance and promotion is an important one and it is at the heart of the debate in our schools. It is worthy of intelligent and thoughtful discussion within our community as the Government dearly wants us to carry on being an example of tolerance and integration.
A wider and longer term project, though, is to demonstrate to the whole of UK society that the British values we all hold dear are aligned with the Jewish values which underpin our community’s life, faith, heritage and culture. That is why I have focused on freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly. We are right to demand it for ourselves. We must be sure not to deny it to others.