Interfaith coalition works in U.K.

Students at London´s King Solomon High School, an Orthodox Jewish day school. (King Solomon High School)

Students at London´s King Solomon High School, an Orthodox Jewish day school. (King Solomon High School)

LONDON, Nov. 28 (JTA) — The British government’s turnaround on recent faith-school legislation was an unequivocal victory for the Jewish community, which fought strenuously to quash the bill. Even more important, it may have signaled a new era of cooperation between Jewish and other minority faith groups in Britain, whose united front ultimately caused the government to abandon the bill. As reported in JTA last month, a proposed amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill before the House of Lords would have allowed local authorities to require state-aided faith schools to admit 25 percent of students from outside the faith, ostensibly to help achieve more social cohesion and defray community tensions. The Board of Deputies of British Jews launched a campaign to make “coherent arguments that faith schools are an agent for social cohesion and integration,” according to Alex Goldberg, the board’s community issues director. An interfaith coalition of Jewish school authorities and leaders from the Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Catholic communities united to vehemently oppose the bill, arguing that social cohesion is better achieved through school programming than mandated quotas. With Parliament facing mounting pressure from many sides, the amendment was overwhelmingly rejected. Several events shaped the government decision to abandon the amendment in the days before it was read, many of them spearheaded by the Jewish community. Coincidentally, on the day of the reading, Prime Minister Tony Blair attended the opening of the new campus of an Orthodox girls’ day school. School principal Rabbi Avraham Pinter, in the company of some of British Jewry’s major philanthropists, referred to the pending amendment, telling Blair, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But swaying the prime minister might not have been enough to kill the bill. The same day, Andrew Dismore, the parliamentary representative for Hendon, a heavily Jewish area, told Education Secretary Alan Johnson that he would not support the amendment because of the “deep dismay” from Catholic and Jewish members of his constituency. In the weeks leading up to the vote, interfaith leaders met with Johnson together and in private. They appeared on television, radio and in print. Faith leaders urged their congregations to write letters to their members of Parliament. Ultimately the amendment was defeated, 119-37. Board of Deputies President Henry Grunwald paid tribute to “all the faith communities who shared the campaign.” On the heels of its success, the interfaith group said it intends to keep active, especially in the area of education policy. According to Goldberg, Lord Baker, who had introduced the amendment, has made faith-school quotas his “pet issue” and hasn’t given up on the idea. “If there is another relevant education act, it may resurface,” Goldberg told JTA. “Thanks to the Jewish community and interfaith efforts, both the Conservative and Labor parties are now against faith-school quotas. But we have to remain vigilant.”

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