Britain’s Association of Muslim Schools recently said that it would ask its member schools to teach Judaism as a second religion. The announcement came only days after Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi at United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of Nation, proposed that Jewish schools teach lessons on Islam. Many Jewish schools are already working towards the rabbi’s recommendation.
Both suggestions, including Mirvis’ as well as the Association of Muslim Schools’, which represents as many as 130 schools, were a result of the newly-announced government requirement that all faith schools must use at least 25 percent of their time assigned in teaching religion to teach students a second religion. Even though Mirvis initially opposed this requirement, when left with no choice, he finally stated his non-binding suggestion that the second religion in Jewish schools be Islam. At the time of announcement, Mirvis also said that Islam was a “poorly understood” religion, which is why he would want it to be taught to students.
The compulsion to teach a second religion is now a prerequisite for students to receive their General Certificate of Secondary Education in religious studies.
Ashfaque Chowdhury, head of Association of Muslim Schools, said, “Amongst Abrahamic religions Islam and Judaism are most similar,” hoping that the teaching would be substantiated with “visits to each other’s schools and joint activities between students. We feel it will contribute to community cohesion, British values and interfaith relations.”
Mirvis called the decision by AMS very significant.
“We often talk about tolerance and understanding between communities as an ideal, but education is the vehicle that will get us there. It is so important that every child learns from a young age that all people are created in the image of G-d, no matter what their faith or ethnicity, and it is my hope that other Muslim schools will follow their lead,” he said.
Mirvis, who also happens to be the Associate President of Conference of European Rabbis, has a long history of having strived towards interfaith relations. As Chief Rabbi of Ireland, he headed the Irish Council of Christians and Jews from 1985 to 1992 and interacted with various Church leaders in the United Kingdom at both Lambeth Palace and Windsor Castle. His official contact with the region’s Muslims started with the hosting of an imam at the United Synagogue house of worship. He also headed a delegation of his community members at the Finchley Mosque.
In a recent interview, Mirvis adopted a radically different stance than what he has expressed in the past, when he along with representatives of other Orthodox organizations spoke against the demand for British schools to include a second faith in their religious studies curriculum.
“Losing 25 percent of the time allotted for teaching Jewish studies as part of the religious studies GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) was a serious loss for Jewish education in our schools,” said a spokesperson for Mirvis. “It is more important than ever that our children have a better understanding of Islam and that we build strong relationships with British Muslims. As such, the chief rabbi has recommended that schools take this opportunity to teach students Islam, a faith, which is widely discussed but often poorly understood in public discourse. … Although the chief rabbi has not issued any formal guidance on this issue – since, ultimately, it is for the schools themselves to judge how best to tailor their curriculum – we have had a series of positive discussions with a number of our schools and made recommendations to them.”
The Reform Movement in Britain applauded Mirvis for his new stance, with the movement’s senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, expressing how teaching Islam was both long overdue and an excellent idea.
“We are stronger as a faith group, and as a community, when we better understand others in our society,” she said.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works on Muslim-Jewish relations both in Europe and the United States, approved Mirvis’ decision as well.
“Given that Jewish communities live alongside Muslim communities not only in the UK, but around the world, it is very important for Jewish youth to be exposed to the guiding principles of Islam,” he said.
British Muslims were more welcoming of the move, with the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) saying that such a policy would ensure increased understanding of the faith and sectarian unity in society.
“The more schools teach about other religions, the more understanding will prevail among children, which can only be a positive thing,” said association president Omer El-Hamdoon.
Questioned about the possibility of teaching Judaism in Muslim schools, MAB said that world religions should be taught to all students, as that would allow them to develop a better understanding of people of other faith and thereby appreciate diversity.
“The chief rabbi has rightly identified the opportunity this opens up to expose students to knowledge of the basics of Islam as well as other faiths. It equally enables Muslim students to learn about Judaism, perhaps for the first time for many of them,” said Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “The Jewish community has always encouraged deepening mutual understanding and respect between the religious faith communities in Britain, and this requires that each of us knows something about the other.”
Photo Credits: Forward.com