Britain's chief rabbi has called on the country’s Jewish schools to amend their curricula to include Islamic studies in order to be able to comply with new educational guidelines being put in place by the government.
In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle published on Wednesday, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took a radically different position than he had expressed in the past, when he and representatives of other Orthodox organizations advocated against the push for British schools to include a second faith in their religious studies curriculum.
The new rules would cut down the amount of time Jewish schools that follow the state curriculum could dedicate to Jewish schools by a quarter.
“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,” a spokesman for Mirvis told the Chronicle.
“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,” he said.
“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 spokesman added, calling the chance to include Islamic studies a “valuable opportunity.”
The Reform Movement in Britain praised Mirvis on Thursday, with the movement’s senior rabbi, Laura Janner-Klausner, telling The Jerusalem Post that she felt that teaching about Islam was both “an excellent idea” and “long overdue.”
“We are stronger as a faith group, and as a community, when we better understand others in our society,” she said.
The London-based JFS secondary school remained concerned that adequate time be given to the study of Judaism, but welcomed the guidance of the chief rabbi in helping to decide that Islam will be the second religion taught at GCSE.
“Our students will relish this addition to our curriculum and we welcome the opportunity to enhance our students’ understanding of their own religion alongside an increased understanding of others,” said head teacher Jonathan Miller.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founder of the New Yorkbased Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works on Muslim-Jewish dialogue both in the United States and Europe, also approved of the decision.
“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 likewise welcoming of the move, with the Muslim Association of Britain stating that it believed that such a policy would foster better understanding and cohesion 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.
Mirvis’s peers across Europe were divided in their reactions.
While Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said he thinks Mervis is “a very wise rabbi and his suggestion in this sensitive matter makes very good sense,” others were more acerbic in their reactions.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said the “proposal would become much more interesting if as a result the Islamic schools will teach Judaism to their students in reciprocity” while Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich asserted that “based on the historical facts, I think that it is much more important that Muslim schools teach about Judaism. Judaism is a tolerant religion.”
Asked about the possibility of teaching Judaic studies in Muslim schools, the Muslim Association of Britain replied that “world religions should be taught to all children, as it will allow them a better understanding of others, and thus appreciated 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.”
The moderate Orthodox schools affiliated with Mirvis did not respond to requests for comment.