Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Jewish school where half the pupils are Muslim

This post is in two parts. One points to the content of an article in The Independent, online source of a newspaper from the UK. Granted, this is a paper that many would dismiss as left-leaning, left-wing, socialist or some similar tag aimed at discrediting anything published therein. But the second part of this post is really what I want to underscore. This article, only a few days old, is being passed along a chain of blogs of Muslim origin. The interesting part is that those passing it along seem to be admiring, not complaining about, the story.

It's infant prize day at King David School, a state primary in Moseley, Birmingham. The children sit cross-legged on the floor, their parents fiddling with their video cameras. The head, Steve Langford, is wearing a Sesame Street tie.

A typical end-of-term school event, then. But at King David there's a twist that gives it a claim to be one of the most extraordinary schools in the country: King David is a strictly Jewish school. Judaism is the only religion taught. There's a synagogue on site. The children learn modern Hebrew - Ivrit - the language of Israel. And they celebrate Israeli independence day.

But half the 247 pupils at the 40-year-old local authority-supported school are Muslim, and apparently the Muslim parents go through all sorts of hoops, including moving into the school's catchment area, to get their children into King David to learn Hebrew, wave Israeli flags on independence day and hang out with the people some would have us believe that they hate more than anyone in the world.

The Muslim parents, mostly devout and many of the women wearing the hijab, say they love the ethos of the school, and even the kosher school lunches, which are suitable because halal and kosher dietary rules are virtually identical. The school is also respectful to Islam, setting aside a prayer room for the children and supplying Muslim teachers during Ramadan. At Eid, the Muslim children are wished Eid Mubarak in assembly, and all year round, if they wish, can wear a kufi (hat). Amazingly, dozens of the Muslim children choose instead to wear the Jewish kipah.

The article ends with this.

King David was not designed to be such a beacon of inter-faith cooperation and friendship. Founded in 1865 as The Hebrew School, it was 100 per cent Jewish until the late 1950s.Then two things began to happen: there was a growth in the Muslim population in middle-income areas such as Moseley, and a shrinking of Britain's Jewish community, especially outside the main centres of London and Manchester. Muslim children started coming to the school in the early 1960s, but the current position, in which they are in the majority (Jewish children comprise 35 per cent, Muslims 50 per cent, Christians, Sikhs and other, 15 per cent) is very new.

"One of the things that surprises people about this school," says Langford, "is that it's not an especially privileged intake. Half of our kids have English as an additional language. But the amazing thing is how well it all works. We have a new little boy here from China, whose only English a few weeks ago was to ask for the toilet. He now speaks English - and can say the Shema perfectly.

"If you gauge success, for instance, by racial incidents, which schools always have to report to the LEA, we have at the most one a term. And that can just mean some harsh words with a racial slant used in the playground. At multicultural inner city schools where I've taught, there will be far, far more than that, possibly one or more a week."

In terms of SATs and Ofsted inspections, King David has also shone. It is rated as good - the second highest possible ranking - in all areas, and Ofsted made a special mention at the last inspection of the integration between children of different faiths and races. In the recent SATs results, the school also came in well above the national average in all subjects.

Steve Langford, a Warwick University economics graduate, is himself a bit of a paradox. He is Church of England on both parental sides and only became interested in Judaism when he worked in a Jewish summer camp in Massachusetts in his gap year. His interest paid off when he got a teaching job a King David. Now he is learning Ivrit at evening classes and goes to Israel for holidays.

The Rabbi of Birmingham's Singers Hill Synagogue, one of the financial backers of King David, is proud of Steve Langford and of the school's extraordinary interfaith record.

"King David School is amazing," says Rabbi Tann. "The reason I think it works well is that racism is engendered entirely by adults. Children don't have it within themselves. Their natural mode is to play happily with everyone. It's only when adults say, 'Don't play with him, he's black, or don't have anything to do with him, he's Muslim, that troubles begin.'

"We never have any racial or inter-faith problems at all. Not ever. In 20 years here, it's simply never happened in any significant way. We teach that if you don't like someone, you avoid them. Don't play with them. Go to the other side of the playground. I believe that if more people followed the lead of King David School, we'd have a much more peaceful world."


I came across this story by tracking back from the UAE Community Blog. The reader is invited to take a look at the post and comments along the way, looking for evidence that the writers or commentators are part of some sinister conspiracy on the part of Muslims to take over the West. I hear this poisonous message and references to the term Islamofascists almost daily. That neologism has become part of the vocabulary of some otherwise bright people and anytime a Muslim source attempts to correct it the attempt is dismissed as nothing more than evidence of the conspiracy.

"Cool story" says this blogger. Obviously some kind of terrorist is disguise. Right.

"lovely post" says the Sudanese Thinker. Check out the other links at this sight and scan the comments thread.

"A uplifting example of Muslims and Jews not only peacefully coexisting but seeing the value of each other's tradition." That's how the story was described at Eteraz (dot) Org, a group site described as... online forum whose goal is to mobilize people of conscience throughout the world to identify, discuss, and take action on political and religious issues involving Islam and the Muslim world. Eteraz seeks a humanist vision of Islam for the future and looks to illuminate the wisdom and spirituality that made Islam a great religion historically by creating community, promoting informed opinions and more than anything else, moving its members to real world action.

That's enough to make my point. Despite the rhetoric and sabre-rattling I hear daily, I remain optimistic about the future as long as young people like these remain active. It's too bad that in the shadow of the American military presence in the world it is considered unpatriotic at home to speak in terms such as these. Those of us advocating peaceful solutions to conflict are regarded as naive, treasonous or worse.

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