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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Does Hamas want to change?

Political movements change. They sometimes change profoundly. The US Democrats went from "the party of slavery" to "the party of civil rights" in the space of a hundred years. In a similar space of time, the UK's Liberals went from being a party led by a Prime Minister (HH Asquith) who took the country into the First World War, promoted imperialism and opposed votes for women to being today's progressive Liberal Democrats. South Africa's National Party, the party of apartheid, evolved into the conservative, democratic New National Party and forged an abortive alliance with the liberal Democratic Party before merging into the movement that had most opposed apartheid, the African National Congress.

So, given that organisations can change (and can change rapidly), I accept that, in theory, Hamas could change, and could evolve from its current role as the Ku Klux Klan of Palestinian politics ( into something more hopeful - into a body that could actually have something useful to contribute to the peace process, in contrast to its current commitment to the destruction of the State of Israel.

Indeed, I am regularly reading and hearing reports that this or that element within Hamas has made precisely such a change, usually swiftly followed by a declaration from the movement's leadership that there has in fact been absolutely no change and that Hamas will not allow Israel to exist within any borders whatsoever. If you read, you'll see that a Hamas official reportedly recently even threatened to sue The Washington Post for libel after the paper had quoted him as saying that Hamas might recognise Israel.

Despite  the dispiriting experience of all these hopeful noises from Hamas having been retracted as swiftly as they were uttered, I have maintained an open mind about the possibility that even the most disgusting and dangerous of political entities could possibly change, given what history teaches me about Nazi Germany's swift transition into West Germany, Imperial Japan's equally swift evolution into democratic Japan and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's journey from starting the Yom Kippur War in a bid to destroy Israel, to making a lasting peace with Israel only a few years later.

Given my maintenance of that open mind and my concomitant willingness to listen to those friends and colleagues who tell me that Hamas is on some sort of road to peace and reasonableness, you can imagine my irritation, disappointment and disgust at reading the following ( "Palestinian officials have said they are co-operating with the search (for the three missing Israeli teenagers) - a move Hamas has condemned."

Three teenagers go missing, presumed kidnapped. Palestinian officialdom (which, to put it mildly, has no great love for Israel), extends the normal assistance that any decent human polity would offer to any other polity that was searching for three missing young people, and what does Hamas do? It does not support this assistance, it does not remain silent on this assistance, it does not even say "We hate Israel, but obviously we still want these kids to be found safe and well" - no, instead, Hamas actually condemns Palestinian assistance for the Israeli search for the missing boys.

Contrast this with the help extended by Israeli hospitals (and the people who work in them) to Syrian people wounded in that country's brutal civil war, despite Syria being a country that does not recognise Israel and which chooses to remain in a technical state of war with Israel: That same article also says: "Israel's defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, said this week that Israel "cannot remain indifferent" and had been providing food and winter clothing to Syrian villages across the border fence as well as tending to some of the wounded."

For Hamas to become a body that has anything useful to contribute to the peace process and the Palestinian cause, it has to adopt that same basic humanitarian instinct.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Palestinian Ambassador on peace

A great peice here ( by the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, Professor Manuel Hassassian, and a UK-based Israeli academic, Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor, in which they write, re:- a two-state deal: "Israel shall recognise the State of Palestine. Palestine shall recognise the Jewish State of Israel."

It is immensely significant for a Palestinian diplomat to write words that imply Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state that will co-exist with a future Palestinian state. Immensely significant, and very welcome, as is his willingness to co-write it with an Israeli author for publication by the pro-Israeli British group BICOM.

Also refreshing is BICOM's referring to him here as "His Excellency Ambassador Manuel Hassassian", as, although the UK has upgraded the Palestinians' London delegation to full mission status, it is not (yet) an embassy and he is not (yet) an ambassador - and yet common sense surely suggests that there is nothing to be lost (and much to be gained) by extending to this de facto ambassador the same courtesy that one would extend to a full ambassador. Isn't that what you do when you are trying to make peace with someone? Such courtesy speaks well of BICOM and its current leadership.

I don't care, by the way, what good or awful things Professor Hassassian has or has not said or done in the past. I care about what he is doing now, and that's this article, which - however much I disagree with it on some of the specifics - is an attempt to float a proposal for peace. To take just one passage:

"Israel and Palestine will institute a shared curriculum on good neighbourhood, understanding cultures and religions, respect for others and not harming others. This education programme will commence at the kindergarten and continue at primary and high schools. In every age group vital concepts for understanding the other will be studied. This programme is critical for establishing peaceful relationships and trust between the two parties."

That is exactly the sort of approach that I (and I hope other British Liberal Democrats) would passionately endorse, although I write here in a personal capacity. Joint Palestinian-Israeli articles such as this have got to be preferable to the politics of shouting, which too often dominates British discussion of these matters.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Trojan Horse - a sense of proportion needed

A sense of proportion means not only understanding how small something is; it also means understanding how large some things are. I do, therefore, appreciate the enormity of what I have read in this week's media accounts of Ofsted's reports on some schools attended by Muslims in Birmingham. I have blogged previously here about the need to tackle extremism of this sort ( and I get entirely that we are talking about an extremist political ideology (radical islamism (, that is - not the great faith of Islam itself) that has inspired disgusting acts of violence, terrorism and intolerance in which huge numbers of innocent people have been killed, maimed and subjugated. The presence of such an ideology in schools (any schools, not just British schools) cannot be tolerated and must be stopped.

Why, then, do I call for a sense of proportion? Just because some details of what I read in the media give me pause for thought. If segregation of pupils by gender within a school is extreme, then how much more 'extreme' is segregation of pupils by gender between schools, so that some schools only take boys and some only take girls - and yet I attended an all-boys school, which was not (then) a faith school, but was an ordinary state comprehensive school.

I utterly condemn any segregation of female pupils that leads to their getting an inferior education, but do I condemn all separation (not 'segregation') of different genders for educational purposes? And if I do condemn that, then surely I have to condemn my own old school? And on this question of separation by gender, see also:

I also read the Standard's horror-struck account of a male Muslim teacher who reportedly would not shake hands with a female Ofsted inspector. I cannot remember when I last shook hands with someone at the start of a work meeting and, if I was teaching at a British school in one of those Continental countries in which it is customary for all men to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, then I would not kiss a visiting male school inspector - would that be taken as a terrible sign of disrespect for the culture of the country in which I was teaching? More seriously, married Orthodox Jewish men and women do not shake hands with any adult of the opposite gender apart from their own spouse, so this same female Ofsted inspector would have got the same reaction from a male teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school. So what? That doesn't make somebody a religious extremist.

Also in the Standard, there was a mention of 'Muslim campaigners' with Salma Yaqoob in the lead, with readers being invited to infer that these 'campaigners' have some sort of communal sanction from British Muslims, but what evidence is there that Ms Yaqoob is a representative Muslim leader? She is no longer even a local councillor or the Leader of Respect, and who does Respect necessarily represent anyway?

It is indeed disturbing to read about schools refusing to teach evolution. It is shocking to read of a faith school at which Ofsted finds that "not enough attention is given to history, geography, science, technology, creative activities and physical education", with pupils having "a very limited understanding of other cultures and faiths and only a sketchy understanding of public institutions and services in England. They told the inspector that they had little involvement in their local and wider community other than their immediate religious community." I am disturbed to read one columnist's claim that "In north London, and Gateshead, stories circulate of 'secret schools', to which sectarian...parents send their children for an education which is almost exclusively religious, claiming to the education authorities that they have sent their offspring abroad."

And yet everything that I quoted in the last paragraph was taken from the Jewish Chronicle (,, and was not about Muslim schools, but was about an Anglo-Jewish school or schools.

What does that prove? Only that the problems of some Muslim-majority schools are not unique and that it must be possible to debate these issues without stigmatising Jews or Muslims, Islam or Judaism. I am not, incidentally making any absurd - no, not absurd, obscene - analogy between those criticisms of one or more Jewish schools on the one hand, and Ofsted's reports this week on some schools attended by Muslims in Birmingham on the other. I know that the latter schools are reported to have been affected by an extremist political ideology (again, I don't mean Islam - I mean radical islamism) that has absolutely no equivalent among Jews - no such comparison can remotely be made and I am not here suggesting otherwise.

As I understand it, these Birmingham schools affected by the "Trojan Horse" are not actually faith schools; they are secular (state) schools attended predominantly by Muslims and with several governors who are Muslims. Were these schools actually to be registered clearly as faith schools, would it not actually be easier (rather than harder) to regulate how they teach the faith, what they say about other faiths, etc?

If that means that I am making a case for faith schools, then I should say that I actually wish that there were no faith schools, while recognising the right of parents who disagree with me to demand such schools for their children. There are many excellent faith schools and I wholeheartedly support their right to expand and flourish and open new schools, while bluntly wishing that parents didn't want them.

There is no substitute for being at school with an open cross-section of the kids who live in one's local area, as I did at my school in Finchley in North London, where the pupils came from a wide variety of faith and ethnic backgrounds. We were all boys together and the pupils from different backgrounds were simply my peers in the classroom and the playground.

I know that faith schools engage each other in football tournaments and other efforts to bring kids of different faiths together despite their being educated at different schools, but that's simply not the same thing as going to an ordinary school to which all the local parents (from all communities) have sent some of their kids. Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland teach us what can be the consequences of sending all or most pupils to denominational schools at which they have no Protestant or Catholic schoolfriends from the other side of the divide, and so I wish parents were not now opting for faith schools here in England, but they are, and I accept their right to do so (especially as some of the schools concerned are such very good ones), while wanting such schools to continue to be regulated in terms of what pupils are taught about the wider world, other faiths, secular culture, etc.

I would suggest that such regulated faith schools (schools that are open about being faith schools, and so can be regulated as such) are preferable to what I understand Ofsted to be reporting in Birmingham, which is that some governors of a particular faith are altering the character of some secular, non-faith schools and failing to shield pupils from extremist influences.

Assuming that Ofsted is correct, then the situation in Birmingham is a serious one and I agree with the Coalition Government's approach to tackling it:

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Who faked the Trojan Horse?

If (and it is a big "if") the Trojan Horse letter was faked, then who faked it, and why? If it's not a fake, then it's not a fake, but if - if - it is a fake, then was it faked by Islamophobes?

Jews have our own memories of forged documents that falsely accuse us of malign conspiracies (most notoriously The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and while I don't wish to sound melodramatic, if someone - and who? - has forged a document that 'proves' that radical Islamists are taking over some schools in Birmingham, then such a forgery could surely be a disgusting and dangerous attempt to falsely accuse some British people who are Muslims of 'crimes' that have not actually been committed - and that stinks.

If it's happening, then it's Islamophobic, it stinks and it matters more than any rows between Cabinet Ministers and their erstwhile Special Advisers. So, I say again: if this document was forged, then who forged it and when are they going to be arrested? And if - and it is a big if - the allegations of extremist 'takeovers' of schools are false, then surely Peter Clarke and all these other people are wasting time investigating allegations that have no basis in truth, based on a forged document - false allegations which have the potential to increase the prejudice faced by British Muslims (and British Asians) who have not done anything wrong.

I write here in a personal capacity and I know that the document might not be forged; I also know that all forms of extremism (in all faiths, and among people of no faith) are often dangerous and must be tackled (and I have blogged about that previously). My point here is that the row between the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary appears to have obscured the fact that the original document might be a fake.