Teach our children diversity because they are Jewish
Earlier in February, 56 faith leaders, including five Rabbis, signed an open letter to the Department of Education urging that “irrespective of the type of school they attend, all children are supported and allowed to thrive through education that actively promotes respect”. This was a response to pressure from some strictly-orthodox figures to dilute schools’ requirements to promote diversity, ie. not teach children about LGBT people. The letter’s signatories, who included Rabbi Laura Klausner and Rabbi Danny Rich, cited “reports that the Department for Education is planning to… no longer stipulate that all independent schools must teach respect for LGBT people”.
Not all our religious leaders and institutions agree with those that signed this open letter. Last year 7,000 strictly-orthodox community members held a public prayer service in reaction to Ofsted’s downgrading of some religious schools – downgrading them because they are avoiding teaching children about LGBT matters, which comes under Ofsted’s umbrella of ‘British values’. Rabbi Dovid Frand, president of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, expressed concern about “influential secular forces seeking to impinge on our rights”.
Religious teaching can be abused, or misused, to perpetuate prejudice. In this case it is homophobia; as Jews we also have experienced religion being exploited as a basis for hatred of Jews. A joint poll between Stonewall and YouGov in 2017 found “One in five LGBT people (21 per cent) were threatened with violence or use of force and one in ten LGBT people (11 per cent) were physically assaulted”. Here in their Vision for Change: “References to the scriptures and sacred texts are frequently used as the backbone of much of the discrimination against LGBT people.” Not surprisingly, similar experiences are being reported in Israel: A recent report highlighted a 54% increase in reported harassment or abuse against the Israeli LGBTQ community. Of the incidents where homophobic or transphobic statements were made by public figures, 31 percent were from Rabbis.
It is important to acknowledge that there are sensitive and sensible orthodox views on LGBT people. In the last fifteen years we have seen the publication of Rabbi Chaim Rapoport’s Judaism and Homosexuality; the Statement of Principles endorsed by 227 leaders advocating fidelity to halacha alongside compassion and inclusion; and a ground-breaking guide for Orthodox Jewish schools from the current Chief Rabbi on the wellbeing of LGBT pupils.
Each year, as February begins, so does UK LGBT History Month. Despite some Jewish schools seeking to erase this history, homosexuals – including Jewish homosexuals – were also victims of Nazi persecution. A recent article on The Nib depicting the life of Gad Beck illustrates the people and powerful stories that could be shared within Holocaust education and during LGBT History Month.
LGBT History Month is motivated by the idea that education and visibility foster tolerance and undermine prejudice. Like many of those asked in this short BBC report in Brighton, I was unaware of some of the impressive LGBT people who have made valuable contributions to society. Within our community we often miss the opportunity to encounter LGBT Jewish Heroes, Rainbow Jews here in the UK, and Queer Jews of Colour.
I don’t expect strictly-orthodox Jewish schools, or indeed conservative faith schools in general, to celebrate LGBT people of faith during LGBT History month. Neither does Ofsted. The minimum that is required is acknowledgment that particular people in the UK exist and require specific protections. With all forms of hate crime rising in the UK, we cannot undermine policies and education designed to ensure future generations are learning and living in a society free from hatred.
As Jews we know how lessons from history can help prevent the persecution of the past reappearing in the present. We also know that selective approaches to some religious teachings have contributed to the spread of antisemitism. As we approach the end of the UK’s fifteenth LGBT History month, perhaps our community could reflect on how we educate ourselves and our children to protect all minorities and promote their welfare. We might humbly begin by recognising the ways some parts of our tradition have harmed those from other persecuted minorities.