Jewish Free School Graduation Ceremony Address.
6th January 2015.
Thank you - and thank you Jonathan and Michael for inviting me here tonight as your guest.
It is a tremendous honour.
And let me begin by paying tribute to your leadership, advocacy and passion for learning.
It is what makes a great school - and this is, to my mind, a great school.
One of the great perks of my job is being able to escape Westminster and meet this country’s young people face to face.
And I am never anything but impressed by their boundless energy, optimism and determination to make a difference.
An awful lot of doom and gloom is peddled about this country’s future.
Some of it also written about our young people.
However, what I see is a generation growing up more creative, enquiring, ambitious, entrepreneurial and community spirited than ever before.
As Robert Kennedy brilliantly put it: ‘Youth [is] not as time of life but a state of mind … a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.’
And that is surely what we are celebrating this evening: confident, enthusiastic, resilient young people – so many of them determined to place the awesome power of technological innovation at the service of the greater social good.
Indeed, across this school-age generation there have been remarkable improvements.
Reported bullying has fallen; the percentage who claim to have tried alcohol has plummeted; aspiration has increased - higher percentages say they are likely to go to university; and relationships with parents seem to be a lot stronger too.
I think Britain needs to be far more vocal about the achievement and potential of its young people.
And it has been another fantastic year for students from the JFS.
48% of A level entries at A or A*;
62 pupils achieving at least straight A’s;
And a record 16 pupils taking up places at Oxbridge this academic year…
…for any school, these would be an exceptional set of results.
But for a non-selective, state comprehensive they are truly remarkable.
Therefore, everyone connected with this school should be enormously proud of the class of 2014’s success.
I want to congratulate the students, teachers, parents, governors, support staff and community.
What matters in education is giving young people the confidence and freedom to go out into the world and make their own future.
And shaped by this school’s aspirational ethos - clear to my eyes the moment I stepped onto the campus - that young people should pursue excellence both for themselves and for a purpose higher than themselves, this is a group with infinite potential.
Who knows, some might even wish to put it at the disposal of the Labour Party…
Now, before I was plunged into politics, I was an historian.
Like so many of you, I enjoyed studying history at school.
(And as I took the tube to my school every morning, I also used to watch your blue sweat-shirted predecessors jump off at Camden Town to make their way to your old site on Camden Road.)
And this is a year of anniversaries.
1215 – Magna Carta;
1815 – Battle of Waterloo;
It is also 50 years since the death of Winston Churchill.
A man with an abiding love for the Jewish people – and, like this school, a cast-iron commitment to the State of Israel.
It was at the site of the uncompleted Hebrew University on Mount Scopus that he delivered a speech declaring his ‘full sympathy for Zionism,’ and his belief that a Jewish national home in Palestine would be ‘a blessing to the whole world, a blessing to the Jewish race scattered all over the world, and a blessing to Great Britain.’
How right he was.
Because there is no such thing as a progressive argument which denies the right of the Israeli people to a homeland.
What I want to see is a negotiated two state solution for two peoples; with Israel safe and secure within its borders; living alongside a democratic, independent Palestinian state.
But it was Churchill’s victory over Nazism made that world-historic event possible.
So allow me to use some of my time here to tell another story from that terrifying epoch of darkness.
A story from North Staffordshire which connects the people of The Potteries with your community here in North London (where I grew up).
A story from Stoke-on-Trent - which I now have the profound privilege to represent in Parliament - about solidarity, hope and renewal amidst the brutality of the Second World War.
"The miner's lamp dispels the shadows of the coalface. It can also send a ray of light across the sea to those who struggle in the darkness."
Those were the celebrated words of Sir Barnett Stross – a Jew, a doctor, a councillor and one of my predecessors as Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central - as he too confronted the horrors of Nazism.
A long way from Stoke-on-Trent, on the afternoon of 10th June 1942, all 173 men from Lidice, a sleepy Czech mining village 12 miles west of Prague, were massacred in retaliation for the assassination of Nazi Lieutenant-General Reinherd Heydrich, six days earlier.
The women, 203 in total, were rounded up and transported to local concentration camps.
But the children, having been separated from their mothers, were sent to the death camp at Chelmo, 43 miles away.
There, on the 2nd July 1942, 81 children perished together in the gas chambers.
The village meanwhile was razed to the ground. The houses, the town hall, the miners’ club, and, of course, the school.
Even the dead were not spared as the local cemetery was dug up and villagers' remains destroyed.
Yet this butchery in a far away town of which the people of The Potteries knew little, would go on to inspire one of the more humane acts of wartime Europe.
"Lidice shall die forever” declared Hitler, enraged at the death of one of his most murderous lieutenants.
But he did not reckon with the people of Stoke-on-Trent and, in particular, Barnett Stross.
As news of the Lidice massacre reached his ears, Stross enlisted the help of the local mining community to found the 'Lidice Shall Live' movement; a direct and deliberate rebuke to Hitler's orders.
He called a meeting at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, attended by 3,000 workers and miners from across Stoke-on-Trent.
There they pledged £32,000 – an extraordinary war-time amount equivalent to around £1m in today's money – to rebuild Lidice and defy Hitler.
As Dr Eduoard Benes, the exiled President of Czechoslovakia, who attended that meeting, said:
”It was apparent at that meeting Lidice was not dead, but was living in the hearts of the people of Stoke-on-Trent. From this moment the City of Stoke-on-Trent will live always in the heart of every Czech".
And as the fame of Lidice spread – helped by Humphrey Jenning's 1943 film 'The Silent Village’ – mining communities as far as field as Caracas, Santiago and Mexico City began to follow Stoke-on-Trent's example.
In 1947 they began rebuilding with Dr Stross leading an initiative to construct the world's largest rose garden in the heart of Lidice.
By 1955, nearly thirty thousand roses were blooming from the very soil the Nazis had blackened only 13 years earlier.
Of course the story of Lidice is just one small drop in the enormous ocean of evil that was the Shoah.
For the anniversary that returns every year, on history’s blackest hour, loses none of its import for its regularity.
Indeed, an essential part of Churchill’s Zionist zeal was due to his own knowledge of the persecution of Jews in Europe.
The tremendous work of Karen Pollock and everyone at the Holocaust Education Trust makes sure that every child in this country fully appreciates the magnitude of the Jewish people’s suffering.
Yet is it still absolutely vital that gentiles truly understand the emotional and cultural legacy of the Shoah from the perspective of the Jewish community today.
That is why it is so important that this school which hosts an annual seminar for all of Brent’s schools every Holocaust Memorial day.
And this year’s event, seventy years to the day since the liberation of Auschwitz, will carry a particular poignancy.
However, the reason I wanted to share the story of Lidice is not just to express solidarity as we remember this horror and reflect on the responsibilities it imposes on ensuing generations.
No, I wanted to share it because there is something in this tale of post-war reconstruction that I think speaks to the continued importance of the state of Israel to progressives today.
The State of Israel, like Lidice, remains a symbol of post-war renewal.
Of new life and opportunity springing from the ashes of misery.
But more than that it is a beacon to the Jewish world - a place any Jew can escape to should barbarism return once more to Europe.
And as we survey the recent and disturbing rise of Anti-Semitism across this continent, politicians would do well to remember this fact.
Whether it is crude East London graffiti, the ignorant utterances of football managers, or the latent discrimination of boycotts such as we saw with the banning of last year’s London Jewish Film Festival - anti-Semitism is on the rise.
And in countries like Belgium, France or Sweden it has spilled over into outright hate crime and murder.
Far too often, this terror is directed at children, schools, and learning.
Just as Hitler’s forces bulldozed the school house in Lidice, from the actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria to the attack at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse to the massacre in Peshawar, we see how modern forces of intolerance and sectarianism have used education as a vehicle for assault.
As Simon Schama has rightly written, ‘Education, the idea of teaching our children something other than the parroting of sacred texts, has become a target.’ And so, ‘wherever the black flag of fear and ignorance is raised we, on our side, for our children’s sake, will lift the defiant banner of universal and unfettered enlightenment.’
Ladies and Gentlemen, as you know better than me, the Community Security Trust is a Jewish organisation that does a tremendous job at helping secure over 120 Jewish schools, including this one, from hateful, anti-Semitic attacks.
At present it receives around £2m a year revenue funding from the Department of Education and, as you know, whoever wins the next election will face difficult choices on spending.
But I want to tell you today that in the face of rising anti-Semitism, the safety of this school and others like it is non-negotiable for the next Labour Government.
So if I become Education Secretary next May, I will act swiftly to protect future funding for this most vital of tasks, guaranteeing that a Labour government will spend at least the same amount on protecting your community’s safety.
In the face of rising intolerance and attacks on education for the very idea of learning, no citizen of this country should ever feel intimidated simply to attend school and learn.
FAITH AND THE LIBERAL STATE
But physical protection is one thing.
A deeper public recognition of the role of faith in education is a broader challenge – which I have come here this evening to ask your school and your community to show the kind of leadership you have displayed going back to 1732.
For events last year in the city of Birmingham have served to reshape the boundaries between faith and the liberal state when it comes to schooling.
For hundreds of years, faith has played an important part in the English educational landscape.
From Catholic to Anglican to Jewish to Muslim to Hindu to Sikh.
And for all the contemporary concerns over faith schooling, I have never believed that French-style secularism is appropriate to the UK.
Just as we do not ban headscarves or kippot in this country, nor should we seek to exclude religiosity and faith from schooling.
Quite apart from the violation of religious and personal freedoms, I am not entirely convinced that the French exclusion of religious discourse has produced much multi-cultural understanding.
Indeed, a convincing argument can be made that such absolutism only further entrenches resentment, intolerance and segregation.
However, there is clearly a paradox here.
The state should protect the freedom for parents to have their children schooled at a faith-based institution of their choice.
Yet at the same time it cannot allow any school it funds to become cultural silos to the extent that distrust, antagonism and hostility towards other communities begins to take root.
That is what has happened in some Birmingham schools - and you will not need me to tell you that anti-Semitic attitudes were part of the disturbing picture.
So I believe all schools now have a duty, educational and moral, to prepare their pupils as future citizens of a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-faith world.
I believe that this does require new demands upon Ofsted to inspect across a broader set of curriculum criteria.
But what I also believe is that none of this is inconsistent with the faith-based character of schools such as this one.
The lines between liberal state and faith are messy and compromised - and when they are re-drawn the state’s equalising and reductive tendencies can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.
But as we seek to chart an acceptable road-map for education, faith and community cohesion in an ever more multi-cultural society I am looking to this school and this community to show leadership and forward thinking.
These are the difficult questions:
How do we retain the ties that bind as British citizens, while celebrating and exploring our religious and cultural identities?
In Northern Ireland, we have worked hard to end religious segregation in schooling, so why is it coming back into inner-urban Britain?
How do schools play their part in cross-cultural dialogue amidst ever more sectarian sensibilities?
How can education fulfil its function of developing reflexive, inquiring minds in a globalised age when clashing cultures and religions are beamed into our living rooms?
Weighing that delicate balance between state and Jewish identities has long been a central function of the JFS in England’s educational landscape.
We need it now, more than ever.
For nobody could meet these wonderful young citizens of the 21st century and think they were not up to the job.
It is a challenging task – but it is that ‘courage over timidity’; ‘appetite for adventure over the love of ease’that we expect of them.
In an age which too often seeks to root out enlightenment learning, attack competing faiths, and hinder cohesion, your work succeeds down the years.
So thank you once more for inviting me here to this beautiful ceremony today.
Let us celebrate the wonderful achievements of the class of 2014.
And look forward to the Jewish Free School continuing its leadership role within British education and European Jewry.
Jewish Free School Graduation Ceremony Address. 6th January 2015. Thank you - and thank you Jonathan and Michael for inviting me here tonight as your guest. It is a tremendous...