Passover and liberal democracy
Cranmer wishes all of his Jewish readers and communicants the richest of blessings. Kaddesh.
Rabbi Abraham Pinter writes in today’s Guardian on the Passover, and how the theme of liberty from oppression must continue be heeded in liberal democracies. He is the principal of Yesodey Hatorah senior girls' school in Stamford Hill, London, and links his theme to the freedom of faith-based education:
Tonight, Jews worldwide celebrate Passover, commemorating the redemption of the Jewish nation from its slavery in Egypt. More profound still than the freedom from physical bondage, this festival expresses religious freedom. The release from the Egyptian yoke took place over 3,000 years ago. But the concept of freedom and liberation of soul and spirit, the primary theme of Passover, possesses a timeless message. It is one which is relevant today in our modern democracies.
When Moses said "Let my people go", he was demanding that the Hebrews be allowed the birthright of every human being: to live free from oppression and worship by the dictates of their conscience. Today, freedom of education is perhaps the greatest indicator of whether a society genuinely embodies the ideologies that lie behind true liberty.
America is hailed as a bastion of democracy, and its principle of separation of church and state considered the ultimate endorsement of this ideal. In reality, though, this practice often creates the opposite of the equality it aims to achieve. Any child wishing to pursue an education that is conscience-based is excluded from attending a state-funded school, so only the wealthy have the opportunity to choose for their children.
The UK in this sense is a truer democracy: choice for all. The British government recognises that the freedom to educate children based on the religious faith of one's choosing should not be limited to the richest in our society. Historically, only Anglicans, Catholics and centrist orthodox Jews were also allowed schools. Only very recently, during the Blair administration, has a sincere attempt been made to welcome Charedi Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs into the family of voluntary aided schools.
Despite this wave of religious open-mindedness and inclusion, there continue to be powers within trying to undermine this philosophy. This has been expressed through attempts to dictate and dominate on issues such as admission; trying to push through legislation which would demand the acceptance of quotas, thus diluting the religious element in faith schools. Government intervention of this nature puts into jeopardy the fine balance between true democracy and freedom of choice in education.
Those in favour of mainstream education will quickly attribute their viewpoint on segregated religious education and the lack of integration that "inevitably" follows, often citing the July 7 bombings - despite the fact that none of the bombers went to a faith school.
The majority of religious people in this country embrace good citizenship and reinforce these values in their faith schools. Jews have historically supported integration. Jewish values complement those of the state, and history has shown that the different religious practices and lifestyles of the Charedi Jewish community in no way affects their loyalty to their country and participation in the social, economic and political scenes.
The rejection of society by a few extremists purporting to have an Islamist agenda is not a result of an overzealous identification with their religion. The suppression of overt expression of religion is more likely to breed extremism than prevent it. Graduates of our faith schools have gone on to take pivotal roles in society precisely because faith schools teach us the value of serving our communities and the wider world. Positive identity cultivates cohesion: feeling comfortable with who we are enables us to more easily encounter the other. The Soviets tried to suppress religion and diversity for 70 years, and ultimately the western powers won precisely because they defended liberty.
Passover is the celebration of freedom. Let us embrace freedom by accepting that every denomination has its own specific needs. Society's ability to encourage true freedom of religion for one and all will empower minorities, enabling them to respect their religion without compromising on their loyalty to their country.