School Under Examination

Chloe Markowicz - Thursday 3rd December 2009

Boris Johnson speaking at a Jewish News event

A publicly funded London school that aims to educate pupils about the Middle East through its association with a Palestinian school this week defended its position in the face of criticism from London Mayor Boris Johnson.

The headmaster of Hampstead School, officially twinned with Abu Dis Boys' School east of Jerusalem, said it was "unfair" to accuse it of not providing a balanced education.

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Mark Haringman, who has two sons studying at the Cricklewood campus, has lodged an official complaint, claiming his children are being exposed to an "atmosphere of fear and prejudice". He has also requested confirmation that the school follows the rules of the 1996 Education Act, which addresses political bias.

Haringman told the Jewish News that one son in particular feels isolated by staff at the school. He said: "They've created an environment where Jewish students feel alienated. There is no attempt to provide balance to the Israel/Palestine conflict."

Haringman was particularly concerned about the visit to the school of a Palestinian teenager, who was reportedly shot in the head with rubber bullets by Israeli soldiers. It is claimed that the alleged victim's father, who also visited the school, referred to the entire IDF as "Jewish soldiers" in a talk with students.

Haringman added: "Because external visitors are using terms like "Jewish soldiers", it makes Jewish children feel like baddies and perpetrators." He also claimed that "blatantly anti-Israeli and borderline anti-Semitic" leaflets were handed out at the school.

Headteacher Jacques Szemalikowski refused to comment on Haringman's complaint as the school is currently in the process of "a thorough investigation". However, he said: "We endeavour never to promote one point of view over another but ensure that our children are exposed to different points of view." He added that the school would be open to inviting an Israeli speaker to address pupils.

On Monday night at City Hall, at an event organised by the Jewish News, London Mayor Boris Johnson said: "I don't think it is right that London schoolchildren should face any kind of prejudice or any kind of upset in their life as a result of the attempt to import into London schools the politics and the political disputes of the Middle East."

He added: "If I were in charge of the educational system it might be easier to do something, but we must rely on the local education authorities. All I can do is undertake on [Mr Haringman's] behalf to intercede with them, particularly in the case cited. If it is true that a particular school has in a political way decided to make a statement about its affiliations it could lead to discrimination against some students."

In a letter to the headmaster of Hampstead School, Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin expressed his concern that Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association (CAFDA), the charity facilitating the twinning activities, had distributed leaflets at the school to benefit its "one-sided, partisan political campaign". Benjamin said: "It is inevitable that, as in this case, pupils who are Jewish will be made to feel uncomfortable and vulnerable by such vilification of Israel."

London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Brian Coleman wrote to the chair of governors at the school to say that the visit was "unacceptable". He said: "It suggests an unhealthy relationship with groups of a certain political agenda and could leave the school open to charges of political bias."

Nandita Dowson, CAFDA coordinator, called it a "real shame" that Jewish students felt alienated. She said that there were many Jewish CADFA members and that the charity would "very much welcome the chance to talk to the Jewish students". Dowson added that Israeli soldiers were referred to as "Jewish soldiers" in Arabic, but said this was "unfortunate".

Read the latest copy of The Jewish News Online by clicking here.

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