by Dame Helen Hyde, Headmistress, Watford Grammar School for Girls
I’m delighted to be chairing an interfaith film screening and panel discussion, organised by B’nai B’rith UK, on 15 October at the Jewish Museum. This event is part of B’nai B’rith’s annual heritage activities and this year’s theme is ‘Building Bridges’. BBUK has interpreted this as building bridges of tolerance between our religious communities in the UK today.
The film being screened is David/Daoud, a moving exploration of faith in New York’s multi-cultural backdrop.
Eleven-year-old Daoud, the son of a religious imam in Brooklyn, is mistaken for a Jewish boy, David; the children think he is a classmate at their orthodox school. Genuine friendships develop, and David is unable to resist the joy of a camaraderie he has never felt before. But the longer he plays out his double life, the more he risks driving a wedge in his family and being found out by his friends.
Discussing the film afterwards are Archbishop Kevin McDonald (chair of the Bishops’ Conference Committee for Other Faiths and of the Committee for Catholic-Jewish Relations); Sheikh Usama Hasan (senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation and campaigner against extremism and for religious reform within Muslim circles); Henry Grunwald OBE QC (former president of the Board of Deputies, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council and president of World Jewish Relief) and Dhruv Chhatralia (lawyer, speaker and author of 19 books on Hinduism).
This event could not be scheduled at a better time. The world, Europe, Britain and each and every one of our communities is becoming more diverse, culturally and religiously. This should not be viewed with fear, it must not be seen as a threat. A diverse society should not negate what is special about each of our religions or what is so special about being British. Our schools, universities and other organisations must build on British values, while ensuring that we maintain our own faiths and beliefs. British values as expressed by our prime minister enable us to do just that.
In a recent speech, David Cameron said: “The values I’m talking about – a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law – are the things we should try to live by every day. They should help to ensure that Britain not only brings together people from different countries, cultures and ethnicities, but also ensures that, together, we build a common home.”
I have always worked in an ethnically diverse environment and one of my aims has been to ensure we do not pay lip service towards the words tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.
As headmistress at Watford Grammar School for Girls, these words establish an ethos that celebrates our differences and similarities. It is an ethos where each person can thrive in a caring and loving atmosphere. The school is one of the most culturally diverse schools in Hertfordshire, with many religions, cultures and backgrounds.
I view my students as one would view the jewels in a jewellery box – each unique, but together they shine. I work closely with the students, their parents and the staff to ensure they all help preserve this special ‘family’ ethos. We have regular contact with all the local faith groups and the vicar of Watford is one of the school governors.
Additionally, religious education is a compulsory core subject and all students visit a variety of places of worship.
I’m also a patron of the National Religious Education Council. In this capacity I hope to continue to promote the importance of religious education for all students. It helps to develop students into active, thinking members of our society and creates opportunities to study and discuss the differences and commonalities between religions. It may be one of the ways we can help to combat growing fundamentalism in many religions.
In the fast changing political situation, interfaith dialogue must take place to overcome fear, prejudice and stereotyping. Being a Holocaust educator has reinforced my firm belief that we must stand up and be counted: we must not be bystanders. Interfaith dialogue can and must educate the public and policymakers about the risks of marginalising or labelling particular groups.
Why is it so important to teach children and adults alike about the Holocaust? Because we must never forget, we must learn to see early warning signs and to take positive action. Holocaust education is another vital tool in the effort to build bridges between communities.
Building a fence around one’s own religions results in fundamentalism, isolation and fear. By building bridges between our faiths, we can understand our differences and celebrate our similarities.
• To book tickets for the BBUK interfaith event visit bbukpanel.eventbrite.co.uk