Happy Hanukkah

Forget "Winterval". Let religious festivals proudly speak their names

Tonight, at sundown, begins the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC after the Maccabees successfully rebelled against their Syrian-Greek rulers.

Given its proximity to Christmas -- and Hanukkah goes on for eight nights -- it is a bit of a shame that more is not made of it publicly (although London's mayor, Boris Johnson, will be lighting a giant menorah in Trafalgar Square this evening).

As Mehdi Hasan writes in this week's cover story, Jesus is a revered prophet for Muslims -- which really ought to be obvious and well known, but too often what religions have in common is overlooked in favour of what divides them. This doesn't have to be the way, and given that Hanukkah precedes both Christianity and Islam, it could be something in which all Abrahamic faiths participate. In fact, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre organised just such an event two years ago when it flew a group of Indonesian Muslim clerics to Israel where, among other things, they lit candles with yeshiva students.

In America, of course, things are different. The conjunction of Christmas with Hanukkah has given rise to the idea of "Chrismukkah", popularised particularly by the US television series The OC, and leading to books and greeting cards with messages such as this:

"Deck the halls
with lots of tchotchkes,
Fa la la la la la la la la la.
Tis the season to eat latkes,
Fa la la la la la la la L'Chaim!"

Some suggest that Chrismukkah is just a commercial confection but, even though they're obviously not theologically profound, or even sound, I think such joint festivities can only be for the good. In Malaysia and Singapore, for instance, when the Hindu Deepavali (or Diwali) is proximate to Eid ul-Fitr, which Malays call Hari Raya, all sorts of schools and organisations celebrate these together as "Deepa-Raya". This does not replace separate Muslim and Hindu ceremonies, but its importance is not to be underestimated in a region where racial and religious divisions are, unfortunately, increasingly being emphasised.

Surely the point is that all these festivals, whether they be Eid, Diwali, Christmas, or the Winter Solstice, should be positive occasions that dare speak their name. No one really likes "Winterval", do they? President Obama has already got himself into a little trouble by inviting guests to "a holiday occasion" next week -- when in fact the event is the annual White House Hanukkah party.

On a happier note, I'll end by leaving you this link to some charming Hanukkah stories by Yoni Brenner in the New Yorker. I particularly liked the first two.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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