The Perse School

The Perse welcomes high profile speakers to the Josef Behrmann Lecture

2 Mar 2018

Five prominent speakers from different beliefs came together in an illuminating debate on ‘The Power of Words’ in The Perse’s annual Josef Behrmann Lecture and Panel.

The well-attended event was the first to be held in The Perse’s brand new Peter Hall Performing Arts Centre, fittingly as late Old Persean Behrmann, in whose memory the lecture is honoured, was an actor himself.

Among the panellists were Jonathan Wittenberg, President of the Council of Christians & Jews; Dilwar Hussain, Chairman of New Horizons in British Islam; Canon Hugh Shilson-Thomas, Dean of Chapel at Selwyn College; Julia Siddiqi, co-founder of Nisa-Nashim Jewish & Muslim Women’s Network; and children’s author Annemarie Young.

Chaired by Perse chaplain and Head of Religious Studies Emma Rothwell, the panel also featured students Alex Coles and Hannah Boston (both Upper Sixth) and Isaac Pfaender (Year 10) asking questions of the speakers on a broad range of topics.

Jonathan Wittenberg, who is also Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK, opened the event with a talk about how words could be used as a force for both good and bad.

He recounted his grandparents’ experiences of living in Nazi Germany and spoke about the current phenomena of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ as ways in which words could have a negative power. He felt “truth, accuracy and fairness in language” were especially important in today’s world to counter the effects of hate speech. However, Jonathan added that just a few positive words had the power to lift people at tough times.

As Vice-Chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Dilwar Hussain followed on from Jonathan by talking about the importance of remembering the Holocaust on a human level, no matter which faith or belief a person followed, to ensure lessons continue to be learned from what happened.

Annemarie Young, a humanist, spoke about the influence of both mass media and social media in shaping peoples’ opinions. Julie Siddiqi then talked about the importance of the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns against sexual harassment as examples of the power of words to give people a voice, while Hugh Shilson-Thomas responded to questions about the relationship between Christianity and members of the LGBT community.

The panellists went on to explore further issues relating to politics, religion, discrimination and prejudice as well as how words could prove inspirational.

Listen to interviews by Year 9 pupils with the panellists below.

Julie Siddiqi talks with Mariam Abiani

Jonathan Wittenberg in discussion with Jack MacHale

Hugh Shilson-Thomas in conversation with Toby Owers

Dilwar Hussain meets Robert Rayner

Annemarie Young speaks to Jacqueline Chesher

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