The leader of Britain’s Jewish community holds dearly to the motto “live and let live.” Whether within the Jewish faith or while engaging with other communities, tolerance is the key for Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush.
Arkush has headed the board, the main representative body of Britain’s some 300,000 Jews, since May 2015.
During a recent visit to Israel, where one of his children is currently residing, he sat down with the Magazine
in a Tel Aviv cafe to discuss the achievements and challenges of Britain’s Jewish community.
One of Arkush’s main concerns is a global trend toward religious extremism. Stressing that he himself is a committed member of “middleground Orthodoxy,” he expresses concern regarding intolerance within the Jewish faith.
“It worries me that the Chief Rabbinate are displaying intolerance to other forms of Orthodoxy,” he says.
“I really hope we can have a mature debate in the Jewish world, centered on Israel, that can enact a more ‘live-and- let-live attitude.’” He emphasized that he is not suggesting a departure from halachic standards, but rather something that he sees as inherent in Jewish Orthodoxy.
“I think halachic views have always represented more than one view,” he says. The hunt for a middle ground also applies to Britain’s Muslim community, which exceeds three million, many of whom Arkush says live in “Muslim ghettos” and only hear Muslim narratives.
“British Muslims are numerous and I sense that a large majority of them don’t feel fully integrated into British life and are potentially at risk of being swayed by extremists, away from integration,” he says. “The most insidious message of all that they sometimes receive from subscriptions to TV stations coming from the Gulf States is that you can’t be an observant Muslim and embrace British values.”
Arkush believes British society has a duty to show them the opposite, and that the Jewish community specifically is an example of that.
Arkush strives to convey this message to British Muslims through visits to mosques across the country.
“If you look at the trajectory of the Jewish community, we came to Britain some 100 years ago not really being attuned to Western values. We also suffered intolerance and prejudice from the larger world outside, and we also faced criticism, like that our preachers were foreign born and not teaching British values,” he says.
“We managed to acculturate and we certainly have not lost our Jewish identity... so there are some parallels.”
The present-day Jewish community in Britain dates back some 360 years, with a significant influx at the end of the 19th century and again at the beginning of the 20th century.
“Of course they have to find their own way, but they can see where we’ve come from,” Arkush adds.
In fact, he believes that the Muslims and Jews can bond over their common ground as faith-based communities in a secular society.
“We have to defend the role of faith in British society which is predominantly, even aggressively, secular,” Arkush stresses, noting that he often finds members of the Muslim community to be receptive and relieved to hear that message.
He sees London’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, as a positive force that has emerged from the Muslim community.
“The Board is maintaining a good conversation with Khan and the signs are that he will make good on his promise to represent all faiths,” Arkush affirms, adding “we need more like him.”
Khan, who assumed office in May 2016, has been outspoken against antisemitism and is a champion of interfaith dialogue. Most recently, he participated in the London Jewish community’s event to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, in which local residents – many of them Jewish – fought and defeated uniformed members of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Khan is a member of the Labour party, which has been in the limelight this past year with regard to its “anti-Semitism crisis,” which caused many of its members to be suspended and resulted in the Shami Chakrabarti inquiry.
Arkush believes that an exposure to only one narrative is a key problem contributing to antisemitic views.
He points to MP Naz Shah, who was suspended from Labour over inflammatory remarks she made about Israel, including a call to “relocate Israel to America” and a comment that “the Jews are rallying.”
Shah, who has since been reinstated, apologized for her comments and admitted that they were “ignorant” and “antisemitic.” Shah told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that she had been on a learning journey since her suspension and had received “amazing compassion” from the Jewish community. She also participated in a Jewish Labour rally against anti-Semitism.
“When people are given another narrative and helped show their views are misconceived, you can strengthen the moderate middle,” Arkush reiterates. Moreover, Arkush opines that the Labour Party’s controversial leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has actually served to unite the Jewish community.
“Far from damaging the Jewish community, he’s given it enormous strength,” says Arkush. “Jews cope rather well with hate,” he explains. “It unites us. The overwhelming bulk of the Jewish community has correctly perceived that there is far too much prejudice – not just against Jews, against women, and against people who are not as left wing, and they have united in condemning that. Condemnation of Labour has come from every part of the Jewish community, as well as from the Jewish part of Labour.”
Turning to the ongoing conversation about assimilation in the Diaspora, Arkush has faith that Britain’s Jewish community is there to stay. He refers to a report on intermarriage between British Jews and non-Jews released in July, by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. While the media focused on the fact that the report showed a rise in intermarriage, Arkush points out that the rate has remained roughly the same for the past 20 years. The report found that intermarriage has risen by two percentage points since the 1990s, to 26%.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s 26% too many, but in the US it’s double that. I’m more worried about the US,” he says. Highlighting the high birthrate of haredim, the continued strength of the main communal denominations and the high proportion of Jews who go to Jewish schools, Arkush feels confident about the future of British Jewry.
“We live in a wonderful country. It’s a great place to be Jewish and I wanted my kids to grow up secure in their Jewish values – but also open to all things life in a Western liberal democratic country can offer. There’s no conflict for most British Jews about being British and Jewish.”