The Red Arrows perform a flypast during an armed forces and veterans' parade on the final day of 70th anniversary Victory in Europe (VE) day commemorations in central London.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week I take office as the 47th president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews – the democratically elected representative body of British Jewry. If you have been following the recent news from Europe since the start of the year you may think I have quite a job on my hands.
In France there has been rising hatred against Jews culminating in January’s murderous attack on a kosher supermarket. In Britain we had figures published which showed a significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents, linked to last summer’s Gaza conflict.
There have been calls from Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for Jews to abandon their homes in Europe and seek refuge in Israel.
The truth is that of course hatred and anti-Semitism exist in Britain as elsewhere.
However, in a dangerous, hostile world Britain stands out as a tolerant country with a government committed to addressing extremism, protecting its Jewish community and, indeed, willing to commit significant sums to secure synagogues, schools and communal institutions against the threat of attack.
As with every outbreak of violence in the Middle East, Operation Protective Edge inflamed passions in some quarters of British society. However, although data collected by the Community Security Trust showed that attacks with an anti-Semitic link were up on the year before, it also demonstrated that when hostilities ceased, the level of incidents rapidly dropped to relatively insignificant levels. Indeed a new paper from the respected Institute for Jewish Policy Research suggests that the apparent rise in hate attacks in recent years might be partially explained by a greater tendency to report incidents rather than in any empirical increase.
That is not to say that there are no problems in the UK and we at the Board are certainly not complacent. There is a rise in extremism in some Muslim communities which worries not only us but also the British government.
A small minority of Muslims seem to be turning away from the path of integration and this poses a threat to community cohesion.
As a long-established community (the Board of Deputies has been the British Jewish representative body since 1760) we have a role to play in demonstrating to our Muslim compatriots that it is not only possible but admirable to combine British citizenship with adherence to religious values and that these two things are not mutually exclusive.
The government has worked closely with us in recent years to attack radicalization and this has to continue. We need to update laws to address the growing influence of social media so that those who attempt to hide behind the apparent anonymity of this powerful medium to propagate hate can be identified and dealt with.
There are also those on the far Left who harbor prejudice against our community and this is often expressed through hostility to Israel. In the past six years as Board vice president I have been engaging actively in combating the corrosive effect on our community of the relatively small number of people who advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and who have tried to undermine British Jews by laying siege to Israeli-owned businesses and even attempted to remove kosher food from supermarket shelves.
Then there is this week’s vote by the National Union of Students to support BDS.
The credibility of NUS can be judged by its willingness to boycott the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, while turning a blind eye to regimes that hang gay people from cranes and push them off high buildings, refuse to allow women to be educated at universities and behead people in the street.
Moreover, NUS sees no inconsistency in failing to condemn Islamic State because Muslim students told them it could cause islamophobia, while boycotting Israel even when the Union of Jewish Students said that it will fuel antisemitism. NUS does not represent British students. Instead it betrays them and shames our country.
Although this is an ongoing struggle, I am pleased to note that the BDS lobby have achieved remarkably little. While in the US there are at least six academic boycotts in place, in the UK there are none. And in recent months the Board of Deputies played a significant role in the cancellation of a proposed conference at Southampton University whose purpose was to delegitimize Israel.
Anti-Israel agitation also seems to have had zero effect on trade between our two countries, which has expanded exponentially in recent years and now tops £3 billion per annum, which is a very sizable sum by any measure.
We have acted proactively to get our messages across to those in power. At the recent general election we produced a Jewish Manifesto which was sent to every parliamentary candidate asking them to pledge support for the issues which matter to British Jews including the right to shechita and brit mila. All three of the main party leaders not only supported our policy asks but filmed strongly positive messages in response to the manifesto.
This is a notable demonstration of support for a community which constitutes only about one half of one percent of the population.
So Britain remains a very good place in which to be Jewish. At the same time I note that aliya from the UK is on the increase. I believe that the overriding motive of most of the olim is the classic Zionist aspiration to build the Land of Israel, which I wholeheartedly share. The British community has always been notable for its deep connection with and affection for Israel and its overwhelming commitment to the success and security of the Jewish state. Indeed, while I am proudly British I take equal pride and delight that my daughter has made aliya and I am a constant traveler to Israel. While our focus is in making Britain a safe and secure place where Jews can live and thrive, the Board also strives to the utmost to demonstrate to British society that Israel is also a vibrant, dynamic democracy that deserves more understanding and support.The author is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.