My Word: Diversity and the ABCs of UK’s Jewish community

This was my first Limmud experience and I can understand why many of the 2,000 participants return year after year for a dose of Jewish solidarity and learning in varied ways.

Members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews hold up signs reading "I am Charlie," "I am Jewish" and "I am Ahmed," during an event in London (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews hold up signs reading "I am Charlie," "I am Jewish" and "I am Ahmed," during an event in London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
That people come in all shapes, types and sizes has never been more evident to me than during the Limmud Festival in which I participated that took place in Birmingham in the British Midlands last week.
In the course of just one day at the five-day event, I attended a talk by Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, as well as an evening performance by Dana International, who 20 years ago became the third Israeli and first open transsexual to win the Eurovision Song Contest. In between, I enjoyed an inspirational show by Bat-El Borenstein – an Israeli actress and comedian very much larger than life, given that she is only four feet tall (and describes herself as a dying breed.)
This was my first Limmud experience and I can understand why many of the 2,000 participants – from more than 40 countries – return year after year for a dose of Jewish solidarity and learning in hugely varied ways.
Limmud UK took over the entire Hilton Metropole Hotel for the event and, since all but a skeleton staff took a break for the Christmas vacation period, a kosher catering company provided food and hundreds of Limmud volunteers made sure visitors had a smooth stay. The place buzzed “from early morn to the wee hours,” in the words of Glasgow native Jonathan Robinson, who chaired the festival. The dining room, set up with long benches, resembled a summer camp and was so crowded that I literally bumped into friends I hadn’t seen for decades.
I was surprised at the variety of attendees, too. I met a range from the completely religiously unaffiliated to members of liberal synagogues and Orthodox Jews. The ages spanned from toddlers, young children and youth (all of whom had their own activities and talks) through young adults, middle aged and very senior citizens.
Many were drawn by an opportunity to openly express their Jewish identity in comfort – something that cannot be taken for granted in today’s Britain.
While I gave talks and participated in panels mainly on Israeli-related issues, I took advantage of the chance for a rare visit to the land of my birth to catch up on the concerns of the community there. Many of these were tackled in a talk with the catchy title “Antisemitism, Brexit, Corbyn: An ABC of UK Jewish public policy,” given by Philip Rosenberg, public affairs director at the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Claudia Mendoza, director of policy and public affairs at the Jewish Leadership Council. Mendoza described how the community had been forced to lose their British reticence and launch the #EnoughIsEnough campaign following revelations of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s social media support for an antisemitic mural.
The ever-mounting evidence of Corbyn’s antisemitic and anti-Israeli beliefs and actions didn’t seem far from anyone’s mind. Several attendees mentioned that they had rescinded their membership in the Labour Party. In answer to a question, Rosenberg said he feared that there would be a “Venezualization effect” were Corbyn to be elected prime minister – there might not be mass emigration of Jews, partly because it is economically hard to relocate, but many wealthier members of the community were likely to leave, taking with them the philanthropic funding on which most synagogues, Jewish charities and communal organizations rely. Brexit presents its own challenges, such as ensuring that improved trade ties between Israel and both the EU and the UK aren’t lost; sustaining a liberal visa policy between Israel and the UK; and continuing rules made to hinder boycotts of Israel.
After giving a great speech on “Five Jewish Texts that Inspire Leadership,” Chief Rabbi Mirvis was inevitably asked about Corbyn and antisemitism. In his answer, he likened it to a white page with a black dot: What you see is the black dot even though it’s only a small stain on the bigger sheet of paper.
Limmud co-founder Clive Lawton managed to make a talk on antisemitism’s endless mutations over the generations fun and informative but also warned against panicking.
Luke Akehurst, director of We Believe in Israel, presented the results of a poll commissioned by BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) and conducted in October by Populus. Its key findings also suggest that not everything is doom and gloom. For example, 48% of respondents “do not support boycotts of Israel and find it difficult to understand how others do, given everything else that is going on in the world” – a 1% increase since last year. Young people have significantly reduced their level of support for a boycott of Israel since 2015, the survey found.
During my stay, the British press was full of news concerning a drone incident that closed London’s Gatwick Airport just ahead of the busy Christmas season, and of the Israeli anti-drone technology deployed to combat the problem. Another BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) fail.
This year’s Limmud Festival focused on Sephardi and Mizrahi culture, “too often ignored in wider communal spaces – to expose audiences to the rich brocade of traditions stretching from Spain and Portugal to Iran, Iraq and India,” in the words of programming committee co-chair Elliot Jebreel, who defines himself as a proud “Jewranian” and LGBTQ+ leader. (LGBTQ issues were also very much on the agenda.)
I caught up with some of the amazing artistic performers in the closing gala which featured, among others, Jewish-Iranian daughter-father team Chloe and Kourosh Pourmorady – who merged Hebrew prayer with Persian poetry – and flamenco dancer Leilah Broukhim, whose family emigrated to New York from Iran, and who grew more connected to her Jewish roots when she moved to Spain to immerse herself in her chosen dance form.
British friends visiting Israel had warned me that I might be heckled when I gave a talk on why Israelis and liberal Diaspora Jews have such different views of US President Donald Trump. (Clue: He succeeded Barack Obama, who signed what Israelis across the political spectrum consider to be a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran and who, in his last few days in office, allowed a UN Security Council resolution to pass which called for an immediate end to “all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem,” ultimately denying Jewish-Israeli ties to the Temple Mount, Western Wall and elsewhere over the 1949 armistice line.)
Despite the warning, the talk and a panel on the topic passed smoothly, although I don’t know how much of that was due to British politeness.
A talk I gave on Israel and the international media (An “op-pressed” people) also went down well, although I continued to mentally update the examples after my return. Why, for instance, did The New York Times dedicate funds and time to do an in-depth investigation into the death of a Palestinian medic during the protests on the Gaza border in June, analyzing more than 1,000 photos and videos, creating a 3-D model of the protest, and interviewing more than 30 witnesses? (They determined it was “reckless at best, and possibly a war crime.”) The paper carried out no comparable inquiry into the death of any Israeli victim of terrorism or the massive rocket attacks on Israeli towns and communities.
During my last talk, on Thursday morning, December 27, the audience laughed in all the right places for all the right reasons. I fared better than Emily Thornberry, the British shadow foreign secretary, being interviewed at the same time. Thornberry reportedly told interviewer Jon Lansman that Corbyn has not dealt properly with the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party because he is too “upset” by the allegations leveled against him. The audience laughed when Thornberry said that “there isn’t a racist or antisemitic bone in Jeremy’s body.”
Contrary to the comments made by Corbyn in 2013 that surfaced in August, apparently “Zionists” – read “Jews” – do understand irony.
They also, as I witnessed, have a sense of history, proud identity, communal spirit and the ability to mix seriousness and fun – even when they have a lot on their minds.