Jewish life in Britain is thriving

Despite challenges, Britain remains a good and comfortable place for Jews to live.

London great 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
London great 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
As representatives from around the world converge on Jerusalem this week for the Global Forum on Anti-Semitism to assess the prevalence of what Robert Wistrich calls "the longest hatred," Britain, like every other country in the Diaspora, has its own account of how its Jewish community is faring. The Global Forum comes less than a fortnight after the Community Security Trust (CST) issued its Report on Antisemitic Incidents for 2007, and its conclusions are disturbing. It shows the second highest number of incidents - 547, down 8 per cent from 2006 - since CST began keeping such records in 1984. Moreover, unlike previous years, where "trigger events" such as Israel's war against Hizbullah in 2006 have shown a spike in incident levels, analysts had expected that the absence of such events in 2007 would result in a far larger drop. Overall there has been a general increase in the base-line level of anti-Semitic incidents since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. However, data such as these cry out for context. The figures also included many unacceptable, but nevertheless more minor, incidents and with a Jewish population in excess of 300,000, most are unaffected by such incidents. Jewish life in Britain is thriving. Communal leaders and activists agree that it would be self-defeating to allow such figures to define us existentially. One erstwhile British-Jewish critical commentator, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, to his own apparent surprise recently attested to the resurgence of the community. As any reader of the local Jewish media will attest, Jewish life in the UK is teeming with vibrant educational and cultural activity, robust political involvement and demonstrable pride in Jewish identity, with plans this summer for New York-style Salute to Israel Parades (replete with floats and marching bands) weaving their way through central London and Manchester, culminating in the Capital with a 60th birthday extravaganza in Trafalgar Square. This hardly sits with the "head below the parapet" stereotype of British Jews. Kippa wearers abound on the London Tube and elsewhere in the country, and all of England cheered Israel on in its battle with Russia on the football field. BRITAIN REMAINS a good and comfortable place for Jews to live and British Jews have scored several major successes in mounting unified responses to challenges that affects us all as Jews and as citizens of democracies around the world. While statistics don't lie, in any battle you need to know who your allies are. Part of the larger picture is the fact that the Jewish community in general and the CST in particular enjoy an unprecedented degree of cooperation and respect from law enforcement authorities up and down the country with whom they liaise and work collaboratively. The level to which we can securely go about our business as Jews in public and in Jewish public places is taken for granted. Similarly, on the political front, it is important to underscore the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism and the formal government response. As a result, key Jewish communal representatives sit together with nine government departments and multiple other agencies on the government's cross-departmental task-force, set up to implement the report's key recommendations. Of course we would rather that there was no need for an inquiry of this nature, but as we know, anti-Semitism exists and the dedication shown by so many parliamentarians and civil servants in addressing this issue is hugely encouraging. This marks something of a watershed on the political map and even among the Great British football watching public, a formidable force, which reacted with indignation to the anti-Semitic threats to Israeli Chelsea Football Club manager Avraham Grant. CERTAINLY, the UK is not immune to episodes that resonate around the world; such as the Oxford Union's circus style events when publicity-hungry undergraduates invited Holocaust-denier David Irving, the British National Party's Nick Griffin to discuss free speech, or a pantheon of anti-Zionists to debate Israel's right to exist. UK campuses, like their counterparts in other liberal democratic societies (Columbia University's recent decision to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to mind) can provide platforms in the name of free speech to those who would deny that right to others. Thankfully, we have a Union of Jewish Students adept at combating these and other instances of Israel and Jew-bashing, always allied with non-Jewish groups. Beyond campus firm alliances have been built and nurtured with Hindu, Sikh and Christian groups with whom we often lobby government on matters of joint concern. Equally important was the outcome of the so-called much publicized University and College Union "boycott" (actually a motion to "consider" a boycott) that both the academic community (again, Jews and non-Jews alike) and the organized Jewish community (through the "Stop The Boycott" campaign) took on. Significantly it was the Union itself, and the British discrimination laws that brought about the demise of the boycott campaign. There are more battles on the horizon. A cross-communal Durban Review task-force, Jewish Human Rights Coalition UK, spearheaded by the Board of Deputies and CST, will be meeting similar groups from around the world at the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Tuesday and heading to Geneva in April highlight the dangers of allowing the next UN Conference on Racism from devolving into an entropy of anti-Zionism and Jew hatred that characterized its predecessor in 2001. Is UK Jewry facing problems and challenges? Without a doubt. But the community is now organized in such a way that we are better prepared to face and meet those challenges. When I address the Global Forum on Monday I am proud to be in a position to offer models of best practice from the successful experiences of UK communal institutions for adoption elsewhere in the Jewish world. Like many of our British boxing heroes: we not only talk a good talk, but we also fight our corner. The writer is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.