Will a Jewish template work?

By Daniel Finkelstein, June 3, 2010

It can't be on Israel again - they'll have had plenty of that. And the general political stuff won't work with this audience. We can take questions on that, but that's all. Why don't we go down the charity route?

I must have had this discussion a half-dozen or so times, as I prepared another speech for another politician for another big Jewish dinner. In my years in politics, I was the go-to guy for big Jewish dinners. What do I say? When do I put on the skull cap? When do I take off the skull cap? If the Orthodox Jews don't like the Reform Jews, why are the Orthodox Jews called United? Why do they always serve profiteroles? They raised how much? On such profound religious questions, I was the unquestioned authority.

Anyway, after I'd done a couple of speeches, I hit on a theme. It seemed to me that Conservatives who wanted a strong society but didn't want to keep on expanding the state, were among friends (including among the many Jews who vote Labour) when they visited Jewish charity events. For if ever there was a blueprint for the sort of social progress Tories were after, there it was all around them enjoying the salmon (or kosher lamb if it was for really high rollers).

So, for some years now, Tory leaders have been talking about Jewish philanthropy and community organisation as a model for others to follow. They have, take it from me. But in the last few years, something new has happened to those speeches. They've moved out of the banqueting suite at Claridge's and into the mainstream rhetoric of the Prime Minister.

David Cameron's Big Society idea - that volunteers, social entrepreneurs and community groups can mend Britain - had a bad election campaign. Voters that heard the term didn't understand it. And even those that understood it, didn't like the thought that they may be asked to run their own school. "And they want me to own the local pub, too" was a typical response when The Times put the Big Society to groups of swing voters.

We know the Big Society can work, but can it do so for a multi-ethnic Britain?

Yet the fact that the Big Society didn't work politically - that it was a bad flop - does not mean it is bad policy. Jewish experience suggests that is far from that.

Jewish experience shows that social norms matter. At the heart of Cameron's idea is his view that the government can alter behaviour by exhortation and example. The new Prime Minister believes that he can encourage people to behave more responsibly towards others, rather than imposing that behaviour upon them through laws and regulations.

When you look at how much Jews give to charity, and how we organise our community to help the most vulnerable members of it, you find support for this view. We Jews learn from each other what is expected of us.

Another piece of support for Cameron's vision comes from the effectiveness of communal organisation. Faith schools and Jewish sheltered housing and residential care are examples of the way in which state finance can be enhanced by the commitment, management and support of a local community.

And then there is the role of social entrepreneurs. The community encourages social entrepreneurs and, correctly, accords them status (look at Gerald Ronson's magnificent work with the Community Security Trust, for instance, or Michael Levy's at Jewish Care).

So the Jewish community shows how the Big Society can work. But it does pose one question. We Jews are - in the main - looking after each other. The community's cohesion is what makes it work. Will the Big Society succeed in a multi-ethnic, diverse, Britain? Localities and ethnic groups may look after themselves, but will they look after one another. And what about groups that can't help themselves?

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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