We have to work together

By Vivian Wineman, October 3, 2011

As the Jewish community in Britain takes stock before the New Year, we can say with Charles Dickens that these are the best of times and the worst of times. In some ways our community has never been so fortunate. Jews enjoy prominence in the media, business, academe, the law, medicine and the professions generally and do so while being openly Jewish.

Our communal functions are graced by royalty and the most senior politicians as well as by top celebrities. Jewish cultural events are promoted and subsidised by local and central government and Jewish schools have seen their enrolment double in the last two decades. The number of children they educate is at a record high and now comprises 60 per cent of those eligible, while our cultural events such as Limmud and Book Week are the envy of the entire Jewish world.

Yet when one talks to British Jews one hears a different story. Many feel insecure, saying that antisemitism is rising continually. While antisemitic incidents measured professionally by the CST show a reduction from the highs of 2009, antisemitism in casual discourse and dinner party chat is harder to measure and could well be on the increase. Certainly, anti-Israel agitation is on the rise with calls for boycotts of Israel being made almost daily in the media, universities, churches and trade unions. The Board of Deputies finds itself continually stretched by demands to face these challenges.

The paradox is that both these perspectives are true. The strength of our community is borne out by our rich cultural life and by the fact that issues which concern us are looked at sympathetically by politicians, as shown recently by the reform of Universal Jurisdiction law and the withdrawal from the Durban anniversary conference.

Nevertheless in many ways the current is against us. Practices essential to Jewish life such as shechitah or brit milah are coming under challenge which will only become more intense. More importantly, Israel is under increasing attack. Our clout is limited with our numbers at around 300,000 and our successes therefore are due more to force of argument rather than electoral strength or political bargaining. We endeavour to convince our interlocutors, not to intimidate them, and to ensure that our arguments are always rational, calm and well informed.

The broad tent approach is the most effective

As a result we are constantly raising our game - whether defending our religious practices or speaking up for Israel.

Religiously, we present a united front when defending ourselves to the outside world. But with Israel the situation is quite different. The Israel advocacy lobby is split into a number of groups whose relations sometimes seem as poor as those with Israel's opponents. What we must learn from recent successes like May's acclaimed Bicom "We Believe in Israel" conference is that the broad tent approach is the most effective. Our adversaries take many forms and deploy many arguments. So must we.

One powerful message resonates: Israel as a democracy, a Jewish state yet one for all its citizens. UJS, with its excellent new initiative defending Israel on the basis of the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, like the Peace Camp, make persuasive advocates for the Zionist cause. They must accept that they have to be very careful about the company they keep. With so many dubious characters claiming to be friends we do not need enemies.

In fact we should look to the synagogual authorities for an example. Under the Stanmore Accords, every six weeks or so United Synagogue, Sephardi, Masorti, Reform and Liberal leaders meet in a group brokered by the Board of Deputies. Within this group there are profound differences of opinion.They accept that these will not change. Yet they agree that their Jewish allegiance is paramount and that common goals will be more effectively realised when acting in unison. Above all they agree to treat each other with respect without compromising any fundamental principles.

The new year will bring many challenges. Only by being united can the community hope to meet them in an effective manner.

Vivian Wineman is president of the Board of Deputies

Last updated: 11:50am, October 3 2011