Census reveals a largely sensible state

The JC Essay

By Zaki Cooper, December 21, 2012

The publication of the results of the 2011 census last week answered a number of questions, but here is one it did not: what do the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury have in common? It sounds like the opening line of a joke but, in fact, these three pillars of the British establishment all have some Jewish blood.

David Cameron's maternal grandmother, Enid Cameron, was the granddaughter of a German Jewish banker, Emile Levita, who settled in Manchester in the 1850s (his earlier ancestor was Elijah Levita, a 16th-century Jewish scholar). Boris Johnson, London's mayor since 2008, can also claim some Jewish ancestry, since his great-grandfather, Elias Avery Lowe, was a Russian-born Jew. Most extraordinarily perhaps, the next head of the Anglican Church, Justin Welby, is the grandson of Bernard Weiler, one of four brothers who became prosperous dealers in ostrich feathers from South Africa.

It is perhaps an unusual state of affairs when the most senior church figure in the land has such close Jewish lineage. If this triumvirate were not enough, there were even rumours in the run up to last year's royal wedding that the Duchess of Cambridge may have some Jewish lineage, fuelled (although never substantiated) by her mother's maiden name, Goldsmith. We are on safer territory when it comes to another national icon, David Beckham, whose grandfather, Joseph West, used to take him to shul as a young boy. In his first autobiography, Beckham revealed: "I've probably had more contact with Judaism than with any other religion. I used to wear the traditional Jewish skullcap."

Some would regard the Jewish heritage of Cameron, Johnson and Welby, in particular, as a sign of strength - surely leaders with such roots will have a special regard for the Jewish people and be broadly philosemitic in outlook. However, others regard it as a troubling sign of Jewish assimilation over time.

The census results naturally bring to the fore questions of identity and of the Jewish story within the national one. Of course, there is always an awkwardness when it comes to discussing numbers of Jews. First, notwithstanding the census conducted by Moses, there is a prohibition in the Torah on counting Jews without a purpose. Second, we are a people who have never relied on strength through numbers. The Jewish population of the world has always been famously small - less, as the American scholar Milton Himmelfarb once quipped, than the statistical error of the Chinese census.

For the first time, there are known to be Jews in every local authority in England and Wales, with four in the Scilly Isles

The results certainly made for interesting reading for our community and anyone assessing the role of faith in society. There are five key points that will require digestion and analysis by our communal leaders.

First, the Jewish population of the UK stayed broadly the same in 2011 as ten years previously (when the question on religion was introduced). The figure for Jews who identified by religion was 263,000 (compared with 260,000 last time). While Jews remained at 0.5 per cent of the total population, for the first time there are known to be Jews in every local authority in England and Wales (ranging from four people in the Scilly Isles to 54,000 in Barnet). Key micro-trends included a growing Jewish population in Hertfordshire, continued decline in places like Leeds and Liverpool and the growth of Strictly Orthodox areas such as Hackney, Salford and Gateshead.

A Jewish population of 263,000 marks a sharp decline from an estimated total of 430,000 in the mid-20th century. This had been swelled by the mass influx between 1881 and 1914, when Jews settled here from Eastern Europe, so that the Jewish population rose to 300,000 by the First World War, and then grew further. After 1945, the lure of aliyah and assimilation led to a rapid decline in the British Jewish presence. By the 1970s, it had fallen rapidly to 336,000; in the mid-1990s, to 285,000, just above the current population. The rate of decline seems to have flattened, and UK Jewry has been boosted by both transitory and permanent émigrés from the likes of Israel, South Africa and France.

Away from Jewish self-analysis, one of the key features of the census results was the drop in Christian adherents by four million to 33.2 million. However, the result in the census from 10 years ago, which showed 71.7 per cent of the population identifying as Christian, was extraordinarily high, probably misleadingly so.

The problem is that the 2001 results were misinterpreted by some who claimed they showed that the UK was a religious country. In fact, some reports suggest that the UK ranks as one of the lowest in Church attendance or active worship compared with other countries - even in Europe, which is far less religious than most other continents. The academic Grace Davie coined the phrase "believing without belonging" to summarise the attitude of Europeans towards religion (surveys may show a belief in God but this does not tend to translate into active worship). Furthermore, the UK has long demonstrated a lukewarm attitude towards public demonstrations of faith. Archbishop Rowan Williams drew an important distinction when asked whether Britain was a Christian country in an interview in 2007: "If you mean a country where the majority of people are active churchgoers then we are not that sort of country. If you mean a country where the history, the institutions and the general climate is Christian, I think we are still that."

Clichéd stories of a dwindling community have dogged the Church of England for years. One famous sketch from the iconic programme, Spitting Image, involved a knock on the door of a house: "Jehovah's Witnesses here. Do you believe in God?" To which the reply came: "No, I'm C of E". In July 1971, The Times predicted that the church would die out in 40 years - clearly wide of the mark. Analysis by the Bishop of Buckingham on Church attendance over Easter has shown that a similar proportion attended church in 1801, as compared with 1971. Just last week, as the census results were being released, the Church claimed that English cathedral congregations have actually grown in recent years.

This mixed and evolving landscape demonstrates that the narrative of a dying church is hysterical, and also that the Anglo-Jewish community can take strength from the resilience of a community with a deeper history in this country than its own. A resilience that seems proof against those who argue that the Church of England should be disestablished. The status quo of a state religion provides a protective cloak for minority religions. As David Cameron argued last year: "Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France. Why? Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too."

Meanwhile, as some Christian communities are stagnant or in decline, others are flourishing. The influx of eastern Europeans since the enlargement of the EU in 2004 has swelled the Catholic churches; a Christian Research report in 2007 claimed that regular Catholic worshippers overtook Anglicans the previous year. Meanwhile, the black Pentecostal Churches are thriving and reporting record attendances. Anglo-Jewry must think about consolidating links with the stalwarts of the Christian community but also about making new friends among other thriving church communities.

The results show that non-Christian minorities, especially the Muslim but also the Hindu and Sikh communities, have grown. The Muslim share of the population increased to 4.8 per cent. Evidence also shows that the Muslim community is much more religious than the average population. As far back as 2004, a survey showed that more Muslims than Anglicans were attending a place of worship at least once a week. The Muslim population of the UK has been boosted by immigration and also a higher birth-rate (as have other Asian communities); Mohammed is now one of the most popular boy's names.

Although not a concern when regarding the Muslim population at large, there are legitimate worries about radicalisation in pockets of the British Muslim community, not least because of the pernicious antisemitism that seems to accompany extremism. It is difficult to know how widespread it is - a leaked Whitehall document in 2005 estimated that "less than one per cent" of Muslims were engaged in terrorist activity (at the time this would still have amounted to up to 16,000 extremists). However fringe these groups are, concerns persist, meaning that Jewish-Muslim relations continue to be cautious and tricky.

More simple for the Jewish community is our relationship with the Hindu (1.5 per cent of the UK population) and Sikh communities (0.6 per cent), both of which comprise burgeoning, professional middle-classes and ambitious, educational philosophies.

Overall, the census shows a plural religious landscape. In total, 67.7 per cent of people said they belonged to a religious group (compared with 77.2 per cent in 2001). Of course, the census measures religious attachment and identification, not practical observance or belief. Yet clearly Britain is a multi-faith as well as multi-ethnic country. This does not mean that Britain is a religious country per se, merely one where faith remains a significant source of identity and social attachment.

Yet the rise in minority religions that are increasingly confident to assert their identity comes with dangers. The growth in "identity politics" can be traced back to the reaction of parts of the Muslim community to the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. The years since 9/11 have seen a number of instances of faiths expressing their identity - such as some in the Sikh community mobilising to ban the controversial play Behzti in 2004. The danger is that these "culture wars" reinforce a tendency for faith groups to operate like pressure groups, unable to see beyond their parochial interests.

The temptation to do this is great, but will undermine active citizenship and a commitment to the common good. As a minority in this country for hundreds of years, we can and must extol the virtues of a proud Jewish and British identity, hand-in-hand, and mutually reinforcing.

The sharp increase in those describing themselves as having no religion, upto 25 per cent, has been much discussed. While some of these are quiet atheists or agnostics, there is a noisy and growing group of aggressive secularists, typified by Richard Dawkins, who argues that belief in God is delusional. They would like to drive faith out of the public square, so that it becomes something that people do privately in their homes. This militant atheism might pose the greatest long-term threat to the Jewish (and any other faith) community, and we should mobilise our intellectual resources against this trend.

In addition to the data on religion, other census findings show profound social and demographic changes that will impact on the Jewish community, from a rise in the overall population to more mixed-race relationships and a jump in the number of rental properties.

Trends such as more people living alone, home ownership on the slide and a decline in marriages will all have an effect on our community. As the old chestnut has it, "Jews are just like everyone else - only more so."

So the census results provide plenty of food for thought. Our own numbers have broadly stayed the same, while the proportion of the wider population identifying with a religion has dropped though it still remains high, especially given how unenthusiastic Britain is about faith. In a Gallup poll in 2008, 36 per cent of Britons said that religion played an important part in their life, as opposed to 68 per cent in the US, 95 per cent in Pakistan and 99 per cent in Indonesia.

In broad terms, a country that has a high degree of religious identity, where people are comfortable displaying their religion in public, should be appreciated by our community and all those of faith. No doubt the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury would agree with this, as would the Prime Minister and the Mayor. Still, it was another distinguished leader of Jewish descent, Disraeli, who spoke of "lies, damned lies and statistics". Our community will be living with the trends demonstrated by the latest census results over many years to come.

Zaki Cooper is a trustee of the Council for Christians and Jews.

Last updated: 2:14pm, December 21 2012