Hidden threat of the credit crunch

By Antony Lerman, August 8, 2008

In these tough financial times we need to rediscover what ‘community' really means


Will the credit crunch have a negative impact on Jewish lifestyle choices? On the face of it, not much. The most recent data we have on the socio-economic profile of British Jews, from JPR's surveys and analysis of census data, shows them to be "a relatively affluent group of people with middle-class values and middle-class lifestyles". Although this evidence is about a decade old, nothing has slowed the "continued upward mobility of Jews and their entry into the highest employment echelons of the British work environment".

All this would appear to add up to a group with the time and disposable income to cope easily with the demands of fee-paying Jewish schools, synagogue membership, bar/batmitzvah and wedding celebrations and a high level of participation in Jewish leisure activities. A community well-cushioned to weather the storms.

And yet... While these characterisations of the socio-economic profile of the Jewish population are not untrue, they mask significant disparities. For example, there are probably upwards of 3,500 UK Jewish children living in poverty - and that was before the credit crunch. That's 4-6 per cent of Jewish children - a statistic that sits uncomfortably with images of overall affluence. The increased price of food and other household basics, as well as dramatically higher energy bills, will be having a major impact on Jewish lifestyle choices. And during the last year, more families will have undoubtedly slipped into poverty.

The vulnerability of the Jewish population is best illustrated by the fact that there are clear and striking differences within it - in housing, mobility, health, educational attainment, economic security, employment.
According to the 2001 census data, for example, in Hackney, 47 per cent were economically inactive; in Redbridge, 23 per cent were in administrative and secretarial occupations; in Westminster, 38 per cent were managers and senior officials. As in the wider society, there are vast differences between richest and poorest and it is obvious who will be struggling to buy the increasingly expensive kosher food, maintain synagogue membership, pay for simchahs, clothe their children for school, pay for private welfare and do all the varied things that make up a Jewish lifestyle.

This is not to say that the more affluent won't be affected too. Redundancies in the financial sector will hit some people very hard. The strain on families already experiencing tensions will increase. We know that many parents sending their children to private schools are finding it increasingly difficult to pay the fees.
With its extensive network of charitable and voluntary organisations, communal leaders may well believe that the Jewish community is well-placed to absorb and manage the impact of the credit crunch on communal life. But this demonstrates a dangerous level of complacency, a self-image at odds with reality.

Obsession with lists of the rich and powerful, uncritical promotion of celebrity culture, relentless emphasis on the threat of antisemitism and criticism of Israel as well as the high proportion of Jewish charitable funds leaving the country for Israel actually suggests a community ill-prepared for what many regard as the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Add too our narrow concept of "community" - the tendency to exclude rather than include; the picture some commentators paint of Jews as politically isolated; the failure to institute meaningful reform of outdated communal structures - and we appear mired in mental paralysis and the false attractions of short-term gratification. The creative and flexible response to growing Jewish diversity, which we should have been cultivating, is weak.

At this time many individuals and families will be asking themselves: What is really important to me? What do I truly value? What changes can we make which will stand us in good stead for the future?
What is needed is a communal stock-taking of this kind.

There has been a revival in cultural, educational and religious life; a flowering of concern about social action; growing interest in genealogy, history, memory. As well as ensuring that the elderly, those in poverty, the disadvantaged, the mentally ill are fully protected - areas where communal action is strong - this is the time when we should protect and nurture the content of Jewish life. If the credit crunch makes people value more highly such bedrock Jewish values and does not simply add one more layer of pessimism about the Jewish position in Britain, it could prove to be a useful corrective.

If true, it should lead to some fundamental rethinking of policy for the long term. For example, how could resources be redirected from the defensive agenda to promoting access for all to Jewish cultural events; from pouring money into Israeli universities to expanding creative educational opportunities for all; from European tours of the death camps to exchange trips for Jewish youth to develop relationships with young Jews in other communities and engender European Jewish cooperation? What could be done to transform an opaque and arbitrary philanthropic structure into one of greater openness and accountability?

If the credit crunch helps us see ourselves as we really are - something we have not been particularly good at in recent years - it could prompt much needed changes in communal thinking and planning which have been stymied by a damaging mix of fear and complacency.

Antony Lerman is Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

Last updated: 2:41pm, August 22 2008