A community of contradictions

By David Newman, September 11, 2008
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After 25 years in Israel, a former Brit evaluates Anglo-Jewry

 

It is a question I have been continually asked during the past two years. Around the Shabbat lunch table, or at a reception after a lecture, there is always someone who will ask me, "Tell us how you think the Anglo Jewish community has changed in the past 25 years."

After all, I grew up in the heart of this community, with a family who were clergy, lay leaders and volunteers, while I was actively involved in Jewish youth groups, day schools and other social activities. And during the past two years as a sabbatical scholar on leave from my home university in Israel, some 25 years after I left, I have been active within the community - as an attendee at a local synagogue, as a lecturer at many educational events, and as representative of Israel's universities in the struggle against the attempted academic boycott.

It is not as though my 25 years away were spent in total isolation from the community. I have been kept informed by constant visits, reading the pages (and latterly the Web version) of this newspaper and maintaining contact with friends and family in the UK, many of whom have moved from the status of rebellious 1970s students to community leaders.

But coming back to live for an intensive period of two years was different. It allowed me to be both an insider, someone who intimately knows the community and its personalities, but equally an outsider, whose primary loyalties and attachments are to Israel. I viewed Anglo-Jewry as a diaspora community, one amongst many, with its own peculiarities and idiosyncracies. These often seem quite strange to visiting Israelis who do not have any prior knowledge of minhag Anglia - the social and cultural modes of behaviour which are particular to the UK.

In some respects the community hasn't changed at all. It has as many institutions (if not more) than it did 25 years ago, proving the truth of that famous Jewish joke that where there are two Jews, there are three opinions and four institutions. The intra-community intrigues and one-upmanships are pretty similar to those of a quarter century ago (and, I suppose 100 years ago), albeit without the formality of top hats and rigid rules and regulations. Anglo-Jewry still hasn't got rid of its theological hang-ups, not least the bitter divisions which emerged as a result of the Jacobs affair in the 1960s. This despite the fact that, unlike North America, this is a small and dwindling community which can ill afford to continue the internal lack of mutual recognition which one faction gives to the other, as though one group is a more legitimate representative of Anglo-Jewry than any other.

But the community has changed in many other respects. Any post-war demographic growth has stopped, as rates of intermarriage have increased (or have finally been recognised for what they always were); the provincial communities have all but ceased to function in anything more than single synagogues where there used to be three or four, while the young and the affiliated migrate to London, Manchester or Israel.
The remaining community has become more polarised, with a rapidly growing Charedi community now numbering some 45,000 people; a growing left-of-centre liberal, secular community with strong Jewish cultural affiliations; and a more dynamic (albeit demographically smaller) centre-of-the-road community which constitutes the establishment and is represented by such organisations as the United Synagogue and the Board of Deputies.

Walking around Salford or Stamford Hill today is to walk around a smaller version of Meah Shearim or Williamsburg, NY, whereas 25 years ago the British Charedi community was small in number and much less obvious in its outward appearance and self-assurance. It is a community within a community, operating independently, largely unseen by the mainstream community, but whose social dynamism and political power (at the local level) is growing in tandem with a frightening increase in poverty levels brought on by its commitment to study as the supreme fulfilment of its life aspirations.

The most impressive change, in my eyes however, is the thirst for knowledge that exists throughout the community today, a thirst which I do not recall as a teenager. Whether it be the impressive Limmud, the evening learning centres at many of the synagogues and cultural centres, or the morning post-prayer study groups which "start the day the Torah way", the adult community appear to be expending far greater energy and resources on the ultimate Jewish experience - study for the sake of study. Study programmes are diverse in content, varied in quality and innovative in experience, but there seems to be something for almost everyone and the trend appears to be spurred on by a grassroots demand which was not apparent 25 years ago.

Limmud is, of course, a unique event. Where else will over 100 people turn up on a cold Boxing Day morning at 8.30, on a windswept university campus in the middle of nowhere, to hear a lecture on Jewish prayer, Israeli politics or the changing sociology of European Jewry, as an alternative to the day's premier league soccer?

The week-long experience of over 3,000 participants, truly representing all sectors of the community, from secular to Orthodox, from young to old (and even ancient) and displaying a level of intra-community tolerance and mutual recognition, is nothing short of a local Jewish miracle.

The fact that Limmud has retained its independence from the community establishment is an important factor in its success. And the fact that members of communities, some of whose religious leaders have deemed it beyond the pale, attend in their masses, says something for the independence of thought and the desire for knowledge which is so characteristic of this week-long experience. The losers in the Limmud game are those potential leaders and teachers who do not attend and are therefore unable to teach their own Torah and experiences to hundreds of potential listeners, with whom they would not otherwise come into contact.

And then there are the numerous lectures and study sessions which take place at the synagogues and cultural centres. When I have been approached to give a series of lectures at any of these locations, I usually respond by telling the organisers that I will be speaking on similar topics just a few days later at a location not far away. The response is invariably that they all have their own distinct constituencies and that there will be an audience regardless. Initially sceptical, I have been proved wrong as groups of students come out in the evening, after a long day's work, willing to hear, discuss, disagree and argue, but all with a common purpose of widening the breadth of their knowledge.

The significant growth in the number of Jewish day schools which has taken place during the past two decades is partially responsible for this increase in demand. Young adults leaving Jewish day schools are sufficiently enthused and turned on by matters Jewish (however broadly defined) to want to know more.

Many parents who did not attend Jewish day schools, but whose children do attend them, are constantly challenged by their children and desire to overcome their self-perceived lack of education and their inability to provide answers, by coming out to learn and to study. And in a world in which it has become "in" to be part of a multicultural society, rather than to hide oneself away in an attempt at proving one's integration and conforming to a uniform standard of Britishness, it is now more acceptable to spend time openly learning about things Jewish.

Ironically however, while there is a demand for learning and knowledge, the community remains bereft of world-class scholarship in matters Jewish. There has been no major British Jewish historian since the days of Cecil Roth. The notable theological scholars and philosophers, such as the present and immediate past Chief Rabbis, as well as the Chief Rabbi that never was, are the exceptions rather than the rule.

The centres of Jewish Studies at Oxford (Yarnton), Manchester and the University of London are characterised by moderate scholarship, largely unknown beyond the shores of the British Isles, let alone within the community itself. North American and Israeli institutions and scholars have left Anglo (and European) Jewish scholarship a long way behind. It is therefore surprising, albeit refreshingly surprising, that readers of the JC should have voted Louis Jacobs as the most significant Anglo Jewish figure of the 20th century, despite the fact that the attribute he signified more than any other was scholarship par excellence, regardless of whether one agreed or disagreed with his particular theological orientations.

And then there is Israel. The Anglo-Jewish community has always been a strong supporter of Israel. This is best characterised not by the philanthropy or the lobbying, but by the fact that over 10 per cent of the Anglo Jewish community have gone to live in Israel during the past 50 years. While the absolute numbers may not be so large (approximately 35,000), it is the highest percentage of any diaspora community which is not faced by persecution or poverty.

A growing number of the community now have second homes in Jerusalem, Netanya and Herzliya instead of Bournemouth and Brighton. Anyone flying out of Heathrow on a Thursday evening can attest to the large number of weekly and fortnightly commuters who have relocated their families to Israel, but continue to work in the UK on a regular basis, something which would have been looked on aghast just 20 years ago.

In its self-assuredness, the Anglo-Jewish community is more prepared to state its case, to come out openly against what it sees (rightly or wrongly) as imbalanced media coverage of the Middle East and to openly fight attempts at an academic boycott or a growing criticism of Israel amongst academic and intellectual circles. It is also prepared to create overt political lobbies in favour of, or against, those politicians who are not seen as representing the interests of the Jewish community and, by association, Israel.

Here too, there is an irony. On the one hand the establishment Jewish community has become more intransigent and neo-con in its defence of Israel, in an attempt to ape the activities and messages emanating from North America and the powerful Israel lobby, Aipac. But the British equivalent, Bicom, is no Aipac, and is fairly ineffective and lacking in knowledge in its attempt to create a political lobby or to increase understanding of Israel amongst the broader English community.

In some senses, the Anglo Jewish community (like its American counterpart) operates in a political vacuum, using messages which were common 15 years ago, but which have been left behind by Israel itself as it attempts to move ever closer to the implementation of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The opposition displayed by some sectors of the community to hosting leading Palestinian politician Saeb Erakat at last year's Limmud, was laughable given that he, along with a host of Palestinian politicians, diplomats and academics, meet with their Israeli counterparts on an almost daily basis, often in their homes in the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

At the same time, there is a growing lobby of the pro-Israel left, groups who believe inherently in its right to exist as a sovereign and independent state, but who are equally critical of many of the policies adopted by the Israeli governments, especially as it relates to the Occupied Territories and the status of the Palestinians. Today in the UK, there is a strong branch of the New Israel Fund, the Abraham Foundation, British Friends of Peace Now and a host of other synagogues and organisations who promote and support liberal causes in Israel, just as there has always been a host of organisations which (equally legitimately) support West Bank and settler causes on the right of the political spectrum.

It is a diverse and rich support of Israel, but not sufficiently recognised by the community leadership or, for that matter, by a proactive Israeli embassy. It is a support which could be more effectively harnessed and made relevant to a younger generation of global adults, for whom Israel is a given, but for whom Israel is far from perfect.

All in all, I have witnessed a vibrant, but increasingly polarised community; demographically stagnant, but thirsting for knowledge and learning; supportive of Israel, but increasingly critical of policies with which it does not agree (be they of the right or the left). It is a dynamic and self-assured community, for whom the challenge of increasing antisemitism can be dealt with effectively if only it would move beyond the internal institutional barriers which divide synagogue organisations and community factionalism. But that, my friends, is something that only the coming of the Messiah will ever resolve.

David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University in Israel. He left the UK for Israel in 1982, and has spent the past two years as a visiting professor at the universities of Bristol and London, and as the representative of Israel's universities in the fight against the academic boycott

    Last updated: 2:12pm, September 11 2008

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