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Not lies but damned statistics

November 24, 2016 23:19

Here's an anniversary no one appears to be celebrating: 50 years ago, the Board of Deputies established a "Statistical and Demographic Research Unit." You've never heard of it? That's hardly surprising, because it no longer exists. But the announcement earlier this month that the Board has signed an agreement with the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), so enabling JPR to gather and interpret demographic data that the Jewish communities of the UK need for planning purposes (including births, marriages and deaths, synagogue membership and school enrolment) is welcome in itself but also a reminder that the Board once carried out these investigations in-house.

The decision to establish a statistical and demographic research unit was controversial at the time. To the arguments of religious zealots - that one should not count Jews - were added concerns of those who genuinely feared that the collection of such demographic data might be abused by a future British Nazi government for sinister purposes. At that time - 1965 - the Holocaust was still fresh in everyone's mind. It is a tribute to the tenacity, courage and patience of those who championed the idea of a demographic unit that they acknowledged these preoccupations and neither belittled nor ridiculed those who voiced them. But it then ran into more serious problems.

In 1950, the Jewish Year Book had estimated there were 450,000 Jews then living in the UK. Now it is just possible - bearing in mind the presence in Britain of Jewish refugees who would soon leave for Israel or the US - that this approximation was more or less credible. But for too many years thereafter the overall figure of 450,000 was unthinkingly accepted by communal spokespersons, some of whom were known to further inflate it and to talk about "half a million" (and sometimes even "more than half a million") British Jews. Those of us in the know realised there was a need to take account of multiple synagogue memberships and that it was most unwise to accept at face value the returns provided by synagogues, the obsequious but no doubt well-meaning managements of which were known to use artificially inflated returns for sundry ulterior purposes, such as representation at the Board of Deputies. So we in the know hoped that the establishment of the Statistical and Demographic Unit would put paid to this nonsense.

Initially, all went well. The Board's research officer (Marlena Schmool) and its honorary consultant (the late professor Sigbert Prais) set to work and in due course revised the year book figure downwards to 410,000. In the 1980s, the unit's first executive director, Dr Barry Kosmin, undertook a fundamental reassessment of the size of British Jewry and argued that its overall size at that time was of the order of 354,000, and perhaps as low as 330,000.

All hell broke loose. That is to say, communal politics of a particularly nasty variety intervened. At the Board's executive (then chaired by Greville Janner), the argument was actually advanced, seriously, that the status and influence of the Deputies depended absolutely upon the alleged size of the community they claimed to represent.

Such blatant interference with scholars' work must not happen

The academic rigour of Kosmin's computation was strong enough to withstand this onslaught. With bad grace, the Board's leadership accepted the findings and published them. But at a price.

Undervalued and generally unloved by the community it served, the research unit was therefore consistently under-funded, and was eventually wound up. Kosmin himself sought preferment in the US. But his considered judgment, that British Jewry in the mid-1980s comprised no more than about 330,000 persons (the figure today is roughly 284,000), was generally accepted.

Such blatant political interference with the work of those expert scholars who collect and analyse communal data on our behalf must never happen again. The recent agreement between the Board and JPR comes, therefore, as a welcome reassurance that it won't.

November 24, 2016 23:19

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