Today marks Windrush Day, and 72 years since the ship MV Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing passengers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands to Britain, many of them children.
Many more continued coming to Britain until 1971, each of them showing such bravery in travelling thousands of miles from home, at Britain’s invitation in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The Windrush generation and their children have made an enormous contribution to British society. They helped rebuild a country that had been devastated by the war. Some, like Keith Shaw, helped set up housing associations to provide affordable homes to those in need. Others made their mark on politics, like Sam Beaver King MBE, the first black mayor of Southwark, who was a passenger on the 1948 Empire Windrush sailing.
And, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be foolish not to recognise the contribution of the Windrush migrants to our NHS. Despite the systemic and widespread racism they faced, those nurses of the Windrush generation were a critical part of the establishment of the then-fledgling NHS.
We know that black workers still bear the brunt of Britain’s healthcare needs. This was brought into sharp focus this year, when it was revealed that 61 per cent of healthcare workers who had died due to Covid-19 were from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
It is clear that Britain owes these people a great debt. But, in the wake of the Windrush scandal, it is also clear that Britain has not afforded these citizens the respect they so greatly deserve. So it was only right that the government have apologised for the appalling treatment they received.
The Jewish community must play its part as well. After the cold-blooded, racist murder of George Floyd, I and many other Jewish leaders have spoken out about this injustice.
But I recognise that, while the outpouring of solidarity with the black community from many Jewish institutions has been heartening, this must now be matched by a willingness in the community to learn and strive to become a more welcoming environment for its own black members.
With that in mind, we have launched the Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community, which will invite black British Jews and other Jews of colour to come forward and give evidence about their experiences in the community – good and bad.
The commission and its chair will spend several months listening and learning from black Jews’ experiences, and developing recommendations for change. But, in the meantime, there is some urgent work we can already begin.
I have heard some people say that the Jewish community should keep away from the Black Lives Matter movement. I’d like to make my position on this absolutely clear.
First, to those who respond with “all lives matter”: The recent protests that started in America were born out of the fact that there is clear and systemic racism against black people. Indeed, the phrase "Black lives matter" was never intended to suggest that "other lives do not matter", as some have disingenuously suggested. It was a response to racism, which saw black people being the particular targets of regular police brutality.
Responding to this with 'all lives matter' is dismissive, it detracts from black people's concerns, and belittles their call for equality. We don’t stand for it when our complaints about antisemitism are belittled with “all forms of racism are bad”. And we Jews shouldn’t engage in such ‘whataboutery’ when it comes to the racism faced by black people.
Second, there are certainly legitimate concerns about antisemitic vandalism, which has been carried out by a small number of Black Lives Matter supporters, or support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Of course, the Board of Deputies completely condemns antisemitic vandalism; it is depraved and illegal. And I have always been clear in my opposition to BDS, which must be combatted. But Jews have only two choices in how we respond to these protests for black lives.
On the one hand, some would wish that we condemn these protest movements as antisemitic in their entirety and join the “all lives matter” activists, many of whom are flirting or fully engaged with far-right ideology, including antisemitism.
Or we can make it clear that we understand the injustice which underpins these protests, while still calling out antisemitism when it emerges. As President of the Board of Deputies, I say that this is the path we must take.
So, this Windrush Day, I want the message to go out, loud and clear: The Jewish community in Britain will be an ally to our black neighbours. We will make our own spaces more welcoming to black Jews and Jews of colour. We will stand with you in opposing racism. And, today, we will stand with you to celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation.
Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies