When the Board of Deputies asked me to chair their commission on racial inclusivity within the community, I was immediately very concerned.
On the one hand, I worried I wasn’t black enough: I am mixed-race, and I have never experienced racism from within the community, only from outside.
On the other hand, I worried I wasn’t Jewish enough: as I am not observant.
When I think about my two identities, the racism I myself have experienced is when an antisemite sees the colour of my skin, and believes that I will share their repellent views, and I have to explain that, no, it’s worse than they think: I am in fact one of the terrible people who controls the media and the banks.
So why did I agree to chair the commission? Well, there’s a dull-but-important civic answer: I’ve always really wanted to do jury duty, because I regard it as an expression of our shared rights and obligations in a free society. While this is a much rarer and greater privilege to be asked to embark on, I think there’s an element of the same societal duty.
The second is that, while I was deeply anxious about my own ability to do the job properly, as a political journalist, I’ve been hugely impressed at the energy, dedication and good judgement I’ve seen the Board’s leadership display up close in recent years, navigating the difficult and painful challenge that recent developments in the Labour Party presented.
So I decided to ignore my own neuroses about my ability to do the job and to trust in their good instincts: both that the commission was needed and that I would be able to chair it.
The third and selfish reason is that, while I don’t know if my partner and I will decide to have children, if I do, I want them to be able to shape and decide what their Jewish heritage means to them freely — for it to be set by them, for them to feel free to participate fully in every part of their history, not to be constrained by their appearance. (Freely, that is, within the bounds of responsible parental guidance.)
Since then, I’ve been trying to consciously forget any assumptions or impressions I have about the task ahead. I’ve been astonished and moved by the almost uniformly kind and helpful reactions to my appointment, whether by email, text, or on social media. Both friends and complete strangers have shown incredible kindness in being both warm and trusting in telling me of their own experiences. I want to do justice to that kindness and openness by conducting this commission with an entirely open and clear mind, but a certainty of purpose.
Those messages have made it clear to me that while there are many stories, like mine, of uniformly positive experiences, there are also serious issues and concerns to be addressed. It is a common experience and unhappiness that, many people, whether they be an Ethiopian Jew, a Mizrahi Jew, a mixed-race Jew or a convert, have heard the words “well, you don’t look Jewish” which, at times, caused them embarrassment and pain, and at times have been a barrier to their full and active participation in community life.
I start with an entirely blank sheet of paper that I am looking forward to filling up with all these experiences, good and bad.
What I hope to have at the end of this six-month process of evidence-gathering and consultation is a series of concrete and fairminded proposals that can be clearly delivered and assessed over a period of years, that will act as a beginning, not an end. I can’t wait to get started.
Stephen Bush is Political Editor at the New Statesman