Jews have little problem with Prime Minister David Cameron defining Britain as a Christian country despite an outcry from some secularists.
In a pre-Easter article, Mr Cameron said that Britain should be more confident about its Christian status and that its religious character made it easier for Jews and Muslims to live here than in a secular society.
His comments led to strong denunciation from a group of more than 50 public figures, who in a letter to the Telegraph on Tuesday called them divisive and alienating. Former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris and human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman were among a number of Jewish signatories.
But their objections were mostly not shared by other Jews reacting to the debate this week.
Leading lawyer Lord Pannick said that Mr Cameron was “correct that this country, in culture and tradition, is Christian. And that is a virtue because the tolerant and understanding nature of Britain’s Christianity has meant that for the last century this country’s Jews, and other religious minorities, have enjoyed religious liberties recognised in very few other parts of the world.”
The tolerant nature of Christianity in the UK ensures religious liberties
Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman said that it was “neither controversial nor problematic to speak about the benefits of the UK being a Christian country, while acknowledging its multifaith aspect. Our main benchmark for success is that society remains open, inclusive and respectful of difference.”
He added that “those who want to make the UK a cold house to faith, to ban religious practices and even to shut religious voices out of the public debate, demonstrate a dogmatic intolerance that is deeply concerning.”
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi of the Reform movement, observed : “Even though only 10 per cent of British people go to church every week, the predominant messages, values and symbols in Britain are Christian - such as the Queen being the head of the Church. That is a very strong message for non-Christians.”
Mr Cameron had not suggested Britain was exclusively Christian, she stressed. “He said… it is also multicultural. We are lucky to live in a country where the dominant form of Christianity is as it is. In some parts of the worlds, it can be oppressive, but the form that we live among is a very tolerant, open Christianity. There are many Christianities, just like there are Judaisms.”
Ed Kessler, director of the interfaith Woolf Institute in Cambridge, noted that Britain was “both a Christian country and a multifaith society”.
While the 75 per cent of people who identified with a religion in the last British census was lower than the 88 per cent average in the rest of the world, he said, “it is still an impressive number. I’d rather live in a country that takes faith seriously than a country driven by secular ideology.”
One dissident voice was Julia Bard, a member of the national committee of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, who favoured separation of church and state.
“De facto, people are making a lot state institutions secular but I think there is a constant encroachment of not just church but other religious institutions into state institutions such as schools and universities,” she said.
“For people of all faiths and none to be equal, the state has to be seen to create a level playing field for everybody. The minute you have an established church, you privilege Christiniaty over other religions and people of no faith.”
Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Simon Johnson said: “As a Christian country, our government institutions have gone to tremendous lengths to support freedom of all those living here to practise their own faith.”
But he added that it was less important to decide whether Britain was a Christian or secular country than recognising its religious tolerance.
Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich said he did not mind Mr Cameron asserting the country’s Christian-based culture. “But equally there are values in a democratic secular state which take priority over religious ones, such as equality,” he stated.
“Britain is a tolerant country and the Church of England has in some centuries played a role in that tolerance – but not in all.”
Public relations company owner Shimon Cohen, who was aide to Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits, said that “David Cameron has done us all a great favour by reminding us of the UK’s Christian character. In the main, Jews have lived here peacefully and have flourished. If that is a result of the Christian notion of welcome and tolerance that the Prime Minister spoke about, then we should embrace that, work with it and be grateful for it.”
He recalled that Lord Jakobovits had opposed allowing shops to open on Sundays for fear of damaging the country’s spiritual character.
Maurice Ostro, vice chair of the Council of Christians and Jews said: "How to describe a country is always going to be complex. A 'Christian country' can be defined in a number of ways, ranging from cultural reference and ethos to having an established church. Regardless of how you define it, Christianity is certainly the predominant religion practiced throughout Britain. This is positive for people of all religions as it allows the voice of faith to be heard in public discourse. However, this does not guarantee an equal voice for all and still provides plenty of room for discrimination.
"Even in this country, history shows us that the relationship between a minority faith and majority can be fraught with difficulty. This is why interfaith organisations have such a crucial role to play in helping people appreciate the beauty of having diverse faith communities. Religion has a crucial role to play in society and we must work together to make sure it is positive for those of all faiths and none."