By Lord Jon Mendelsohn, President, Commonwealth Jewish Council
Most people in Britain probably don’t give the Commonwealth a second thought. They might even be surprised it still exists, except for the Commonwealth Games.
But 53 heads of state recently gathered in Malta for what might be the Queen’s last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. They wouldn’t have missed it – and nor did the Commonwealth Jewish Council.
The Commonwealth is a big deal and has a huge amount of influence. It is the forum for the development of good relations and the attempt to maintain high standards in 53 countries. That’s more than a quarter of all the countries on the globe, and 2.2 billion people – nearly a third of the world’s population and about one fifth of global wealth.
But what has this got to do with the Jews?
Well, there are just short of a million Jews spread out over 33 countries of the Commonwealth. They range from the self-sufficient communities of Australia, Canada, South Africa and the UK to tiny island communities in, say, the Cayman Islands, or ancient and exotic communities such as India, small but vigorous communities like Gibraltar or little outposts of Jewish life in places like Lesotho.
The CJC was formed more than 30 years ago to help bring these communities together and mirror for them the sort of loose forum that the Commonwealth represents for their host nations.
The CJC did much good work, but during the last decade or so it faded and some wondered whether it had served its time. We asked around and, to our great pleasure, there was huge enthusiasm for keeping it going and rejuvenating it.
So we’ve brought on board the big communities of the Commonwealth. They have joined us as partners in a newly collaborative and shared CJC, which will get closer and therefore be more supportive to the various little outposts of Commonwealth Jewry.
Becoming president of the CJC has brought before me more and more clearly the remark- able stories and realities of Jews and communities round the world doing sterling work, maintaining shuls and facilities in places that would daunt many of us, and manifesting a vibrant and proud Jewish presence in some of the most surprising locations around the world.
Together with Clive Lawton [of Limmud fame and, for 10 years, lead columnist of The Jewish News], now chief executive of the CJC, we’ve identified three things that it can and needs to do.
First, we must enrich the potential network between the communities. For example, Canadian Jewry might not offer much of an insight into how to solve a problem for Jews of Jamaica, but they might be well placed to put Jamaica in touch with, say, the Seychelles which had faced and dealt with a similar problem.
Second, Commonwealth Jewish communities might find themselves with some troubling local campaign or proposed legislation. The CJC will be well placed to support them, remind their local governments that this community does not stand alone but has the Jews of the Commonwealth behind them. Also, we can share approaches, put them in touch with the right people with contacts and knowledge that no single, especially tiny, community can be expected to hold by itself.
Finally, Jews in the 21st century are increasingly emerging from our cocoon. In the 20th century, it was clever enough of us simply to have survived and, indeed, thrived. But now more and more initiatives are growing around the world where Jews are contributing to the upbuilding and improvement of their societies. Not only out of enlightened self-interest, but also because of the Jewish purpose and deep instinct to improve the world, we want to share and spread good practice and help all the Commonwealth communities become known in their local world as problem solvers, contributors to the greater good.
At our recent re-launch event at the House of Lords, it was gratifying to see how many High Commissioners wanted to join us. We heard an inspiring story of the building of the one and only synagogue in the Cayman Isles and were pleased to honour its builder, George Walton.
We also launch our new booklet, Shared Values: Common Causes, written by Clive Lawton, outlining what the CJC is about and why the highest aspirations of the Commonwealth gel so comfortably with Jewish values and teachings.
As migration picks up pace around the world, as right-wing parties seek to encourage people to close doors to others, stop inter-relationships, sow fear and suspicion, we are proud the CJC is one way of swimming against this tide, instead insisting what Jews have always known – that warm open relationships with those unlike ourselves is not only good for the Jews but good for the world.