The man leading the UK Jewish community’s internal review of the black-Jewish experience has said he wondered whether he was “black or Jewish enough” for it when first asked.
Stephen Bush, the New Statesman’s political editor who has both black and Jewish family heritage, is charged with overseeing the community’s historic Commission on Racial Inclusivity, but told Jewish News this week that he had some reservations.
The commission, which will hear evidence from black British Jews about their experiences in the community, was set up in wake of the death of George Floyd in the US, and ensuing anti-racism protests which have swept the globe.
Admitting to “some trepidation” about the size of the task, he said he asked himself: “Am I black enough to do this? Am I Jewish enough?”
Asked about marginalisation and racism in the community, he said: “It’s never really been an experience I’ve had, because although I am black, the other Jewish bits of my family all ‘look’ Jewish. I’ve never turned up to a synagogue as part of a black family. I suspect that might be a different experience.”
I’ve never turned up to a synagogue as part of a black family. I suspect that might be a different experience
Bush will speak to black Jews and Jews of colour as well as to Jewish religious and communal institutions to understand the extent to which racism is experienced by black Jews and what changes may be made to improve the situation.
“My underlying assumption is that the people who will feel more marginalised will be those who are at a more complex intersection in terms of what being Jewish means to them,” he said.
Having no direct experience of racism would be “helpful in terms of the project,” he said, explaining how he was now aiming to “consciously unlearn everything I think I know” about the issue, in order to approach it with an open mind.
Explaining how he wanted the outcome of the six-month project to be first and foremost useful, he said: “I want a serious set of recommendations that can be helpful to the community in all its hues, from secular non-observant people like me, to those for whom the religious aspect is very central.”
My underlying assumption is that the people who will feel more marginalised will be those who are at a more complex intersection in terms of what being Jewish means to them
Announcing the commission on Monday, the Board of Deputies it was hearing anecdotal evidence of black Jews “being stared at in synagogues, asked probing questions or being given a hard time by security at communal buildings”.
It further added that black Jews “face racism in Jewish schools, a lack of racial diversity in Jewish leadership positions and even heart-breaking prejudice in the context of seeking another Jewish partner”.
Bush said one avenue to explore would be “what it’s like not to ‘look Jewish’ and how that shapes how you interact with the community,” adding: “One thing that hasn’t surprised me is people talking about difficulties they’ve had with shul security.”
Acknowledging genuine concerns around shul security, he said: “It is not analogous to when a police officer has stopped me on my way to work or whatever, because there isn’t a legitimate fear at play there.
“However, there is a legitimate fear about people who others don’t recognise, turning up to schools or places of worship. I think that’s going to be the big commonality and problem – when you don’t ‘look Jewish.’”