Community race report exposes bias and bigotry, but may be a ‘turning point’
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Community race report exposes bias and bigotry, but may be a ‘turning point’

The Board of Deputies’ commission into racial inclusivity in the UK’s Jewish community points fingers and issues recommendations.

The Board of Deputies’ commission into racial inclusivity in the UK’s Jewish community has issued recommendations that leaders say could act as a “turning point”.

Published today and led by Jewish journalist Stephen Bush, who identifies as mixed race, the commission’s report examines the experience of Jews of Ethiopian, African, Caribbean, Indian, Sephardi, Mizrahi or Yemenite heritage, as well as mixed-ethnic Jews and Britons from other ethnic minorities who have converted  to Judaism.

Witnesses told of walking into a kosher deli only to be told that the halal shop was next door, or of “traumatising” efforts by a Jew of colour to fly to Israel, but by far the biggest area of concern was that of security checks on doors.

One witness recalled being told that they were not Jewish by a synagogue’s non-Jewish guard. Another said they were told to join a different queue at a kosher wine event despite their name being on the list. Several said they were simply refused entry.

“I’d been invited to a barmitzvah, but  I wasn’t let in by the security guard,” recalled one. “He asked me questions about Judaism, about names, people… Even though I answered all the questions, he said: ‘We can’t let you in, you were hesitating.’ 

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“I left and started walking down the road, and the father of the barmitzvah boy had to leave the service, to chase me down the street and bring me into shul.”

The commission, launched and managed by the Board of Deputies, originated in a wave of anger as part of the global Black Lives Matter movement. It stemmed from the death in the US last year of unarmed black man George Floyd while being detained by white police officers. Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was this week convicted of Floyd’s murder.

Bush said his recommendations were designed to improve communal inclusivity so that “people of all backgrounds who have felt marginalised, left out or turned off from Jewish life” can return and engage. 

In one of his more striking pronouncements, he said the long-used and often derogatory  Yiddish term shvartzer (a black person) should be seen as a ‘racial slur’ and ‘explicitly racist’, with its use by English speakers reported as such. 

He also said racial profiling by security teams on the doors of Jewish buildings or events had to end immediately. The Community Security Trust (CST) strenuously denied that its guards use racial profiling, saying its checks are based on behaviour, not colour.

Although data from the National Census,  conducted last month, will give more precise and up-to-date figures, there are thought to be little more than 1,000 black British Jews, out  of Britain’s 280,000-strong Jewish population. 

By contrast, British Asian Jews make up around one percent of the total, while Britain’s mixed-ethnic Jews – the fastest growing group – number 4,200 people. 

Non-white/Ashkenazi Jews are “a minority within a minority”, Bush said, noting that  at the last Census 90 percent of British Jews  self-identified as ‘white’.

Key points out of the report

On the fraught issue of terminology, he reported misgivings about terms such as ‘black British Jews’ and ‘British Jews of colour’ but did not suggest anything to replace them. Instead, his advice was “to ask”.

In part, he said this was because in most areas “there was little consensus among our witnesses”, which he acknowledged as “the biggest surprise” of the process. One example he cited was whether Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews should be included in the scope.

Although Bush described some common themes and experiences across all witnesses, namely on security, he said that within each minority “there was no issue on which there was anything resembling unanimity”, making
prescriptions difficult.

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There was a misconception that Jews of colour were left-wing, with testimony evidencing this as a falsehood. One example mentioned in the report was Israel advocacy: some felt that communal leaders needed to criticise more, others felt that they should criticise less. 

Bush recommended that organisations encourage members of under-represented ethnic groups in the Jewish community to put themselves forward for communal roles, to do so soon, and to nominate someone to make sure this happens.

Teachers and editors in Jewish media were urged to increase content from and about under-represented Jews and depict Jews in all their visual variety. 

One young Mizrahi witness said that, when it came to children’s literature, the only time they saw people who looked like them was Pharoah and the Egyptians.

Schools could do more, and not just on the curriculum, Bush reported. “For members of the community whose families have arrived in the UK… their stories and history are all too often an afterthought in Jewish Studies lessons,” he said.

“As a result, children from these communities are often treated as exotic oddities. Some feel that when religious commandments and customs are discussed in Jewish schools, the Ashkenazi approach/framing is often taught as the default or only way.”

Schools have said they are working on it: JFS Year 7s learn about African history and Year 8s about the transatlantic slave trade, said its headteacher. Yet last year, hundreds of former JFS pupils wrote an open letter calling on the school to do more.

Other recommendations are provision of training and teaching resources, reviewing Jewish texts, and handling complaints of racism as per the Macpherson principles, which call for an investigation if behaviour is perceived as racist by the complainant.

Stephen Bush (right column, fourth down) holds a panel discussion while compiling his findings

Bush said he had set out to advise on “tangible, real-world improvements that can be made, some off-the-shelf things that people can do”, adding: “I think that is where the [public] mood has moved to in the period when we’ve been doing this report.”

Elsewhere, the Facebook group Jewish Britain was named and shamed after being cited by several witnesses as the source of “racist language”. Bush describes an arena of “anti-Muslim sentiment” and racially charged comments in relation to Black Lives Matter”, which the commission found “deeply disturbing”.

Asked about his ruling on the word shvartzer, Bush said: “For some people in our community, that is just their word for black that they are using in their own language [Yiddish] in a perfectly respectful way, in the same way that some might use the word ‘Yid’ to describe each other.”

Likewise, he said, others use the word “in a way that is deliberately provocative and insulting”, adding: “Our witnesses aren’t stupid. They’re correctly picking up on a difference in context.”

 

 

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