Exclusive: Ethnicity option on next census could show 400,000 Jews in UK
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Exclusive: Ethnicity option on next census could show 400,000 Jews in UK

Community leaders have expressed concerns over the move, proposed by the Office of National Statistics

Being Jewish could be a tick-box option under ‘Ethnicity’ in the next national census, in a move that would see the official number of Jews in England and Wales increase dramatically.

The Office of National Statistics this week confirmed a decision on whether to recommend this addition in 2021 will be taken in the next two months, now a consultation has finished, but Jewish leaders have expressed concerns over the move.

If the recommendation is adopted by the government, 2021 would mark the first time Jews can register themselves as ‘Jewish’ outside the census question on ‘Religion.’

For non-religious Jews who have previously avoided answering ‘Jewish’ under that question, this could be the first time they feel able to register as ‘Jewish’ in the census, which may mean that the overall number of Jews in England and Wales increases. There are separate census questions for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The 2011 data showed that there were 269,000 Jews in the UK, but Canadian research that has shown that 27.6 percent more people think of themselves as ‘ethnically Jewish’ than ‘religiously Jewish,’ and research in Scotland has shown that the number may rise by as much as 64 percent.

If that was applied across England and Wales, the addition of the ‘Jewish’ ethnicity option could mean the next census shows more than 400,000 Jews in the UK.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said: “We are pleased that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) is evaluating the effect of including a Jewish ‘tick box’ within the ethnic group question for Census 2021.”

The addition of a ‘Jewish’ option under ‘Ethnicity’ was debated back in 2006, before the 2011 census, when it was considered for addition alongside others such as Asian, African, Sikh, Kashmiri and Cornish.

However, while Jewish communal figures are keen to know whether the additional option increases the overall number of Jews in the UK, they are reluctant to change the census formula because of the negative effect on data comparability.

The subject has been discussed at length in recent weeks between senior officers at the Board of Deputies and Jewish sociologists and analysts at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), who now favour maintaining the status quo.

The Board of Deputies, JPR and Ephraim Borowski from SCoJeC have been  consulted by ONS.

Jewish leaders north of the border have argued for ‘Jewish’ to be included in Ethnicity, in order to capture thousands of “missing Jews”

“There is certainly an argument for including Judaism under both the ‘religion’ and ‘ethnicity’ questions, as different Jews affiliate differently,” said a Board spokesman. “However, having had two censuses which only asked about Jewish affiliation by religion, we would be concerned that changing the question now might lead to a wild swing in numbers with people answering the census in very different ways to previously, making it very difficult to compare this with earlier results.

“Being unable to compare the data would be a major setback to communal planning, so we have recommended against Judaism being included in the ethnicity question in the 2021 census. This is a matter which we will keep under review.”

The preference for ‘Jewish’ not to be included as an ethnicity option represents a U-turn from the Board.

In 2007, the organisation told the ONS: “The categories strongly suggest that ethnicity is only a matter of race and nationality, but for Jews, normative ethnicity is related to ancestry and peoplehood.

“It is likely that a majority of these people would consider themselves ethnically but not religiously Jewish – a label that in the eyes of many Jews relates to religious practice and not belonging.”

Ethnic group data has been collected in the census since 1991, with data used for resource allocation by central and local government, and to inform policy development.

Jewish representatives in Scotland have been more open to including ‘Jewish’ as an ethnicity option, and said the wording of the religion question in the Scottish census “may also have discouraged some people from ticking ‘Jewish’.”

In Scotland, people are asked ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ whereas in England and Wales they are asked: ‘What is your religion?’

The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) said: “Our concern is that in most of Scotland there simply is no local Jewish community to ‘belong to.’ So even committed Jews would have to say they don’t ‘belong to’ any ‘religious body’.”

SCoJeC president Ephraim Borowski said: “The question of these potentially ‘missing’ people is not just theoretical. Current census figures exclude those who, for whatever reason, did not respond that they are Jewish, thus provide only a reliable minimum estimate of the true number.”

The ONS’s new census  plans will be published by the government later this year.

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