Jewish ‘ethnicity’ split for next census
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Jewish ‘ethnicity’ split for next census

Exclusive: 2021 survey for England and Wales will not include a 'Jewish' option under ethnicity

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Jewish ‘ethnicity’ is set to be defined differently in England and Scotland for the next national census.

The 2021 survey for England and Wales will not include a ‘Jewish’ option under the ethnicity question because English Jews feel it evokes a “history of discrimination and persecution” suffered under the Nazis.

As part of a government-backed consultation, focus groups in London and Manchester last year showed Jews “prefer to have a ‘Jewish’ option only in the religion question”, but Scottish Jewish leaders have said they were now advocating for its inclusion under ethnicity as well.

The announcement from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) dashes the hopes of those who think the true number of Jews in England and Wales may be tens of thousands more than currently assumed.

Ahead of the next census in 2021, a Jewish option under ethnicity had been on the table, but in a newly-published White Paper the ONS said there was “a strong consensus” against it.

The only specific ‘Jewish’ option on the census for England and Wales now comes under religion, but this does not allow for Jews who consider themselves Jewish by heritage and birth yet choose to follow a different religion, or for non-religious Jews who prefer to list themselves as ‘atheist’ instead.

The ONS said non-religious Jews “would still be likely to record themselves as Jewish under religion as this is how they were accustomed to communicating their identity”.

The 2011 census recorded 269,000 Jews in England and Wales, but Canadian research suggests 27.6 percent more people think of themselves as ‘ethnically Jewish’ than ‘religiously Jewish’, and Scottish research has shown this to be as high as 64 percent If applied across England and Wales, the addition of the ‘Jewish’ ethnicity option could mean more than 400,000 people identify as Jewish in the UK.

The ONS said there is still the option to record Jewish identity by hand in the ‘other’ box, but said there was no appetite for extending this provision under the ethnicity question.

“This recommendation follows focus group testing through an external research agency on the ethnic group question,” it said. “There was a strong consensus that a specific Jewish response option is unacceptable, irrespective of placement.”

Last April, an external agency was recruited to conduct focus group testing to “assess the acceptability of the addition of Jewish, Sikh, Somali and Roma options to the ethnic group question”. Researchers said 55 Jews from London and Manchester took part in the exercise but saw the inclusion of a ‘Jewish’ option under ethnicity “as a negative attempt to single out the Jewish population”.

They added responses “were framed by collective history of discrimination, where references to Jewishness as an ethnicity evoked comparisons to the discrimination and persecution suffered by Jewish people over the last century”.

Researchers said participants “spoke about the racialisation of the Jewish religion and how any reference to singling out or segregating Jewish participants evoked comparisons to Nazi Germany.

“This was deemed to be particularly problematic when made explicit on official government forms, and raised concerns about why the state was exclusively pronouncing Jewish as an ethnicity.”

The ONS consulted the Board of Deputies and the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR), the two organisations having entered into a formal alliance in 2015. The Board and JPR felt changes in the way Jews self-identify could cause concerns around continuity of data. This, they said, was leaving policy planners “unable to tell if changes to resulting data are due to a genuine population change or the change in approach”.

The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) has taken a different approach, however, and last week said it was advising National Records of Scotland (NRS) to add ‘Jewish’ as an option under ethnicity.

“We believe this is important,” SCoJeC said in a mailshot to Scottish Jews. “We know from research after previous censuses that around one in three people who identify as Jewish, and may therefore wish to use culturally specific communal welfare and social facilities, did not tick ‘Jewish’ under the religion question…

“We have argued for including the option under ethnicity as well, to ensure everyone who identifies as Jewish in any way is able to do so.”

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