The Year In Review: Jewish Life in Britain in 2013

The Year In Review: Jewish Life in Britain in 2013

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Justin Cohen takes a look back at 2013, a year of farewells to inspirational leaders and warm welcomes to new ones [divider]


The year began with the first of many controversies surrounding Liberal Democrat politician David Ward. The Bradford East MP was censured by his party after accusing “the Jews” of inflicting atrocities on the Palestinians. The accusation came ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day. Meanwhile, the Sunday Times’ publication, on HMD, of a blood-splattered cartoon depicting Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall on top of Palestinians attracted a storm of protest. Rupert Murdoch publically apologised and, after a meeting with community leaders, so did the paper’s acting editor. Following weeks of public debate and one of the best-attended plenary sessions for years, a Board of Deputies project with Oxfam to tackle hunger got the green light, despite the ongoing concerns of some people over the charity’s positions on Israel. Elsewhere, tributes were paid to film director Michael Winner who was buried at Willesden Cemetery.[divider]


Ward’s statement about “the Jews” remained on his website more than a week after it made headlines. Challenged repeatedly by the Jewish News on when it would be removed, the MP instead asked whether he could repeat the criticism using the term “Jewish community” instead –leading party bosses to reopen the disciplinary process. Another politician to provoke anger was neighbouring Bradford West MP George Galloway, who walked out of a debate at Oxford University after discovering his opponent was Israeli. In other news, the Zionist Federation rejected Yachad’s application to join the organisation and a strikingly candid Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander was quizzed at a Jewish Leadership Council–Jewish News event. From Hampstead to Hollywood, meanwhile, British producer Simon Chinn celebrated his second ‘Best Documentary Oscar’ for Searching For Sugar Man.[divider]


Academic Ronnie Fraser lost his harassment case against the University and College Union –which previously backed a boycott of Israeli institutions and rejected a widely-accepted definition of anti-Semitism. Regretting the case was ever brought, the employment tribunal concluded Fraser’s claim that, as a Jew, he suffered harassment as a result of the union’s activities, were “manifestly unmeritorious”.
Elsewhere, in an exclusive interview with the Jewish News, new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke of his excitement at discovering Jewish relatives, including a rabbi cousin, and revealed plans to visit Israel. In politics, Ed Miliband took the hotseat for a Board of DeputiesJewish News Q&A event. The Labour leader spoke of his personal debt to Israel for giving sanctuary to his grandmother and of his zero tolerance approach to boycotts. But, amid considerable media interest and Twitter chatter, party sources refuted suggestions he’d described himself as a Zionist. In other news, this newspaper profiled London’s only kosher soup kitchen, Beit Hatabshil in Hendon.[divider]


Britains longest-serving prime minister Margaret Thatcher was remembered as a “staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people” following her death aged 87. Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky joined the Queen and more than 2,000 others for the former Finchley MP’s funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, but Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner stayed away because of her personal opposition to the Iron Lady’s policies. Betina Nokleby, the daughter of Edith Muhlbauer, an Austrian refugee from Nazism given refuge by Thatcher’s family, also paid a moving tribute after being tracked down by the Jewish News. After their inspiring Spit4Mum campaign attracted community members to sign up to the bone marrow registry in record numbers, the family of grandmother Sharon Berger hailed the discovery of a potentially life-saving match. Elsewhere, a new chapter was written in United Synagogue history with the election of its first female shul chair, Karen Appleby, in St Albans.[divider]


Jewish leaders joined representatives of other faiths in expressing disgust at the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich and pledging to redouble efforts to increase understanding between groups. The head of British Muslim charity Faith Matters, meanwhile, thanked Anglo-Jewry for its solidarity amid a huge increase in Islamophic incidents after the killing. On the communal scene, Jackie Gryn, the widow of late Reform leader Rabbi Hugo Gryn, sought to draw a line under the 16-year controversy surrounding Lord Sacks’ absence from her husband’s funeral with an open letter in which she insisted she never felt any grievance towards the Chief Rabbi. Elsewhere, it emerged that the potential for a merger between the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council was being explored. Unrelated to the ongoing discussions, May also saw the sudden departure of Board CEO Jon Benjamin after eight years. Meanwhile, in a decision branded “misguided” by community leaders, physicist Stephen Hawking withdrew from a prestigious conference in Israel in support of the academic boycott. In politics, Lord Ahmed resigned from the Labour Party ahead of a hearing over reports he blamed Jewish-owned media for his dangerous driving jail term. He earlier apologised and insisted he was not anti-Semitic.[divider]


In the biggest show of support for the Jewish state in London for five years, thousands took part in the Closer to Israel celebrations marking the country’s 65th birthday. Around 2,000 people on colourful floats and on foot joined a parade to Trafalgar Square, where flag-waving revellers heard from speakers including Education Secretary Michael Gove. At a glittering tribute dinner celebrating the Chief Rabbi’s 22 years of service, the Prince of Wales paid glowing tribute to “steadfast friend” Lord Sacks for “keeping alive the importance of faith in an increasingly godless age”. The past four British premiers and their Archbishops of Canterbury also lined up to hail the outgoing chief’s contribution to community and country. In a landmark address, Lord Sacks warned that parts of the ultra-Orthodox community “segregating itself from the world”, together with growing inter-marriage presented a “global danger” for world Jewry. Earlier the same day, the heir to the throne hosted refugees who fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport as part of a year of events marking the 75th anniversary of the life-saving operation. Yavneh College and the wider Jewish educational establishment were plunged into mourning with the sudden death of the school’s founding headteacher Dr Dena Coleman. Described as “one of the truly great Jewish educators of her time”, the 60-year-old was hospitalised days earlier with suspected meningococcal disease. Elsewhere, former shadow minister Patrick Mercer apologised unreservedly in a phone call to the Jewish News after being caught on camera branding an Israeli soldier a “bloody Jew”.[divider]


Jews around the world wished new parents William and Kate a hearty mazeltov on the birth of Prince George, but there was no word on whether the future king would follow other royals in being circumcised. The British Government, meanwhile, was praised by community leaders for taking a leading stand after EU states finally decided to proscribe the military wing of Hezbollah. In the UK, Michael Gove shelved plans to only allow primary schools to teach certain languages as part of the national curriculum, something the Board of Deputies had warned would make it difficult to find time to teach Hebrew in Jewish schools. In politics, the Lib Dems finally suspended David Ward – albeit just for the summer – after he asked how long “apartheid” Israel could exist. Elsewhere, in the month that Boris Johnson revealed his hopes of leading a trade delegation to Israel, the London Mayor was forced to intervene after it appeared a Transport for London sponsorship deal with Emirates for the Thames cable car effectively barred commercial involvement of Israeli companies in the venture. Emirates later agreed to remove the clause.[divider]


The country may have been in holiday mode, but many in the community were not relaxed about the handling of the creation of the All-Parliamentary Parliamentary Group on British Jews. There was bewilderment that key communal organisations and politicians were not consulted by the Board of Deputies, which insisted the group would not overlap work already carried out by others. Amid heightened national focus on abusive Twitter messages, the sickening extent of anti-Semitism on the micro-blogging site was laid bare. Spurs chairman Daniel Levy was among the most high-profile victims, facing a wave of hate apparently triggered by the potential sale of striker Gareth Bale.  The CST welcomed the addition of a report abuse button on every tweet. In politics, Kinloss chair Jon Mendelsohn and Westminster Synagogue president Howard Leigh were elevated to the peerage, alongside The Times executive editor Daniel Finkelstein. In one of the final interviews of his 22 years as chief rabbi, Lord Sacks hailed the “renaissance” enjoyed by Anglo-Jewry and opened up about his personal battles with cancer and depression. Meanwhile, the Jewish News teamed up with Jewish Care to launch a four-week dementia awareness campaign.[divider]


The installation of Ephraim Mirvis as the eleventh Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth set the tone for a truly momentous month for British Jewry. More than 1,400 guests, including Prince Charles and Ed Miliband gathered at St John’s Wood Synagogue to hear the longtime Kinloss minister speak of his three-pronged vision of education, strengthening communities and social responsibility. Striking a tone also welcomed by progressives, he said the community had suffered damage from “total unnecessary infighting”. Within weeks of coming to office, he acted on his vow to become ‘chief teacher’ and con- firmed his  attendance at Limmud conference – a move welcomed by many but opposed by some members of his own rabbinate. After nearly a decade in the making, JW3 opened its doors in Finchley Road with the aim of “turning up the volume” of Jewish life. Its piazza was decked out as a garden of Eden as the sun shone on a two-day launch extravaganza that attracted thousands – as well as round-the-clock BBC coverage. Elsewhere, World Jewish Relief launched an emergency appeal to aid those affected by the conflict in Syria.[divider]


Senior community figures united to accuse a group of strictly Orthodox rabbis, including former London Beth Din chief Dayan Ehrentreu, of a “shocking failure of leadership”. Their public letter came after the rabbis urged “any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of God and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably” to stay clear of Limmud conference. The intervention came just weeks after Rabbi Mirvis’ decision to attend, although the critics made no specific mention of him. At Westminster, Hugh Robertson succeeded Alistair Burt as Britain’s Middle East minister, with the Foreign Office’s plans to start rebuilding ties with Tehran now included in his in-tray. Also taking on a new role was Simon Johnson, formerly head of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, and the surprise appointment as interim CEO of the JLC after Jeremy Newmark’s departure on health grounds. In Jerusalem, Shimon Peres accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Jewish News. Israel’s president told of his plans to promote the state’s science and technology after leaving office and hailed British Jewry’s part in “making Israel what she is”.[divider]


The month started and ended with two of the biggest communal events of the year. More than 6,000 people joined host Nick Ferrari at Wembley Stadium for the Jewish NewsJewish Living Expo, featuring addresses from the Chief Rabbi, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub, Lord Winston and Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes. The largest ever crowd later gathered for Chanukah in the Square, with the sounds of Maoz Tsur and the humour of Boris Johnson entertaining those in Trafalgar Square. Meanwhile, a report suggested strictly Orthodox marriages will account for more than half of UK Jewish weddings within a decade. Liberal Judaism’s Rabbi Danny Rich reacted by claiming the ultra-Orthodox “pickle Judaism” rather than preserve the religion by “refusing to engage with the outside world”. Meanwhile, discussions on a possible JLC- Board merger resumed for the first time since the cancellation of a September meeting. In an exclusive interview after performing in Israel, Sir Tom Jones spoke out against the campaign urging musicians to boycott the country, and said talks are underway for his return. John Coleman, 85, a mentor of young offenders, was named Jewish NewsMitzvah Day Community Hero for his voluntary work inside and outside Anglo-Jewry.[divider]


South Africa born Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis hailed Nelson Mandela‘s “legendary contribution” as British Jewry joined worldwide tributes to the former prisoner-turned president. In the UK, the home of one of Anglo- Jewry’s elder statesmen, Lord Janner, was searched as part of an inquiry into child abuse allegations. No arrest was made. An exclusive easyJet/Jewish News survey showed 65 percent of first-time visitors to Israel left with an improved impression of the country and 82 percent have or would recommend a trip to others. Community leaders held talks with the Lib Dem chief whip over David Ward’s latest controversial remark. The MP tweeted that it was a “shame there isn’t a powerful, well-funded Board of Deputies for Roma” – seen by some as an indirect hint at Jewish money and power – but no disciplinary action was taken. The year ended on a celebratory note with the first reception by a Jewish gay group in Parliament and 3,000 people – including the Chief Rabbi, who received repeated standing ovations –gathering at Warwick University for the biggest-ever Limmud conference.[divider]

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