For the JC April 2021
Stephen Bush, chair of the Board of Deputies’ Commission on Racial Inclusivity, says its success can be measured “if the testimonies we have wither on the vine and become less relevant, and for much of the report to feel outdated very quickly”.
The report, described by Mr Bush, political editor of the New Statesman, as “groundbreaking”, was commissioned by the Board of Deputies in the immediate aftermath of the death of George Floyd in America last May, sparking the Black Lives Matter campaign around the world.
Although the original remit was to listen to the experience of Black Jews and Jews of Colour, the commission extended its range to include Sephardi, Mizrachi and Yemenite Jews — and, in fact, the report makes clear that testimony from these last three groups formed the majority of contributions.
The report considers 17 areas of communal life, from security to synagogues and from international development to the role of the Jewish media. Last summer, the commission gathered evidence from a variety of individuals, by email, social media and phone submissions. Just over 200 people spoke to the commission, talking about often troubling instances of discrimination and over-zealous security both inside and outside communal buildings. There were complaints of a failure to acknowledge the Sephardi narrative in Anglo-Jewry, of “Ashkenormativity” — an assumption that all British Jews are white Ashkenazim.
Only 24 of the individuals who gave evidence to the commission chose to remain anonymous. But for reasons of confidentiality, the report does not name even those who identified themselves.
Evidence came from people in four separate categories: Jews of Ethiopian, African, Caribbean, Indian, Sephardi, Mizrahi or Yemenite heritage; converts across all religious denominations; mixed-race Jews “with both Jewish heritage and another ethnic identity, be that African, Caribbean, Asian or some other identity”; and people who were none of these things but “who had specific or general testimony, whether as the parents of mixed-race children, the managers of diverse communal organisations, or other leadership roles”. But, because of what the report calls the possibility of “jigsaw” identification, and believing that there is a fluidity between the categories, there is no breakdown of how many witnesses fell into which category.
On top of that, the commission spoke to 100 “stakeholders”, communal organisations whose practices were the subject of some of the witness testimony. These include every religious denomination and groups such as the Community Security Trust or Tzedek, which works in the international development field.
In all, the report makes 119 recommendations, which Stephen Bush believes will have “profound implications for British Jewry”. He notes that this commission is the first of its kind in any diaspora community, and also suggests that other, non-Jewish communities, are paying attention to the report’s conclusions, which he says could be a model for other ethnic groupings.
Among the recommendations is that communal institutions, “particularly synagogues and schools”, should commemorate “key dates for diverse parts of the community, like the Ethiopian Jewish festival of Sigd and the official Day to Mark the Departure and Expulsion of Jews from the Arab Countries and Iran (November 30)”.
Noting (with approval) that the CST thoroughly rejects the notion of racial profiling, Stephen Bush has recommended that it should appoint an ombudsman to deal with complaints, and that communal bag searches should become universal at entry to buildings, “so as not to stigmatise people who look different, without compromising on security”.
Mr Bush has applied the Macpherson principle to the witness testimony, that all complaints about incidents of racism should be recorded and investigated as such, when they are perceived by the complainant or someone else as acts of racism. He recommends that “complaints processes are accessible, transparent, fair and robust”.
Many of the witnesses testified that it was rare to non-existent to see Black Jews, Jews of Colour, or mixed-race Jews, in any communal roles; accordingly the report recommends that communal bodies — and, particularly, organisations involved in rabbinic training — should encourage people from “under-represented ethnic groups” to put themselves forward for communal roles. It was noted that at present there are no British rabbis who identify as Black or of Colour; and at least one witness mourned the fact that “there is no Progressive rabbinic training for Sephardim”.
Numerous complaints from witnesses related to the conversion process: the report recommends that “a code of conduct should be developed for discourse on social media, making clear that attempts to delegitimise converts, calling people names such as ‘Kapo’, or using Yiddish terms such as ‘shvartzer’, in a racist way, are completely unacceptable”. Rabbinical courts which oversee conversion processes are asked to instigate stricter vetting of teachers and host families, and a clearer process for complaints”.
Mr Bush acknowledges in the report that Black British Jews “made up a little under 0.5 per cent of the total Jewish population in the United Kingdom, just as we make up a little under 0.5 per cent of the population as a whole”. But he says it is a “dangerous argument” to suggest that a group numbering ‘just’ 0.5 per cent of a larger whole is not worth consideration and respect”. He adds that at the last census, in 2011, 4,292 people identified themselves as Jewish and of another ethnic origin.
Responding to some of the recommendations, Mark Gardner, chief executive of the CST, said: “Any security measures that are used [such as, for example, universal bag searches] should focus on providing the most effective security while treating everybody fairly and with equal respect and professionalism.” He said that the report praised the CST as “our community’s example of best practice, training and guidance”. He said the CST was “open to any suggestions about how to extend this best practice even further in our work”, adding that the idea of an ombudsman to look at security-related complaints was “a really interesting suggestion”, and said the CST would consider the matter carefully.
Kira Blumer, chief executive of Tzedek, which works closely with the Office of the Chief Rabbi on its Ben Azzai programme, which takes young Jews to Ghana and India, said: “Tzedek welcomes this important report, and we are pleased to have contributed to it. Anti-racism work is central to our mission and we are grateful for the commission’s feedback in this area. We particularly welcome the recommendation that international development should be an advocacy priority for our community, and we look forward to playing our leading role in making this happen”.
Built in to the report is a revisit of the recommendations in two years’ time, together with a new follow-up report in 2028. But Stephen Bush said he did not believe the Jewish community was one which “went in for finger-wagging in order to police compliance” — he hoped, he said, that most organisations would welcome the opportunity to improve matters across communal life. “I think the majority of recommendations will happen”, he said.
Marie van den Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, said: “The publication of this report amply justifies the endeavour. The distressing quotes from witnesses, that can be read throughout, tell us clearly that there is still much work to be done before we become an unequivocally anti-racist environment, that equally embraces all Jews of all ethnicities. We must, and we will, do better”.