Why Black Jewish lives matter

Why Black Jewish lives matter

For the Times of Israel July 20 2020

Britain’s Jewish community has become the first in the world to set up a Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the wake of the George Floyd murder in America. And the man in charge, journalist Stephen Bush, says he is now considering finding a synagogue for himself and making a long-term commitment to Judaism.

Bush is political editor of the left-wing magazine, the New Statesman. Since early June, he has also been the unexpected, but wholly welcomed, chairman of the Commission on Racial Inclusivity set up by the umbrella representative body of Anglo-Jewry, the Board of Deputies.

Bush has hit the ground running: even before the Commission’s terms of reference were published this week, he was taking oral evidence from those who wanted to share personal experiences about being Black Jews in Britain.

It’s not a large community, even if it could be designated as a community at all — there is no tradition of Black Jews living closely to each other in the UK, or forming their own social or cultural grouping. Most of what Bush says is about 2,000 people are either the product of mixed marriages or the families of Black Jews from Jamaica or Ethiopia. A smaller number are people who have, for a variety of reasons, decided to convert to Judaism, and these include people right across the religious spectrum, from strictly Orthodox to those linked with the Progressive movements.

But the Commission’s terms of reference also asks for submissions from what it calls “non-Black Jews of colour”, which effectively means those from the Sephardi communities, keen to talk about “Ashkenormativity” — the assumption that it is only the opinions of white Ashkenazi Jews who count.

Just as the Board announced the creation of its Commission, JW3, the Jewish Community Centre for London, held a Black Lives Matter on-line seminar which attracted thousands of viewers — so the issue is keenly followed in the UK.

Bush, in his early 30s, has an unusual personal story to bring to the table. “My grandfather was the last properly religiously observant Jew in the family”. He was very close to his grandfather, who died in 2012 in Lusaka, Zambia, where he had moved to work as a doctor.

Though the extended family attended Passover sedarim and celebrated Simchat Torah at home in West London, Bush says he never really thought of himself as Jewish. “My relationship with Jewishness is quite similar to what a lot of people on the British Left have had. Even three years ago, when I started writing about why I found the issue of antisemitism particularly painful, people would say, are you Jewish? And I would say, oh, no, I’m not, I have a Jewish heritage”.

But gradually, he says, he began to realise that Jewishness, for him, was not simply “cultural and culinary”. It meant a lot more. And conversations with his grandfather, whom he visited in Zambia and who was deeply involved in the Lusaka Jewish community. “The synagogue in Lusaka went from being a social experience for him to something that was more important spiritually — and that was something we talked about a fair amount on my last visit to see him”.

Being more aware of his Jewish background put him, Bush says, ideologically at odds with his Left-of-centre bedfellows, leaving him unable to vote for Ken Livingstone as mayor of London, even before he began to write about antisemitism directly.

In fact, his connection with Jewish life came even earlier, when he went to Oxford to read history. There were no Black British students to mix with at his Oxford college, but there were plenty of ordinary Jewish students, and that was an unexpected link for Bush. At that stage, he says, he would have described himself as “Jewish- influenced. I was becoming more aware of something that was important to me.”

He never wanted to be a “race” writer, Bush says; but he likens his embracing of his Jewish identity to the experience of a gay person coming out. “I couldn’t write about the Corbyn situation without being honest with both me and the reader, why I found it personally painful. So I realised this was not about a family rice pudding recipe: this [Judaism] was a living, breathing, cultural inheritance, of vital importance to me. When you come out and say it, about being Jewish, you feel a pressure lifting.”

For Bush, identifying publicly as Jewish was “a liberation, you feel more yourself. And most people were very welcoming and kind”.

Bush wrote numerous articles in the New Statesman and elsewhere, denouncing the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories which emerged on the Left during the Corbyn era. So he became — slightly to his own surprise — the best-known Black Jew in Britain, and thus a perfect fit to chair the Board’s racial inclusivity commission.

He gently rejects any suggestion that he is being used as a “beard” or cover by the Board of Deputies, which has been strongly criticised by younger members of the community for its perceived failure to deal with difficult issues such as Israel’s policies on annexation, and on racism.

Bush says he genuinely admires Board president Marie van der Zyl, for her “brilliant model for other communities to follow. One of the things which is particularly painful for Black British Jews is that the Black Lives Matter campaign uses language and tropes that are openly antisemitic. Marie’s statement on that is an absolute model of how you navigate that: what she has done is to say, I am not going to engage with this flawed leadership, I am going to engage with the causes of this movement. The Board has been genuinely impressive on this issue”.

So he has been hearing evidence from Black Jews and from Sephardi, Adeni, Indian, Iraqi and Iranian Jews, too. Numbers of those speaking to Bush and his secretariat speak of the pain involved when they have moved from one community, where there was acceptance, to another where they are not known and where too often, security personnel have been too assiduous in telling someone that “you don’t look Jewish” and that they cannot enter community premises.

In setting up the Commission, the Board says that “there is a need for the Jewish community to become an unequivocally anti-racist environment that is more welcoming and inclusive to Black Jews, and non-Black Jews of Color”.

Most of the evidence presented so far has been direct oral testimony. But Bush is keenly aware of the problem presented by Left-wing activists such as Jackie Walker, who describes herself as Black and Jewish and who was expelled from the Labour Party in 2019 because of “prejudicial and grossly detrimental behaviour against the Party”. Walker’s expulsion centred on conspiracy theories she published about Jews and slave-owning. Carefully, Bush says he will not have people giving evidence in a way which would offend other Black Jews, but would be ready to consider written testimony where appropriate.

Now that lockdown against COVID-19 is lifting in the UK, Stephen Bush plans to travel around the country, meeting those who wish to give evidence to his Commission. He will produce a report with a variety of recommendations, but the core focus of the Commission’s work will be “to address anti-Black prejudice and racism within the Jewish community, while also addressing the issues faced by non-Black Jews of Colour in the Jewish community”.

In four years’ time, the plan is to look at the report’s recommendations and see how well or badly they have been carried out. Bush says: “No project of this kind has ever been undertaken, so there is no clear road map to follow, but with the guidance of the many passionate people who have come forward, we have created a platform that will assist our work in making the Jewish community an unequivocally anti-racist environment”.

And as for Bush himself, dealing with the mainstream Jewish community in such a full-on way has inevitably caused him to think long and hard about his own Jewish identity and how he wants to express it. Yes, he says, if he and his partner have children, he would strongly consider joining a synagogue. “It’s the ultimate life insurance”, he says, smiling.

  • 20 July, 2020