If anyone deserves a rest this Shabbat, it’s the Queen – especially as it’s her birthday. The week has been busy. She hosted a big Commonwealth Summit (or CHOGM in the jargon) consisting of 53 heads of government. But what does the Commonwealth mean for us Jews?
The Commonwealth is a club of 53 countries, most former parts of the British Empire. Since the Brexit vote, some people argue it is increasingly important for the UK’s future.
The significance of the Commonwealth for the Jewish community operates on four levels. First, there are vibrant Jewish communities in several Commonwealth countries, the largest in Canada, with almost 400,000 Jews and the UK, with around 300,000. Australia has more than 100,000, South Africa about 70,000 and New Zealand up to 7,000. Of the top 10 Jewish populations in the Diaspora, four are in Commonwealth countries.
Countries in the east like Singapore and India, with dynamic, fast-growing economies, have also attracted a transient community. Even in the 53 countries without much of a Jewish community, many will have a Chabad centre. Visiting Sri Lanka 10 years ago, my wife and I met the Chabad rabbinic couple there. To see Orthodox Jews in the middle of sweltering Colombo was incongruous to say the least.
Second, there are interesting links between Jews worldwide and Commonwealth countries. They can be rooted in family ties, or based on current commercial interests or charitable activity. The development charity Tzedek for example has operated in India and Ghana for years, as has the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai social-action programme.
Third, several Commonwealth countries have amazing history. My ancestors came to Calcutta from the late 18th century onwards. Elsewhere in India, Jews came to Cochin in the late Middle Ages, while the largest community was always in Mumbai. The story in the Purim Megillah, which takes place around 350 BCE, mentions ‘Hodu’ – India.
Other Commonwealth countries have beautiful synagogues, including the Maghain Aboth, built in 1878 in Singapore, another in Barbados originally built in 1654 and, amazingly, even one dating from 1926 in Mozambique.
Fourth and finally, many of the 53 Commonwealth states have strong relations with Israel. Intriguingly, in the vote in 1947 for Israel’s existence, when the UK famously abstained, five Commonwealth countries voted in favour – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the Dominican Republic. India and Pakistan voted against , though this was a couple of years before the Commonwealth formally came into existence with the London Declaration.
Nowadays, Israel enjoys particularly strong relations with the likes of India (Netanyahu and Modi have exchanged state visits in the past nine months); Singapore, where there is strong cooperation on security, and a number of African states. Bibi visited Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, three key Commonwealth states in Africa, in June 2016. A year later, he met ten leaders of west African states in Liberia.
As Jews, we should be comfortable with many aspects of the Commonwealth. We are a diverse, multi-national people. Israel absorbed people from 103 countries speaking 82 languages. Jews have an eye on the past while living in the present, just as the Commonwealth encapsulates both tradition and modernity.
Some have even suggested that Israel, as a former British territory (1918-1948), should try to join the Commonwealth. Stranger things have happened. When the Commonwealth meets for its next big summit in 2020, will the Israeli PM be lining up with British royalty and other heads of government?
- Zaki Cooper is Trustee,Indian Jewish Association