The invasion of Brighton by Jeremy Corbyn and his followers for the Labour Party’s annual conference should not come as a great surprise. The city of my upbringing is a place they should feel right at home.
Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, called for an arms embargo against Israel in 2014. And in a reversal of the city’s modern history, the other two constituencies Kemp Town and Hove, once comfortably Tory, are now held by Labour.
Nor should it be forgotten that in this home of ‘alternative’ politics, regular disruptive boycott demonstrations outside the eco-friendly Israeli-owned SodaStream store on the town’s main drag eventually forced its closure in 2014. This despite admirable counter protests by Sussex Friends of Israel, one of the pop-up groups defending Jewish communities against anti-Zionism dripping into anti-Semitism.
A few streets back from the seafront, the Brighton Centre and conference hotels, Brighton’s diverse and divided Jewish community is having its own debate. Days before Rosh Hashanah, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis attended a standing-room only public meeting. He urged the merger of the two Orthodox communities in the city and the development of a new sanctuary. In spite of its proximity to London, the Brighton community is suffering many of the same problems as other provincial communities. There is declining membership of synagogues and dilution of religious practice.
Brighton has four operating synagogues. A growing Reform synagogue, a Liberal or Progressive shul and two traditional shuls. I have strong connections to both traditional shuls. My late uncle, Cantor Hillel Brummer, served as chazan at Middle Street during the Second World War years into the 1950s before heading to America. My parents were introduced on its steps.
My post-barmitzvah years were spent at Hove Hebrew Congregation, which was founded by Eastern European refugees seeking to escape the Anglo-Jewish formalism of the Middle Street. In addition, there is a positive Chabad presence in the town, which, over the high holy days held its own services with a festive meal.
The moving force behind the ‘merger’ proposal endorsed by the Chief Rabbi is local gaming genius and entrepreneur Tony Bloom. He has shown an ability to deliver, having brought back from the dead Brighton & Hove Albion FC, delivered a European class football stadium in the South Downs and Premier League football.
Bloom’s plan is to flatten the undistinguished buildings on the Brighton & Hove community’s West Hove site and build a new small and flexible sanctuary, a mikveh, a shop selling kosher produce, a cultural centre and a block of flats reserved for younger Jewish residents.
There is resistance by HHC, located in the heart of Hove with its own shul of great architectural interest. It sees the West Hove site as too off-centre to be convenient for walking from the apartment blocks favoured by older members of the community and also want to preserve the haimishe traditions of their shul.
The reservations are understandable and there is resentment over tactics deployed by the Brighton and Hove community. It is saying that in the construction phase it will use HHC facilities, but only if there is a merger.
Strength in numbers and unity dictates that bringing together all the communities must be the right answer. Politics dictate it, too. A divided community in Brighton should no longer be a serious option.