Jonathan Arkush
Jonathan Arkush

British Jewry – Loud and Proud

Shmuley Boteach accuses British Jews of being uncomfortably silent in the face of attacks on Israel. However it would be truer to say that our community is loud and proud in its proactive support of Israel, and very comfortable with it.

While it would be charitable to put Rabbi Shmuley’s wholly inaccurate piece down to his writing from 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic, the sad truth is that his repetitive attacks on the British Jewish community are like a broken record.

Far from being silent on Jack Straw’s recent attack on Israel and the American Jewish lobby (and Straw is disputing the words ascribed to him), here’s what we said as the UK’s Jewish representative body:
“Whatever words Jack Straw may have used, they veered dangerously close to hoary antisemitic themes. Ambassador Daniel Taub was right to call them out.”

Rabbi Shmuley goes on to make the observation that Jewish students at some English universities are afraid to identify as Jewish or wear a yarmulke. As the Jewish leader with responsibility for the welfare of our students on campus, I do not know of a single university where that is true. On the contrary, our students are powerfully represented by the Union of Jewish Students, one of whose members is a Vice President of Britain’s National Union of Students. In Shmuley’s time NUS was no friend of the community’s concerns. Thanks to UJS’ strong advocacy, NUS has formally rejected boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel (BDS) and recently restated its adoption of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism, which cites a wide category of forms of hostility to Israel as antisemitic.

Rabbi Shmuley also takes up his well-worn theme of attacking former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks for his “near-silence” on Israel. This is nothing short of a travesty of the truth. Chief Rabbi Sacks spoke up for Israel fearlessly and eloquently, as a glance at the Writings section on his website shows. He was a regular contributor on the BBC’s Thought for the Day just before the peak time morning news where he spoke out for Israel to an audience of millions. He wrote regularly in The Times, Britain’s most influential newspaper, as well as numerous books, of which Future Tense is perhaps the most noteworthy for his denunciation of hostility to Israel as the ‘new antisemitism’.

Finally Rabbi Shmuley proffers advice to British Jews whose numbers, he said “continue to decline”. However the UK National Census 2011 says otherwise. The number of British Jews shows a small but perceptible increase which is gathering pace.

It’s a pity to ruin Shmuley’s good story with the facts but let me say it how it is. The British community has the same ferocious pride in Israel as its American counterpart, only British Jews visit Israel more frequently and are far more likely to own property there than our US cousins. We lobby unashamedly for Israel and dare I say that the UK Government is rather fiercer in its insistence on sanctions against the Iran nuclear threat than the US administration. The community has just opened the amazing JCC in London called JW3, with a mission to ‘turn up the volume’ of Jewish life. The UK community invented Limmud to challenge and explore publicly all aspects of Jewish life, now successfully exported worldwide. In three weeks’ time our community will gather in their thousands in Trafalgar Square (is that public enough for you Shmuley ?) to celebrate Chanukah with Maoz Tzur and free donuts to the public, under the largest Chanukiah in Europe.

So while I thank Shmuley for his advice that British Jews should create a ‘new paradigm in which Jews are the absolute equals of every other British citizen’, he should know that we got there a long time ago. Indeed the Board of Deputies was established for that very purpose in 1760. Here in Britain we have learned a few things about speaking up for our community over the last 253 years. One of them is to stick to the facts. Next time Rabbi Shmuley is thinking of shooting off another wrong-headed piece about us, perhaps he might check his sources first.

About the Author
Jonathan Arkush is President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.