Geoffrey Alderman
Geoffrey Alderman

The Sewell Commission: A Jewish response

People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Trafalgar Square, London, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US, this week (Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire via Jewish News)
People take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in Trafalgar Square, London, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US, this week (Photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire via Jewish News)

A great deal of heat has been generated by the furore that in certain circles has greeted the recent publication of the report of the UK government’s Commission on Race & Ethnic Disparities. In the introductory remarks of its chair (black educationalist Dr Tony Sewell), the Commission’s conclusions are summarised as follows:

Once we interrogated the data we did find [that for] … some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.

The data also revealed many instances of success among minority communities. These have often been ignored or have been seen to be of little interest (to the media).

In many areas of investigation, including educational failure and crime, we were led … to family breakdown as one of the main reasons for poor outcomes. Family is also the foundation stone of success for many ethnic minorities.

We were impressed by the ‘immigrant optimism’ of some of the new African communities. They are among the new high achievers in our education system. As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classrooms, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement.

Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds …There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.

Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.

These conclusions were – unsurprisingly – anathema to a large number of academics who have invested far too much of their scholarly energies in the chronicling and condemnation of what are termed the “structural racism,” “institutional racism” and “white privilege” allegedly inherent in British society. These worthies lost no time in making their views known.

For David Olusoga, professor of something called “Public History” at Manchester University, the central misdemeanour committed by Dr Sewell’s Commission was to dare to state the obvious – that the “slave period” of Caribbean history was not only “about profit and suffering.” But at least professor Olusoga had the courage to admit the truth of this truism.  “Every historian of slavery I have ever encountered [he declares] writes about Britain’s centuries of slave-trading … as a history of resistance and resilience in which people trafficked from their homelands or born into bondage created new cultures, identities and art forms, while being dehumanised and commodified.”[1]

At this point I feel I must point out to professor Olusoga that the professional historian asks three and only three questions. What happened? Why did it happen? Why did it happen when it happened? It is no business of the historian to pass moral judgments on the past, which can only be understood, and judged, in its own terms. Slavery – specifically the trans-Atlantic slave trade – was indeed about immense suffering. But that immense suffering did indeed give rise to new cultures.

Out of evil good may come. I can illustrate this by reference to the impact on the Jewish people (of whom I am one) of Nazism and the Nazi-directed mass murder of some six million persons of Jewish identity and heritage. This Holocaust was also about immense suffering and profit (the profit that accrued from seized assets). But we need to acknowledge that in certain German-Jewish circles the Nuremberg Laws (which forbade and criminalised intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews) were actually welcomed as an antidote to rampant secularisation, and that the Nazi reversal of Jewish emancipation undeniably stopped this assimilation in its tracks. I also need to draw attention to the part played by the shame of that Holocaust in laying some of the essential groundwork for the re-establishment of a sovereign Jewish state.

I turn now to Dr Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester.

Professor Adi is reported by the Guardian as having opined that the forward to the report of the Sewell Commission “failed to make clear that the subjugation of millions of African people was a crime against humanity.”[2]

Well of course if this subjugation occurred now it would be. But it didn’t occur now, did it? At the time it occurred the concept of “a crime against humanity” was in a very embryonic state, first codified in the Second Hague Convention of 1899.

Undaunted, professor Adi continued thus: “It is forgetting the hundreds of years of the crimes against the African people, the deaths of millions of African men, women and children” … We live in a country where [many] have denied this as a reality, they have refused to make any reparation.”

No-one on the right side of half-witted would deny the historic sufferings of native Africans as a result of slavery, the slave trade, and brutal colonial regimes. But where does the present-day entitlement to “reparation” come from?  My ancestors fled to England to escape the physical and economic persecution they endured under Tsarist regimes. Family tradition has it that a great-uncle had his leg hacked off in a pogrom. That does not entitle me – born in England in 1944 and educated wholly at the expense of the British state – to one penny of “reparation.”

On 2 April 2021 over four hundred mainly university-based education researchers published a sweeping condemnation of the Sewell Commission for having “completely overlooked the substantial base of evidence in educational research that has shown how structural, institutional and direct racism works in and through schools, universities and other sites of education.”[3]  Well, in 2019 I deliberately made it my business to attend no less than four academic conferences focussed or largely focussed on alleged racism in UK higher education and the experience of Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff.[4] Very little empirical evidence was forthcoming to support the charge-sheet. Instead, what I witnessed amounted to the unashamed indulgence of victimhood and the flagrant promotion of victimology on a gargantuan scale.

That there is racial prejudice in the academy I have no doubt. But ’twas ever thus! In 1971 I was not shortlisted for a lectureship in history at a large civic university because the professorial head of department announced to colleagues (two of whom reported to me) that he was not prepared to appoint a “Zionist” [= Jew] to his staff.

Of course BAME students and academics need to prove themselves exceptional. That’s how prejudice is fought. But such prejudice will never be overcome by feeling sorry for oneself and demanding special treatment.

I have my own gripes about the Sewell Commission. The word “Jew” does not appear at all in the report and the word “antisemitism” only once – and then merely to explain that anti-Jewish along with anti-Muslim prejudice “is beyond the scope” of the report. I beg to differ. Be that as it may, the howls of academic protest that have followed the report’s publication suggest to me that, basically, the Commission has touched a very raw nerve.

That racism is alive and well in this United Kingdom is beyond contention. But – to quote once more from Dr Sewell’s introduction –  “the evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.”

The historic Anglo-Jewish experience is ample testimony to the truth of this conclusion.






About the Author
Professor Geoffrey Alderman is an academic, author and journalist