In the last few years, progress has undoubtedly been made on diversity issues, though there is still a long way to go. The fact that many now know that the term “BAME” refers to Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities tells its own story.
But we are still so primitive in the way we talk about ethnic minorities. The very term used to try to advance racial equality just lumps everyone who is not White British together, as though experiences are the same or even similar. Members of other minority ethnic groups have explained why this does not help them- most recently the Race Commission told the government to ditch it- but I have come to the view that it doesn’t work for Jewish people, either.
I didn’t always think this. In fact, I did not used to think of myself as a member of a BAME community at all. I did, however, recognise that as a Jewish person, I could not undo my Jewishness, by renouncing religion and falafel (though I would NEVER do that!). The mental contortions required to realise that I was part of an ethnic minority but not include myself as a BAME person make me cringe now.
The thing is, I am caught in the perennial dilemma for a Jewish person in modern Britain: I am white, but I am Jewish. I have the privilege of being a straight white man – most of the time. Unlike many of my family and friends, people don’t generally assume I am Jewish. They feel far more exposed than I do to everyday antisemitism because of how they appear.
But when I grew up in Birkenhead, on the Wirral, I was the only Jewish person in my school (apart from my mum, who joined as the librarian – thanks for that, Mum!). When people found out, I was picked on and racially abused (I still find writing that difficult). People pointedly asked my mum – in front of me – “what is a yid?” and made comments about my family probably being rich. Later, as a Labour councillor, I had far-right death threats at street stalls and open hostility for being Jewish.
It took me a long time, and a lot of abuse, to realise that I share the experience of being an ethnic minority, but that experience is quite unlike that of other ethnic minorities. It isn’t a competition – there is no hierarchy of racism – and any attempts to pit minorities against each other must be resisted. The point is we all face different battles in our shared struggle.
The term BAME does not do the job. It feels like something employers and the BBC do not think applies to Jews, and yet by definition it must. Indeed, Jews have been considered an ethnic minority since the Race Relations Act, and the abuse I’ve faced has made me painfully aware of how conditional our integration in British society is. And yet I have never ticked the “BAME” box for a job, because I have never felt it included me. It is an unhelpful amalgamation of what are a range of very different experiences, needing different approaches. The Labour Party should lead the way, to deepen understanding and to find an inclusive and effective approach. Because one thing is clear: BAME manages to group everyone together and still leave Jewish people out.