Jewish communities are at their best when they are forward thinking and outward facing. Now, more than ever, it is vital this is the case.
Across the Diaspora, the challenges for Jewish communities are intensifying and getting ever more complex, externally and internally. Externally, many feel an increasing sense of political isolation, sandwiched between the mutation and rise of a racist far-right and the increasingly anti-Semitic anti-Zionism of the left.
British Jews have experienced a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents. The Community Security Trust, which monitors such incidents, reported an 11 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents between January and June of this year from 2015 figures that were already alarmingly high.
On some British university campuses, despite a pervasive obsession with “safe spaces” there appear to be no safe spaces for Jews or Israelis unless they renounce Israel. At University College London recently, Jewish students attending a talk by an Israeli speaker were harassed and barricaded into a room by an anti-Israel mob.
All too often, the world’s only Jewish state is portrayed as an obnoxious colonial endeavour and a uniquely evil force in the world; a portrayal that is patently absurd but which needs to be addressed not only because it is a calumny but because so often anti-Semitism is both its root cause and its near inevitable outcome.
As such incidents chip away at the mood of British Jewry, there is little comfort in looking abroad. Across the English Channel, mass-casualty Islamist terror has brought death and destruction to the streets of France, and in Toulouse, Marseilles and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris, Jews have been singled out for murder. Simultaneously, however, we see the rise of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National and know that they should not and cannot be our allies in the struggle against Islamist extremism.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., we also see a now familiar anti-Zionist trend unfolding among the campus left. And we’ve been shocked by the less familiar sight for younger generations, of Nazis in suits, sieg heiling to the rhetoric of racial superiority while celebrating the election of the next president, who has disavowed them, but whose own chief strategist has previously referred to the website he edited as the platform for this so-called “alt-right."
Against this backdrop, some Diaspora Jews may become tempted to withdraw, with implications both for their engagement with wider society and for their relationships with Israel.
Most Diaspora Jews remain firm in their Zionist convictions whatever their political leanings. But a growing number were already grappling with the challenge of a moribund peace process and with their perception that in a deeply divided Israel the values which underpin the very essence of their Judaism are under assault. The combination of the continuous assault on Israel’s legitimacy in our media, trade unions, political parties, student unions and places of learning and their own struggle with the complex reality of Israel today is potentially toxic and alienating.
This challenge is more pronounced in the U.S. than the U.K. Recent polling of British Jews shows that 93 percent of them feel an attachment to Israel. For American Jews a 2013 Pew Survey revealed that number to be just under 70 percent and as issues of political polarization afflict Western democracies, British Jews cannot be complacent.
Nor should we turn inwards. Those of us who seek to maintain communal values of Jewish peoplehood and connection to Israel need to develop ways of building strong and resilient Jewish identities capable of withstanding broader political shifts. We need to maintain our ability to engage confidently and authentically with the world around us.
One of the best tools at our disposal in doing so will be our evolving culture of volunteerism and philanthropy. That’s not a substitute for grappling with thornier issues but an important step in the process of doing so.
Take Mitzvah Day, for example, which took place last Sunday and has become a British Jewish institution. Founded just over 10 years ago, it now engages thousands within and outside the Jewish community in charitable work, boosting good causes and strengthening U.K. interfaith relationships. 40,000 volunteers from all faiths and none took part this year, led by the Jewish community, and benefiting a diverse range of people including the elderly, disabled, refugees and the homeless.
Prime Minister Theresa May, herself a previous participant, has praised the ability of Mitzvah Day volunteers to “build bridges, challenge stereotypes and make a real difference to the communities around them.”
It is just one example of British Jewish philanthropic innovation. Others include World Jewish Relief, which in addition to its core activities this year launched a unique program for Syrian refugees arriving in the U.K., and the Ben Azzai program, recently launched by the chief rabbi to give Orthodox Jewish students the chance to undertake volunteer work in India. And there are many more, from a community of around 300,000 people served by nearly 3,000 Jewish NGOs.
These projects tell a story of a community that is willing and able to face new challenges, engages with the society and world around it and delivers an impact that punches above its weight. They are not a substitute for addressing uncertain and complex political realities but a prerequisite for building communities with the confidence in both their Jewish values and place in civic society with which to do so.
And that’s before we consider some internal challenges – like the fact that patterns of Jewish philanthropy, which make Jewish communal life possible, are changing, with younger generations giving less habitually to Jewish causes than their parents and grandparents. Like the fact that the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population in the U.K. is outstripping that of mainstream and secular Jewry, creating a future demographic revolution for the community that we have only recently begun to acknowledge.
For now, however, the British Jewish community is thriving and its philanthropy is playing a central role in forging its Jewish identity. The philanthropist Trevor Pears recently argued that philanthropy, whether to Jewish or secular charities, is in itself a Jewish cause, affirming the essence of what it is to be a Jew.
We are also thriving in Jewish learning, with innovations such as Limmud now being replicated worldwide, and learning programs at synagogues and community centers inculcating future generations with Jewish values and knowledge. This is all is good news for Jewish charitable and in-kind contributions to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes alike – the Institute for Jewish Policy Research recently found that the more religious and Jewishly engaged respondents are, the more generous they tend to be relative to their means. In my view, our community’s disproportionately valuable contribution to U.K. public life can only be maintained from a position of knowledge and understanding of its own traditions and values.
Yet to maintain strong, confident and vibrant Jewish communities we should remain outward facing. We need to evolve, innovate and adapt to our challenges in our engagement with our fellow Jews and our fellow citizens. We need ways of putting our Jewish values into practice with confidence and pride, regardless of the broader political shifts taking place around us and indeed as a positive, proactive response to them.
British Jewry has built a robust and thriving voluntary sector, needed now as much as ever. Projects like Mitzvah Day provide outlets to celebrate our values, true to who we are and confident within ourselves and our society. And for all sections of the community, from the most religious to the most secular, that should be embraced as a mitzvah in itself.
Mick Davis is the chairman of the U.K.’s Jewish Leadership Council.
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