The Jewish community in Britain

Page last updated 5 Apr 2016


JfJfP was set up in 2002 as a network of British Jews and Jews in Britain in support of Palestinian rights. It was regarded by the organised Jewish community with disdain if not outright contempt. Signatories who leafleted Jewish Book Week were treated by the Community Security Trust as clear enemies of the community, were photographed and refused admission. And it took the Jewish Chronicle, which prided itself on being the instrument of record for the community, a few years to acknowledge our existence in its news pages, and then only to condemn us without asking for our views, and with no right of reply. (Even now, they hardly ever publish our letters and refuse to print our paid-for adverts.)

We rapidly concluded not only that what Israel was doing in the conflict required a Jewish voice speaking out in support of Palestinian rights but also that the very attempt to do so required a struggle for pluralism within the Jewish community in Britain i.e. for the right to make critical voices heard. Of course there were other dissenting voices including the Jewish Socialists’ Group (this was only a small part of its remit) and Peace Now UK, the campaigning arm of British Friends of Peace Now, which later fell into sectarian hands and was therefore no longer much of a voice: seemingly more concerned to stand out against JfJfP as too radical (not loving Israel enough!) than to carry any serious critique of Israel into the heart of the community. The New Israel Fund did and does sterling work supporting causes in Israel that stand for a democratic, inclusionary Israeli society. And the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights organised around just those issues. That group merged later with a Writers Group that had come out of JfJfP to launch Independent Jewish Voices in July 2007. IJV met an even more savage response from the official community than had JfJfP.

And yet the very appearance of unity hid increasing uncertainties and divisions within the organised Jewish community. Its official representative body is the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had sometime in the past taken a decision to stand unanimously behind Israel, right or wrong. But while many Jews were clearly uneasy about seeing Israel criticised in public, they were equally uneasy about developments there from the start of the second intifada onwards. That general sense of unease about Israeli policies has only grown over time. It eventually even filtered through to the Board of Deputies which in Nov 2014 voted by a surprisingly large majority to accept Yachad (Together for Israel, Together for Peace) as a member. Yachad frames its criticism of Israel within the declaration: “We are Jews who love Israel, who stand with Israel, whose lives are bound up with Israel. We believe in its right not just to exist, but to flourish. We stand against those who defame it”. Even so, it was a triumph to break through the Board’s traditional “unity” on Israel.

Meanwhile, the Community Security Trust plays a key role in protecting Jews and Jewish communal institutions from antisemitism and physical danger. It is a private charitable trust and issues have been raised as to whom it represents and whether, sometimes, its actions and reports might increase the insecurity experienced by Jews in Britain by exaggerating the dangers they face. (see Community Security Trust, below).

There is clearly a major struggle going on within the community as to how what being Jewish means in the 21st century and how or how much it is intertwined with concern for, or commitment to, Israel. For some British Jews, links to Israel are part of their lives and it is central to their Jewish identity. But others simply don’t want to have their lives simply defined by defending Israel, but rather by the lives they lead where they are thriving in the diaspora. Recent decades have seen an amazing flowering of Jewish cultural activity with Limmud, Jewish Book Week and the Jewish Film Festival now major events on the cultural agenda (the latter two on the national as well as the Jewish agenda). And not to forget Jewdas, satirising Anglo Jewry, suggesting new and more radical ways of being Jewish, and throwing excellent parties…

There seems to be little material available on the web about these shifts and changes within the Jewish community in Britain. The links below rely heavily on the writings of three people who have devoted much time and energy researching the topic. These are Keith Kahn-Harris, author of Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community  and, with Ben Gidley, of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today which “examines the changing nature of the British Jewish community and its leadership since 1990″ (Continuum, 2010); Antony Lerman, former director of the Institute for Jewish Public Policy and author of The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (Pluto 2012), which describes his disillusionment with Zionism, and his falling out with much of the leadership of the Jewish community; and finally, more historically oriented, David Cesarani, research professor in history and director of the Holocaust Research Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London.

See also the pages on Antisemitism and Jewish Identity in the Diaspora


1. Turbulent Times (Paperback)
Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley, Continuum,  Jul 2010

Book blurb:

The first book-length study of contemporary British Jewry , Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today examines the changing nature of the British Jewish community and its leadership since 1990.Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley contend that there has been a shift within Jewish communal discourse from a strategy of security, which emphasized Anglo-Jewry’s secure British belonging and citizenship, to a strategy of insecurity, which emphasizes the dangers and threats Jews face individually and communally. This shift is part of a process of renewal in the community that has led to something of a ‘Jewish renaissance’ in Britain.Addressing key questions on the transitions in the history of Anglo-Jewish community and leadership, and tackling the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, this important and timely study addresses the question: how has UK Jewry adapted from a shift from monoculturalism to multiculturalism?

See also the interview with the authors by Simon Round in the Jewish Chronicle, 28 Jul 2010, Review by Antony Lerman in Jewish Quarterly and Review by Miri Freud-Kandel in The Jewish Chronicle)


2. What British Jews really think about the Gaza conflict
By Keith Kahn-Harris, Guardian, 23 Jul 2014

“It suits a variety of agendas to claim that British Jews are largely united in support for Israel during this current round of conflict. Israelis and those who approve of Israel’s actions find succour in this supposed homogeneity. Conversely, Palestinians and those who support them outside the region point to what they regard as the heroic minority of Jews who share their views and in doing so hope to forestall accusations of antisemitism.

In truth though, the situation is more complex and more ambiguous. While surveys have shown that a large majority of British Jews – like Jews elsewhere in the diaspora – believe in a Jewish state and identify with Israel, there has been a significant fragmentation over the question of Israel in recent years”.


3. Stop the pretense: There’s no consensus among Diaspora Jews on Israel
Keith-Kahn Harris, Ha’aretz, 2 Sep 2014

“In my recent book Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, I examined how, since the start of the second intifada in 2000, a range of Jewish positions on Israel have emerged in the British and U.S. Jewish community, leading to often fractious and bitter conflicts.

Those attacking the mainstream institutions of UK Jewry for its stance during the Gaza conflict have come not just from the Israel-critical left;  unprecedently, there have been attacks on the Board of Deputies from a newly combative and vocal pro-Israel bloc who feel that community organisations had been too passive and polite in their defence of Israel during the Gaza conflict.”


4. There is a world outside antisemitism
David Cesarani, Jewish Chronicle, 9 May 2014

A call by historian David Cesarani “to rebalance the resources and the efforts that we devote to remembrance, to researching and representing our past”. A disproportionate amount of work by historians of the Jews in Britain in recent times has focused on conflict to the neglect of much else: Jewish institutions, cultural creativity, the development of Judaism in Britain, or the many strands of social history such as gender, leisure, and consumption.


5. The new chief rabbi and archbishop face strikingly similar problems
By Keith Kahn-Harris, Guardian, 19 Dec 2012

“There are intriguing parallels between Monday’s announcement of the appointment of Ephraim Mirvis as the new chief rabbi and the recent appointment of Justin Welby as the new archbishop of Canterbury. The chief rabbinate, an institution that not all Jewish communities today and throughout history have seen as necessary, was closely modelled in Britain on the Church of England. British chief rabbis, from the 18th century onwards, sought to demonstrate the decorum and responsibility of British Jews by modelling their office on the established church”.


6. Limmud: a great Jewish alternative to Christmas
By Keith Kahn-Harris, Guardian, 29 Dec 2010

“For the diaspora Jew, what to do over Christmas can be a taxing question. It’s almost impossible to ignore the festival completely and it’s a wonderful opportunity for rest and relaxation with family and friends. But how to avoid being compromised by the Christian connotations?

“For a truly Jewish alternative to Christmas, the Limmud conference is as good as it gets. Taking place every year between Christmas and new year, this year’s festive season sees Limmud’s 30th anniversary conference, held at the University of Warwick. As much of UK stumbles tipsily between leftover turkey and the sales, 2,500 Jews of all ages from the UK and throughout the Jewish world will gather for a frenetic five-day festival of learning and playing.”


7. The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey
Antony Lerman, Pluto Press 2012

See reviews in Counterfire, Middle East Monitor and, by Tony Greenstein, Weekly Worker, 20 Dec 2012, pp.8-9. The latter includes a long summary of the book.

Book blurb:

Antony Lerman traces his five-decade personal and political journey from idealistic socialist Zionist to controversial critic of Zionism and Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. As head of an influential UK Jewish think tank, he operated at the highest levels of international Jewish political and intellectual life.

He recalls his 1960s Zionist activism, two years spent on kibbutz and service in the IDF, followed by the gradual onset of doubts about Israel on returning to England. Assailed for his growing public criticism of Israeli policy and Zionism, he details his ostracism by the Jewish establishment.

Through his insider’s critique of Zionism, critical assessment of Jewish politics and analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict Lerman presents a powerful, human rights-based argument about how a just peace can be achieved.


8. Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel
David Graham & Jonathan Boyd, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, July 2010

JPR website blurb on the publication:

The Israel Survey is a landmark study in British Jewish research. Based on the largest national sample of British Jews ever constructed, it paints a detailed portrait of the place of Israel in Jewish identity, and clearly demonstrates how Jews in Britain feel about some of the key political issues facing the country.

It is clear from the findings that Israel constitutes an important part of British Jews’ sense of self, which goes some way towards explaining why it can be such a contentious topic when discussed in the public realm. It also demonstrates that the vast majority of Jews in Britain regard Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish People, and many have close familial or social ties with Israelis.

However, the British Jewish population is far from uniform in its views about social and political issues in the country. Opinions differ greatly, but taken as a whole, a clear majority is both pro-security and pro-peace – eager to see Israelis living free from the threats of extremism and violence, and eager to see the country reach a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.


9. Jewish and British love of Israel begins in 1967
Laura D. Staetsky and Jonathan Boyd, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, JfJfP 24 Jul 2014

This report examines how safe and how fearful of antisemitism British Jews feel. It identifies the conundrum of Jewish organisations/funders paying a lot of attention to antisemitism when British Jews have never felt as confident as they do today. Fears and antisemitic incidents rise when Israel exercises military power, especially now Palestinians are a cause celebre’. It dates the importance of Israel to Jews, and British people, to its perceived role in 1967.


10. Could it happen here? What existing data tell us about contemporary antisemitism in the UK
Jonathan Boyd & Daniel Staetsky, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 13 May 2015

In 2014 after the Gaza war, the newly established Campaign Against Anti-Semitism made headlines by suggesting that Britain was at a tipping point in its antisemitism levels. This JPR Report finds no such thing. (A brief summary by Jerry Lewis can be found in the Jerusalem Post UK Jewry experts cast doubt on rise in anti-Semitism, 17 May)


11. British Zionism, Jews and Gaza
Antony Lerman, Antony Lerman Website, 4 Sep 2014

“Most Zionist organizations and Jewish leaders in the UK found it very difficult to cope with the fallout from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. They were criticized from the right and the left. The right-wing Zionism they espouse ever more aggressively intensified divisions within the Jewish community. In my latest article, written for New Left Project, I argue that the Zionism served up by most of British Jewry’s leadership is of no positive help to the very many British Jews who have grave doubts, and feel uneasy and confused, about Israel’s trajectory.”


12. Book Launch: “Uncivil War” by Keith Kahn-Harris
Emma Pearson, Turn Right at Cyprus, 14 Mar 2014

“‘I asked myself, what can someone like me do about tensions in the British Jewish community?’ explained Keith Kahn-Harris at his book launch on Wednesday. ‘Just invite people to my home. This demonstrates effort, attention, hospitality, conviviality – civility. Doing it at home is important.’ Kahn-Harris’ book, ‘Uncivil War: the Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community’, examines how differing opinions about Israel have led to divides in diaspora Jewry and suggests a policy of ‘civility’ as the best way of countering them.”


13. Who speaks for British Jews?
David Cesarani, New Statesman, 23 May 2012

Contrary to the “clannish” stereotype, dissent comes naturally to Jewish people in Britain, says David Cesarani: “External critics and internal dissidents may denounce the Jewish communal leadership for using its ‘power’ to stifle debate, but in fact Jews in this country have always been fractious and unruly. Even when representative bodies have been able to knit a fragile consensus, they have been blighted by self-appointed individuals or rivals who claim equal authority.”

The Community Security Trust

1. Our unrepresentative security and Continually Spreading Trust
Geoffrey Alderman, The Jewish Chronicle, 18 Apr and 10 Jun 2011

Alderman is a rather prominent, right-wing and maverick member of the Jewish community. These two articles certainly put the cat among the pigeons. He started by asking: “What right does a completely private body that happens to call itself the CST have to involve itself in the safety and well-being of British Jews?” and goes on to other highly awkward issues, including unwarranted interference by the CST in the activities of local synagogues and others.


2. How Feelings of Jewish Insecurity are Aggravated by the Community Security Trust
Antony Lerman, Antony Lerman Website, 13 June 2011

Lerman largely agrees with Alderman, above, on the issue of the CST (if on no other…):

“[Y]ou only have to read the response of the Chairman of the CST, Gerald Ronson, to Alderman’s questions and criticisms, which Ronson gave in a JC  op-ed on 29 April, to realise that the size, reach and influence of CST makes it perfectly capable of being a prime mover behind the creation of a ‘the world hates us’ atmosphere in the community.”


3. Another faulty, pseudo-academic antisemitism initiative
Antony Lerman, Antony Lerman Website, 29 Nov 2012

“One of the things that is most worrying about what I believe were these false imputations of antisemitism (and I will explain my reasoning for this conclusion in my next blogpost) is that they come not simply from individuals expressing their own views, but from officials of a very influential, major registered charity, and in the case of the cartoon, writing in their capacity as officials of that organization. The view of the Community Security Trust is seen as, and is intended to be seen as, the view of the organized UK Jewish community. And yet that wider community has no means of calling the CST to account and therefore has to suffer the consequences of its officials’ doubtful and often damaging politically-motivated interventions in public debate.”


4. Combating antisemitism and defending Israel: a potentially explosive mix
Antony Lerman, Antony Lerman Website, 08 Aug 2014

“If any more evidence were required to demonstrate that the Community Security Trust (CST), the private charity that describes its mission as monitoring and combating antisemitism on behalf of the British Jewish Community, is abusing its mandate by providing political support for Israel, look no further than its response to reports of anti-Jewish hostility arising out of the Gaza crisis.”


Contents of this section


a) Antisemitism
b) Israel and the Jewish diaspora

c) The Jewish community in Britain
d) Jewish holidays

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