JPR media coverage archive
Tuesday 22 May 2007
The report published last week by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on the Jewish community in the UK was interesting in many ways. However, it contains several hashkafic flaws, some of which it acknowledges itself. The census offered the opportunity to describe oneself as religiously or ethnically Jewish, or both. According to the census, 270,499 people described themselves of the members of their household as Jewish in answer to the religion question. Whilst 97% of British Jews described themselves as ethnically “white”, only a tiny minority – less than one percent – described themselves as ethnically, but not religiously, Jewish.
The authors of the report make much of this – for them “Jewish identity is a complex sociological notion.” They say that “for some people the ethnic dimension is the only one” and “for many contemporary British Jews” defining oneself culturally or ethnically is a “more appropriate” means of identification than a religious definition. While we must admit that there are those who do not define their Yiddishkeit by the parameters of halacha, to call less than 1% “many” seems to be overstating the case somewhat. To then base any kind of policy making on this tiny minority of people, who rarely acknowledge their Yiddishkeit except to criticise and dissociate themselves, is stretching matters too far.
It is compulsory to fill in a census form, which means that even though many people might not have acknowledged their Jewish status, the 2001 data is possibly the first of its kind. Until now, estimates of the number of Jews in Britain have been made based on shul membership, school admissions, numbers of circumcisions, marriages and deaths, while socio-economic data has been drawn from people who are definitely associated with the community. The data analysed in the JPR report is much broader than this, and has captured many people who have probably slipped through the net on previous occasions. However, it does not capture those who chose not to answer the religion question, which in some kehillos might have been the majority. The report is hazy on the question of who is actually Jewish, claiming that “Ultimately, the definition of who is ‘Jewish’ depends on who is posing the question and why it is being asked.” According to the authors, the answer will depend on the principles of the questioner rather than on any objective reality. This wishy-washy definition is not one with which we can sympathize.
We in the chareidi community have our own form of census: one does not have to be an expert in statistics to see that the chareidi kehillas are, b”H, flourishing. According to the Board of Deputies, about 3200 babies are born to the Jewish community annually. Anecdotal evidence puts more than half of these in the chareidi community. Our shul records and the simcha tax attest to the number of chupas which take place each year. We do not need statisticians to tell us that many people in Hackney are living in overcrowded accommodation – we can see that for ourselves. Although the report contains some interesting and useful information, which will enable the community’s planners to think ahead, it does not warrant the sensationalist nature of the publicity it has received. Statistics are only as reliable as the person who is interpreting them wants them to be.
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