A Community of Communities: Report of the Commission on Representation of the Interests of the British Jewish Community:
Author(s): Commission on Representation of the Interests of the British Jewish Community
Published: Friday 31 Mar 2000
Setting the stage: reasons for the Commission’s establishment
Over the past 300 years British Jews have established well-developed representative structures. However, there is an increasing recognition that we are in a period of rapid change. The pace of this change has placed considerable strain on the historic central representative structures: the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Chief Rabbinate. Vocal and variegated interest groups, ranging from the strictly Orthodox to the progressive, claim that the current modes of representation fail to include them or speak for their interests.
Questions have been raised as to why Jewish representative institutions have been unable to defuse tensions and resolve disputes that frequently surface in the public sphere. In addition, new organizations are continually emerging to address the wider society on matters of Jewish interest.
Finally, many individuals—particularly women, the younger generation and the unaffiliated—feel disenfranchised. Aware that decisions taken by others affect them, they do not believe that they have the means of influencing those decisions. They also do not feel the present representational structures meet their needs.
Changing British Jewry
The Commission asked: ‘For what sort of British Jewry is representation being undertaken?’ The answer was: a community in transition.
In terms of demography, there has been a significant decline in the estimated Jewish population, which now numbers under 300,000 people. Despite the fact that today approximately 70 per cent of the population of UK Jews are formally linked to a synagogue, approximately one third of the population is religiously unaffiliated.
Moreover, those British Jews who are affiliated to a synagogue are increasingly diverse and are segmented across the following groupings:
- 60.7 per cent belong to central Orthodox synagogues (Ashkenazi and Sephardi);
- 28.8 per cent belong to progressive synagogues (Reform, Liberal and Masorti);
- 10.5 per cent belong to strictly Orthodox (Haredi) synagogues, which have shown the greatest degree of growth in the last decade.
Recent studies on issues of Jewish identity have shown a trend towards non-synagogal modes of affiliation and a rising number of marriages with non-Jews. Yet, paradoxically, at the same time there is greater confidence among the strictly Orthodox, a huge investment and expansion in Jewish education and a stronger sense of British Jewish identity.
Finally, British Jews increasingly regard themselves in ethnic terms. Alongside religion, culture and language, their ethnicity includes feelings of kinship and belonging, and a desire for group continuity. In practice, however, most British Jews presently regard the synagogue as the only practicable way open to them to identify with and belong to something Jewish.
In what kind of Britain, then, is representation taking place?
Britain has become more diverse in terms of religion, ethnic origin, culture and lifestyle. It is now often referred to as a multicultural society. Ethnic, regional and other differences are increasingly portrayed as requiring not merely toleration, but also acknowledgement, respect, resources and representation.
The most significant changes are structural, affecting the various tiers of government to which Jews have traditionally made representations. The changes under way that are already affecting Britain’s central political institutions promise to alter significantly the pattern of power, leading to new challenges and opportunities for representational activity. They include reform of the House of Lords, devolution and regionalization, changes in local government, including a London mayor and Greater London Authority, and closer integration into the European Union.
Mapping current representation
The Commission identified those Jewish communal organizations that carry out representation, together with their main target audiences: government and Parliament, local authorities, international and European organizations, foreign governments, international Jewish organizations, Israel, Diaspora communities, European Jewish organizations, other-faith minority groups, the voluntary sector, the media and other opinion formers.
This information is discussed in Section 4 and has been produced in diagrammatic form. The organizational map served as the starting point for analysing Jewish representation, revealing in stark relief its multi-faceted, diverse and complex nature.
Gathering ideas: the consultation exercise
For more than eighteen months the Commission carried out its research and deliberations on a variety of levels. It canvassed as many people as possible within the Jewish community, together with those in the wider society who are the main target audiences of Jewish representation.
A detailed questionnaire on the scope, subject matter and comprehensiveness of Jewish representation was compiled, and copies were sent to more than 2,000 Jewish organizations and individuals. Advertisements were placed in the national and Jewish press inviting people to request a questionnaire, and a special web-site was established to allow respondents to submit their answers on-line.
Seven ‘town meetings’ were held in Central London, Redbridge, Golders Green, Brighton, Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds. Smaller focus groups and discussions were also held. Finally, the Commission conducted in-depth interviews with more than seventy key informants, both inside and outside the British Jewish community. During the Commission’s evidence-gathering, certain recurring themes emerged: questions of leadership, consultation, professionalism, networking and coordination, reaching the unaffiliated, internal, informal and religious representation, representation abroad and internal Jewish divisions.
Among the key questions surrounding the current state of representational activity, the following emerged:
- Do the multiple layers of special interest and representation constitute needless duplication or strength through diversity?
- Should there be one or many voices?
- What is the role of religious representation?
- Do the Jewish media have a role in representation?
- What is the place of informal representation?
- How is the Jewish community regarded by the targets of representation—as a religious or an ethnic group?
- When is collective representation necessary?
Through the Commission’s wide-ranging consultations with every sector of the Jewish community an overriding leitmotif began to emerge: a growing realization that a means of representation regarded as effective in the past, or even today, may not be adequate in the future.
The Commission observed that, while people were quick to express their concerns and extensive criticisms of existing representative structures, they were less willing, initially, to posit solutions. Nevertheless, a number of solutions were put forward and subsequently served as a basis for the Commission’s recommendations, which follow.
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