President Jonathan Arkush
Pesach is a time both to look back and look forward. We remember the slavery and ultimately the regaining of freedom of our forefathers and we look forward with optimism to what the future holds for the Jewish people.
Our community in Britain has certainly faced some serious issues over the past year but I believe that we can look forward with confidence. The problems of antisemitism have figured prominently in the year gone by but we have taken positive steps to ensure that hatred or prejudice directed against us is called out for what it is and those who trade in abuse suffer the consequences. In these efforts we have had the resolute support of the Government and most leading political figures across the political spectrum. Two years ago Prime Minister Theresa May stood before the meeting of the Board of Deputies and said: “Britain would simply not be Britain without its Jews”. As Prime Minister she has overseen the adoption – the first by any country – of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism which includes, among other things, an explicit acknowledgement that the demonisation and singling out of Israel is antisemitic.
We have been strong on antisemitism on the left and in the Labour Party. I was the first witness to give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on Antisemitism and was gratified by its report which responded positively to all of the points the Board of Deputies made in its submission. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has many times since his election as party leader professed “zero tolerance to antisemitism and all forms of racism”. With the case against Ken Livingstone to be decided after months of delay and cases of antisemitism in the party still being reported, we have to say that in this case actions will speak louder than words.
The Community Security Trust recently released troubling figures on the rise of antisemitism. Without for one moment minimising their implications it is nonetheless important to take note that this is part of a disturbing climate of popular resentment that all too often expresses itself against all minorities. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote there was a general rise in hate crimes. I like to think that we can play our own distinct role in influencing the country’s political atmosphere. We have begun a busy period of nationwide engagement with Muslim and other communities around the country with the aim of improving relations between faith groups, creating understanding and, importantly, promoting strongly British values. Our team has travelled to Leeds, Leicester and Bradford among other places in the past year, meeting with community leaders, travelling to mosques and schools, and promoting the message of integrating while not losing our identity in the modern Britain whose way of life we believe in.
There have been other achievements. In education our campaign to end the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions to faith-based schools was accepted by the government who agreed with our analysis that the measure has inhibited the creation of Jewish schools and has not demonstrably improved community cohesion. Another major contribution we made in the field of education was to publish the definitive guide for GCSE Judaism, written by renowned educationalist Clive Lawton. This will give those studying the subject a great overview of both the richness of the tradition and the diversity of Jewish life.
We cannot talk of Pesach without mentioning Israel, the modern miracle of the Jewish people. Millennia ago Israel was formed from a nation of slaves but in the 21st century it is transformed into a veritable powerhouse of innovation and success, both economically and culturally and with a robust democratic tradition encompassing freedoms unheard of anywhere else in the Middle East. The people of Israel crossed the Red Sea to achieve freedom and thousands of years later the Jewish people again achieved self-determination in their independent historical land. Israel remains a beacon and a refuge for Jewish people everywhere and we derive huge pride in all of its achievements.
Surely one of the keys to the miraculous survival of the Jewish people is exemplified by the ancient rhythm of Seder night – guided and inspired by our past we look forward to the future.
**Eric Moonman and Robert Sacks are Belsize Square’s representatives to the Board of Deputies. If youwould like to discuss any matters relating to the Board of Deputies with them, please contact the office for their contact details**