In my New Year message 12 months ago I wrote that 2016 had been the most tumultuous year in British political life in living memory. This year has been barely less eventful with a surprise General Election producing an even bigger surprise, resulting in the turbulence of a hung Parliament, coalition negotiations and a shaky start to talks with the EU over the future of the United Kingdom in Europe.
Through this period of political uncertainty the Board of Deputies has represented the Jewish community with a clear and calm voice. We produced our Jewish Manifesto for the election campaign, a document newly updated for 2017 with its detailed advocacy of the policies of interest and concern to UK Jews. We asked politicians to support our 10 Commitments – the policies which we consider crucial on everything from education and religious freedoms to the Middle East. We sent out a copy of the Jewish Manifesto to every prospective parliamentary candidate and received a large and supportive response including video messages from the Prime Minister and the leaders of the next three largest parties.
Our approach to politics is bipartisan. We do not support any single party but we do hold politicians to account. In a year characterised by a shameful upsurge in antisemitism in British politics we continue to call on party leaders to act swiftly to expunge hatred wherever it rears its ugly head. Former Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron acted swiftly to expel David Ward, a man with a track record of antisemitic statements. We call on Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn to act in a decisive manner during this coming year against the scourge of antisemitism which has plagued his party. And whenever we discover antisemitism in the Conservative and other parties, be in no doubt that we act in a similarly robust manner.
This year, having been thwarted for 12 years, criminal murderers finally managed to claim innocent lives in our country – at Westminster, in Manchester, at London Bridge and Finsbury Park. I am sickened by the extremists who are prepared to kill children to further their depraved views. The attacks by Islamist extremists on concert goers and random pedestrians and the attack on worshippers outside a mosque in north London, lend an urgency to my longstanding commitment to building bridges with Muslim communities. It is vital that we have the relationships that allow us to share sometimes difficult opinions with one another, as well as making joint progress on our issues of common concern. It is crucial to strengthen the moderate centre and marginalise the extremists.
So I have travelled the country speaking to Muslim communities – so far including London, Bradford, Leicester, Leeds and Birmingham. And we don’t just exchange pleasantries over tea and biscuits, we go straight for the toughest topics: hate crime, violent extremism and religious values.
This country is not the only one to suffer the tragedy of extremist murder this year. Israel has also lost innocent Jews, Christians and Muslims to terror attacks this year. And of course the difference between Israel and the UK is that Israel has never had respite from those whose mission it is to subvert the democracy of the world’s only Jewish state. While the ramming of tourists and commuters on Westminster Bridge made the world’s headlines, similar attacks in Israel have often not even warranted a passing mention on the evening news. We at the Board of Deputies stand resolutely behind Israel, whether it is speaking at demonstrations, making the case in the media, challenging BDS or supporting grassroots advocacy organisations and Christian allies. We leave nobody in any doubt as to our commitment.
While our enemies continue to promote terror and division, we have been unstinting in our desire for peace. This year, we launched the pioneering ‘Invest in Peace’ programme with church umbrella body Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to support Israelis and Palestinians who reach across the divide for reconciliation. Our first series of events in London in May drew 300 Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of no faith to the cause, and we are already planning the next series of events in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow for later this year.
At home, we have continued to interact through all levels of government, from desk officers to secretaries of state, and we have worked internationally through our relations with foreign embassies and links with our Jewish partner organisations overseas. Our highly successful series of seminars for local councillors on Jewish issues took us to Manchester and Newcastle/Gateshead this year, with events in Leeds, Birmingham and London to follow in 2018.
We have staunchly defended Jewish schools and Jewish education in both the mainstream and Charedi sectors. Our efforts are also outward looking – the Jewish Living Experience exhibition has travelled around the country and informed thousands of non-Jewish children and adults about our way of life. Our research partnership with the Institute of Jewish Policy Research has borne fruit, with ground-breaking new reports on Jewish schools and patterns of affiliation to the synagogue movements, releasing data that is vital for planning for our community’s future.
In 5778 we will continue to represent your interests and wishes as a democratically elected and accountable organisation. May this New Year bring you, your families and all of Am Yisrael health, strength and peace.
Jonathan Arkush is President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews