As I write my final Pesach message as President I reflect on a period of great challenges and achievements. The challenges are obvious; the achievements made possible with our new team, new premises and new leadership are becoming ever more so.
First within a matter of weeks there is the General Election. We at the Board have been attempting to seize on a historic opportunity to ensure our programme of Ten Commitments, that summarises our key policy asks, is adopted by as many MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates as possible.
The 2015 General Election: A Jewish Manifesto has already been sent out to all selected candidates and there has been a hugely gratifying response. We have also been urging our Deputies and members of the community to join our online campaign, launched in association with We Believe in Israel. By using a new online tool you are able to enter your postcode and simultaneously write to all prospective parliamentary candidates to request their support for our Ten Commitments. We hope these efforts will result in a Parliament with MPs aware and responsive to the needs of our community.
In the meantime whilst there has never been a boring period during the last two triennia no time has been quite as challenging this. At the time of writing we have just received the report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism – their first since 2006. This followed the awful events in Paris and Copenhagen. The community itself has been rocked by the upsurge in antisemitic incidents which in 2014 exceeded all previous years for which records have been kept. Paris and then Copenhagen remind us all how terrorists can easily be inspired by one another.
In the face of this upsurge we have had a continuous dialogue with the Government over the measures we hope will ensure the continued safety of our community. Alongside our communal partners we have met the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Communities Secretary and Education Secretary. In addition we have met the Shadow Home Secretary and London’s Deputy Mayor for crime and policing. It has been gratifying to seethe firm response of the government and of all the mainstream political parties and particularly pleasing that the Home Secretary and Communities Secretary were prepared at very short notice to attend our plenary meeting, reassuring Deputies of their continued commitment to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the Jewish community in the fight against antisemitism.
The Board have been at the forefront of tackling antisemitic attitudes – from politicians, the media and clerics. Yet we see also that though the level of reported antisemitic incidents was up, the proportion of violent incidents was down with only one incident of extreme violence and according to the research carried out by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU, the UK remains the most secure place for Jews in Europe. The APPG report mentions this as well and also specifically commends the Board’s outreach to the Muslim community. Nevertheless we cannot afford to be complacent.
Antisemitism, however, is not our only problem. The campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions directed against Israel is going to get stronger as will the calls for the UK to recognise a Palestinian state independent of any peace or even negotiations with Israel.
Directly but also through the Fair Play Campaign Group, we fight a constant battle against the growing anti-Israel campaign whether on campus, in the media, the unions, local authorities or anywhere else it may arise. Although some question whether that the Board has a role to play on Israel, we recognise its centrality to the community and the consequent need for the community’s representative body to speak out on Israel’s behalf.
On the domestic side, the challenge to shechitah is growing with calls for a ban even from quarters normally sympathetic to our community. In education matters, many of our schools have come under pressure because of reasons utterly unconnected with them. We continue to challenge misunderstanding and malicious attacks with clarity and vigour.
There are however, plenty of positives for Jews in the UK. Britain is also home to a community which for its size is probably the most vital in the diaspora. Our schools are flourishing with outstanding standards and ever greater numbers of pupils. The Board through its advice and above all through Pikuach, its inspectorate, is playing an important role here. Our service to small communities, Jewish Connection, sustains a fulfilling Jewish life for the approximately 20% of the Jews of this country living in communities too small to support a minister.
Throughout the country, at cross communal events such as Jewish Book Week and Limmud, the Board has been active in making presentations and appearing at more events than ever before. The Board also continues with its work with the Jewish Living exhibition– attended by over 8,000 adults and school children in the past year alone – explaining Judaism to the outside world.
Finally we should mention our efforts to reach out to parts of the community not previously represented on the Board. We have increased substantially the representation of students and young people and are working with the Israeli community in London. The Charedi community remains largely outside the Board but we work very closely with them and by theiraccount our relations with them have never been asgood as they are now.
Pesach is our festival of freedom but it is also the defining seminal event in our history. Whatever the challenges the Board
will be determined to meet them and we know that this country continues to offer benefits that few other Jewish communities boast. Of that we continue to be proud.