Pesach Message, by Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush
Pesach is the festival of freedom and renewal and a time to look ahead with optimism. It is also a time to be grateful for the liberty we enjoy. For all the troubles and anxieties we face, we should acknowledge that we live in a country where our community continues to thrive; where we enjoy full freedom in an era free from persecution.
Pesach is a festival in which we celebrate the exodus from Egypt to independence and liberty in our own land. It is appropriate therefore to dwell for a moment on the miraculous rebirth of Jewish national sovereignty over the land that the Almighty intended for us when He took us out of Egypt with a strong arm and a mighty hand. Israel is a country which has flourished. It is one of the world’s most advanced liberal democracies with a burgeoning economy, some of the world’s most innovative minds and a constitution which respects the rights of all of its citizens and affords them all representation and protection under the law. If all countries in the Middle East were like Israel the world wold be a far better place. There would be no refugee crisis. Those brutalised by Islamic extremists and the murderous Assad regime in Syria can only dream of the lives led by Jews and Arabs alike across the border. Indeed it is a sign of the compassion of the Jewish state that among those at the forefront of aiding those refugees as they flee from tyranny in in the Middle East is an Israeli charity – IsraAID – which has been praised at a Board event by Labour MP Yvette Cooper.
Pesach is a festival of renewal and this is also a year of renewal at the Board with a new team of honorary officers bringing a fresh approach to our activities. This team, which draws on a diverse pool of talent and also represents a mix of youth and experience, men and women, is symbolic of the positive direction in which the Board is heading. While the Honorary Officers and our almost 300 deputies debate and form policy on the issues that matter to Jews today, our energetic staff team – including the best public affairs team in the sector – are busy translating those policies and concerns into innovative projects, publications, events and most importantly, robust advocacy on Jewish issues.
One of our most important roles is to ensure that our community is able to live free from antisemitism. We are fortunate to live in a country which has in recent years been hugely proactive against all forms of racism and as a result our society is a fair and tolerant one. However, pockets of antisemitism remain. There is a remnant on the right which we have an continue to confront – as we did in our cross-community initiative Golders Green Together last summer, which ensured that the people of Golders Green did not have to confront neo-Nazi incitement on their doorstep. While far-right racism remains, we are now having to confront Islamic antisemitism and the hate of those on the far-left who couch their Jew hatred as anti-Zionism. There have been problems in the Labour Party which have been widely commented on. We need to ensure that the Labour Party leadership takes responsibility for ridding the party of this fringe of extremists. There have been allegations of antisemitism, racism, bullying, intimidation, candidate misconduct – there should be no place for any of that in the Labour Party. Wherever these allegations emerge in whichever political party, we will always intervene.
Our community shows signs of vitality everywhere. The continuing strength of our central institutions and social welfare bodies are the envy of other religious communities as are our schools which are expanding, with new openings planned . Our cultural life is extraordinarily rich and diverse and we at the Board are working hard to ensure that we continue to flourish. We were active at December’s Limmud Conference in Birmingham with a bigger programme than ever before. Our education department continues to work both to ensure that the greater community knows about Jews and Judaism. To this end we recently convened the first ever conference for teachers delivering the new GCSE Judaism syllabus. Our Pikuach inspectors are striving tirelessly to safeguard the quality of religious education in Jewish schools. We are working with Government to ensure our voice is heard on crucial issues including shechitah, brit milah, burial matters and coroners’ services – all matters that make a difference to our lives. And we have produced an Employer’s Guide to Judaism, launched by the Work and Pensions Secretary, which will ensure that both employees and employers with questions about Jewish culture and practice have comprehensive and authoritative guidance on all matters Jewish.
As free and as productive as our lives are in the UK, we should still reflect on the verse we recite every year at the Seder: Vehi Sheamdah lavoteinu “And this is that (promise) which sustained our fathers and us. That it is not one enemy alone that stood up against us to destroy us. But that in each generation there are those standing up against us to destroy us. But the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hand.”
We will continue to meet whatever challenges are thrown at us while appreciating the freedoms that our forebears in Egypt crossed the Red Sea to attain.