Representing Jews

Keith Kahn-Harris

This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Who speaks for us? The ‘who’ and ‘how’ of faith representation

Keith Kahn-HarrisThe British Jewish community is one of the oldest religious minorities in the UK, and its main representative bodies date back hundreds of years. Today, these bodies benefit from the continued desire for a prominent public Jewish voice, but with the UK’s Jewish population becoming increasingly diverse and politically divided, it has become much harder for any person or organisation claim that they speak for British Jews.  

Get a pdf of this article here

The representation of minorities in Britain has become an increasingly prominent issue in public life in recent decades. While Britain has never been monocultural and homogeneous it is only relatively recently that there has been quasi-official recognition of Britain’s diversity. The move towards public recognition of British society as multicultural has developed occurred since the 1960s, spurred in part by Commonwealth immigration in the post-war period.

One of the key issues that multiculturalism throws up is how and how far public bodies should relate to minority communities. For a mixture of pragmatic reasons, public bodies have sought to ‘deal’ with minority communities through representative bodies.  Local and national governments often prefer to have one or a limited number of ‘addresses’ through which they can negotiate and hear minority views. The problem is that the claims to representativeness that minority bodies may make can be contested from within those minorities and from outside critics too. This has been an increasingly live issue in recent years in the case of Britain’s Muslim minority, where the legitimacy of the Muslim Council of Britain – a body favoured by government in the late 1990s and for much of the 2000s – and other Muslim bodies has been heavily criticised.

RR KKH 1The British Jewish community provides a useful case study in how minorities can and should be represented. As one of Britain’s older minorities (there has been a significant Jewish presence in the country since the late seventeenth century) Jews have been grappling with the issue of representation longer than most.

As a Diaspora and a minority in all of the lands where they resided, Jews have long been impelled to find ways of negotiating with and representing their needs to rulers, if for no other reason than to mitigate persecution. Jewish communities have throughout history appointed representatives (sometimes leading rabbis, sometimes wealthy community leaders) who could deal with rulers.

Aaron Hart
Then…: Aaron Hart (1670–1756), the first chief rabbi of the United Kingdom

From the eighteenth century onwards, Britain’s Jews put these arrangements on a more formal footing. Two institutions developed that are still in existence today. The first, the Chief Rabbinate, emerged in the eighteenth century. The Chief Rabbi was initially the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London, but he was later appointed by a coalition of leading synagogues. In the nineteenth century, the Chief Rabbinate began to model itself on the Church of England, with the Chief Rabbi as an analogue of Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Chief Rabbi retained considerable ecclesiastical and official power over, for example, registering synagogues as places for marriage, until its power began to erode in the twentieth century. The Chief Rabbinate has been associated with middle-of-the-road orthodoxy, eschewing both the fervour of ultra-orthodoxy and the innovations of progressive Judaism.

The other main representative institution was the Board of Deputies, which also emerged in the eighteenth century. Deputies were chosen from leading synagogues and the institution expanded in the nineteenth century. Until well into the twentieth century the Board was dominated by Deputies from the Anglo-Jewish gentry.

As Ben Gidley and I have argued, the dominant strategy that British Jewish representatives followed from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century was a strategy of security.[1] This meant demonstrating the civility and loyalty of Jews as British subjects and appealing to British Jews themselves to act appropriately. The strategy bore fruit in the march to full emancipation and political rights throughout the nineteenth century. By the start of the twentieth century, the Board of Deputies, the Chief Rabbinate, together with ennobled Anglo-Jewish gentry, had achieved respectability and official recognition as a loyal British minority.

RR KKH 2As the twentieth century wore on, the legitimacy of the Jewish community’s ruling class and representative bodies was increasingly challenged from within the community. The mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century brought with it an upsurge in working class Jewish radicalism that rejected the authority of Jewish elites. Jewish communists, socialists and Bundists had no love of the quietest strategy of security. The growth of Zionism appalled the Anglo-Jewish gentry who had worked so hard to prove that Britain was their only home. Alongside these political challenges, growing Jewish religious diversity was also challenging the status of the Chief Rabbinate. At one end Reform and Liberal Judaism grew from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and at the other end more radical orthodox movements developed in the twentieth. Like the Church of England on which the Chief Rabbinate was modelled, its pretensions to be the ‘official’ Jewish denomination were inexorably undermined.

The twentieth century saw growing political battles in the Jewish community as once marginal groups asserted themselves. Zionism overcame opposition to become official policy across almost all community institutions in the post-1948 period. Reform and Liberal Judaism developed their own umbrella representative organisations and took up an increasingly assertive public stance. The ultra-orthodox grew in numbers in the post-war period and in the 1970s severed almost all contact with other representative Jewish bodies. More generally, the Anglo-Jewish gentry was eclipsed in the post-war period as self-made businessmen and professionals took on major leadership roles.

British Jews today are a highly diverse minority. Although less than 0.5 per cent of the population they include many different segments with radically different ideas of what being Jewish means: secular, ultra-orthodox, modern orthodox, progressive, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, Zionist and anti-Zionist. They live in a British society which has (not without difficulty and ambivalence) embraced a semi-official multiculturalism. Just as minorities in Britain generally are not in the main content to stay silent and marginal, so different sections within the British Jewish community are not in the main content to be spoken for by other sections.

RR KKH 3It is therefore surprising that the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies continue to this day and are still important Jewish communal institutions. They remain popular destinations for government and for public bodies seeking to hear the Jewish point of view.  However there has been a significant leaching of authority from these bodies. The Chief Rabbi is chosen and supported by representatives from centrist orthodox synagogues that represent just over half of the roughly 75% of British Jewish households who belong to a synagogue. The Board of Deputies has no representation from the fast-growing ultra-orthodox community and since its members are elected primarily from synagogues and a small number of other communal institutions, its ability to represent secular Jews is limited. The Board’s official Zionism alienates the minority of Jews who are not supporters of Israel. Its cumbersome procedures are a source of frustration to leaders of large communal institutions, who in 2003 set up another organisation, the Jewish Leadership Council, to provide a more effective means of collaboration and representation.

Government and public bodies have slowly learned that they can no longer treat the Board and the Chief Rabbinate as the only voices speaking for British Jews. One might even say that the British Jewish community has been at the forefront of ‘teaching’ government that no minority ever speaks with one voice. A diversity of rabbis and communal leaders are now usually invited to public ceremonies such as state funerals and weddings. Many different Jewish bodies engage in lobbying and representative work. Ad hoc, temporary coalitions and campaigns provide a way for different sections of the community to come together on matters of common interest, without the problems inherent in sustaining more durable cross-communal organisations.

Jonathan Sacks
…and now: Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013

At the same time though, there is still an enduring desire amongst a significant section of the British Jewish community to retain some kind of centralised representative structure. Even though non-orthodox Jewish representatives are keen to remind the public that the Chief Rabbi does not speak for them, there is still intense interest in the institution (when a new Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, was chosen in December 2012 as Chief Rabbi-designate, his appointment was welcomed outside the orthodox world) and even a grudging pride when a Chief Rabbi has as high a public profile as the outgoing Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has had.

The Board of Deputies is still the focus of attempts to reform its structure and increase its representativeness. A grassroots campaign called ‘Change The Board’, launched in 2012, has had some success in increasing the numbers of female and young Deputies. Such attempts to make the Board work better is a reflection of lingering desire for there to be a single institution that all Jews can call their own, perhaps out of a continuing belief that unity is strength against a hostile world or perhaps out of a pragmatic sense that the community needs a talking shop through which a fragmented community can talk to itself.

The British Jewish community offers contradictory lessons to other minorities and to those in the public sphere who seek to work with them. On the one hand, assertive internal diversity within minority communities has meant that it is unlikely that any one voice can truly speak for them. On the other hand, minority communities may still retain a commitment to a more unified representative structure, if perhaps only for certain purposes. This messy and contradictory reality is perhaps a metaphor for the messy and contradictory reality of British multiculturalism itself.

The long and complex story of how British Jews have represented themselves as a minority community, is above all a British story. Different communities across the world have developed very different representative structures. US Jewry, for example, has never had a Chief Rabbi or a single overarching representative body. Rather, representative work is carried out by a variety of bodies. This system seems to work successfully, in particular with regard to lobbying for Israel. This is partially because, as a country which has never seen itself as monocultural, there is much more space for diversity in minority representation. In addition, the sophisticated lobbying systems that have built up over time at state and national level, offers plentiful opportunities for campaigning from different sections of the community.

The hybrid representation system that appears to be emerging in the UK seems to be moving the British Jewish community closer to the American model without adopting it entirely. It is perhaps the continuous process of adaptation to British realities that offers the most important lesson to other minority communities: minority representation has to be developed indigenously, embedded in both the realities of the community itself and the larger reality of the British political system.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer and sociologist based in London. He is the author of Judaism: All That Matters, Turbulent Times: The Jewish Community Today (with Ben Gidley) and Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge. His book on divisions in the Jewish community over Israel will appear at the start of 2014.


[1] Kahn-Harris, Keith, and Ben Gidley. Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today. (London: Continuum, 2010).

The image of Aaron Hart was taken by James McArdell, after Bartholomew Dandridge. The image of Jonathan Sacks is included courtesy of Niall Cooper and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One Response to “Representing Jews”

  1. Alan Lawence Shatsman

    Probably the most influential and prolific Rabbi of modern times. Rabbi Sacks has inspired both Jews and Christians to better understanding of each other, perhaps for two millennia.

    Reply

Leave a Reply