Fact and Fiction

“BRITISH Jewry in the Eighties” a statistical and geographical study by Barry Kosmin and Stanley Waterman, was recently published under the imprint of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The study confined itself to such matters as births and deaths, membership of synagogues, geographical distribution and other areas which could be safely and dispassionately researched and documented. But it did not tell us what Jews in Britain think—not only about contemporary Jewish issues but also about more general problems in the country. A good report was produced within the constraints laid down, but the attitudes and views of British Jews can only be discerned indirectly by inference.

How do Jews identify with and relate to the community? As ultra-orthodox or traditional, as reform or liberal, or simply as “just Jewish”? The study instead presents an analysis of male synagogue membership, according to affiliation to a religious bloc on the basis of payment of synagogue fees. Although this is a valuable exercise, membership of a synagogue is not the same as self-definition in religious and secular terms. It is well-known that there are more than a few “three-times-a-year-shul-goers” who pay their membership dues to mainstream orthodoxy for various reasons.

Even so, the inferences thrown up by the study raise important questions. For example, only half the Jews born in the late fifties and early sixties now marry in synagogue. Going to a Jewish Day Secondary School has a negative impact on synagogue attendance whereas part-time synagogue classes after the age of thirteen has an opposite effect. What does all this mean? Explanations of statistics can be offered, but they will remain incidences of cold conjecture in the absence of a genuine and direct quest for answers to the right questions. Clearly, it is easier to live with the unknown than to confront the reality of unpalatable findings.

A number of years ago, Barry Kosmin attempted to quantify the causes of the dramatic increase in divorce among Anglo- Jewry in an investigation for the West Central Jewish Community Development Centre. Rabbis were asked to assess the major causes of divorce among their congregants from given categories. Those responding gave incompatibility, adultery and immaturity as the most important reasons and, by way of explanation, they “voiced strong group feelings against the Jewish community’s emphasis on material values and the whole affluent society syndrome”. Here at least was a direct approach to ascertain the causes, albeit partially, of an important development in Jewish life in Britain.

In the United States, there is a different approach. Each year, the American Jewish Committee conducts a National Survey of American Jews by opinion polling. Under the direction of Professor Steven M. Cohen of Queens College, City University of New York and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, a professional firm of pollsters sends out a questionnaire to a large number of respondents. In 1984, the recipients were asked to reply to 113 carefully structured questions which included attitudes towards non-Jewish support for Israel, the death penalty for murderers, the seriousness of antisemitism in the United States, the right of the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate publicly and many other interesting items. In the section entitled “Religion”, the 1984 survey revealed that only 24 per cent “attend Sabbath services once a month or more”, 20 per cent “use separate dishes for meat and dairy products”, 86 per cent attend a Passover Seder and 68 per cent a Yom Kippur service. When asked “how do you think of yourself?”, the analysed answers showed Orthodox 7 per cent, Conservative 32 per cent, Reform 23 per cent, Reconstructionist 2 per cent—and significantly “just Jewish” 37 per cent. Moreover, some 45 per cent of US Jews do not belong to synagogues.

Could such a survey be carried out in Britain? It is probable that there would be great reluctance to commission such a project. Communal insecurity about passing information to the non-Jewish world would be a central factor. This was the case when the Jewish community together with other ethnic minorities reacted strongly to the suggestion that a question on ethnic allegiance should be included in the 1981 census. Pilot studies by the Commission for Racial Equality in Haringey and Birmingham suggest that such attitudes are changing. It is therefore likely that the 1991 census will include questions on both ethnicity and language. In view of the Manchester Jewish community’s recent refusal to be represented on the City Council’s Race Sub-Committee, there seems little hope for change and almost certainly that a valuable opportunity for genuine research will be lost. It can, of course, be argued that American Jewry, like other ethnic groups, is an equal partner in a society of immigrants and not reduced to the respectable status of a “privileged minority” as is Anglo- Jewry. Even so, if the “eternal and ineradicable” forces of antisemitism exist in Britain, then they presumably also exist in the United States. Despite this, US Jewry employs statisticians and demographers to conduct polls and surveys which digest every last morsel of American Jewish life. Did US Jewry’s overwhelming support for Walter Mon-dale, around 70 per cent, imbue the second Reagan Administration with anti-Jewish feeling or stop its support for Israel? There is no evidence to suggest that this was the case. Neither does there appear to be undue opposition from communal organizations who feared that the publication of such findings might diminish their influence with official institutions. Opinion polls can to some extent indicate whether representative communal organizations are out of step with the views of the ordinary Jewish citizen. They would also help to strengthen the principle of accountability in Jewish life.

What factors govern political allegiances of individual Jews in this country? 1987 will probably be election year in Great Britain. How will the Jews vote? Which party will they support? Mrs Thatcher’s staunchly Conservative Party, Mr Kin-nock’s New. Model Labour Party or perhaps Messrs Owen and Steel’s mould-breaking Alliance? Such questions will undoubtedly ring alarm bells in some communal quarters since they raise the spectre of the imaginary “Jewish vote”. Yet Jews will almost certainly vote in the same direction as the general public and Jewish interests, including support for Israel, are probably secondary. As Geoffrey Alderman indicates in his book The Jewish Community in British Politics, as early as 1945, in constituencies where Jews were concentrated, Labour seats returned Labour members and Conservative seats returned Conservative members. In the 1945 landslide which swept Labour into power, twenty-six Jewish Labour MPs were returned and there was not one single Jewish Tory. Since the war, there has unquestionably been a swing from the parties of the centre and left—Communist, Labour and Liberal—to that of the right—the Conservative Party. Upward social mobility and the opportunities offered in post-war Britain are probably the central factors in this move. The events of thirty years ago, Suez and Hungary, were undoubtedly decisive in catalyzing the move rightward. The ideals of the Soviet utopia which had infatuated a generation suddenly exploded before them, leading to a mass exodus of Jews from the Communist Party. Professor Hyman Levy, one of the Party’s loyal intellectuals, spoke for many when he wrote:

The simple question that still remains unanswered from the Soviet end is how this cult could arise, and attain the level it did, in a society which many of us, who saw it with our own eyes, were induced to believe … was not merely socialist but on the high  road to communism. (Jews and the National Question, 1958)

When this doctrine of Communist infallibility was shattered, together with the Labour Party’s stand on Suez and its post-1967 disillusionment with Zionism, it is likely that many Jews just floated ideologically. Without a rock to attach themselves to, they were buffeted and submerged by the new economic persuasion. In addition, the Conservative Party’s attitude to Jews also seems to have softened. It appears to have dismantled its nationalist bulwark against Jews to welcome its Jewish voters to participate in party affairs. The increase in Jewish Conservative MPs—two in 1966 to seventeen in 1986—and the decline in Jewish Labour MPs-thirty-four in 1966 to eleven in 1986—does not perhaps overtly reflect Jewish support for the Tories, but signals a willingness of the Conservative Party to accept Jewish candidates and a mutual response of Jews to involve themselves.

Embourgeoisement and acceptability has partly also meant assimilation and anglicization, particularly within the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. Reaction to the new socio-economic status of the community by many socialist Jews has produced a counter-reaction—assimilation within an amorphous Labour movement.

Clearly, a plethora of questions, whether political, religious or general, could be compiled about the Jewish condition in Britain today. Jewish reticence probably also incorporates the “British disease”—to conceal all manner of public information behind a barrier of so-called “secrecy and confidentiality”. Perhaps the work of the American Jewish Committee in annually preparing its survey of Jewish attitudes is an expression of the greater openness of American society. For Jewish organizations in this country to take a leaf out of the American Jewish Committee’s book would be effectively to challenge the thinking of governmental and official institutions on the question of “freedom of information”. If upholding the status quo on general matters is a pillar of principle as far as such organizations are concerned, then it will undoubtedly be a long time before a National Survey of British Jewry is conducted. James Michael in his book The Politics of Secrecy shrewdly comments that:

Secrecy is a feature of nearly all organizations if only because it is an important adjunct to the exercise of any power. It also serves important psychological and sociological functions. Sharing secrets is a bonding mechanism. To confide a secret to another implies trust that it will go no further. The importance of the secret is not so much in its substance, but in its limited circulation.

Essentially, we know very little about ourselves. Blissful ignorance could breed gradual decline if we continue to shy away from a rigorous analysis.

Jewish Quarterly Winter 1986



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