Turbulent times: The British Jewish community today

By Keith Kahn-Harris
July 22, 2010

Although I have had a fair amount published in my time, there’s one aspect of writing that I find really difficult: the title. So when my co-author and I were asked by our publisher what to call our new book on Anglo-Jewry since 1990, I was stuck for answers. I was therefore relieved that their suggestion Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, seemed to capture the essence of the book.

Between 2007 and 2009, my colleague at Goldsmiths College, Ben Gidley, and I were funded by the Rothschild Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council to conduct a study of the British Jewish community in the context of contemporary multiculturalism. One of the things that immediately struck us was just how much has changed in Anglo-Jewry the last couple of decades.

Aside from being the year I left school, 1990 was a significant year in the world: the year that Iraq invaded Kuwait, that then PM Margaret Thatcher was pushed from office, and that the German Democratic Republic (GDR) dissolved. It was also a significant year in the British Jewish community: Chief Rabbi Jakobovits stepped down and the shockwaves were felt from the US National Jewish Population Survey, which showed an intermarriage rate of over 50%. So 1990 seemed to be a good date from which to track the changes that the British Jewish community has experienced.

When you compare the Anglo-Jewry today to that of 1990, one thing becomes very clear: it is a much more vibrant community. There are many more Jewish arts, cultural and educational opportunities than there were then; the building of the Jewish Community Centre for London and the spectacular growth of the Limmud conference (which attracts over 2000 people each December for a 5 day festival of Jewish learning) exemplify this transformation.

The Jewish community that has the self-confidence to embark on a massive school-building programme, exemplified by the imminent opening of the Jewish Community Secondary School. (Even if you do not agree with faith schools, you cannot deny the significance of the huge capital investment that has occurred). The major synagogue movements have made a concerted effort to renew themselves and operate more dynamically.

At the same time though, the growing dynamism and vibrancy of the British Jewish community has been accompanied by a much more pessimistic discourse from community leaders. In the early 1990s in particular there was near-panic at the threat of intermarriage and assimilation, exemplified in the anxious title of Chief Rabbi Sacks’s book Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?: Jewish Continuity and How to Achieve it. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, there have been insistent warnings that the Jewish community is facing a growing threat of a ‘new anti-Semitism’.

In our book, Ben Gidley and I argue that the dynamism and the pessimism of the contemporary British Jewish community are interlinked: they are both signs that the community has finally adapted to multiculturalism.

Whereas earlier generations of communal leaders sought to emphasise the security of Anglo-Jewry within a monocultural Britain in which it was unwise to draw attention to ourselves, since the early 1990s British Jewish leaders have developed the confidence to emphasise the insecurity, the threats to which the community is subject to.

This willingness to stand out has brought about both a kind of ‘Jewish renaissance’ in Britain and also a very public discourse of insecurity.

So the last couple of decades have been turbulent in the British Jewish community – and indeed in the wider world – but it is a turbulence that has brought about some very positive outcomes.

Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, edited by Ben Gidley and Keith Kahn-Harris, is published this month (July 2010) by Continuum.


© Keith Kahn-Harris is Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College, London. His website is www.kahn-harris.org and he is also convenor of the project New Jewish Thought at www.newjewishthought.org

More from Keith Kahn-Harris on Ekklesia.

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