It’s easy to get caught up in the narrative of negativity. Against the backdrop of the increasingly intense assault upon Israel’s legitimacy, red lines being consistently crossed in mainstream political debate and the ever-present backdrop of extremism and antisemitism there are certainly an array of reasons and justifications for the pervasiveness of pessimism in communal discourse.
These are all serious challenges that we underestimate at our peril. Thankfully, our community boasts world-class institutions such as BICOM, CST and the Board of Deputies, and a central strategic framework in the form of the JLC. They are acclaimed and emulated internationally as examples of best practice in dealing with such matters.
However, it would be the worst kind of victory to award to the boycotters and delegitimisers if we allowed them to define our collective agenda and identity as British Jews. Historically it is often a default, and understandable position for Jewish communities to turn inwards during difficult times. This is the worst possible response – normally perpetuating and further embedding the problems. The huge public Chanukah celebration in Trafalgar Square last year was just one important example of how we can collectively counter this narrative of negativity by celebrating the vibrancy of Jewish life in the UK. We were delighted that the Jewish News partnered with us to deliver that event.
This is also why Sunday’s Jewish Living Expo was such an important moment. Almost ten thousand people came through the doors of Wembley stadium. People of all religious and political affiliations. Members of the strictly orthodox community mingling side by side with members of the non-orthodox synagogue movements. A moment in which our community collectively celebrated our social care services, our connection to Israel, our youth provision, our philanthropy and the stunning success of our Jewish school system. The JLC sponsored the Jewish Schools area of the Expo and it was fantastic to see the level of interest it generated from parents and children from the moment the doors opened until closing time. The all-pervasive reach of the event was encapsulated by a tweet from Board of Deputies CEO Jon Benjamin that he even bumped into his dog’s vet!
These moments also project an important and more rounded image of our community to the outside world. The image of a community that whilst justifiably concerned about the problems we face is not allowing itself to be consumed by them. This message was not lost on Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles – somebody who has robustly challenged antisemitism, boycotts and hate speech – who told me how wonderful it was to see so much positivity and excitement on the faces of the crowds pouring through the door. It added an important dimension to his understanding of our community.
The Expo was a magnificent celebration of the rich tapestry of institutions, individuals, principles and activism that exemplifies British Jewish life in 2012. This is what really defines our community. Not the occasional flare up between personalities and organisations, which makes great newspaper copy but is of little interest to ‘the Jew in the pew’. At the JLC we recently embarked upon a piece of research designed to explore measures of ‘Communal Vitality’. We hope to be able to develop a broad consensus around a set of clear measures of what constitutes a healthy and flourishing community. These measures will then provide an opportunity to agree central funding priorities and resource allocation. They will be revisited on an annual basis so that we can evaluate success. The first phase of this exercise has seen multiple focus groups around the country involving volunteers and professionals who directly deliver key services to our community. The clear message coming back from participants in those discussions demonstrates a real thirst around the grass-roots of our community for events, organisations and leadership that accentuates the positive, celebrates Jewish life and highlights our contribution to wider civic life in this country.
The Expo delivered all of this and more – setting a new paradigm for the way that our community comes together. This hasn’t come out of the blue, in recent years the growth of Limmud (exported worldwide) and events like Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival and the growth of cultural provision (exemplified by ambitious and visionary projects like the JCC for London) have all helped to shift the emphasis. However the fact that the Expo was envisioned and delivered by a media outlet was something new, and incredibly significant. It takes the message mainstream. The Jewish media are often a whipping boy for communal frustrations. By organising a true community-wide event that injected a real feeling of optimism and positivity at this critical time, the team at Totally plc deserve our thanks and praise for having the vision to create what I hope will be a regular fixture in the communal calendar.