Claudia Mendoza: We Must Speak Out About Our Flaws

This article was written by Claudia Mendoza, Head of Policy and Research at the Jewish Leadership Council, and was featured in the print edition of The Jewish Chronicle on 16th December 2016.

The long awaited Casey Review, a report on integration and opportunity in the most isolated and deprived communities in Britain, was finally published last week. Commissioned by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister, the findings will surprise few but should alarm all. Issues around the status of women, the safeguarding of children and the segregation of communities are deeply concerning.

One of the main criticisms made by Dame Louise Casey was the approach to social cohesion by various governments. Ministerial attempts to boost integration of ethnic minorities amounted to little more than “saris, samosas and steel drums for the already well-intentioned.” While not critical of interfaith work, Casey did not hold back in highlighting the shortcomings, referencing the fact that it is the fraught issues that are not spoken about.

Some of the recommendations for improving integration of communities were about establishing a set of values around which people from all different backgrounds can unite. For example, attaching more weight to British values and considering the introduction of an integration oath on arrival for immigrants intending to settle in Britain.

The concept of British values has been controversial and not welcomed by all, especially those for whom it is intended.

The question that needs to be asked is what is uniquely British about the values of democracy, law and order, and tolerance? We all think we instinctively know what is meant by British values but perhaps we assume too much.

The report focuses heavily on the Muslim community — or more accurately, Muslim communities — and heavily criticises the failure of public bodies and community leaders to talk freely about issues, often out of a fear of being labelled racist. We only have to look at the example of the Rochdale child-grooming gang, where a number of Asian men were convicted of abusing white girls to understand the repercussions of this reluctance. The victims suffer a double crime.

Failure to address issues such as these in the appropriate way leaves the ground open for the far-right on one side and Islamists on the other.

Although the far-right and the Islamists are ideologically opposed to each other, they share the same goal: to show that diversity and modern Britain, or Islam and modern Britain, are somehow incompatible. We only need to look to recent elections to see how this has been exploited.

The Jewish community is not blameless. At times, we have shied away from voicing opposition to extremism out of fear of offending or stoking tensions. Given that the Jewish community is a primary target of violent Islamists, this is not unreasonable.

However, the Jewish community in this country is an exemplar of how faith and minority communities can maintain their distinctiveness while integrating into British society and actively contributing to it. There is no contradiction in congregating for prayer on a Shabbat morning and issuing a prayer for the Royal Family and Armed Forces, for example. In fact, they go hand in hand and illustrate the British Jewish community’s loyalty to Her Majesty and to the United Kingdom.

Examples of inequality and intolerance in other ethnic and faith groups are also highlighted in the report and the Jewish community does not go unmentioned.

Casey cited the treatment of women in some strictly Orthodox communities and the way their children are taught that a woman’s role is to look after children and clean the house. It was acknowledged that, while this doesn’t happen everywhere, it does exist.

The other issue raised was that of a religious divorce. Some Jewish women, although granted a civil divorce, are refused a get from their husbands. To its credit — and this is something missed by the report — the London Beth Din seeks to ensure that the divorce process is not abused and uses sanctions at its disposal as a means of pressure. These sanctions include alerting the community to the get refusal and advising them to refrain from business or social interactions with the get refuser. This of course does not solve the issue but shows a level of maturity within our community.

Undoubtedly, there is reluctance within some communities to expose issues they fear will perpetuate or create negative opinions. While that is completely understandable, it is important that we are confident enough to speak out against practices that are not compatible with a cohesive society, especially so if those practices are illegal.

Looking at the issues in our own community does not mean underplaying the threats from elsewhere but we have a duty to start where we can have the biggest impact.

It is fair to say that British society has a complex relationship with religion and faith for a variety of historical and social reasons, many of which were highlighted in the report.

As more and more people describe themselves as secular, there is definitely a feeling of religion being side-lined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.

The report does talk about the good work of faith communities, specifically mentioning Mitzvah Day. Despite that, there is recognition that many regard religion as a negative and divisive force in society. More than a quarter of charities in Great Britain have an association with faith but many people are suspicious of them. Work needs to be done to change the suspicion with which faith is regarded and that begins with promoting the good and ridding ourselves of the bad.

Ignoring such problems may be the easier path to take, but it is a very short-term perspective. For the sake of long-term support for faith in the public sphere, it is something we must do.

As I have heard Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy say on many occasions, “Britain has been good to the Jews and the Jews have been good to Britain.” We have a duty to set an example to others, many of whom undoubtedly face a bigger battle.