I think that 2016 will go down as one of the most extraordinary years in this millennium. On the one hand, a revolution appears to have taken place in the West with voters signalling their acute dissatisfaction with the status quo through their choices at the ballot box. The European Union referendum, the United States Presidential Elections and even more recently the rejection of constitutional reforms in Italy have sent the political class back to the drawing boards, but it is still moot whether the options chosen by the electorates will deliver the outcomes that voters clearly seek. What is abundantly clear is that the world is a more complex place at the end of this dramatic year and complexity needs steady hands at the wheel as we navigate the various options before us.
On the other, the tragedy of Syria and other parts of the Middle East confront us daily and it is difficult to see how the humanitarian crises can be solved while conflict continues unabated. It is especially poignant for us to see the dislocation of families and inhumane suffering which is the order of the day. We have been there many times in our history and it is only right that we reach out and make our contribution to alleviating the harm which is being done to all of humanity by these events. The work of World Jewish Relief and the JDC, as well as the interventions in Israel, to afford medical care when it is sought is a manifestation of our values as people and a legacy for our children to uphold.
The work of the Balfour Declaration Centenary Steering Group was recently publicised with the roll-out of a dedicated website. I pay tribute to all of the organisations who have come together under the leadership of Lord Kestenbaum to ensure that the Declaration is fittingly celebrated by the community, and that Britain’s commemoration of that seminal event in the self determination of the Jewish People is not only well organised, but is appropriate for the significance of that historical intervention. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister said: “It is one of the most important letters in history. It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride.” As a community, we cannot ask more from our Government, but we must recognise that there will be other voices who will not share that sentiment. It is critical that we do not react disproportionately when these voices are heard, and while I respect the right of all at grass roots level to respond to things that they think are inappropriate, in this instance I think the coalition of communal organisations have the baton well in hand.
There has been much commentary on events in recent weeks at some university campuses. Many have felt that Jewish and Israel organisations have been inhibited by some Student Unions in holding pro- Israel events and at UCL an Israel event was violently disrupted by pro- Palestine demonstrators. I have written about this myself. In a recent op-ed published in Ha’aretz I wrote:
“On some British university campuses, despite a pervasive obsession with “safe spaces” there appear to be no safe spaces for Jews or Israelis unless they renounce Israel. At University College London recently, Jewish students attending a talk by an Israeli speaker were harassed and barricaded into a room by an anti-Israel mob. All too often, the world’s only Jewish state is portrayed as an obnoxious colonial endeavour and a uniquely evil force in the world; a portrayal that is patently absurd but which needs to be addressed not only because it is a calumny but because so often anti-Semitism is both its root cause and its near inevitable outcome.”
The JLC, the Board of Deputies, the CST and the UJS joined together to meet with University leadership and in a respectful, but nevertheless forceful way, set out our community’s legitimate concerns and our lack of tolerance for the status quo. I believe that action will follow and if necessary, we will continue to mount appropriate pressure and will not rest until Jewish students feel that they can promote their values and beliefs in a safe and free manner, on all campuses in the UK.
This year Chanukah coincides with the Christmas holidays. Our menorah will stand proudly in Trafalgar Square as it does every year, but given the timing of the festival this year it has proved impossible to hold the annual Chanukah in the Square celebrations. As you know, I consider this event to be the highlight of the Communal Calendar because it brings all strands of our community together in common purpose, to celebrate this festival of light and freedom. It also demonstrates the values we share with British civic society as the UK’s capital city joins us in celebration and marks the contribution of Jews to every fabric of life in our great country. But we will be back next year in full force.
I wish you all a Chag Sameach and a New Year replete with blessings, peace and much creativity.