Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Bo 2012

Parashat Bo by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
27 January 2012


It is an interesting phenomena that in England, we occasionally participate in a process that, depending on ones point of, is one of navel-gazing or soul-searching. It is the question of English identity. I use the term, English rather than British, because this process is often brought on by an overt expression or desire to express the identity of one of the other parts of the Union as a nation. Other stimuli that get us going are major sporting events, such as the Olympics coming to town or issues relating to the Royal Family.

The question of English identity has again come into the spotlight catalysed by the seemingly stronger and clearer sense of identity expressed by Scots seeking greater autonomy and for some independence for Scotland. The fudging of the political debate by SNP politicians seems to indicate nervousness about the strength of the desire amongst all Scots. Yet it has been enough for those who define themselves as English to raise old questions.

When we consider the question, one pretty quickly realises that the question is not so much political rather cultural. In Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a much clearer Celtic tradition to draw upon. It has not always been so as there have been times, most notably relating to the British Empire, when all have freely participated to their own advantage.

Yet particularism as expressed by the majority is much easier in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland due to the size of the population. With a smaller demographic it is much easier to maintain core traditions. England is not such a case and when we scratch the surface, a Jamie Oliver will come along and inform us that Fish and Chips are actually a Jewish import! The Fairport Convention, the greatest purveyors of English folk traditions just love to sing in French and express those origins of Englishness!

England has, perhaps grudgingly and often for its own economic purposes, welcomed waves of immigration and on the whole integration has been successful. We have ended-up with, multi-everything society that allows for the free expression of multiple layers of identity, yet generally creates a sense of belonging.

The freedom of that belonging is evidenced by a trait that I think is wonderfully English, that of self-criticism. The freedom of speech is one of the strongest in the world. The ability of interest groups to speak out is plainly evident. Even if it sometimes goes further than we might sometimes like, the checks on it, as we see with the Leveson Inquiry. The ability to express our difference is vital to our own sense of individualism within the collective and to protecting the rights of the individual and different groupings. The astute critique to the interpretation of figures relating to immigrants and social funding this week was a clear example of this. They tend to get a bad press but our journalists are not usually lazy.

If we turn to the experience of Jews in this country, we find ourselves in what I would term, a Golden Age. It is a strange one. Annually, the CST (Community Security Trust) inform us of increases in anti-Semitic activity. The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News report on this weekly and especially that on university campuses and academia. Yet, as the recent JPR (Institute of Jewish Policy Research) on student attitudes illustrates, there are paradoxical trends. Almost half of all Jewish students report that they have experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on campus, yet only around 20% of them feel concerned about it.

Jonathan Boyd, executive director of JPR addressing our Rabbinic Conference of liberal Judaism suggested that the focus on reporting anti-Semitic incidents suits the more conservative fund-raising Jewish organisations such as CST, Jewish education and care institutions. Feelings of vulnerability stimulate donations to Jewish causes.

The paradox lies not only lack of concern for anti-Semitism amongst Jews, but the increasingly confident demonstrations of Jewish identity within English society. Putting aside the disproportionate numbers of Jews in politics, commerce and the legal professions, what is most interesting is the proliferation of Jewish cultural expression. Limmud, Jewish Book Week, the UK Jewish Film Festival, the London Jewish Community Centre and more, all are flourishing. The output from Jewish authors, playwrights, musicians is celebrated by the Jewish community and increasingly by those in wider English society, just as Bollywood-style dance classes in church halls become as popular as other imported leisure pursuits such as yoga. As well as a chip shop on every high street, there is a kebab shop, Chinese and Indian take-aways. If the trend in Central London is anything to go by, there will soon also be a salt-beef bar or deli coming to Northwood soon.

We will have to wait to see if historians define us as living in a Golden Age yet the Jewish Community is doing its utmost to celebrate its identity alongside others at this time. It is as a result of our difficulty in defining any particular brand of Englishness that is our strength as English people. The freedom from Egyptian slavery, our Jewish metaphor for reminding ourselves to thank God should never be forgotten, nor all the other occasions when we have struggled for our freedom. Yet now is a time for celebration of our Englishness, our ability to be the individuals we want to be, in freedom.

We know well the phrase, ‘a light to the nations.’ Let us celebrate the fact that in England, we can be a light in the nation.