Earlier this month, Jonathan Boyd, Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, told the British Jewish Studies Association conference that Jews in Britain were in decline. He had a lot of stats about the percentage of Jews compared to British Muslims – with images showing nine putative Muslim figures for every Jewish one. But his main narrative concerned the decline of British Jewry since the 1950s – a decline that has levelled out in the last ten years but not significantly reversed, with just over 263,000 Jews in England and Wales.
This tale of long-term decline is popular, well furrowed terrain. The Jewish establishment in Britain repeatedly reminds us of the decline in British Jews, from around 410,000 in the mid-1950s according to Boyd. Despite the large numbers of ultra orthodox Jews, particularly Haredim, reproducing, other Jews are failing in their duty – remaining childless, having relationships with non-Jews, no longer identifying with the Jewish faith.
But there is a different narrative that could also be told. If Jews are having relationships with non-Jews, then it would seem logical to assume more children are being born with some degree of Jewish heritage. Instead of the gloomy story of Jewish decline, and the fear that Jews will almost cease to exist in Britain within fifty years (apart from the ultra-Orthodox), Jewish organisations could tell a far more upbeat story about the growing permeation of Jewish heritage into large swathes of the British population as increasing numbers of children have a Jewish parent, grandparent, or other relative.
But are these people Jewish? They may fail the matrilineal test Jewish orthodoxy requires, and even the patrilineal test more progressive religious Jews accept. They may not mark Jewish as their religion on the census (especially since you can only identify one faith), and they may not think to write in Jewish under “other” on the race question. Indeed, many people may feel they can’t count themselves Jewish because they don’t fulfill the rules of descent. And so absent from official data, Jewish organisations, like IJPR, may feel there is no planning to be done for this diffuse, hard-to-know constituency.
Yet, many people with some Jewish heritage may have grown up with family and community narratives about Jewish culture, persecution, politics, sensibility or faith. This can be recognised or it can be ignored by mainstream Jewish bodies. Ignoring it plays into the notion of Jews as a discrete minority, with common interests and concerns, about whom phrases such as “the Jewish Community” make sense. By contrast, recognising Jewishness as a thread in many people’s complex lives and sense of self opens up far more heterogeneous notions of what being Jewish means.
It also poses challenging questions about Jewish value – why people should maintain a relationship to a part of their heritage which could be easily relegated to the past. No doubt it is far easier for Jewish organisations to provide support for those whose lives are already bound up with religious Jewish ritual and knowledge, those for whom the question of value has already been answered.
This isn’t an argument for proselytism – of bringing those who are merely Jewish in from the cold, heating up their commitment and turning it into a religious one. Rather, it suggests the importance of Jewish organisations recognising the many ways people experience Jewishness – including through hybrid identifications that may include other religious or spiritual commitments also: is it only in America that the term Jewbu has any meaning?
In a sense, it’s about sharing people, sharing them with their other affiliations. But, in the process, Jewish life can also gain and grow from the rich other cultural and social resources that those whom it recognises bring with them.