British Jews are urged to 'rebrand' as ethnic minority

Robert Mendick
Sunday 26 March 2000 02:00 BST

After 5,000 years of believing they are God's chosen people, a high-powered committee of British Jews has ruled that being Jewish has little to do with religion.

For two years, 19 of Britain's most prominent Jews have considered the age-old question, "who is a Jew?" Last Thursday they provided the answer - but only after the chairman had resigned because he thought they had got it wrong.

Michael Webber, a multi-millionaire industrialist, was the second chairman to quit. Seven members of the committee resigned over the two years.

Set up following rifts in Britain's Jewish community, the committee has called for Jews to cast off their religious identity and to "rebrand" themselves as an ethnic minority. But rather than bridging the divide between secular and religious Jews, the study has opened up old wounds.

Judaism is suffering an identity crisis as it enters the 21st century. One in four Jews consider themselves to be secular, while another 18 per cent, according to the report, are "just Jewish". Judaism, unlike Christianity, is a way of life. Language and food can play as significant a role in defining Jewish identity as a belief in God and the Old Testament.

Although many British Jews never attend synagogue, six out of 10 believe their Jewish background has been a positive influence. These findings prompted the committee's most startling conclusion - that British Jewry should represent itself as an ethnic group. A religious definition excludes about one third of the community, it concluded.

The report, called A Community of Communities, pinpoints advantages Jews would enjoy under British legislation if they were grouped as an ethnic minority.

Professor Barry Kosmin, executive director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research which instigated the report, said yesterday: "This is a document for the 21st century. Being Jewish means much more than just religion. It is more about a way of life.

"What we are suggesting is a rebranding of the Jewish community so it can overcome the cul-de-sacs caused by strong religious division. You can bypass the religious problems by secularisation."

The 56-page study has infuriated Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, while the Board of Deputies, the traditional voice of British Jewry, has dismissed it as "blancmange" because it is intellectually "light and fluffy". The Chief Rabbi's office is accusing Reformists "with a hidden agenda" of attacking the perceived Orthodox domination of British Jewry.

The study bears the imprint of some of the most influential figures among British Jewry, including Ruth Deech, Principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, and head of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

It was commissioned on the back of a deep split in the 280,000-strong British Jewish community that surfaced following the death of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a Holocaust survivor and leading figure in the moderate Reform movement. Dr Sacks was criticised by Reform Jews for declining to attend Dr Gryn's funeral in 1996. Two years later, those divisions were repaired following the signing of an historic agreement between the disparate branches of Anglo-Jewry.

Now the Chief Rabbi has accused the report's authors of opening up old wounds and says the Institute for Jewish Policy Research has come up with tainted conclusions to suit its own needs. He has accused the institute of being the "tail wagging the dog" and exerting undue influence over the committee's conclusions.

Mr Webber, chairman of electronics firm Pifco, refused to put his name to the study. "I resigned because I was unable to agree with certain material aspects of the report," he said.

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