Limmud 2023 asks: ‘Do Jews have a future in UK?’

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Limmud 2023 asks: ‘Do Jews have a future in UK?’

Following the 7 October attacks, HIAS/JCORE director Rabbi David Mason, barrister Sarah Sackman and Board of Deputies chief executive Michael Wegier discuss the impact of rising Jew hate

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Sarah Sackman, David Mason and Michael Wegier
Sarah Sackman, David Mason and Michael Wegier

It was a debate unlikely to have been on the agenda had the atrocities of 7 October not taken place.

But in a hall packed to capacity Limmud 2023 has staged a debate questioning the very future of Jewish life in the UK.

Initiated and chaired by HIAS/JCORE executive director Rabbi David Mason, he was joined on stage by barrister Sarah Sackman, and Board of Deputies chief executive Michael Wegier with all three panelists accepting that in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attack, antisemitism in this country had spiralled and that the community could no longer be complacent about the future.

It soon became apparent that for Wegier, the shocking events of three months ago had left the Board’s CEO reassessing in his view on the steps the community needed to take in the future.

“That does not mean we should be packing our bags,” said Wegier, at one stage as he outlined why, in his view it would now be “essential” and “fruitful” for Jews in this country to “have less confidence in our future” here.

Avoiding complacency, Wegier accepted, could still mean “a potentially wonderful future for the British Jewish community”.

For Sackman, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, the rise of Jew hate in this country was also an unavoidable concern, but she struck a more optimistic tone.

“I like what Michael said about a lack of complacency,” she observed. “We shouldn’t be complacent, but we also mustn’t give way to despair.

“There are many, many reasons to be cheerful about being Jewish in 2023 going into 2024 in the UK, and sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves.”

Introducing the debate, Rabbi Mason had noted how a number communal figures, post-7 October, had taken to social media to post gloomy messages suggests Jews had no future in the UK.

Mason noted there was “growing disillusionment” and a “reducing of trust with wider society”, and that the Hamas attack and the subsequent response by many in the UK had “changed everything for our community”.

He spoke of the “grim statistics” on antisemitism, which showed a 593 percent rise in incidents in recent months.

At the core of Wegier’s argument was that while the support the community had received from government and from the main opposition parties since Hamas carried out their atrocity had been “excellent”, at a street level there was a “huge problem”.

He said: “I would say the hardware of British life has been very solid for the Jewish community, but there’s a huge problem with the software, with what happens on the street, with social media, and all those things.

“That software problem requires us as British Jews to think deeply about the sort of Jewish life we want to leave to our children and our grandchildren.”

Wegier added he would now “welcome an in-turning of Jewish life in the UK and slightly more scepticism about the sorts of issues I know many young Jews are deeply concerned with”.

In further tough words, he continued: “I hope there’s been a wake up call because the people that many young Jews think of as their friends, they are not their friends.”

Packed hall in Birmingham for Limmud debate on Jewish future in UK

When she spoke, Sackman made no apology for attempting to strike a more optimist tone, in her analysis of a Jewish future in the UK.

“The great Lord Rabbi Sacks said that we are the people of hope,” she said, as she outlined the great achievements of the community both at home, and through the building of a nation Israel, out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

“It’s that resilience, it’s that hope, it’s that optimism, it’s that belief in our agency to not accept the world as it, sure riddled by antisemites and other iniquities, but to strive to create the world that we want to see.

“And whilst I recognise and accept the characterisation of our society that we’ve seen particularly in the wake of the 7th of October, I certainly don’t want Jewish life in this country to be defined by antisemitism alone.”

To illustrate her point, Sackman proceeded to identify six “reasons to be cheerful” at the Jewish existence in this country, from the fact that the two female justices in the UK Supreme Court are both Jewish, to the recent victory in the City of London in preventing Bevis Marks synagogue, founded in 1701, from being demolished, to widespread support in wider society for the fight against antisemitism in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

“I think that is a reason to be cheerful and the way that I see that cheerfulness manifested is the fact that many young people who share my political values are joining the campaign and getting involved in fighting for the sort of politics we want to see in this country,” added Sackman.

It was significant that after delivering their speeches, both Sackman and Wegier were loudly applauded. Questions from the audience followed.

Most, it was clear, left the packed hall at the end feeling cautious, but not yet packing their bags to leave the country.

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