Progressively Speaking: The census is more complex than a box-ticking exercise

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Progressively Speaking: The census is more complex than a box-ticking exercise

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith looks at the forthcoming census and offers a Reform response

The BBC’s Politics Live show recently “debated” whether Jews “should count” as an ethnic minority. With the National Census upon us, we are being offered the chance to tick a box on Jewish as a religion but not ethnicity. How should we feel about this?

Jews are recognised by provisions in the Race Relations Act as a distinct racial group, who must be protected from discrimination.    

As Jonathan Sacerdoti wrote in The Spectator: “Within living memory, two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered on account of their ethnicity; the Nazis were keen to include in their slaughter even those with no cultural or religious ties to Judaism”.   

When I was young, my family’s regular Rosh Hashanah afternoon walk was on the paths around a golf course, half a mile from home, that was well known not to admit Jews to membership, not because of any religious test but because of our ethnicity.   

The mainstream London school I attended had, just a couple of decades before, imposed a Jewish quota lest ‘too many’ Jews enter the student body.   The Race Relations Act of 1976 made such discrimination illegal.  

The memory of discrimination against Jews is very recent. It means our ethnicity is real and must be protected by any government that seeks the equality of its citizens and to ensure the effects of inequality are quickly challenged and corrected.   

Jews are disproportionately affected by hate crimes in Britain, our death rate from Covid-19 was much higher than the general population, our religious life has some requirements in public services and from employers that need protecting, such as access to kosher food and the ability to celebrate Jewish festivals.   

We need to continue to be recognised as a minority group within the UK for tough issues to be addressed and for protections to continue.

When Anas Sarwar became leader of the Scottish Labour Party, he was correctly identified as the first Muslim leader of a major political party in the UK but was certainly not the first from a minority.  

We crossed that divide 150 years ago when Benjamin Disraeli became leader of the Conservative Party. Disraeli’s Jewish ethnicity would be protected by the laws of today.

On the census, you will be able to record you are Jewish, but only as a religion – despite the fact we have not lost our distinctiveness as a people.

  •  Mark Goldsmith is Senior Rabbi of Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue

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