Report gives snapshot of UK Jewish life on eve of Gaza war

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Report gives snapshot of UK Jewish life on eve of Gaza war

88 percent of British Jews have been to Israel at least once, and 73 percent say that they feel very or somewhat attached to the country

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

The number of British Jews identifying as Zionists fell from 72 percent 10 years ago to 63 percent in 2022, according to a report from the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR).

Yet the report’s authors, Dr David Graham and Dr Jonathan Boyd, acknowledge that the data was gathered in November and December 2022, months before the 7 October Hamas terror attacks.

Accordingly, they admit: “It’s highly likely this war has had an impact on Jewish people’s perspectives of Zionism and/or attachment to Israel, at least in the short to medium-term.” They invite readers to view the findings as “a snapshot of UK Jewish opinion on the eve of that war”.

The JPR report, launched today, offers a warts-and-all picture of British Jews — from the strictly Orthodox to the completely secular, from Hebrew speakers to Yiddish speakers, from Christmas tree owners to those poised to emigrate to Israel because of antisemitism.

The figures show that 88 percent of British Jews have been to Israel at least once, and 73 percent say that they feel very or somewhat attached to the country.

And the survey also says that the top four markers of Jewish identity — the way that British Jews see themselves — are “remembering the Holocaust, combating antisemitism, feeling part of the Jewish people, and strong moral and ethical behaviour”. Supporting Israel comes ninth in this list, out of 18 possible markers.

Coming at the bottom of this list are keeping kosher, prayer, socialising in predominantly Jewish circles, and studying Jewish religious texts.

All the findings in the report are designed to help community leaders plan for the next decade and more.

The survey, known as the National Jewish Identity Survey, or NJIS, was carried out between 16 November and 23 December 2022, with 4,891 self-identifying Jewish people aged 16 and over and living in the UK.

Factored in to some of the findings, such as synagogue attendance, for example, or Jewish cultural uptake, was the then continuing presence of Covid — leading to “virtual” participation in communal practice, which had not been available at the time of the last major JPR survey of this kind in 2013.

“Jews in the UK” covers almost every known type of Jewish affiliation, from religious belief to festival celebration.

Suffice it to say that there is bad news and good news for community planners: bad news for kosher butchers, perhaps, as when respondents were asked “whether kosher meat was purchased for their homes and whether they separated milk and meat utensils at home”, only 40 percent of households buy only kosher meat for their homes, and 39 percent separate milk and meat utensils.

Only 29 percent of those polled ranked “keeping kosher” as very important in terms of their Jewish identity. But bakers can be a little more sanguine: four in five (79 percent) British Jews report having bought a challah in the last year.

Close to one third (32 percent) of all British Jews said they had experienced some kind of antisemitic incident in the calendar year 2021. This figure, say the report’s authors, is higher than the figures that police or communal security figures have. Fourteen percent had experienced a “verbal” antisemitic attack, and 11 percent said they had “experienced online antisemitic abuse or harassment targeted at them personally because they are Jewish”.

Younger people were much more likely than older people to have experienced an antisemitic incident. Thirty-nine percent of those aged 16 to 19 and 32 percent of those in their 20s said they had experienced one in 2021, compared with three percent of those aged in their 80s. Similarly, those currently in school, college or university were far more likely (35 percent) to have experienced an antisemitic incident than those who were employed or retired.

Though more than half those surveyed — 52 percent — said it was “extremely unlikely” that they would make aliyah in the next five years, the report also shows that Jews who did not “feel safe as a Jewish person living in the UK” or who had experienced an antisemitic incident, were notably more likely to consider making aliyah than others.

There is mixed news for religious denominations: 47 percent of Jews consider the Torah to be a human creation while just 18 percent believe it to be the actual word of God, and 25 percent don’t believe in God at all.

The report adds: “Supporters of the Conservative Party are far more likely to believe in God and the divine origins of the Torah than supporters of either the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party. Education is also associated with belief among Jews: those holding a degree are far less likely to believe in God or the divinity of the Torah than those who do not hold a degree.”

However, “a majority of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue (57 percent), with a further 13 percent claiming an informal affiliation with one. Almost three in 10 (29 percent) said they were not shul members”.

The report notes that “despite declining synagogue membership, when JPR last asked this question in 2013, we found exactly the same attendance results, with a minority (41 percent) of Jews attending frequently (monthly or more often) and most (59 percent) attending infrequently or not at all.

“Notwithstanding the fact that, in 2022, online ‘attendance’ was an option which was unavailable in 2013, it does look as if there has been a level of stability in this regard, despite concerns that the pressures of secularism, assimilation and the Covid-19 pandemic (with the associated impact of synagogue closures under lockdown), may have impacted people’s habitual attendance routine.”

Fasting on Yom Kippur has changed somewhat since 2013. Though 56 percent of all Jews say they fast every year, three percent more than a decade ago, a lot fewer — 18 percent — say they never fast, a decline from 26 percent in 2013.

The report shows British Jews stepping inside and outside their Jewish identity. For example, 28 percent of all British Jews say they have a Christmas tree at home, and the younger Jews are, the more likely they are to do so. On the other hand, 85 percent of British Jews who have had a son, had him circumcised, including 60 percent of those who describe themselves as non-practising, secular or cultural Jews.

And when it comes to death, the report says, “almost all Jews wish to have a Jewish funeral when the time comes. This desire is more or less universal among Charedi, Orthodox, traditional and Reform/Progressive Jews, and very high among those identifying as Just Jewish (88 percent). Only among non-practising secular/cultural Jews is the attitude different: only about half of this group (49 percent) say they want a Jewish funeral.”

More cheerfully, the authors discern many links between happiness and being Jewish, both in levels of religious observance and engagement in Jewish communal life.

In his introduction to the survey, JPR’s executive director, Jonathan Boyd, writes: “It is important to note that the data for this study were collected several months before the barbaric attack on Israel by Hamas on 7 October 2023, but the report is being published after that. That event, and the war it has prompted, loom very large at the time of writing.

“Jews around the world, including here in the UK, are reeling both from the sheer scale and brutality of the assault and from public reaction to it, which has included a significant spike in recorded antisemitic incidents.

“It is distinctly possible that people’s Jewish identities will have shifted somewhat in response, perhaps particularly on variables related to Israel and antisemitism, although it is equally possible that any such changes will be temporary; one of the more striking aspects of the findings here is that many attitudes and behaviours appear to have shifted little over the past decade. Time will tell, and this report will provide a very important baseline against which to make future assessments”.

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