British Jews ponder response to discrimination report


LONDON, March 18 (JTA) – The publication of a major new study on religious discrimination in Britain has put the country’s Jews between a rock and a hard place.

The community faces the critical question of whether to support calls for a new law banning religious discrimination, or even a permanent commission to fight it, like Britain’s existing Commission for Racial Equality.

The community’s natural liberal tendency is to take a stance against religious discrimination wherever it occurs, said a leading community member who asked not to be identified. But most Jews believe the latest study is the result of pressure from the British Muslim community, and some Jews are asking hard questions about how strongly they want to come out in favor of Muslim interests, the communal leader said.

The report did not make policy recommendations one way or another, disappointing some Muslim leaders.

“Although international instruments guarantee the right to practice one’s religious faith freely and without discrimination, the domestic law of the United Kingdom does not protect religious communities in this respect,” said Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

Shadjareh said it was time to “start addressing the inadequacies of the British legal system.”

Paul Weller, the lead author of the report, said the “very strong expectation, particularly among Muslims,” was that the report had the responsibility “to make recommendations.” In fact, it was designed only to track experiences of religious discrimination, not to make policy recommendations, he said.

One thing is clear from the study, carried out by the University of Derby and commissioned by the government: Jews are comparatively unconcerned about religious discrimination.

Jews identified ignorance, verbal abuse and damage to property as the top three problems facing the community.

Some 66 percent of Jews thought ignorance – their number-one concern – was “very serious” or “quite serious.”

By contrast, 86 percent of Muslims and 73 percent of Christians were very worried about the same problem.

Only 59 percent of Jews complained about verbal abuse, compared to 82 percent of Sikhs and 75 percent of Muslims.

And just over 50 percent of Jews were worried about vandalism of community property, while 81 percent of Sikhs and 72 percent of Hindus were concerned about it.

The more fervently Orthodox segments of the Jewish population tend to support legislation to counter religious discrimination, but the mainstream is not convinced.

“We are a content group. We are not an aggrieved party,” the community leader said.

As a result, Jews are reluctant to push for laws banning religious discrimination, the community figure added.

Jews have been allowed to live in Britain for more than 300 years, and most British Jews have assimilated and tend not to be the subject of overt discrimination, said Neville Nagler, executive director of the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews.

The Board of Deputies’ official response to the publication of the report was lukewarm.

Jews need to think about whether to associate themselves with the minority of “non-Christians,” or subtly align themselves with the majority by being “Judeo-Christians,” the community leader said.

“Annoying the population and making them more aware of religious issues may not be in our interest,” the leader explained. “Society can handle our minor cultural differences.”

Another factor is that Jews already are covered by existing anti-discrimination legislation that covers racial groups. Religious groups – such as Muslims and Christians, which can be racially heterogeneous – are not.

“There is an Islamic concern that we are covered but they are not,” Nagler said.

Weller, the report’s lead author, said that only Muslims among the survey respondents pushed consistently for a new law to address concerns about religious discrimination.

“Among most participants, there was a recognition that law could play a role – combined with other measures, such as education,” Weller said. “Only Muslims gave priority to law.”

The community leader is not surprised.

“The British Muslim community is flexing its muscles. Through Arab money and diplomatic power, they are attempting to improve their position in Europe,” the leader said.

Jews have to consider carefully whether it is in their interest to strengthen the Muslim community, the leader added.

“As a small, vulnerable community, it is important to make the right strategic decisions,” the leader said.

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