Did you watch the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True’? It was presented by Trevor Phillips OBE, former Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and was aired on Thursday, March 19? From the outset, myths and stereotypes about the various ethnic groups that live in Britain today were, quite literally, plastered across the television screen in block capital letters, and then ‘proved’ to be ‘true.’
For reasons of time and space, I am unable to explore all the ‘truths’ presented, so I will confine my remarks to what Trevor Phillips said about ‘the Jews’. Interestingly, it is with ‘the Jews’ that he began, and so the first statement to fill the TV screen in those large, bold letters: ‘Jews are rich and powerful’.
The way in which Trevor Phillips proceeded to ‘prove’ the truth of this statement would simply be ludicrous, if it wasn’t the case that, as Euan Ferguson’s review of the programme in The Observer on Sunday demonstrated, some influential people have concluded that Trevor Phillips succeeded in proving the argument.
So, how did Trevor Phillips go about proving that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’? First, surveying the scene at the top of Parliament Hill in North London, Trevor Phillips looked eastwards to the neighbourhood around Arsenal, where he was born, and moving west, indicated the less deprived, largely ‘Greek Cypriot’ Green Lanes area, where his family later moved, before pointing out in sequence, the ‘greener’ ‘affluent’ suburbs of Highgate, Hampstead and Golders Green, where ‘the Jews’ live. Significantly, as he did so, he did not draw attention to the far from affluent areas to the east: Stamford Hill in the London Borough of Hackney; and further north, Gants Hill in the London Borough of Ilford, where two of the largest populations of Jews in London reside.
So, regarding Trevor Phillips’ first proof that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’: on the evidence of the varied range of locations, where Jews live in London today, we conclude: some Jews are rich, and some aren’t.
The next proof that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’: Trevor Phillips standing inside the lavish New West End Synagogue in Bayswater, West London, where the 19th century banker, Leopold de Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty, had been a member. Of course, there are beautiful synagogues to be found in affluent areas. And in the less salubrious locations, where Jews also reside: very ordinary ones. It’s a pity we missed the opportunity of inviting Trevor Phillips to our leaky, worn-out synagogue building before the sale of part of our premises, and the generous gift of half the proceeds from the sale of a small Liberal synagogue in West Sussex, enabled us to embark on a plan to redevelop our modest plot into a compact weatherproof home for our congregation – which is still a work in process…
So, regarding Trevor Phillips’ second proof that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’: on the evidence of scores of ordinary synagogues and their ordinary members, we conclude – again: some Jews are rich, and some aren’t.
Finally: the more ‘scientific’ evidence to ‘prove’ that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’: a list of statistics against a backdrop of city skyscrapers, indicating that Jews occupy positions of wealth disproportionate to the numbers of Jews living in Britain today. So, while Jews are less than 1% of the population, they are three times more likely to be managers of FTSE top 100 companies and four times more likely to be non-executive directors in the banking sector. But what these facts demonstrate is not that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’, but that some are. And so, another statistic: one fifth of Britain’s billionaires are Jewish. Does this explain why, while average household wealth in Britain amounts to £200,000, average Jewish household wealth is twice that; a few super-rich individuals among that less than 1% distorting the figures? Here we come to the heart of the matter. The essence of a stereotype is the notion that a fact about some members of any group is true of all the members of that group.
And then, there is that assumed conjunction: ‘rich and powerful’. Money is a form of economic power, of course. But the notion that Jews are powerful is just another well-used anti-Semitic trope that Trevor Philips failed to ‘prove.’ Moving to the Houses of Parliament, Trevor Phillips pointed out that a disproportionate number of Jews are MPs: 22, rather than just four – which is what the population numbers would dictate. But 22 Jewish MPs of various party colours out of a total of 650 hardly constitutes ‘the Jews’ wielding political clout.
Throughout the programme, Trevor Phillips offered no analysis of how and why the various ethnic groups became associated with stereotypes that turn out, according to him, to be ‘true.’ So, why are Jews disproportionately represented in business and finance? The answer lies in the history of the persecution of the Jewish populations of mediaeval Christian Europe. Forced to Live in segregated ghettos, where they were locked in at night, and prohibited from joining skilled Guilds and from owning land, those Jews who were not simply providing services to their own communities – as milkmen, tailors, shoemakers, for example – were merchants, and a small number were moneylenders, engaging in usury, a practice forbidden to Christians. Within the strict hierarchy of feudal life, Jews as total outsiders were often used by those in power to control their subjects. For example, Polish noblemen employed Jews to manage their estates and collect rents and taxes.
So, there are historical reasons why a disproportionate number of Jews are found in business and finance. But how do we explain the persecution? Significantly, it did not begin in feudal times. To understand the depth and extent of antipathy towards ‘the Jews’, we have to go right back to the birth of Christianity. Jesus lived and died as a Jew, but the new religious system that developed in the decades and centuries after his death repudiated Jewish teaching. The Church as the ‘new Israel’ replaced the ‘old’ people Israel, just as the ‘New Testament’/covenant replaced the ‘Old Testament’/covenant. The problem was that ‘the Jews’ stubbornly refused to see the error of their ways. Consequently, Jewish communities were isolated and excluded in every part of Christendom until the era of emancipation in the 19th century.
Nevertheless, the singling out of ‘the Jews’ did not commence with the birth of Christianity and the vilification of Judaism. Rather, it began as we find in the Book of Genesis, more benignly, with the journey of Abraham and Sarah, who left their land, their birthplace and their home in response to the call of the Eternal One (Genesis 12:1-4). It was at that moment that, according to the Torah, a particular people with a particular destiny was born. Was it also at that moment that the seeds of envy of the Jewish people were sown? As the well-worn epigram, goes: ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ But here we come to the nub of it: Did God choose ‘the Jews’, or did ‘the Jews’ choose God? Had Abraham and Sarah stayed where they were, what then? Similarly, centuries later, had Moses failed to notice in the dazzling light of the desert sun, a burning bush that was not being consumed by the flames, and simply walked on with his Midianite father-in-law’s flock (Exodus 3), would the slaves have gone free? But Abraham and Sarah did take that journey; and Moses did ‘turn aside to behold the great sight’ (3:3). The tale of the Exodus, recalled each day in the blessing of liberation, remembered each Shabbat, when Jews celebrate the seventh day as a day of freedom, and re-enacted each year at the Festival of Pesach (Passover), is as much about the slaves fleeing in such haste that their dough had no time to rise (Exodus 12:39), as it is about God, swooping down like an eagle (Exodus 19:4) to rescue them.
The Torah relates the back story of ‘the Jews.’ And here is the paradox: This particular people, born out of the furnace of the house of bondage, formed in the wilderness, and charged with the task of creating a new society founded on justice, had but one qualification for the role of the first people of God: they said, ‘Yes’ – or rather, as the Torah puts it, they assented to the covenant with the words: Na’aseh v’nishma – ‘We will do, and we will listen’ (Exodus 24:7).
That’s it. Indeed, according to one ancient midrash – commentary – they only assented, because God held the mountain over them and threatened to drop it on them if they didn’t. That was all that distinguished this particular people and set them apart. Indeed, in another midrash, God only offered the Jews the Torah as a last resort, having first tried to get other nations to accept it.
So: the only talent of the Jews, being willing – or maybe cajoled – into taking a leap into the unknown. But that is not the end of the matter. Aside from the fact, that the term ‘the Jews’, derives from a later period, where it refers to the people of Judah/Judea, the fugitive slaves who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, included, both, the Israelites – the descendants of Jacob/Israel, grandson of Abraham and Sarah – and erev rav, a ‘mixed multitude’ of peoples, who also made the dash to freedom with them (Exodus 12:38). What united the slaves was not their shared blood, but their shared circumstances. And, what transformed the assorted rabble into a people was, simply, their consent.
This leads to another related paradox: The wondrous tale of the Exodus, which is at the heart of the Jewish people, and informs our sense of what makes us the Jewish people, is also the tale of all peoples, who have in the past experienced, or now, currently experience, oppression. This particular tale is also a universal story. That is why the slaves in 19th century North America sang, ‘When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go; / Oppressed so hard, they could not stand, let my people go.’ That’s why, when we gather around the seder table each year to read the Haggadah, first composed by the rabbinic sages of the second century, we begin the ‘telling’, as we uncover and lift the matzah, with this powerful declaration:
Ha lachma anya – ‘This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all you are hungry, come and eat, let all who are in need, came and share our Passover.’
At Pesach, remembrance of ‘affliction’ in the past is coupled with acknowledgement of those, who are experiencing ‘affliction’ in the present. And so, there is work to be done. In his misjudged TV programme, Trevor Phillips presented a mixture of selected statistics and ad hoc information in an attempt to ‘prove’ that ‘Jews are rich and powerful’, without offering any analysis as to why it is that some Jews are rich – and, arguably, powerful – and so, succeeded in reinforcing stereotypes about ‘the Jews.’ There is not going to be a TV programme any time soon about how Jews are disproportionately represented among those who fight oppression, as evidenced from the Black Civil Rights movement in the United States, the Anti-Apartheid campaign, and numberless justice and human rights struggles across the globe. No matter. We know that the story of the Exodus calls us to challenge slavery in the world today – not least, the scourge of the trafficking of women and children. We know that the work of implementing justice is our Jewish task ‘from Egypt until now’ (Numbers 14:19). We also know that it is our responsibility as human beings. May our celebration of Pesach, inspire us to participate in translating the hope expressed in the Haggadah into reality: Ha-shatta, avdey; l’shatta d’atya, b’ney chorin: ‘This year, slaves; next year, free people.’ And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Shabbat Ha-Gadol (‘The Great Sabbath’ – before Passover), 28th March 2015 – 8th Nissan 5775