The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is home to over 260,000 Jews, making it the fifth largest Jewish population in the world, and the second largest in Europe after France. Diverse in terms of religious and cultural affiliation, as well as in socioeconomic terms, the British Jewish community contributes greatly to Britain’s national sense of self and features prominently in all aspects of public life, with a presence in high offices of the state, the civil service, the judiciary, and the armed forces. The main body of representation for the British Jewish community is the Board of Deputies of British Jews – the UK affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
BOD President, Jonathan Arkush
BOD President, Jonathan Arkush
Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD)
1 Torriano Mews
London NW5 2RZ
Telephone: 44(0) 207 543 5400
Fax: 44(0) 207 543 0010
President: Jonathan Arkush, also WJC Vice President
CEO: Gillian Merron
The history of Jews in the UK dates back centuries to 1070, during the time of William the Conqueror. The Edict of Expulsion, issued in 1290 by King Edward I, led to the demise of England’s Jewish community until the era of Oliver Cromwell in the 1660s.
Historians date Jewish Emancipation to either 1829 or 1858 when Jews were allowed to sit in Parliament. Benjamin Disraeli, a Jewish-born member of parliament during that period, served as Prime Minister twice, in 1868 and later from 1874-1880, and is considered the first Jewish Prime Minister, despite having been converted into the Anglican Church by his parents at a young age. Throughout his life, he took pride in his Jewish heritage.
The relative lack of anti-Semitic violence in Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the country gain a reputation for religious tolerance with the result of an influx of Jewish immigration. Herbert Samuel became the first nominally-practicing Jew to serve in the cabinet and as Home Secretary – in 1916 and again from 1931 to 1932. The late 1930s and 1940s saw many Jews flee to Britain to escape the Nazis.
Today, the UK Jewish Community is very active in British society. Michael Howard – The Lord Howard of Lympne – served as Home Secretary from 1993 to 1997, and David Miliband served as Foreign Secretary from 2007 to 2010. In 2009, The Right Honorable John Bercow, a member of the Conservative Party, was appointed Speaker of the House of Commons and was notably the first incumbent Speaker to pay an official visit to Israel.
During the years before the outbreak of World War II, the government of the UK did little beyond occasional rhetoric in response to the Nazi government’s social, economic, and, after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, physical persecution of Jews within the Third Reich. Indeed, the Chamberlain Government’s policy of appeasement is widely viewed as providing the Nazi authorities with a reassurance that they could purse their anti-Semitic policies with impunity. In addition, the UK Government’s draconian restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine prevented many German and Austrian Jews from finding refuge there.
In 1938-1939, up to the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, the UK Government did allow nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, and Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to come to the UK in a rescue effort known as the Kindertransport, which allowed these children to escape deportation to concentration and death camps.
Throughout the years of World War II, the British Section of the World Jewish Congress, under the leadership of the Marchioness of Reading, Labour Member of Parliament Sidney Silverman, Dr. Noah Barou, Alex Easterman, among others, together with the Board of Deputies, were at the forefront of largely unsuccessful efforts to prod the UK Government to undertake initiatives on behalf of European Jewry.
On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany, and in September-November, 1945, the SS officers and personnel that ran this camp were put on trial before a British military tribunal.
According to the 2011 census, the Jewish community in the United Kingdom numbered 269,568 people out of 56,075,912 overall. More specifically, the details for the countries that make up the United Kingdom are as follows: England and Wales – 163,346, Scotland – 5,887, and Northern Ireland – 335. This is in comparison to Christians constituting 59.3% of the population and Muslims, the second largest religious group in the UK, making up 4.8% of it. Jews constitute 0.48% of the population respectively.
The majority of Jews are concentrated in some of the UK’s major cities, namely London, Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow. Smaller communities also exist throughout the country.
The community is represented by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a democratically elected, cross-communal Jewish representative body, with close to 300 synagogues and Jewish organizations represented. Its presidency is the highest elected office of lay leadership in the Jewish community and the organization’s work – which includes representing the community’s positions and concerns to government and parliament, the media, other groups in society, and London’s diplomatic community, is carried out by a professional team of staff based in London. Consequently, it is regarded by the government as the legitimate voice of the Jewish people in the UK.
JW3 – the Jewish Community Centre London
On a local level, there are numerous other Jewish communal representative organizations in the UK, such as, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC), the main representative body of the Jewish communities of Scotland. Student interests are represented by the Union of Jewish Students of the United Kingdom and Ireland (UJS), a cross-communal organization. In addition, the Community Security Trust (CST), works to protect British Jews and UK Jewish institutions from anti-Semitism and related threats.
The community’s vibrancy and diversity is reflected in other ways as well, including the Limmud conference, a UK-based yearly gathering of international Jewish thinkers, speakers, musicians, artists, and theologians that has become a model for worldwide applications. JW3 – London’s impressive Jewish community center – stands as a fixture for Jewish life and culture in both London and the UK in general. World Jewish Relief (WJR), an agency focused on humanitarian aid for impoverished Jews – and whose patron is Prince Charles – is a notable contribution to aid efforts by the community.
In the religious field, twenty six percent of UK Jews define themselves as “traditional,” twenty four percent as “cultural or secular,” eighteen percent as “progressive,” 12 percent as “Orthodox” and four percent as “ultra-Orthodox,” or “Haredi.” Just over half of Jews in the UK are affiliated to synagogues which belong to one of the main streams of Judaism. The United Synagogue (Modern Orthodox), the Movement for Reform Judaism, Liberal Judaism, Sephardi S&P, Masorti Judaism, and the Federation of Synagogues are the main synagogue movements.
There are several rabbinical institutions serving the various streams. The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom effectively represents most Orthodox Jewish communities and is named by the United Synagogue. The current Chief Rabbi is Ephraim Mirvis, while the Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism is Laura Janner-Klausner.
Kosher food is available in London, and other large cities, through a myriad of stores, restaurants, butcheries, etc. Smaller communities may have less options than the more major cities, but kosher food can be found in most parts of the country and there are several online delivery options.
According to research conducted by the International Journal of Jewish Education Research in 2010, around 60% of Jewish pupils in the UK attend Jewish day schools, with the majority doing so in London. As a result, the number of Jewish day schools has greatly expanded over the past couple decades, with more being planned. Moreover, this increase has resulted in a decline in Jewish pupils’ participation in supplementary education, as more Jewish students are opting for a completely-Jewish framed education, as opposed to the weekly sessions that secondary schools – mainly synagogue-run – can offer. Funding for these institutions – Jewish day schools in particular – occurs on both a state and community level, with state-aid accounting for a good portion of these schools’ budget, and community efforts – namely the Jewish Educational Development Trust – also playing a large role in the monetary elements of these institutions.
In terms of Jewish religious tertiary education, Jews’ College is the traditional Orthodox community’s rabbinical studies center while Leo Baeck College trains progressive rabbis. A number of yeshivot are operated by the Orthodox communities. There are also a number of adult learning centers, including the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) and the Lyons Learning Project.
Youth organizations are prevalent throughout UK Jewish communities in promoting Jewish values and contributing to the wider community. Ezra London, founded in 1919, is the oldest Jewish youth movement in the UK and offers recreational and educational activities within a Jewish structure. The Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY), founded in 1935, focuses on developing a strong Jewish and Zionist identity through a framework of camps, seminars, and various events. The United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) works to support projects in Israel and foster a connection to Israel within the Jewish youth in the UK. BBYO UK & Ireland is part of the wider BBYO organization that spans multiple continents and aims to emphasize Jewish values and empower Jewish youths through leadership initiatives, camps, trips, and other activities. Bnei Akiva UK focuses on instilling the importance of the Torah and Israel, especially in relation to Aliyahs, through various Jewish-structured events and activities. The Union of Jewish Students is a cross-communal, peer-led organization that defends the interests of Jewish students studying in the UK and Ireland. Betar UK, part of the worldwide Betar movement, offers a recreational atmosphere that emphasizes Jewish values and the importance of Zionism. Hashomer Hatzair UK focuses on promoting coexistence among different cultures and religion through youth and community engagements.
The Jewish media in the UK reflects the diversity of the community, with The Jewish Chronicle, the oldest Jewish periodical in the world (founded 1841), The Jewish News, and The Jewish Telegraph dominating the center-ground, while Hamodia and The Jewish Tribune cater to more Orthodox audiences. Jewish Renaissance and the Jewish Quarterly offer up cultural fare, while a number of local radio stations broadcast weekly programs of Jewish interest.
There are numerous notable Jewish sites throughout the United Kingdom, including JW3 (the Jewish Community Centre London), the Jewish Museum of London, the Manchester Jewish Museum, and synagogues of all streams. Additionally, the British Library and British Museum in London contain major collections of Jewish artifacts and manuscripts.
Britain maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel. These strong diplomatic ties are manifest in the rapidly increasing volume of trade between the two countries during the last couple of years.
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