Turbulent Times

BRIN readers keen to understand the changing nature of the British Jewish community and its leadership since 1990 will find helpful a book which was published by Continuum on 22 July. Entitled Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, it has been written by Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley (ISBN 978-1-8471-4476-8, £19.99, paperback, also available in hardback). It is the outcome of a research project undertaken at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths College, University of London. The project was funded by the Rothschild Foundation Europe, the Memorial Fund for Jewish Culture and the Economic and Social Research Council.

The central thesis of this thematically-arranged and sociologically-focused book is that, confronted by the paradox of simultaneous ubiquity and marginality, there has been a shift within Jewish communal discourse from a strategy of security and assimilation, emphasizing Anglo-Jewry’s British belonging and citizenship, to a strategy of insecurity, stressing the dangers and threats which Jews face individually and communally, including the ‘new anti-Semitism’. This shift, which Sir Jonathan Sacks is seen as instrumental in initiating, is viewed as part of a continuity-driven process of renewal in the community that has led to something of a ‘Jewish Renaissance’ in Britain. The authors therefore reach an optimistic conclusion about the future of Anglo-Jewry. They relate this to the broader transition from a monocultural to a multicultural Britain.

Although this is not a deeply quantitative work per se, the numerical decline of the Jewish community (apart from Haredi Jews), and Jewish preoccupation with survival in the face of that decline, provides the backdrop to the book. Moreover, it is underpinned by a fairly wide reading of printed and electronic sources and by interviews. Foremost among the published sources are numerous empirical social and statistical enquiries. The bibliography, therefore, is a useful guide to the post-1990 statistical literature, thereby updating Barry Kosmin’s overview of Jewish statistics which formed part of the volume on religion in the Reviews of United Kingdom Statistical Sources series which appeared in 1987.  

Especially interesting for BRIN readers will be the second chapter which highlights how social research on British Jews and Jewish institutions has been used to diagnose the problems of Anglo-Jewry, to inform policy development, and to nurture through self-criticism a climate of insecurity which was deemed necessary to motivate action to ensure Jewish survival. This process is described by the authors as the ‘reflexive turn’ in Anglo-Jewry, thereby applying the sociological concept of reflexivity which concerns the self-consciousness of individuals about their actions and their consequences. Within this context a series of major research studies is considered, including the work of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, relaunched in 1996. However, a significant limitation of reflexivity is identified as a lack of research into outmarried or non-identifying British Jews.

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