Meet the new head of UK Jewry’s first-of-its-kind racial equality commission
Britain’s Jewish community claims to be the first in the world to set up a Commission on Racial Inclusivity. The commission was established by the umbrella representative body of Anglo Jewry, the Board of Deputies, in early June, in the wake of racial justice protests inspired by the May 25 George Floyd murder by police in the United States.
The commission’s new chairman is journalist Stephen Bush, the political editor of the left-wing magazine, the New Statesman, and a Jew of color.
Bush has hit the ground running. Even before the commission’s terms of reference were published this week, he was taking oral evidence from those who wanted to share personal experiences about being Black Jews in Britain.
It’s not a large community — if it could be designated as a community at all. There are no well-known formal groups for Black Jews living in the United Kingdom. Most of Bush’s advice is from about roughly 2,000 people who are either biracial or the families of Black Jews from Jamaica or Ethiopia. A smaller number are people who have, for a variety of reasons, decided to convert to Judaism, and are found across the religious spectrum, from strictly Orthodox to the Progressive movements.
But the commission’s terms of reference ask for input from what it calls “non-Black Jews of color,” which includes those from the Sephardi or Middle Eastern Mizrahi communities who are interested in talking about “Ashkenormativity” — the idea that white Ashkenazi Jews represent the “norm” within the Jewish community.
Just as the board announced the creation of its commission, JW3, the Jewish Community Center for London, held a Black Lives Matter online seminar which attracted thousands of viewers, proving that the issue is keenly followed in the UK.
Bush, in his early 30s, has an unusual personal story to bring to the table. “My grandfather was the last properly religiously observant Jew in the family,” he tells The Times of Israel. Bush was very close with his grandfather, who died in 2012 in Lusaka, Zambia, where he had moved to work as a doctor.
Though the extended family attended Passover seders and celebrated other Jewish holidays at home in West London, Bush says he never really thought of himself as Jewish.
“My relationship with Jewishness is quite similar to what a lot of people on the British left have had. Even three years ago, when I started writing about why I found the issue of anti-Semitism particularly painful, people would say, are you Jewish? And I would say, oh, no, I’m not, I have Jewish heritage,” he says.
But gradually, Bush says, he began to realize that Jewishness, for him, was not simply “cultural and culinary.” It meant a lot more. He thought back to conversations he had with his grandfather, whom he visited in Zambia and who was deeply involved in the Lusaka Jewish community.
“The synagogue in Lusaka went from being a social experience for him to something that was more important spiritually — and that was something we talked about a fair amount on my last visit to see him,” says Bush.
Bush says that being more aware of his Jewish background put him ideologically at odds with his left-of-center bedfellows, leaving Bush unable to vote for Ken Livingstone as mayor of London even before he started to focus on writing about anti-Semitism.
His connection with Jewish life came even earlier, when he went to Oxford University to study history. There were no Black British students to mix with at his Oxford college, but there were plenty of ordinary Jewish students, and that was an unexpected link for Bush. At that stage, he says, he would have described himself as “Jewish-influenced. I was becoming more aware of something that was important to me.”
When you come out and say it, about being Jewish, you feel a pressure lifting
Bush says he never set out to be a “race” writer, but likens the embracing of his Jewish identity to the experience of a gay person coming out of the closet.
“I couldn’t write about the [Jeremy] Corbyn situation without being honest with both me and the reader, why I found it personally painful,” he says. “So I realized this was not about a family rice pudding recipe; this [Judaism] was a living, breathing, cultural inheritance of vital importance to me. When you come out and say it, about being Jewish, you feel a pressure lifting.”
For Bush, identifying publicly as Jewish was “a liberation.” “You feel more yourself. And most people were very welcoming and kind,” he says.
Bush wrote numerous articles in the New Statesman and elsewhere denouncing the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories which emerged on the left during Corbyn’s tenure as head of the British Labour Party from 2015 to April of 2020. So Bush became — slightly to his own surprise — the best-known Black Jew in Britain, and thus a perfect fit to chair the board’s racial inclusivity commission.
He gently rejects any suggestion that he is being used as a “beard,” or cover, by the Board of Deputies, which has been strongly criticized by younger members of the Jewish community for its perceived failure to deal with difficult issues such as Israel’s policies on annexation, and racism.
Bush became — slightly to his own surprise — the best-known Black Jew in Britain
Bush says he genuinely admires board president Marie van der Zyl for her “brilliant model for other communities to follow.”
“One of the things which is particularly painful for Black British Jews is that the Black Lives Matter campaign uses language and tropes that are openly anti-Semitic,” says Bush. “Marie’s statement on that is an absolute model of how you navigate that. What she has done is to say, ‘I am not going to engage with this flawed leadership, I am going to engage with the causes of this movement.’ The board has been genuinely impressive on this issue.”
To that end, Bush has listened to Black Jews, as well as Sephardi, Adeni, Indian, Iraqi and Iranian Jews. Many of those who spoke to Bush and his secretariat mentioned the pain involved in moving from a community where there was acceptance to another where they were not known. Too often, they said, security personnel have been too assiduous in telling them that they “don’t look Jewish” and cannot enter community premises.
In setting up the commission, the board says that “there is a need for the Jewish community to become an unequivocally anti-racist environment that is more welcoming and inclusive to Black Jews, and non-Black Jews of Color.”
Most of the evidence presented so far has been direct oral testimony. Carefully, Bush says he will not have people giving evidence in a way that would offend other Black Jews, but would be ready to consider written testimony where appropriate.
But Bush is keenly aware of the problem presented by left-wing activists such as Jackie Walker, who describes herself as Black and Jewish and who was expelled from the Labour Party in 2019 because of “prejudicial and grossly detrimental behavior against the Party.” Walker’s expulsion centered on conspiracy theories she published about Jews and slave-owning.
Now that lockdown measures against COVID-19 are being lifted in the UK, Bush plans to travel around the country, meeting those who wish to give evidence to his commission. He will produce a report with a variety of recommendations, but the core focus of the commission’s work will be “to address anti-Black prejudice and racism within the Jewish community, while also addressing the issues faced by non-Black Jews of Color in the Jewish community.”
In four years’ time, the plan is to look at the report’s recommendations and see how well — or not — they have been carried out.
“No project of this kind has ever been undertaken, so there is no clear road map to follow, but with the guidance of the many passionate people who have come forward, we have created a platform that will assist our work in making the Jewish community an unequivocally anti-racist environment,” says Bush.
There is no clear road map to follow
And as for Bush himself, dealing with the mainstream Jewish community in such a full-on way has inevitably caused him to think long and hard about his own Jewish identity and how he wants to express it.
Yes, he says, if he and his partner have children, he would strongly consider joining a synagogue and passing on his Jewish legacy.
“It’s the ultimate life insurance,” says Bush.