How Feelings of Jewish Insecurity are Aggravated by the Community Security Trust

I have always given credit to the Community Security Trust, the private charity that monitors and combats antisemitism in the UK, for its efforts to record expressions of antisemitism as diligently and rigorously as possible. Some accuse CST of deliberately exaggerating the numbers of antisemitic incidents – as if they were actually manufacturing reports from individuals and adding them to their lists – but I don’t believe for one second that this is the case. They go to considerable lengths to ensure that their statistics on manifestations of Jew-hatred are credible. And one very important testament to this is their polite but firm distancing of CST from the Macpherson Report’s recommendation that any racist incident must be recorded by police according to the categorization of it by the victim (I referred to this in a previous post):

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry definition of a racist incident has significantly influenced societal interpretations of what does and does not constitute racism, with the victim’s perception assuming paramount importance. CST, however, ultimately defines incidents against Jews as being antisemitic only where it can be objectively shown to be the case, and this may not always match the victim’s perception as called for by the Lawrence Inquiry. CST takes a similar approach to the highly complex issue of antisemitic discourse.

But where I and others have differences with CST is over the interpretation of the data they collect and the manner in which they carry out their self-appointed mandate to act as the guardian of the security of the UK Jewish community. And I have always been especially concerned to establish that it is perfectly right for the CST to be subject to public scrutiny of its operations; that a reasoned critique of what it does coming from within the Jewish community is entirely legitimate and should not be seen as unacceptable.

So I was greatly heartened to read Geoffrey Alderman’s recent two columns in the Jewish Chronicle, on 18 April and 10 June, taking the CST to task by questioning whether it ‘represents’ the Jewish community and arguing for much greater transparency about its policy-making and operations. I can hardly say that Alderman and I see eye-to-eye on many things, but on this issue – one which I first began to raise 10 years ago – I think he has done us all an important service by airing his concerns in public.

Unsurprisingly, the CST did not like Alderman’s intervention and he was slapped down in a letter to the JC from 27 communal grandees. Reporting this in his second piece on 10 June, Alderman provided evidence from decidedly un-grandee-like members of the community supporting his concerns. These criticisms of the way the CST operates echo numerous comments community activists and professionals have made to me privately, insisting that they did not want their names to be made public if I ever wrote about the issue. Most had dual reasons for wanting to remain anonymous: first, because they feared that the CST could try to pressure their employers, or the organizations they worked for on a voluntary basis, to oust them; second, because they were aware that such a climate of fear of antisemitism exists that they did not want to be seen to be undermining efforts to combat antisemitism, even though they did not believe that the climate was justified.

Interestingly, Alderman is not alone in publicly expressing reservations about ‘communal policy’ on antisemitism. In a remarkable op-ed on 2 June in the JC, ‘Don’t let antisemitism take over our narrative’, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg conveyed his fundamental concerns:

‘Either you’re for us or you’re totally against us’ expresses an oversimplified, often bigoted world-view. It’s easy to brand others as antisemites, hard to engage at the borders between ourselves and those who don’t see the world as we do. . . . My point is that we shouldn’t make ‘the world hates us’ our motto.

Whether or not he was referring directly to CST as being largely responsible for encouraging this mindset, I don’t know. But you only have to read the response of the Chairman of the CST, Gerald Ronson, to Alderman’s questions and criticisms, which Ronson gave in a JC op-ed on 29 April, to realise that the size, reach and influence of CST makes it perfectly capable of being a prime mover behind the creation of a ‘the world hates us’ atmosphere in the community.

And now we have a further deeply thoughtful and searching critique of the whole notion of ‘security’ and the role of the CST in a superb article by Rabbi Howard Cooper just published in the latest issue of the Jewish Quarterly (not yet available online). In ‘What is our security?’ Rabbi Cooper tells two stories. The first, drawn from a story he was told as a child, exemplifies how a relentless quest for security can produce precisely the opposite because it

can be hard to bear the reality that ‘security’ – what it is, what we need in order to achieve it, where it comes from, and what we feel threatens us – is an internal experience.

The second story is from real life and concerns a young Jewish woman who was organizing a children’s Channukah event at a provincial arts centre where she worked, but who developed doubts about going ahead after a woman in a hijab, recently arrived in the UK from the Middle East, asked her whether the event was open to everyone. She consulted the CST, but even though she says they were ‘measured and reassuring’, she felt constrained to cancel the event. Rabbi Cooper writes:

This story – and it is not a parable – filled me with an immense sadness. I knew that this enlightened young woman had a sound understanding of how we unconsciously project onto others disowned feelings from within ourselves, and then feel ourselves threatened by those very feelings. If even she had succumbed to collective Jewish unease about Muslims, what hope was there for our collective well-being in the UK, when the community is led by by those with a less-psychologically-informed and more outwardly belligerent approach to questions about security?

He continues:

We are driving ourselves mad because of a spurious fantasy: that there is something called ‘security’ that we can achieve and possess. But feelings of ‘insecurity’ are psychological, spiritual, existential – such feelings can’t be eliminated by more of this chimera we name ‘security’.

Such is our post-Shoah concern with security that the original meaning of security in Hebrew, ‘trust in what we cannot see’, has become precisely the opposite, ‘trust in the power of our own hands’. Has the Jewish tradition to articulate a moral vision now finally come down to ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’, what seems to be the fundamental ethos of the religious settlers in the West Bank, he asks.

Rabbi Cooper concludes:

Perhaps to experience ‘security’ we need a renewed faith in aspects of ourselves that we Jews used to attribute to the Holy One of Israel: a capacity for compassion and reverence towards other human beings, a capacity to discern forms of idolatry that offer false security, a capacity to transmute anger into a passion for justice, and an enduring capacity for truth-telling that holds the impossible tension between love of the Jewish people and a responsibility to the ‘other’, the stranger, the outsider, who may never love us but whose well-being is still our concern.

Not only moving, but sound advice. Especially important, and sorely needed today and at all times, is ‘truth-telling’, with telling truth to power a fundamental priority. Alderman, Wittenberg and Cooper have taken very significant steps in this direction. The grandees of the community, the self-appointed guardians of our ‘security’ and the mainstream religious establishment should immediately take note. They already have a lot to answer for.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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4 Responses to How Feelings of Jewish Insecurity are Aggravated by the Community Security Trust

  1. Mark Elf says:

    What did the CST actually advise in the children’s Channukah event? Did they suggest it might be dangerous simply to have the event or dangerous to allow a woman in a hijab? Or have I missed the point altogether?

    • I think the point Rabbi Howard Cooper makes in his article is a more subtle one. He doesn’t say what they advised and since he’s just reporting what the organiser of the event told him, it’s possible that she didn’t tell him any more than he reported in his article. And I don’t believe that he wants us to infer that the CST explicitly said to her either that it was dangerous to have the event or that it was dangerous to allow the hijab-wearing woman to attend. My take on it is that he’s saying that the CST is partly responsible for the sense of insecurity felt by Jews, by which the young Jewish woman was already affected. So that even though whoever she spoke to at CST was ‘measured and reassuring’–and we don’t know exactly what that means–it did not assuage her feelings that Jews are under considerable threat, feelings generated in part by the CST itself.

      I strongly advise that you get a copy of the current Jewish Quarterly and read the whole piece by Howard Cooper. His psychological insights into the issue are very valuable and his attitude to the CST is very much informed by that perspective.

  2. Mark Elf says:

    I’ll try to get it asap. Thanks

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