We have found our voice at last
NORTHERN IRELAND’S tiny Jewish community comprises fewer than 80 members. But when it presented its manifesto to the political parties last year, jointly with the Board of Deputies, the province’s then First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and other party leaders set aside time to meet them.
This week,while campaigning for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, political leaders were again out in force. They attended the rededication of the Jewish section at Belfast City cemetery following its desecration.
Over 30 years of political violence the community kept its head down. Now it has found its voice and set out its vision in the shape of that manifesto, re-issued for this week’s elections.
The problems faced by Northern Ireland’s Jewish community are the same as declining Jewish communities elsewhere in the UK — only more so.
Once numbering more than 1,200, the community maintains a synagogue, full-time rabbi and social centre. Keeping up the minyan and a supply of kosher food — much of it brought in from Manchester — are bread and butter issues.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the community has also built up political connections and interfaith activity which are the envy of much larger Jewish centres.
The local branch of the Council of Christians and Jews is one of the most active in the UK. Last week the social centre was packed when Rabbi David Singer launched his booklet explain- ing Judaism to non-Jewish audiences as part of a new educational initiative.
But the upsurge of antisemitism has not by-passed Northern Ireland. The community has recently had to re-evaluate its Facebook presence because of vile and hateful online abuse.
Community chairman Michael Black said the abuse had particularly upset older members of the community, but added that such instances of antisemitism were relatively rare. The Belfast Islamic centre also condemned the abuse.
It is often conflict in the Middle East which generates extremism at home. In the distinctive context of Northern Ireland’s politics, the mainly Protestant Unionist parties tend to support Israel and the predominantly Catholic Nationalist parties are pro-Palestine.
Israeli and Palestinian flags are used to demarcate working-class Loyalist and Republican areas.
Off Belfast’s Protestant Shankill road, a 30-foot display salutes the forefather of the Israeli army, Colonel JH Patterson, an Irishman who commanded the Jewish Legion during the First World War.
A three-minute walk away, across Belfast’s so-called Peace line, on the Republican Falls Road, a mural proclaims solidarity with Palestinian prisoners and calls for Israeli diplomats to be expelled from Ireland.
The province’s second largest council, Derry, which has a Nationalist majority, is seeking legal advice on how it can enforce its resolution to discriminate against Israeli businesses, educational and cultural institutions.
Such activity sits uncomfortably alongside the commitment of these parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, to a diverse and inclusive society — which they are at pains to point out embraces the local Jewish community.
I joined community deputy chair Gerald Steinberg to meet Derry council officers charged with implementing the resolution, to expose such inconsistencies. Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, which has 700 supporters on its mailing list, positively promotes Israel and counters anti-Israel extremism.
On the ground, an Israeli-owned cosmetics stall has been forced out of a shopping centre and family businesses have been subjected to intimidation and abuse because they import Israeli goods. At times of conflict in the Middle East, the synagogue has been physically attacked and threats issued against Jews on social media.
The manifesto therefore reminds the parties that extremist statements about the Middle East breed the kind of intolerance at home for which they express “zero tolerance”.
Opportunities to promote Jewish heritage and culture in Northern Ireland are growing.
The “Jews Schmooze” initiative, directed by synagogue council member Dr Katy Radford, attracts large audiences to its concerts, exhibitions and lectures.
Peter Weir, Minister of Education, announced last month that the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” programme would be extended to Northern Ireland’s schools.
Belfast’s Jewish community, one of the UK’s smallest, is confident and outward-facing and refuses to be pushed to the periphery — in either Northern Ireland or Jewish life.
There is a full-time rabbi and social centre’
Belfast-born Steven Jaffe is a consultant to the Board of Deputies and co-chairs Northern Ireland Friends of Israel. His work is part-funded by the JLC.
Rabbi Singer at the repaired cemetery