Jewish Journal


Notes from London: Comparing British and American Jews

by Shmuel Rosner

February 6, 2014 | 3:36 am

The Big Ben in London, photo by Reuters

There's no special reason to compare British Jews to American Jews except that I'm here in London for a couple of days and can think of nothing more interesting than doing just that. So here are some nuggets, with no special agenda in mind.


Thinking about the British Jewish vote is a welcome change – and, luckily, it comes at the right moment: just days ago, a new report was brought to my attention – Voting and Values in Britain: Does Religion Count? – a report which doesn't skip the Jewish vote, which is, apparently, a conservative one.

Historically, the overall religious minority vote has been disproportionately for Labour (although caution must be taken here on account of low sample sizes in research). In 2010, the largest religious minority (i.e. Muslim) vote was more for Labour, whilst the Jewish vote was more for the Conservatives. The Hindu vote tended to Labour, although was more balanced in 2010. The Sikh vote was evenly split between the two main parties, whilst the Buddhist vote was disproportionately for the Liberal Democrats. There are some signs that the overall religious minority vote was becoming more evenly split between the three main parties.

Obviously, one can't become an expert on the Jewish vote just by visiting Britain, so all I'm doing is just picking up some nuggets that might be of interest to the very different American Jewish voters. Geoffrey Alderman, on whose research the new report heavily relies, wrote about some of the reasons for which Jews tilt toward the conservative side. Alderman believes that "In England, there are perhaps half-a-dozen parliamentary seats in which the Jewish vote could prove decisive". According to his research, Jews form no more than half of one percent of the UK population, "but they are heavily concentrated in London and Manchester", and that is what makes them possibly influential in some races. But his most interesting remark comes at the end of his article:

Then there is the issue of taxpayer-assisted faith schools. More British Jews than ever are sending their offspring to such establishments. Can they really — and realistically — be expected to cast their votes for parliamentary candidates (of whatever party) whose support for these seats of learning is anything less than 100 per cent?

The story of the rise of British Jewish schools is told by the JPR report on Jews in the United Kingdom in 2013.

Overall, almost one in three (30%) respondents has attended a Jewish  school for at least part of their education, and this is the case for almost a quarter (23%) of respondents who were not raised in Orthodox or Haredi homes. 

Respondents to this survey were asked about the public funding of religiously affiliated schools:

Almost half (47%) expressed the opinion that public funding for Jewish schools was indeed appropriate, although a quarter (26%) feels it is inappropriate.


Since what I'm doing here has much to do with Israel – I'm here for a JPPI project on world Jewry's perspective on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – I looked at the numbers in the JPR report on British Jews and Israel. Here's something of interest. Apparently, distancing from Israel for the Brits is similar in nature to distancing in the US. In other words, it is not really about Israel, but rather about other factors, chief of which is interfaith marriage:

The vast majority (84%) of in-married respondents maintain that supporting Israel is an important part of their Jewish identity, compared with just two in five (42%) intermarried respondents.          

Compare this to Prof. Steven Cohen's analysis of the state of distancing from Israel in America:

The impact of intermarriage on Jewish engagement is generally negative but especially negative upon attachment to Israel. As one telling factoid: Among in-married parents in the New York area, 33 percent report that their children have been to Israel; among the intermarried, the figure drops to a mere 4 percent. On a larger scale, the ongoing and increasing intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox—and in the New York area, 50 percent of recently marrying non-Orthodox couples were intermarriages—promises to continue to produce distancing among their children.

You will not be surprised to learn, I'm certain, that in Britain, much like in other places, the intensity of Jewish education is usually the best way to predict interfaith marriage:

One of the most discriminatory variables for assessing propensities towards intermarriage is Jewish identity. The survey shows that intermarriage among currently married respondents who experienced a Haredi upbringing, is essentially non-existent in this sample. Among those raised Orthodox it is 10%, but for those who are currently Orthodox it is also essentially nil. Among those raised ‘Traditional’ it is 12%, but just 5% among currently ‘Traditional’ respondents. Among other groups, the prevalence of intermarriage is much higher. Indeed, it is as high as 62% among married.

By the way, the JPR study argues that intermarriage is slowing down in Britain, including among non-Orthodox groups.


Last but not least:

The proportion of Jews who describe themselves as currently secular or cultural has grown significantly relative to the proportion brought up that way.

So in Britain, much like in the US, the question would be: is "cultural Jew" just a polite way of describing someone whose sense of Jewishness is weaker – does the cultural Jew stand just one step away from assimilation?

62% of British cultural-secular Jews are intermarried. But does that mean that many of them (or their offspring) will leave Judaism altogether later in life? A tiny endnote clarifies why the new study doesn't quite have an answer to this question:

Since the survey was only eligible to people who currently define themselves as Jewish, those who were raised Jewish (by which ever denomination) but who have subsequently left Judaism altogether, cannot be accounted for in this analysis. Thus, the only position for Secular/Cultural Jews to switch to other than ‘right’ in this categorization of Jewish identity is to not identify as Jewish at all. Such a movement is not captured in this survey due to the considerable barriers to sampling.

So we know it is the fastest growing group of Jews, but we don't have an answer to the most interesting question: if it can, in the long run, retain Jews within the larger Jewish world.

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