‘I’ve undertaken three Jewish heritage walks in Northern Ireland and 200 people from all sections of wider society took part. One of them told me it was a pleasure to do something in Belfast which related to neither Protestant or Catholic history...’
Belfast-born Steven Jaffe, representative on a number of Jewish groups, on why falling numbers and rising anti-Semitism challenge the faith here
Steven Jaffe (54), who was born in Belfast, works with the two main representative bodies of Jewish people in the UK - the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. In that work he also represents the small Jewish community in Northern Ireland. Recently a proposal that he be allowed to address Derry and Strabane District Council was defeated.
Q. What happened at Derry and Strabane District Council?
A. One of the councillors proposed that the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel (NIFI) organisation be invited to address the council. As I understand it the council has had a number of pro-Palestinian speakers address members.
The invitation to invite NIFI gave rise to an acrimonious debate and I was not invited to speak.
Q. What would you have told them if you had been allowed to address the councillors?
A. It would have given me a platform to explain why Israel is so important to the Jewish community, not just in Northern Ireland, but around the world.
I would have asked councillors to take into account the history of the Jewish people, particularly the Holocaust and the centuries of persecution and exile endured by Jewish people. That is why it is important for them to have one country in the world where they have the right to self-determination and can control their own security. It is also a country where Jewish culture and the Jewish faith is rooted in the land.
Q. Is this a common view among Jewish people?
A. It is the view of many Jews but there are some to the right and to the left of my mainstream views who might not agree with me. I have a position which is part and parcel of the mainstream Jewish community.
For any councillor to say that it would be a disgrace for NIFI to be allowed to address the council is simply excluding this mainstream view and that takes us back to a very dark place in history where we were demonised.
Q. Obviously the divergent views that republicans and unionists hold on the Middle East conflict feed into what happened at the council?
A. In commenting on the conflict in the Middle East the different communities in Northern Ireland have different perspectives on Israel and the Palestinians. However, instead of forcing those perspectives onto the wider communities in Northern Ireland by organising boycotts or flag waving we should be exporting our own experiences of peace-making, however imperfect that is, and encouraging similar peace-making in the Middle East. That, I believe can only be brought about by dialogue and not by exclusion.
Q. What effect do you think the divergent views on the Middle East held here have on wider society?
A. The extreme views and extreme comments, particularly from politicians, can be very unhelpful to communities in Northern Ireland, not just the Jewish community but also the Islamic community. That is a challenge to both communities.
When Derry and Strabane Council said NIFI was not welcome to speak to it that also applied to everyone in Northern Ireland who supports Israel and that is a lot of people.
I would appeal to the council to change its mind.
The councillors have a duty to improve community relations and this resolution does the opposite.
Q. Other councils have taken a different view, haven't they?
A. A couple of weeks ago I spoke to Fermanagh and Omagh Council and all parties were present, from DUP to Sinn Fein and a number of Independents. There was obviously differences of opinion expressed, but it was also a respectful meeting where dialogue took place.
That council had previously heard pro-Palestinian campaigners but felt the need to speak to people with a different perspective.
Q. We used to tell the world of how our conflict was ended. Do events like what happened in Derry harm our image?
A. I used to bring Israeli groups to Stormont and explained to them that the parties sharing power were engaged in conflict between each other not so long ago.
That was incredible for Jewish people to see and it is a great shame that we do not have that image to show to people.
I very much hope that the problems which divide the politicians can be resolved.
Q. What are your connections with Northern Ireland?
A. I am now 54 and grew up in north Belfast in the Seventies and Eighties. It was the right place at the wrong time. I was a member of the Jewish community which at that time was very small and which is even smaller now. My mum was Belfast-born and bred. Her parents came to Northern Ireland from Poland in the early 20th century and my dad came to Belfast when he married mum in 1967. I went to Belfast Royal Academy and at the age of 18, like so many of my contemporaries, went to England and never came back to live in Northern Ireland. I and my wife Sarah - we have three children, a boy who lives in Israel and two girls at college in England - live in an area of North London which has a large Jewish community.
Q. Is the Jewish community here continuing to decline?
A. The 2011 census showed that there were 335 people in Northern Ireland who designated themselves as Jewish. However, we continue to have a synagogue and a minister here. The membership of the synagogue is around 80 people. It is very largely a community of retired people. Younger people like myself tended to leave and brought up their families elsewhere. That means there are very few young people left to keep the community going. Also, the generation of my parents will move to be with their families as they become older and more dependent and that will continue the decline.
Q. The Jewish community in Northern Ireland has a proud heritage. Is that appreciated by wider society?
A. I have undertaken three Jewish heritage walks in Northern Ireland - which the Belfast Telegraph kindly publicised - and a total of around 200 people took part in them.
I found that the interest in the Jewish community is quite strong from all sections of wider society.
One person told me that it was a pleasure to do something in Belfast which related to neither Protestant or Catholic history. A lot of people remember Jewish friends from their school days or work, and during the walks were keen to find out where those people are living now.
Q. Are there any plans for more permanent reminders of Jewish heritage?
A. While the Jewish community here is small it is very active. We have had hundreds of people visit the synagogue from schools, other faiths and community groups to learn about our faith and background.
We also have a cultural initiative which stages concerts and other events which attract people from beyond our own community.
It would be good to have something like the annual events put on by the Indian and Chinese communities in Northern Ireland showcasing their culture and way of life.
I am very proud of the Jewish community here and its outreach and, of course, the contribution it made to Northern Ireland over the years.
There is a former synagogue near Carlisle Circus in Belfast which I believe could become home to a permanent Jewish heritage centre.
I am very keen to explore that possibility.
Q. Do you believe the Jewish community in Northern Ireland can survive?
A. I spend a lot of time travelling across the UK and have seen how Jewish communities in cities like Swansea have totally disappeared. So this is not a problem unique to Belfast. It is difficult to see how the community here can continue to have a synagogue and a minister but it may take a different form as Northern Ireland develops in terms of peace.
More Jewish people, particularly young people, may be attracted to work here if the economy improves.
There are large numbers of Jewish people from Israel and America working in multi-national companies in Dublin and perhaps that sort of immigration could happen in Northern Ireland if we get more big companies setting up.
Q. Anti-Semitism appears to be on the increase worldwide. Is the Jewish community in Northern Ireland affected?
A. In the UK records show an increase in anti-Semitism with physical attacks on people and synagogues. A lot of the abuse is on social media with an increasing number of threats being posted.
In Northern Ireland it is not an everyday problem. Jewish people living here rarely experience anti-Semitism. The Jewish community has integrated well into wider society over many generations and their presence is respected across the province.
However, the synagogue has been daubed with hateful slogans and there was the disgraceful desecration of the Jewish section in Belfast City Cemetery. In times of conflict in the Middle East the hate-filled comments on social media ramp up.
That causes concern to the Jewish community which is small and mostly elderly. However, it does receive tremendous support from outside the community including from the PSNI which takes such matters very seriously.
The situation is much worse in the UK. Labour MP Margaret Hodge has said she has never felt more scared to be Jewish.
She comes from a secular Jewish background and she even feels her place in British society is being challenged from within her own party. This has been a great shock to her and many like her who felt that the Labour Party was their natural political home.
Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party includes Holocaust denial and conspiracies on how Zionists control the media, banks and government - the sort of stuff which used to come from fascists but has now transported itself to the far left of politics.
The leadership with the party has failed to deal with this and has given licence for this anti-Semitism due to his [Jeremy Corbyn's] own extreme views on Israel.
Q. While Derry and Strabane Council refused to invite you to speak, ironically there is a part of Derry in Israel.
A. Traditionally in Northern Ireland there were three synagogues, in Belfast, Lurgan and Derry. When the Londonderry Hebrew congregation was wound up after the Second World War its assets were donated to a synagogue in Galilee.
That synagogue at a kibbutz is still going strong.
The kibbutz has another Northern Ireland connection. Before the Second World War the Belfast Jewish community leased a farm in Millisle where refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia could come.
They were largely from a Zionist youth group and their intention was to learn about farming and then put those skills to use in Israel. That is what happened and they set up a kibbutz in Galilee.
The farm was also used as a base for young children who were brought over from Europe.
They all came without their families and most never saw their parents again as they perished in the Holocaust.
Many of these young people also went to live in Israel.
Q. How important does the Northern Ireland Jewish community feel to you?
A. The heritage of the Jewish community here is very personal to me and I come over to Northern Ireland six or seven times a year.
My work is largely in public affairs and I have a lot of engagement with Christian communities seeking greater understanding between us. This obviously is ongoing work.