Are there British Values? A Religious Perspective

A Chaplaincy Public Lecture

Nottingham University, 03/03/15

The following is a version of the talk I gave as part of a recent major interfaith event at the University of Nottingham - see here for event details.

My name is Harvey Belovski.  I'm the senior rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue in London and the senior rabbi of University Jewish Chaplaincy which places Jewish chaplains on campuses all over the UK. I'm also the principal of a faith-based free school and an interfaith activist. 

I’d like to thank the organisers, particularly Canon John Bentham and his team for arranging this important event.  It’s delightful to have a chance to share a discussion about British values and their complex relationship with religion.  It’s wonderful to actually meet Canon Bentham and Professor Canon Oliver and to work together again with my good friend Shaykh Mogra.   The shaykh and I travelled here together this evening and you can feel reassured that we've now set the world to rights.

On that theme you may have heard that a rabbi, an imam and a canon walked into a university together.  The receptionist looked up in surprise and said 'what's this, some kind of joke?'

I am a British Jew or a Jewish Brit, I'm never quite sure which or if there's really any difference.  My wife and I have enjoyed the incredible privilege of living in what is called in Hebrew a 'malchut shel chessed' - a benevolent, tolerant and wonderful country.  We have benefitted from the very best of British education, cultural experiences and complete equality in the law, opportunities that for most of history for Jews and other minorities were an impossible dream.  All this while living a full and rich Jewish life, dressing as Jews and educating our children in the ways of our ancestors.  The UK has always been and continues to be an absolutely marvellous place for a Jew to live.  I am a proud, happy and profoundly grateful subject of Her Majesty.

But with those incredible opportunities come weighty responsibilities, ones that orthodox Jewish leaders take really seriously because they lie at the very heart of Judaism itself.  To be a Jew is to share responsibility for the building of society and to partner with those of other faiths and none to create a tolerant, respectful, safe and functional Britain.

Of course, like every topic, no-one can quite agree about what distinguishes British values from say French or Portuguese values.  Look around on the internet and you find lots of references to  British fish and chips (which I love) and to silly stories about Muslims and Jews standing in orderly post-office queues discussing the weather in Norfolk (which I don't).

Actually, the first people to think about these themes lived long ago, when Jews first experienced exile from their homeland and needed to grapple with the prospect of minority-hood.

The prophet Jeremiah, who lived at the end of the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land, and faced the prospect of exile, encourages us to seek the peace and prosperity of whichever country we will live in.  He points out that we Jews can only prosper if our host nation, its values and aspirations are successful and functional for all people.  And we do not sit on the side-lines - we must be at the forefront of making that success possible.  These ideas have been repeatedly emphasised throughout Jewish history by thinkers, philosophers and law-makers.

In the first century CE, Rabbi Chanina insisted that we pray for the welfare of the country in which we live for ‘if it were not for government, people would eat each other alive’.   Remember that this was said about 1500 years before Thomas Hobbes noted that a society without stable governance would deliver lives that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. 

On this theme, Jewish liturgy includes a prayer for the queen, the government and the armed forces.  In fact, all British synagogue recite a version of this prayer every Sabbath and festival.  It may seem like an anachronism, but it encourages us to remain focused on peace, order and stability for all.

This is my first perceived British value – loyalty to and love of the country and respect for its authorities.  Critically, this has nothing to do with whether we agree with current policies or our own political affinities.  It, well, just is - a basic feature of Jewish life.  And together with this are the importance of teaching and understanding British culture, national history and developing sensitivity towards its norms and expectations.  Of course, you won't catch me eating a black pudding or putting a Christmas tree in my house, but I want my children to know about the lives and loves of others as mature, contributing citizens.  And right now, I'm helping my children's high school to develop a high-level programme to do this really well.

My next, related, British values are respect for law and knowledge of right from wrong.  By the year 200 CE, a Rabbi Shmuel was on the scene, advocating the core legal construct ‘dina demalchuta dina’ – the law of the land is the law, a principle that has been enshrined in Jewish law and practice ever since.  And to teach right from wrong, we needed a compulsory school system.  In fact, the first in the world was invented in the first century in a Jewish town called Yavneh.  Indispensable features of that Jewish education include respect for law and order, honesty in business dealings, and, most crucially, a recognition that every human being is equal before the law - in, as we might say, in the eyes of God and Man.  This last point can't be overemphasised - it starts right back in Genesis 1:27 with the phrase - betzelem Elohim bara otam (God created every human being in His image).  This notion has been repeatedly overlooked throughout history, yet it underpins everything we believe, and most importantly, how we conduct ourselves in relation to those whose beliefs we don't share.  Everyone, without exception contains the divine spark - and while I suspect the average Brit on the street wouldn't put it in quite that way, tolerance, mutual respect and fair play for all, all central British values flow from that basic, universalist biblical principle.

This may all sound very positive and most of the time it is, but we also subscribe to taking the rough with the smooth.  Over 20,000 Jews fought for the British in World War I and over 30,000 in World War II, many losing their lives to defend king and country.  My late father-in-law did his national service in the Army teaching literacy and numeracy to recruits.  My own father, he should live and be well, performed his in the 50s - as a radio operator in the RAF at Bridlington in Yorkshire, of all places.  He's never been able to explain to me why he couldn't have been posted somewhere warmer like the Caribbean!  See, I'm back to the weather again. Of course, we hope and pray that none of this will be needed again, but Jewish law and ethics require us to stick with our host country through thick and thin.

Thinking along those lines, you may know the story about a little boy who came to the synagogue on Saturday morning of remembrance week and saw a Union Jack on display.  He was bored rigid by the rabbi’s speech so he asked his mother why the flag was there.  She eventually said to him, ‘shush, it's for those who died in the service’.  He looked her aghast and asked whether this was on a Friday night or Saturday morning!

Continuing this theme, a quick brainstorming in the Belovski household produced another core British value - having sense of humour, especially not taking ourselves too seriously.  It takes a lot of confidence to do this, but it's a really British 'thing' to be able to poke gentle fun at oneself and one's national characteristics.  I am reminded of the occasion when a Frenchman, a German and a Jew were crossing a desert together.  As the temperature rose, the Frenchman said, ‘I’m ever so thirsty; I must have wine.’  The German said, ‘I’m ever so thirsty; I must have beer’.  The Jew said, ‘I’m ever so thirsty; I must have diabetes’.

Maybe the Jewish experience has been unique, but while we have many faults, we're quite good at poking fun at our national characteristics!  In fact, we were there before the British...  We have much to learn from other cultures and faith groups, but this is one that others might learn from us.

And speaking of this, what happens when our religious beliefs or practices clash with British values? Jewish sources are clear here - we can advocate for ourselves using only legitimate political means – i.e. within the system.  But at root, the ’t’ word – tolerance - is so enshrined in the British psyche that, with God's help, religious liberties for Jews and other minorities will continue to flourish.

And finally, a tough one to articulate and here I put myself out on a limb.  There are many reasons why religious and other minorities have succeeded in the UK and other Western countries, notwithstanding the occasional difficulties that will always arise.  That is, why members of minorities can wear their own clothes, build their own places of worship and are able to believe, pray and practice as they choose.  In previous centuries, and in many other places around the globe, when societies were more religious, they were also more closed-minded and intolerant.  I believe that the western liberal democracy of which the UK was one of the first and remains one of the best, is the reason.  Judaism, Islam, Catholicism - in fact all non-establishment religions - have flourished side by side because of the freedoms of the west.  And at the heart of those freedoms is free speech, the freedom to criticise, not necessarily the obligation, but the right to probe, expose, reject, disagree and, yes, sometimes offend.  I see hurtful, and often untrue things about Judaism, Jews and Israel, and I know that my colleagues from other faiths feel the same about the way their own faiths are portrayed.  But I will defend with great vigour the authors of those ideas and their right to express their views within the law, even when they deeply upset or even offend me.  This is my last, and arguably most important British value that I validate and embrace as a senior British Jewish, or is it Jewish British, leader.  Thank you.