I was born in 1949 on the West Side of Chicago. My parents were first-generation Americans born to Russian immigrants. Like the East Side of New York and the East End of London, the West Side of Chicago was the area traditionally settled by recent immigrants: Poles, Italians, Greeks and, of course Jews.
During the period of the early 1960s, the developing civil rights movement profoundly affected me like many others of my generation.
In 1971, I came to England to become a youth organiser with Oxfam in Leeds. Since Oxfam had little support within the Jewish Community, I talked to synagogue groups about its work. I was quite shocked by the negative and aggressive reaction I frequently experienced. At this time I also noticed that many of the people who were involved in human rights organisations were Christians who readily quoted Jewish prophets as one of the main reasons for their involvement. I was bewildered on two fronts: the first was the dearth of Jewish communal responses to social issues-so radically different from my American experience; the second was the way in which Christians rather than Jews drew upon the Jewish prophets as sources of inspiration.
I was quite dismayed and felt that I had to either opt out of the Jewish Community, because I felt alienated from it, or to form my own organisation so that I could find people with whom to share my concerns. Thus, the Jewish Social Responsibility Council (JSRC) was founded in 1976 in Manchester. My aspirations were rather ambitious: I wanted to create an organisation which would give full expression to our concern, as Jews, for justice both in the wider communities in which we live and in the Third World.
It soon became clear that tackling third world issues in addition to racism was not going to be feasible. There was already the difficulty of a young American trying to establish yet another Jewish organisation in Britain. It was also a problem defining what sort of organisation the JSRC could be. The organisation could not model itself too much on the American experience, as that would cause some resentment. Nor could it receive much guidance from the relatively large number of individual Jews working with human rights organisations, as many of them had little experience of working with the established Jewish community.
The JSRC was founded at time when the established Jewish community defined its anti-racist work predominantly in terms of combating anti-semitism and fighting the National Front. Tackling institutional racism generally, and racism within the Jewish Community was not on the agenda.
The inactivity of the Jewish community gave me renewed impetus to expand and many activities were organised: Caribbean/Asian/Jewish festivals which attracted 600-1000 people; a volunteer programme for Vietnamese refugees; a Caribbean sewing co-operative. In spite of these successes, the organisation was continually plagued by lack of money, its relationship with the Jewish establishment and the difficulty of defining what it could realistically accomplish. In order to create a more viable organisation two things needed to happen: a change of name to reflect more accurately the role of the group-hence it was renamed the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE); and a focus on a few specific areas, such as educating the Jewish Community (particularly through schools),
developing Black-Jewish dialogue and working with refugees.
Jewish education has often failed to demonstrate the connection between Jewish values and our responsibilities to the wider world. To help correct this imbalance, a number of education packs were developed, some in conjunction with other organisations, so that Jewish children could from a
very young age and throughout their schooling develop an understanding of the relevance of Jewish teaching and history to the topic of racism. This has meant helping the schools modify their curriculum.
In addition JCORE has initiated a Black-Jewish dialogue forum to create an opportunity to consider similarities and differences. There are of course many differences between black and Jewish experiences, such as the way each group has dealt with its history. There can be a tendency to
debate which group has suffered most in the past. This has led to the absurd situation of evaluating which was worse slavery or the Holocaust. This year's Holocaust Memorial Day has inevitably heightened this debate. Also the teaching of the Holocaust is mandatory in the national curriculum, whilst the teaching of slavery is certainly encouraged but is not compulsory. With the exception of the televised series, Roots, shown a decade ago, and a small museum on slavery in Liverpool, there is very little in Britain to commemorate slavery so that it too can enter the public consciousness.
At one of the first meetings of the Black-Jewish forum, we decided to get some of the difficult issues out of the way. The discussion on the Middle East nearly led to the demise of the group, so we decided to put it on the back burner, knowing that we could return to it. It was more productive
exploring other areas such as our opposition to the Asylum Bill. The group has also organised meetings to look at discrimination within the legal profession. Our most ambitious project is the bringing together of black and Jewish historians to write a history of the relationship between blacks
and Jews in Britain, a subject on which there has been surprisingly little research.
The atmosphere of the meetings is now relaxed and despite the seriousness of our conversations, there is a lot of laughter.
Our commitment to refugees and immigration to refugees and immigration issues is perhaps the real litmus test of Jewish concern. Our work with refugees takes place on two levels. First, we campaign to mobilise the Jewish community to protest unfair immigration and refugee legislation. Ministers and MPs have been lobbied to oppose the introduction of the Asylum Bill as well as the use of detention vouchers for asylum seekers. It is vital that a Jewish voice is heard alongside other religious and secular organisations. It is rather sad that, when I describe the organisation, the first question I
am asked is; 'Do you work with just Jewish refugees? ' Obviously, both inside our community and out, Jews have a reputation for only looking after their own.
Our second level of work with refugees is more practical. The Jewish community has built up an impressive network of social services. Can some of this knowledge be shared with other groups without being patronising? Initially, JCORE became involved with the predominantly Muslim Bosnian community. Seminars were arranged so that refugees could meet Jewish therapists who have worked with Holocaust survivors. This work has brought us into contact with other refugees, such as Somali and Sudanese. As these groups are mainly Muslim, this operation has inadvertently created a new area of Muslim-Jewish relations. Inevitably, many of the mental health professionals with whom JCORE has worked have been Jewish and for some, paradoxically, this has been the first contact they have had with the Jewish Community in a very long time. Mindful of our own refugee experience led us to set up two very practical projects: one to help refugee doctors regularly in the UK and the second to make our community aware of the needs of unaccompanied refugee children today and then recruit volunteers to work with Save the Children.
The struggle to create a viable anti-racist organisation through JCORE has continued for 25 years. Although JCORE's position is now more secure than it ever has been, its existence is still precarious. There have been many successes: it is increasingly recognised and accepted within the Jewish Community. Positive working relationships with a cross-section of organisations, both inside and outside the Jewish community has developed. Dialogue with Black Asian people and refugees have increased significantly. Anti-racist education has been introduced into a number of Jewish schools and youth clubs.
However, JCORE's aspirations go beyond this anti-racist agenda. For the organisation to be truly successful, the concern for social justice must become a more integral part of Jewish identity, our values and our interaction with the rest of society. This is vital not only for what it demonstrates to the wider community but also perhaps more importantly, for our sense of what it means to be a Jew in today's Britain.
Dr Edie Friedman.
Updated March 2012