Thursday, 1 April 2010

A must read for Hackney politics

The Jewish Chronicle published this piece yesterday: Hacking off Hackney voters.

It sheds light on a debate that Hackney politicians tend to avoid: Do ultra-orthodox Jewish councillors put the interests of their community ahead of the rest of the borough?

Last week its author Geoffrey Alderman wrote this critique of ultra-orthodox Jewish politics: Religion or mere self interest? Last week Blood and Property asked him to comment on the relationship between ultra orthodox Jewish councillors and the Conservative Party.

In Hackney there are nine ultra-orthodox Jewish councillors, six of them in the Conservative Party.

Alderman said: "All I would say is that the ultra-orthodox communities in Hackney are much less interested in party dogma than in what the parties can do for them. That's not to say that they aren't interested in dogma, rather that it's a secondary consideration."

Planning restrictions have been the community's main concern as they prevent large families from extending their homes. This issue also consumes a lot of the energy of Hackney's Conservative Party.

The issue is likely to heat up again after a planning victory for Ultra Orthodox Jewish families living in Haringey. One commentator told the Jewish Chronicle "It sets an excellent precedent" adding that she hoped Hackney Council would do something similar.

Professor Alderman refers to Blood and Property's interview with Jules Pipe and a stand-off the Mayor had with Cllr Sime Steinberger over exactly this issue (links in the interview).

Alderman also noted Pipes comments about communal voting. The mayor told Blood and Property: "... personally I think communalism is very unhealthy. People should be looking at the manifestoes and candidates of the different parties and voting for the ones who seem to have the best ideas, qualities and relevant experience. It is unhealthy for democracy if people vote for candidates from their own community for that reason alone and not on merit. It is also unhealthy for community cohesion – whilst there are specific communities within Hackney, we are all part of one wider civic community."

This seems to clash slightly with MP Meg Hillier's views on the issue. In her interview with Blood and Property, she said that self interested communities is what politics is about.

"Blood and Property: Do you expect communities to be self-interested for a multicultural system to work?

Meg Hillier: We have a party system in this country and people will look at what policies work for them. People don’t necessarily vote down ethnic lines. They wouldn’t necessarily vote for a Vietnamese councillor because they are Vietnamese or for a Turkish councillor because they were Turkish or African councillor because they were African. People tend to vote more for the party of their choice and I think that’s healthy.

Blood and Property: And if they weren’t doing that, would you say it was unhealthy?

Meg Hillier: Lots of people vote for parties, but of course a lot of people don’t have parties, they float, and there are many factors in their decisions. There are lots of people who will vote for the same party, not necessarily mine, for years and years. Others vote for one party one year and another the next and they have different reasons for voting. Rarely is it a personality decision. My view is that there is very little personality voting and it is more on the big issues and wider concerns.

Blood and Property: Does it matter if you have large, politically active communities, that do act with a certain level of self interest – or promote issues that affect this community?

Meg Hillier: That’s what politics is about."

Geoffrey Alderman concluded his piece in the Jewish Chronicle with this warning: "Jewish "communalism" is a major trigger of anti-Jewish prejudice. It may look clever but its victories, purchased at a high price, are invariably short-lived."

Last week Blood and Property interviewed Geoffrey Alderman (I have yet to write it up). He lived in Clapton (Walsingham Road) from 1946 to 1973 and was educated at Hackney Downs School (He is the school's official historian) before going to Oxford. Alderman now holds several academic posts in the UK and the USA. Try or his reference in Wikipedia which includes controversies he has sparked over Islam, Palestine and Harold Pinter.

On page 364 of his book Modern British Jewry (1992), Alderman writes: "The UOHC and kindred ultra-orthodox communities have also grown in size. The most visible manifestation of this expansion has been the post immigration, particularly from Communist eastern Europe, of adherents of various pietistic (and, some would say, excessively narrow-minded and anti-intellectual) chassidic sects, each following a particular rabbinical dynasty, all reconisable by a very distinctive style of dress... and each family doing its very best to bring into the world as many children as possible."

Until relatively recently, in Hackney and the UK in general, the distinctively dressed ultra orthodox Jew was a rarity. In Modern British Jewry, Alderman noted how most Jewish historians paid them little attention: "Who, at the time of Sir Israel Brodie's retirement (1965), would have predicted that Lubavitch chassidim would have found employment within the United Synagogue, or that "Lubes" would have featured, as they clearly must, among the opinion-formers of British Jewry?"


  1. Your influence is spreading!

    Reading Geoffrey Alderman's conclusions I can't help thinking they can just as easily be applied, not in Hackney but in Tower Hamlets, and to the Islamic Forum of Europe.

    They may achieve political success locally, but at some cost.....

  2. I still haven't watched the Gilligan film on the IFE yet but know I should. I did follow the stuff in Private Eye though. I think people believe Hackney is happier than Tower Hamlets - and that this is because no overwhelmingly dominant ethnic/pressure group is in charge. I think Geoffrey Alderman might be suggesting that situation may not last forever - which is what seems to have happened in Tower Hamlets. And it doesn't seem to have done anyone much good there.