On 15 October the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics (in partnership with the Pears Foundation and the Woolf Institute, Cambridge) hosted an interfaith discussion on the theme The Book And The Believer: Are Catholics, Jews And Muslims Still Outsiders In British Society. The evening was part of a series of events to mark the 175th anniversary of the publication of Tablet Magazine.
I was one of three panellists. The others were Sughra Ahmed, from the Woolf Institute in the Centre for Policy and Public Education, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, screenwriter and novelist who, alongside his many creative achievements, was the writer for the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony and for sequels to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
I started out by commenting that, when I was first asked to speak at the event, I wondered if it was a joke. Something along the lines of ‘a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into a lecture theatre…’ It was a throwaway comment but it also signalled my apprehension about being asked to in any sense speak for, or represent, Jews in today’s Britain. I could only give my own perspective.
As it was, we each presented personal responses based on our very different perceptions and experiences. Then three excellent LSE student respondents added their own views. After that we took questions from the audience and an intelligent, lively and good-natured debate ensued. This was chaired with considerable charm and pace by Professor Conor Gearty. Animated discussion carried over into the reception that followed.
In the end, the answer to the opening question seemed to be, ‘yes… and no’, but also ‘no… and yes’. So, of course, we didn’t reach any clear conclusion; but it was a great privilege to be part of such a rich conversation.
Dr Ruth Gilbert is Reader in English Literature at the University of Winchester. She is author of Writing Jewish: Contemporary British-Jewish Literature (2013) and co-convenor of the British Jewish: Contemporary Cultures network.