In 1953, modern Commonwealth of Nations was said to be “built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace.” Sixty-five years later, in 2018, the Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) became fully accredited to the Commonwealth as one of only 75 organisations worldwide to receive that recognition.
The Commonwealth is home to 38 Jewish communities, with new Jewish communities emerging, especially in Africa, which seems set to increase that number in the coming years. Parallel to the Commonwealth’s own makeup, these include larger advanced communities, and smaller developing ones. Jewish peoples are extremely familiar with the costs and consequences of social discrimination, upheaval and unrest. As equal members of the 2.5 billion people living in this special family of nations, the values and principles which Her Majesty spoke of, remain timeless and sacred, especially to Jews. The Commonwealth’s values, enshrined in the 2013 Commonwealth Charter resonate through a millennia of Jewish tradition, which we explored in our document ‘Shared Values, Common Causes’.
Founded in 1981, the CJC serves as the umbrella body devoted to helping Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth, enhancing the Jewish life of its members, enabling them to live in safety and respect, and helping them in their efforts to contribute to the wider societies in which they live. We work through four regions, Africa, Australasia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere, centred around the four largest Jewish communities of the Commonwealth – South Africa, Australia, UK and Canada - to service the 38 Jewish communities spread across five continents. But how does a charity, with its small professional staff team based in the UK, help a Jewish community in St. Lucia, or Lesotho? This question arguably mirrors the very questions people today have about what benefit the Commonwealth provides to its members. The answer to both can be found in the three pillars that guide the work of the CJC: supporting, advocating and connecting.
We provide direct support to the 38 communities across the Commonwealth. Over thirty of these communities, located in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean are small and vulnerable, operating in dangerous environments. Some even carry out Jewish practices without a synagogue building or a Rabbi to offer any leadership and guidance; their resilience is truly remarkable. We provide small grants, via our ‘Development Fund’ to enable communities to build capacity and develop skills and knowledge. From inter-faith projects and inter-community activity to education and cultural events, the CJC wants to inspire the flourishing of Jewish life wherever you are. For example, in Mozambique and Uganda, the CJC enabled the teaching of Hebrew literacy programmes, in Nairobi the employment of a rabbi for the community was made possible, and in Pakistan we helped the tiny informal group of Jews there establish an umbrella structure to better manage relationships with wider Pakistani society. The recent pandemic stressed the importance of supporting one another more than ever. The CJC was a lead participant in multi-stakeholder Covid-19 discussions, to ensure that assistance was provided in response to the most vulnerable communities, and crucially to help community recovery afterwards.
Like the Commonwealth the Jewish community, draws on the strengths of its various members to share best practice. By working with important international Jewish partners, including The Shabbat Project, Mitzvah Day, Limmud, and March of the Living, the CJC also supports communities by designing templates and sponsoring Jewish communal participation in these programmes. This simultaneously moulds the next generation of leaders, and contributes to wider society, as the projects takeaways are shared with all when participants return to their home communities.
Secondly, the CJC maintain close relationships and channels of communication with the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Foundation, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, High Commissions and the British Parliament to advocate on behalf of Commonwealth Jewish communities. This includes ensuring the rights of Jewish freedoms of religion and belief are respected and protected and ensuring the most robust mechanisms are in place to combat the age-old hatred of antisemitism (anti-Jewish racism). We believe that the best way for Commonwealth countries to ensure the safety of their Jewish communities is by the adopting the working International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of antisemitism.
Another key topic for CJC is the urgent need to combat climate change, the largest common threat to us all. We are empowered by a central Jewish idea – tikkun olam - the imperative to repair the world – requires acts of kindness, care and sacrifice however large or small. In this spirit, on the festival of Tu B’Shevat (the Jewish New Year of Trees) we launched our ‘Small Islands; Big Challenges’ campaign and an Action Pack, which highlighted the plight of Small Island states who are already disproportionately impacted by climate change. Members of the Commonwealth can and should support them through the provision of resources to help mitigate and adapt to climate change’s catastrophic effects. In our climate advocacy, we lead by example. It was an honour for CJC to host an event at COP26 where our panel discussed, “Are Religious Leaders Rising to the Climate Challenge?” – exploring what religion has to say about the topic but, more importantly, what religions are doing and can do to improve the world on this front. We recruited environmental champions from across the Jewish community to lead the discussion and work to hold our governments accountable and mobilise efforts at a community level, and in 2021 we launched our Climate Manifesto, In Pursuit of Climate Justice. I call on Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth and beyond to put our traditional values into practical effect, through our own communal institutions and networks, and empower those wanting to make a real difference.
As the new sovereign and head of the Commonwealth, King Charles III will take an oath upon his coronation, and become ‘Defender of the Faith’. This pledge originates from a title bestowed on Henry VIII by the pope and retained after England broke with Rome. However, the King is following a similar path to that of his late mother, and has already been a defender of all faiths. While Britain is a religiously diverse society, this is even more true of the Commonwealth.
It can be confidently asserted that every religion, every creed is to be found sincerely followed at least somewhere in the Commonwealth.
As one of only two faith-based accredited organisations to the Commonwealth, the CJC bears a special responsibility to highlight the great asset of religious communities and how their power can be harnessed for good. Accordingly, we have created a programme called ‘Faith in the Commonwealth’ that connects leading faith figures in the Commonwealth with the aim of broadening understanding and tolerance and deepening our understanding of how the dimension of faith can help to advance progress across the Commonwealth. As a sign of hopefully what is to come under his leadership, King Charles, under his previous title introduced the CJC’s first event on this topic. The CJC also recognises the power that both women and youth can play in connecting the citizens of the Commonwealth. As such we have proudly established the Inter-Religious Commonwealth Youth Alliance, and the Commonwealth Jewish Women’s Network (CJWN). The women’s network steering group boasts representation from Kenya, Jersey, Bermuda, New Zealand, Gibraltar, Australia, Tanzania, India and Singapore.
Looking ahead, I feel optimistic about the futures of both the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Jewish Council. As a family within a larger family of nations, the rich and deep tapestry of history, culture, and experiences, there is more work to be done, and avenues to explore. The Jewish community of the Commonwealth hopes to be able to contribute to this unique alliance’s aspirations and journey. With such a range of geographical territory, resources, talents and skills, the Commonwealth can connect and empower leaders of innovation and research to benefit the world. It can bring together people from every corner of the planet to address our biggest challenges. It already is and can continue to be an example of harmonious multi-faith diversity and respect that transcends national borders.
Entirely unintentionally, the CJC has found itself the only vocal advocate for the enlisting of religious communities in the important work that the Commonwealth undertakes through civil society. It is of course anomalous that so small a sub-set of humanity as the Jews should try to drive so big a change, but cometh the hour, cometh the man. Everyone knows the power of religious communities and their leaders and teachers – for good or ill – and failing to enlist them and seek their alliance will not simply leave them inactive but leave them to take up directions which might, by simple neglect, run counter to the constructive visions which the Commonwealth espouses and articulates. Obvious fields for this work are around climate change challenges, health education and initiatives, the education of girls and the treatment of women, but there are, without doubt, others too.
The CJC urges anyone who might listen in the Commonwealth family to speak to and engage with religious communities in every country, encouraging them to sign up to Commonwealth values as expressed in the Charter and to bend every sinew towards ensuring that those values are not just pious terms on paper but active motivations in the society in which they live and operate. The Commonwealth Jewish Council is ready to play its part, and we encourage others to join us.
Lord Mendelsohn of Finchley is the Executive Chairman of 888 Holdings Plc, the owner and operator of the 888 and William Hill businesses. He also serves as Senior Adviser to Value Retail Plc, the owner and operator of Bicester Village and ten other shopping villages across Europe and China. He is also a venture capital and private equity investor with interests in sectors including agritech, energy, leisure and technology. Jon was elevated to the Peerage in September 2013 and sits as a Labour Working Peer in the House of Lords. He was Shadow Minister for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, and Shadow Minister for International Trade from 2016-18, having previously served as Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation, and Skills from 2014-16 and as a member of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee from 2018-22. He formerly served as a Policy and Communications Adviser to the Rt. Hon. Tony Blair MP (1995-97) and acted as the Chief Fundraiser for the Labour Party under Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown MP. He serves as the President of the Commonwealth Jewish Council and sits on the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress.