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Is ethnicity ever up for debate?

In this article, Boger Kira Patt discusses whether ethnicity can be debated, prompted by a recent BBC Politics Live debate. Kira discusses the power of social media as well as who can deny someone else's right to identify as an ethnic minority.

I’m one who is reluctant to admit how social media has become a crucial, constant necessity in daily life, especially in respect to the peculiar climate we find ourselves in. I will confess, however, that one thing I am extremely grateful for regarding social media is what I’ve managed to learn from it- through people sharing stories of current affairs and issues I’ve come across so much that beforehand was completely unknown to me. It endows each of us with a voice, and a platform, with which we can share what we want and what we feel is important.


Admittedly, not being an avid listener to the BBC Politics Live segment on BBC Two- it does clash with me being an eighteen year old- were it not for my Instagram feed over the past week, I would not have been exposed to a recent event which has frustrated me and many others.


Prompted by a tweet from Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, congratulating the newly elected Scottish Labour leader as ‘the first ever ethnic minority leader of a political party’- to which Benjamin Cohen, a Jewish man, had tweeted a frustrated response- on 1st March 2021, BBC Politics Live hosted a short debate at the end of their programme questioning whether Jews should count as an ethnic minority. The host, a Jewish woman herself though acting as the neutral facilitator for the debate, was joined by four others, three of whom were white. Cohen also appeared to voice his reasons for responding to the tweet. The host asked her guests whether Jewish people counted as an ethnic minority group and whether it should be a category on the Census and on other general forms, alongside other ethnicities. Overnight, there was a huge backlash observed on social media concerning the debate, with people citing the conversation as senseless and deeply offensive.


To the Jewish community, our heritage and background is not something which is up for a debate. The very notion of having non-Jewish people doing so in this ‘debate’ format appears to me as ridiculous. As Cohen rightly defends during his time on the programme, Jewish people are not only part of a religion but also an ethnicity which exists out of the confines of religiosity. Our indigenous roots to the land of Judea, and the richness of our cultural traditions and heritage surely provides the clarity of our long history being the very definition of an ethnicity. And as for the minority aspect, the statistics speak for themselves: 0.3% of the British population are Jewish.


Throughout history, though non so prominent an example as the Holocaust, Jewish people have been targeted and persecuted because of this ethnicity. We have been historically classified as non-white, to perpetuate the idea of society needing to be cleansed of other outward ethnicities, in order to be purified, uniform, and superior. How can for one agenda Jews are seen as a non-white ethnic group, however for another, such as the one in discussion, this destructive and harmful history we endured is so quickly forgotten?


Looking back to this debate, it was very clear to me when watching it there was an uncomfortable feeling shared between the panellists, and an unwillingness to confess an opinion. Instead, there was a lot of tiptoeing around the subject and asserting throughout the conversation that “we have to be careful” and were unsure of the “right terminology” to use in this ‘debate’, or “there needs to be a sensitivity” when discussing such a topic. In my mind, it is quite straightforward; Jews are an ethnic minority. There shouldn’t be such a need for tiptoeing around the subject because it’s not something that is up for debate, once in understanding of the facts.


The question which confused me the most when listening to the this very bizarre conversation was posed as: whether ‘many Jews have succeeded in reaching high political office[s] and therefore don’t need to be seen as a group needing recognition in the same way as others.’ Personally, this notion both frustrates and exasperates me- what does one thing have to do with the other?


Racism was not eradicated with the election of the first African American US President. Antisemitism is still just as hurtful and prevalent even with the successes of Jewish people in politics; one doesn’t cancel out the other. The Jewish status as an ethnic minority is neither erased purely due to political success, the two are unrelated and this idea concludes what was a very ill-conceived, and in my mind unnecessary, conversation.


This BBC debate exemplifies the lack of knowledge there is surrounding Judaism as an ethnicity. But this is where we come in. A post signifying upset towards this debate was shared by at least twenty people on my Instagram feed- a small number for now, but nevertheless encouraging. This is where our voices, and the platforms that we have on social media, however small, can help to spread the word and raise awareness. And until a people’s ethnicity isn’t a subject for a mindless debate, it seems our voices are of the utmost importance.


Kira Patt

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