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The secret Tebbit test

The forthcoming Poland-England match is a test of whether formerly Polish Jews now see themselves as entirely English.

In an 1881 editorial, the Jewish Chronicle complained about the thousands of Yiddish speaking eastern European immigrants pouring into Britain. Most of them had fled tsarist pogroms and were conspicuously foreign, unlike the Anglo-Jewish leadership, who were proud of their assimilation. “They come mostly from Poland,” the paper kvetched. “They . . . bring Poland with them and they retain Poland while they stop here. This is most undesirable; it is more than a misfortune, it is a calamity.”

The JC was committed to integration and one of the ways of becoming more English was by excelling at sport. Integrate, assimilate, anglicise. “As the oldest minority faith community in this country,” Tony Blair once told an audience at Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, “you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.” Such loyalty – or, to put it another way, maintaining a low profile, not making a fuss, keeping shtum – has been the cornerstone of Anglo-Jewish policy since 1656, when the Jews were readmitted to England after a 366-year exile. The community has blended in – some would say to the point of invisibility.

Take the forthcoming Poland-England match. This is our secret Tebbit test. Growing up in Leeds, I would be taken to the local Polish club when one of my grandparents died. Funerals were the only occasions my family talked about our eastern European past. As Jonathan Safran Foer noted in his introduction to the Haggadah, “We are masters of forgetting.”

This amnesia can only partly be explained by bad memories. There is an immigrant tradition of starting afresh and not looking back; as mountaineers and many migrant communities will tell you, you don’t look down when you’re climbing. Forgetting we were once Polish – or Lithuanian or Russian – speaks to the narrative of assimilation. Yet there are signs that a historically attenuated Anglo-Jewish identity, which dates back to medieval England, is becoming more assertive: film festivals, TV documentaries, book weeks, flourishing cultural organisations and publications. This magazine recently devoted an entire issue to Judaism.

In the past, assimilated English Jews rarely wrote or produced work about their ethnicity, as we know from the careers of Lucian Freud, Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, but a new generation of writers, artists and critics now seeks to be heard. According to Matthew J Reisz, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, they now “move in and out of Jewish identity as one part of their British identity”. Jewish stories, Reisz observes, are “being told very well, and unapologetically . . . in a completely unselfconscious way”, as “part of a wider British conversation”.


Why, then, so few stories about Jews and football? Could it be that, as a Howard Jacobson protagonist once proclaimed, it is “not a Jewish game”? Try telling that to the FA’s Jewish chairman, David Bernstein, responsible for the England team that travels to Poland. Or David Pleat, who will be commentating on it and whose grandfather Israel Noah Fishman came over from Poland in 1910. Or Morris Keston, Tottenham’s biggest fan, whose parents fled Poland to escape anti-Jewish riots. All of them are symbols of an insecure community’s successful attempt to emulate the mores of the host nation.

The Anglicisers’ dream of converting a Yiddish-speaking tribe of eastern Europeans into a confident community of Englishmen has been realised. Yet, in our journey from ghetto outsiders to football insiders, it is as if that community has forgotten it was once Polish.

Anthony Clavane’s book “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” (Quercus, £17.99) will be launched at the Jewish Museum in London on 16 October.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.