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Debating whether Jews are an ethnic minority is a familiar mistake by BBC Politics Live

The programme’s handling of issues of race and diversity, as well as matters of simple fact, is consistently poor.

By Stephen Bush

“Are Jews an ethnic minority?” is not a difficult question. As far as British law is concerned, the answer is open-and-shut: we count as both an ethnic and a religious grouping for the purpose of equalities and employment law. From a purely mathematical perspective, the number of people entering some variation of “Jewish” under one of the five “high-level” ethnic categories (White, Black/Black British, Asian/Asian British, Mixed, and Other) is a minority within the United Kingdom.

When you zoom out beyond the narrow confines of “the United Kingdom in 2021” the question becomes easier still. Whether Benjamin Disraeli would feel today that he were an ethnic-minority Briton is unknowable: but we can say with copper-bottomed certainty that he and other ethnically-Jewish Britons faced what we would now recognise as workplace discrimination in addition to the open dissemination of racist tropes about Disraeli and his family by his political opponents.

There is a lively debate within the British Jewish community about whether people “feel” as if they are an ethnic minority or not, and no-one can adjudicate on the correct way for people to “feel”. But as a matter of law and mathematics, the answer is not up for debate.

So it is unclear to me, frankly, why BBC Politics Live would have a debate on whether British Jews are an ethnic minority, let alone one where just one of the participants is themselves Jewish. Unclear other than the fact that’s just how Politics Live debates race and diversity, and that the BBC as a whole struggles when asked to discuss issues in which the facts all point in one direction.

This is a programme in which debates about racial issues are usually conducted with just one or in some cases no members of the minority in question involved, and whose treatment of issues of race and diversity is consistently poor. Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities are treated as interchangeably qualified to talk about topics of race and diversity, regardless of the minority in question, while perspectives within the UK’s ethnic-minority communities are largely chosen to provide the most extreme political positions available within those groups.

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Added to that, it is unclear what the value of this section was to begin with. The reason why the story is in the news at all is a series of ahistorical tweets by some Labour frontbenchers, including Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner, praising Anas Sarwar for making history as the first BAME leader of a major political party.

This is not true: Disraeli was the first ethnic-minority leader of a political party, while Herbert Samuel was the first synagogue-attending Jew to lead a major political party. Anas Sarwar is the first British Muslim and the first British-Pakistani leader of a major British political party, an impressive enough achievement in itself.

I think there are a variety of debates one can have about this mistake – do you believe this error represents, as I do, a shared problem of ethnic minority trailblazers, that we tend to be forgotten after we die or leave post? (Something Linda Bellos told me when I interviewed her for my profile of Diane Abbott has stayed with me: “we are always the first, because our history dies with us”.) On my side of the argument, I’d point out that one of the few social media accounts to correctly acknowledge Sarwar’s own history-making and that of those who came before him was the Young Fabians’ BAME Advocacy Group.

Do you believe that it speaks to a distinct problem that Labour has with British Jews? On that side of the argument, you’d point to the damning findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commissions. Or you might conclude it was a bit of both. There are a lot of interesting discussions you can have here.

But the thing you can’t do is have a serious debate about whether or not British Jews are a minority, and the only reason to do so is if you have a series of problems that Politics Live has consistently demonstrated: a near-unfiltered mainlining of the most acrid and arid Twitter debates onto television and into millions of homes, a dire approach to covering race and diversity, and the inability to understand that some topics cannot simply be boiled down into “six of one, half a dozen of the other”-style debates for clicks and attention.