A victim of Brexit’s collateral damage, the Jewish community in Northern Ireland, founded in 1870, might not live past 150. Indeed, the Brexit deal and its ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’, combined with the 1998 Northern Ireland peace deal (the Good Friday Agreement), concluded at the end of ‘the Troubles,’ created a new customs border, cutting through the Irish Sea. And threatened the supply of kosher food and the continuity of the Belfast Jewish community which counts around 100 members.
Rev. David Kale, who serves in the only synagogue in the whole of Northern Ireland, sets the scene for us: “Before Brexit came along we used to obtain all our kosher food from Manchester because on the whole of the island of Ireland, there is no shop at all, no kosher butcher shops, no kosher delicatessen. We then had two suppliers, a butcher and a grocer, in Manchester. Once a month we would make an announcement on Shabbat and send out emails saying the butcher and the grocer are now taking orders. Everybody would phone up their individual order. The butcher would pack everybody’s order separately into a box or several boxes and the grocer would do the same. The grocer would then send all the boxes of groceries over to the butcher. The butcher would then phone up the carrier who would come along in a lorry. The lorry would go from Manchester to Liverpool and then on a ferry into Belfast. It’s an eight-hour journey. From Belfast docks, the deliveries are shipped to the Shul (synagogue). We would then phone everybody up and everybody would come and collect their order. Everyone was happy with this system.”
This system worked until the end of December 2020. But in January 2021, when the United Kingdom left the EU, the community, worried, contacted the butcher to find out if he was going to bring over orders, and he said there was no problem. However, two weeks before Pesach, when the members of the community started placing orders orders with him, he said he could no longer had the mandatory certification in order to export. He could not supply them anymore.
Taken by surprise, the small community immediately set to work, contacting civil servants and members of parliament. How could they avert this cataclysm? Find an alternative route for the deliveries? Hope for a renegotiation or a withdrawal of the agreements? Expect an exception?
A small community facing extinction
Steven Jaffe is from Belfast. Like many Jews who grew up during the Troubles – the name given to the period of political unrest in Northern Ireland – he left the Northern Irish capital for England when he was 18. It was a pivotal time, as Rev. Kale describes it: “Jews were not targeted, but no one likes to live in bombings.” Jaffe went to an English university and did not return to Northern Ireland. He still returned very regularly to visit his mother, who still lived there, and to organize tours of old Jewish Belfast.
This out-migration led to the current demographic situation. At its peak, there were 1,500 community members in the 1960s. Jaffe remembers: “When I was a kid, there were maybe 350 Jews in Northern Ireland. Today there are only about 60 members attending the synagogue.” Some others are non-affiliated. Most of them are retired. Almost all of them have encouraged their children to move to England, mainly Manchester and London. And if their numbers have never ceased to worry them, it is now food that is at the heart of the anxious questions of Northern Ireland’s Jews.
A controversial agreement
Kale relates: “People are very worried about it. Whenever you go to Shul (synagogue), whenever you speak to people on the phone, everybody is concerned about it because basically everybody is very low on their supply for food at the moment, and we have to ration what we’re eating.”
At the center of the controversy is the Northern Ireland Protocol, an addendum of the Brexit deal. When Northern Ireland and Britain were both part of the EU’s Common Market, trade was obviously smooth. But the Brexit trade deal now stipulates that with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, Northern Ireland should be able to continue to benefit from participation in the Single Market for goods and services. The result is the creation of a border, cutting through the Irish Sea, between the UK and Northern Ireland, with its attendant customs, licensing and additional delivery times.The period of adjustment, known as a grace period, was put in place between 1 January and 30 June, then postponed until 30 September. On 30 September, the Brexit agreement, combined with the Northern Irish protocols, had to take another form, ending the grace period.
The tensions surrounding these conditions include the export of chilled and prepared meat and therefore kosher meat. The British press has dubbed this conflict the Sausage War. At the crossroads of conflict, the Jewish community was once again starved.
Pesach on alert
Facing the situation and looking for solutions, Michael Black, the chairman of the Belfast Jewish Community said to Rev. Kale: “Well, what we’ll have to do then is we’ll have to go and get our food from Dublin!” Failed attempt. “Dublin was also getting all of its food from Manchester. They used to have a non-Jewish shop that stocked kosher food. Once they couldn’t get the food from Manchester, it stopped stocking it,” regrets Kale.
The Dublin Jewish Community then went through a website in order to access kosher groceries. Somewhere in Europe, they could find their meat and chicken. But for Belfast Jews to get their food from Dublin, they would have to travel. They are mostly elderly people, in their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and traveling 100 miles each way, with the tolls to pay, is very hard for them.
Rev. Kale put the whole administration on alert. From contact to contact, from civil servants to civil servants, he obtained a Zoom meeting with Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He was very sympathetic to the situation. But all attempts seem to be dead ends. Sometimes administrative deadlines were missed, sometimes the paperwork was overwhelming for suppliers.
The solution came from an idea even more complicated than the previous ones: they proposed to the kosher butcher to sell the consignment of meat to a trader in England who had a special dispensation to sell certain products over the trade border. The trader in England could then sell it to a trader in Northern Ireland who was on the scheme and the Northern Island trader could sell it to the community.
The system seemed to work, everything was ready. But it was without counting on an unexpected refusal of their usual carrier who refused to transport the goods. They had to replace him with a carrier that would actually carry the goods over and comply with the actual legislation. Two days before Pesach, with the help of civil servants, they found the carrier. Rev. Kale recalls this difficult moment: “The carrier was supposed to phone me to confirm the arrangements. They gave me his telephone number. He never contacted me. I then had to call him. I sent him numerous emails and he never responded. So in the end, at 11:00p.m. I contacted one of the civil servants that put this together and told him if the order wasn’t going to be arranged that night, all his hard work was pointless, we weren’t going to get it in time for Pesach. And so at quarter to twelve that night, the carrier reached out to confirm the arrangements. And one and a half days before Pesach, our order for meat and poultry arrived. However, we were not able to get any groceries because it had taken such a long time to explain to our butcher the paperwork that he was required to carry out that there wasn’t time to get the grocer sorted out.”
“It is difficult enough to preserve a small isolated Jewish community without an issue like this.” Rev. Kale, who was contacted by phone, doubts it would be easy to have another rabbi if there were no more kosher meat available.
Only one order since Pesach
What to do for groceries? There was a supermarket here in Northern Ireland that dealt with a little bit of kosher. The year before, Kale spent a whole afternoon with the manager explaining to him about Kosher food, showing him the labels from products. He had some understanding and agreed to extend his tiny range just for Pesach. Given COVID, he had great difficulties in even getting over non-kosher food, but he went out of his way to try and get them groceries. He manages to find some, but some other were missing.
In addition to supply difficulties, there were price increases. When the community representatives called Dublin, the prices of groceries were absolutely astronomical: it cost five times what it would cost them to get it in England minus the cost of transportation. A chicken that costs £7.50 in England worked out to £20 without the cost of travel. And at one point when Kale phoned up Dublin and wanted to put in an order, they said to me: “The ship is stuck in the Port.”
The stakes are high because they include history, symbols and the future of the Jewish community. Steven Jaffe analyzes: “For the Jewish community, however, it is not the political aspects which concerns it. The possibility of restrictions and additional cost to bring in a very small supply of kosher meat is a practical problem which impacts on the daily lives of the more observant members of the community and, of course, the spiritual leader of the congregation.” He added: “It is difficult enough to preserve a small isolated Jewish community without an issue like this.” Rev. Kale, who was contacted by phone, doubts it would be easy to have another rabbi if there were no more kosher meat available.
“This is a very sensitive matter politically, because the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom or whether it should be united with the rest of Ireland has been the cause of much violence and political unrest over many years,” Jaffe states. The British government, while trying to find a solution to the border situation risk jeopardizing the Good Friday Agreement. Faced with this movement, fear is running high and resistance is being organized. In September, Joe Biden called on Boris Johnson not to go back on this agreement, which guarantees stability.
Since Pesach, they have only managed to place one order for meat and poultry, this for Rosh Hashana, and there have been difficulties ordering other groceries. And for Sukkot, it was another round of efforts. They contacted the office of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in order to find out who in Europe could supply the congregation with a Lulav and Etrog (a palm branch which is joined with myrtle and willow branches and a citron fruit, two of four species of plants that are held together and waved during the holiday of Sukkot) because they were not allowed to get them through from England. He recommended two suppliers. One of them was based in England, impossible then, the other one in Israel. After long conversations with the Israeli, a long silence set in. The supplier finally gave up. About a week before Rosh Hashana, they had nothing. “So at that point I phoned up Dublin and I spoke to the Rabbi of Dublin to find out what he was doing. He had a connection in France and they were sending over to him Lulav and Etrog. And so I put an order in with him, but unfortunately some of them arrived damaged and so they couldn’t be used. And so we didn’t have as many as we needed, but we had a few,” says Kale.
The community had meetings with Brandon Lewis again, face to face. They also had a meeting with the EU. “They were not very helpful,” recalls Kale. He remembers them saying: “You signed up for this, Boris Johnson signed up for. And these are the consequences of Brexit.”
The community, with different levels of observance in different households, remains very attached to kosher. “If this doesn’t get resolved, it will be the end of this community,” says Kale, adding, “They’ve been eating kosher all their lives, they’re not going to stop now! You cannot buy anything kosher in any shop whatsoever. You cannot bring in any kosher, meat or poultry, anything at all. What are you going to live on? And how long are you going to live on? Apples and beans and peas? How long can you exist on that?”
What to expect now
On 30th of September, no accommodation or solution had been found. Johnson therefore decided to unilaterally extend the grace period indefinitely. In this situation, Jaffe, too, hopes and despairs: “Before COVID I visited Belfast about 10 times a year. It’s about an hour’s flight from London. I also run Jewish heritage walking tours in Belfast city center. I hope something practical can be achieved so that the community which I love so much is able to continue.”
Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, described the situation as “despicable” and “shameful”. “The fact that the EU is effectively telling the Jewish community that they can’t source products in their own country is a pretty despicable place to be,” he said. He added: “And to not understand that an elderly and vulnerable community like that can’t travel 100 miles round trip once a week to do their shopping, I think that’s pretty bad form. I think it’s shameful, to be honest ”
But this month, signs of easing seemed on their way as sources reported that the EU was working on alleviating the protocol and authorizing sausages and generally chilled meat to be exported.. The terminology used to define the goods to be exempted is “National identity goods”. Discussions about what it encompasses are still ongoing.
Kale concludes: “The situation is managing. We should hopefully with the grace period be getting through some items of meat and poultry, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to get through some groceries.”
Last July, Boris Johnson, decrying the customs controls between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, expressed concern about a possible ‘Exodus’of Jews from Northern Ireland. Pending an agreement or arrangements, Fridays will be lean for Northern Ireland’s Jews.
|1||In an interview by journalist Shai Afsai in the Jerusalem Post, Rev. Dave Kale explains the status of a reverend: ”A reverend is an experienced and qualified person who is authorized by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to carry out all the duties of a rabbi, or to act as hazzan [cantor] of a shul [synagogue], without having semicha [rabbinic ordination]. In a small community such as Belfast, a reverend usually leads all services as hazzan; acts as ba’al koreh [Torah chanter]; delivers a sermon on Shabbat and Yom Tov morning; delivers shiurim [religious classes]; visits the sick; conducts funerals and tombstone unveilings; is responsible for kashrut and acts as a mashgiach [kosher food supervisor], ensuring all kiddushim [i.e., refreshments served at the synagogue] and functions held in the shul are strictly kosher.”|
|2||See the documentary The Last Minyan – A Belfast Jewish Story by Aaron Black https://www.timesofisrael.com/belfasts-last-minyan/|