British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned of an “exodus” of Jews from Northern Ireland due to potential problems over access to kosher food owing to the Brexit trade agreement he signed with the European Union, which went into affect at the beginning of this year.
There are 67 members of the Belfast Jewish community, the only one in Northern Ireland, with a similar number of Jews not formally affiliated with the synagogue.
According to the trade deal secured following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, Northern Ireland, a part of the UK, would remain within the EU’s single market for goods and services so as not to create a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, because that would threaten the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998.
This has meant however that a trade border has been created in the Irish Sea between mainland UK and Northern Ireland, in which goods coming from the UK are subject to various checks and delays.
Goods subject to such checks include chilled meats, including kosher meat, while other restrictions for other kosher food supplies will come into effect in September.
“Only yesterday there were very serious representations from the Jewish community in Northern Ireland who pointed out that because of the problem with the food sector it was becoming difficult for them to have timely access, or any access, to kosher food,” Johnson said in the House of Commons Liaison Committee on Wednesday.
“They’re talking now about an exodus from Northern Ireland by the Jewish community,” he continued.
“We want to do everything we can to avoid that and sort it out,” he added, and implied that the EU should demonstrate greater flexibility to address the problem.”
Johnson has decried the customs checks between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland, even though they are an integral part of the Brexit trade deal he agreed and signed with the EU in order not to violate the Good Friday Agreement.
Michael Black, chairman of the Belfast Jewish community, said that the problem was that regulatory alignment, voluminous paperwork and inspections would be needed for such imports, including veterinary inspections for raw meat to ensure it complies with EU standards and to check the source and origin of such products.
These requirements would make it unfeasible for importers to deal with small amounts of kosher food required by the Belfast community, he said, and imports from Europe would be prohibitively expensive.
Neither the Belfast community or the Jewish community in the Republic Ireland have a ritual slaughterer, meaning all kosher meat and poultry must be imported.
He said that the implication of not having access to kosher meat as well as other kosher dry goods would make it extremely difficult to attract and retain a rabbi who, in the small community, is critical for conducting prayer services and conducting communal life.
“I wouldn’t use the words mass exodus but it would probably be the end of community life,” said Black.
Black said, however, that he was confident a solution would be found, and praised local religious leaders, including local churchmen, as well as the UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, for their work and support on the issue.
On Tuesday, Mirvis, together with local Jewish leaders Reverend David Kale, Black and the President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van der Zyl, met the UK Northern Irish Secretary Brandon Lewis to discuss the problem.
The leaders said that they sought to “urge the government to take action to avoid the Northern Ireland Protocol potentially ending Jewish life in Belfast,” according to a statement from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a representative body for the UK Jewish community.
“Supply of kosher food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland has continued with interim arrangements, but, under the Northern Ireland Protocol, this will end in September,” the board said.
“Once kosher food and religious artifacts cannot be supplied, the community is likely to collapse,” it added.
The board said that the Northern Irish minister “pledged his support,” as well as that of Johnson and the government’s lead EU negotiator Lord Frost, on the issue.
“The Belfast Jewish community is a great community with a rich history, but also an older and vulnerable one,” said van der Zyl.
“We thank the Minister for his time, and urge the UK and the EU to generate a creative solution which means that Jews can continue to practice their faith in Northern Ireland.”