This has been lightly trimmed in the interests of length
Who Do We Think We Are?
For this year’s JC round-table debate we joined our friends in the Jewish Community Centre for London. Our theme of Jewish identity, under the banner, Who Do We Think We Are?, brought together a stellar panel. Discussion, Jewish Chronicle 17.10.11
● Baroness Julia Neuberger, senior rabbi of West London Synagogue and a cross-bench member of the House of Lords
● Playwright Amy Rosenthal
● Ian Livingston, chief executive of the BT Group (formerly British Telecom)
● Julia Hobsbawm, media businesswoman, writer, mother and stepmother
● Anthony Julius, lawyer, chairman of the JC, and writer on antisemitism
The debate was chaired by Guardian and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland
Jonathan Freedland: I am going to start with a little exercise and my excuse for it is that this was first done on me by David Grossman, the great and celebrated Israeli novelist. [He] said: “How would you describe your identity if you had to use three determinants of identity?” In other words, your gender, your nationality or citizenship and your ethnicity? Which order would they be in? For him, he said he was first primarily Jewish, second, male, and third Israeli. That was how he ranked it. I suppose the equivalent of Israeli citizenship for him would be British for us.
Julia Neuberger: British, Jewish, female.
Ian Livingston: I think Jewish, Scottish, male.
Julia Hobsbawm: Mother, Jewish… funnily enough I think about this question often in relation to my Jewishness. If I died I often think that the first thing people would say about me was that I was Jewish, so Jewish is definitely…
JF: Edging ahead of the citizenship, British, English?
JH: I wouldn’t describe myself as British or English first and foremost, not even in the top three.
Amy Rosenthal: If I had to answer the question directly I would say female, Jewish, Londoner. Londoner rather than English. My instinct would be to say playwright, Jewish, female, or maybe female, Jewish.
JF: Which comes first for you, the fact that you are a woman or the fact that you are a Jew?
AR: Probably a woman.
Anthony Julius: I think it has to be gender first because that is the most basic biological determinant of one’s identity. So male. Second has to be English because the language that one speaks is the second most important determinate of one’s identity, and I think actually quite a distance from the first and the second determinants is my Jewishness. Not because I attach little significance to it but against the fundamental determinants of language and gender, anything would be relatively unimportant.
JF: I think some people would have been surprised by that, but it is very revealing. Julia, …tell us why British edges ahead of Jewish for you?
JN: It is Britain I grew up in. English is the language I speak first and foremost. I think it is even more a part of my identity than being Jewish, although I am a rabbi. If I could have used other terms I would have probably said rabbi as one of the three.Some people changed the terms but I didn’t. I think it is because it determines where I was born, where I grew up and also probably importantly a sense of gratitude which I still feel very strongly. My mother was a refugee to this country. I still feel very strongly grateful to Britain for… I don’t think it behaves well with asylum seekers and refugees necessarily now, but it behaved pretty well to quite a lot of refugees and asylum seekers, though not as well as it could have done in the 1930s. But I am grateful, so I think Britishness is a big part of my identity. I am of course the senior rabbi of the West London Synagogue of British Jews. It was a statement they made in 1840.
JF: People listening to this will take a lot from that but even though Jewishness absolutely dominates your professional life…
JF: And it is your calling…
JN: And my private life. I mean, it is a very key part of my life.
JF: Nevertheless, secondary to your Britishness?
JN: I think so.
JF: Ian Livingston, you didn’t use the word Britishness at all but Scottishness, but it came second to being Jewish. I think it is fair to say that of the five panellists assembled here, the fact that you are Jewish might be least known about you. It doesn’t feature centrally in your professional life, but why did you rank it first?
IL: It is maths actually. Look at what determines you within a crowd and actually there are less Jews than Scots in the UK, less Scots than there are males. It is a bit like if you are a left-hander. That is something to remark upon. You don’t remark upon being right handed. I almost said the question is a really bad question because it is a bit like saying “I am a dad. I am a Celtic supporter. Which one do I choose instead of each other?” I don’t see them in the slightest as being self-contradictory. I am incredibly proud. Actually I am proud of being British, of being Scottish, of being Jewish. I am proud of all of these things and they actually help elevate each other. It is actually a very, very dangerous thing, the day that Jewish people have to start to say “I am Jewish British or British Jewish”. We shouldn’t get caught in that trap. We are British and Jewish and we are Jewish and British and being either of them contributes to the other.
JF: The point was, it wasn’t an either/or question. It was a ranking but even the ranking in order, I do take the point you are making.
JN: I just think that is a very important point, about us all having multiple identities and it is a bit like one of those Venn diagrams which keep overlapping and they strengthen each other. Actually I do think trying to dissociate them just makes it very complicated. That thing of which cricket team would you support – Israel or England? Actually, I wouldn’t support a cricket team at all so it is not really relevant. I have always thought that is a really absurd question and one that probably shouldn’t be asked.
AR: But it is quite interesting to see what comes up when you are asked it, don’t you think, to challenge yourself in that way?
JF: Thank you. That is what I think too.
AR: I suppose because I hadn’t really thought about how important my gender was and actually thinking about it and as you went around, that was the one that came out on top. As Anthony said, you are defined by your gender instantaneously.
AJ: Two things. First of all I am a Jew. Isaiah Berlin said, a Jew is a Jew, like a table is a table. That is to say, it is simply an aspect of one’s character.
JF: Although it is the essence of it, isn’t it?
AJ: Well, not really. You are just a Jew. I am very sceptical about people who say “I am proud to be a Jew”, because it seems to me that it would be absurd to say “I am proud to be a man as opposed to a woman”. It is part of one’s condition. One is a Jew. One is a man. One is English. One may be proud or ashamed of things that one does oneself as a Jew or as a man or as a British person, but to be proud of an identity which is simply given to one seems to me to make a false claim about oneself.
IL: I don’t agree with you. You can be proud of certain things you are, that you are given, but also being a Jew is not just about what you are given. It is what you decide to do. My parents are Jewish. That in its own right is not particularly the thing to be proud of. Are you identifying? Do you form part of the community? Are you involved? Are you open and positive about your Judaism and being Jewish? That is what I mean about being proud of being Jewish and not the fact that…
AJ: I am proud that I did this or that in elaboration of my Jewish identity.
JH: But there is an element of choice in how you live your life. You can’t choose your gender…
AJ: You don’t choose your Jewish identity. What you do, is you do something with your Jewish identity.
JH: My 12-year-old son was attacked at school recently and I felt, obviously, dreadfully upset. I apologised to him that he had been attacked, even though we are not exactly a very obviously observant family.
JF: You are sure he was attacked for Jewish reasons?
JH: Yes, he was. Somebody drew a swastika on his arm. In response, he said: “I am proud to be a Jew”. So I actually think that statement is a very apt one, that he was saying “Don’t be apologetic”. He defended himself against this child who is a damaged child. He recognised that this kid was not well but he said – and very spontaneously – “I am proud to be a Jew”. I thought that was a very interesting statement because we are not a family that would have described ourselves first and foremost in those terms.
AJ: “I am proud that I had the courage to identify myself as of Jewish origin in the face of a bully”, and that is indeed something to be proud of.
JF: Maybe he was saying something about choice. He was choosing that he is a Jew. I think Anthony was slightly suggesting it is just a fact about you whether you like it or not, but actually there is a choice about how “out” you are. That is perhaps a choice which isn’t so open, for example about gender.
JN: I want to come back on this question about being proud of being Jewish because I think it is really interesting. I think there are quite a lot of kids of your son’s age who would use precisely that terminology and not necessarily because they have been attacked. There is something going on about kids choosing to affirm a Jewish identity, so that is more than being born with it. They are actually saying, “I am proud of this. I am standing up, head held high”. Actually the contrast is with the way that Jews used to keep their heads down, particularly before the last war but also in the ’50s and the ’60s when I was growing up. I think it is really interesting to hear 12-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 20-year-olds actually saying “I am proud of being Jewish”. I think that is a change in how we are defining ourselves.
JF: I wanted to put exactly that thought to you, Amy Rosenthal. You are probably the youngest member of our panel. Do you think what Julia Neuberger is saying is right, that this next generation is more out and proud about their Jewish identity? Does that speak in any way to you, the people you know?
AR I think so. At an age that is all about self-definition, where every statement you make about yourself is important and what you choose to say about yourself on Facebook and how you choose to present yourself to the world, you have a lot of choice, and if people are choosing to be public and proud about that, it is very interesting.
JF: I think this is an interesting question and I am going to bring it back to you, Amy Rosenthal – and I linger on your surname for a reason – but Ian Livingston is a name that doesn’t declare itself. It is up to you in a way whether you tell colleagues or people in the business world that you are a Jew. Do you? Are your colleagues aware of the fact that you are Jewish?
IL: Yes, absolutely.
JF: How does that come about and do you make a conscious choice to let them know that?
IL: No, but it is part of what I am, in the same way they might know what football team I support. They know about family. It is absolutely part of my lifestyle and I don’t seek to hide it. I will be off on Rosh Hashanah. I will be off on Yom Kippur. They know what I don’t eat. I know most of them, whether they are Catholic or Protestant or whatever and that is absolutely fine.
JF: That option, Amy, for you was not open because you have a name that does announce something about you right from the beginning. This is a very abstract question really. Would you ever have even considered changing that name, to make it a less overtly Jewish name from the outset?
AR: No, not at all. I agree with Ian. I think I do tend to tell people quite quickly if they haven’t worked it out. It is something I want people to know about me. Not consciously but it comes up in conversation quickly. It informs a lot of my humour, I think. I wouldn’t have changed it. I wouldn’t think of it.
AJ: It is really interesting that when we talk about people who say “We are proud to be Jews”, almost always we talk about it in the context of a confrontation with antisemitism. The reason I put the question is because I would like a broader discussion about whether it is in fact the case that one’s Jewish identity should derive from the posture that one takes towards one’s historical oppressors. I question whether that is the case.
JN: .. I don’t think that most of these kids that I have been talking to, within our cheder and the post bar- and batmitzvah kids, but also a lot of the kids of my kids’ generation in their 30s, I don’t think they are saying they are proud of being Jewish because they are setting it in the context of being under attack. I think they are saying they are proud of being Jewish because they are actually shaping it as an identity. They are choosing to be Jewish in a lot of different ways, and they are more “out there” than their parents and grandparents were.
JF: Your example, Julia Hobsbawm, was about identity in the face of enemies and in a very direct way for your son.
JH: And we are a secular family, so I think it is going to be interesting to see how our children, whom we tell that they are Jewish, whom we want in some way to have a Jewish identity, but whom we are not particularly helping, because we don’t have the anchorage of religion or indeed any kind of observance.
JF: … You brought us onto something that I wanted to get all of us on, which is how our Jewishness plays a part in our day to day lives. What content does it have? You used the word “secular”. What Jewishness, what Jewish content is there? You have described your household as a big rambling household with multiple relationships.
JH: I think we are 100 per cent culturally Jewish, by which I mean there is a lot of klezmer music playing, and my husband is teaching himself Yiddish and we talk about our Jewish identity. Our family is an émigré family who experienced loss in the Holocaust etc, but the fact is we don’t observe anything – and I didn’t as a child – and I am finding it very complicated as a parent to decide what to do about that.
JF: For people who don’t know your background, your father is the legendary Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and presumably as part of his Marxist faith, he would have not wanted Jewish religious practice in your upbringing.
JH: I am not sure it is that, because on my mother’s side, coming as émigrés from Vienna immediately after Kristallnacht, I think it was more that Jews seemed to go one of two ways. They either observed their Jewishness in order to make a statement of survival, or they assimilated so much that they did not, and my family were in that camp. So it wasn’t really a political response, but the fact is my family, my own upbringing, my husband’s upbringing, had absolutely no observance, religious or otherwise. So our children quite rightly are saying – up until this incident when it defined itself – “What do you mean, we are Jewish?”
JF: Before that incident, what is your answer to that question?
JH: We are figuring it out. When we got married, after most of our children were born, we asked Julia [Neuberger] to give us a blessing. That was the first indication my husband and I had that maybe we were a little bit more interested than we thought.
JF: What about that, Anthony, when you have a family? We will hear about your own Jewish life and it is obviously a very active Jewish life. You are chairman of the Jewish Chronicle. You do tons of Jewish stuff all the time in the public community sphere. But you hear about a family that doesn’t have – by Julia’s own description – day-to-day religious Jewish habits or customs etc, and yet you said before, a Jew is a Jew in the way a table is a table. Is a Jew who doesn’t do any traditional Jewish stuff, do they still count as just as Jewish?
AJ: First of all it is not for me to adjudicate. The Isaiah Berlin remark is important because what he is saying is there is something irreducible about Jewish identity, which is at least in part because it is given, because that is in the nature of Judaism. It is not confessional in the way in which Christianity is. One is given one’s Jewish identity, and that is actually what constitutes us as a people, regardless of what we do or whether we do anything. But then there is this remark in Pirkei Avot, in one of the tractates of the Talmud, the Ethics of the Fathers, and it is a wonderfully pregnant observation, which says the Torah is not an inheritance. I interpret that as an invitation to every Jew to whom a Jewish identity has been given, to remake that identity by a process of reflection and thought and practice, engagement with the tradition in one way or another and find a Jewish identity that makes sense for that Jew. So in that sense – not that she needs it – I am very sympathetic to Julia’s position. It feels to me that one is both a Jew, but also one becomes a Jew over one’s life.
AR: I just wonder what made you want to have a Jewish blessing. What was the trigger for that?
JH: I think it is partly this nebulous sense of identity, whether you like it or not and I think that is part of what this indefinable, “how do we know we are Jewish, how do we feel Jewish, what is being Jewish?” But I think there is a large degree of sentimentality attached to it. I feel as I get older – and I was not young when we got married – that you want to mark out who you are, and it felt appropriate, plus Julia [N] was the first Jew that I felt didn’t in fact disapprove of the kind of Jew that I am. For the first 35 or 40 years of my life in London I felt I was a frowned-upon Jew. In fact, we describe ourselves anecdotally in our family as “bad Jews”, because we are not observant, and we are not particularly pro-Israeli, and we therefore do not have that anchorage. Julia was the first serious Jew who made it clear that it didn’t matter to her at all. Suddenly she awakened a certain kind of sensibility that I had felt was not available before then. I felt pretty disapproved of actually, growing up in north London in the ’60s and ’70s by the Jewish community.
JF: Ian, you have heard some quite interesting exchanges about Jewishness and how it plays out in people’s lives in the sense of being disapproved of, even bad Jews or good Jews. Inside your own day-to-day life, how does Jewishness play out?
IL We are members of an Orthodox shul. We keep a kosher home. We go to shul pretty regularly. My kids went to BBYO [B’nei B’rith Youth Organisation] or Bnei Akiva or UJS, strongly into Jewish youth movements. They went to non-Jewish schools and actually it made them identify more. I think they had to work a bit more. Anthony Julius said he felt every Jew had to make their own decision, which is true, but from generation to generation there is also the importance of setting at least some element of the groundwork to give one’s kids a choice… They have a very strong interest in the wider society, which I think is vitally important. I think a critical part of Anglo-Jewishness has to be that.
JF: We are quite a judgmental community, do you think? We are all talking in quite a happy-clappy way about identity.
JN: No, and I think one of the reasons I am so keen on a Jewish Community Centre is that it is an opportunity for Jews of any kind. My quarrel with Anthony – and actually not really Anthony but with Isaiah Berlin – is that I don’t think being Jewish is like being a table at all.
AJ:Well, it is in one sense.
JN: No, it is not. A lot of people don’t have it given to them. A lot of people are Jews by choice. A lot of people have one Jewish parent and not two. A lot of people have one Jewish grandparent who was brought up with absolutely nothing. For a lot of people, it is not at all like being a table. It is a definite choice, making a choice about identity. One of the reasons I think the JCC is so important… I didn’t think Vivien Duffield was right when she first suggested it, but actually I think now she is bang on the nail about it.
JF: And you are now a board member?
JN: I am not a board member. I am an adviser to it, but it allows any kind of Jew, whether you are a secular Jew as Julia has described herself, a pretty Orthodox Jew as Ian has described himself, different experiences of being Jewish. Jews by choice, brought up so, so Jewish you couldn’t really get away, all of that. I think that is hugely important and actually I think that we have not been good about that in Britain, because we are so incredibly judgmental.
AJ: Judgmentalism is hateful.
JN: Yes, it is. It is revolting.
AJ: And it is also a form of bad faith. It means I don’t have to think about my own existential anxieties if I can hide inside a posture of disapproval of other people… So obviously it is disgusting, and it is also prevalent, and one recoils from it when one comes across it. It is a form of stupidity which is oppressive but uninteresting and one doesn’t need to talk about it other than simply to acknowledge it needs to be resisted.
JF: Before we follow Anthony’s advice and not talk about it any longer, it is very interesting that you, Julia Hobsbawm, said that Julia Neuberger was the first figure who had not been judgmental towards you. The people who you felt were being judgmental, were they office-holders, or are you saying your regular British Jew when they encountered you?
JH: No, your regular British Jew.
JF: So judgmental towards you for not living a Jewish enough life?
JH: Yes. I don’t even think it was as delineated as that consciously. But I was born in 1964, grew up in north London, and the Jewish community, as I understood it and experienced it, in that period was defined hugely by its religion and its support for Israel. If you were not involved in either of those communities you were excluded, which is of course incredibly ironic because I always felt Jewish, although interestingly I didn’t find out about the Holocaust until I watched the TV show, Holocaust.
JF: So that was how history was taught in your household?
JH: Well, I think it speaks volumes about the different ways families experience the trauma of it, that they really couldn’t speak about it, and it was only because a friend of my parents had done the art for the programme that they pointed it out. But I think it is very recent that the Jewish community globally is beginning to look at itself with broader eyes and perspectives. It used to be pretty much, are you with us or against us, and “us” meant Israel and “us” meant God, and if you didn’t do either of those as a fundamental tenet of your identity, you did not count.
JF: We are going to come onto Israel specifically. Before we do that I am struck by who we have got around this table and we do have a member of the House of Lords and we have a very eminent lawyer and the head of one of Britain’s biggest companies among others here. How much do the people around this table feel absolutely part of British life but even part of the establishment, on the side? I will start with our member of the House of Lords, Julia Neuberger.
JN: I think it would be difficult to say, wouldn’t it, that I wasn’t on the inside as a member of the House of Lords? There are quite a few Jews in the House of Lords actually. It was very funny when we were there some years ago, when a debate went on and on. It was on 28 days’ detention of alleged terrorists, but it went on over a Thursday night into Friday and was moving towards Shabbat. Some people were there to absolutely support the government and some people weren’t going to let the government get away with it, and I was on the side for not letting the government get away with it. But people on all sides of the House kept coming up to me at about 6p.m on the Friday and said: “Are you going to do something about Shabbat for all of us?” … In the heart of the establishment, Jews of all different kinds, including some who would describe themselves as secular, said: “If we are going to be here on a Friday night let’s make Shabbat together.” In fact it all settled down and we all went home. It would have been very good to see that happen…
JF: What about you, Ian Livingston? At the top of the corporate ladder in this country, you couldn’t be in a more senior position in British business. Establishment insider?
IL: I am minded of the quote about British aristocracy’s claim to be self-made men, thus relieving God of the responsibility. I am not sure I wish to be part of what you might term “the establishment”. I think it delineates certain things that one doesn’t need to be. What I recognise as British society has welcomed me, and made it open to achieve things. But I don’t recognise the establishment really as being something I am part of or wish to be part of. … Am I on the inside today? I guess. I am in Number 10.
JF: What I am picking up is that I think you are factually insiders, but maybe neither of you actually quite feels it. … Anthony, you couldn’t be a more senior lawyer in British life and famously you did become the divorce lawyer for Princess Diana. When you got that appointment you were profiled in the Daily Telegraph in a way that was perhaps disobliging, and suggested no matter how well you had done as a lawyer you were on the outside.
AJ: Well, I think the concept of the establishment was a politically strategic concept, and Ian is right. It is located in the 1960s because it was a concept invented by a group of people who wanted to define themselves against it. So there was always something deliberately politically simplistic about it. I don’t think there is an establishment in the sense of an executive committee of the bourgeoisie, to return once again to Marx! It doesn’t exist. One is inside some groups, and outside other groups.
JF: The thing I was referring to, Anthony, was your profile in the Telegraph said “he may not necessarily subscribe to the traditional British or English notions of fair play, because he is a very intellectual Jewish lawyer.” It suggested your Jewishness somehow made you an outsider.
AJ: Yes. I have to say, not answering your question which is another conventional Jewish characteristic, I am very struck by the fact that as a cohort at this table we are very, very much alike in comparison with other kinds of Anglo-Jews. I would like to give a voice, even if it is just for a moment, to the Jews of N16, to the Jews of NW4 [Hendon ].
JF: What would they be saying if they were here?
AJ: I think that they would be saying that a Jewish identity which is not informed by rigorous observance, and a close and intimate and continuing dialogue of a very submissive but intellectually exact kind, with a certain kind of Jewish tradition, is a Jewishness which at best is radically diluted and at worst is also subversive of the dor ve dor hope that we all have, which is the continuity of Jewish life across the generations. I think they would say that.
JF: I should explain that in London N16 is Stamford Hill and Stoke Newington where a large Charedi Jewish community lives. You are saying that the conversation is automatically tilted by the absence around this table of those strictly Orthodox Jews?
AJ: There is the United Synagogue member. There is no rabbi to the right of the United Synagogue and I think it is difficult constructing a dialogue across those rather broader parameters, which actually yet do define Anglo-Jewry as a total community.
JF: I will just speak up a little bit in defence of the JCC which partly organised this. Very often in events there has been a tendency to reach out to the Charedi community and strictly Orthodox Jews, and almost always [their] answer is no. .Why do you think that is, that those Jewish communal discussions when they happen, that the Charedim take themselves out of that conversation?
IL: I think modern Orthodox would give you a very different answer from Charedim. Charedim would basically say, “We define our community by a certain belief”. I think modern Orthodox would see themselves very much in the same conversation so I don’t think many of my friends absolutely see themselves in that modern Orthodox definition. A large number of people define themselves as modern Orthodox, middle of the road and by definition everyone else is at the extreme.
JF: It is such a true thing about Jewish identity. Basically everyone else is a fanatic and you are normal!
AJ: Or a backslider.
JN: But wherever you are, you are normal, absolutely.
IL: The definition of modern Orthodox is the ability to operate in wider society at the same time as being religiously observant. That is entirely feasible and possible. Charedim would give a different answer about their role and how they operate in society, there is no question about it.
JN: And modern Orthodoxy has a very strong intellectual tradition and Samson Raphael Hirsch tradition from Germany, and that is very much present in modern Orthodoxy in the UK, really important. It may not be the position I hold, but it is one that one absolutely respects. You can be absolutely observant and play your role in any aspect of modern life – arts, sciences, whatever it happens to be.
JF: On Twitter, someone from the Federation of Zionist Youth, .. says: “Where is Israel in the conversation on Jewish identity?” So that is where we are going to go in our conversation. Julia Hobsbawm, you did touch on it, saying that when you grew up your family didn’t identify strongly with Israel. To what extent is Israel part of your identity, almost whether you like it or not because other people identify you or associate you with Israel?
JH: I don’t think people associate me with Israel. I think people associate me, and identify me from afar, correctly, with being Jewish. I have family in Israel. I have been once to Israel to conduct a piece of work actually for Beit Hatefutsot, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. There is a wonderful description by Howard Jacobson in Roots Schmoots of being a sort of typical leftie north London Jew, arriving in Israel and being bowled over with indefinable emotion by whatever it is about Israel.
JF: And were you bowled over?
JH: I was, but at the same time – and I almost hesitate to say this because it is such a sensitive issue and I don’t want to appear to be insensitive and I am not particularly well informed – I am not a Jew who supports the policies of the Israeli government by any stretch whatsoever. I find a lot of the actions of the Israeli government incomprehensible and abhorrent. So while I feel deeply uncomfortable about the rise in antisemitism and I understand the risks that Israel regards itself as facing, I simply don’t want anything to do with the strategy that doesn’t want a two-state solution and that conducts its politics the way Israel has done to date. That is a real roadblock, to use the language, for me as a Jew of any kind.
JF: That is what I am interested in. So you have set out those views and I understand them clearly but what impact do those views then have on your identity? Why is it a roadblock?
JH: It means I think twice about going with my family. It means that one of the issues I struggle with, in response to Anthony’s point which I think is very well made, is do I want to have my Jewish cake and eat it? I want to be Jewish. I want my children to be Jewish, but what am I actually doing about that? I think that is a valid argument. I think you cannot ignore Israel if you are a Jew, but the question is really I want to, because I don’t like what it does.
IL: I am not a supporter of the current Israeli government. I think it is a strange argument to say that because I don’t support its government it dramatically changes my approach and attitude to Israel, any more than saying because I might disagree with the actions of the British government in some places, it somehow makes me less British. I think, however the more generic comment, irrespective of whether Likud or Labour or whosoever is in the Israeli government, I think Israel’s relationship with the diaspora is one in which today the diaspora shapes Israel, and Israel shapes the diaspora. They do not define each other. That is quite a big change, and I did hear a senior Israeli politician say: “Israel no longer needs the diaspora”. I think that is probably right. I think probably the diaspora needs Israel a wee bit more, but it doesn’t fully define us.
JF: You skated over it pretty quickly, this idea that it could discomfit you in any way. You said there is no more problem than a British citizen being opposed to the British government.
IL: I didn’t quite say that. I said that your fundamental belief in Israel, and the emotional attachment to it, isn’t a contingent. I was saying that if there is a Labour government in Israel, I am happier. I can be more emotionally attached to it. Actually I think the great thing about Israel is the ability to say “I oppose what the government of Israel is doing, but it doesn’t mean that I want to disestablish the state”.
JF: I just wonder if even though intellectually that is obviously right, but emotionally it works out in a much more complicated way. There will be a lot of people who do find it hard, because on the one hand they may have the disagreements and criticisms that Julia is articulating, but on the other hand they don’t want to join those people who are denouncing Israel, because somehow that feels they are being disloyal. Amy Rosenthal, do you feel that yourself, or do you observe this kind of anguish around this question of Israel?
AR: It brings up huge discomfort. My heart starts to beat faster as soon as it is mentioned. It is a mixture of defensiveness of Israel, shame at the behaviour of Israel at times, anxiety about the untangling of words, of Judaism and Jews and Israelis.
JF: And the Star of David, the Jewish symbol is on the flag of the state of Israel.
AR: Yes and I find all that deeply troubling.
JF: In what way in your own life? How does that play out?
AR: Because I think that conversations about Judaism become deeply entangled with conversations about Israel. It just happens. It always happens, and they are separate. For me they are separate. I do feel a certain loyalty to Israel, but I don’t feel that it is my homeland.
JF: Do you feel some kind of obligation to defend it when it is criticised?
AR: I feel a genuine defensiveness actually, but I also feel a fear of headlines. I hope, when I open a newspaper, that they [Israel] haven’t done anything terrible today.
IL: My response was about my emotional attachment. Where we all feel discomfort, actually almost as a third party reaction, is the criticism of Israel.As Jews you do become more defensive when you are watching the BBC or reading something, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t oppose or disagree personally with things – but it doesn’t cause an emotional schism because I don’t agree with the policies Where the issue becomes difficult is that there are some people who are unable to separate Judaism from Israel, and more importantly, the actions of Israel from people being Jews and even accepting that Jews can say “I support Israel but frankly I don’t agree with this policy or that policy”. They just don’t recognise that it becomes a very binary process.
JF: Anthony Julius, you are somebody who, professionally, is often called upon to defend not necessarily Israel itself but when people make arguments about Israel somehow you are in that defence business sometimes. A large section of your book on antisemitism ended up taking on critics of Israel and of Zionism. You are shaking your head! You tell me what is accurate. Could you tell us your sense of how Israel plays in Jewish identity now for you?
AJ: Why was I shaking my head? I acted for Ariel Sharon when he was the subject of a cartoon. The cartoon was of him biting the head off a Palestinian child against a backdrop of Israeli helicopter gunships. It was in the Independent. The objection to that cartoon was not that it was a criticism of Israel’s policy because it was too general to be focused on any particular policy. The objection was that it played out a very well established ugly figure in antisemitic discourse which is of the predatory adult male Jew killing a gentile child. In other words, it was a blood libel. I was not just happy to act, I felt that because it was something that I could do something about, I had a duty as a Jew to come to the defence of another Jew who was being charged with such a foul libel
I am concerned with the way in which antisemitic language has infected what passes for anti-Zionist positions. I think that is completely separate to the positions that are taken in relation to Israel, and while I think there is an immensely wide range of political options and I have my own positions in relation to many of those options, they feel to me to be a different kind of conversation than confronting antisemites, and fellow travellers with antisemites, who don’t flinch from using antisemitic language in support of their often somewhat overheated advocacy.
My own position about Zionism is that it is an extraordinary experiment in Jewish self-governance – and it doesn’t actually appeal to all Jews. Many Jews are quite comfortable having rather more multiple identities. Jewish self-governance places the accent very heavily on the Jewish components of one’s identity. I think it can be a little bit too much for people, particularly people in the diaspora to swallow for themselves.
For me the multiplicity of identities is an irreducible fact of human identity and I am always anxious about claims made on me by one or other aspect of my own identity, with more vigorous assertions of its unique significance and importance. Certainly I regard myself as a Zionist, in the sense that I support the continued existence of a Jewish state, one which is committed to Jewish self-governance and conforms to democratic, liberal, Jewish principles.
JF: And what about when Israel doesn’t seem to be conforming with democratic liberal Jewish principles?
AJ: Of course one takes a position which is therefore inevitably critical. When I first left university in 1977 I came down to London, I joined Poale Zion, the Labour Zionist party, and I got caught up in Jewish communal politics in 1982 with the Lebanon invasion. I gave a paper at a political conference on the right to criticise Israel and it was absolutely axiomatic in the left-wing Zionist circles in which I moved, that a Labour Zionist, a Socialist Zionist’s commitments, were first of all to the integrity of the Jewish people as a whole. Secondly, to the Zionist project, and only thirdly to this or that governance. Plainly when one’s loyalty to the third position was in conflict with one’s loyalty to the second or even more the first, one had a duty to be critical of the government.
What I find remarkable is that I and my friends in the chevra, who were vigorously arguing for a two-state solution, were considered to be utterly beyond acceptable in more conventional Jewish circles. Now, of course, to argue for the two-state solution is regarded in what passes for the left as impossibly reactionary. Times change, one doesn’t.
JN: . I got myself into quite considerable trouble back in 1982 because I was extremely critical of the Israeli government and of the extent to which it had stood by whilst the Phalange went into Sabra and Shatila. It was pretty unpleasant. I think sometimes you have to speak out, even when people feel that it is very unfair and it is the wrong environment to do it in and it only feeds Israel’s enemies. I think that is rare and I think that Yachad is right, that we need a place where you can be a friend of Israel – and by the way I should say that I am going to Israel quite a lot at the moment. My aunt made aliyah at the age of 88 and we went for her 90th birthday, amongst other things. My youth group experience started off in Habonim which was a left-wing Zionist youth group. My dad was a kibbutznik in the 1930s. So I love the place, but I get very angry with some of the attitudes expressed both in Israel, and indeed here.
But interestingly I find it is easier to be quite critical of things that the Israeli government does. You are right, you don’t have to be a supporter of the government. It is easier to do that sometimes in Israel because there are just so many different opposition groups.
AJ: The brave thing to do in Israel is to support the government!
JF: Is this one of these things that is a bit like family? You can criticise your family but you don’t like hearing other people criticise your family?
JH: Sort of. I mean, it is so fraught and so sensitive and I think given that people on all sides die and experience extreme pain and anguish, it would be really improper for people who are critical of one side or the other to be cavalier with their language. I would say the Jews are a diaspora people, and first and foremost what interests me as a Jew is not the state of Israel, it is Jews around the world. However, what is surprising is to me is that after the Arab spring and Mubarak’s fall, I felt for the first time in my life quite a stab of anxiety about Israel. I thought, for the first time, this is not straightforward . This is not my position of being anti-this and pro-that, it is not straightforward. But do I feel comfortable with any of the parameters with which Israel as a country frames itself? I really don’t. I think it is the next challenge for Jews, who want to be Jews whatever kind of Jews they are, to look at that, inside Israel and outside Israel.
JF: It is certainly going on inside Israel. We gather now, just after the largest demonstration in Israeli political history, 460,000 people on the streets although what they were talking about was domestic issues and social and equality and those issues rather than the existential conflict with the Palestinians.
IL: .. I think what I find more discomfiting is the acceptance of among some parts of wider society, particularly the left, that there is a different rule for Israel than there is for everything else. You really worry about the cause of that. I will give you an example today. BT has a relationship with 100 major telecoms companies around the world. One of them is Bezeq, Israeli telecoms. It is nothing to do with me, but a normal commercial agreement, because they are a big Israeli company. War on Want now has this campaign commanding that BT dissociate itself from Bezeq. Interestingly I have not received a single email from anyone in War on Want expressing any concerns about a relationship we may or may not have had in Syria, in Libya or anywhere else. You wonder and ask yourself repeatedly: Why is it? Is it anti-Americanism? Is it antisemitism? Is it anti-Zionism where they treat Israel differently? If you talk about what is a discomfort, that is a discomfort I feel just now. It is not a personal discomfort. It is a discomfort about something in society.
AJ: I would characterise it as straightforward antisemitism.
JF: What would you characterise?
AJ: That singling out. I think one should just name it for what it is. It is straightforward antisemitism. It is holding Jews and the Jewish state to a standard higher than any other state. It is no different to a campaign that focused on the iniquities of only Jewish businessmen or a campaign that focused on the iniquities of Jewish Bolsheviks or Jewish profiteers or Jewish black market racketeers.
IL: I think it is partially anti-Americanism as well, actually. It is trendy among the left…. The “whatever American does, I must be on the other side approach”, and I think the trouble is you can’t actually distinguish in some of the places what is the cause of it.
JF: Since there is no one here who is a pro-boycotter, I don’t think, let me put the case to you, Anthony, what they would say if they were here. They would say the difference is that Israel is a democracy, and democracies can be influenced by boycotts, and that is the reason why they are singling out Israel rather than Syria or Iran. AJ: It is a nonsensical argument and it is inconsistent with the other argument, which is that the boycott is directed at Israel for the same reason it was directed against South Africa, which was demonstrably not a democracy. It is a completely opportunistic argument. Another argument I have heard in relation to the academic boycott without any kind of consciousness of the grotesqueness of the argument, is that we should conduct an academic boycott against Israel because Jews value education. I actually heard that advanced by someone who was a boycotter.
JF: What about the idea that, unlike Syria and the countries you mentioned, Israel is an ally of Britain, whereas the other countries that you mentioned are not?
IL: I think that regrettably Jews are held to some sort of different account and it is mixed up with anti-Westernism, where that and anti-Americanism, and antisemitism are seen almost as the same things.
AR: But that is to do with reportage, isn’t it? That is to do with the way that the media puts across what happens in Israel. There is a lot of ignorance. … I think that a lot of the general public don’t get a round view of what happens, don’t get Israel’s story.
JF: Maybe not just the media. What I want to put to you, particularly as a dramatist, is something that has happened in your field recently. We have had the play Rachel Corrie and a lot of controversy there, the play by Caryl Churchill, Seven Jewish Children, which Anthony Julius wrote about, and then on television, Page Eight by David Hare, a TV drama in which one part of the plot had Israel as the villain. It goes beyond just the media in terms of newspaper and broadcasters doesn’t it?
AR: Yes, I think it does. I didn’t see the David Hare piece but it is not trendy to put the other point of view. I do think that if you do look at it – Ryan Craig’s play at the National, The Holy Rosenbergs, what I admired about that was that his characters all had a reason for believing what they believed and it was a character-based reason. It was a history-based reason, to do with their own personal history. He hadn’t just cut out ideas from the newspaper and glued them to his protagonists. … I think a lot of the drama around Israel, particularly Seven Jewish Children, didn’t bother with that.
JF: You mentioned earlier Howard Jacobson, who said that Jews look at Israel as a version of themselves, which I think is a very good way of putting it. … why is it we feel somehow this is about us, rather than just about this country and the Middle East?
JH: I think it is right to say that very often people …l are holding Israel to a higher standard than they hold other countries. But I think there is an additional problem, which is I think quite a lot of us, as Jews, want to hold Israel to a higher standard than we would necessarily hold other countries, and that is partly because it is the Jewish state and it is ours. So I think there is a complication there. We resent other people doing it, but a bit of us actually does some of it as well. I certainly know that I do. I feel that Israel is the Jewish state and there are Jewish values, and I don’t think the Israeli government always holds to Jewish values. That is why I get so upset about it. I don’t like seeing evictions of Arabs in East Jerusalem. It makes me feel extremely uncomfortable and it seems to me that I partly feel uncomfortable because I don’t expect the Jewish state and the Jewish city of Jerusalem to be doing that really…
I would like to make a distinction with respect to Ian about political hypocrisy and idiocy where people do not join up. Our own government was far quicker to send planes to Libya than it has or would be to Syria. There are lots of examples of two and two not being made to be five without the answer being “Oh, but they hate us”. I think that we don’t want the debate about Israel when it becomes difficult or tricky to always then come down to antisemitism. I don’t think a lot of the really raw visceral criticism of Israel is anything to do with antisemitism, certainly in the West. I think it is to do with the fact that in some instances the behaviour is completely reprehensible and wrong, and it is done by people who are Jewish. So what are you going to do? You want to criticise it and then you can’t criticise it because you are [deemed to be] antisemitic. So we have to get it right in our heads and separate out the fact that most Jews want to preserve the state of Israel.
Of course someone is going to Tweet “Are you defending [terrorism], blah, blah, blah?” It is a ridiculous argument. Nobody in their right mind wants terrorism. Nobody supports terrorism but to overlook the reason why there is such pain in this region and to say “You can’t really go beyond a certain point without being described as antisemitic”, is, at the very least, really unproductive.
JF: So you would disagree with what Anthony Julius said earlier about the boycotts.
JH: I would.
JF: About the boycotts, that they are antisemitic and that imposition of a double standard is antisemitic.
JH: I have got more sympathy with the argument that everyone has to pull together and love the members of your family that behave appallingly, than I do with the idea that one says “They are our enemy”. That is all.
AJ: I didn’t say that. If we looked at what passes as criticism of Israel, I think we might actually come together and agree that that criticism is so infected by antisemitism that it can’t be defended as mere intemperate criticism. I wonder whether you think there is such a thing as contemporary antisemitism and if there is, where you find it.
JH: I think I said. We had a recent experience in our family which was shocking precisely because I don’t think we…
AJ: The swastika on your son, but what about a swastika on the Israeli flag for example, or a swastika equals Magen David poster at a rally? Do you think that is antisemitic?
JH: What do you think?
AJ: I think it is.
JH: What are we talking about here?
AJ: But do you think it is antisemitic?
JH: I think antisemitism is antisemitic. I think anti-Israeli observations are not necessarily antisemitic.
AJ: I don’t mean to cross-examine you, but what about that example? Do you think a swastika equals a star of David?
JH: With respect, I don’t want to be cross-examined. I think that is what Jews do when they begin to squabble about the definitions of being pro- or anti-Israel. I don’t need to defend whether or not I understand what antisemitism is.
AJ: But do you think it is antisemitic?
JH: The whole point about being Jewish is you know antisemitism when you experience it. My point about the criticism of the politics of Israel is, it is not antisemitic. It is anti-Israeli and they are different things. We have to know they are different things.
IL: Anthony Julius says huge amounts of anti-Zionism are antisemitic, and you say anti-Zionism is never antisemitic. With great respect, both of you are wrong. Even that example of the Magen David equalling a swastika, I think it is at times a wholly antisemitic act and at times it is just utter stupidity from people who have got no idea what either symbol means. I go back to saying there is a lot of anti-Israelism, anti-Zionism that is infected by a whole range of things, of which I believe antisemitism is one. Some people who are not antisemitic in the slightest are very critical of Israel, but there are some people who use it as a thinly veiled way to get at the Jews. Like so many other things, there is a broad spectrum and I don’t think either party can say that the broad spectrum doesn’t exist.
AJ: I am sure Julia and I both would object to being characterised as the extremists on either side of the argument, for Uncle Ian to intervene and make peace at the equivalent of…
JF: Julia, did you want to come back?
JH I think you are right, except that we all need to bring ourselves back to the centre from the edge and it is very difficult to stay in the centre in these arguments because the Jewish community and its detractors want to make it very, very polarised.
JF: We have inevitably gone from Israel straight into antisemitism, one led to the other. … I wonder if for the whole Jewish community sometimes, the notion of standing together against our enemies acts as a kind of communal glue when other things used to be there, perhaps, or perhaps should be there.
JN: But we don’t agree about so many things, and so many of our community are not religious in the same way that we are not, or religious at all. So yes, it glues us together and we use it as glue, and we then actually don’t define the enemy. The enemy becomes “them out there”, whoever they might be, and I think that is quite dangerous.
AJ: Zionism is a communal glue? My sense is of the very Orthodox bit, the growing bit of the Anglo-Jewish community, is that it is probably characterised as non-Zionist. Let’s not forget, Zionism is a secular national movement, and for at least two generations, probably more like three generations, was rejected.
JF: It was antisemitism I was suggesting was the glue rather than Zionism. I was suggesting that people actually who may not otherwise have a positive reason for their Jewish identity, nevertheless know they are Jewish because they know who doesn’t like them. AJ: That may be but I think it is a terribly thin basis for identity and I don’t think it lasts beyond the moment at which the oppression is experienced. ..
JH: I celebrate being Jewish 99 per cent of the time in this very higgledy-piggledy, undefined way. I love being Jewish, and I associate it with enormous richness culturally, emotionally and all sorts of things, but at the same time a huge part of my personal identity as a Jew is the Holocaust, because it is very difficult to escape that in the recent past in my own family, and I find it increasingly difficult to explain it to my children. We have just bought Shoah in a box set and we will watch it with one of our children and it is going to be complicated to explain. So I do think that if we are coming back to identity, what defines my Jewish identity is one of lightness and darkness.
JF: I think Anthony Julius before said that there will be a lot of people in various postcodes who are not represented here. My guess is, Julia Hobsbawm, is that many of them, if they are truthful, have an identity of the one you are describing. The Holocaust is absolutely central to Jewish identity of many contemporary Jews. Religion doesn’t really do it for them. Maybe Israel doesn’t but Schindler’s List comes on the TV and maybe they are Jewish….
AR: I think that is probably true. I don’t feel that myself, I don’t think. It is in there. It is in the mix and I think what you said about light and dark, I absolutely relate to that. In fact, light and dark not as two separate things, but as the same thing. Jewish identity is built around my understanding that comedy and tragedy are the same thing.
IL: At different speeds.
AJ: Can I be personal? One of the cases I did which rather more directly was concerned with my sense of myself and my vocation as a lawyer was the case against David Irving, the Holocaust denier. It was a three-month trial and it was not difficult to recognise Irving as an antisemite. Left and right can agree, Irving was an antisemite. …Every day the court was full of spectators, mainly survivors. I had the sense that the survivors particularly were so caught up in the emotion of the trial, for reasons which were not dangerous, but my sense is that the trauma was such that they were living through in some sense a confrontation with an antisemite of a kind that they fantasised about during the war. But here there was, at last, the chance that the Jews would prevail. It created a supercharged ambience which I found not exciting or challenging. I found it suffocating and I wanted to retreat from it.
The notion that those of us who are Jews could cohere during that three-month period as a Jewish community, identifying ourselves as Jews entirely by reference to the antisemite in the pinstriped suit on the other side of the court, actually was deeply objectionable to me. I am always cautious when I think back to that time when I hear people talk about Jewish identity being defined by reference to antisemitism because… Yes, of course there is Schindler’s List on the TV. There is a kind of spasm, but to my mind identity and community are rather more substantial concepts than that. I don’t think, if one analysed it carefully, one would find a real identity simply in an intermittent consciousness, particularly in this country, of antisemitism.
JF: You may describe it as thin but there will be many people who have experiences of it, where they were told, for example, by their parents, that they couldn’t marry somebody non-Jewish because that would give Hitler a victory. The number of people who told me they heard that in their lives, I have lost count. It may be thin, but I think it is perhaps more real than we would like to accept.
IL: I am with Anthony about this. I think it would be terrible if the Jewish community was defined by that. I think there are so many more positive things, but we are impacted by it, there is no question about it. It is like all the questions you have asked tonight right from the start. They are what I would describe as heart or lung questions. Would you prefer a heart or a lung? The answer: actually you need both of them. I hope the Jewish community is defined by its religious observance. It is defined by its food. It is defined by a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture. Yes, it is defined by a shared history as well, of which the Holocaust is part. It is defined, hopefully, by a whole lot of positive things – its ethics, its role in the community, wider community, education, family life – and we can’t keep on trying to turn things into a singular thing. So I agree with Anthony. It certainly would be way too thin if we just said it was. I fortunately didn’t lose any family in the Holocaust, so maybe I have a slightly jaundiced view in that respect.
JN: I have often disagreed with Anthony over some of this. Actually, I found their [the survivors at the court case] presence, wanting to see a victory, very, very moving. I don’t think it should define us. I think for survivors it may well, at least partly define them.
AJ: But that is part of their continuing tragedy.
JN: Of course it is part of their continuing tragedy of what has happened to them, and we have to understand that and deal with it, but I think the most important thing to say is what can being Jewish bring to all of us, and indeed to wider society? I think there are Jewish values that we ought to be shouting aloud about.
JF: The perfect moment to cue in our final topic because we are going to move from a subject that was a defining part of the Jewish past to the Jewish future, and how confident we feel about the Jewish future. The JCC is placing into the foundations of its new building a time capsule to be opened, perhaps optimistically, 250 years from now. What kind of state of health do we think British Jewry will be in then? Will it still be grappling with these issues? What might have changed for Jewish life in 2261?
AR: I think we survive. I think that there may have to be more flexibility in terms of inter-marriage. I think the welcoming into the synagogue of the children of inter-marriage- that may have to shift if we are to survive….
JF: Two hundred and fifty years is a very long time. How do you think the Jewish community will look, in, say, the next generation and the generation after that?
IL: It will probably be almost exclusively a London-centric community. One thing that has changed in the last 50 years is that we have gone from being a community that lived throughout the country to being effectively a large metropolitan London-based community, and I think we will lose something by that. I think one of the richnesses that Jewish people brought is that they represented different people. They were Jews from Swansea or Jews from Aberdeen or whatever. The change to London means actually a large part of the British population will have no contact with Jewish people. One of the worries is that Anglo-Jewry may become too much of a London metropolitan elite and I think there are a lot of inherent dangers in that. …
JH: I think the challenge for everybody is, will we be as British as we are global in 250 years? I suppose I would put in a time capsule a joke, a recipe, some music. I would actually put the JC in if I was going to be a British Jew casting to the future. But I think the question is, in 250 years will there still be a diaspora, and I hope there will be, and I mind more about that than whether it is a British one.
JF: That is an interesting one. The questionmark is over the diaspora rather than over Israel. Should I take it as read that you all assume that Israel will be here in 250 years’ time? Anthony is nodding and Julia is nodding.
AJ: I am nodding because one hopes it. I don’t think one can make any assumptions. What I am struck by is the radically contingent nature of history. It is actually therefore impossible to say. All that one can say is that one hopes so. As far as Jewish existence generally is concerned, I think the most interesting periods in Jewish history have been defined by polarity, by a creative, tense, difficult relationship between a national community and a diaspora community, where two great tensions are the principal monuments of that relationship. It may be that there are others. I don’t think that the anti-Zionist Jews and the Netanyahu government are quite in the same category.
JF: And what about the community here? You have had moments of, I wouldn’t say despair, but you have worried about the future of the British Jewish community and Jewish life in this country. How optimistic or otherwise are you feeling right now?
AJ: I have just had a small Jewish male child so I am therefore biologically optimistic.
JF: From all of you, a wish or a hope that this next New Year, Rosh Hashanah will bring for all of us? We will start with you, Julia Hobsbawm.
JH: I would like to be more of a good Jew than a bad Jew. I would like to celebrate my Jewish identity rather than to kvetch about what I don’t like about it.
IL: A wish rather than a resolution. Without sounding trite, it will be starting to tread a path to peace for Israel. There is so much to celebrate in Israel. It is the most amazing state in the world and the downside or the pity of it is that it is turning into something slightly different. I don’t think there is a huge amount of time to start treading that path and I hope the next year actually starts to do so.
JN: I will go for wishing that the Jews in British recognise what a fantastic heritage we have been given and use it not just to do good things for ourselves but actually for the wider community. We have got a contribution to make here. We ought to do it.
AR: The wish for Israel is a very difficult one to resist. On a global scale that would be my wish. On a personal scale I feel that my spirituality and faith are very tied up with my creativity. Thinking about all this, what has really emerged from it that I can’t separate the two. I would like to keep faith with myself as a Jewish writer.
AJ: The Jews should develop their ability to learn from each other, rather than emphasising quite so much in conversation what they have to teach each other.
JF: Shana Tova, happy New Year.