Anglo-Jewry’s leadership, savaged and savoured

JC columnist Geoffrey Alderman’s angry history sits in polar opposition to Israel Finestein’s admiring study

By Stephen Games, October 30, 2008
People’s champion: Geoffrey Alderman with Helen Sagal, whose Orthodox conversion in Israel was rejected by the United Synagogue, preventing her son attending JFS, and whose case Professor Alderman took up in 2005

People’s champion: Geoffrey Alderman with Helen Sagal, whose Orthodox conversion in Israel was rejected by the United Synagogue, preventing her son attending JFS, and whose case Professor Alderman took up in 2005

Controversy And Crisis: A History Of The Jews In Modern Britain
By Geoffrey Alderman
Academic Studies Press, £37

Studies and profiles in Anglo-Jewish History from Picciotto to Bermant
By Israel Finestein
Vallentine Mitchell, £40

There are similarities between these two new anthologies of the writings of Judge Israel Finestein and this newspaper's columnist, the historian Professor Geoffrey Alderman. Both are low-budget academic publications, unambitious in appearance and poorly served by their proof-readers, who, especially in the case of Alderman, get his left- and right-hand pages the wrong way round. Both contain historical studies of the UK's Jewish community based on lectures or articles that have appeared elsewhere.

But there the similarities end. Fine-stein writes from a tradition of respect; Alderman writes from one of defiance. "The duty of the historian is not to tell the truth, but to support the communal image" - thus Alderman characterises conventional Jewish writing. He claims that, since the Resettlement 350 years ago, the recording of Anglo-Jewry by Anglo-Jews has been manipulated to please the "plutocracy" that, he says, orders their affairs.

Alderman's book is the racier read. He paints big pictures, sees patterns and likes to shock. Not only does he explain why the office of Chief Rabbi is a sham (it has neither statutory nor democratic authority) but he revels in doing so. Whether it is the "crook", Morry Davis, who ran the Stepney Labour party and the Federation of Synagogues in the 1930s, or the Board of Deputies, whose history he sees as one of undiluted charlatanism, or even various editors of the Jewish Chronicle, he wants you to know that, as a member of the Anglo-Jewish community, you have generally been deceived, lied to and betrayed by those who have taken it upon themselves to represent your best interests.

Alderman puts the venality of our leaders into historical context: what appals us today not only has form, it has a 200-year history of being smiled on by the Anglo-Jewish establishment.

At the same time, he puts himself into context. In spite of his growing conservatism on Israel, his lifelong predisposition on Anglo-Jewry proves to be that of Old Labour dogmatism, right down to issues of partisanship, sloganising and class warfare.

He doesn't just write: he writes on behalf of and against - on behalf of London's East End and against the gentry; against the United Synagogue and on behalf of those it has tried to suppress - and does so by reference to a set of identical phrases and sentences that, in other writers, might indicate a rigidity of thought.

In his weekly columns, his subjects are often individuals; in his essays - as here - they are just as likely to be whole blocks, and that invites troubling generalisations. And, like Ken Livingstone and the Evening Standard, Alderman has a tendency to go on thinking badly of bodies because of their past faults.

So, while his book offers an easy guide to our community's goodies and baddies, its preference for the aspirations of one group over another, and its tendency to demonise, force one to treat its judgments cautiously.

Finestein, by contrast, takes Anglo-Jewry at face value. Writing like an official obituarist, he spells out the public line on communal leaders, some of whom he has counted among his friends and colleagues.

Heroes - great men and sometimes women - have committed themselves to the progress of the tribe and Finestein feels privileged to document their achievements.

Unlike Alderman, he offers no patterns or revelations and no advocacy, just what he calls "the ceaseles, [sic] flow of change". The two books are polar opposites.

Stephen Games is the editor of Betjeman's England, due to appear next May.

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011