The PM who understood Jews

Amid the general negativity aimed at Labour’s departing leader, we should wish him well as he wished us well

By Jonathan Freedland, May 13, 2010

There'll be no hard evidence of it - not since my upstairs neighbour on this page, Prof Alderman, ended his studies of the Jewish vote in British general elections - but it is widely assumed that, last week, Britain's Jews switched their allegiance from Labour to Conservative.

Just look at the Labour vote in Finchley & Golders Green or in Hendon. It is equally assumed that the explanation for that switch, under way for several years, partly comes down to the change in Labour's leadership. Put simply, while the Jews couldn't get enough of Tony Blair, they've not been so keen on Gordon Brown.

If that is so, it represents yet another unfairness in a career that has had an ample share of them. Perhaps now, as Brown prepares his exit from Downing Street, we can give the outgoing Prime Minister credit for something too often overlooked. To put it the old-fashioned way, Gordon Brown has been a great friend of the Jews.

I defy JC readers to find a more pro-Israel, a more unequivocally Zionist, statement by any serving British politician than the speech Brown gave when he became the first UK Prime Minister to address the Knesset, in July 2008. Marking the 60th anniversary of the birth of the state, Brown ditched the technocratic language and robotic delivery and waxed poetic, speaking of "the centuries of exile ended, the age-long dream realised, the ancient promise redeemed - the promise that even amidst suffering, you will find your way home to the fields and shorelines where your ancestors walked."

For those who had followed Brown for years, none of that came as a surprise. Long before he reached Number 10, he was a regular at Labour Friends of Israel events, often cracking the same joke. Recalling the childhood education he had received from his preacher father, Brown would tell Jewish audiences, "I knew the names of the Kings of Israel before I knew the names of the Kings of England." Brown was raised with an ethos that seems distant and quaint now, that of devout Christian Zionism - a quiet, non-fundamentalist admiration for the Jews' yearning to return to the land of their fathers.

Brown’s relationship with the community went beyond warm words

But Brown's relationship with the Jewish community was not confined to warm words, however welcome. He also gave the most essential, practical help to a venture that surely no Jew could oppose. In 2005, while still Chancellor, he set aside £1.5m a year for the Holocaust Education Trust, so enabling two students from every secondary school in the country to visit Auschwitz. It was an extraordinarily ambitious idea, born of the belief that if every town and village in Britain included at least one person who had borne witness to the horrors of Nazism, that would serve as a kind of inoculation against antisemitism and fascism. Brown wanted the next generation of Britons to know what he had learned in his youth - that the Jews had suffered a unique evil that had to be remembered.

Brown felt so strongly about the scheme he ensured that £1.5m came directly out of Treasury funds, lest the money got swallowed up and lost in the Education Department's budget. Brown's desire to preserve the memory of the Shoah seemed only to intensify once he entered Number 10. In March, he launched a new award, honouring 20 "Heroes of the Holocaust" - Britons who had risked their lives to save Jews - in a ceremony at Downing Street. At that event, and several others, Holocaust survivors, even those with no sympathy for Brown's politics, lavished praise on the sensitive, patient way the PM listened to them. That's just one reason why Brown and many others were so appalled- and hurt - when he was accused of opportunism for visiting Auschwitz last year. His commitment to this subject is deep-rooted.

Some Jews may have their own political reasons to be happy to see the back of Gordon Brown but, as a community, we should be gracious enough to realise what he did for us - and bid him a fond, and grateful, farewell.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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