Allow our artists Leigh way

The irascible Mike belongs within the fold just as surely as the triumphant Howard

By Jonathan Freedland, November 1, 2010

Last week saw two Manchester Jewish titans of the arts of near-identical vintage get two very different responses from our community.

I saw the first for myself, as I stood among those applauding Howard Jacobson as he walked into a WIZO fundraiser at Finchley Reform Synagogue for his first communal event since winning the Man Booker prize a few days earlier. The room became almost hazy with warmth and affection for the author, but something else was at work, too. More than a simple sense of pride in the success of one of our own, British Jews seem to feel validated by this decision, as if Andrew Motion and his team have now formally recognised Jews as an integral part of Britain's cultural life. In honouring Howard Jacobson, the Booker judges have somehow honoured all of us.

Just a few days later, there was a rather less sweet sentiment abroad. Plenty of JC readers will have hurled their copies of the paper across the room in fury at Mike Leigh, the award-winning director and writer who was born six months before Jacobson and no more than a mile or two away.

Zionism? To hell with all that was the headline above an interview in which the auteur explained his decision to boycott Israel, staying away from the country in protest at "the hell on earth" that is Gaza.

He held nothing back, announcing that his rage with Israel was so complete he was ready to forfeit the chance to visit his 90-year-old aunt who still lives there, that he didn't even "want to know about rockets" launched against Israel since his only concern was "humanity", and that he regarded organised religion as "bullshit." Had he wanted to declare all-out war on the JC readership, there's not much more he would have had to add. For those, like me, who grew up in the Habonim youth movement, there was one more reason to squirm: all his Habo pals had, he said, "walked away from Jewish life."

I had two immediate reactions. The first was to note what might be a generational difference. Far from walking away, my own Habonim friends are up to their eyes in Jewish life. If they're not running the UJIA or the CST, they're chairing a synagogue or in charge of a cheder. As far as I can see, in almost every walk of Anglo-Jewish life there's a Habonim-nik not very far away.

The second was to see in Leigh's remarks something that was also visible in Two Thousand Years, his play about British Jews and Israel: a distinct lack of tenderness or affection for either. The play depicted Habo types in middle age who had become disillusioned with Zionism.

What was missing was any evocation of the ideal that had once consumed them. The romance, the dreams, the nights around the campfire of Leigh's Habonim youth - none of that was present. The play conveyed disenchantment, but without the earlier enchantment that renders such a loss so bitter and poignant.

And yet it would be a mistake to shun Leigh as some kind of traitor. Read his remarks closely and you see that, for all the blustery claims, he has not left his people. On the contrary, he insists - rightly in my view - that all his work is "unquestionably Jewish". Sure, he wants to pretend that he and his friends have turned their backs but, in the next breath, he adds that they talk about Israel, albeit wringing their hands, "on a daily basis".

Note, too, that he thinks Israelis are "shooting themselves in the foot", that they are "suicidal". That's not how enemies of Israel speak. They couldn't care less if the country hurts itself. Leigh may not put it this way, but it's clear he remains utterly bound up with Israel.

So he should not be cast out. Ours is a small community that has somehow produced in Jacobson and Leigh two artists of great distinction. There has to be room for both of them.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 12:57pm, November 1 2010