Smug? No, honest and proud

By Michael Freedland, August 19, 2011

I cannot be sure, but I think I might have met one of the rioters.

It was a couple of months ago and, that day, I felt rather like rioting myself. I had just been confronted by a young, black girl with a distinct resemblance to a kid in one of the pictures published after the calamities of Tottenham.

She couldn't have been more than 15 and it's quite possible I saved her from serious injury as she ran in front of my car on a bright, summery, North-London afternoon.

As I screeched to a stop to find out if she was OK, she somehow didn't quite appreciate what had happened.

Instead of walking away flustered or, heaven forbid, thanking me, she uttered a phrase I not only would never have used at her age (or now) but would never even had heard. "Go ****yourself," she replied, which I think was a suggestion that I do something anatomically impossible.

She uttered a phrase I would never even had heard at her age

As I drove home, shaken and stirred, I kept thinking: Would I have ever contemplated talking to someone five times my age, not just like that, but with anything but respect?

Would my grandfather, who came over from Lithuania with his four brothers and slept at night under the table in his boss's tailoring workshop while making a life for his parents and siblings (one of whom became a Deputy High Commissioner in the Colonial service)?

Would my father, who left school at 14 and barely saw daylight in his early years labouring for shillings in East-End shops?

And, I still reflect, would I, who was taught to give up my seat in a bus to a lady, to raise my school cap to her and, if a teacher said something critical, to accept it with good grace (even the swine of a maths master who, after slapping me roughly round the ear, uttered the immortal words: "I suppose you're going to start snivelling now; you people always do.")

Was it just good manners on my part? Did my own children, or do my grandchildren today, manage to deal with problems without setting fire to buildings and looting shops, simply because their parents brought them up the right way? Or is this in any way a Jewish thing?

Surely the conditions in which many London Jews lived a century ago were little better than those experienced by the black and other "deprived" youngsters who went on the rampage last week - and probably a darn sight worse.

But their ethos was so different. Look at the history of JFS, which provided education for kids who had only one rough shirt to their backs. The then East End school had as its mission the transformation of Jewish boys and girls into young Englishmen and women.

Today, faith schools exist to turn that notion in an opposite direction. As my friend Benjamin Perl, who has done more than anybody for the Jewish school movement, told me: "Some schools are war zones. Faith schools are not." Certainly Jewish faith schools are not.

More than 25 years ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, commissioned a report on "Urban Priority Areas", which he called, "Faith in the City".

One man who had no faith in that philosophy was the Chief Rabbi of the day, the late Lord Jakobovits. "The trouble is these people don't work hard enough" he argued. "Jews have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, by their labours."

In one of the very few arguments I had with a rabbi for whom I had nothing but respect and admiration, I asked him: "Are we not being a little smug, here?"

Now, I don't think so.

Last updated: 10:14am, August 19 2011