Are all Jews in the news ours?

Does it matter when an individual Jew achieves fame - or infamy?

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 25, 2009

Did you know that David Cameron has Jewish roots? I must confess I didn’t until I read an item in last week’s Jewish Tribune. I was aware of Cameron’s direct descent from William IV and William’s fecund mistress Dorothea Jordan, and that Cameron is therefore a distant cousin (a fifth cousin, twice removed, to be exact) of our present Queen — though on the wrong side of the sheets (a fact upon which the Tribune was naturally silent).

What I had missed, and what the Tribune dwelt upon at length, was the fact that Cameron’s paternal great-great-grandfather was Emile Levita, a German-Jewish banker who, with his non-Jewish wife (another fact strangely omitted from the Tribune’s report), came to these shores 150 years ago and used his wealth to dig himself deep into the aristocracy, sending his four sons to Eton in the process.

What the Tribune did dwell upon at great length, however, was the Levita ancestry, which includes some illustrious Hebraic scholars in 16th-century Europe.

All very interesting, I thought to myself. But does it matter for us, now, in 21st-century Britain, that the present leader of the Conservative party happens — through no fault of his own — to be of distant Jewish origin? Scarcely had I begun to think about answering this question when other, similar news stories popped up on my internet-enabled laptop.

For instance, the headline story that the --- Jewish --- Tory MP John Bercow is taking on the thankless job of Speaker of the House of Commons following Monday’s unprecedented secret ballot. Does it matter, to us Jews, that this contest was won by the son of a Jewish cab-driver from Edgware?

Then the JC reported the names of Jews and Jewesses upon whom the Queen was graciously pleased to bestow honours in celebration of her official birthday. A handful of these were indeed conferred in respect of specifically Jewish activities — most notably the OBE given to the immediate past president of the Board of Deputies, Henry Grunwald. But so far as most Jewish recipients of birthday honours were concerned, their Jewishness appears to have had no bearing whatsoever upon the decision to recommend that an honour be conferred.

And then there was the sad news of the murder, in Afghanistan, of Lieutenant Paul Mervis, reportedly the first British-Jewish serviceman to be killed in action since the Falklands conflict 27 years ago. The official Ministry of Defence announcement made no mention of Lieutenant Mervis’s Jewish identity. But for the Jewish media, this was at the very heart of the story. Did it matter?

Well, of course it did. What all these tales have in common is the light they shine on the remarkable success story of Jewish integration into British society. Frankly, one part of me wishes that Emile Levita had not “married out”. But it says something for our charitable instincts —as Jews — that a newspaper as strictly Orthodox as the Tribune can feel comfortable running the story of David Cameron and his colourful Jewish ancestry.

Was it mere coincidence, then, that Cameron — alone of the party leaders — drew favourable attention to Speaker Bercow’s Jewish identity in his laudatory formal welcome minutes after the vote had been announced?

The story of the life and death of Paul Mervis gives the lie to the accusation — which, astonishingly, is still to be heard and which I personally heard mouthed by a London street thug only a week ago — that Jews are “parasites” who shun the dirty jobs.

The news items to which I refer also point to another truism that cannot be repeated too often: Jews came to Britain determined to become British. In the context of current debate about social cohesion this is an incontrovertible point of reference.

But, as we reflect upon these truths with justifiable pride, a word of warning. If we, of our own volition, publicise the Jewish identities of the good and the great, surely we cannot complain if the media reveal the Jewish identities of the not-so-good and the far-from-great.

    Last updated: 1:10pm, June 25 2009