Sir Alan, you're hired as our rep

By Jonathan Freedland, May 16, 2008

Alan Sugar is the most visible Jew in this country. And that’s no bad thing

I was hooked even before the chicken. Wednesday nights have been ring-fenced in the diary since the latest series of The Apprentice began, but my addiction goes back even further. To me, Sir Alan Sugar and his would-be employees have become a harbinger of summer, like the sound of leather on willow: when they re-appear, I know that winter is over at last.

But the chicken sealed it. Who could do anything but sit in open-mouthed, excruciating delight as apparently qualified, educated adults grappled with a request to purchase a humble kosher chicken from a Marrakesh street market, as if they had been told to bring back the holy grail?

Coverage of the affair has been ample, in this newspaper and beyond. Suffice it to say, Sir Alan was surely right when he predicted to the JC that this particular episode is destined to become “cult” TV. The sight of Michael Sophocles, self-styled “good Jewish boy” asking first for a mosque, and then requesting the butcher make an extra incantation to Allah, all in order for a hapless bird to be deemed kosher, is one that will be replayed again and again, into the infinite television future.

Besides the entertainment value, that moment taught two rather useful lessons to Jewish viewers. First, it’s time to adjust our view of what others think of us. As in: maybe they don’t think of us, or know anything about us, at all. Sugar himself was clearly dumbfounded that his otherwise bright pupils genuinely seemed unaware that the word kosher was, as he put it, “associated with Jewish people”. He wasn’t asking for a dissertation on shechitah, just a basic awareness that kosher was connected to Jews. Yet most of his would-be apprentices could not demonstrate even that.

Perhaps some of the community’s highly-paid PR advisers, especially those engaged in advocacy for Israel, should bear that in mind when they next plot a sophisticated campaign. Having watched the Apprentice, a golden rule suggests itself when it comes to the British public and Jews: assume no knowledge. None whatsoever.

Second, we learned that in the age of Sir Alan, some people at least believe that being Jewish is a good career move. Now I can imagine the odd media studies graduate trying to break into, say, the liberal New York magazine market, thinking it might help if he were called Goldberg rather than Gaskin. But Sophocles’s decision to declare himself a Jew in the first line of his job application — even though he couldn’t quite drop the habit of crossing himself as he entered the sacred space that is the boardroom — is surely a first. Could it mean that being Jewish is now seen as a plus in British business? Or is it simply that Sophocles is, to use his own word, a “shmock”?

One doesn’t want to get carried away, but all this might matter. Though it will bring heart failure to our official communal leadership to say so, the truth is that Alan Sugar is now the most visible Jew in Britain. He stands at the centre of a programme getting larger by the week, the topic of water-cooler conversation in the workplace and saturation coverage in the newspapers. For many millions of our fellow Britons, the television persona of Sir Alan may be the only Jew they ever meet.

Is this a good thing? Some will fear not, especially given the tycoon’s answers to the JC earlier this month. He confessed that he does not believe in God and that he can’t stand shul because it’s “boring”. As for Israel, “I am English. I don’t have any loyalty to Israel.” As one Anglo-Jewish veteran sighed to me last week, if both religion and Zionism are both off the table, what’s left?

Others will worry that if Sugar is the ambassador for our community, he will confirm one too many preconceptions about us. Take the Sugars’ ruby wedding celebrations, which featured entertainment by Elton John and the entire, 58-strong cast of Jersey Boys, racking up a bill of £4 million. Or chew on the sheer directness of his remark about the Labour fundraising controversy: “They need people to raise money. They know that Jews have got money.”

And yet I find myself oddly comfortable with the notion of Sir Alan as our public face. On the Apprentice he comes over as razor sharp, unpretentious and an excellent judge of character. In plain language he zeroes in on the heart of any issue. He oozes seychel. He gives serious money to charity, is a patriot and has an on-screen charisma most actors would kill for.

If we were looking for a de facto representative of British Jewry, we could do a lot worse than gazing across the boardroom table, raising a finger — and telling Sir Alan Sugar, “You’re hired.”

Last updated: 3:35pm, May 19 2008