Jemima Khan rediscovers her Jewishness

A convert to Islam, and former critic of Israel, has come to terms with her ancestry


Jemima Khan (née Goldsmith) is not someone known for attachment to her Jewish heritage. Indeed, at the peak of her flirtation with Islam, at the height of the intifada, she came close to buying into antisemitic theory.

Writing in The Guardian, she attributed perceived one-sided media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the fact that the Israel lobby in the US "is rich and powerful".

"The media are largely controlled by Jews, as is Hollywood, and they account for more than half the top policy-making jobs in the Clinton administration," she wrote. As someone who, in the course of work as a financial journalist, often came across Jemima's father, Sir James Goldsmith, I found this surprising. He seemed comfortable with his Jewish background.

So it was a surprise to read Ms Khan's lengthy contribution in last week's Sunday Times magazine, on her family's heritage. In her own experience, her father was not one to dwell on his roots and only kept one yellowing picture of his father Frank, a British MP and a friend of Churchill, displayed in the family's Richmond home.

Her uncle, Teddy, the environmentalist, did have Jewish and family remnants among the volumes in his library. Inside, the books - including some battered Jewish prayer books - the name Goldschmidt had been neatly rubbed out and amended to the Anglicised name of Goldsmith.

Jemima discovered that her grandfather, although he had the airs of an English Jew and an English gent, was actually from Germany, where he lived until he was 16. He had five centuries of ancestors who lived in the Frankfurt ghetto. There was a great deal of information on the grand Goldsmith lifestyle in their adopted land of England but it all came abruptly to a halt in 1914.

By then, grandfather Frank was an Oxford-educated MP living close to the family seat at Cavenham Hall. He suddenly found that being German was as much as a stigma as being Jewish in Frankfurt. Frank resolved to fight for Britain, which he did. But when a telegram arrived from a German-Jewish cousin, questioning why he was not fighting for the fatherland, anti-German riots broke out in his constituency. After fighting in Gallipoli and then in Palestine he departed Britain in 1918 for France.

It was there that the Goldsmiths acquired their Anglo-French veneer and her grandfather his Catholic wife.

Her father, Jimmy, never forgot his origins. Confronted with an antisemitic remark when he wanted to marry the daughter of a Bolivian tin millionaire he retorted: "We come from an old Jewish family. It's not our habit to marry Red Indians."

In the process of the search for her roots, Jemima has now come to regret that she played down her Jewish background and criticised British culture.

Her own children she describes as Muslims with Jewish, Muslim and Christian grandparents.
The Goldsmith voyage of discovery brought a flood of compliments on the Times website. "Bravo," read one, "we are the sum of our ancestry." Several signed by people with the name Mohammed praised Jemima's bravery in coming to terms with her mixed background.

Less than a decade ago, Khan did her best to disguise her Judaism. She has now rediscovered it and how her grandfather, a hotelier, was responsible for building the King David hotel in Jerusalem. On the eve of the Second World War, her grandfather, like so many Jews, became a refugee from the Nazis, re-entering Britain on a lapsed citizenship on one of the last mercy boats out of France.

One suspects Jemima, a product of rich banking and hotel roots, will not be rampaging against the Jews of Hollywood and the media again.

    Last updated: 11:02am, August 14 2008