The connection between Caitlyn Jenner and the Priti Patel affair is not obvious, but hear me out. Last week, I heard Jenner, who is surely the most famous trans person in the world, explain that she felt an “ambassadorial” duty towards the rest of the trans community. She felt it was her responsibility to smile and be polite to strangers, to ensure that their (often first) experience of meeting a trans person was a good one. Not for her sake, but for the sake of other trans people. In public, she was their representative and she felt obliged to honour that.
I thought of that as the Patel story unfolded, and as we learned of the Development Secretary’s August vacation in Israel, in which she had held a dozen meetings with officials including the prime minister. Social media enjoyed itself with the minister’s idiosyncratic idea of a family holiday. “If you kids don’t shut up, I’ll turn this car around and there’ll be no Benjamin Netanyahu for anyone,” as one tweet had it.
Not that Downing Street was laughing. Once it emerged that Patel had also visited the Golan Heights — whose annexation by Israel the UK government does not recognise — and had held two further, unofficial meetings with Israeli officials after her trip, she stood accused of failing to disclose all the facts to the Prime Minister, even when asked directly to do so. Patel’s position became untenable and she was duly summoned back from a trip to Uganda. (I waited for the online wits to offer a spoof Raid on Entebbe 2, imagining an Israeli commando force flown in to extract the minister from the country’s main airport: after all, we know they know how.)
But it wasn’t Patel I was chiefly thinking of, nor even those Israeli officials she met who —judging by the fact that they tweeted pictures of their encounters — had no idea this was any kind of secret. No, the person on my mind was Stuart Polak, the long-time animating spirit behind Conservative Friends of Israel who had accompanied Patel to almost all those meetings.
Now, Lord Polak is a shrewd and seasoned operator. And we don’t yet know exactly what Patel did or did not tell him. But, given his experience, you’d have thought he’d have checked and double-checked that the Foreign Office and Downing Street had signed off on Patel’s holiday activities — because he’d have known how it would look if they hadn’t. Put another way, how did someone who would insist he has dedicated much of his working life to the interests of the Jewish people, not feel an extra surge of that Caitlyn Jenner impulse: a sense of ambassadorial responsibility for how his actions might affect the rest of his community?
Polak will know as well as anyone the number of people itching to seize on any evidence that the “Israel lobby” operates in clandestine fashion, secretly exerting its influence, playing outside the usual rules, so why act in a way bound to feed those suspicions? He’d have known that there would be people inside and outside government eager to capitalise on Patel’s lack of transparency: why make it so easy for them?
I had a similar reaction to the ludicrous figure of Shai Masot, a junior employee at the Israeli embassy filmed last year by an undercover reporter for al-Jazeera bragging about “taking down” assorted politicians. Why didn’t he think through how that would sound, if only to the people he was speaking to?
It’s possible to be over-sensitive to these things and probably I am. I admit to shuddering at the recent JC front page that trumpeted the finding that 91 per cent of British Jews rely on “some sort of help around the house,” just as I did when this paper promoted its serialisation of Ronald Cohen’s memoirs with the page-one promise: How to Make a Fortune. In each case, I worried how it would look to the outside world — and whether it would seem to confirm the worst stereotypes about us. It’s that feeling you get once a cab driver knows you’re Jewish and you feel obliged to give an extra-generous tip, lest they conclude that Jews are stingy.
Of course, I know that antisemites will always find reasons to hate Jews, no matter what we do or say. Even if we tread carefully and speak nicely, they’ll still hate us, bending and twisting good deeds by Jews until they look bad. I also understand that it’s not healthy always to be looking over our shoulder: that we need to relax, be ourselves and not give our enemies the power of veto over our behaviour.
All that is true. But still I think of the wisdom of Ms Jenner. We are ambassadors, whether we like it or not. If that’s true of every Jew, going about their daily business, it’s truer still of those with public positions of great responsibility. They should remember it.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian