My Judaism was never the obstacle others wanted it to be

Prejudice persists and should be rooted out, but it does not help to ignore the progress that has been made

February 23, 2023 10:13

I have never been an especially observant Jew. With the aid of some tuition in Hebrew I was barmitzvahed. When based in London, I attended Seder at various family homes in Hampstead. When relocated to Oxford, my attendances lapsed. Burial services at Bushey cemetery (or in my father Max’s case at Brighton) for the senior generation, and barmitzvahs for the junior generation were as close as I came to devotion.

I went to Eton, which between 1944 and 1961 had statutes excluded the sons of immigrants from becoming King’s Scholars — a provision directed against Jews. I only eluded this bar because my father was born in England. In his youth there were quotas for the number of Jews at London private schools because it was feared that admission based on academic merit would give them too many places.

Today, however, Jews, although an ethnic minority, are never included in the ranks of those towards whom are directed efforts to increase diversity in universities and the professions. In my profession, law, Jews have made their own diversity.

My grandfather Simeon once anxiously asked me: “Are there any Jewish boys at Eton?” There were only three when I arrived, maybe too few to provoke much verbal antisemitism. The fact that I was absent from services in Eton’s beautiful chapel seemed the source of envy rather than complaint among my contemporaries.

I did not recognise as micro-aggressions mispronunciation of my surname or questions about my origins. The few disparaging remarks about Jews casually dropped into conversations to which I was privy made me think less of the person who uttered them rather than of myself. I deplore discriminatory language but was brought up on the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

I was, after all, proud to be Jewish, admiring the record of achievement in so many walks of life disproportionate to our number. For a rough daily guide I would read the obituaries in The Times after checking to see whether the surnames of the deceased may have been anglicised.

My paternal grandparents, who assisted refugees from the Nazis, felt keenly that an immigrant body owed a responsibility to the host community to be on its best behaviour rather than expecting the host community to adjust its own culture. Such a view might today be regarded as old-fashioned, even obsolete, but it has influenced me. As long as Channukah, Diwali and Eid may be celebrated, I do not wish Christmas to be deleted from the calendar.

I am averse to the movement to tear down statues of those connected with the slave trade or empire builders. I would not press for the removal of statues of Simon de Montfort or Edward I. No rational person is now in favour of slavery (abolished a century before the Holocaust) or of colonialism or of the expulsion of Jews from this country for over four centuries. Such artefacts can better serve to remind us that things have only got better.

Likewise, I see no virtue in judging yesterday’s men or women by the standards of today. Racist and antisemitic views were no doubt prevalent among the great and the good of yesteryear. History, after all, is history; it was what it was. What is important is that they are no longer thought acceptable. Nor do I require a trigger warning before watching a performance of The Merchant of Venice or reading the novels of John Buchan.

The advent of anti-discrimination laws and the concept of racially aggravated offences post-dated my grandparents’ deaths and my youth. Prejudice persists and should be rooted out, but it does not help to ignore the progress that has been made.

When I was a lad the (relatively) newly founded state of Israel was popular among the left-of-centre intelligentsia. The open-air industrious egalitarianism of the kibbutz was hugely attractive. Israel (which I only visited once, in the company of Leon Brittan and Anthony Lester just after the Six Day War) appeared to be a modern democracy, surrounded by mostly authoritarian states.

In 1965, the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion that, “the creation of the state of Israel was one of the mistakes of the 20th century”. The president appointed me and Jeffrey Jowell, another Jewish ex-president, as tellers. The motion was defeated. I wonder if there would be a similar result in a debate on the same motion in 2023 on any British campus, where hostility towards Jews has been aggravated by focus on the Palestinians by a new generation of students.

While at the Bar, I had three cases with a Jewish element. I was counsel in the first reported case brought by a Jew for racial discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976. The judgment recognised Jews as an ethnic and not only a religious group.

I represented the Chief Rabbi in a case which held that the rulings of the Beth Din were not subject to judicial review. The hearing was on a Friday and I was asked to apply to the judge to rise before dusk. I said that this might not be necessary. With the weekend imminent, the judge would be keen to finish the proceedings as soon as possible. And so it came to pass. I advised the Stop the Boycott Group that proposed a cutting of links with Israeli academics on the agenda of the University and College Union (UCU) would be unlawful. The UCU backed down.

Intriguingly, being a Jew has ceased to give rise to a perceived conflict of interest where Arab entities were involved. I was the leader of an all-Jewish legal team seeking to defend the takeover of Kuwait Airways by Saddam Hussein’s Government. When I chaired an arbitral panel set up to decide whether a Saudi sovereign wealth fund could buy Newcastle Football Club, I was challenged (unsuccessfully) on several grounds of possible bias, but not on the ground that I was Jewish, a quality shared by my fellow arbitrators, Lords Neuberger and Dyson.

I can, as an octogenarian, look back on some career highlights without risk that they will be added to. I was the second Jew to be President of Trinity, Oxford, the third Jew to be Captain of the school at Eton, and the fourth Jew to be Treasurer of Gray’s Inn. My elevated places in these cursus honorum of institutions, whose various origins lie centuries ago, is the result of legal impediments to Jews’ participation only abolished by statutes in Queen Victoria’s reign.

The lesson? Jews may have had handicaps in reaching the start line, but, once there, we run a good race.

‘MJBQC: a Life within and without the law’ is published by Bloomsbury.

February 23, 2023 10:13

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