Out and proud about my Jewish background

'In the last 20 years I have been a public Jew in a way I wasn’t really in the 20 years before that.'

September 04, 2020 15:03

A month after joining The Times in the summer of 2001 I took a long planned holiday. We were due to fly back on September 11. Naturally we were forced to delay our return to Britain for a couple of days and I then returned to a political world that had been much changed.

It is hard therefore for me to be sure whether it was the events of 9/11 or joining a national newspaper that were more responsible for making me so outspoken about being Jewish. All I know is that in the last 20 years I have been a public Jew in a way I wasn’t really in the 20 years before that.

I’ve been thinking about this as I first collected and then, in late August, saw published a selection of my columns, assembled now as a book called Everything in Moderation. Here are my conclusions.

Not long after becoming a columnist I realised that the key to them is authenticity. They have to reflect who you are, where you come from, what you deep down believe. It is not enough that you think something, readers have to care that it is you that thinks it.

Before working at The Times I might read a columnist writing about, I don’t know, hurting their foot and laugh at the inventiveness. Once I had my own column I realised they had actually hurt their foot. I would write them an email checking they are OK. You can’t write a successful column that isn’t rooted in truth.

And the more I thought about who I was, the more obvious it became to me that, one of the things that was at the heart of it was being Jewish.

My family story was Jewish, my family life was Jewish, my friends were Jewish my sense of humour was Jewish, my taste in food was Jewish (ie Chinese).

Because I was used to sharing my Jewishness only with other Jews, I was taken aback by the response from readers when I mentioned even small things about my life. They were intrigued by it, bemused by it, amused by it and they wanted more.

When I first wrote about my mother’s story, about her time in Belsen, the reaction was extraordinary. In our community we are quite used to stories of survival, death and oppression. It’s too strong to say we are acclimatised to it, since every individual take shocks. But almost every family has at least something.

I realised immediately what a privilege and a duty it was to share her story, and our story, with the wider public.

I realised something else too. As I began to write about my more general outlook — my belief in moderation, my progressive outlook sitting alongside a respect for tradition, my love of the suburbs and the peace and quiet of bourgeois life — I began to appreciate how much of that owed itself to my experience as a liberal Jew and to my view of our community.

So, anyway, that’s a long way of answering the question — why are you so “out” as a Jew. It’s just that you have to be who you are and that’s who I am.

And anyway, it’s not as though the topic never comes up if I don’t raise it. In two big waves being Jewish has certainly come up.

First there was 9/11 and the shift to blaming the alliance with Israel for the anger of the Muslim world. If I didn’t point out how wrong this was, who would? I was never shy about it, even if I never much wanted to become primarily known for writing about Israel. But even if I had been entirely averse, the subject was hardly avoidable.

And then came Jeremy Corbyn. It soon became impossible to comment about mainstream British politics without writing about Jews. It still astonishes me how far it all went, and sadly it isn’t completely over yet, either. At moments during this row I could write columns about antisemitism that explained it to audiences who were unfamiliar with it.

This was among the most satisfying things I’ve done in the paper. But I’m glad it’s subsiding now. Everything in moderation.


Everything in Moderation, a collection of the journalism of Daniel Finkelstein is published by William Collins.

September 04, 2020 15:03

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