Like everyone else, the British Jewish community has endured — and is enduring — severe losses at the hands of the plague that has descended upon the world. Each day brings word of a friend or relative who has either died or become gravely ill. The unattended funeral, the Zoom shiva: we have had to devise new customs with unaccustomed speed. But last week came word of a loss that I was not expecting and which brought a different kind of sadness: the death was announced of the Jewish Chronicle.
I went into instant denial, remembering the words my late father used to quote often, recalling the response of one long-gone Hollywood legend on hearing that a fellow movie star had died: “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
It was inevitable that I would think of my Dad. I’ve been a columnist for the JC since 1998, but compared to the track record notched up by my father, Michael Freedland, I’m barely getting started. He wrote for the JC in one form or another for 67 years, making his debut in 1951. No less important, he was a lifelong and devoted JC reader. Friday night was marked in our home by three distinct rituals: lighting candles, making kiddush and seeing my father settle into an armchair to read the JC.
I know others will have similar memories. The Sunday Times’ Josh Glancy greeted last week’s announcement with a string of tweets: “As a child, the JC was our connection to the wider Jewish community. They published my U-11 football team’s scores, they printed a picture of me on my bar mitzvah; reading the JC before Shabbat dinner on a Friday marked the passing of the weeks.” He described his pride at writing for the paper occasionally. “It meant writing for my parents and grandparents and my community. It felt like an act of love and belonging.”
People often talk about the JC like that: nostalgically. Many are those who insist they only see the paper when they visit elderly relatives (and who yet seem to have read every word in it). Others also looked back, lamenting the announced passing of the JC by speaking of the paper’s long history since 1841, and how its pages literally chronicle two centuries of British Jewish life.
And yet, the JC is not and cannot be a museum piece. Its function, and its necessity, is in the here and now. On those Friday nights gone by, my father turned first to the masterful columnist Chaim Bermant. In one piece, Bermant took on the JC-sceptics who disliked the paper’s tendency to air Anglo-Jewry’s woes for all to see. “A community that does not wash its dirty linen in public,” he wrote, “tends not to wash its dirty linen at all.”
It was a brilliant insight and describes the JC’s role perfectly. There will always be communal bulletins and shul newsletters, naturally insisting that all is sunny. It has fallen to the JC to expose the reality, however uncomfortable it might be. It was the JC, for example, that explained why the Jewish Leadership Council had parted company with its chief executive Jeremy Newmark, an affair that would otherwise have remained politely hushed up.
Without the JC, the affluent and undeniably generous men who tend to run the key institutions of British Jewry — the men, and it is mainly men, once aptly called the Funding Fathers —would do so without the unwelcome distraction of accountability. They’d be happier, but we would suffer. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
What’s more, it is the JC’s record of invigilating power that underpins its credibility in the eyes of the wider world. During Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, the JC was listened to because it was recognised as a serious journalistic enterprise. Whether it is the fearless reporting from Jerusalem by longtime Netanyahu-sceptic Anshel Pfeffer, or the quality of its long-form essays by top-drawer scholars and historians, its book reviews and theatre criticism, the JC enjoys huge respect from the rest of the UK media. These last four years, that ensured it got a hearing —which meant British Jews got a hearing.
Of course, it’s not perfect: no newspaper ever is. The communal establishment doesn’t like the way it makes trouble; the communal left reckon anti- and non-Zionist voices are shut out. But those are arguments for the JC to change, not arguments for it to die. Which is why we should hope that rumours of the JC’s death are exaggerated and that a rescue bid is on its way.
But any new owner has to allow the paper to be an independent observer of the Jewish community, not a propaganda arm of it. For in this period of lockdown and isolation, we need a real, thriving newspaper more than ever. Otherwise, we are fragmented: a string of separate synagogues and organisations, islands unconnected to each other. More than any other institution, the JC is the place where we meet. For years, it called itself “the organ of British Jewry.” It is indeed a vital organ, if not our beating heart. We are not a community without it.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian