A necessary corrective to the furore associated with the publication of Tom Shields’ now infamous article.
Julia Neuberger: Rocking the Boat of Jewish Sensibilities
On 27th May 1986, the distinguished journalist Hugo Young wrote an article for the Guardian — one of his regular columns — entitled ‘When Mrs Thatcher sings of Jerusalem’. It was at the time of the Prime Minister’s visit to Israel, and argued that her trip was more to do with her personal feelings, her admiration for Jews, Judaism and Jewish values, than with Britain’s interests abroad.
That Tuesday morning, I had 28 telephone calls before eight a.m. They came from liberal, intellectual, semi-aware Jews. Some were members of my synagogue. More were members of no synagogue and no Jewish institution. They were ‘culturally’ Jewish, they argued (a recipe for belief in chicken soup and bagels), but aware at any moment of the faintest tinge of anti-Semitism. And Hugo Young, to their mind, had been deeply anti-Semitic in this article. After all, he had equated ‘ambition, purposefulness, material success and self-help towards self-advancement’ with the Jewish ideal. He had used the Chief Rabbi’s criticism of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on the inner cities as an instance of how the leading British Jew was ‘one of us’, one of the breed of new Tories ‘disconnected from Anglicanism’, who supported economic policies that leading ‘Christian churchmen have denounced’.
It was not a very flattering portrait of Judaism that Hugo Young painted. Even so, the vitriol of the attacks on him was incredible — he received many private letters, from friends, acquaintances and total strangers. Those letters regarded his piece as insulting to Judaism and offensive to themselves as left-of-centre Jews. The kinder ones suggested that they had not expected him, of all people, to have anything to do with this kind of thing. The less extreme letters claimed to be saddened by the piece. There were more aggressive letters which argued that Hugo Young’s piece was the veiled anti-Semitism of a middle-class liberal, infinitely nastier than the obvious anti-Semitism of right-wing thugs. And one person, a Rabbi Lewis of London, N.16, wrote to the Press Council with a formal complaint, in which he spoke of ‘deliberate and ugly generalised statements of an anti-Semitic character’, and argued that ‘the article as a whole is anti-Semitic in tone, offering an updated version of the old canard of the international Jewish conspiracy’.
That complaint was ultimately not pursued. But meanwhile the Guardian had published two letters, one from Colin Shindler, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, and one from myself. Both of us took Hugo Young to task for his caricaturing of Jews. Both of us reacted strongly. To my mind, in retrospect, we reacted too strongly, confusing generalisations as a result of insufficient sensitisation to Jewish worries with blatant anti-Semitism. [Emphasis added] I say much of this to my shame, for I fell into a trap. I flared up at Hugo Young on the telephone, partly out of irritation at my massively interrupted family breakfast, but more out of anger at what he had written, out of fury at his characterisation of Judaism in that way, his despising of so many values of modern Conservatism which he derived from a generalised and inadequate picture of Judaism. Briefly, I thought of Hugo Young as an anti-Semite — a man who could legitimately argue that ‘some of my best friends are Jews’ (some of them are mine, too), but whose perception of Jews and Judaism was distinctly unfavourable and tinged with a despising mockery. I use this example advisedly — of myself — because I look back at it with regret. Hugo Young is not an anti-Semite. He was wrong — and far too selective in his sources — in his analysis of Judaism. He oversimplified. I think even his conclusions were wrong. But that does not make him an anti-Semite, conscious or unconscious.
Yet it was all too easy to fall into the trap. His caricaturing of Judaism as ‘ambition, purposefulness, material success and self-help towards self-advancement’ read all too easily as ‘pushy’, ‘arrogantly single-minded’, worshipping ‘the golden calf of international materialism’ as Colin Shindler described it in his subsequent letter to the Guardian. The antennae react instantly. And when one asks oneself why, it always, in some curious way, comes back to Israel. For it is in regard to Israel and her policies that liberal middle-class intellectuals find themselves most vulnerable, most confused. Hugo Young was writing about Mrs Thatcher’s visit to Israel. He was describing her ‘Jewish vote’ in Finchley. (A questionable entity, though the large number of Finchley voters who are Jewish make it necessary for Mrs Thatcher to be familiar with things Jewish). He was suggesting that Mrs Thatcher visited Israel out of her link with Jews, rather than out of Britain’s best interests. Whether he was right or not is irrelevant. What is indisputable is that he was arguing the case for a sectional interest.
[Section omitted from original article]
There is one thing I forgot to mention. It is extraordinarily infectious as an attitude. When I look back at my reaction to Hugo Young’s article, I see how pervasive a force it is. For I do not share its premises, nor its techniques. And yet I too complained, shouted ‘Anti-Semitism’, as if that were a rational argument . . . Yet that we can all be affected I am now convinced, for our sensitivities are often a more powerful force than our intellects and powers of reason, however considerable. [Emphasis added]