Julia Neuberger has several hats. She’s a baroness, a rabbi (soon to retire), an ethicist (appearing on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought), a health leader (who chairs University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust) and an author.
It’s the author’s hat she wears when we first meet in a coffee shop near West Kensington to discuss her new book on antisemitism, but she’s happy to swap hats mid-conversation, mid-sentence even, and a joy when she does.
Her book – ‘Antisemitism: What it is, what it is not and why it matters’ – is one of several on the subject from Jewish luminaries in recent months. Among the first to wade into this now-deluged arena was CST policy head Dave Rich in 2016. Jewish sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris is the latest, launching his own book on antisemitism this month.
So why buy Neuberger’s? In part, because of the 69-year old author, Britain’s first female rabbi to have her own synagogue, for decades a household name, even once listed as an attendee at ‘Madame’ Cynthia Payne’s fantasy sex party.
Neuberger’s views, which largely reflect those of the community, have long been heeded by those in power, but though her address book reads like a who’s who, you wouldn’t know that to meet her. There’s no pretence. What you see is what you get.
What do we get with her book? It’s a ranging, mazing meander through history’s oldest hatred, which will prove educational to beginners and experts alike. For such a controversial subject, she largely avoids controversy. She slams Israel’s 2018 Nation State Bill, but then again, it would arguably be more controversial not to. Did she learn anything while writing it?
“A huge amount,” she says, sipping her tea and fixing her gaze. “I suppose I knew the history, because I’m interested anyway, in a general knowledge-ish, Jewish-ish sort of way, but for instance I hadn’t understood the extent to which Jews themselves started believing in racial or eugenics theory, which began in the 1870s.
I hadn’t understood the extent to which Jews themselves started believing in racial or eugenics theory, which began in the 1870s.
“This is Jewish scientists believing in Jewish racial characteristics, in German race theory, and being strongly influenced by it! It’s fascinating. I didn’t know that Jews took these ideas on, that they bought into them. It made me realise how deeply embedded in contemporary thought these antisemitic ideas of ‘race’ were. It’s hugely significant.”
Straying slightly off-topic, where is she on the idea of including ‘Jewish’ as an ethnicity option in the next census? “I’m ambivalent on it. We need to plan for care needs, so we do need to know how many Jews there are out there, but some still won’t fill it in, like my late mother, in common with most refugees from Nazi Germany.”
Her book is dedicated to the late great publisher George Weidenfeld, who co-founded the Weidenfeld & Nicholson publishing house, and to her late grandmother Anna Schwab.
“George was a member of my shul. He always told me that it was my grandmother’s encouragement that set him out on his amazing career when she was chair of the welfare committee of the Refugee Committee in the 1930s and he was a newly-arrived refugee.
“He never forgot it. When I became rabbi at West London Synagogue, he asked me over for lunch. I said, ‘that’s lovely, but why?’ He said, ‘because of your grandmother.’ I just felt that was so touching.”
We digress – back to the book. It is educational, informative, logical, sensible and highly readable, but alas imperfect, not least for its several sweeping, unsubstantiated statements.
One such is that the Jewish community perceives “a breach of trust between the nation and its Jewish population”. Really? If she had said “between Jews and the Labour Party” nobody would have batted an eyelid, but “the nation”?
“I hope it will have been binned because it wasn’t needed.”
Another such statement is that fear of rising antisemitism has led young Jews to “return to their synagogues and Jewish organisations in droves”. Asked if this is based on evidence, stats or facts, she says it is “based on feel and on what people say”.
And she is adamant that antisemitism is “rising,” evidencing monthly figures from the Community Security Trust from 2006-18, but does not acknowledge – as the CST itself does – that figures have risen at least in part because of improved reporting and social media. After all, in 2006 there was little information-sharing with the police, and no-one had heard of Facebook.
Might we just be seeing more clearly what’s always been there? “No. It is rising, but not to the panic levels. It is rising in part because of the echo chamber of social media. People now say things openly that they would not have said ten years ago.”
She cannot decide whether Brexit was a cause or effect of this new willingness to express one’s intolerance openly, but says it was “significant,” adding: “It’s as if the social change that race relations legislation led to was somehow being rolled back.”
The author peppers the book with context and wisdom. As an example of the latter, she says there are times when antisemitism should be met with outrage, such as the Tower Hamlets mural, and times when it should be met with acid humour and acerbic irony, such as Jeremy Corbyn’s now-famous 2013 thoughts on the ability of British Zionists to see the funny side, despite them having lived here a wee while.
“It was an outrageous remark, but the best way to deal with it was to use the irony he says we don’t have to take him apart,” she says. “That was a better defence than yet more outrage. There is no clear line [as regards when to use humour and when to lodge an official complaint] but we need to be quite savvy about tactics.”
Talking of which, did she make of the joint demand from the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council in March 2018 that Corbyn and Labour ban the term ‘Zionist’ because it was being used as a term of abuse? “That’s ridiculous,” she says, unflinchingly.
By the final page, Neuberger’s anger and concern are visceral, but while she is “more angry about antisemitism on the left, because that’s not where you’d expect it,” she is “more worried about antisemitism from right-wing nationalism,” adding that it “links up with an anti-elitist wave sweeping Europe and the US, though not all Jews are part of the elite by any means”.
It all bodes ill, but in her book she also recognises “an increasing super-sensitivity to mild remarks” and “an increasing likelihood of seeing antisemitism where it doesn’t exist”. Won’t some say this book is more of the same, of over-reacting, of crying wolf?
“There will be those who say that, but it’s not crying wolf to point to a real problem.” Did she sense-check herself? “Absolutely, I didn’t want to cry wolf. Some do over-react. It’s tasteless to be sent an antisemitic joke, but in the end it’s just tasteless, I’d just pull them up on it. But because we’ve grown sensitised, you pick it up more.”
Finally, 20 years hence, will her 180-page book be seen as a prescient warning or unnecessary doom-mongering? “I hope it will have been binned because it wasn’t needed.”