Sir Malcolm Rifkind can lay claim to giving the longest uninterrupted service as a minister since Lord Palmerston in the 19th century, having served for 18 years under two Conservative prime ministers.
His glittering political career, under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, saw him serve as Secretary of State for Scotland, transport and defence, and foreign secretary.
In these extracts from his newly-published memoirs, Power & Pragmatism, Rifkind delves into his family’s Russian-Jewish roots and recalls his time as foreign secretary, where he was instrumental in the British government committing to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine…
There’s only one F in Rifkind
Our family first arrived in Edinburgh in 1896 when my grandfather’s brother settled there, having travelled from his home in Russia. There was substantial emigration of Russian Jews to Western Europe and the United States in those years.
We do not know why he made the fortunate choice of Edinburgh as his destination. I suspect it was because of the close links between the Baltic and Scotland, which went back many centuries…
When, as a child, I had asked my father as to the family’s origins, he said that he had been told by his father that they came from Mshad (Mosėdis), a small town in a part of Lithuania called Kovno Governo…
In 2003, I and three of my cousins, Marion and Gabrielle Rifkind and David Kaplan, decided to visit the now independent Lithuania and see for ourselves the town that had been home to our family in the 19th century…
We were able, by paying a small fee, to get access to the Lithuanian archives of births, marriages and deaths.
Although the historical archives were incomplete, we were able to confirm that there had been Rifkinds in Mosėdis and were able to trace family links two generations earlier than my grandfather.
The earliest ancestor we could trace was my great-great-grandfather, who was known as Bere of Salant, a small town near Mosėdis. He is likely to have been born around 1810.
He was a grain merchant and he married a lady called Esther from Mosėdis, where they settled. Mosėdis, in the 1897 census, had a population of around 800, of which 40 percent were Jewish.
There is a fascinating family story about the history and origins of our surname for which I also, unexpectedly, found corroboration.
I had been told by my father, who had been told by his, that the name went back to the early part of the 19th century. When the Tsar wanted conscripts for his armies, he would send soldiers into the towns and villages around Russia and draft as many young men as he needed.
Being conscripted was no short-term inconvenience.
Often, you were required to serve for up to 25 years and only then allowed to return home. If the army was about to conscript a young man, the only consideration that would deter them would be if the youngster was the only son of a widow and, therefore, her sole means of support.
Birth records were unreliable in those days and so if you had more than one son you looked for a widow who would claim the young man to be her own when the army arrived, so he would not be press-ganged.
Our family story is consistent with this historical record.
It is that an early 19th century ancestor was a young man ‘adopted’ by a widow called Rebecca, or Rivka, and was known thereafter in the town as ‘Rivka’s kind’, kind being the German or Yiddish for ‘child’.
When, after 1845, surnames were required in Russia, Rifkind was the one chosen…
Occasionally, people I have met in England, knowing my Scottish background, have asked if my surname is Gaelic or Scandinavian.
From time to time it is misspelt. On one splendid occasion, while Edith was lecturing at Napier College in Edinburgh, she saw a colleague who had written to her but spelt our surname with two Fs.
My wife, without realising how it sounded to other people who could hear her, said, ‘No, you’re quite wrong. There’s only one f in Rifkind’.
To those who heard her it must have sounded like ‘There’s only one effin’ Rifkind’, which they probably thought was one too many.
RIFKIND: The two state pioneer
In the Middle East, I was responsible for one important development in the Israel–Palestine dispute. For the first time, the British government committed itself to a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state living next to the state of Israel.
I made the announcement at a dinner of the Palestine Medical Society in London. I still believe that that is the only solution to this long-running confrontation. It could have been achieved if Yitzhak Rabin had survived.
Today, both Israel and Palestine are led by politicians not statesmen. When there are leaders of the stature and wisdom of Rabin and Shimon Peres, King Hussein of Jordan or Anwar Sadat of Egypt, a breakthrough will be possible.
At that time, the mood was much more optimistic than it is now.
After a visit to Israel, I was due to travel to Dubai in the UAE.
The Emirati were apologetic that they could not yet permit us to fly our RAF plane direct from Israel to Dubai. Rather than make two journeys, we found an ingenious solution.
Our plane flew from Israel to an Egyptian air base on the Red Sea. We landed there, but only to allow our wheels to make contact with the tarmac. Without stopping, the pilot lifted the aircraft and we flew direct to the UAE.
As far as our hosts were concerned, we had come from Egypt. When people want solutions, that is what they find.
Then, they did. Now, for the time being, they don’t.
It is said that an Israeli and a Palestinian asked God whether there ever would be peace between their two peoples. God apparently replied that there would be, ‘but it won’t be in my time’.
Let us hope He is not infallible.