An­glo-Jewry’s lead­er­ship, sav­agedand­savoured

JC colum­nist Ge­of­frey Al­der­man’s an­gry his­tory sits in po­lar op­po­si­tion to Is­rael Finestein’s ad­mir­ing study

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

THERE ARE sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween th­ese two new an­tholo­gies of the writ­ings of Judge Is­rael Finestein and this news­pa­per’s colum­nist, the his­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Ge­of­frey Al­der­man. Both are low-bud­get aca­demic pub­li­ca­tions, un­am­bi­tious in ap­pear­ance and poorly served by their proof-read­ers, who, es­pe­cially in the case of Al­der­man, get his lef­t­and right-hand pages the wrong way round. Both con­tain his­tor­i­cal stud­ies of the UK’s Jewish com­mu­nity based on lec­tures or ar­ti­cles that have ap­peared else­where.

But there the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. Finestein writes from a tra­di­tion of re­spect; Al­der­man writes from one of de­fi­ance. “The duty of the his­to­rian is not to tell the truth, but to sup­port the com­mu­nal im­age” — thus Al­der­man char­ac­terises con­ven­tional Jewish writ­ing. He claims that, since the Re­set­tle­ment 350 years ago, the record­ing of An­gloJewry by An­glo-Jews has been ma­nip­u­lated to please the “plu­toc­racy” that, he says, or­ders their af­fairs.

Al­der­man’s book is the racier read. He paints big pic­tures, sees pat­terns and likes to shock. Not only does he ex­plain why the of­fice of Chief Rabbi is a sham (it has nei­ther statu­tory nor demo­cratic au­thor­ity) but he rev­els in do­ing so. Whether it is the “crook”, Morry Davis, who ran the Step­ney Labour party and the Fed­er­a­tion of Syn­a­gogues in the 1930s, or the Board of Deputies, whose his­tory he sees as one of undi­luted char­la­tanism, or even var­i­ous ed­i­tors of the Jewish Chron­i­cle, he wants you to know that, as a mem­ber of the An­glo-Jewish com­mu­nity, you have gen­er­ally been de­ceived, lied to and be­trayed by those who have taken it upon them­selves to rep­re­sent your best in­ter­ests.

Al­der­man puts the ve­nal­ity of our leaders into his­tor­i­cal con­text: what ap­pals us to­day not only has form, it has a 200-year his­tory of be­ing smiled on by the An­glo-Jewish es­tab­lish­ment.

At the same time, he puts him­self into con­text. In spite of his grow­ing con­ser­vatism on Is­rael, his life­long pre­dis­po­si­tion on An­glo-Jewry proves to be that of Old Labour dog­ma­tism, right down to is­sues of par­ti­san­ship, slo­gan­is­ing and class war­fare.

He doesn’t just write: he writes on be­half of and against — on be­half of Lon­don’s East End and against the gen­try; against the United Syn­a­gogue and on be­half of those it has tried to sup­press — and does so by ref­er­ence to a set of iden­ti­cal phrases and sen­tences that, in other writ­ers, might in­di­cate a rigid­ity of thought.

In his weekly col­umns, his sub­jects are of­ten in­di­vid­u­als; in his es­says — as here — they are just as likely to be whole blocks, and that in­vites trou­bling gen­er­al­i­sa­tions. And, like Ken Liv­ing­stone and the Evening Stan­dard, Al­der­man has a ten­dency to go on think­ing badly of bodies be­cause of their past faults.

So, while his book of­fers an easy guide to our com­mu­nity’s good­ies and bad­dies, its pref­er­ence for the as­pi­ra­tions of one group over an­other, and its ten­dency to de­monise, force one to treat its judg­ments cau­tiously.

Finestein, by con­trast, takes An­gloJewry at face value. Writ­ing like an of­fi­cial obit­u­ar­ist, he spells out the pub­lic line on com­mu­nal leaders, some of whom he has counted among his friends and col­leagues.

He­roes — great men and some­times women — have com­mit­ted them­selves to the progress of the tribe and Finestein feels priv­i­leged to doc­u­ment their achieve­ments.

Un­like Al­der­man, he of­fers no pat­terns or rev­e­la­tions and no ad­vo­cacy, just what he calls “the cease­les, [sic] flow of change”. The two books are po­lar op­po­sites. Stephen Games is the ed­i­tor of Bet­je­man’s Eng­land, due to ap­pear next May

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

Peo­ple’s cham­pion: Ge­of­frey Al­der­man with He­len Sa­gal, whose Or­tho­dox con­ver­sion in Is­rael was re­jected by the United Syn­a­gogue, pre­vent­ing her son at­tend­ing JFS, and whose case Pro­fes­sor Al­der­man took up in 2005

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