Smug? No, hon­est and proud

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - Michael Freed­land

ICANNOT BE sure, but I think I might have met one of the ri­ot­ers. It was a cou­ple of months ago and, that day, I felt rather like ri­ot­ing my­self. I had just been con­fronted by a young, black girl with a dis­tinct re­sem­blance to a kid in one of the pic­tures pub­lished af­ter the calami­ties of Tot­ten­ham. She couldn’t have been more than 15 and it’s quite pos­si­ble I saved her from se­ri­ous in­jury as she ran in front of my car on a bright, sum­mery, North-Lon­don af­ter­noon.

As I screeched to a stop to find out if she was OK, she some­how didn’t quite ap­pre­ci­ate what had hap­pened.

In­stead of walk­ing away flus­tered or, heaven for­bid, thank­ing me, she ut­tered a phrase I not only would never have used at her age (or now) but would never even had heard. “Go ****your­self,” she replied, which I think was a sug­ges­tion that I do some­thing anatom­i­cally im­pos­si­ble.

As I drove home, shaken and stirred, I kept think­ing : Would I have ever con­tem­plated talk­ing to some­one five times my age, not just like that, but with any­thing but re­spect?

Would my grand­fa­ther, who came over from Lithua­nia with his four brothers and slept at night un­der the ta­ble in his boss’s tai­lor­ing work­shop while mak­ing a life for his par­ents and si­b­lings (one of whom be­came a Deputy High Com­mis­sioner in the Colo­nial ser­vice)?

Would my fa­ther, who left school at 14 and barely saw day­light in his early years labour­ing for shillings in East-End shops?

And, I still re­flect, would I, who was taught to give up my seat in a bus to a lady, to raise my school cap to her and, if a teacher said some­thing crit­i­cal, to ac­cept it with good grace (even the swine of a maths mas­ter who, af­ter slap­ping me roughly round the ear, ut­tered the im­mor­tal words: “I sup­pose you’re go­ing to start sniv­el­ling now; you peo­ple al­ways do.”) Was it just good man­ners on my part? Did my own chil­dren, or do my grand­chil­dren to­day, man­age to deal with prob­lems with­out set­ting fire to build­ings and loot­ing shops, sim­ply be­cause their par­ents brought them up the right way? Or is this in any way a Jewish thing?

Surely the con­di­tions in which many Lon­don Jews lived a cen­tury ago were lit­tle bet­ter than those ex­pe­ri­enced by the black and other “de­prived” young­sters who went on the ram­page last week — and prob­a­bly a darn sight worse.

But their ethos was so dif­fer­ent. Look at the his­tory of JFS, which pro­vided ed­u­ca­tion for kids who had only one rough shirt to their backs. The then East End school had as its mis­sion the trans­for­ma­tion of Jewish boys and girls into young English­men and women.

To­day, faith schools ex­ist to turn that no­tion in an op­po­site direc­tion. As my friend Ben­jamin Perl, who has done more than any­body for the Jewish school move­ment, told me: “Some schools are war zones. Faith schools are not.” Cer­tainly Jewish faith schools are not.

More than 25 years ago, the then Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, Robert Run­cie, com­mis­sioned a re­port on “Ur­ban Pri­or­ity Ar­eas”, which he called, “Faith in the City”.

One man who had no faith in that phi­los­o­phy was the Chief Rabbi of the day, the late Lord Jakobovits. “The trou­ble is these peo­ple don’t work hard enough” he ar­gued. “Jews have pulled them­selves up by their boot­straps, by their labours.”

In one of the very few ar­gu­ments I had with a rabbi for whom I had noth­ing but re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion, I asked him: “Are we not be­ing a lit­tle smug, here?”

Now, I don’t think so. Michael Freed­land’s lat­est book is ‘Judy Gar­land — The Other Side of the Rain­bow’ (JR Books)

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