A men­tor, an ex­am­ple, and a friend

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY MICHAEL GOVE

GE­ORGE WEI­DEN­FELD was one of the men of the cen­tury.

In his life and work the tu­mult and tri­umphs of the last hun­dred years found their wit­ness and their shaper. It has been one of the priv­i­leges of my life to have been able to call him a friend. But he was much more — a men­tor, an ex­am­ple, a hero.

Born in a Vi­enna emerg­ing from the wreck­age of the Hab­s­burg em­pire, ed­u­cated for a ca­reer in the Aus­trian diplo­matic ser­vice and es­cap­ing from that coun­try as it fell un­der the dark shadow of Nazi con­trol, he was the last sur­vivor of a lost Europe.

The cos­mopoli­tan, lib­eral and cul­tured val­ues of his up­bring­ing were those of so many ex­iles from to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism — fig­ures such as Stefan Zweig and Isa­iah Ber­lin — and Ge­orge ex­em­pli­fied them beau­ti­fully. His per­fect man­ners, his gor­geously dec­o­rated Chelsea flat, his spell-bind­ing con­ver­sa­tion rang­ing from high pol­i­tics to lit­er­ary gos­sip, his gen­eros­ity as a host, his hu­man­ity and breadth of sym­pa­thy were all re­minders of the virtues which Euro­pean civil­i­sa­tion, at its best, im­bued in its chil­dren.

From his pub­lish­ing house Ge­orge de­vel­oped a web of re­la­tion­ships — across pol­i­tics, lit­er­a­ture, the arts and hu­man­i­ties, and across France, Ger­many, the UK and the US — which brought the finest minds of our time into com­mu­nion with one an­other. The idea of the West — the be­lief that demo­cratic lib­eral na­tions should work to­gether to de­fend free­dom and ad­vance en­light­en­ment — found in him its great­est ad­vo­cate and em­bod­i­ment.

Ge­orge was al­ways, how­ever, aware of the fragility of our civil­i­sa­tion and he recog­nised, from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and acute his­tor­i­cal study, that the health of any so­ci­ety is re­flected in the way it treats its Jewish cit­i­zens.

It was, Ge­orge once ob­served to me, a fact that the most lib­eral na­tion at any time in his­tory was al­ways the one in which Jewish cit­i­zens felt most safe — the Nether­lands in the 17th cen­tury, Eng­land in the late 19th cen­tury, Amer­ica in our own time — and those coun­tries which were most hos­tile to Jewish in­di­vid­u­als were those na­tions head­ing into dark­ness — Spain at the time of the In­qui­si­tion, Ger­many and Aus­tria in the Thir­ties and Rus­sia now.

Europe’s un­for­giv­able fail­ure to pro­tect its Jewish cit­i­zens — the hor­rific, bru­tal and in­escapable fact that the great­est crime in his­tory was com­mit­ted on the con­ti­nent he loved so much — left a pro­found im­pact. It made him a com­mit­ted Zion­ist.

Is­rael’s flour­ish­ing and suc­cess — its demo­cratic vigour, its lib­eral val­ues, its peo­ple’s gen­eros­ity — were a source of joy to Ge­orge. But the ter­ri­ble re­growth of an­tisemitism in the last few years, with both Is­rael and the world’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion com­ing un­der in­creas­ing at­tack, was a pro­found sad­ness to him. He worked tire­lessly to un­der­stand the causes of this re­crude­s­cence of prej­u­dice and to fight it in ev­ery way. He used his un­par­al­leled range of con­tacts to help foster un­der­stand­ing of Is­rael’s po­si­tion, aware­ness of the dan­gers inherent in Is­lamist ex­trem­ism and sol­i­dar­ity in de­fence of democ­racy.

Even in his tenth decade he would de­vote long hours to lob­by­ing Euro­pean lead­ers, writ­ing in the Ger­man me­dia, com­mis­sion­ing ex­pert au­thors and con­ven­ing aca­demic sem­i­nars to ad­vance un­der­stand­ing of the threat our civil­i­sa­tion faces from ex­trem­ism. It was an hon­our to be able to help him, in the small­est of ways, in that work.

It was also an in­spi­ra­tion to see Ge­orge in this past year de­vote so much time en­ergy and money to help­ing save those flee­ing Is­lamist ex­trem­ism in its dark­est form, by sup­port­ing Chris­tian refugees es­cap­ing Is­lamic State.

That tire­less en­ergy, that res­o­lu­tion in the fight against evil are lost to us now. I am sad­der than I can ever say at Ge­orge’s pass­ing be­cause he was more won­der­ful than words can tell in his com­mit­ment to the best in this world.

Michael Gove is Lord Chan­cel­lor and Sec­re­tary of State for Jus­tice

PHOTO: © STEPHEN HYDE / NA­TIONAL POR­TRAIT GALLERY, LON­DON

Lord Wei­den­feld re­laxes at his ‘gor­geously dec­o­rated’ home in Chelsea

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