Ge­orge, the great­est Zion­ist of his gen­er­a­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY RUTH DEECH

GE­ORGE, LORD Wei­den­feld of Chelsea, was the great­est Zion­ist and Bri­tish Jew of his gen­er­a­tion. An­glo-Jewry ben­e­fited im­mea­sur­ably by his sup­port for our causes and his links with ev­ery­one who counted in pol­i­tics, in the cul­tural world, in Europe and in Is­rael. He unashamedly used those links to fur­ther the projects he was de­voted to, whether they were the rais­ing of funds for Ox­ford, schol­ar­ships for in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, chairs in Is­rael Stud­ies, the res­cu­ing of Syr­ian refugees, the com­mis­sion­ing of new books for his out­stand­ing firm Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, opera and art. Fail­ure did not en­ter his vo­cab­u­lary.

To be in­vited to din­ner in his Chelsea flat was not only a sign that one had ar­rived, but was also a valu­able net­work­ing oc­ca­sion — one had to sing for one’s sup­per by par­tic­i­pat­ing in for­mal dis­cus­sions around the ta­ble with a vis­it­ing states­man about the in­ter­na­tional topic of the day. Th­ese oc­ca­sions usu­ally ended with plans for a new pro­ject.

Hon­oured by Prince Charles in 2011

It is dif­fi­cult to sin­gle out his most re­mark­able achieve­ment. Per­haps it was as political ad­viser to Weiz­mann from the out­set of the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­rael. Maybe it was the trans­for­ma­tion from pen­ni­less refugee in 1938 to jour­nal­ist, pub­lisher and mem­ber of so­ci­ety within 10 years. Or the di­a­logue he fos­tered be­tween Ger­many and other Euro­pean na­tions at meet­ings he or­gan­ised: at a time when Ger­many was hardly re­garded as re­spectable in Euro­pean so­ci­ety he re­moved the stigma from in­ter­ac­tion with the state, es­pe­cially Jewish in­ter­ac­tion.

There is also a claim for his fos­ter­ing of new ven­tures in univer­si­ties here and in Is­rael. My own col­lege, St Anne’s, is the home of his Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor­ship in Com­par­a­tive Euro­pean Lit­er­a­ture (which brought Steiner, Gordimer and Eco to Ox­ford) and of the Ox­ford Pro­fes­sor of Is­rael Stud­ies.

He saw the need to counter anti-Is­rael pro­pa­ganda at our univer­si­ties by en­sur­ing im­par­tial schol­arly aca­demic rigour in the study of Is­rael and the Middle East, and he was al­ways fear­less in for­ward­ing Is­rael’s cause.

He used his con­nec­tions with politi­cians to ex­plain Is­rael’s con­cerns and it is per­haps here that the loss of his role as a strong Jewish leader who gave voice to the re­al­i­ties of life in Is­rael will leave the great­est gap. He missed no op­por­tu­nity to high­light the sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments there which could be of world­wide ben­e­fit.

In his later years he re­mained ready to com­bat the anti-Is­rael and anti-Jewish move­ments in univer­si­ties and in so­ci­ety, al­ways ready to give ad­vice and to host a din­ner or have a word with the right peo­ple to en­sure that jus­tice would be done. His mind re­mained log­i­cal, in­ci­sive, com­pas­sion­ate and as­tute to the end.

His elo­quence was put to good use in the House of Lords. Seven­teen speeches by him on Is­rael are recorded, and last year he pre­pared speeches on the pro­posal to recog­nise Pales­tine and on Gaza, but in the end was un­able to get to the de­bates.

My own con­nec­tion with him goes back to my father Josef Fraenkel’s stu­dent days at Vi­enna Univer­sity where he was a men­tor of Ge­orge’s and a fel­low mem­ber of the Zion­ist stu­den­ten­verbindung.

Meet­ing Ge­orge al­ways con­veyed to me a vivid por­trait of the Jewish in­tel­lec­tual life of Vi­enna be­fore the Nazis de­mol­ished it. It was from his Vi­en­nese up­bring­ing that his un­der­stand­ing of cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture, his pride in Zion­ism and his in­ter­na­tional out­look sprang.

The Vi­en­nese refugees who came to Bri­tain be­fore the se­cond world war en­riched Bri­tish life be­yond any price, and Ge­orge Wei­den­feld was pre­em­i­nent among them.

Baroness Ruth Deech sits as a cross-bench peer and is the for­mer Prin­ci­pal of St Anne’s Col­lege, Ox­ford

PHOTO: PA

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