George, the greatest Zionist of his generation
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