Rabbi vs the rabble: Neuberger fights back against antisemitism
The first female rabbi in Britain to run a synagogue takes aim at Jeremy Corbyn, among others, for a rising scourge
When Julia Neuberger was in the back seat of her dad’s “ancient old banger” on the school run in the London of the early 1950s, he would tell her the red lights making them late were antisemitic.
“It was only a decade on from the Holocaust,” she points out, “but my Jewish father, like lots of Jews of his generation, could perfectly happily joke with his children about antisemitic traffic lights because he felt totally secure and safe in this country.”
Fast-forward more than half a century, and his 69-year-old daughter – nowadays the first female rabbi in Britain to run a synagogue, a broadcaster and distinguished public servant on various health trusts, and, since 2004, a member of the House of Lords – fears that sense of belonging is fast being eroded in the 300,000-strong Jewish community.
Antisemitism is no longer something Jews joke about, she warns in a new short, pithy and polemical book, but the cause of such anxiety that some are contemplating leaving the country.
Anti-Semitism: What It Is, What It Isn’t and Why It Matters attacks, in particular, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for allowing such a state of affairs to come about in the Labour Party, but holds back from labelling him an antisemite.
“I cannot say hand on heart that he is,” Neuberger tells me, “but he certainly behaves as if he is.”
Her caution in choosing her words befits her current role as senior rabbi at the West London Synagogue – and is in keeping with a book that seeks not to alienate, but to shake some sense into those who she believes have allowed the antisemitic tide to threaten again.
Yet, in the text, when pinpointing what is antisemitic and what isn’t, she argues for the approach adopted by the Macpherson Inquiry of 1999 into racism in the Metropolitan Police that followed the death of Stephen Lawrence.
If people are experiencing something as racist, this formula goes, then the perpetrator is acting in a racist way.
So how does this formula work when applied to Corbyn?
“He is being antisemitic,” she replies, without a second’s hesitation. And her moderation evaporates as soon as she says it.
She is, she admits, “furious” at the recent turn of events.
“And as well as being antisemitic, I feel he is failing in his duty as a party leader to make people in his party behave decently.”
The mother of two grown-up children, Harriet and Matthew, wife of a distinguished Warwick University academic, and sister-in-law of the retired head of the Supreme Court, David Neuberger, her anger encompasses a range of personal and professional concerns.
As a young woman studying at Cambridge, she was active in the university Labour Club, and later – although sitting at the time on the Liberal Democrat benches in the Lords – she accepted an appointment from Labour prime minister Gordon Brown as his volunteering champion.
“The party used to be seen as the natural home for Jews in Britain. Dad wanted to be a Labour MP, and my parents were always Labour. They will be turning in their graves now.”
We are perched in the front row in the sanctuary of her synagogue, an elegant, sober, late 19th-century building close to Marble Arch.
Neuberger, though, is resplendent in a magenta silk coat – worn, she explains, because earlier in the day she had been meeting the chief executive of the University College Hospitals Foundation Trust, where she has recently been appointed as chairperson.
“I wanted to make an impression,” she laughs. She would, in truth, have done it whatever she wore.
Small in stature and warm in manner, everything about her conveys a firm-but-fair approach that makes her determined to call out this new bigotry wherever she sees it.
Other well-known Jewish women – notably Labour MPs Margaret Hodge, Ruth Smeeth and Luciana Berger (now of Change UK) as well as Countdown’s Rachel Riley – have been targeted by the antisemites of late. Has she?
“Well, people have said things about Jews in my hearing, with rare exceptions not knowing I am a Jew.”
And did she put them right?
“Yeah, because I am a don’t-mess-with-me sort of person.”
One tactic is to steer clear of social media – a forum, she says, where antisemitism thrives almost unchecked.
Smeeth received death threats on Facebook and – in one 12-hour period – 20,000 items of online antisemitic abuse.
Being a robust, practical sort, Neuberger insists that she herself still feels safe in Britain, but adds she has applied for a German passport.
Her mother, Alice, had come to Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany. But because anyone born before 1953 can only claim German citizenship via their father and Neuberger’s, Walter, was British-born (his German parents arrived here before World War 1), she was told she was not eligible.
She shrugs. “The number of British Jews applying for German passports tells you something. These are the people whose parents and grandparents were refugees from the Holocaust. They are applying partly as an insurance thing. They don’t really want to go and live in Germany, but they look at Israel and don’t like the politics there. It shows to what extent people feel uncomfortable here.”
In several European countries, notably France, rising levels of antisemitism have seen a spike in emigration rates in recent years, she reports.
In Britain, while there are more Jews than she can ever remember discussing where they would go if they felt they had to leave, so far the numbers doing it remain small.
“If I could get a German passport, I would, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean,” she is keen to point out, “that I wouldn’t have been British. I am a proud British subject.”
Is it, I wonder aloud, also to do with Brexit?
“It is certainly that I feel European and I don’t like the ‘little Englander’ stuff. So it’s a lot of things all mixed in.”
No gloom, please
The mood among British Jews has not been improved by increasing numbers of people – again on social media – openly questioning the Holocaust.
“I have my mother’s family photographs of relatives who were murdered in Germany,” Neuberger says.
“This is evidence. But today, opinion is treated as being as strong as evidence.”
She is not, though, a woman to give in to gloom. She wants to dispel it.
“There are always going to be some people, perhaps between 2% and 5% according to studies, who are confirmed antisemites, mostly on the far right, but here too on the far left. You can’t do much to change their minds. They just don’t like us.
“The ones I want to get to, with the book, are those who just repeat all the old antisemitic tropes because they don’t get it.”
She includes in this category those who make a distinction between being anti-Zionist (broadly against the state of Israel) and antisemitic, and is having none of it.
“They say, for example, that the Jews have no right to self-determination. If everybody else has it, why not Jews? That is antisemitism. And while there is much about Israel that I criticise, why is it more criticised on the international stage and, as figures show, at the UN than any other nation? Why do people pick on Israel but don’t have a go as much at Burma or Sudan or China or Russia? Because they feel they can treat Israel differently, and that is antisemitism.”
There are, though, she insists, hopeful signs: the Royal Mint’s decision to scrap a planned coin featuring Roald Dahl, because of his past antisemitism; the “massive public outpouring of support” for Rachel Riley when she went public on the abuse she had received; and the growing bonds of mutual support between Jewish, Christian and Muslim organisations in this country.
They are busy putting to rest past enmity and errors, just as, believes Neuberger, all of us have the power to bury the “bit of nonsense” of the current rise in antisemitism – but only if we listen to facts, not prejudice, and our political leaders wake up to their responsibilities.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)