Friday, 30 November 2012

The Very British Jewishness of Leveson

Can you imagine a New York or a Hollywood Jew proposing the statutory underpinning of press regulation? No, of course not. But Lord Leveson is neither a New York nor a Hollywood Jew. Anglo-Jewry was for the most part observantly Orthodox well into the post-War period, and it still very largely so, with Leveson as a case in point. Thus, for example, even Maurice Glasman, who the last time that I saw him tucked heartily into a Chinese meal full of both pork and shellfish but who was brought up kosher ("Making up for lost time"), can draw on the haggadah and the halacha, the Midrash and the folkways, of the old Yiddish East End in order to form and inform Blue Labour.

In so doing, he finds a natural affinity with Catholic Social Teaching and Distributism, with Radical Orthodoxy, with the Old Labour that owed "more to Methodism than to Marx", with the Anglican-based Tory populism that contributed as much as Nonconformist Radical Liberalism to the emergence of the Labour Movement, with the broader Tory tradition or metatradition behind that (far greater than the Conservative Party, itself in any case a fairly recent, and largely a Whig and Liberal, invention), and even with aspects of Islam as explored by Riyad Karim.

Whereas most of American Jewry last long ago decided that the essence of Jewish identity, and even of Judaism, was to be found in a celebration of dissent, argument, strict state secularism, egalitarian and democratic family structures, avant garde educational methods bound up with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, internationalism in general and liberal interventionism in particular, an openness to people's and organisation's Marxist pasts and to whatever they might have retained from those days, minimal religious observance and negligible religious instruction, all with a view to the highest or fullest degree of individual freedom and self-realisation, themselves defined in terms of all the foregoing.

Initially, it was America that was idealised as the civic embodiment of those principles, by reference to a very particular reading of the Founding Fathers in such terms, and retaining the more or less explicit view that Jews were to form the liberal vanguard, the natural elite, the national or societal conscience. Later, mostly after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Israel also came to be so identified, right when she was beginning to stop having even such claim to that as she had ever had. This would of course have been unrecognisable and repugnant to its originators' near ancestors in Central and Eastern Europe. That point is made most starkly by the very heavy rewriting of the Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem in order to turn them into Fiddler on the Roof, in which a man dressed like the first audience's great-grandfathers articulates that audience's own prejudices rather than those of its great-grandfathers.

A real life Tevye would have held views far more akin to those of a 1960s New York Jew's Catholic neighbours, mostly of Irish and Italian stock, but also German and East European: unshakeably committed to ecclesial, civil and parental authority, which were inculcated by thoroughly traditional forms of education at the heart of which was the systematic impartation over many years, from early childhood until at least the middle or late teens, of a very extensive body of highly specific religious knowledge which was in no sense up for debate. Again, it was America that was idealised as the civic embodiment of those principles; again, by reference to a very particular reading of the Founding Fathers in such terms. A reading which was absolutely ridiculous considering how ferociously anti-Catholic the Founding Fathers were, but there we are.

Such a synagogue and family-based belief in the capacity of civil, including political, institutions to do good has remained characteristic of British Jews, the last bearers of the European Jewish civilisation that otherwise perished in the Holocaust. The Leveson Report expresses that profoundly.

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