A few days ago, I attended a retirement event at The Guardian for Michael White, one of the most amusing and well-informed political journalists of his generation. In the manner of old Fleet Street, we afterwards repaired to the pub, a fashionable hostelry on north London’s Caledonian Road.
It was there that I was tapped on the shoulder by a former colleague who happens to be Jewish. Believe it or not, The Guardian, from its earliest days in Manchester, has a long tradition of being supportive of the Jewish community and employing Jewish journalists and commentators.
The founding proprietor and editor, the legendary CP Scott, was a great friend and supporter of Chaim Weizmann. It has yet to have a Jewish editor, although this writer and more recently Ian Katz, editor of Newsnight, were candidates for that post. It may be possible that the current editor Katharine Viner might have some ancestry.
The colleague who had interrupted me wanted to know if I was still directly involved in community leadership, having been, up until 2015, a vice president of the Board of Deputies. I was not, although I am proudly involved with Jewish News and chairman of the British arm of an Israeli non-governmental organisation, the Abraham Fund. “Why do you ask?” I inquired. He wanted to relay to me a recent incident.
He had recently buried his father and mourned over a newly dug grave at Bushey Cemetery in Hertfordshire. It is a place, fortunately, he had not had many causes to visit. On the sombre, long distance walk from the grave to the prayer hall to say kaddish, the elderly, unidentified rabbi, engaged the mourner in conversation.
It was not quite the words of consolation and comfort the bereaved might have expected. Instead, the rabbi, having heard the bereaved worked for The Guardian, bluntly asked him: “How could you work for such an anti-Semitic organisation?”
The colleague was stunned and speechless. Instead of the correct conversation, which might have been about the deceased and his family and the healing of time, he had brought crude and deeply disrespectful views on his professional life to a very personal event. Indeed, the journalist found the shadow of those words deeply alienating.
No one can be unaware of some of the harsh reporting on Israel and the Palestinian conflict that has appeared in the pages of The Guardian. The views of some of its writers, notably Seamus Milne, now communications overlord for Jeremy Corbyn, are highly offensive.
But his views have been well counterbalanced by leading commentator Jonathan Freedland and solid reporting from the region.
The paper may arguably have fanned the flames of the left-wing anti-colonialist narrative on the Middle East, but it is not rooted in anti-Semitism.
All of us who have worked at The Guardian have spoken out against excesses. But if you believe in a free press, as an essential plank of democracy (as they do in Israel itself), one must accept that not everyone has the same unalloyed, positive view of everything Israel does.
My former colleague is not the only one who has suffered slings and arrows for where he works. I remember running into Lord Levy in 2007, during his own travails over cash for honours.
He began by criticising my paper, the Daily Mail, for what he regarded as malicious coverage. Greeting me warmly with a hug, he generously said he understood it was not my doing, but my parnassah, or livelihood.
In our professional lives, things happen. My support for Brexit, for instance, put me at odds with family and friends. But rabbis and community leaders should have the wisdom not to allow such differences to intrude into Jewish ritual – especially at bereavement.