Last month, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced the appointment of the first members of his “Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm.”
“Fifteen panellists [the Mayor’s 6 February communiqué revealed] have been selected to form the Commission and work to improve diversity in the capital’s public realm. The Commission’s role is to enrich and add to the current public realm, and advise on better ways to raise public understanding behind existing statues, street names, building names and memorials.”
The statement went out of its way to emphasise that the commission was not being established “to preside over the removal of statues.” Nonetheless, one has to ask whether it will be able to resist the temptation to make suggestions relating to sundry statues whose public presence might no longer be thought of – at least in certain quarters – as conducive to the public good. And having made such suggestions, the commission might well then pluck up the courage to ask – rhetorically of course – why, therefore, such-and-such a monument continues to occupy a public space.
The background to the establishment of the commission is well known. In the wake of the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of Oriel College Oxford, of the violent removal by a baying mob of the statue of local Bristol philanthropist Edward Colston (a slave trader), of the renaming of the magnificent library of All Souls College Oxford (endowed by another slave trader, Christopher Codrington), and of the discrete removal from public gaze of monuments to other philanthropists who had slave-trade and/or colonial connections, the mayor thought it would be a jolly good idea to appoint an expert committee to advise on the public commemoration of existing statues, street names and so on.
So it was that in the autumn of 2020 the Greater London Authority, by public advertisement, solicited applications for the 15 places available on the commission. And on 9 February 2021 the appointments were announced.
There is not one name on that list whom I – or the Mayor’s Press Office – have been able to identify as Jewish.
Of course – I can hear you ask – why should there necessarily be any Jews on the commission? Surely – you may insist – the appointments [which are unremunerated, incidentally] should have been and were made solely on merit, and strictly on the basis of relevant personal attributes. Thus, for example, we have a heritage consultant, an art historian, a Brixton business owner, the director of Art on the Underground, and a trustee of “Culture24,” whose website announces that it is “a small and dynamic team of writers, thinkers, producers and publishers who … believe that cultural organisations have a vital place in a better world.”
Then there’s Mr Jack Guinness, a member of the distinguished Anglo-Irish brewing family, whom Mayor Khan identifies (correctly) as founder of “The Queer Bible.” There’s the actor Riz Ahmed, who is of Pakistani heritage and Muslim by faith. And there’s the lawyer and academic Jasvir Singh, whom Mayor Khan’s announcement refers to (again, rightly) as the chair of “City Sikhs.”
The mayor’s press office points out that commission member the Reverend Professor Keith Magee “has previously held the position [of] Scholar in Residence at [the] Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies & School of Theology at Boston University,” has “written broadly on Jewish and African American Relationships,” and currently serves as a trustee of “Facing History and Ourselves which was founded to teach students about holocaust history and the impacts of racism, antisemitism, and prejudice.”
That’s all well and good. But it’s not the same as having a suitably qualified Jew as a full member of the commission, not least in view of the fact that another original commission member – black activist Toyin Agbetu – has now had to resign (oh dear!) over claims of antisemitism.
The mayor has insisted [in answer to questions posed by Greater London Assembly member Andrew Dismore] that no appointment to the commission was made on the basis of “any protected characteristics.” But to argue thus is surely to ignore the need to ensure some measure of broad-based ethnic and religious diversity in the commission’s makeup.
Well over half England’s Jews have always lived in London, whose current Jewish population is roughly double the size of London’s Sikh community. There are several London streets named – deliberately – after leading Jews of yesteryear: Montagu Road in Edmonton, for instance, named after Samuel Montagu, founder of the Federation of Synagogues; Adler Street in Whitechapel, recalling the famous rabbinical dynasty; Schonfeld Square (Stoke Newington), commemorating the fiery Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, chief rabbi’s Hertz’s son-in-law; and in north-west London, leading to the Kingsbury Synagogue, there’s Hool Close, named in honour of the charismatic Maurice Hool, who served as rabbi there from 1959 until 2004.
In New York there is a street named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. But I have not been able to discover one street, road, square, cul-de-sac or even alleyway in London named after him, despite the fact that his 1898 address to a huge assembly of East End Jews really launched the English Zionist Association. Why not a plaque to commemorate that event?
In Parliament Square there stands a statue of General Jan Smuts. The statue has two Jewish connections. Smuts, a Christian, was a proud Zionist, whose membership of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet was important in persuading that Cabinet to endorse the Balfour Declaration. And the statue itself was the work of the Anglo-Jewish sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein.
But rumour has it that in certain quarters there are ambitions afoot to have the statue removed.
A brilliant Boer commander who fought against the British in South Africa, Smuts later became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Although he was not an architect of apartheid, he was nonetheless outspoken in his view that giving the vote to native blacks would result [he reportedly told the Imperial Conference in 1925] in “the whites” being “swamped,” a state of affairs to which he was clearly and unashamedly opposed.
Many statesmen of that period held similar opinions. We might regard them as racist now. But they were not so thought of a century ago. And I should add that although Cecil Rhodes believed devoutly in Britain’s imperial mission, he insisted that the scholarships he endowed at Oxford were to be open to all, regardless of race. “I could never accept [he said] the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour.”
The public understanding of past and present commemorations in England must involve the country’s Jewish communities and their non-Jewish champions. The failure of Sadiq Khan’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to include any Jew must therefore be condemned – and all the more loudly since it will work alongside a “Partners Board” that also appears – at present – to contain no Jewish representation.
We Jews should not hesitate to defend statues of Jewish interest, and to campaign for the erection of new memorials that bear witness to the vital contribution that Jews have made to the work of the country and its capital city.
PS. I applied for appointment to the mayor’s commission. My application was rejected without explanation.