A non-Jewish journalist friend emailed me the other day with a cutting from The Washington Post (subsequently picked up by UK press). It concerned the habits of foreign leaders staying in the president’s guest house. Benjamin Netanhayu had developed an unenviable reputation as a laundry and dry cleaning freeloader. He would arrive with a cargo of bags and suitcases containing dirty washing taking advantage of free valet services provided.
The report contained statutory official denials, but those familiar with the reputation of the Netanyahu and his wife Sara for serial freeloading, including a legal tug of war in Israel in 2016 over laundry bills, will not be that surprised.
Putting to one side the risible proposition of a world leaders schlepping dirty washing across continents, the reported incident reminded me of a phone call from a leader of Europe’s Jewish communities received on the eve of yom tov.
Alex, he suggested, wouldn’t it be nice if the Daily Mail chose to write something positive about the contemporary Jewish contribution to British and continental life ahead of the holidays. Something to cheer us all up in semi-lockdown. My reply was hesitant.
The Jewish press (I pointed out) is always discovering successful Jews in the most unusual places and claiming people as one of our own. We love to kvell at our perceived successes, but are on difficult territory when it comes to pointing out disproportionate representation of Jews in business, the media and legal profession.
Before one knows it (and this has happened to me several times) one is confronted with ‘green ink’ letters or social media bombardment about how the Jews control the world. When, on occasion, I have written about my family and their experiences in the Shoah, some of the responses are unrepeatable. As a features editor told me when I wrote on the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation earlier this year: “That was a beautiful and moving piece of writing.” He then advised be not to look at some of the comments.
Undeterred, I mentioned to a close colleague, with good Jewish knowledge and some paternal ancestry, possibly using my daily City column to look at some of those Jewish achievements. Well she said, it’s fine for you to be proud, but I will mention a few names to start with: Maxwell, Weinstein and Epstein. To this list, she might have added Sir Philip Green and his non-disclosure agreements and upmarket fashion entrepreneur Ray Kelvin, of Ted Baker, who had to retreat from office after allegations of over-enthusiastic hugging.
In my mind, I had started to compile a list of the untainted entrepreneurs and media figures making a contribution to British national life. But I also recognised that they might not be overexcited if one were to draw attention to their ethnicity.
Having recently been at a stone setting at Willesden, I thought of the great Jewish business creators and scientific pioneers interred there. These included the founder of Shell, Lord Bearsted (Walter Samuel), Tesco founder Sir John Cohen and the great industrialist of the late 20th Century, Lord Weinstock, as well as Rosalind Franklin, the chemist who missed out on a Nobel. It is less controversial to mention the dead rather than the living.
In the end, I decided on a compromise. In the last brief item in my column, which appeared on Rosh Hashanah morning, I noted it was the Jewish new year and praised Anglo-Jewry for, among other things, making an ‘economically significant’ contribution to all our lives. Uncontroversial enough I thought.
Not a bit of it. When I arrived for the first shift minyan at 8am on Rosh Hashanah while collecting my tallit from the locker, I was asked why I had chosen to use – what I thought – was an uncontentious phrase and: “Was it right to point out Jews play such a role in the economy. Wouldn’t it excite the not yet extinct Corbynites?”
Best, it would seem, to keep shtum.