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Leader: Loyalty, identity and belonging

In 2006, on the 350th anniversary of Jewish resettlement in Britain, Tony Blair told a packed congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London: “As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.”

Speaking at a time when there was much talk of Britain “sleepwalking into segregation” and much debate over whether the doctrine of multiculturalism had failed, Mr Blair was suggesting that British Jews formed a kind of model community: one whose example other ethnic and religious minorities, perhaps, should seek to emulate.

Would that it were that simple. The history of Jewish cultural, religious and intellectual life in Britain shows just how complex are such questions of identity and belonging. As David Cesarani argues on page 22 in the cover story of this special issue, Jewish life in Britain has always been “fractious and unruly”, defined by divergent opinions and experience. Some Jews place religion at the heart of their identity; others remain resolutely secular, preferring to define Jewishness as an ethnic category – or resist attempts at definition altogether. As Linda Grant, the Orange Prize-winning novelist, writes on page 51: “. . . the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice”.

The journey has not been without hardship. As late as the 1940s, Jewish loyalty to Britain was being questioned openly and in 1947 the UK experienced widespread anti-Jewish riots after the murder of two British soldiers in Mandate Palestine.

Discussions of British Jewish identity are too often embroiled in disputes about the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. The New Statesman supports a two-state solution and robustly condemns the belligerence and excesses of the Likud-led Netanyahu government. And yet, even on the question of Palestinian self-determination, there is more debate than ever before among Jews, as Keith Kahn-Harris argues on page 27.

Today, the Jewish community is thriving. What is more, as David J Goldberg writes in his reply to Anthony Julius in our debate on anti-Semitism (page 36), since 1945 in Europe “it has been safer to be a Jew than to be black or Muslim”.

For some, this may be small consolation. Racism and bigotry in all forms persist. Economic turmoil across Europe has led growing numbers of disaffected voters to embrace various forms of angry, xenophobic nationalism. For the parties of the new far right the primary targets may be Muslims, or immigrants who have crossed the European Union’s borders from Africa and the Middle East. However, incidents of violent anti-Semitism continue, as witnessed in the murder of three Jewish children outside their school in Toulouse in March. Critics of Israel have a particular duty to ensure that their rhetoric is not tainted with paranoia and unreason.

Our political leaders are fond of telling us that we need more “integration” – a concept little understood. Yet an examination of our shared history shows that integration has always been the product of popular struggle. In the words of Max Levitas, a 97-year-old veteran of the Battle of Cable Street who still lives in the East End of London, the aim is not to adopt some ill-defined set of “British values”, but “to ensure that whatever religion you’ve got, whatever your colour, you play a part in society”.

This issue is our contribution to the larger conversation about identity and belonging. And its purpose is to reflect and celebrate the many contributions that Jews have made to Britain’s cultural, intellectual and political life. 

With friends like these

It must be lonely in No 11. The Chancellor’s friends are deserting him. His European allies are changing tack or being voted out. One by one, the credit ratings agencies are rejecting austerity. Even the IMF on 22 May asserted that Britain ought to change course, “delaying fiscal consolidation” if growth does not return.
Mr Osborne has long been a fan of appeals to authority. When the ratings agencies put Gordon Brown’s Labour government on “negative outlook”, the then shadow chancellor used this to bolster his austerity rhetoric. But now the agencies are questioning his position. If the Chancellor’s credibility, as is often claimed, comes from “Very Serious People” agreeing with him, when the facts change and they change their minds, he ought to change his.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.