Community living

On the Other Hand

Chaim Bermant <em>Robson Books, 256pp, £18.95</em>

ISBN 1861053096

Not many journalists' work survives reprinting, and what does last is by no means always from the best-known or best-paid columnists. Although Chaim Bermant's byline was sometimes seen in Fleet Street, as a book reviewer and authority on Jewish affairs, he never gained the national recognition he deserved. Instead, for more than 30 years he wrote a weekly column in the Jewish Chronicle, which made him famous in "the community", as well as to the discerning eye beyond. This selection, appearing more than two years after his sudden death at the age of 67, confirms my view that he was one of the great journalists of his time, witty and wise to a degree rarely matched in our trade.

He wrote often about his upbringing in a Latvian shtetl, which he had left by accident. His father was a rabbi and also shochet, or ritual slaughterer - work he disliked but which proved fortunate when he was offered a job in Glasgow in 1938. The family followed; they would not have survived otherwise. Chaim Bermant lived all his life with a child's intense memory of the irrecoverable lost world of "der Heim", the old Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewry of eastern Europe, which he wrote about magically and poignantly.

After Glasgow University and the London School of Economics, Bermant worked as a schoolmaster before settling in London as a jobbing writer, novelist and newspaperman. He can never, I imagine, have made a great deal of money, but through his JC column he found a personal voice, writing on politics, religion, history and food. Enviably, he wrote that "I combine liberal sentiments with a conservative disposition". To put it another way, he exactly demonstrated the difference between liberalism and political correctness. When, for example, one anguished rabbi said that same-sex marriage was a very difficult question, Bermant replied: "It is, on the contrary, a very easy question. People of the same sex cannot get married because they are of the same sex." That was part of his political incorrectness, or conservatism of disposition.

On a far more important question for Jews today, Bermant passed with flying colours. When he died, the JC published, among others, a letter from a representative of the Palestinian community in London, written with a sincerity that spoke for itself. Year after year, Bermant had denounced the violence against Palestinians by Jewish zealots and the Israeli state. It would be hard to exaggerate how rare this used to be in the Jewish press, or how courageous it was. There was for too long a kind of omerta, stifling Jewish criti-cism of even the grossest abuses, and it was very much to the credit of the Chronicle that it continued, with the occasional palpitation, to publish Bermant's column despite many demands to silence it.

For his pains, Bermant was abused, threatened with violence, called a traitor or "a self-hating Jew". Of that last, I will merely say that this phrase is, at best, dubious, and was a quite unusually absurd accusation to make against Bermant. Few men were ever so deeply attached to Jewish life and tradition. He was punctilious about religious observance; although, from hints he gave, I suspect that he was a "reverent agnostic". His attitude towards Orthodox Judaism (much like mine towards the Church of England) combined a sentimental affection for liturgy and custom with intellectual scepticism and a large dose of anti-clericalism.

He was also drawn towards Zionism as a young man, nearly made aliyah and paid many longer and shorter visits to Israel. But his feelings changed over the years. It was not just that he became ever more conscious of the injustices suffered by the Palestinians, nor that, as his wife, Judy, nicely put it, he dearly loved Israel, if not too many Israelis. He came to see that there were more important things than Jewish nationalism or a Jewish state: the great Jewish traditions of justice and conscience.

Nothing he wrote was more touching than his pieces on the High Holy Days, on dressing up at Purim, or on the synagogues bedecked with plants and flowers at Shavuot. And yet, for all his love of ancestral religious ritual, Bermant absolutely detested what Shelley called "bloody faith, the foulest birth of time". Bloody faith might mean supposed Christians persecuting the Jews, or it might mean murderous mullahs (he was scornful of his friend Lord Jakobovits, the former chief rabbi, for saying that "both Mr Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech").

But it might also mean those of his co-religionists who believed that the Lord and the scriptures had given them a licence to kill. When maniacs from Gush Emunim maimed Arabs 20 years ago, Bermant wrote that every nation had its lunatic fringe, but Israel was the only free country where the fringe enjoyed state patronage. He suffered, in my view, from the delusion of many liberal-minded Jews of his generation that all Zionist vice reposed in the right-wing, revisionists or Likud, and that Labour, from Ben Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin, was almost wholly virtuous (not the way it seems to many Palestinians or, indeed, to some Israeli radicals). But his instincts were always decent.

There were other subjects on which Bermant was quite as brave and profound, when I wished that he had been writing for a national readership. One event was woven into his being. He once wrote that he couldn't be sure of the total numbers of those killed in the Shoah, but "I could speak with certainty of 22 members of my own family who were done to death".

For all that, he was not in any way a "Holocaust obsessive", as Martin Amis once described a friend with apparent approval, or even "Holocaust-haunted", as Amis himself was recently described. To the contrary, Bermant lamented the tendency "to harp on the Holocaust as the central event of Jewish history". He believed that this obsession had had a pernicious effect on Jewish attitudes by intensifying paranoia and a sense of isolation; and he was contemptuous of the consequent way the appetites of Jewish extremists were fed. Like Amis, Bermant deeply admired Primo Levi, but he drew from his books a quite different message: "that we are not, and never were, constantly surrounded by enemies, and that the world is, on the whole, a rather benign and attractive place. (To which I would add that, even if it isn't, I can't, offhand, think of a better one.)"

In other controversies, he was on the wrong side, as official Jewish opinion saw it. He again showed his great moral courage by opposing the War Crimes Bill, correctly predicting that no good would come of it. And with still greater bravery and eloquence, he called the idea of a "Holocaust denial law", which was floated some years ago (when it was all too characteristically granted Tony Blair's wan approval), "abominable in principle and unattainable in practice . . . America has no such laws because its constitution would not permit it, and Britain has none because its traditions would not permit it." This was a tremendous polemical performance, written by someone who actually believed in justice and freedom rather than mouthing those names as platitudes.

To my regret, I met Bermant only a few times, the last at a dinner three years ago where I was speaking in my occasional role as an honorary Jew. "Here comes the most hated man in Anglo-Jewry," someone said as he joined us. This was a touch of ethnic irony: so far from that, he was revered and even loved. When Levi died, Bermant said of his books that "one not only feels a better man for reading them, one feels a better Jew". I have felt much better for reading Chaim Bermant again. He was badly needed.