The NS Interview: Julia Neuberger, rabbi and Lib Dem peer

“I have been shocked to see people spit at Muslims”

Did you always want to be a rabbi?
I went to university to read Assyriology. I was refused entry to Iraq because I was Jewish and then to Turkey because I was British. My future in ancient Assyrian archaeology wasn't up to much! So I decided I'd study Hebrew for the second part of my degree. My teacher said: "You should think about becoming a rabbi." I said: "Come on, I'm not particularly religious."

Would you say you are very religious now?
Yes. I don't think that being religious necessarily means that you are orthodox. Most of my thinking about issues that many people would regard as political is deeply founded in my religious beliefs. I believe that we were created in order to make the world a better place.

What prompted your move into politics?
If there is a duty for you to be involved in your community and your society, I don't really see that there's a distinction between religion and politics. My kind of religiosity isn't about sitting silently in contemplation.

Do you think that the Lib Dems were right to go into coalition?
I don't think that there was an alternative. The public like it - they're quite keen to see parties working together.

So you don't think that Nick Clegg and other Lib Dems have betrayed their principles?
I do not think that our MPs have in any sense betrayed their principles. What happens in a coalition is that you negotiate. There are going to be things that some people don't like, whatever happens.

You were "volunteering champion" for Gordon Brown. What do you think of the "big society"?
I want to see it spelled out. I want to know what it is! There is real mileage in thinking through our obligations to each other as citizens. The problem is, if you make people volunteer, it isn't volunteering.

Does the House of Lords need reform?
Yes. My party believes that everybody should be elected. I'm not wholly in sympathy with that. I think we need some kind of compromise, where some are elected and some are appointed for their expertise. And I don't think people should be there for life.

What inspired your work with refugees?
My mother came to this country as a refugee. We have a small family charity for young refugees and asylum seekers and I feel passionately about that. It's probably part of my DNA.

You were one of the first female rabbis to lead a congregation in Britain. Was that difficult?
When you're a woman doing things early, what you need is for people to say: "Who cares? Can she do the job?" That was the congregation's attitude. They were completely relaxed about whether their rabbi was male, female - or indeterminate.

Are you aware of anti-Semitism in the UK?
It's much stronger in eastern Europe. Is it a big issue in the UK? I don't think it is. It's often overplayed and people are oversensitive. A lot of what comes out as anti-Semitism is actually anti-Israel feeling.

What about Islamophobia?
Many Muslims have a much tougher time than Jews do. Where I live in London is not far from the Regent's Park mosque. When there has been a terrorist outrage, I have been shocked to see people spit at Muslims.

How would you like to be remembered?
As a social campaigner and reformer, like my grandmother. If I had to choose one thing, it would be trying to make things better for the disadvantaged, whoever they might be.

Who are your heroes?
Going back in history, people such as Elizabeth Fry, who was a tremendous prison campaigner. Now, Shirley Williams is someone I admire hugely. She sticks to her guns. I don't always agree with her, but I think she's fantastic. I admire people who get stuck in and try to do something about what they believe in.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
All sorts of things. You can't go through life without upsetting people. What I regret is when I've upset people unnecessarily and not gone back and apologised. I try to, but I don't always succeed.

Was there a plan?
No, of course I didn't plan. I wanted to be an archaeologist! I think that it's probably been more interesting, if less scholarly, this way.

Do you vote?
In the Lib Dems, you never get away from voting - we're always voting for people to be on committees. But I can't vote in the general election because I'm in the House of Lords.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely not! Not only are we not doomed, we've got a bloody great responsibility to turn things around when we feel as if we are.

Defining moments

1950 Born in London
1977 Ordained as a rabbi
1994 Made chancellor, University of Ulster
1995 Publishes On Being Jewish
1997 Becomes CEO of the King's Fund
2004 Enters House of Lords as a life peer
2007 Takes on the role of "volunteering champion" for the Brown government
2008 Becomes chair of the advisory group for refugee issues at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund
2008 Publishes A Manifesto for Old Age


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Congo