In recent weeks I’ve given interviews to British, Israeli and even German newspapers on the subject of the fate of the Jewish Chronicle. Naturally I have been careful to declare a number of interests.
It was for the Jewish Chronicle that from 2002 until 2016 I wrote the paper’s weekly anchor comment column. I never missed a deadline. Besides filing these columns I wrote others for the paper, including book reviews and obituaries. Then I should add that as part of my academic research I have actually read every edition of the JC, from its very first in 1841. I still resort to its invaluable online searchable archive to check this fact or that.
In common with many other newspapers the JC has been struggling financially in recent years. In 2018 it posted a loss of around £1.5 million. Its immediate future appeared to have been secured by donations from (as the Financial Times unhelpfully put it) “unnamed individuals,” but evidently this was not enough to save it from virtual bankruptcy, and over the recent Passover holiday we learned that it had filed for something called “a creditors’ voluntary liquidation.”
This news triggered a series of the most touching displays of nostalgia and regret. The JC’s apparent death-throes were mourned on the right of the political spectrum, but also on the left. In the Spectator, Stephen Daisley declared that the JC was not merely “a Jewish institution … it is also a British institution… the JC is too important for this to be the end and Jews and Gentiles alike have a stake in preventing its disappearance.” Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland (also, like me, a JC contributor) told JC readers “More than any other institution, the JC is the place where we meet. For years, it called itself “the organ of British Jewry.” It is … our beating heart. We are not a community without it.”
The JC has indeed chronicled the life of British Jewry over the past 180 years. But it has done so in a biased and partial manner, less concerned with the reporting of communal truths than with the preservation of communal image. For example, it took an intentionally hostile view of the writer Amy Levy, whose sensational novel Reuben Sachs (1888) had lifted the lid on the undisguised nepotism and the deep, irreverent materialism of the Jewish middle classes in London in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The novel told the truth, and was for that very reason was condemned in and by the JC. Deeply depressed, Levy (a friend of Oscar Wilde) committed suicide the following year.
The JC’s overblown ultra-patriotism during the First World War meant that it had little if any sympathy for those British-born Jewish men (they happened to include my maternal grandfather) who resisted conscription because they naturally objected to laying down their lives to preserve Britain’s ally, antisemitic Tsarist Russia.
Turning to more recent time, Geoffrey Paul (editor 1977-90) was too overawed by United Synagogue chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits to expose him for the liar that he privately (in my presence) acknowledged him to be. Paul [real name Geoffrey Goldberg] refused to report the comprehensive repudiation of Jakobovits’s authority by a range of UK-based orthodox groupings at the time of the great shechita controversy in 1988, triggered by an attempt by the then Farm Animal Welfare Council to have shechita banned. In order to find out what was going on, one had to read the New-York based Jewish Press, which naturally had no such inhibition.
In August 1990 a communal scandal arose over the conviction of Golders-Green-based orthodox paedophile Sidney Greenbaum, who pleaded guilty in open court to three charges of indecent assault on young boys. Greenbaum was not only Quain Professor of English Language at University College London. He was also an alumnus of Jews’ College and has assisted in the English translation of a new edition of the Singer’s Prayer Book.
The Chronicle maintained an obstinate silence on this entire episode. I should add that when Greenbaum died, in 1996, his carefully crafted JC obituary [14 June 1996, at page 25] naturally made no mention of his criminal record. “He resigned [the Quain chair] in 1990 to devote more time to his writings,” the obituary ran. In fact – as the JC well knew - he was forced to resign; had he not done so, the University of London would have publicly stripped him of his professorial title.
Geoffrey Paul Goldberg was succeeded by Ned Temko, who appointed me the JC’s lead columnist in 2002 but with whom I had actually had a turbulent relationship. This had culminated, in 1997, in my publishing (in "Judaism Today") an exposé of the manner in which he'd handled the leaking of the now notorious Hebrew letter that United Synagogue chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks had written to Dayan Chenoch Padwa, Av Beis Din [Head of the Ecclesiastical Court] of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, justifying his (Sacks') decision to speak at a public meeting called to eulogise deceased Reform rabbi and Auschwitz survivor Hugo Gryn.
In the JC of 14 March 1997 Temko had published a translation of that letter, merely omitting (he claimed) "three passages of a personal nature which are not central to its meaning." I counted seventeen omissions. Whilst some were certainly just quotations of biblical text, others were in fact of pivotal significance. In my "Judaism Today" article I highlighted these omissions and provided translations of the most heinous of them.
I ceased filing my weekly JC column in 2016, but continued contributing occasionally until, late last year, current JC editor Stephen Pollard suddenly and without warning banned me from appearing again on its pages. I remain at a genuine loss to understand this decision. Mr Pollard has never explained to me why he took it.
It now appears that after an almighty financial kerfuffle a much-moneyed consortium (entitled “JC Acquisition Ltd”) has saved the JC from oblivion. The JC has alluded to this consortium, but has named only some of its members. Why?
I want it to be clearly understood that I would have mourned the passing of this once great newspaper. I look forward to writing for it again when all the dust has settled. But it must learn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – no matter who is offended in the process.