The Jewish Chronicle on sale in Westminster in 1966. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Artillery Row

Britain needs the Jewish Chronicle

The JC is halfway between a shul and a shvitz

At the onset of the coronavirus isolation, I dropped a line to Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, offering to become his Samuel Pepys for the duration of the Great Plague. The offer was accepted on the nod, no terms discussed. Stephen is a brilliant journalist who brings out a compelling paper, week after week, on maybe one shoestring but certainly not a pair.

 News today that the paper has been put into liquidation and its staff laid off is utterly devastating – not just for the JC and the community it reports but for journalism in Britain and the state of the body politic. This week’s issue contained a front-page Passover greeting from the new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, begging forgiveness for his party’s era of anti-Semitism. Where else could Sir Keir turn to make that turnaround if he wants to be sincere?

We have form, the JC and I. The paper had a long-serving star columnist, Chaim Bermant, a bearded Latvian who laid freely into the many diversities of Anglo-Jewry, from its Liberal wing, which made up Jewish tradition as it went along, to its ultra-orthodox, which did pretty much the same but pretended it had come from God on Mount Sinai. Chaim was the paper’s poster-boy, acidulous and funny. When he died suddenly in 1998, the JC scrabbled around for replacements, selecting the BBC producer Adam Raphael, the lifestyle columnist John Diamond, and myself.

Both Adam and John died early of cancer, leaving me feeling a bit exposed, and under all sorts of pressures. My career was taking off in other directions and my daughters kept complaining of being asked ‘doesn’t your Dad write for the JC?’ Soon after the turn of the century, it was time to move on.

Where else could Sir Keir Starmer ask for forgiveness from Britain’s Jews?

But just as being Jewish is not washed away by baptism in another faith, so writing for the JC stays on as a bug in your system, waiting to come out at a moment of vulnerability. So returning lately to the JC as its Covid columnist was like gefilte-fish plunging into red horseradish, or matza-balls being retached to their paternal matza (it’s a Marilyn Monroe joke, geddit). I was writing for people I knew, for Jews in distress, keeping them from dying of morosis, a condition I just made up.

You see, the JC is not just ‘the organ of Anglo-Jewry’ as it proclaimed on its masthead when I was a boy. It’s a place of disputation, irreverence and a degree of fun, halfway between a shul (synagogue) and a shvitz (steambath). I can’t even think about the JC without slipping into the vernacular.

And it’s a place of importance. My favourite front page is the one devoted to the funeral of Theodor Herzl, a July day in 1904 when Vienna was overwhelmed by Eastern Jews in black hats and gabardine coats, come to mourn their secular saviour, the founder of political Zionism. The JC was instrumental in spreading Herzl’s message, campaigning for the Balfour declaration that established a Jewish state in Palestine and raising support for it in the war of independence. Internally, the JC reported religious divisions without fear, albeit with pronounced favour on behalf of one beleaguered rabbi or other, especially in the notorious Jacobs Affair which I will not elaborate further out of concern for legal writs and excommunication.

Without the JC, Anglo-Jewry would be dependent for Friday-night information on the extremist religious sheet Hamodia, which refuses to publish a woman’s picture (bit of a problem when Mrs May was PM) and similar closed minds. Without it, there will be no space for ideas in Anglo-Jewry.

Don’t think this is unimportant. Stephen Pollard’s JC kept an open forum on Brexit and held Labour’s feet to the fire on anti-Semitism long before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader. It reported left-wing campus anti-Semitism that affected Jewish students up and down the country to the point where certain universities were branded unsafe. No education correspondent in any national newspaper took note of this alarming trend.

There has been a pledge from the board to continue publishing the paper for the next 2-3 weeks until some interim solution can be patched together. The JC is not the only British newspaper that will face insolvency in the weeks ahead and much will need to be done to protect our free speech.

My guess is that a few communal leaders will offer a limited bailout and that a more lasting deal will be constructed over lunch, once the kosher restaurants reopen. There’s a very nice place on Haverstock Hill that I can recommend. The phone booth outside was smeared with a red Star of David one December night by assailants who were never caught. The JC was on their case. We need it to survive, among other reasons, as a monitor of the nation’s mental health.

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