BBC broadcaster Nick Robinson spoke at Reform Judaism’s annual fundraising dinner on 18 October.
Here is a transcript of his speech which followed an introduction by Richard Klein.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Richard… Some of that is true. Not a lot, but some of it is true. The thing that Richard I thought would say is that he has in fact spent every one of the 34 years since I first met him at Oxford University trying to claim me for the faith. Ever since I first met him when he was at Mansfield College Oxford and I was at University College Oxford and he explained to me that I really was a halachic Jew. I didn’t know what a halachic Jew was, but he explained, as you will hear, that apparently I am.
I realised that in a sense this appearance here is the culmination of a one man quest to claim me for the faith and I realised clearly when I was handed my yarmulke … could you get a more bright version than that? The lime green yarmulke gave it away. And the consequences of knowing Richard is that in recent years … when I am a little bit better known than I was when we first met, I am working my way through speech after speech of an alphabet soup of Jewish organisations which Richard supports. Next up, the United Restitution Organisation and we end apparently with the World Jewish Relief…unless someone here knows of an organisation that begins with a ‘Z’ because I would be speaking to them as well, if Richard was one of their donors.
This can have curious consequences, not that long ago I was the guest speaker at a Jewish Care launch, there were 1500 people, I was feeling rather ropey, I was rather pleased with the speech, people laughed at my jokes, it went well. Richard said well what are you doing tomorrow? Are you having a rest? And I said I’m talking to a big property industry lunch; I’m not even doing it for money, I’m doing it for charity and I remember the faintest quiver on Richard’s forehead when I said that: property industry lunch. It was only as I was queuing for the gents just before giving my speech when a whole series of people said “We loved your speech yesterday. Are you giving the same speech today?” Which of course I was! Word for word. And I locked myself in a cubicle scribbling out all the jokes they heard the day before in a desperate attempt to think of something new to say.
I blame Richard for the fact I was outed by the Jewish Chronicle. The paper, as you may recall from memory, referred to David Beckham as 27% Jewish. I was briefly shown on the front page when it was discovered that I was as Richard said a halachic Jew. The next day I had a phone call with the most cod Jewish accent I have ever had and it began with ‘Oy vey’. It went on with ‘alright already’. It was only about a minute and a half I said that’s Michael Levy isn’t it? Which it was: the Lord Levy welcoming me to the tribe.
But, in truth, I’m here really because I want to support, I want to applaud the work of the Movement for Reform Judaism and I want to applaud the work of a woman I’ve got to know a little since I’ve been at the Today programme when she has come in for ‘Thought for the Day’, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and I want to do it because the older I get the more I want to know what my Jewish heritage is… because you think about it.
Just to explain for people who, unlike Richard, don’t know me, my grandparents, my mother’s parents, were German Jewish refugees. The truth is I didn’t know that. They had lived abroad; they had a funny accent when I was a child. It was only as I scanned the book shelves in their apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland and saw the endless books about the Holocaust and what had caused it and, as an increasingly political young man, began to ask questions. That these secular Jews, these lucky Jews as they would have considered themselves, they got out very early in 1933 really.
They had become prosperous, living in the Far East, that I understood a little bit about my Jewish heritage. It was only when my grandfather told me a story of when in 1933 deciding that he had to understand what these Nazis were about and taking his wife to the Tiergarten in Berlin to a Nazi rally, possibly not the best idea if your name’s Rosenberg but he did, so he understood for himself and they took the decision to leave.
It was not until my grandmother told me the story of smuggling as much money out of the country as she could, sewn into a hanger, one of those old-fashioned hangers that were padded, all the cash they could get, the marks they could get. She sat next to someone who she said was her lovely man in the SS she regarded as her hot water bottle, my grandmother sat on that journey going to Italy for hour after hour realising that one wrong word could mean not just the end of the money but the end of them. And I remember looking at a letter that I found after my grandparents died, a letter written to my grandfather who was a doctor, from a patient, and the patient said “I hope you will understand Dr Rosenberg that I can no longer come through the front door. If I may I will continue to come to see you, I will come to the back door instead”. It was at that moment, that moment above all, that I began to understand why the Holocaust could have happened. A man who believed that a Jew could save his life, but he couldn’t even go through the front door to defend the life of the man who was caring for him and trying to maintain his health.
I think now of course, we all think again now, when we see the Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville and a President who is incapable of denouncing them, we think again now when we see the rise of Le Pen, we see it now when we see the rise of the AfD in Germany, we see it now in Austria too … although their new Chancellor went out of his way to denounce anti-Semitism, it was one of the first acts that he did after election. We all see it when we hear the fringe views at the Labour Conference; the question was asked … Holocaust – Yes or No? What sort of question is that ladies and gentlemen? We hear it when we know that Ken Livingstone has accused Zionists of working hand in hand with Hitler, the worst insult that you could ever make.
I think of it when I saw the film Denial, one of my friends, when we were young, was a solicitor in that case, the Holocaust denial case against David Irving, and watching the movie now, you realise the naivety of the view, there were several who did … that facts alone would win …. That if only one court case proved the Holocaust happened, that would be it, it would be over. We all know the argument will never ever be over. It is for people in this room and people elsewhere to always remember, to always fight for the truth.
But I want to say that we should react to that, not just with facts, not just with facts, not just with an emotion like anger, but with a full range of emotions, with empathy and, yes, ladies and gentlemen, with humour as well, one of the great gifts to the Jewish people. I think if Ken Livingstone as a man suffering from sort of Hitler Tourette’s, like he can’t speak without the name parting his lips … much more powerful I think than entering the debate about what exactly happened in the 1930s in the view of some fairly deluded historians.
But I want to say something that will be even less easily popular in the room if you will forgive me, but I do think it would be a mistake for people in this community, for people like me who sympathise so much with this, to play a sort of … forgive me for putting it in this way … a sort of moral top trumps. Many of you may not have seen, but my daughter showed me yesterday after I told her that I had just been the Holocaust Education Trust dinner, a charity which I do quite a bit of work each year, a sort of quite bad taste and yet very funny video which I encourage you to watch on YouTube … a tune from an American TV sitcom called the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend called Remember That We Suffered. The scene is a party, a Jewish wedding; great fun is being had, and the words go ‘Now is the time to celebrate, grab a drink and fix a plate, but before you feel too great, remember that we suffered.’ And there’s a serious point being made in that. The serious point is that we should all have fun; yes we should insist that other people have fun, but it should not become part of something with which other people are beaten over the head.
I was struck by a very powerful report done by the CST and the Institute of Jewish Policy Research into the extent of anti-Semitism in this country, many people will have seen it in headlines. On the one hand, it began in a truly shocking way, given a whole series of attitudes with which you could agree, anti-Semitic attitudes, 30% of people in this country agreed with at least one of them, but the report was very careful to go on, and I urge you to read its summary if you don’t read it all, that that did not mean 30% of people in Britain are anti-Semites. Indeed, it went on to argue that Britain was one of the least anti-Semitic countries in the world. Indeed, it went on to compare the number of people prepared to contemplate violence in defence of their religious views … to different groups. So, on the one hand, the shocking figure, 1% of people believe that violence was often justifiable against Jews, in defence of their religious or political views, 3% said sometimes… but then the next question, how many people would consider it against Muslims? Twice as many. How many people would consider it against immigrants, whatever their background? Twice as many. And it made me realise that, for me, the reason that I want to continue doing work with the community which I feel a part of like the Holocaust Educational Trust, is because the truth about the Holocaust for me is that it was not just an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, it wasn’t about the Nazis and fascists and uniforms and the military, it wasn’t even about racism, it was about the capacity for ordinary people to blame their problems on somebody else, it was about the ability of people to treat others, not as individuals, but as part of a group. It was about the ability to treat that group not as human beings, but as the other, sub-human, worse than animals, and it was about the capacity of many, many others to watch and do nothing as that man who wrote my grandfather a letter had done.
So the right response, in my view, and forgive me, it is easy for me to come here and say this, I don’t have to have security officers outside every event I go to, or outside my shul or synagogue so forgive me for saying this, but I nevertheless will if you allow me to do so, I think my response is not to feel besieged, it is to see that I’m aware that a hatred, a mistrust, is a modern phenomenon that affects many, many, many people way beyond the Jewish community, to ask ourselves, as I think Rabbi Laura often does, as I think this Movement often does, what are we doing, what can we do, to reach out to others? It is to ask, as the Booker Prize winner today said when I interviewed him on the Today programme, to understand that we shouldn’t defend our culture, we should understand that culture involves empathy, understanding, knowledge of others, and that is why the work of the Movement that brings you here tonight, I think, is so important.
I have one last thing to say which is about the BBC, just finally. The reason I wanted to be a journalist is because of my Jewish background. My grandfather who I went to visit once or twice a year would sit … he had very bad eyesight … with the most enormous Roberts radio, do you remember the sort that we used to turn those dials and that white noise would come out. As you went through you would hear the Russian radio and German and French, and he only ever … this was a man who had never lived in Britain, for whom English was a second language, he only went to one station ever, he went to the BBC … and that was when I first heard the words ‘This is London’ and I realised then that those words meant, not that the organisation was always right, but an organisation that always ‘tries’ to be right … not an organisation that doesn’t make mistakes, and I know if I had longer I would happily talk to you about it, there will be many people in this room who are infuriated, shout at their radio and television, but I say this to you rather than defending the individual bits of coverage, it’s not an organisation that doesn’t make mistakes, but an organisation that agonises about accusations of mistakes, that has meetings that last for hours, that has documents that would last for pages, that has conferences to consider how to get it more right next time … and that is why I wanted to work for the BBC.
Now I have a lot of experience, not just those that I’m sharing with you, and one of the issues that is usually controversial in this community is the coverage of terrorism … why don’t you say the word terrorism, why do you say that militant or bomber, it’s a much longer conversation than I can get into here, but the one point I wanted to make to you is simply this, that the rush to judgement and the desire to label are very attractive. I remember when I was in Finsbury Park, just down from my house, just after a car had driven over young Muslim men coming out from prayers, and I was surrounded by angry young men saying why aren’t you calling it terrorism, it’s bias from the BBC, and I said because we have to get the facts right, and I was reminded… ladies and gentlemen, I heard the other day of the ‘terrorist attack’ outside the Natural History Museum, did any of you notice that? Nigel Farage said it was a terrorist attack. Katie what’s her name, who’s got a view on everything, said it was a terrorist attack. The Daily Mail said it was a terrorist attack. The BBC did not, because it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a man who had lost control of his car. And what it has taught me is the need to take care, to not rush into judgement, to realise that facts matter.
And what I wanted to leave you with as a message, if I may, is that it seems to be that what the Movement here, that you are here to celebrate, understands that, understands that the best thing we can do is not to complain but in the way it holds itself, in the way it behaves as an organisation, in the way it works with young people who have got mental health problems, the way in which it reaches out to the Islamic community, the way it makes a statement about looking after the old and the sick, that that is the best answer to people who want to know what it means to be Jewish.
Thank you very much.