JN meets Jonathan Goldstein: ‘Let’s stop ourselves being dragged into a culture war’

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JN meets Jonathan Goldstein: ‘Let’s stop ourselves being dragged into a culture war’

The outgoing head of the JLC wants his chairmanship to be remembered as a time when UK Jews found their voice, as he warns against conflict with the Muslim community and BBC

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Jonathan Goldstein, photo credit: Grainge Photography
Jonathan Goldstein, photo credit: Grainge Photography

Jonathan Goldstein has used his landmark final interview as chair of the Jewish Leadership Council to urge the community to avoid being “dragged into a culture war” over relations with the Muslim community and confrontation with the BBC.

Speaking to Jewish News one day before his near five-year stint at the helm of the umbrella organisation was due to end, he made an impassioned plea for British Jews to recognise that “we are a vibrant community” who had “found their voice” during the fight against the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party.

The Ilford-born 55-year-old made clear that he did not want use this opportunity to address the community just to dwell on his achievements and regrets since taking up the JLC role in 2017, where he succeeded Sir Mick Davis.

“It would be easy for me to say the fight against Corbyn or fundraising during the pandemic,” he said, recalling the successes of his past five years. “But for me the greatest achievement has been that we have broadened the understanding within the community of what the organisation really does and how it represents what the community thinks.

“When I announced my resignation I got notes from people all over the country saying they understood what the JLC stood for. They really appreciated the work the JLC was doing – for me that was the most important thing.

Jonathan Goldstein addresses the large crowd in Parliament Square at the #EnoughIsEnough demo
Credit Marc Morris

“When I look at people around the JLC table – the head of The Fed in Manchester or the chair of Jewish Care, Chai Cancer, all the various synagogue movements – these are the people that understand their constituencies, that know their communities.”

Goldstein wanted his chairmanship to be remembered as a time when the Jewish community in this country “found its voice”.

Recalling the battle against the Corbyn-led Labour Party, he says: “During that time in 2018 people were saying to me, ‘What if he becomes PM – you’ve upset him? But my answer was, ‘We have found our voice, we have a point of view.’ I think this notion that the Jewish community doesn’t feel comfortable to voice its view in 2022 in Britain is a nonsense.”

Jonathan Goldstein addressing Limmud Festival 2018

It is here that Goldstein returns to the comments made by JNF UK chair Samuel Hayek last month and the “risible” suggestion that Jews had “no future” in this country as a result of Muslim immigration.

He continues: “I do not deny there are pockets of antisemitism within the Muslim community. This is an issue we have to deal with. Radical Islam is a global issue and it has not escaped Britain or other places in Europe.

“But to draw the conclusion in a simplistic, frankly racist way that because of the growth of the Muslim community there is no future for Jews – it is an example of intolerance and of polarisation. The Muslim community should not accept it.”

He recalls his time spent in Dubai in December 2020 as he continued to say kaddish for his father Jerry. One day he said the mourners’ prayer in a heavily Muslim community. Jews living in the area told Goldstein they had never felt safer practising their religion.

Jonathan Goldstein at 10 Downing Street in his role as chair of the Jewish  Leadership Council. He steps down this week

“So why are we now trying to taint the entire Muslim community?” he says angrily, of Hayek’s attempt to portray Islam as a religion steeped in violence,.

Goldstein says that in the aftermath of last month’s outcry over Hayek’s remarks – which have been condemned by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Community Security Trust, the Board of Deputies and others – he was “disappointed” the trustees of JNF UK have not fully distanced themselves from the comments.

In a further criticism of some of these trustees he says: “You cannot at the same time be an advocate and a fighter against antisemitism if at the same time you are protecting racist voices within your own organisation.

“Those two issues are incompatible. This is not an appropriate way to conduct yourself.”

Goldstein is also unimpressed at attempts by some organisations to label the BBC as “institutionally antisemitic” after what he describes as the “shameful” attack on a group of Jews aboard a bus in Oxford Street, which had been followed by a report on the channel’s website that was quite clearly “wrong”.

“We must not let our community be dragged into a culture war,” he reasons. “Be that a culture war against the Muslim community or be that a culture war against the BBC.”

to draw the conclusion in a simplistic, frankly racist way that because of the growth of the Muslim community there is no future for Jews – it is an example of intolerance and of polarisation. The Muslim community should not accept it

He points to the decision by the American Simon Wiesenthal Centre to declare the three most dangerous global antisemitic institutions as being Hamas, Iran – and the BBC.

“Frankly it’s laughable,” says Goldstein. “It’s a nonsense. Let’s just look at the Chanukah bus incident. I have no doubt the reporting of that event was wrong and that the incident itself was shameful. But the notion that this makes the BBC News institutionally antisemitic and which plays into a wider political game is dangerous. This is the same organisation that three months ago we were lauding for dramatising Ridley Road.

Dozens of people attended Monday’s protest outside BBC New Broadcasting House (Photo: Campaign Against Antisemitism)

“The BBC do a raft of Jewish-centred programmes. The Panorama report into Labour and Corbyn. Nobody was prepared to take on board that argument until John Ware convinced the BBC to do it. Credit to him and credit to them.

“The Windermere Children dramatisation, the many real-life Jewish and Holocaust related life stories uncovered… this is not an institutionally antisemitic institution. It has issues: its reporting on Israel and the Middle East has been problematic for decades. No one disputes that. But let’s not allow the entire community to be dragged into a culture war over it.”

For many, the photograph of Goldstein proudly and defiantly addressing the large group of Jews, and allies from outside the community who had gathered in Parliament Square for the Enough Is Enough demonstration against Jeremy Corbyn, which he played the central role in organising, will forever be the most memorable achievement at the JLC.

We must not let our community be dragged into a culture war. Be that a culture war against the Muslim community or be that a culture war against the BBC

“It was hard, it was constant,” he says of 2017 and 2018 when the fight against Corbyn exploded. “Early after the Enough Is Enough campaign for about two months people in my business didn’t see me,” he adds. “ I called them all into a conference room and said ‘You need to understand why I am doing this – why it was so important’. It was all-consuming.”

Goldstein is CEO of investment firm Cain International, who among several high-profile deals bought the dining chain Prezzo last year.

He says he looks back with pride at the collaboration between himself, Jonathan Arkush followed by Marie van Der Zyl at the Board, and with Mark Gardner and Gerald Ronson at the CST. “I think we moved as a pack,” he says of those difficult days.

He says he no longer holds a grudge against current Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – even though he served in the Corbyn cabinet.

“If you look at the Labour Party, the pre-2019 environment was challenging, and the role Keir Starmer played in that was open to debate,” he observes. “But no one can criticise the actions he has taken since he became leader of the party. From a leadership perpective you have to commend the work he has done. There is still a long way to go but we have to acknowledge he is on the right road.

Labour leader SirKeir Starmer welcomes Louise Ellman to the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

“I don’t see the benefit or value in throwing back to him maybe mistakes he made prior to 2019 if we don’t apply the same process to politicians right across the political spectrum.”

Friends say Goldstein could even be close to considering supporting Labour once more, having quit the party over concerns about Ed Miliband’s leadership over a decade ago.

It is fair to say he had privately expressed doubts over Boris Johnson’s ability to lead the Conservative Party from the start – but he still openly praises the current cabinet as being perhaps the most understanding and friends to the Jewish community as any in his lifetime. Goldstein said a recent JLC meeting with foreign secretary Liz Truss was a big success.

Asked to look back on his time as JLC chair Goldstein recalls how early meetings with Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner of the Reform movement along with “inspirational” conversations with the progressive rabbi Julia Neuberger taught him at an early stage that the communal organisation must be a “broad church” and that he needed to develop relations outside the United Synagogue-dominated world he had grown up in.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

“I’ve developed relations which I didn’t have before, I’ve embrace that inclusiveness,” he says of his time at the JLC. “I speak for the middle ground. I don’t want to see us as an organisation, as a community becoming wrapped in other people’s arguments that don’t serve our community.

“We are a vibrant community –from education to welfare from social to sport to culture – let’s focus on the positive.”

Goldstein also takes up the issue of what he sees as an obsession, both in some organisations, and at times within the Jewish media with an “antisemitism narrative that becomes self-fulfilling”. He stresses he would never seek to downplay the seriousness of the antisemitism threat, but says that thankfully we now have organisations such as CST who are well-equipped and well-trained to look after us.

Goldstein recalls darker times, such as the build-up to the 1979 general election, when his school Ilford County High was opened up to host a rally by the far-right National Front. And how he was attacked sometime afterwards after a school sports event elsewhere in Essex.

“There has always been levels of antisemtism – for 2,000 years there has been antisemtism,” he says. “But we are in a better position in this community today than we have ever been because we have found our voice. Those naysayers who argue otherwise are simply wrong.”

He speaks proudly of the younger generation of Jews – and the involvement of many in student politics across Britain’s universities.

Regrets? As he leaves the JLC, to spend more time on his business pursuits and with his family, Goldstein says: “I would have liked to have seen more collaboration, more inclusiveness.

“I don’t believe anyone should believe they’ve done a job perfectly. I certainly haven’t. I’ve made mistakes. But I’m also very glad I’ve started debates.”

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