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The Uncomfortable Jew

Tim FranksFilmed at JW3 2013

“The Uncomfortable Jew” is an invitation to make yourself uneasy: Tim Franks draws on his experience as a journalist based in Jerusalem -- and his experience as a practising Jew – to explain why being between a rock and a hard place is a great place to be.

Tim Franks is a BBC News presenter, based in London: he’s the main evening host of “Newshour”, the flagship current affairs programme on BBC World Service radio, and an occasional presenter of “Hardtalk” on BBC World TV.

Until 2010, he was an award-winning foreign correspondent for the BBC. His last posting was to Jerusalem as Middle East Correspondent, following tours of duty in Europe and Washington.

He is a member of Finchley Reform Synagogue, in north London.

I am going to ask you to do something which I will find intensely discomforting. Look at me, look at me. What do you see? Pale, narrow middle-aged man with sloping shoulders? No, what you see is a walking oxymoron a Jew and a journalist. And not just any old journalist, somebody who writes for The Guardian, The Times and the Jewish Chronicle somebody who is allowed to have, maybe is paid to have opinions. Now I am a broadcast journalist, remember in this country, split a broadcast journalist down the middle and you’re supposed to have an empty vessel. But hang on, I’m a Jew, I’m a living, breathing, practising Jew, I must have views, I must take sides. Just like a Jewish friend of mine who was being vetted for a senior position at Downing Street had to sit there while the security agent clumsily trampled around the question he simply had to ask; if push came to shove and there was a conflict of interests which side would my friend be on? How uncomfortable? Well I’m going to invite you to believe this evening that being between a rock and a hard place is actually a great place to be. I’m going to talk about me but I hope I’m going to get you to think about you. I live in London now but for many years I was very lucky to be a foreign correspondent for the BBC and towards the end of my time on the road my foreign editor asked me to be the Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem and to be honest I wasn’t that keen. It was a culmination growing up, reflexively kicking against the assumption amongst friends, some family, my youth group, that of course everyone accepted that Israel was the apotheosis of Jewish self-realisation. At the same time I grew up instinctively bridling when I heard people slag off Israel the Jewish state, it wasn’t just that it was complex, I could do complex, it was also contested. I just didn’t know which way my subconscious would be taking me not just in how I treated stories but in what stories I choose to report. Would I be over-compensating and if so in which direction? So brimming with confidence, I took the posting, packing my neuroses into a medium sized shipping container and then no stunning intellectual epiphany I’m afraid, I just got fed up. I got fed up of Jews clapping me on the shoulder saying at last somebody who can get across our point of view, I got fed up at the friend from school who emailed me out the blue to say how much she could empathise with how torn I was going to be, I got fed up with the in-law, I didn’t get fed up with the in-law, I got fed up with the TV executive who wrote an in-law saying that the only reason I was appointed was and follow me on this one, was Ariel Sharon pressured Mark Thomson to get rid of Orla Guerin and appoint a Jew. I am not joking. I got fed up when I was out in Jerusalem with a senior guy from the U.N who I was at a dinner party with who announced to the assembled company that of course everybody knows that the BBC is controlled by 3 prominent Jews. I guess he didn’t realise at the time that I was Jewish just as the Roman Catholic director general Mark Thomson probably didn’t realise that he was Jewish. I got fed up of some Israelis telling me that anybody who worked for the BBC had to be dancing to the tune of Israel and bashing puppet masters in London. So the more attentive among you might have worked out that I got fed up. Fortunately, slamming my bedroom door shut for three and a half years wasn’t really an option so instead I became the most privileged type of tourist, the wandering Jew, meeting, seeing, listening and arriving at a truth about Israel and the Palestinians so gleamingly self-evident it would be utterly condescending of me to share it with you tonight. So that’s the journalism bit, what about the Jew bit? That’s also been a bumpy journey. I started off in the equivalent of United, modern orthodox, ended up in Reform, via visits to Masorti, Liberal, Reconstructionist and I feel very lucky. I am in a Shul where the Rabbi provokes, stimulates and nurtures; there are also times when I find the liturgy demands a level of concentration and commitment I can find off putting. I am also very lucky that we are in a Shul where the Chazan has a voice of an angel and no ego to match. There are also times when however beautiful the music is I can find it awkward generally because I have failed to dismantle my own prejudices about how a service should sound and that’s the key bit. We pride ourselves, we stroke ourselves on what an argumentative, intellectual, disputatious lot we Jews are. Always sticking our fingers in each other’s faces, rolling our eyes with derision, snorting, taking each other down a step or too. While I realise this is physically difficult if not downright dangerous, try doing it to yourself, the jabbing the finger and rolling the eyes. Fear, the comfortable certainty, because why are we so defensive and so tribal about the way we do Judaism and the way we do Israel? We expect progress in pretty much any other area of our lives that we care to think of,I mean take football, you see footage from 1970s of blokes labouring at just above walking pace around a muddy pitch. Tell me that’s better than football now? When the Higgs Boson particle was confirmed to exist last year, was that it for our understanding of how the universe functions? Can the final edition of the Book of Science now be published? Would generations of musicians in the 18th and 19th centuries write to ignore JS Bach as a bit of a bore? It’s ridiculous isn’t it? Yet we tell ourselves that we have a monopoly on truth when it comes to our religion, the Middle East. That the people over there in the third row or the sixth row have nothing to teach us. There is of course a danger in all this, that amid all this pendulum swinging and self-criticism it could be a recipe for inaction, that we tell ourselves that you know we are being rigorously honest but actually we are just sitting on our hands. Well that’s when I would say that the truly uncomfortable Jew doesn’t just sit on their hand, doesn’t just wait for the other side, doesn’t say let’s wait, let’s wait until the other side makes a bit more of an effort to understand us. You know? Palestinians, they’re not partners for peace. Chareidim, like Yisrael who you will hear from in a minute, bit weird. Settlers, swivelled eyed lunatics, liberals, lazy and smug. Well maybe it’s not like that, maybe if you challenge yourself over what you really believe in and then ask yourself, “ok what am I going to do about it?” One of my favourite Rabbinical tracts, I love saying that because it makes me sound so learned. One of my favourite Rabbinical tracts, unusually for Rabbinical tracts I think, is written in capitals and the reason for that is that it was a telegram. It was written by or dictated by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel a great orthodox Rabbi I have learned a little bit about courtesy of a great Reform Rabbi I know. Heschel was a scholar and a thinker but he was also a man deeply committed to action and this was his reply fifty years ago to an invitation by President Kennedy to a meeting in the White House on Civil Rights. “President John F Kennedy, I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow; 4pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration, we forfeit right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negros. Church, Synagogue have failed, they must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice, let religious leaders donate one month’s salary towards fund for negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr President declare state of moral emergency, a Marshall plan an aid to Negros is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” Amazing. A friend of mine, a Jewish educator and historian called Jeremy Leigh has given one of these talks, he was giving one of these talks a few months ago to a room full of Jews in central London and he asked them to imagine what a snapshot of them at that point would tell people in a hundred, in a thousand years time about what animated them as Jewish people in 2013? Well this hasn’t been a photo call for a snapshot but maybe it is a manifesto? Here’s to the uncomfortable Jew. Thank you very much.

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