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A Loyal Brit and A Proud Jew

Matthew GouldFilmed at JDOV Live with the JC and JW3

In this talk, Matthew Gould tells us what he has learned about being a 'British Jew' from his life as a diplomat. During his time as the UK Ambassador to Israel his Jewishness and Jewish values and beliefs became a real issue for some people. However, whilst he believes the age old accusation of “dual loyalties” is still alive and well, Matthew himself is clear that we can be at the same time 100% proudly British and 100% proudly Jewish.  We should not let anyone else define for us what it means to be patriotic and what it means to be Jewish.

Matthew Gould, formerly the UK’s ambassador to Israel, is now the Director General for Digital and Media Policy at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. His goal is to make Britain the most connected, internet-enable, tech-friendly, innovation-driven, digital-skilled, cyber-secure country in the world.

So, before I joined the Foreign Office, which is shockingly twenty years ago, my friends and family queued up to tell me, “why are you doing that? It’s a nest of anti-Semites”. And I have to say I found the precise opposite, to the point where one distinguished colleague who happened to be Jewish retired and sent a note round, a valedictory note to say how proud he had been to work for an organisation where nobody made anything of the fact he was Jewish. Many of our colleagues were offended that he might have even thought it should be an issue. What I want to do today is whisk you through my diplomatic career, talk about what it meant to be Jewish in a number of places and perhaps at the end draw a conclusion about what I learn from this, about being a British Jew. My first posting was in the Philippines, where there was, to be honest, limited Jewish content. There were 30 Jewish families and in classic tradition there were two synagogues. I don’t know why there were two. Then I was in Pakistan where to be honest there was no Jewish content at all, where it is the only posting I’ve been where at times I was genuinely scared, where I thought making a big song and dance about being Jewish probably wasn’t a wise move. Then I went from one Islamic republic to another and went to be Deputy Ambassador in Iran and there I hadn’t thought about announcing my Judaism but they listen to all our phone calls and one day my brother rang up and said are you going to your nephews Bar Mitzvah and I thought and at this point they’ve probably worked it out and there I did speak about being Jewish and did go to shul, I became quite proud of the fact I was Jewish and spoke to the community and it became part of my posting. And then there was Israel and for the first 15 years of my time in the Foreign Office I was ruled out going to Israel, I always thought it would be too difficult, the complexity of trying to navigate being British, being Jewish, being in Israel. It would all be too much and too painful. And then I thought long and hard about it and I realised actually it was time somebody did try it and I wanted to and so in the normal Foreign Office way I did a manifesto for the board of the Foreign Office who was going to decide the job about what I would do on the job. And then I decided to do another page, which was, and I am Jewish and this will be an issue and here are some good things and here are some dangers and you, the board of the Foreign Office, shouldn’t pretend that it’s not an issue, you should think about it and make sure that you are happy sending me, and they did and they sent me and how was it? Well the truth is to begin with it was actually rather tough, there were two groups who were I mean genuinely rather enraged by my appointment. One was the group of really hard right supporters of Israel, principally it has to be said in the US, and I got an early taste of this when I gave an initial interview to the Jerusalem Post, before I took on my posting and to be honest it was the blandest of bland interviews I said nothing remotely controversial. And imagine my surprise, a couple of days later I looked on the website and foolishly looked at the talk backs under the interviews and found 50 of which only two were moderately friendly, from my mother, in fact I think only one was from my mother and the rest were frankly filled with virulent abuse, “You’re going to be a court Jew”, “You’ve been sent to Israel to lie for your Queen”. I mean a screed of really unpleasant stuff and one thing which continued to be an issue in the talk backs, continued to be a little point of insult from that corner, which was little comments about my own Judaism and my wife’s Judaism and my children’s Judaism and that really hurt. And then on the other side among the sworn enemies of Israel my appointment got them quite excited as well and it wasn’t long before the conspiracy theories started, before people started coming up with ideas about how I might be working for the government of Israel, how I might be serving dual masters, the old accusation of dual loyalty, didn’t take long to rear its head and it became quite unpleasant. There were questions in parliament with unpleasant insinuations, there were endless Freedom of Information requests asking me who I met at this meeting, at that meeting and what I was doing here and what I was doing there. And I think if you spoke to my wife she would tell you that there was a period in my first year, probably about six months when I became quite depressed because every time I opened an email I didn’t know if it was going to be another insinuation another parliamentary question, another Freedom of Information request designed to trip me up and prove that I was disloyal. And then three things happened, firstly in Parliament, one particular member stood up and explicitly said that the British Ambassador to Israel, the Jewish British Ambassador to Israel was working in the interests of the government of Israel and that it had been a mistake to appoint someone who was Jewish and they should have appointed someone of more British background. And actually, he did me a favour, because it made explicit a lot of what had been implicit, and at that point a series of people from the government and from the opposition stood up and defended me and at that point and after that time that felt extremely welcome and then in Israel itself I found from the most dovish on the left to the most hard lined on the right, Israelis themselves willing to take me for who I was, not to make remarks about my Judaism, not to misunderstand what I was there for and who I was there for and then third, I found here something I hadn’t expected, which is a Jewish community that gave me enormous support. That gave me support in spirit, that gave me support in material ways for the things that I was trying to achieve and that meant the world to me to know I had the community at my back. And the truth was I started in Israel diffident and nervous because I knew I was dancing through rain drops but over time I grew increasingly confident about my identity and increasingly clear about my position and I spent five years in Israel thinking about what it means to be Jewish, about what it means to be British and if I have one message, and it’s a message that if I go to speak in shul I try and find the youth service and give this message, if I have a message it is this: that it is perfectly possible to be at the same time 100% proudly British and 100% proudly Jewish, to be completely loyal to the UK and to love Israel. It is perfectly possible to live a fulfilled Jewish life living in the UK and I believe after my time in Israel profoundly, we cannot let anyone try to define for us what it means to be British. We can’t let anyone try and define for us what it means to be Jewish and we need the confidence when people tell us, “well you can’t be British and Jewish and proudly loyal to Britain and love Israel”, we need to have the confidence to tell them to “get stuffed” and if they have a problem with us then it’s their problem, not our problem. When I left Israel there was a headline, an article in Haaretz and almost more than anything I did professionally there it gave me a moment of pride and the headline was this: “Outgoing UK Envoy in Israel Leaves Legacy of Quashing Dual Loyalty Claims”. Now I wish that were true. I wish it was the case that they’re quashed, I don’t believe for a minute they are, I think they are pernicious and I think they will endure. But, to go back to where I started, in fact to go back to before I started, before I joined the Foreign Office, not to the 22 year old me but the 14 year old me, I remember being very nervous, very mixed up about what it meant to be British and Jewish, to be a minority in this country, to hold those different identities in one head and I think if I achieved nothing else in Israel, if I helped anyone be sure they can be proudly British and Jewish at the same time, if I gave myself the confidence to pass on to my daughters, British Jews born in Israel, that they can be proudly British and proudly Jewish, then it would have been time well spent. Thank you.

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