When Lionel Blue was a young boy, his father told him he had been named Lionel because he was ‘a real “Lion of Judah” who would always stand up for our people.’ As he reveals in his autobiography, Hitchhiking to Heaven, ‘Whether our people were Brits or Jews or both together I never found out.’
It is perhaps the complexity of this question of identity that has coloured Rabbi Blue’s liberal approach to religion and politics ever since. ‘Ghettoised’ as a Jew and then as a homosexual, Lionel flirted with a seemingly alphabetical array of ideologies, from Anarchism to Zionism before settling down to a long-term relationship with Reform Judaism. Politically, he now appears to hold the deepest respect for a sensible pragmatism and, above all, the virtues of what he calls ‘an open society’.
‘I would never go back to the closed society of my childhood,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a lot of love in it, but it’s much too restricting.’ Born into a London ghetto of the 1930’s, Lionel has seen first-hand how nationalisms can galvanize a people for nefarious ends. He recalls marching against the black shirts of Oswald Mosley as a youngster with fondness, and maintains a healthy disrespect for ‘flags and passports.’ ‘There is a great difference between being patriotic and being [a] nationalist,’ he explains.
Yet Lionel also notes in his autobiography that it was the Blitz that ‘blew together’ London’s Jewish and Irish communities. Is war more unifying than peace, I ask. The Rabbi stalls for a few moments and then defers. ‘I can’t answer that question,’ he says. ‘I can only tell you about the wars I’ve known… [The Blitz] was the first time in my memory that the ghettos we all lived in had really been broken. After that I could never go back to a straightforward ghetto again… It was a very defining experience for me.’
If Lionel has spent a lifetime trying to avoid the narrowness of the ghetto, it has not always been within the context of a welcoming society outside. Just this year, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia published a report they had commissioned entitled, ‘Manifestations of anti-Semitism in the European Union’. Its findings were disturbing, showing an increase in anti-Semitic activities in EU member states since the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000.
Does Lionel agree that the current wave of anti-Semitism has been gaining oxygen from accusations made against the State of Israel? ‘Yes it has, though I’m no lover of the Israeli government and its policies,’ he says, citing the problem of Palestinian refugees by way of example. For Rabbi Blue there is also an economic dimension to anti-Semitism. ‘People are usually generous when the cake gets bigger,’ he explains, ‘So in times of prosperity, they’re not anti-Semitic.’ This makes him especially worried about the situation in Eastern Europe, where, he says, ‘although nearly all of the Jews have been killed, the anti-Jewish feeling still remains. You don’t need Jews to have anti-Semitism. In fact, the presence of Jews is inconvenient, because myths flourish better when there is no living contradiction to them.’
It occurs to me that if Jews are now being targeted because they are seen as somehow connected to the actions of the Israeli government, their victimisation is mirrored by the Islamaphobic practice of attacking ordinary Muslims following outrages committed in the name of Islam. I ask how Lionel feels about the politicisation of religion. ‘When you mix politics with religion it’s a lethal cocktail,’ he says, ‘Religion hasn’t yet learnt how to deal with power. It becomes corrupted with power.’
Is it important to him that the Prime Minister has faith? ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘But whether it will do him any good, I don’t know, because it depends on how he deals with the business of politics. On the whole, I prefer pragmatic Prime Ministers, with their own faith, who keep their politics one step away from religion.’
So, perhaps this comes down to a question of priorities. ‘Grandpa taught me not to be exclusive about Judaism,’ writes the Rabbi in his autobiography, ‘More fundamental than being a Jew was being a human being’. At a time when religious, ethnic and national conflicts are dominating the headlines, it is a worthy lesson from which all of us could learn.
Lionel Blue’s autobiography, Hitchhiking to Heaven is published by Hodder & Stoughton and will be released in hardback on 21 October. The paperback will follow in May 2005.