Review of Divided We Stand: A Journey with Judge Israel Finestein QC
by Colin Lang (Vallentine Mitchell 2017) pp.262
ISRAEL “SHMUL” Finestein (1921-2009) was a successful lawyer and community leader from his student days in post-war Britain. He possessed “a dry wit, combined with a placid nature” but this belied a fierce desire for fair play and fidelity to the principle of the dignity of difference.
This perceptive and well-written book by his nephew, Colin Lang, is, on the surface, about British Jewry. At a deeper level, it is
about Finestein’s philosophy of “live and let live” – a respect for those with whom he disagreed. Someone who disliked the breast-beaters, the purveyors of polarisation.
Finestein emerges as a multi-faceted player in many areas of Jewish life — dedicated historian, political liberal, committed United Synagogue member, inquisitive intellectual and communal macher. The author of five books, he was an avid analyst of the contemporary community. There are therefore chapters in Lang’s book on the history of the Jewish community of Hull, where Finestein grew up, on the Board of Deputies, of which Finestein was president in the 1990s — and on the complexities of Jewish leadership.
A chapter is devoted to the Jacobs affair when the intellectual wing of Orthodoxy broke away. Finestein unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Louis Jacobs to withdraw his resignation from Jews’ College. He disagreed with Rabbi Jacobs and remained within the United Synagogue, yet as a former Board president he spoke at Louis Jacobs’s 80th birthday celebration.
Finestein would probably have concurred with his nephew’s incisive comment that Jacobs’s flaw was that “he suffered from intellectual integrity”.
It is clear that Jacobs’s departure weakened the stand of some within the United Synagogue such as Shmul Finestein,
Stanley Kalms and Fred Worms. Finestein supported Jonathan Sacks in his attempts to secure “inclusiveness” but would have frowned upon his futile attempt to explain his position on the Hugo Gryn affair to Rabbi Padwa. Indeed, Finestein regarded Gryn as “a prominent proponent of communal harmony” and an advocate of the Jewish Day School system.
Lang surmises that Finestein would also have disapproved of the discord surrounding the invitation to all British Jews, regardless of synagogal affiliation, to participate in the annual Limmud conference — the boycott of which by some only increased attendance.
Finestein was also a keen observer of the struggle of women over decades to secure positions of influence in the community. A chapter entitled ‘The Velvet Revolution’ shows that Finestein saw its genesis in the Women’s Campaign
for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s.
Lang’s book is important not simply because it revisits recent Anglo-Jewish history, but because it powerfully presents the legacy of Shmul Finestein as an exemplar for aspiring Jewish leaders.
Jewish Chronicle 1 September 2017