Tale of a Jew in England from South Africa

When my father was about to emigrate from South Africa to England in the 1950s, a friend of the family suggested that a change of name was in order because it would be unwise to pursue his career in Britain while called “Cohen.”

By Roger Cohen (Globalist)

Published: Sat 5 Dec 2009, 9:46 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:48 AM

My Dad, a young doctor, said he would think it over. A few days later he announced to the friend that he had decided to make the change. “To what?” she asked with satisfaction.

“Einstein,” he deadpanned.

And so Sydney Cohen came to London and in time had the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) bestowed upon him by the queen, and was named a fellow of the Royal Society (founded 1660), and, most important to him, became a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

In all, it can hardly be said that he encountered barriers in the land of Benjamin Disraeli.

He embraced his adopted country, my family was assimilated and Jewishness became the minor key of our identity.

That was most of the story but not quite all. A couple of things have recently stirred deep memories of being a Jew in England. The first was Nick Hornby’s screenplay for the movie, “An Education,” set in 1960s London and rendering with acuity a subtle current of prejudice.

It is captured when Emma Thompson, playing the proper headmistress of a girls’ school where a precocious 16-year-old student has taken up with an older man, exclaims “A Jew!” upon discovering the identity of the rake. Her voice quivers with distaste.

The second was reading my colleague Sarah Lyall’s account of the controversy stemming form the Court of Appeal’s decision about the Jewishness (or not) of a boy trying to get into the JFS, or Jews’ Free School, in London. I won’t go into the case here but will say that I found the court’s ruling that the criteria for Jewishness must be “faith, however defined” — rather than family ties — quaint. Nobody I know ever defined a Jew, or persecuted one, on the grounds of whether or not he went to synagogue regularly.

“An Education” put me back in my London complete with Dad’s old Rover model. But it wasn’t just the cars. It was that faint prejudice floating around with its power to generate I’m-not-quite-one-of-them feelings.

In the late 1960’s, I went to Westminster, one of Britain’s top private schools, an inspiring place hard by Westminster Abbey, and was occasionally taunted as a “Yid” — not a bad way to forge a proud Jewish identity in a nonreligious Jew.

The teasing soon ended. But something else happened that was related to the institution rather than adolescent minds. I won a scholarship to Westminster and would have entered College, the scholars’ house, but was told that a Jew could not attend College nor hold a Queen’s Scholarship. I got an Honorary Scholarship instead.

This seemed normal then but appears abnormal in retrospect. So I wrote to the current headmaster, Stephen Spurr, asking what the grounds were back then on which Jews were not admitted to College; whether the same regulation still exists; when the practice was changed (if it was); and how Westminster defines, or defined, Jewishness.

Spurr e-mailed answers. “I am afraid I do not know” was his response to my query on why Jews were barred from College; “Absolutely not” on whether the regulation still exists; no idea on when it was changed (if it ever existed); and, on the definition question, “We do not try to determine Jewishness.”

That piqued rather than satisfied my curiosity so I wrote to my old English teacher, John Field, who inspired my lifelong love of literature, and he was far more forthcoming:

“The demography of London began to change markedly in the 1930s with refugees from mainland Europe, and when the school returned to London after five years’ evacuation, the number of Jewish applicants slowly began to increase. The bursar and registrar was an ex-Indian Army colonel with the kind of views you would expect such a background to provide.

“I recall archiving his notes on Nigel Lawson” — later Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer — “when his parents brought him for interview in 1945 or 46. On the lines of ‘Undoubtedly a bright and clever child. Very Jewish of course.’”

Field continued: “Colonel Carruthers (his real name!) almost certainly operated with a Jewish quota in his mind when admitting people to the school, and at some point in the early 1960s got the Governing Body to agree to a new condition of entry to College: the candidate should ‘profess the Christian faith.’”

He added: “So in the 1960’s Westminster acquired a reputation for being unwelcoming to Jewish families. Maybe the examples of yourself and John Marenbon” — a brilliant Jewish classmate of mine, now a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge — “prompted John Rae to persuade the governors to scrap the condition of entry to College.” Rae was headmaster from 1970 to 1986.

Westminster, like Britain, has changed. Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.

Roger Cohen is Editor at Large of the International Herald Tribune

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