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Keeping It Secret

A great deal has been made of the fact that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is an old Etonian. But I’m waiting for the wags to accuse the new ABC of benefiting from nepotism. As a man of partial Jewish descent, the ABC-to-be is likely to be a closer relative of the founders of Christianity – Jesus, St Paul, St Peter and St James the Just – than any of his predecessors.

Here’s a long and interesting piece in The Telegraph, in which the poor ABC-to-be appears to have been ambushed with all sorts of facts about his father which appear largely to have been unknown to him:

His father was born Bernard Gavin Weiler, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Germany, though he never told his son he had any Jewish ancestry.

“He wouldn’t talk about his family at all,” said Bishop Welby…

It is a pity that it wasn’t Welby’s mother who was Jewish – with halacha on his side, I think he’d have a good chance of succeeding Jonathan Sacks for the post of Chief Rabbi.

There appear to have been many things that Bishop Welby was not told by his father and many good reasons for his tightness of lip. However, keeping one’s Jewish heritage secret, and not passing it on to your children, is very much a part of the Jewish experience throughout history. A few years ago, BBC 4 broadcast a three part documentary, Jews, which featured the children of Holocaust survivors. One couple, who made it to Britain, simply never told their son that they were a Jewish couple: the son had found out after their deaths and was now attempting to construct for himself some sort of Jewish life and identity. One also thinks of Christopher and Peter Hitchens’ late mother. The sons only discovered that she had secretly been Jewish long after her tragic suicide.

It isn’t surprising that members of minority groups who can “pass” often attempt to do so. The ’straight-acting’ gay with the girlfriend who is a ‘beard’. The light skinned black woman who further bleaches her skin. The Anglo-Indian in London who tells people that she’s of Italian ancestry. It isn’t simply shame, or wanting to fit in: it is the sure knowledge that whatever joys and riches a particular cultural identity might afford, it also brings with it the knowledge that you’ll be hated by some, even attacked.

Keeping your head down and your family out of harm’s way is a natural reaction to a hostile world. It has happened on a grand scale in the past; about 20% of Spain’s population can likely claim descent from Sephardi Jews. There are many reports of Bedouins who practice various Jewish customs, and claim to have semi-converted to Islam at some point in the past.

It is a pity that people should feel that they have to live their lives, so to speak, in the closet.