A fireside talk

A fireside talk

October 22, 2009 07:36
Sir Arthur George Weidenfeld 248.88

Sir Arthur George Weidenfeld 248.88. (photo credit: Ilan Evyatar)

The first thing that strikes one about Sir Arthur George Weidenfeld is the intensity of his gaze, a piercing eagle-eyed stare that reveals the alertness of a man half his age. Weidenfeld, the doyen of British publishing, is in Jerusalem for his ongoing 90th birthday celebrations and for the 10th annual European-Israeli dialogue, a conference sponsored by his Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Weidenfeld greets me in the lobby of the King David Hotel, a perfect backdrop for his old-world charm and elegance. In a Viennese accent that he has retained since fleeing Austria for Britain shortly after the arrival of the Nazis in 1938, he immediately launches into a passionate account of the activities of the ISD, an offshoot of the Club of Three, a think tank he established some 15 years ago to foster relations between Britain, France and Germany. The institute conducts meetings between European leaders, meetings that Weidenfeld labels "fireside talks," deals with the issue of Muslim integration in Europe, promoting engagement with that community and at the same time tackling radicalism among Europe's Muslims. But perhaps pride of place goes to the institution's educational efforts, in particular the Oxford Leadership Program, an elite master's program for students from the Near and Middle East that Weidenfeld says is aimed at fostering understanding and describes as "very exciting," his trademark phrase. After arriving in the United Kingdom, Weidenfeld went to work for the BBC, monitoring German broadcasts before soon being named a political commentator working under the name George Weiden. In 1943 he wrote the first of two books, The Goebbels Experiment; the second was the autobiographical Remembering My Good Friends published in 1995. After the war Weidenfeld cofounded the publishing house Weidenfeld & Nicolson which he sold in 1991 for several million pounds. One of his first titles was The Future of Coal by a young Labor MP by the name of Harold Wilson. It sold only a few hundred copies, but Wilson would later go on to become prime minister and bestow a life peerage on Weidenfeld. Despite his wartime experiences and perhaps because of them, one of Weidenfeld's major undertakings has been to promote relations between Germans and Jews, something he has been doing for close to 60 years. "I spent the war almost entirely in anti-Nazi propaganda; I travelled a lot as a publisher in Germany and found that understanding for the Jewish question was outstanding, and I spent a lot of energies in improving relations between Israel and the Germans and I think this has been successful," he says. "We have an extremely close relationship with the German government. It seems that some of the German leaders and intellectuals have developed an attitude toward Israel and things Jewish that goes way beyond the nexus of guilt and atonement. It is not just guilt in itself and by itself, it is that that they approve of and admire the Jewish contribution to their own culture." That success though has not been repeated throughout the continent, and with Israel facing a rising tide of those seeking to isolate and delegitmize it, the country's standing in Europe is a matter of great concern to Weidenfeld. "The anti-Israel sentiment in Europe in general and in Britain in particular is very disturbing," he says. "On different levels the media have always been very violent toward one side or the other. Until 1967 you couldn't complain, but after that things changed sharply, partly because of a genuine misunderstanding of the situation - namely having been David, we have become Goliath; having been a freedom movement, we became a neo-colonial movement. "We have never got over the fissure of 1967, which created this image of Israel as a conqueror, as a colonial power." Weidenfeld sees the situation as perversion of the truth, recalling how in a year spent here as cabinet secretary to the country's first president, Chaim Weizmann, he was awakened three or four times a week to be informed of terror attacks, and that was of course long before the Six Day War. However, he says, achieving even progress toward a peace treaty will change the mood toward Israel. MEANWHILE, ONE of the means Weidenfeld believes can help improve Israel's standing is the creation of university chairs in Israel studies. "I believe part of the solution is to create new senior teaching posts in Israel studies. I am very anxious now to establish two major chairs in England followed by three or four others." Weidenfeld reveals to The Jerusalem Post that the first of those chairs will be created in the immediate future at King's College, London. Asked whether Israel has erred in placing its focus on relations with the US, Weidenfeld replies that he "could understand the frustration of successive Israeli governments or the man on the street with Europe, and with certain European attitudes" but that Israel has to an extent neglected Europe, not always sending its best ambassadors there. He is, however, not one to chide the Israeli government from afar. It is, he says, not the role of overseas Jewry to interfere in Israel's politics. "I think that every person should have in his life an Archimedian point of reference and for me that has always been political Zionism of the Herzlian kind," Weidenfeld states. "That means a Jew in the Diaspora should consider himself as an agent for Israel's prosperity, for Israel's recognition, and should also if possible be neutral about Israeli domestic politics. The elected prime minister of Israel is somebody we should support from outside and Jews should not get involved in attacking the present government." It is in building bridges and finding points of contact that Weidenfeld feels the Diaspora - a word he dislikes, preferring instead a "world community of Jews" - should concentrate. "That I think is the essence of political Zionism and I would like to think I have done the best I could for for Israel." After a life of four marriages, the latest since 1992 to Annabelle Whitestone, 25 years his junior and the former consort of the late pianist Arthur Rubinstein, friendships with many of the great statesmen of the 20th century and a reputation as a "turbo-charged hedonist," many men might be tempted to reflect. But Weidenfeld is looking in only one direction - forward. There is, he explains, a German word - Torschlusspanik (literally "gate-shut panic") - that is used to explain the anxiety experienced in middle age and he says is why he works harder than even before. "I still have so many things to do and so many projects that I want to see ripen."

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