Ghosts at the Feast for Israel’s Birthday Celebration

AT A TIME when British Jews are commemorating the considerable achievements of Israel’s first forty years, some are haunted by the frozen frames of warring children and burning barricades in the Gaza slums. There is the uneasy knowledge that the most advanced military force in the Middle East is using clubs. Truly, the age of innocence is over.

In 1948, Israel was created and governed by men and women of vision and ideals. Can the same be said today? A few years ago, a book was published entitled Ben Gurion and the Intellectuals: Power, Knowledge and Charisma: could one substitute the name of Shamir or Rabin without prompting a sarcastic guffaw? The “iron fist” mentality is indicative of the low calibre of leadership in Israel today. The party structure and system has permitted the rule of the mediocrities.

Shortly after the victory of the Six Day war, a group of 200 Israeli academics warned that the annexation of the newly conquered territories would eventually destroy democracy in one of the few multi-party states in the Middle East. Twenty years on no coherent policy has emerged to deal with the territories. It is manifestly absurd to maintain military rule over a million Palestinians as if it were a well thought-out recipe for harmony and stability. The reality is that it has had a corrosive and divisive effect on Israeli society and has created an unjust system of double standards for Jews and Arabs. The occupation has radicalised many young Palestinians who have no memory of the harsh and corrupt Jordanian occupation before 1967. Young Israelis, on the other hand, are increasingly attracted to demagogues on the growing radical right like Rabbi Meir Kahane who preach the ominous policy of “population transfer”.

The racism of the right is fuelled by indisputable demographic trends. By the year 2000, there will be as many twenty-year-old Arabs as Jews in Eretz Israel Ha’shlema (Greater Israel). There were 81,000 Arab births in 1985 compared to 75,000 Jewish ones. These facts lead liberals to believe that the only option left to the Israeli government is withdrawal from the occupied territories. Without it, the fabric of Israeli society will crumble. To the emerging right, the solution may simply be the mass expulsion of thousands of Palestinians.

There’s no doubt that the occupation of the West Bank enhanced Israel’s sense of security, but it also challenged a fundamental tenet of Jewish experience — that the Jews were history’s underdogs who make common cause with the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the persecuted. The leaders of the Palestinian uprising unde6tand this only too well. By abandoning the gun for the stone, they have distanced themselves from the terrorism of long-departed PLO chieftains. They have donned the mantle of the underdog and branded the Israelis as the tyrants.

The experience of history has taught Jews to regard themselves as victims. It is part of their collective memory. At Passover when the story of the exodus from Egypt is recalled, fathers tell their children that they must not regard it as a mere fairy tale but treat it as if they themselves had been brought forth from the House of Bondage unto freedom. For many Jews, to regard oneself as an oppressor is a negation of Jewish tradition.

This, I believe, is at the root of the Jewish dilemma today: how to ensure Israel’s security but still remain true to the ideal of a just society. Since 1982, the consensus of support within Anglo-Jewry for official Israeli government policies has broken down. The debacle of the invasion of Lebanon divided supporters of Israel into doves and hawks. The turning point for many British Jews came with the revelation of the massacre of Palestinians by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies in Lebanon at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Sharon’s adventure which cost thousands of Jewish and Arab lives forced Jews outside Israel to think about the homeland in terms of public reality rather than public relations. To be pro-Israel no longer meant to be pro-Israel’s government. This was keenly felt by many Jews in America who conceded that it was actually better for Israel that Jews should speak out against bad policies than maintain an embarrassed silence.

Unlike American Jewry which is one group in a country of immigrants, Jews in Britain are an ethnic minority in a “Christian” majority culture. With the experience of centuries of persecution, the best policy for survival was always deemed to be one of anglicisation and to stay on the margins of society. Jewish leaders here were not expected to give a Jewish dimension on the crucial issues of the day, but only to act as shtadlanim (court Jews) to the government. They sought and represented a consensus of Jewish opinion on matters ranging from the prosecution of war criminals to the safeguarding of shchita (ritual slaughter).

Israeli government policies were generally supported up to 1967, but the future of the territories, the antics of the settlers, Lebanon and now Gaza have caused a schism. Even so the official line still reflects the government coalition of political opposites, but is tempered with a policy of “say nothing, do nothing” on the more unpalatable events. Thus the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the representative body of synagogues and organisations, unlike the American Jewish Congress, has no policy on the future of the territories and there is no mechanism within the community for representing different opinions.

The Chief Rabbi, recently carried on the wings of Thatcherism to the House of Lords, has proved the exception. Although I disagree with much of his political outlook, on Israel he is a notorious dove, supporting the religious peace movement, Netivot Shalom (Paths to Peace). His comments over the years have infuriated the messianic nationalists in Israel. On one occasion, Israel’s hawkish and fundamentalist former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren called upon British Jews to “spew this dangerous man from our midst”. In the present crisis, he has exhorted Jews in Britain to support moderate opinion in Israel. Together with the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, he has embraced the idea of “exchanging land for peace” by supporting the Shultz plan.

Most older Jews in Britain still bear the guilt of the fortunate — the Nazi invaders came perilously close. The trauma of the Shoah (the Holocaust) has cast its long shadow over Jewish policy-making and those who lived through that dark period are excessively cautious. For those who were touched by the anti-Semitism of the English upper classes, the political right and Mosley’s fascist movement, this is the inevitable outcome. However, it has also stifled non-conformist views and any sense of innovation. For that generation, to criticise the Gaza events is a betrayal of the pledge made at the gates of Bergen-Belsen: “Never again”. The destruction of the past is hindering the construction of a future. This is Hitler’s posthumous victory.

People like me, from the post-war generation, have a different outlook. We absorbed our sensitivity to the Holocaust through books, films, educational visits and first-hand accounts from survivors. We did not breathe in the stench of the death camps through incarceration, liberation or observation. This generation’s judgment is naturally coloured by the past — it cannot he otherwise for a Jew — but it is more selective in its choice of symbols. It would, for example, have challenged Menachem Begin when he spoke of Arafat in his “Bunker” in 1982. For us, criticism of the bad policies of an inept government is a sign of commitment to the state of Israel, not disengagement.

Many independent Jewish groups have blossomed in recent years because their ideas and approaches could not be accommodated within the formal framework of the community. Jewish writers and intellectuals in particular have been outspoken in the present crisis. They published a statement in the Jewish Chronicle in February under the heading “Jews for a Just Israel”. The statement condemned the occupation and called on the government of Israel to revive the spirit of the Camp David Accords which recognised “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements”. Virtually every major Jewish writer signed, including Harold Pinter, Anita Brookner, Arnold Wesker, Dan Jacobson and Gabriel Josipovici. Moreover, many ordinary members of the community have expressed highly critical views in the letters’ column of the Jewish Chronicle.

This debate has been conducted within Anglo-Jewry. The official leadership does not wish to wash its so-called dirty linen in public. And although the independent Israeli press itself publishes damning indictments of government policy and action, many severe critics of that policy in Britain, while they will write a condemnatory letter to the Jewish Chronicle, would baulk at the prospect of appearing in the New Statesman or the Guardian. The rationale is that critical views on Israel have often been distorted and that such misrepresentation inevitably strengthens the hands of those who view all reports except the most sycophantic as evidence of press bias.

There is a pointed desire from some journalists to force Jews to criticise one another which goes beyond the realms of natural debate — perhaps because of a dislike of the otherness of Jews. There is an almost evangelical wish to push Jews to prostrate themselves before the truth of the PLO. While many Jews realise that the PLO as a symbol represents the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinians and the PLO are the probable future negotiating partners of the Israelis, they do not regard them as political innocents. Conversely, neither do critical Jews accept the demonology that suggests that every Palestinian is a potential terrorist.

A third area of reticence is that many Jews feel unwelcome on the left today. Jews feel hesitant about revealing their Jewishness or debunking absurd comparisons between Nazi Germany and present-day Israel (a refrain from the far left as well as the far right). Anti-Zionism may not be anti-Semitism in the majority of cases, but, clumsily expressed, many Jews perceive it as such. In addition the feeling that Jews are powerful, people of influence and money, still lingers. The whispers about the number of Jews in Thatcher’s government or involved in the Guinness affair is a case in point.

Perhaps history will record that the Gaza riots marked the period when the international Jewish community, the Diaspora, began to rouse itself from the numbing legacy of the Holocaust. If not, then it will continue in its role as a rotten borough of each prime minister of Israel. And most important, it will have abrogated its duty to participate in the search for a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar commented some 1800 years ago: “If a person sits at home, and keeps silent, how can this be considered as pursuing peace in Israel between each and every person? Rather leave home and roam throughout the world in pursuit of peace in Israel. As it is said ‘Seek peace and pursue it’.”

New Statesman 13 May 1988

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.