Many people, including marginalised Jews, do not appreciate that central to Jewish life in Britain, and indeed throughout the world, is the concern for the state of Israel and its perception of threats against its existence. For Jews of my generation, the two major events of the last two millennia were the Holocaust and the creation of Jewish sovereignty in its ancient homeland. They were viewed not in a political but in a religious perspective. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel described in his autobiographical work Night a public execution in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. Someone asked the name of the victim dangling from the noose, and the answer was a bellowing cry from one of the inmates: “God!”
For many Jews, the Holocaust had spelt the end of the Covenant between God and His people. Hitherto, every national disaster was attributed to their own sinfulness. This time, only the absence of God could explain the irredeemable evil the Jews had experienced.
The establishment of a Third Jewish Commonwealth several years later, amid a mighty struggle against five Arab nations, was viewed not only as the rebirth of a people but the rebirth of its God. After the vote in favour of the Partition Plan by two thirds of the UN General Assembly, Jews danced outside their synagogues, just as when, 10 years later after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, they filled the synagogues in numbers that approximated those who attend on the holiest days of the Jewish year. And, of course, for more than 2,000 years, Jews have prayed every day for the ingathering of exiles in the Promised Land; and every year at the conclusion of the Passover meal, they declared: “Next year in Jerusalem”.
In Jewish life, there can be no separation between religion and the sense of identity with a people. They are inextricably intertwined. The Covenant assured the Israelites and the remnant that survived – the Jews – that God would redeem them from their oppressors if they walked in His ways. Everything that happens to the Jewish community is perceived as either an act of God or a sign of His absence. But so ingrained in the Jewish consciousness is a sense of responsibility for one’s own situation, that Jews – particularly those who have not lived under any threat – believe that it is within their power to resolve political conflicts with their neighbours. They resist the idea that the enemy may be implacable. They make demands of their own side that they do not make of the other. Rabbis who go against the mainstream and are highly critical of Israel’s policies are hailed as morally courageous, while rabbis, such as myself, who defend Israel are accused of being political.
A recent case in point was the reaction – or lack of it – when Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, put his head above the parapet. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, he told the candid truth that in Britain, the most extreme elements of the debate on the Israel/Palestine conflict have been allowed to “hijack the mainstream”. He accused the anti-Israel forces of mounting a campaign of “delegitimisation, demonisation and double standards”. Their call for a “one-state solution”, he maintained, was “a euphemistic name for a movement advocating Israel’s destruction”.
The ambassador is right on all counts. Jews, who should know better, say to me that as Hamas will never agree to a two-state solution, the only possibility for peace is one state. When I explain that this would mean that Jews will no longer be in the majority, and so it would cease to be Israel, and that furthermore Jewish Israelis would leave their country en masse in fear for their lives, the response is, “Well, then there will never be a solution!” They look at me in disbelief when I explain to them that not finding a solution to this conflict is better than self-destruction.
However, I find it embarrassing that when the Israeli ambassador is outspoken about the prejudice against Israel in Britain, the leadership of British Jewry remains silent. It is not that they don’t agree with him – they do. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently and passionately on the demonisation of Israel. As long ago as February 2002, while dismissing the claim that all criticism of Israel is anti-semitism, he created a fictional scenario that is worth quoting in full:
“Suppose someone were to claim that there is a form of prejudice called anti-Kiwism, an irrational hatred of New Zealanders,” the Chief Rabbi wrote. “What might convince us he was right? Criticism of the New Zealand government? No. A denial of New Zealand’s right to exist? Maybe. Seven thousand terrorist attacks on New Zealand’s citizens in the past year? Possibly. A series of claims at the UN Conference Against Racism in Durban that New Zealand, because of its treatment of the Maori, is uniquely guilty of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, accompanied by grotesque Nazi-style posters? Perhaps. A call to murder all those with New Zealand loyalties although they were born and live elsewhere? A suggestion that New Zealanders control the world’s economy? That they are responsible for Aids and poisoning water supplies? That they arranged the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center? That they are a satanic force of evil against whom a holy war must be fought?”
The Chief Rabbi tells us then to “delete ‘New Zealand’ and insert ‘Israel’ and ‘Jews’, and all these things have happened in the past year. “What more has to happen before an impartial observer concludes that anti-semitism is alive and well and dangerous?” A lot more has happened since. What Rabbi Sacks was describing then was attributed to Islamic extremism. But today it is the British chattering classes, the intellectuals of the Left in particular, who have bought into this vile propaganda, agreeing that Israel is comparable to apartheid South Africa and even Nazi Germany.
History is dismissed as irrelevant. The fact that Israel has disengaged from Gaza and is negotiating to disengage from the West Bank; the fact that it would not have been occupying them had not Egypt and Jordan sought to invade its borders; the fact that an independent Arab Palestine could have been established alongside Israel after the UN Partition Plan agreed in November 1947, had not Jordan annexed the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank while Egypt occupied Gaza; the fact that in 1964, before Israeli occupation, the Palestine Liberation Organisation was engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israel proper; the fact that when Israel disengaged from Gaza, compelling all Israelis, as much for their safety as anything else, to leave their properties, the Palestinians razed to the ground 26 synagogues, which they could have converted into mosques – all these are ignored. So is the fact that maps of the region issued by the Palestinian Authority, as well as Hamas, include all of Israel as part of Palestine. So is the fact that whenever Israel withdraws from territory – Lebanon, Gaza – far from it leading to peace, it has led to further attacks. Supporters of Israel blame themselves for the widespread ignorance of the historical background. They shouldn’t. The anti-Zionists have made up their minds and don’t want to be confused by the facts.
It is in this context that it is hard to comprehend why the Chief Rabbi and the President of the Board of Deputies did not take this opportunity to continue the new debate courageously initiated by the ambassador, rather than to let it just vaporise into thin air. It is particularly surprising as neither the Labour Government nor the Conservative opposition would disagree with the ambassador’s comments, which echoed the recent report of the cross-party Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism.
At the Jewish communal celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary in Trafalgar Square, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said on behalf of the Government: “To those people who would deny even the right of the Israeli state to exist, let us say to them: ‘You will not succeed’. Never again should the Jewish people have to run from tyranny.” But both parties are constantly advised that they could win more votes if they distanced themselves from Israel in favour of the Palestinians. Perhaps the Jewish leadership did not want the British public to think that they had dual loyalties. If so, they were misguided, because those who make these accusations do not need any pretext for doing so. Dual loyalty has been a constant claim of anti-Semites, as if we didn’t all have a plethora of loyalties.
A united response to the constant slurs and calumnies against Israel is essential because of the growing number of Jews who have joined in the irrational attacks on Israel. One example is the Jews who advocate the boycott of Israel’s academic institutions. Another is the Jews demonstrating against Israel when the Israeli ambassador was doing a Q&A at the Welsh Assembly. It is essential that representatives both of secular Jews and of mainstream traditions of Judaism are seen not to have lost their nerve at the constant abuse Israel is suffering.
This is particularly so when Jewish anti-Zionism is used by non-Jews to justify their attacks on Israel. The writer AN Wilson, referring to Gerald Kaufman’s decision not to visit Israel because of its policies and praising the Jewish MP’s Zionist credentials as impeccable, concluded that Israel was a failed experiment and that it had been madness to establish a Jewish state in the first place. This is a blatant example of how non-Jews will justify themselves against the accusation of antisemitism by invoking the anti-Zionism of Jews, who surely cannot be called anti-Semites. But why not? Jews will have their Quislings and Lord Haw-Haws, like other nations. To recoin a phrase: “Some of my best friends are Jewish anti-Semites.”
On the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme on February 19 2004, Chief Rabbi Sacks said: “There is a conviction now not only that it is legitimate to criticise Israel, but also to demonise it, to blame it for the problems of the world and not to make a distinction between Israelis and Jews wherever they are. That is a seriously dangerous phenomenon.” The accusation that Zionism, as a fascist movement, and Israel, as a Western colonial implant in the Middle East, are responsible for all the ills of the world is reminiscent of historic antisemitism. These slanders achieved mythic proportions in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published 1903 in Russia, which has been reprinted in millions for sale and free distribution in Muslim countries and communities throughout the world.
Ironically, the now familiar anti-semitic motifs of countless cartoons, showing Israel as a Nazi state and Moshe Dayan as Hitler, with the Star of David replacing the swastika, first originated in Soviet Russia, following Israel’s victory of the 1967 war. It is understandable that the Arab world, which has always resented the Jewish state, as it did Crusader rule of Palestine, should use whatever tools are at hand to delegitimise Israel, which in their eyes is a Western imperialist implant in their dar al-Islam, the Muslim patrimony. Many Muslims maintain both that the Jews invented the Holocaust to justify their right to be given a place of their own and that the West gave them Israel because the Christians did not want the Jews in their own countries.
The fact that non-Jews believe this antisemitic propaganda requires explanation. The pervasiveness of antisemitism in the Western world for millennia is well documented – pogroms, ghettos, forced conversions and expulsions, and Jews banned from owning land and engaging in any crafts. Christian children, it is fair to say, sucked in anti-semitism at their mothers’ breasts. Even those good Christians who felt well disposed to individual Jews still saw them as members of the nation that had killed their Lord. This did not end with the Enlightenment, or with Jewish emancipation. The Dreyfus case and the mobs crying, “Kill the Jews” persuaded the Hungarian-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl that anti-Semitism could not be defeated and that the only viable option was national self-determination. Thus was the Zionist movement born at the outset of the last century. Jews flocked to the Holy Land from Europe. Land was purchased from (usually absentee) landlords. By 1912, Jews owned 40 villages in what is now Israel, including 23 villages in what is now the West Bank. The dehumanisation of Jews in the European mindset, which enabled Nazi Germany to exterminate 6m people, gave the Western world cause for reflection. Even those who only engaged in polite anti-semitism, such as is still prevalent in the prejudice against homosexuals, realised what terrible consequences could follow. After the war, anti-semitism became taboo in elite circles. Jews believed that the Holocaust had taught Europe a lesson. That was a mistake, similar to the one made by those of us who believed that 9/11 would create sympathy for Israel in its struggle against jihadi terrorists. The prejudice against Jews remained.
Zionism – and its creation, Israel – gave that prejudice the excuse to breathe again. Deep down in the European consciousness, there lingers a conviction that the world would be better without the Jews. But as anti-semitism is now an unfashionable tool for achieving this goal, the way to do it is by destroying the “Zionist entity”. Last year, Rabbi Sacks made this point by quoting the Israeli author Amos Oz: “In the 30s, anti-Semites declared, ‘Jews to Palestine’. Today they shout, ‘Jews out of Palestine’. They don’t want us to be there; they don’t want us to be here; they don’t want us to be.”
The time has come for the Jewish leadership to stop behaving as though Jews were strangers in the land and act with courage to fight the antisemitism camouflaged as anti-Zionism. My Christian PA asked me what the difference was between a Jew and a Zionist. After explaining the distinction, I realised that in the eyes of the world, there was none. And just as nothing Jews do would lead to the end of anti-semitism, nothing Israel does will lead to the end of anti-Zionism, for they are both expressions of hatred of the Jews.
When British politicians are asked whether they are Zionists, they often respond by redefining the term to mean the right of Israel to exist in secure borders. Why is there this need to define the word? Because the word “Zionist” is being used by anti-Semites. They describe Israel as “the Zionist entity” and declare that Zionism – the Jewish movement for the right of self-determination in one country in the entire world – is expansionist, racist, fascist, apartheid and imperialist. Untold numbers have been persuaded that it is a movement designed to enable Jews to take over the world.
As the true objective of Zionism was fulfilled with the formation of Israel, the time has come for us to pension off this “ism” and compel those who are anti-Semites to acknowledge their racism. The concept of Zionism has outlived its usefulness to Jews and to the state of Israel. Those who support the existence and welfare of Israel should be referred to as “Friends of Israel”. Indeed, it was at the annual lunch of the Conservative Friends of Israel that David Cameron and William Hague identified themselves as Zionists. All that they meant was that they are friends of Israel.
As for the Jewish community in Britain, it should cease telling Israel how to make peace; Israel does not need, and often resents, unsolicited advice from Jews of the diaspora. Instead, Jews should use their influence to persuade the British public that anyone calling for a one-state solution, or the “right of return” of 4m Palestinian refugees, is calling for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state, and as such deserves to be described as anti-semitic. Were Israel to suffer the fate desired by its enemies, the freedom and liberty that we, Jews and non-Jews alike, enjoy because we live in a society built on Judaeo-Christian values, will be under threat.