James Francken

At the end of September, the Theatre Royal in London staged a ‘solidarity rally’ for British Jews. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, scolded the press for blaming the events of 11 September on Israel. Would they, he asked, like to live in ‘Gaza under the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran or Libya or Syria’? Or would they ‘prefer the Israel they condemn’? Sacks alone was allowed to reply. Israel, he said, is ‘open, free, liberal, democratic’ – which is why it is the ‘ultimate threat to those who seek to create closed, repressive societies’.

Day-to-day life isn’t always open or free for Israel’s one million Arab citizens; it certainly isn’t for people living beyond the 1967 borders, whether they are Jewish settlers or Palestinians. Sacks’s not-too-clever interventions on Israel’s behalf are familiar. In January, after Ehud Barak had accepted American proposals for divided sovereignty on the Temple Mount, he was equally clumsy. In a letter to Jerusalem’s Mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sacks challenged Barak’s decision with another of his self-important questions: ‘is it conceivable that the Jews of any generation could give away the holy of holies of the Jewish soul? None of us, not even a democratically elected Government of Israel, has the authority to abandon the prayers and dreams of a hundred generations.’ All of a sudden, the democratic process in Israel didn’t seem so important.

For those Orthodox Jews in Britain who are frustrated by the failure of the peace process, these comments seemed unreasonable and self-defeating. Most British Jews feel that Israeli sovereignty over the Wailing Wall is essential; control of the Temple Mount is not: Jewish law prohibits the rebuilding of the Temple and there are Orthodox edicts which forbid prayer on the site. At the negotiations at Taba earlier this year, there was more room for manoeuvre over Jerusalem’s disputed sites than the Chief Rabbi would allow. Besides, when it comes to the question of a new map for Israel, Diaspora Jews of all denominations are always unsure of their ground: if we choose not to live there, do we have a particular right to confront, head-on, those who do? Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Relations recognised the inevitability of this tension: following Sacks’s letter, he acknowledged ‘an obligation to listen, and take concerns into consideration’, but stressed that ‘in the final reckoning the decisions have to be made by the elected Government of Israel.’

Outside religious circles, the Chief Rabbi is often thought to speak for all British Jews, but he is in fact the spiritual head only of the United Synagogue, the main Orthodox movement. In comparison with what his predecessor had to say about Israel, Sacks has not so far done very well: he veers between the warmed-over platitude and the heavy-handed attempt at mediation. Immanuel Jakobovits – Chief Rabbi until 1991; a ‘wonderful man’ in Thatcher’s memoirs – was shabby and cramped on social issues: he considered homosexuality an abomination, denied women the right to make the final decision on abortion and argued that adultery should be a criminal offence. But Jakobovits was an independent and remarkably even-handed judge of Israeli activity in the Middle East. In 1968, in an address broadcast by the BBC to mark the Jewish New Year, he drew attention to ‘the cries of despair from Arab refugees drained of all human dignity’; in 1982 he upbraided the Israeli Government for the invasion of Lebanon, warning of the danger of ‘blaming everything on others while maintaining a stance of complacent self-righteousness’ and, in the teeth of Orthodox opposition in Israel and America, pressed for the return of land in exchange for peace, even though his misgivings caused ferment among British Jews. Jakobovits was certain that ‘what started as a conflict between two rights – two people claiming the same land – has now become a conflict between two wrongs, with Israel still being denied the right to exist and under the threat of war and terror, and with Palestinians still denied their national aspirations.’

It would be a mistake to ignore the puritanism which underpinned Jakobovits’s thinking. He believed in a ‘conditional covenant’: in the Bible, Jews were given possession of the Holy Land on condition that they lived as a holy people. Past failure had led to expulsion and exile; the same thing could happen again. After the atrocities at Sabra and Shatila, Jakobovits gave notice that the ‘betrayal of the Jewish commitment to justice’ could cause the present-day Israeli state to be no more than a brief interlude: ‘Jewish life without Israel is unthinkable, yes; but impossible, no.’ His rigid observance of Jewish law kept him at a distance from progressive Jews in Britain, many of whom shared his concerns about Israeli military strength.

The Reform and Liberal wings make up about a quarter of the Jewish community here, but Jakobovits never fully accepted them into the fold: assimilation was too close to apostasy. The Reform movement – a branch of Judaism which began in 19th-century Germany and tried to accommodate some of the secular values of the Enlightenment – was dismissed with stony certainty: ‘the original motivation for the reform of Judaism proved a gigantic error, suffering its diabolical coup de grâce in the gas-ovens.’ Nowadays, few go that far, though there is still a mistrust of Reform congregations, a concern about their policy of conducting parts of the service in English, allowing men and women to sit together in synagogue and observing dietary laws and Sabbath rules more flexibly. The traditional community is still too ready to kiss off progressive opinion and disregard what is seen as a slimline faith.

The Jewish Chronicle carried a fair-sized piece about the rally at the Theatre Royal; the article quoted Sacks’s ‘impassioned attack’ and confirmed that it went down well: ‘his sentiments clearly struck a chord with the audience, providing a rousing finale to what organisers termed the biggest communal event for years.’ This is more or less true. Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Reform movement, was another of the speakers. Bayfield’s speech tried to bring media attention to recent hostage-taking in Israel. At the end of last year, Elhanan Tannenbaum, a 54-year-old Israeli businessman, was kidnapped in Switzerland by Hezbollah activists and taken to Beirut. Tannenbaum’s story is not clear-cut. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, has claimed that he was a Mossad agent and that his kidnapping should come under the rubric of counter-espionage; there have been suggestions in one or two Arab papers that he was involved in an aborted wire-tapping operation in Switzerland, where he was targeting a Lebanese man suspected of financing Hezbollah. Barak countered that Tannenbaum worked for a consulting firm, and that he was an officer in the reserves with no links to security or intelligence operations.

At the solidarity rally, no one would break ranks to say that Barak wasn’t telling the whole story. In Israel, details of Tannenbaum’s past have been kept quiet following a Supreme Court ban on publishing any information related to the case – Shin Bet, the internal security service, stressed that stories in the press could endanger other Israelis. Fear and suspicion are now a habit among Israelis and anxiety is compounded by the Government’s commitment to secrecy. It is impossible to prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s suicide bombings – Hamas’s absence from the Bush Administration’s most-wanted list of terrorists may have been politically expedient, but it gave Israelis little reassurance. During the long conflict with the Palestinians, Jews in Israel haven’t become inured to fear. But the fear isn’t all on one side. As Bayfield reminded the audience, ‘terror takes many forms’: it ‘has been visited on all the peoples of Israel’. The Jewish Chronicle passed this over in silence.

A number of Reform rabbis put their names to a British Friends of Peace Now advertisement which appeared shortly before the Jewish New Year. Peace Now, an organisation founded in 1978 by reserve officers in the Israeli Army, was set up to push for a settlement with Egypt. The ad had a large banner headline: ‘No to bloodshed, no to occupation; yes to negotiations, yes to peace.’ The statement beneath the headline tries to find a compromise that acknowledges the difficulties that arose during recent negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It accepts the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee, including an end to the extension of settlements. (An aerial survey conducted by Peace Now shows that at least ten new settlements have been set up since George Mitchell made his recommendations in April.) And it suggests that ‘the way forward lies in international legitimacy and the implementation of UNSCR 242 and 338 leading to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, Israel and Palestine living side by side, with their respective capitals in Jerusalem.’

A few days after the ad appeared, I was at Finchley Reform synagogue for the Jewish New Year. I’m not at synagogue very often: usually, just at the services for the New Year and the Day of Atonement – two days when it seems right to go. The dates of these festivals change, but they tend to fall in September. Often, there is a back-to-school feel about them; nervousness about what’s to come is mixed up with the reassuring sense that you have been past this point of the year before. Two visits eight days apart and then that’s it for another year. I’m sure Chaim Bermant had it right when he wrote that you can have too much of a holy thing: ‘Maimonides said that one should leave the table before one has had enough. The same, I think, can be said of synagogues.’ My grandfather certainly agreed. His father had been president of the synagogue in Aachen; as a boy he was dragged along to services every week. In London, he pooh-poohed all of that, though at family Passover dinners he would always sing the Jewish songs louder than anyone. My grandmother’s family in Vienna were much less observant – they had a Christmas tree at home, a custom my grandparents kept on in London. My father put a stop to this when my sister and I were small: he wanted to give his children more of a Jewish upbringing than he had had and worried that the tree was a temptation. My grandparents agreed, grudgingly, not to have the tree. After that they made do with a bit of tinsel on an indoor plant.

At the New Year service, the rabbi urged the congregation not to feel isolated by recent events; ‘precisely because we in the Diaspora have a certain distance from the political conflict we need to consider what we can offer to help change the situation.’ Traditionally, these festivals are meant to be a time for self-questioning: at the back of the Reform prayer book there is an excellent anthology of 20th-century Jewish writing which includes these unsettling lines by Alter Brody, the Yiddish poet: ‘The Jew/Like a mad accountant/Trying to make sense of a senseless ledger’.

I find it hard to make sense of everything that’s going on in Israel at the moment. Before, when I talked with friends, the differences between Israelis and Palestinians seemed straightforward – Israel didn’t want the conflict and has had to protect itself from Arabs who don’t want Israel. Now I’m more confused. People at Finchley Reform – and in similar communities – may decide to follow the lead of the progressive rabbis who are calling for a return to the peace process. But you can’t be sure. There may be a big section of the community that is not afraid to thumb its nose at old ways of doing things, but others are more reactionary. Earlier this year, members of Finchley tut-tutted when a gay woman was invited to an interview for the post of rabbi. Many went further and the synagogue had to make an official apology when they expressed, ‘in a very public fashion, intolerant and discriminatory sentiments’ – the woman didn’t get the job. There are congregants whose opinions lag behind their rabbi; some can’t let go of the view that Israel is beyond reproach. Progressive rabbis may not be allowed to disturb the even tenor of their lives.

In 1988, David Forman, a Reform rabbi, founded Rabbis for Human Rights, an organisation which has been an advocate for the rights of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, though its effectiveness is limited. At the beginning of October, it helped to rebuild homes in Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp that had been demolished by the Israeli Government. More than seven thousand houses have been torn down and around forty thousand people made homeless since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Shuafat is hedged in by two Israeli settlements; if it wasn’t there, Israel could create a ring of such settlements around East Jerusalem that would isolate its Palestinian population from the West Bank. In July, 14 unlicensed Palestinian homes in the camp were demolished. But the lack of licences was a puny justification for the bulldozing: it is almost impossible for Palestinians to receive a building permit without paying exorbitant bribes. And if they do pay for a permit, the cost of a sewage hook-up is prohibitive: the closest main can be kilometres away from a Palestinian camp. Mayor Olmert likes to say that Jerusalem is a united city, but there is little that unites West Jerusalem with a camp like Shuafat, where there are no street lights, buses or sewers.

For some progressive rabbis, the most equitable solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the bi-national single state proposed by their American predecessor Judah Magnes sixty years ago. Magnes saw the problem posed by the mixed populations of Palestine’s large towns: hard and fast partition could only be achieved by a forced transfer of land or people. The lives of Arabs and Israelis are even more closely connected today: Israeli settlements occupy 40 per cent of Gaza; Palestinians make up 20 per cent of the population in Israel. The more I read about a two-state solution, the more difficult it seems. Magnes believed that one national territory shared between two peoples was achievable: ‘the bi-national Palestine is here,’ he said. ‘Jews and Arabs do live and work together . . . we are not yet ready to yield to the defeatist cry that these two peoples must be separated politically and territorially so as not to kill one another.’ But things didn’t go the right way.

Many young Jews in Israel sidestep these problems by turning their attention to Europe. Israel dips its toe in European life: there are the occasional victories in the Eurovision Song Contest and frequent defeats in early rounds of the UEFA Cup. The difficulties for secular Jews in Israel are many and they are leaving in numbers; by comparison, the problems of the Jewish community in Britain are a sideshow. At the same time, there is fear that criticism of Israel which goes beyond criticism of Sharon abets anti-semitism, so things that should be said are left unsaid. The call is growing for a return to the 1967 borders and a freeze on new settlements. But under the terms of partition suggested at the Camp David summit last year, a Palestinian state would occupy less than a fifth of the territory – a sorry solution for the Palestinians and one which not even the Reform movement is ready to call into question.