uploaded : Wednesday 17th Apr 2002 at 00:08
by : The Editor
‘Oh come on, Sharon will just wipe them out and there won’t be any more trouble.’
‘Did YOU know that Israel has been occupying the land they won in the ’67 War?’
‘Did YOU know that there has been some sort of boycott of Israeli goods in London?’
‘Did YOU know that Israel is fighting a war for its survival?’
‘What on earth is Deir Yassin?’
‘Who is Marwan Barghouti?’
These are the comments and questions being hurled at me in recent days by Jewish people who for years have thought me foolish for ‘taking Israel’s temperature’ every day in these post-Yigal Amir years.
All of a sudden, Jews are getting real. It might be too late.
Except for my contacts at British and American Friends of Peace Now, and my IT chief, few whom I encounter have a clue as to why the Middle East has reached this bleak morass. It is infuriating to hear the pathetic murmurings of Jewish people who have, to put it bluntly, sent cheques 'for Israel' and otherwise got on with their lives without taking an interest in the plight of the country to which their tzedakah is destined. From secular to Liberal to frum, from American to British to European, I have ‘had it in the ear’ for years about my warnings of impending disaster that started on 4th November , 1995.
My right-wing friends will not like this, but like Boris Yeltsin, I believe, and have believed since that terrible, Biblical night in Kikar Malchei Yisroel, that rivers of blood would flow because of the killing of Rabin by a Jewish extremist who had been blessed with a rabbinic hechsher to kill a fellow Jew. My friends at GAMLA, whose wonderful work I greatly admire, will not like it when I say I do not believe that ‘Oslo’ is the cause of the present problems. Yes, in these columns I have said that when I was living in Israel suicide bombers were attacking with ferocity even whilst the peace process was racing ahead. But Israel, at that time, held the highest moral ground in the world. The British Army had come under scrutiny for its behaviour in Northern Ireland, and the shameful record of South Africa’s torture squads was being revealed at the same time that Israel was turning the other cheek to Hamas.
Had Rabin and the Oslo teams been allowed to finish their work (and had Bill Clinton not been constantly undermined and distracted by Republicans like Newt Gingrich and by the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky inquisitions) Israel might today be partnering the world in the War on Terror, its superb intelligence personnel leading the rest of the globe in a campaign to deal with the threats from truly despicable regimes. The Israeli economy would not have had to be drained to rock bottom because of endless military and police requirements and its educational and health care systems would have been able to receive much-needed cash injections.
There is a not-much reported story that Yitzhak Rabin was scheduled to meet with a delegation of American Jewish leaders in the working week starting 5th November, 1995. Of course, he never met them. He was said to have groaned about their visit, they having been somewhat miffed by his tour of the USA in which he had said that Israel, on its path to comprehensive peace, might not need American Diaspora money any more. The ‘New Middle East’ envisaged by Shimon Peres was taking shape and eventually, in Rabin’s eyes, terrorism would be diminished – as it has in Northern Ireland – through regional cooperation and economic prosperity.
Now Israel is being portrayed by the world as a ‘despicable regime’ akin to that of Mugabe or apartheid-era South Africa.
I am not,however, going to go the route of British media and roundly repudiate Ariel Sharon. This situation did not emanate from a vacuum.
Let’s go back to the inane comments mentioned at the beginning of this article.
As far back as I can remember, my parents experienced considerable irritation when accosted by endless streams of collectors for various Israel-related charities after the Six-Day War. Until then, my family, like so many post-Holocaust Jews, was always willing to dig down deep, even in times of hardship, to help a fledgling state that living under the cloud of Gamal Abdel Nasser and other despots determined to finish the work Hitler had not completed.
However, after the Six Day War, a curious kind of arrogance (to which my many Israeli interviewees attested many years later) set in amongst Diaspora Jewry. Little attention was paid to the aftermath of the war. We young teens knew that the strapping, virile heroes Dayan, Narkiss and Rabin had marched into Jerusalem and other heroes like Sharon and Ze’evi had moulded a new image of the Jew for those of us born only a few years after Belsen’s ovens had cooled. When the festering sore of the once-more conquered and occupied Arab communities became an issue that would not go away, a group of Israeli reservists formed Peace Now. The enlightened Democrat Jimmy Carter, a committed Christian like Bill Clinton, had the vision to see that the largest and most powerful Christian nation in the post-Hitler world had a moral duty to bring peace to the Holy Land, and his historic summit with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat produced the first peace treaty since the 1948 War of Independence.
Many, including myself, were embittered about the return of the gigantic Sinai, which had been conquered with so much Jewish blood. Since 1979 I have often pondered the various permutations of the Hadassah Hospital, the Technion, and Weizmann Institute that could have peppered that vast desert expanse and with which the Egyptians have done nothing to better the lives of their impoverished masses. Notwithstanding this, it was a mitzvah to see Egypt, our ancient, Biblical adversary of the Passover Hagaddah, make peace with us – Sadat hugging Begin, whom the supremely irritating British press still refer to merely as ‘that terrorist.’ (As this is being written, the puzzling anomaly of the Royal Marines being sent in to ‘flush out’ Muslims in Afghanistan is set against the British media’s lionising of Hamas.)
Sadat was murdered by a countryman who hated the idea of peace with Israel, and fifteen years later a Jew killed Rabin because he hated the idea of peace with the Arabs. In the meantime, Diaspora Jewry – with worthy generosity – poured millions into the country but never grasped the gravity of the festering sores at the core of its being. Israeli troops needed to leave the areas in which they remained. Most Diaspora Jews to whom I have spoken in recent weeks, be they left or right wing, have no idea where they are. All to whom I spoke thought the Gaza Strip was part of the Golan, and had no idea that Israel had left Lebanon in May 2000.
I am one of the first to deplore the current trend amongst anti-Semites, and most vociferously the British media, (see ‘Prospect’ magazine’s cover story April 2002) to brand ‘the Zionist lobby’ as the greatest threat to the world since Marxism. However, the blind, uncritical support of Israel by Diaspora Jewry has, in my estimation, led to the sorry situation in which the Jewish State finds itself this week. There are many splendid organisations in the Diaspora with international reputations, but what worries me is the abject ignorance of what I would call 'the average Jew.' It would be hurtful to name Jewish organisation whose functions I have attended, where not one of the wealthy table companions has evinced an ounce of knowledge about the 'Beilin Plan' or the immense value of having Dr Sari Nusseibah in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem Post has just run a piece complaining that Diaspora Jewry let Oslo happen, and that had those Jews been more involved in Israel’s day-to-day destiny the peace process would never have been ‘allowed’ to progress. With this I disagree. Oslo was an extension of the highest Jewish ethical pursuit. It was an impossibly difficult and complicated process, and I kvelled when Rabin and Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize. But as the late Leah Rabin commented as she stood outside her flat after her husband had been shot on 4th November, 1995, ‘where were you all before this happened? Did we need a calamity to bring the decent, peace-seeking Jews out onto the street?’
The fact that so many Jews are now asking me the sort of questions one would expect of a six-year-old indicates that there has been a kind of shameful arrogance about the destiny of Israel. As recently as last September, when the terrible near-pogrom of Durban unfolded, Jewish friends were whining at me, ‘Oh, come on, it’s just a bunch of nutters—Israel will always be there! Why do you waste your energy worrying about Israel? It’s the second most powerful country in the world and can wipe any of them out! ‘
‘Them?’ Two days after Durban adjourned, September 11th occurred. Puzzled Americans asked, ‘Why do they hate us?’ Then as the present Intifadah became more vicious, puzzled Jews began to ask the questions that appear at the top of this article.
A Canadian Jewish business associate –on eof those who refuses to read any Jewish or Israeli newspapers – recently informed me ‘on good authority’ that ‘Israel is booming.’ He was adamant that I was wildly exaggerating the present economic crisis in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, telling me that computer services were bringing billions into the Israeli economy. Finally, I demanded to know where he had found his statistics. ‘I go to a pub in Hertfordshire run by an Israeli and he tells me plenty.’ I enquired further. It transpires that this Israeli came here awhile ago and is married to an English girl. The Canadian chap seemed to feel that one ‘picked up all kinds of outlandish propaganda’ by reading the daily reports from Israel and that if I really wanted to know what’s going on in Israel I should talk to the Hertfordshire publican...
From now on, we must all take a few minutes every day to read ‘Ha’aretz’ or ‘The Jerusalem Post’ on the web. Those without web access should read the Jewish press in their city. Few Jewish people in my own circle will read, let alone buy, ‘The Jewish Chronicle.’ Part of this is due to a fear that ‘my newsagent might twig that I am Jewish after 25 years!’ Others will utter the epithet, ‘Over my dead body!’ if one suggests they read a copy of ‘The London Jewish News.’ (Inasmuch as the LJN often carries many quite specific warnings to sections of the Jewish community, they might just find that their epithet has a hideous ring of truth to it.) They lead a strange life in which their generosity to Israel cannot be faulted, but when confronted by anti-Semites in the new wave we are experiencing across Europe, are at a loss because they simply have no idea why these people are angry.
Though their viewpoint may be deplored by passionate supporters of Israel, the British Rabbis John Rayner and David J Goldberg of the Liberal Synagogue have shown an unstinting devotion to the study of the Middle East situation for thirty-five years. Rabbi Goldberg was in Lebanon during Sabra and Chatila and though his viewpoint enraged many Jews worldwide, he was THERE and wrote visceral accounts of the events of 1982. Other conservative and right-wing rabbis have also shown eloquence on the Middle East conflict. Wihtout doubt, attendance at a British synagogue has helped enlighten many about the crisis in Israel. The fact that Daniel Pearl is reported to have had no active Jewish life might just have contributed to his naivete. He may have been a brilliant journalist but he obviously breathtakingly miscalculated how hated Americans, and all Jews are in the countries he though he could visit without even so much as a bodyguard.
American Jewry is composed of 85% affiliation to the Progressive (Reform and Conservative) Movement. Israel is administered by the orthodox authorities. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is galling that a large Jewish community gives so much support to Israel still has limited representation in the Jewish State. Added to this is the hostility the average secular Israeli holds towards Diaspora Jews who do attend synagogue in their home countries. It has occurred to me that had there been one thousand John Rayners, David Goldbergs and Hugo Gryns preaching to Israelis in friendly shuls over the past fifty years, the polarisation within Israeli society might not have reached the level it reached in the months leading up to the Rabin assassination.
Last August some American friends visited me in London. I asked them if they were as gravely worried about the Intifadah as I was. They said, ‘What Intifadah?’ I explained what had been unfolding since September 2000, and they looked at one another. Their reply, ‘Oh, my dad sends a big cheque to Israel once a year – what are you getting all excited about?’
This is a complex and emotive issue and I am sure this article will have inflamed frum, secular and moderate Jews. But some of us sleep soundly at night knowing that we tried as hard as we could to awaken our fellow Jews to the history that led up to this sorry state of affairs. We have tried to exhort them to write to their MPs or US Congressmen, and to join groups that are directly involved in Israeli-Arab affairs and who hold regular meetings to discuss critical issues.
Recently, a fellow shul-goer told me she had just been on holiday to Syria. SYRIA ?? I asked, dumbfounded. She said, ‘Well, yes, why is that unusual?’ I explained to her that President Assad had not long before been giving speeches about the centuries of crimes committed by the Jews and had been brow-beating a numb-looking Tony Blair about the ‘Zionist entity.’ She said, ‘Really? But doesn't israel have a peace treaty with Syria?’ I told her she was lucky to be back in one piece. She said she was ‘fascinated by the Arab world.' Nothing wrong with that. But so was Danny Pearl.
Never in all my years as a professional writer have I been so conflicted about an issue. One minute I am thinking: ‘If we had had 10,000 Arik Sahron in 1933 we would not have died in ovens – we might at least have gone down fighting against the Nazi terror.’ Then a few hours later, as my Israeli yekke friends, who emigrated from Germany to Palestine in 1932, cry down the ‘phone to me about the war criminal Sharon, I am moved to feel some sympathy for the refugees of Jenin. A few hours on and I am infuriated to hear that another shul in France has been attacked by Muslims, and I want to scream out to the world: ‘Did hordes of rampaging expatriate Americans burn down mosques in Britain, the Gulf, across America and Europe because of September 11th? (Not that 9/11 in any way compares to the operation conducted by the IDF in the West Bank to root out the terrorists that the Palestinian police had failed to disarm)...
As the eminent British music critic Norman Lebrecht commented this week in 'The Evening Standard,' many of the 300 prominent British Jews who signed a Peace Now petition a few weeks ago had never before been politically active. One thing is for certain: my Arab, Iranian and Palestinian contacts are breathtakingly well-informed and read three or four newspapers a day. Unlike many Jews they attend their mosques and other places of worship on their Sabbaths without fail and some every day. We Jews have made immense contributions to every culture in which we live, but if we do not become scholars of Middle East history very soon, we may see our beloved Jewish State dissipate like the last wave of a sharav.