"The Sunday Times August 06, 2006
What the British Jews think of Israel's war
There are doubts about tactics, but also resentment of media bias, says David Rowan
When two shipwrecked Jews were finally discovered on a tiny desert island their rescuers could not understand why they had spent their days building three synagogues. “Isn’t it obvious?” one of the dishevelled survivors shrugged. “An Orthodox one for me, a Reform one for him — and a third that neither of us would ever set foot in.”
When I began editing The Jewish Chronicle three months ago I was warned that this ever-so-slightly opinionated community of 300,000 or so people might drive me to empathise with Golda Meir’s supposed complaint to Harry Truman: that if he thought he had problems, she had to run a country comprising a couple of million prime ministers. Maybe it’s the centuries of Talmudic debate, but oy, do the Jews love a good argument.
So it is remarkable, amid all the juicy communal rows and furious falling-outs that normally tumble like manna onto our news pages, to see such a high degree of unity in support of Israel’s assault on Hezbollah. Even after Israel’s disastrous and widely condemned airstrike on the Lebanese village of Qana last Sunday barely a handful of our readers have been willing to voice open criticism of Ehud Olmert, the prime minister.
In private conversations with rabbis, activists, educators and ordinary secular and religious Jews from Gateshead to Golders Green, I heard all sorts of nuanced views last week, ranging from deep sadness at the suffering on both sides and reservations that Israel’s bombing campaigns might be undermining its longer-term security to anger at a perceived media bias in Hezbollah’s favour.
But publicly, for all the doubts being expressed about the efficacy of Olmert’s military strategy, there remains an extraordinary degree of agreement that he is absolutely morally justified in pursuing his lonely battle against the terror force next door. Because this conflict, it is widely understood, is a battle for Israel’s very survival against an enemy — backed by Iran and Syria — committed to eliminating the Jewish state.
For a mere newspaper editor to claim to speak for the diversity of British Jewry would be to invite an e-mail rocket assault as ferocious as anything raining onto Haifa and the Galilee. So what we have been doing, as the paper where the debate is taking place, is listening to readers’ views, asking questions and reflecting the breadth of opinion, from gung-ho heads of public companies to liberal Peace Now activists, even holding our breath to acknowledge ultra-religious anti-Zionist extremists such as Neturei Karta, whose rabbis march alongside Hezbollah flags and befriend Iranian Holocaust-deniers in their mutual quest to terminate the state of Israel.
Shortly before Qana we sent our reporters out on the streets across Britain to ask Jews, in roughly proportionate numbers to the community’s population distribution according to the census, whether they supported Israel’s actions in Lebanon. Of the 100 who responded 84 said “Yes” and just six said “No”. When asked, more specifically, whether they felt that Israel had overreacted in its response to Hezbollah, 70% felt that it had not, and only 20% felt that it had — a marked contrast to surveys in the national press.
Last week, as media coverage conveyed an increasingly decontextualised picture of Israel as the aggressor in this conflict, and commentators felt daily less restrained from making shameful assertions about its “genocide” and “Nazi-style collective punishment”, we repeated the exercise by talking to a range of public Jewish figures in fields from academia to the arts.
This time, with many respondents expressing heartfelt concern about civilian deaths in both countries, a widespread sympathy for Israel’s need to respond determinedly was tempered by an increasingly outspoken minority view that in practice its military strategy had proved flawed.
Authors such as Dannie Abse and Lisa Appignanesi told us that Israel’s military response to Hezbollah had indeed been “disproportionate”; the playwright Arnold Wesker, while blaming Hezbollah and the Lebanese government for the conflict, worried that “hollow Israeli apologies” for Qana demonstrated a “blind(ness) to the image they are allowing to be presented to the world”.
Such increasingly open criticisms are still far from the dominant views of mainstream British Jews, for whom the psychological safe haven that is Israel must be protected at all costs from enemies committed to its extinction. More representative of our mailbag are the comments we reported from the writer Simon Sebag-Montefiore, who berated the few “silly Jews in comfortable Hampstead villas” who failed to see that “Israel has every right to defend itself against Hezbollah, a powerful anti-western, Iran-backed terror state-within-a-state [that had] fired missiles from civilian areas precisely to provoke tragedy”.
Maureen Lipman, too, was contemptuous of “assimilated, sometimes self-despising Jews such as Gerald Kaufman and Harold Pinter” who had been openly critical of Jerusalem. “What exactly is a proportionate response to unprovoked attacks on a country’s borders and to the kidnapping of members of its armed forces?” she asked. “A letter? A sanction? A slapped wrist?”
But if openly articulated dissent within this community is beginning to grow amid deep soul-searching about Olmert’s dangerously overbullish military assessments, his forces’ poor intelligence gathering, and the wider consequences of such widespread destruction of Lebanese infrastructure and services — not to mention the heart-stopping images of dead children beamed around the world’s television networks — there are two aspects of this conflict that continue to unite most readers in agreement.
First, there is a widespread perception that much of the British media — in particular the BBC — is failing to report the conflict fairly. With more than 2,000 Hezbollah rockets pouring into Israel, with hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians displaced, with loose talk on broadcast discussions of Israeli “war crimes” and rather less focus on Hezbollah’s own breaches of international law — there is an assumption among many of our readers of an instinctive anti-Israel bias.
Second, and far more significantly, there is a fear that events in Lebanon will make life more difficult for diaspora Jews wherever they stand on Lebanon. In last week’s paper we covered the desecration of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, the vandalism of Jewish shops and synagogues from Sydney to Rome, and Mel Gibson’s outburst about Jews being “responsible for all the wars in the world”. We also reported on growing evidence of anti-semitic attacks in Britain including the swastikas and phrase “Kill all Jews” daubed onto a Jewish doctor’s home in Hampstead Garden Suburb.
That, in essence, is why what unites British Jews matters more at a time like this than what divides us. Because, as a rabbi reminded me last week, when a Lebanese-born Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 85 Jews in Argentina 12 years ago, he didn’t stop to inquire where they each stood on the war.
David Rowan is editor of The Jewish Chronicle"