Socialist Worker

True believers question faith

by John Rose
Issue No. 1816

THE ISRAELI novelist David Grossman has described the 'depth of internal poison that our huge use of violence causes us'. That poison is now sapping the confidence of Jewish communities outside Israel, resulting in mainstream British Jewish leaders speaking out with unprecedented vigour.

Gerald Kaufman, Labour's most senior Jewish MP, will explain on BBC2 this Saturday evening at 7pm why his love affair with Israel is over. Angry commentators in the Jewish Chronicle have already attacked him for making this broadcast at the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Two weeks ago the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, told the Guardian that 'events in Israel on a daily basis' made him feel 'very uncomfortable as a Jew'. The Chief Rabbi says he might even meet Sheikh Abu Hamza, the north London Muslim cleric who admires Bin Laden, as part of the urgent need for inter-faith dialogue.

Kaufman's political discussions are sometimes naive and inconsistent. Certainly his enthusiasm for former Israeli Labour leader Ehud Barak sits uneasily with the sense of personal nausea he feels for the rest of the modern Zionist state. As he says, 'The Jewish people, whose gifts to civilised discourse include Einstein and Epstein, are now symbolised around the world by the blustering bully Ariel Sharon.'

The brutal architecture he sees everywhere also symbolises the brutality of the Israeli state. And he contrasts these grotesque buildings with probably 'the most beautiful building in Israel, the old mosque in Haifa'.

His loathing for the religious Jewish bigots is palpable. If this is now Zionism then he's had enough of it. The dream of a land where socialist kibbutz communes make the desert bloom is dead. This dream has been in his heart and soul since he was a child in Leeds before the war. By suggesting an unhinging of Jewish humanitarian values from the Israeli state, the Chief Rabbi also raises fundamental questions about the evolution of Zionism.

This has left Sharon supporters in the UK incandescent, and they are demanding his scalp. That's why, says the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland, the left must now close ranks with him. This is too restricting. We need to welcome the Chief Rabbi's intervention and, at the same time, widen the argument he has sparked. For example, he's hovering as to whether anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. For him, it is if it becomes an attack on the collective right of the Jewish people to what he calls 'defensible space'.

What does he mean by this? In the 1930s socialists helped Jews in London's East End successfully defend their space against Mosley's fascists. Jewish defensible space isn't necessarily in Palestine. Presumably the Chief Rabbi meant defensible space in an Israel behind 1967 borders having evacuated the West Bank and Gaza.

But this space was seized by military force in 1948, resulting in the ethnic cleansing of nearly one million Palestinian refugees. We need to hear from the Chief Rabbi about their right to return. In Kaufman's film, the Arabs who remained, and who live in Israel today, speak warmly of their friendships with Jews but feel oppressed by their Israeli citizenship.

The real test now is to help fashion a 21st century concept of citizenship, which eliminates the anti-Arab racism built into the original Zionist model, and replaces it with equal rights for all the peoples in Palestine.

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Sat 7 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1816
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