Goldberg's variations on Zionist thinking

By Lawrence Joffe, April 6, 2012

This is not the way: Jews, Judaism and Israel By David Goldberg Faber & Faber, £14.99

Often outspoken Liberal rabbi emeritus David Goldberg's This Is Not The Way is a searing critique of Israel's slide from democratic values, and a lament about how the state has come to dominate the Jewish agenda worldwide. Yet it is also a book written in a spirit of love for his people.

Much of Goldberg's ire is reserved for the febrile talk of the "next Holocaust", of anti-Zionism merely masking old fashioned antisemitism (ignoring the fact that Zionism was once a distinctly minority opinion among world Jewry).

He chides Aipac and others as constituting a powerful lobby that paradoxically denies its own existence. In fact, he says, the lobby is, ironically, less representative than it claims to be of mainstream Jewry.

We have, he says, dropped the old identifiers of Jewish values - God, Torah and the Jewish people - for a new trinity of Holocaust, antisemitism and fealty to the state of Israel. This can and should be reversed, Goldberg believes, if we acknowledge a new category, beyond Conservative, Progressive and Orthodox - that of the cultural Jew.

The book's title draws on the prescient essay, This Is Not The Way, by Ahad Ha-am, the great thinker who was a Zionist before Theodor Herzl even knew the term. Like Ha-am, Goldberg casts his gaze on the moral shortcomings of Jewish chauvinist attitudes to Arabs already living in Palestine, and now Israel.

Goldberg excels in splicing together scholarly observations with surprising humour and reviving neglected Jewish ethical values by holding a Passover for Palestinians - something even Elie Wiesel should approve of, he guesses.

On the other hand, Goldberg exploits the space to, for example, rehearse his overlong spat with Anthony Julius over the latter's tome on antisemitism or to segue into abstruse territory about intermarriage, conversion, and the old Progressive vs Orthodox ding-dong.

If this sounds as though Goldberg is over concerned to appear "right on", his critics may be surprised by his observations about Muslim antisemitism in Britain.

Once, writes Goldberg, Zionism was a bold response to modernity that "adapted metaphors of faith to [its] own secular purposes" and "positioned itself in the mainstream of Jewish history as a fulfilment of, not a rupture with, the Jewish past". Now it has transformed into a more tribal identification that brooks no dissent and subordinates "the dictates of Jewish conscience to the tawdry manoeuvrings of Israeli politics".

At the same time, Israel is pivotal to the Jewish experience, and Goldberg writes compassionately and proudly about "my people, stubborn, stiff-necked, disputatious, energetic, adaptable, resilient and enormously talented". To those, like Arnold Toynbee, who call Judaism a fossilised religion, Goldberg argues that it will add its own "distinctive contribution to improving the world" for centuries to come.

Lawrence Joffe's 'An Illustrated History of the Jewish People' will be published later this year

Last updated: 11:11am, April 6 2012