It was a strange weekend. Saturday saw a demonstration against Israel’s military action in Gaza. Of course I was not there. I could never stand with those who oppose not just Operation Cast Lead but Israel itself, those who carry banners linking the Star of David to the swastika.
As a believer in Israel, someone who wants desperately to see that country flourish, that could clearly never be my place.
So would I be at the Sunday solidarity rally, standing in support of Israel? Well, no, I could not stand there either.
I know many went along simply to stand up and be counted as Jews. I know, too, that the official slogan of the demo called for nothing more controversial than “Peace for the people of Israel and Gaza.” Most of the speeches were careful to refer to the needs of Gaza’s people. But demonstrations are a blunt instrument: the message Sunday’s couldn’t help but send was support for the current Israeli mission in Gaza.
Indeed, our key communal organisations presented this as the unified, collective view of British Jewry. The JC’s front page declared: “Anglo-Jewry finds its voice.”
But that was not quite right. On Sunday morning, the Observer carried a letter from leading Jews sharply criticising Operation Cast Lead. The signatories were not the usual suspects; they could not be dismissed as marginal or, heaven forbid, “self-hating” Jews.
They included the leaders of Liberal and Reform Judaism in Britain, along with the pre-eminent British scholar of Jewish history, David Cesarani, and the architect of Holocaust Memorial Day, Michael Mitzman. Baroness Julia Neuberger was there, as was that indefatigable fighter against antisemitism, Shalom Lappin.
They declared themselves to be “profound and passionate supporters of Israel”. But they warned that Cast Lead “could strengthen extremists, destabilise the region and… threaten to undermine international support for Israel”.
Theirs is a welcome intervention. They confirmed that you do not have to stand with either the pro-Israel hawks or the anti-Zionist left. There is a space in between, filled by Jews who wrestle daily with doubt and anxiety. These Jews continue to love Israel, but they fear Cast Lead is at best futile and at worst bound ultimately to hurt Israel much more than it helps Israel.
I stand with them. I cannot nod when people declare that, “we must crush Hamas”. Because I fear that, no matter how repulsive we find Hamas’s charter and its tactics, it is not some alien implant into Gaza. It is rooted in that society.
If Israel kills one Hamas fighter, three more will rise up to take his place. It is less an organisation than an idea. Movements such as that cannot be crushed by force. There is never a military solution.
So I oppose Operation Cast Lead because I think it can never succeed in any way that lasts. Even after three weeks of massive aerial bombardment, the Hamas rockets have not stopped.
But the futility of Cast Lead is not the only reason to oppose it. There is a moral dimension and I fear we are not seeing it. Indeed, to flick through the JC last week was to witness a strange inversion. A visitor from Mars, seeing the ads from various organisations, would have assumed that Israel had come under massive aerial bombardment from the F16s of the Palestinian Air Force — not the other way around. Each ad cast Israel and Israelis as the true victims of Operation Cast Lead; it was “our soldiers” in the IDF who needed care packages to help them through the ordeal.
This is upside down. As I write, more than 900 Palestinians lie dead, nearly a third of them children. Israel has lost 13 lives, ten of them soldiers.
We can keep telling ourselves that the Gazan dead are dead not because Israel killed them, but because Hamas “hide” among civilians, and because Hamas goaded Israel into action. But this is to run from our responsibilities.
We have to own up to what is ours. And that means accepting that those dead children were killed not by Hamas but Israel. Wrapping ourselves in the cosy cloak of victimhood is beneath us — and it denies the reality of what Israel is doing.
Yes, I know the speakers at Sunday’s rally insisted their hearts went out to both Israelis and Gazans. But we should ask ourselves how deep that sentiment runs, or whether it is in fact lip service.
I have heard too many Israelis and British Jews argue that, in effect, the Palestinians brought this on themselves when they voted for Hamas in 2006.
What, even the traffic cop who simply needed a job and now lies dead? Even the children?
Yes, Jews have the right to defend themselves. But there is something else at stake here, too: it is a community, perhaps even a people, in danger of losing its moral compass.