The rabbinic precedent for speaking out on Israel

Chief Rabbi Jakobovits invoked the tradition of the prophets in advancing his views on Israeli-Palestinian peace


A couple of weeks ago some 40 or so prominent British Jews sent a letter to the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev, to oppose Israel’s planned annexation of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank.

The signatories included the Senior Rabbis of two religious movements, Reform’s Laura Janner-Klausner and Jonathan Wittenberg of Masorti. Although they signed in a personal capacity, they were unlikely to have done so unless they believed they had sufficient support within their memberships.

Last week the Liberals went further when Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, chairman of their Conference of Rabbis and Cantors, released an official statement on its behalf, saying the proposed move would damage the chances of peace with the Palestinians and affect diaspora engagement with Israel.

Conspicuously absent has been an Orthodox rabbinic voice. But it is tempting to wonder whether, had such a letter been written 30 years ago, it would have carried the name of the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, who was famed— his critics would say notorious — for his dovish views on Israel.

The answer is almost certainly not. Lord Jakobovits liked to do things his way and he also said he had made it a “categorical rule” never to publicly oppose an Israeli government decision.

But that did not prevent him expressing opinions that often made him seem an isolated figure within the Orthodox rabbinate and, indeed, invite sometimes fierce criticism from some of his international peers who felt he had broken ranks.

It is easy to forget how controversial within Jewish circles the idea of a Palestinian state was when he declared support for it in 1978 — some 15 years before the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians. While he opposed any redivision of Jerusalem, he could still envisage Vatican-like Palestinian enclaves within the city.

Although some would argue that rabbis should keep politics out of the pulpit, for Rabbi Jakobovits this was not a political issue in the narrow sense, but a moral one. His Zionism flowed from his Judaism and was shaped by what he saw as Jewish ideals.

While he held the Arabs responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem by going to war in order to thwart a Jewish state, he believed Jews could not remain indifferent to their plight. “Reliance on power alone and disregard for the sufferings of others were incompatible with our moral commitment and could not prevail in the long run,” he wrote in his book on Zionism, If Only My People… .

The book, published in 1984, is a proof-text for rabbis speaking out on potentially divisive issues. Invoking talmudic sources, he wrote, “Rabbis may be indicted before the bar of Heaven and of history for Jewish national aberrations compounded by their silence.” He quoted Isaiah, “For the sake of Zion I will not remain silent.”

He cited the same prophet again, who linked the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland to the sanctification of the Divine name across the world. “Kiddush Hashem has therefore always been the paramount theme in my projection of the Zionist ideal.” In other words, how other nations viewed what Israel did mattered.

His Judaism was outward-looking, in contrast to the inward focus of the religious nationalism that helped to fuel the settler enterprise. He was troubled by the messianic ideology that put reclamation of the Land of Israel before other values, warning “The pages of Jewish history are littered with the lethal shrapnel flung out by the explosion of pseudo-Messianic movements”.

He was “appalled and frightened” at the suggestion that Orthodox Judaism was uniform in making occupation of the biblical lands a priority above peace. He was “troubled and baffled” that the upholders of Jewish moral conscience in Israel in such issues were mostly secular rather than religious.

“Ideals such as peace, conciliation, tolerance, sympathy for the sufferings even of one’s enemies, and simple faith in the eventual triumph of human understanding — all so deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition — were virtually obliterated from the religious vocabulary of virtues,” he wrote.

He dismissed the oft-voiced argument that diaspora Jews should keep their views to themselves, saying that to exclude them from the “anguished debate on Israel’s future was a denial of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life —like treating the human heart without regard to the effects on other parts of the body”.

Criticism of the critics, he observed, tended to come only when they voiced moderate views , not when they thought that Israel should act tougher.

Organisations such as the Board of Deputies may not want to take sides in the politics of Israel out of pragmatism, maintaining unity as far as possible and avoiding any move that may jeopardise it. Indeed, so wary was the Board of exposing divisions within its own ranks that it recently shelved a survey to gauge deputies’ attitudes towards Israel.

But despite all the pressures not to rock the boat, some rabbis will continue to feel they have a duty to speak.

Lord Jakobovits recalled the swearing-in of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, when he remarked to the new state’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Isaac Herzog, “My installation restores Jewish political sovereignty in succession to the kings of Judah and Israel; your task is to resume the heritage of the Hebrew Prophets, to provide the moral opposition and spiritual challenges to the political establishment.”


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