I’m proud to ‘conflate’ Jews with Israel, let’s not deny our roots

A visit to the magnificent synagogue in Garnethill, Glasgow built by my ancestors in the latter half of the 19th century brought home the truth of how we have always longed for Zion


LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: A protestor wearing a flag of Israel marches against anti-Semitism on November 26, 2023 in London, England. The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has sparked a wave of protests across Europe, and heightened concerns over anti-Semitism among Jewish communities. (Photo by Alishia Abodunde/Getty Images)

February 13, 2024 11:55

It’s not every day that you step inside a synagogue built by your family. But this was the honour that was afforded me last week in Glasgow when, after giving a talk to the local community, I was shown round the shul at Garnethill.

Completed in 1879, it is a glorious example of high Victorian ebullience and — as the first purpose-built synagogue in Scotland — an expression of growing self-confidence among the Jewish middle classes. The façade is of heavy brown stone, engraved like a church with arches, pillars and embellishments, and crowned with a Hebrew inscription. But it is the interior that truly takes your breath away.

Seating 580 in polished wooden pews, it is sumptuous in colour, Romanesque in design and Byzantine in detailing. Stained-glass windows once again represent an effort to stand tall alongside Christianity. At the front, the holy ark has an almost Moorish feel, with three golden domes and rows of pointed, blue arches, which I first assumed reflected the fascination with exoticism common to the period.

According to the Jewish Chronicle of 1879, the new synagogue was the brainchild of a certain Benjamin Simons, my great-great-great-grandfather, founder of what was then the largest fruit import-export firm in the world. His company even had offices in Boston and Canada, an impressive feat for the era. For years, Benjamin had been lending his warehouses to the community for overspill services on festivals (you can see his monogram, and those of his sons, embossed on the warehouse walls to this day); the need for a new synagogue was acute.

“The gentleman who actively superintended the operations was Mr Benjamin Simons, and his services were fully appreciated, the congregation presenting him with a testimonial of their recognition,” the JC reported. Benjamin, it added, had “a very zealous interest in the erection of the new synagogue”. His son, Michael Simons, also a force behind Garnethill synagogue, became even more prominent than his father. He is remembered as a patron of the arts, who was behind the great Glasgow Exhibitions of 1890 and 1901 and founded the Theatre Royal and the King’s Theatre. He also established the first Jewish Freemasons’ Lodge (Montefiore Number 753) and was recognised as the de facto community leader of his day.

It was most moving to walk in the echoing footsteps of my ancestors, generously accompanied by Harvey Kaplan and Jack Silverstone of the archive attached to the synagogue. But it was the holy ark in particular that conjured my thoughts. It is unlikely, if not impossible, that either my ancestors or the synagogue architects, John McLeod of Dumbarton and Nathan Solomon Joseph of London, ever travelled to the Holy Land. Yet the glory of the ark, topped with its three golden domes, seemed to represent the rapt gaze of Victorian Jews as they sought to evoke the Jerusalem of their faith, culture and imagination in a corner of rainy Glasgow.

It wasn’t about fascination with exiticism. It was something much deeper. Middle Eastern domes were a fixture of diaspora synagogue architecture across Europe and the United States in the 19th century. Examples include the Beth El and Shaarai Tephila synagogues in New York, built in 1891 and 1869 respectively; the Great Synagogue in Jelgava, Latvia, which was constructed in 1860 and tragically burned down during the Shoah, with the rabbi and some congregants still believed to be inside; and, of course, the magnificent Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße in Berlin, with its gleaming, ribbed onion domes, consecrated in 1866. All of these speak of one truth. For all our attempts to locate our traditions alongside Christianity as patriotic citizens of Germany, or Latvia, or Scotland — some rabbis in Britain wore dog collars until fairly recently — Israel has always been at the very root of our culture and identity, even for those of us who died without setting foot on its soil. This is our oddity. However integrated we become and however many corners we manage to smooth, we remain at heart a Middle Eastern race.

This puts a fresh complexion on the bad-faith argument, often made by the Left, that to “conflate” Jews and Israel is a species of antisemitism. This has always struck me as largely disingenuous. It is simply undeniable that Israel and Jewishness are inextricably interwoven, and have been since we were exiled to Babylon around 598 BCE. For millennia, Jews in the diaspora have prayed facing towards the Holy City, exclaimed “next year in Jerusalem” at Passover, mourned the destruction of the Temple by breaking glasses at weddings, left a corner of our homes undecorated, bowed our foreheads to the Kotel, longed to be buried on the Mount of Olives, and visited on pilgrimage. Many throughout history have taken the step of uprooting their families and returning to our homeland. All these traditions, of course, continue to this day.

Denying all this takes some effort. What is wrong with Israel? Why should we wish to disassociate from it, in spite of millennia of culture? Why should we not defend it? Attempting to renounce the very root of our culture is what happens when Jews absorb the mendacious arguments of those who wish us harm. It represents a great victory for our enemies. As Howard Jacobson put it in a recent JC column: “Insist your innocence of someone else’s heinous misdeeds and all you do is concede the heinousness.”

Obviously it is stupid to criticise a Jew as a proxy for the Israeli government, just as it would be stupid to criticise a British citizen for a cockup by the Foreign Office. But just as Britons of all faiths are entitled to hold this green and pleasant land in our hearts, Jews should have no shame about holding our ancestral homeland, domes and all, alongside it.

February 13, 2024 11:55

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