Even now, Jews must not give up on Israel

Published in the Evening Standard August 3 2006

On Tuesday night I was at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the lovely old building in Southwark converted into a theatre, bar and restaurant. I was there for a performance of The Last Five Years, a musical two-hander which tells, through song, the story of a romance turned sour.

It was light and witty ? especially for Jews in the audience. The couple in question are mixed ? he?s Jewish, she?s not ? and while that issue is barely explored, it does give the lyricist the chance to raise the odd smile. In his first song, Jamie belts out his delight at finding a ?shiksa goddess.? No more Annie Mincus, Karen Pincus or Lisa Katz for him: he will give his love to a good Christian girl. His opening line: ?I?m breaking my mother?s heart.?

That brought a laugh of recognition. But the evening also provided relief for those Jews who were there. For an hour or two they could escape what has become the nightly ordeal of watching the television news.

The ongoing war in Lebanon has cast a shadow over Britain?s Jewish community, whose biggest presence is in London. Headlines like the Standard?s yesterday ? Children Die in New Blitz ? have made the last four weeks difficult to bear in a way that other Londoners might not readily imagine.

Officially, the Jewish community stands fully behind Israel in its conflict with Hizbullah. Last week?s Jewish Chronicle carried an informal poll which showed majorities of 80% and higher backing the government in Jerusalem.

Yet those figures obscure a more nuanced truth. In reality, Jewish dinner tables have been noisy with anguished conversation about events in the Middle East. Some of that has been concern for friends and family in Israel: some 1500 British Jewish teenagers are currently undergoing the rite of passage that is a summer ?Israel tour.? Others have been, as so often, obsessing over perceived bias in the media coverage of the war.

But many are simply troubled by the human cost they see each day. All but the most stubborn hardliners have been distressed by the images that have come from southern Lebanon. No human heart can be untouched by the sight of a dead child, his small body still and grey from the dust of rubble.

For a small minority it is becoming all too much. Will Self spoke for them when he wrote on these pages last week that he felt like ?resigning as a Jew? over the Israeli army?s ?indefensible? conduct. Others are not ready to go quite so far ? if only because Jewishness is not like party membership, you can never really tear up your card. But they are poised to take what feels like an equally drastic step ? and give up on Israel once and for all.

I understand the despair that leads to such feelings. I was just 15 when I watched the footage of the last Lebanon war in 1982, as Ariel Sharon wreaked havoc with his calamitous invasion. The idea that, nearly a quarter century later, Israel is once again smashing buildings, razing villages and incurring worldwide fury is enough to make anyone feel as if Israel is a lost cause.

But I would urge Will Self and the rest of my fellow Jews not to give up on the Jewish state just yet. For one thing, despite appearances, this war is not some insane, random act of lashing out by Israel. Hizbullah poses a genuine threat: it has tens of thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli towns and cities. As we have seen over the last four weeks, it is not afraid to use them ? and it only ever aims at civilian targets.

Hizbullah are not partisans in the forest, heroic resistance fighters on a student bedroom poster. There is no meaningful occupation they are seeking to end: Israel effectively withdrew from Lebanon six years ago. Their leader is a man who says that the beauty of Israel is that, since it has gathered all the Jews in one place, ?it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.? Its idea of foreign activity was the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. Today Hizbullah are the proxy army of Iran, whose president vows to wipe Israel off the map.

All of which makes Israel?s fighting back legitimate. Which is not to say it is wise. I agree with those who believe the Israeli military has acted out of all proportion, at a terrible cost. But I don?t see how that constitutes a new and separate moral category from, say, Britain?s action in Iraq against the wholly bogus threat from Saddam ? a war which has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives. Yet I don?t remember Will Self resigning as a Briton over that.

So, yes, Israel?s current offensive is hideous to behold, excessive and self-defeating. But it is not devoid of justification and nor is it unique. There will be some Jews who cannot accept that, who cannot utter a word of defence for Israel?s behaviour. Yet even they should not give up on the country just yet.

For there are few political forces in the world that can change Israel. One is Israeli public opinion. The other is the US government. But the third is what Israelis would call the Jewish diaspora.

Israel likes to act in the name of the whole Jewish people. Yet if Jews around the world began to make clear their disaffection, even their anger, with Israeli policy, that would have a profound impact. It does not work if Jews express it as outsiders ? as opponents of Israel and all its works. But if the criticism comes from those who explicitly declare that they want to see Israel not only survive but thrive; if it comes from those who seek to be Israel?s candid friends, then Israelis will not be able to dismiss it ? they will have to listen.

This is the message for those who want Israel to change. Don?t resign, don?t give up ? but work to make Israel the country it should be.