A Jewish friend of mine, now in her 20s, recently told me about a shocking incident while she was at school. Aged 16 she was confronted in front of her class by a history teacher and was asked to explain Israel’s conduct. As a typical teenager more interested in fashion than foreign policy she was horrified to be put in the spotlight to represent a foreign country and one that she had little affiliation to.
This singling out betrays a view still common now. British Jews are seen as representative of, and responsible for, Israel’s actions. But many of the young today like myself – second, third or fourth generation – see themselves as British and Jewish. And British and Jewish only. This does not mean we are affiliated to Israel by default.
Many Jews here do of course have links to Israel. My uncle moved there in his 30s, bringing up his two children in Tel Aviv. Both my cousins, one my own age, have served in the army. My great-great uncle, the English banker and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, played a founding role in building the first Jewish settlements outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem
Israel does have much to be proud of and has a place in history as the only democracy in the Middle East. But whether its recent actions have been right or wrong is beside the point. British Jews should not be held responsible for Israel unless they choose to be. They, after all, are not its voters or citizens. Despite my own connections and history, what I really want is to be free from having to explain, to justify, to comment on or condemn Israel’s actions.
Let me tell you a small anecdote from Dr Jonathan Romain, minister of the Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire, to illustrate this conundrum. During the recent Israel-Gaza conflict some members of the public called Romain to ask: “Why are you doing such terrible things in Israel?” He answered: “It is not me who is doing it.” The rabbi sees himself first and foremost as a British Jew. And this does not make him de facto Israeli. He illustrates this in a simple analogy about reading the papers: “I first of all read the front page to get the news, then the back page to get the sport. Finally, I turn to the foreign pages to read about Israel.” The message is clear. Israel is a concern but never higher on his day to day agenda than home news and issues.
The question is, would a teacher dare to confront a second-generation Pakistani boy at school to explain why the Mumbai attacks happened? Would members of the public ring a British-Pakistani imam to demand answers? Of course not, and rightly so. The idea is preposterous and offensive. British Pakistanis here have no more control over actions of individuals from Pakistan or the Pakistani government than British Jews have over the Israeli government.
At a time like this Israel is neither fashionable nor liked. Lay members and rabbis alike find themselves answerable for what Israel does and doesn’t do – in the press, in work, in friendship circles and at school. The most recent conflict has inevitably magnified perceptions of British Jewry’s alliance with Israel. This year alone there have been more than 150 reported cases of antisemitism, making 2009 the worst year since records began a quarter of a century ago. And we are only in March. But the Jewish population here must not be held responsible for Israel’s decisions there.
There are, of course, many here who do support Israel wholeheartedly and without reserve, seeing it as their homeland. In her blog, columnist Melanie Phillips takes this a step further by calling “self-hating Jews” who publicly criticise Israel “beneath contempt”. According to Phillips “the destruction of Israel and genocide against the Jews is advanced every time a Jew-hating Jew spews such venom into the public sphere”.
That Phillips feels the need to spitefully attack fellow members of the community is sad. But both she and the Jews who publicly criticise Israel have one thing in common. Both factions – although opposite in views and ideology – assume that Jews are deeply and irretrievably tied to Israel. But I believe we have a right to choose whether we are answerable for – or even associated with – Israel’s actions. And I choose to abstain.