This time, even Jews can agree

By David Rowan, editor of The Jewish Chronicle (THE TIMES, 24/07/06):

ON FRIDAY I was harangued on live television as personally culpable for Israeli “genocide”. On Saturday I was assailed by e-mail missiles for daring to suggest that every civilian death was a human tragedy, when my only concern, apparently, should have been “the spillage of Jewish blood by Arab scum”. Yesterday it was the Jewish anti-Zionists’ turn to launch rhetorical rockets over their presumption that my newspaper considers Israel to have a pre-Messianic right to exist. It hasn’t proved the easiest of weeks to be the new Editor of The Jewish Chronicle.

Since my call-up to the British-Jewish front lines two months ago from the tranquil olive groves of The Times it has become clearer to me than a Maimonidean precept that there is no such thing as a “British Jewish community”. How a group of just 300,000 or so people can agree so determinedly to diverge on all significant matters communal, ecumenical and political would take a Talmudic genius as yet unborn to unravel. For a lively unaligned newspaper, the rows all make terrific copy, of course: the Jewish Association for Business Ethics that couldn’t tolerate non-Orthodox rabbis addressing its meetings; the ultra-religious adherents of the Neturei Karta sect who befriend Iranian Holocaust deniers and march step-by-step with Islamists committed to destroying Israel.

Yet amid Israel’s initial assault on Lebanon’s Hezbollah heartlands last week, I heard remarkably unified expressions of support among our readers for Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Prime Minister. From rabbis progressive and Orthodox, from synagogue-rejecting students and even peaceniks, there was a clear assumption that Olmert was obliged to act in the interests of his nation’s preservation. Certainly the mood remains sombre, and there are furious disagreements over the merits of a land invasion, the lack of any apparent exit strategy, and not least the consequences both in human suffering and in preserving any remaining vestiges of support for Jerusalem among all but the most conservative media commentators.

But this time, certainly among mainstream British Jewry, religious and secular, there is a widespread view that Israel faces a fundamental threat to its very existence.

As a secular non-ideologue, I can only position the JC, as the fair broker hosting the wide-ranging debate taking place, while ensuring that we report factually and straight what is happening in Lebanon and northern Israel. That sentence will inevitably launch another volley of bilious electronic rockets — but if British Jews are divided and uncertain over Ehud Olmert’s war strategy and his endgame, and deeply disturbed by the level of death and suffering visited on Lebanon, they remain damned sure that he had to stand up against terror.

Hezbollah is little more than a proxy battalion for both Iran and Syria in their fight to destabilise the region and realign the global balance of power. It was no accident that its initial rocket assault on northern Israel, and its capture of two Israeli servicemen and the killing of more, occurred just three days before the G8 met in St Petersburg, a neat distraction from the world’s focus on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Hezbollah missile that hit an Israeli warship ten days ago, killing four men, was reportedly an Iranian version of a Chinese C-802 Kowthar, just as the rockets that hit Haifa on July 16, killing eight Israelis, were quickly sourced to Syria. As Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, told the Arabic news channel Al-Arabiya: “The war is no longer Lebanon’s [but] an Iranian war. Iran is telling the United States: ‘You want to fight me in the Gulf and destroy my nuclear programme? I will hit you at home, in Israel.’ ”

Had the international community taken a stance as Hezbollah was accumulating up to 13,000 Katyusha rockets ready to aim at Israel, many of them hidden in southern Lebanese homes, perhaps the Israeli public and their British Jewish sympathisers would have been more critical of Olmert’s thumping response.

Had Hezbollah’s two main sponsors cast any doubt on their determination to wipe Israel off the map, maybe the current military onslaught would have been less acceptable to the 80 or 90 per cent of Israeli voters who last week offered Olmert their backing. Yet for all Olmert’s bold pledges to “destroy every terrorist infrastructure everywhere”, if his military commanders continue to act with only American and wavering British governmental support, while showing the world too little apparent concern for Lebanese civilian deaths, the worry here is that he will only weaken further his nation’s strategic interests, and its longer-term security, as fashionable discourse from talk show to dinner party questions ever more openly Israel’s moral right to exist.

That, to most British Jews, is the ultimate terror: a fear that, even after 350 years as a resettled population here in Britain, the psychological safe haven that is Israel will one day no longer be able to provide that “right of return”. The fact that yesterday’s main “solidarity rally” in support of Israel took place in a Jewish secondary school in suburban London, rather than anywhere more public, speaks volumes about current levels of anxiety.

Every bomb and mortar fired into Lebanon is echoing painfully in Jewish homes across the UK. Only opportunist propagandists could suggest that this is a fight that Israel and her diaspora friends sought.