Friday, 4 December 2009

Open letters, the Goldstone Report, and the Zionist Federation

The Zionist Federation published a press release on Wednesday. Written in response to an open letter in the Times endorsing the Goldstone Report – that letter having been produced by Independent Jewish Voices and other Jewish organizations – the ZF’s press release informs readers that ‘most of the signatories [of the letter] have little connection with Jewish organizations’.

It should be noted that the ZF makes this claim without offering any supporting evidence. It’s also unclear what they mean by ‘Jewish organizations’. After all, the letter they attack was expressly supported by five Jewish organizations. Perhaps the Zionist Federation has chosen to adopt some hitherto unknown definition of ‘Jewish organizations’ so as to exclude those Jewish organizations that do not ‘stand squarely with Israel’.

Having signed the letter myself, along with around 600 others (seven of them Rabbis) I quite resent the suggestion that I and my co-signatories have ‘little connection with Jewish organizations’; ‘only self-identify for the sole purpose of public vilification of Israel’; and ‘represent a tiny idiosyncratic publicity-seeking fringe which takes its cue from Iran, Libya and Zimbabwe’. I mean really? Really? Is the ZF seriously suggesting that the 600 of us who signed the letter, as though incapable of independent thought, actually waited to see what Iran, Libya and Zimbabwe will do in order to ‘take our cue’?

Particularly contemptible is the ZF’s claim that the signatories ‘only self-identify’ as Jews ‘for the sole purpose of vilification of Israel’. Again, no evidence is provided to substantiate this claim. Does the ZF think that the Rabbis who signed the letter only self-identify as Jewish because they want to demonise Israel?

To suggest that those who signed the letter must be insincere about their Judaism – only self-identifying as Jews in order to attack Israel – is also deeply offensive. It attempts to cast doubt on the idea that a Jew may both self-identify as a Jew out of a love for their Jewish heritage and endorse the Goldstone Report; the insinuation being that to support the Goldstone report is evidence of someone’s not really being very Jewish. The ZF are, in effect, trying to propagate the idea that the Jewish identity of Jews who publically criticize Israel is in some sense illegitimate.

This idea, as well as being hurtful to those like me who are passionate about their Judaism while being openly critical of Israel, reveals an ignorance of British Jewish history. In 1897, at the time of the first World Zionist Congress, the then Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, Hermann Adler, described the event as an ‘egregious blunder’, denouncing the idea of a Jewish State as ‘contrary to Jewish Principles’. Twenty years later, the then president of the Board of Deputies, Lindo Alexander, wrote an open letter in the Times (it must be a Jewish thing) rejecting Zionism. He was shortly after forced to resign, but not, as historian Geoffrey Aldermann notes, because of his anti-Zionism, but rather because his letter purported to represent the views of British Jewry, when in fact no discussions had first taken place to gage the views of the community. Alexander’s replacement, incidentally, was also not a Zionist. More recently, the previous Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovitz vocally opposed aspects of the Israeli occupation, eliciting a demand from Israel’s chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, for him to be excommunicated. None of these individuals self-identified as Jews for the sole purpose of publically vilifying Israel or Zionism. There is nothing illegitimate or inauthentic about their Jewish identity; the same is true for the signatories of the open letter in the Times.

I am a Zionist (albeit with some qualifications). Living as we do in a world of nation-states, in which the principle of national self-determination is generally upheld, it seems to me to be indefensible not to extend that principle to all peoples – and that includes the Jewish people. What the ZF have failed to appreciate, however, is that there is nothing incompatible about being a Zionist and a supporter of Israel on the one hand, and being prepared to condemn Israeli violations of international law on the other. (Richard Goldstone – author of the Goldstone report – is himself a Zionist). The ZF’s press release was entitled ‘British Jews stand squarely behind Israel’. This title is misleading. For a Zionist can stand squarely behind the existence of Israel without having to stand squarely behind Israeli violations of international law. That’s exactly what I intend to keep doing.

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