Gerald Kaufman: The Chief Rabbi must not back down on Israel
I am sure Dr Sacks is unused to the foul tone of the hate mail which some Jews send to other Jews
[The Independent - 03 September 2002]
My text today comes from the Book of Samuel: "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan." Last week I was among those who praised the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, when he spoke out about the predicament faced by Israel. He said what a number of us, myself included, have been saying for many months, namely that the manner in which the Israeli government is responding to the terrorism that has killed more than 500 innocent Israelis was – apart from failing to quell the terrorism – corrupting the ethos of the Israeli state.
Now, faced with a vicious reaction from the sort of fanatical right-wing Jewish chauvinists who have made me their target for most of this year, Sacks has backtracked: he has been misinterpreted; he did not mean what he is alleged to have meant. To quote again from the Samuel: "How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan..."
I have the highest personal regard for Jonathan Sacks. I am sure he is unused to the foul tone of the hate-mail which some Jews send to other Jews. He is a cultivated cleric, an intellectual, rightly accustomed to a respectful reception for his pronouncements.
But hate-mail is only words, and words cannot hurt those who know they are right. That what Jonathan Sacks said a week ago was right was confirmed earlier this week by none other than the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav – and Katsav, elected two years ago by the right-wing dominated Israeli Parliament, won his office by defeating the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and former Labour leader, Shimon Peres.
Yet it is Katsav who has now asked whether the Israeli armed forces have been getting "trigger-happy". Over the weekend the ironically-named Israeli Defence Force slaughtered 11 Palestinians, six of them unarmed civilians. Last week they killed four members of one family sleeping under their fig trees.
Not only were these killings unpardonable. they were also counter-productive. Although for four weeks there have been no deaths of Israeli civilians caused by Palestinian terrorists, how long can this apparent immunity go on? Friday of this week is the eve of Rosh Hashanah. the Jewish New Year, and the start of the 10 holiest days in the Jewish calendar. I pray that Israeli civilians go unscathed during this period; but will those prayers be answered? If there are terrorist attacks the Israeli forces will retaliate, leading to yet further Palestinian atrocities. The perpetuum mobile becomes the Dance of Death.
That is why I believed that what Sacks said last week was so important, and why I regret that he is now resiling. A year ago, during the Jewish New Year, he delivered a sermon at St John's Wood synagogue, London, where I worship, which was so hardline as to cause me immense sadness. I thought he had now learned better. I do not know what he will be saying this New Year, but after his vacillations of the past few days it will not, unfortunately, carry credence either with the hardliners or with those of us who want the peace process to be resumed.
The need for that peace process is underlined by my film for BBC2, The End of an Affair, which is to be transmitted during the New Year period. Even if it triggers more hate mail – as it inevitably will – I hope that this film will send a message not only to Jews of goodwill and to other Britons but to our own government. Tony Blair is reported as insisting that any action against Iraq must be preceded by a resumption of the Middle East peace process (though he must know that an attack on Iraq would wreck any resumed Middle East peace process).
Previous advances towards peace have been accompanied, or brought about, by the active involvement of US presidents. Jimmy Carter encouraged negotiations between Egypt's President Sadat and the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had the sense to make a peace treaty with Egypt possible by withdrawing from Sinai. George Bush senior imposed economic sanctions on Begin's Likud successor, Yitzhak Shamir, to force him into peace talks in Madrid. Bill Clinton was host at the Camp David talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat; even though those talks did not achieve success, they were important in continuing a process which has now been brought to a grinding halt by the thuggish approach of Israel's present, and worst, Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.
Today there is a complete power vacuum in Washington over the Middle East, with fundamental disagreement at the highest level. President Bush and his National Security Adviser, the ineffable Ms Rice, are too dim to understand the issues. Vice-President Cheney and the historically myopic Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are so gung-ho as to make the bellicose John Foster Dulles seem a peacenik. To make the prospect even glummer, with the Republicans falling behind in the opinion polls as the United States approaches mid-term elections two months from now, Bush will doubtless be looking for Jewish votes and not caring what it takes to get them.
The British government therefore has not just an opportunity but a duty to use the special relationship first to explain to Bush the indispensability to Western security and Western economic equilibrium of a Middle East peace process, and then to push Bush into being involved in such a process. Otherwise, I shudder at the thought of the kind of sermon Jonathan Sacks may have to deliver at Rosh Hashanah, 2003.
The author is the Labour MP for Manchester, Gorton. His film 'The End of an Affair' is broadcast on BBC2 from 7-8pm on Saturday