Forty years ago during the early summer of 1978, 348 reserve and non-commissioned officers signed an open letter to prime minister Menahem Begin. It stated that ‘a government that prefers the establishment of the State of Israel in the borders of a Greater Israel above the establishment of peace through good neighbourly relations instils in us many doubts.’ Within a few weeks, 100,000 Israelis had added their names. The Peace Now movement had come into existence.
The officers had written the letter because of an impasse in Israeli-Egyptian negotiations, following the euphoria of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and his plea for ‘no more war’. Begin’s subsequent meeting with Peace Now leaders resulted in a dialogue of the deaf. Golda Meir was distinctly unsympathetic and Moshe Dayan simply refused to meet anyone representing Peace Now.
Yet this was a mass mainstream movement involving business people and housewives, elite soldiers and rabbis as well the traditional purveyors of liberal attitudes. Above all, it numbered multitudes of young people who had been born after the establishment of the state.
By 1981, the PLO had embedded itself in southern Lebanon and had embarked on a war of attrition. Nahariya had been shelled and there was a fear of a gradual depopulation of northern Israel to escape any hostilities.
In his second government in 1981, Begin had veered away from a pragmatic approach and returned to the radicalism of his youth. He appointed the controversial Ariel Sharon as his minister of Defence and prepared to clear hostile elements from their positions on Israel’s northern border. In June 1982, the Israeli cabinet agreed a 48 hour operation within a 40 km swathe of territory. Sharon dismissed the idea of a march on Beirut and the entire cabinet voted unanimously in favour with two abstentions. The following day Israeli troops were instructed to land north of Sidon rather than south of the Lebanese city as the cabinet believed. This was the beginning of Sharon’s deception of Begin and his circumvention of cabinet authority – the misnamed ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ ended in the siege of Beirut and the killing of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangists in the camps at Sabra and Shatilla while Israeli troops, oblivious of what was happening, stood guard outside. The PLO was evicted from Lebanon, but the division in Israel was deep and bitter. Attendance at anti-war demonstrations grew exponentially. After Sabra and Shatilla, a reputed 400,000 protested – the equivalent of 5 million at Hyde Park – even the wary leaders of the Labour party finally came out of the closet.
Such events had its reflection amongst British Jewry. If there was no consensus in Israel, why would one exist in the UK? Yet the communal leadership obediently recited from the official script despite their own growing unease. Like the prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, they felt more comfortable with the urbane Labour leader, Shimon Peres than the incendiary Menahem Begin.
The catalyst for the invasion had been the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador, Shlomo Argov, at the Dorchester Hotel by the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group which had broken with Arafat in 1974. Begin utilised this incident to attack the PLO in Lebanon. The Board of Deputies duly requested the closure of the PLO office in London while its president wrote to the Times attributing the attack of the Abu Nidal group on a Vienna synagogue to the PLO. In contrast, the British police confirmed that the head of the London PLO office had actually been next on the Abu Nidal assassins’ list of targets. It was this subservience amidst a distortion of reality that led Chaim Bermant to write in his JC column: ‘We can do with a Peace Now movement here and I believe I can see the beginnings of one.’
Amongst its early leaders were June Jacobs, who had been active in the Soviet Jewry campaign and was chair of Jewish Childs Day, Vivian Wineman, later a Board of Deputies president and David Cesarani, then an emerging young historian of the Holocaust.
With dissension spreading in the community, a 36 hour JIA mission was organised which took 150 British Jewish representatives to southern Lebanon to see for themselves. They met Begin who assaulted British politicians ‘who preach to us about humanity’ and Sharon who told the Jewish leaders that the move beyond the 40 km line had been due to Syrian provocations. Yet the week before, Sharon had told the Israeli journalist, Yeshayahu Ben-Porat, that he had been planning this move ever since he had achieved office. Abba Eban who strongly opposed the war scathingly described the willingness of Diaspora leaders to go along with this version of events as ‘the vulgarity of the fundraisers’. He was never invited by official organisations to speak about the war.
Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits was deeply troubled. He later wrote:
Evidently, not only did rabbinic scholars hesitate to provide any guidance in the light of Jewish teaching on the legitimacy of inflicting civilian casualties on such an enormous scale, and indeed Israeli army losses by the hundreds, but they did not even want the question raised and discussed.
As the debacle of the Lebanon war moved towards it denouement, Jewish leadership changed from a position of enthusiastic support to one of studied neutrality. Israeli President Navon’s call for an inquiry, following the killings at Sabra and Shatilla, was eagerly endorsed by many Jewish bodies in the UK – happy to find a route out of the quagmire.
The cost of the war was over 600 Israeli dead and nearly 4000 injured, at least 5000 Lebanese civilians killed, a loss of friends and a tarnished reputation.
Peace Now remains active in Israel, although diminished in numbers, due mainly to the rise of Palestinian Islamism and a mood of rejectionism in Israel. The British Friends of Peace Now continued to pose an alternative version of events through a plethora of activities. A thorn in the side of official bodies, it provided a safety net for disillusioned young people and spawned the development of groups such as the New Israel Fund. Yet as the Board of Deputies recent criticism of Netanyahu’s nation state bill indicates, attitudes towards official Israeli government policies have become far less acquiescent. According to the 2013 JPR report on immigration to Israel, 95% of Britons did not settle in West Bank settlements.
Immanuel Jakobovits, Chaim Bermant, David Cesarani and June Jacobs have all passed on, but their legacy, passed down to us, is to have the courage of your convictions, not to bow to intimidation and to be a small-still voice in difficult times.
Jewish Chronicle 31 August 2018