‘No more silence; no more compromise, no more acquiescence; no more vacillation, no more appeasement’.
So spoke a young deputy at a Board of Deputies meeting in September 1982, defiantly challenging its leadership. It was directed at the Board’s Israel policy in the aftermath of the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in the Lebanese camps of Sabra and Shatilla while Israeli soldiers unknowingly kept guard outside.
Forty years ago this week, the IDF invaded Lebanon to ostensibly root out the PLO from Israel’s borders by launching Operation Peace for Galilee. It was supposed to last 48 hours, the Israelis instead reached the outskirts of Beirut and remained in Lebanon for more than two years. This conflict in 1982 proved to be a moral failure, marked by bitter protests in Israel and in the Diaspora. In the war’s aftermath, the Kahan Commission called for resignations and dismissals of the political and military elite. No songs have been written about this war.
In Britain, the debate about the invasion marked a generational conflict — a watershed in how British Jews saw Israel.
The debate at the Board of Deputies had been punctuated by foot-stamping and intimidating catcalls when known critics were about to speak. When another young deputy called for the resignation of Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon, there was at first a stunned silence, followed by an apoplectic rage by the older members.
The generation which had come of age during a time of Nazi savagery and the heroic rise of a Hebrew Republic felt not only outraged, but deeply betrayed.
They saw themselves as a fighting generation — one which had survived to dance on Hitler’s grave and against all odds restored the Jewish state after two millennia. Most identified Jewish unity with Jewish uniformity. Anyone who dissented was cast out.
The decade following the Six Day War in 1967 challenged all this. A young Amos Oz called for recognition of the Palestinians as a nation while an aging Prime Minister Golda Meir asked ‘Who are the Palestinians?’
Jewish leadership in the UK had become used to supporting the heirs of Ben-Gurion. After 1977, they were now faced with praising the new prime minister, Likud’s Menahem Begin whom they had spent years privately disparaging and publicly marginalising.
The presence of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War spawned many small opposition groups in this country such as Young Mapam, Siah and Breira. Many Jewish intellectuals, academics and writers similarly felt less sympathetic to Israel because of its government’s policies, but they did little about it.
Their professional inclination was to ask difficult questions — an exercise which did not endear itself to the leadership of British Jewry. Academics and writers were only wheeled out when required to perform a public relations function. Many were loyal supporters and contributors to Jacob Sonntag’s periodical, the Jewish Quarterly.
Forty years ago, the war in Lebanon brought together all these disparate strands. It coincided with the emergence of a new generation, born after the end of the war, who were distant in time from both the Shoah and the rise of Israel.
Ben-Gurion had said in the early decades of Israel’s existence that there was no such thing as Zionism anymore and clearly regarded the Diaspora as little more than a hinterland for fundraising for worthy projects and local political support. British Jews, in turn, began to replace Zionist ideology in all its complexity with a bland pro-Israelism.
Hasbarah (explanation) sat somewhere in between informatzia (information) and taamulah (propaganda). In 1982, the same basic information about the Lebanon war was disseminated to both the Jewish community and the wider public. So what was propaganda for non-Jews became essential facts for Jews.
British Jews were thereby informed that in June 1982 the Israeli Ambassador, Shlomo Argov, had been shot outside London’s Dorchester Hotel by a PLO member. In fact, Argov had been cruelly cut down by an Abu Nidal unit which, it is believed, was supplied with arms from the Iraqi Embassy. Despite the knowledge that Abu Nidal had broken with the PLO in 1974 and murdered many PLO diplomats, Menahem Begin insisted that there was no difference — and invaded Lebanon in the hope of stopping PLO attacks on Israel’s northern border. The approach of the Board of Deputies and other Jewish organisations was simply to repeat the official line of the Israeli government. Sharon complicated matters further by going beyond the defined limits of the campaign while keeping the Israeli Cabinet completely in the dark as to what was happening. Such duplicity fuelled growing demonstrations in Israel itself — and this was reflected by the younger generation of British Jews.
The then Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, was desperately unhappy about the imbroglio in Lebanon. As far back as December 1973, he had told a Jerusalem audience that Israel expected ‘blank cheques’ from the Diaspora. His successor, Jonathan Sacks, then a rabbi at London’s Dunstan Road synagogue and a sympathiser with the religious peace movement in Israel, wrote that after giving his Shabbat morning sermon, an older congregant who ‘held a senior position on the London Bet Din’ strode defiantly onto the bimah (pulpit).
‘(he) declared to the congregation that my call for an inquiry into Sabra and Shatilla was tantamount to a chillul ha’Shem (the desecration of God’s name). There was little doubt in my mind that the sympathies of the congregations were with him.’
Many academics such as the late David Cesarani became involved and the British Friends of Peace Now was formed in north London as a result of this fervour. But the war took its toll on the community and divided organisations, congregations and families in acrimonious dispute.
Many asked in 1982 whether the Jewish state belonged to its citizens or to the entire Jewish people? Younger British Jews — while not having a vote for the Knesset — argued that they had a right to an opinion. Older British Jews remembered the trauma of past persecution and found it hard to stomach even a scintilla of criticism.
Forty years ago, the Bar-Ilan University academic, Charles Liebman, wrote that whereas the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jews shared the classic dream of a Jewish homeland, the state had ‘no universal meaning for most Diaspora Jews’. Liebman argued that the reason why the Diaspora does not press Israel into doing something different was because its vision of a different world, a different society, a different social order, was not related to its vision of Israel.
During the last twenty years, demographic surveys of British Jews on a plethora of subjects have been carried out. They indicate what the ordinary Jew in the street thinks about Israeli policies — and these are often at variance with the official line of Jewish organisations.
As a letter of 40 prominent British Jews in 2019 to the Israeli Ambassador noted when they criticised the Trump Plan and the potential annexation of part of the West Bank: ‘Our concerns are shared by large numbers of the Jewish community including many in its current leadership even if they choose not to express them.’
Forty years on from the Lebanon war, British Jews are undoubtedly more vocal and probably better educated about Israeli politics due to the use of the internet and social media. Even so, some were very happy to meet the controversial Israeli politician Bezalel Smotrich, posing as someone who represented traditional religious Zionist values, when he recently visited this country. While times have indeed changed, for some, the lessons of 1982 have yet to be learned.
Jewish Chronicle 3 June 2022