The founding of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel in May 1948 changed history. For Jews, there is only before and after.
The proclamation of the state took 32 minutes. A few hours later Egyptian aircraft were bombing Tel Aviv as worshippers rushed home from shul. The Chief Rabbi’s Office in London issued an outline of a special Shabbat service of thanksgiving, expressing thanks they had lived to see this day.
It decreed Shir Hama’alot – usually associated with grace after meals on Shabbat and festivals – be recited. “When God brought back the exiles to Zion, it was as if we were in a dream — our mouths filled with laughter, our tongues bursting with song.”
Against all odds, Zionism prevailed and other ideologies that wished to resolve the Jewish problem — assimilation, conversion, Bundism, Communism — failed.
Zionism wanted to create not only a state but also a new society unlike the ones many Jews had escaped from; 1948 was full of hope and idealism as well as the reality of the hostility of Arab states.
The situation began to change in the UK after the Six Day War in 1967 and conquest of the West Bank. Small groups in London such as Siah, Young Mapam and Breira, following Amos Oz’s call for a two-state solution, challenged the accepted communal wisdom. Peace Now then emerged in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 — and the duplicitous explanation for it proved to be a watershed for those who had been born since 1945.
The previous generation which had lived through the Nazi destruction and the rise of Israel would not entertain a scintilla of criticism. Jewish unity then was identified solely with Jewish uniformity. Dissenters were regarded as beyond the pale. Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits had deep reservations about Israeli government actions in 1982 and was rebuked publicly by colleagues and congregants alike.
Fast-forward to 2023 and figures such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, from that far-Right community from which Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, had also emerged, had moved from the political fringe to the heart of government.
In the 2022 election, their joint list secured 14 seats, utilising the brand name of ‘Religious Zionism’. Smotrich had spent six weeks in police custody for his actions prior to Rabin’s murder while Ben-Gvir revered the memory of Rabbi Meir Kahane, a figure with a talent to divide and broadly detested in most sections of the Diaspora.
The advent of the internet allowed British Jews to inform themselves about events in Israel immediately without intermediaries. The development of demographic units in the community meant the opinion of the Jew in the street could count as well as those in leadership roles in Jewish organisations.
Yet while many sections of the UK community including a revitalised Board of Deputies and public figures have united to condemn any decision to remove the checks and balances that ensure politicians adhere to the rule of law, central orthodoxy stays ominously silent.
The cry that ‘the House of Israel’ should not be divided is an honourable one. The reality however is this deep division is due solely to Netanyahu’s proposals, undermining the state’s foundations and blurring its founders’ vision. UK central orthodoxy in the UK has effectively parcelled out comments about moral conduct in public office in Israel to Masorti, Reform, the Liberals and secular intellectuals and academics.
Why then not start a separate initiative in the name of the founders of religious Zionism, Kalischer and Alkalai, Reines and Mogilever, Maimon and Bar-Ilan? Why allow the disciples of Meir Kahane to speak for religious Zionists today? Would this not quell the exasperation felt by many today?
Seventy-five years after the establishment of the state, hundreds of thousands of Israelis now march every Saturday night to reclaim the vision of the founders and to stand against those who wish to tarnish it.
They have been joined in solidarity by UK-based Israelis and many British Jews, significantly gathering in the cradle of democracy, Parliament Square and in the shadow of the statue of Oliver Cromwell, who allowed the Jews to return to England.
As the early Zionist, Ahad Ha’am, told Theodor Herzl, ‘a Jewish state’ — with all the moral meaning that this implied — was not the same as ‘a state of the Jews’ like any other.
In 2048 — on the centenary of the founding of the state — it is estimated there will be just under twelve and a half million inhabitants of Israel. A remarkable achievement of the few who left the hovels of the shtetl for a promised land.
The Jewish people are still on a voyage of discovery. As British Jews, committed to the state of Israel and to a just and democratic society in this corner of the Middle East, we should not be blown off course.
Now is not the time for laments and indecision. We all have choices.
Jewish News 21 April 2023