What does Britain's Jewish community make of events in Israel?

The crisis in the Middle East - and the way it has been reported - have left Britain's Jews feeling under threat, but what does the community really think of Sharon and Arafat, of suicide bombings and Jenin? Mary Braid went to north London to find out
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The Independent Online

The pure, arresting sound of unaccompanied singing drifts along the corridor from the first-floor prayer room and floats up the stairs to the floor above. Joined together in morning worship, the trainee Reform rabbis of the Sternberg Centre for Judaism in Finchley, north London – including a handful of rabbinical students from the former Soviet Union – provide a soothing backdrop to the earnest discussion in the office of Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of Britain's Jewish Reform synagogues.

With many British Jews convinced that the British media are grotesquely twisting Israel's part in the horrifyingly bloody conflict with the Palestinians, and tens of thousands of people forecast to turn out at a mass pro-Israel rally in London this Bank Holiday Monday, Rabbi Bayfield, watched by his colleague Rabbi Alexandra Wright, is trying to sum up the feelings of British Jews. He is choosing his words with extraordinary care and deliberation. With Israel terrorised by suicide bombers, and Jews seething at international criticism of the brutal Israeli invasion of the Palestinian territories, it is so easy to offend.

You might think Bayfield would have his work cut out trying to capture the mindset of the majority of British Jews. After all, the 300,000-strong community is disparate, encompassing Zionists, anti-Zionists, secular Jews and every religious form of Judaism from liberal through reform to ultra-orthodox. But Bayfield says the task is a whole lot easier than it would have been a few months ago. For attitudes have since hardened, views coalesced.

"The average person in the Jewish community in Britain feels that Israel is under threat as it probably hasn't been since 1948," Bayfield says. "There is a widespread feeling that criticism is reopening on the hard left, and in other places, of the very right of Israel to exist... Most Jews here would not have voted for Sharon, but they still cannot understand why he is seen as a war criminal while Arafat is seen as a pathetic, cuddly figure."

Bayfield says most British Jews now feel that the media are biased against Israel, more interested in suicide bombers than those they kill, more concerned by alleged crimes by the Israeli army at Jenin than the mass murder of Israeli civilians at cafés, supermarkets and bus stops at Netanya, Haifa and west Jerusalem. So beleaguered is the British Jewish community, Bayfield argues, that its usual internal political and religious differences are being suppressed in favour of an outward show of unity.

Such suppression may cause ambivalence. In an open letter to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in the latest issue of the religious quarterly, Manna, Bayfield writes like two men: defending the actions of the Israeli government for half of his article, attacking it in the other. Warning Sharon that Britain increasingly regards him as "a cross between Slobodan Milosevic and Ghengis Khan", he defends Sharon's occupation of the territories as a "response to Arab aggression which was designed to destroy the State of Israel". But Bayfield also says that it is impossible to rule over three million Palestinians without committing moral outrages, and that present policies "offer neither leadership nor hope, neither vision nor strategy, only growing hatred, rising bloodshed and deepening despair".

A British rabbi's life is a tricky one at present, particularly if that rabbi comes out unequivocally against Sharon. Rabbi Alexandra Wright lives just down the road from the Sternberg Centre, in Golders Green. (Two-thirds of Britain's Jews live within 12 miles of Finchley.) Wright's outspoken criticism of the Israeli government recently caused one congregant to report her to the Jewish Board of Deputies. Bizarrely, the accusation was that Rabbi Wright was anti-Semitic. Wright is a long-time opponent of the occupation of the Palestinian territories, believes in an independent Palestinian state, and has no problem describing Israel as a military power backed by the United States. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for her to speak frankly.

"If you criticise Sharon or government policy, often people cannot hear the support that you still express for Jewish people in Israel," she says. "They can only hear one thing at a time and what they hear is criticism of Israel." The result is an increasingly "undifferentiated" Jewish response.

Later, downstairs in the now-silent prayer room, Wright, a small, intense woman, says that her own congregation in Radlett and Bushey, Hertfordshire, has been too shell-shocked by the recent violence to debate the issues. But then Israel is not some distant conflict for many British Jews. Five million Jews live in Israel – at least 30 per cent of the world's entire Jewish population – and many British Jews have visited the country, or have family there. The repeated suicide bombings, which have killed and injured hundreds, have made daily life hell for Israelis. And hell for many Jews in Britain, too. "People here with families there are absolutely ravaged by concern," says Wright.

When it is this personal, criticism is not welcome, particularly from within. And Wright says that even she was silenced by the massacre of 28 people, including elderly survivors of the Holocaust, as they were celebrating Passover in a hotel in Netanya in March. The ceremony that was the suicide bomber's target was being played out on white tablecloths in Jewish homes across the globe. "I saw this surreal picture of gashes blown in walls, twisted wire and blood-splattered tablecloths," says Wright. "There was a horror to it. And there was the symbolism too." None of that, she says, can be used to defend human rights violations in the territories, or Israeli acts of revenge. But at that moment, even she felt that Israel had no option but to "take out certain elements" in self-defence.

The prayer room, fringed with wooden chairs carved with the Menorah, the sacred seven-branched candlestick that is the oldest symbol of Judaism, is decorated with ancient teachings in Hebrew script. "The three things that civilisation rests on are learning, worship, and deeds of loving kindness," reads one. "Be like the disciples of Aaron," entreats another, "pursuing peace and loving one's fellow human beings." Wright looks around the room, shaking her head. Even if the current military action in the Palestinian territories is unavoidable, she says, where is Israel's parallel political strategy?

Wright has found herself in a lonely position, even among her fellow rabbis. In the foyer of the nearby North Western Reform Synagogue, Rabbi Charles Emmanuel is busy telephoning his entire congregation to remind them about the Trafalgar Square rally. A passenger list for a special bus is already posted in the foyer. Emmanuel, who insists on referring to homicide – not suicide – bombers, says that the time for Jewish unity has come. "It's like this. I might be upset with my kids about something, but in a crisis we come together as a family." Apparently, the only misgivings some members of his congregation have about the London rally concern security. "Some people are afraid a homicide bomber might get into the crowd," he says.

"There will be pressure to attend the rally," says Alexandra Wright, who will nonetheless only turn up if all viewpoints – "from hawk to pro-peace" – are represented. She will not show solidarity with the undifferentiated Jewish response.

But even young Jews on the political left now take a harder line. Resa Galgut, 23, a Reform Church youth co-ordinator, and her friend and fellow co-ordinator, Danny Burkeman, also 23, have been frequent visitors to Israel. Resa recalls her first trip to the country in almost poetical terms. To go from kibbutz in the desert to the ancient Wailing Wall was amazing. "It's not a perfect country, but what it has achieved in 54 years is phenomenal," she says.

Three weeks ago, the two staged their own small pre-rally act of solidarity by deciding to hold their annual meeting in Israel, and taking 35 youth movement members with them. "The attention we got out there was unbelievable," Resa says. "We were treated like VIPs. So many people thanked us for coming that it was embarrassing. It shows how isolated they are." Danny chips in that every time an Israeli thanked him for visiting, he wanted to thank them for making sure there was an Israel to visit.

"I was more critical [of Sharon] before," says Resa. "But having been out there to the country, I don't see what other action is open." Many Israelis who share her politics, she says, have reached the same conclusion. With "every trip to the supermarket now a life-threatening event," she feels that it is a luxury to "rant from the safety of an armchair in Britain". Danny, whose mother is Israeli and who has grandparents and cousins living in the country (including one in the Israeli army), has undergone a similar political shift. Peace movements seem "somewhat idealistic" now. And he bides by the common view – contested by only a minority of Jews – that Yasser Arafat had no good reason to turn down the peace offer made by the Israelis two years ago at Camp David.

Both think the media are biased. Danny argues that they fail to give context to the damaging images of Israeli tanks rolling into Jenin. Both will be in Trafalgar Square. Resa is organising transport for her synagogue. She wants Israel to see a huge turnout on CNN. "That's good enough for me now," she says.

In Golders Green high street, where Starbucks and McDonald's are colonising one end while restaurants such Sollys and Blooms still offer chicken soup and salt beef at the other, Shlomo, 25, sits outside a kosher café. A German Jew studying at the London School of Economics, Shlomo says that Britain has become tenser for Jews since the Israelis went into Palestinian territory. "Arabs drive down this street and throw eggs out of the windows," he says, joking that he ought to know because he has been hit by one.

But then he adds, rather more soberly, that an egg is nothing compared to the savage attack that took place a week ago on an 18-year-old boy who attends the nearby orthodox Munks Synagogue with him. The boy was left unconscious after he was attacked by several men.

The Metropolitan Police report a small rise in anti-Semitic attacks and has increased their presence in three Jewish areas of the capital. There are certainly more policemen around on the high street. And everyone knows that one restaurant, owned by Israelis, has become the first to employ its own private security guard, though the owner refuses, point blank, to talk about it.

"I've recently been called a 'fucking Jew' in Leicester Square and been accused of killing Palestinians," says Shlomo, who lived in Israel for three years. "It wasn't skinheads but ordinary young British men. To be honest, I think this is an anti-Semitic assault disguised as anti-Israelism." Again he points out that he escaped lightly. He says two other men from his synagogue have been injured in similar attacks.

What appals Shlomo is the ignorance around the Arab-Israeli conflict. He hates the equating of Israel with all Jews, by the public and in the press. He hates the presumption that the more orthodox the Jew, the more hardline he is likely to be in support for Israel. "Orthodox Jews are in general not Zionistic, but religious," he says. "Some are so anti-Zionist that they stood with Palestinian demonstrators outside the Independence Day celebrations [two weeks ago] at Wembley."

Shlomo argues that British papers are biased against Israel, and often just plain inaccurate. "I have been to the cities they write about and see quite obvious mistakes," he says. Fluent in a handful of languages, Shlomo supplements reading British newspapers with French, German and Italian papers and websites sympathetic to Israel. He says that British reporters divide the world into good and bad guys, and in the Middle East "that's just too simplistic". And he warns against the "European complex" of siding with the underdog. "The weak guy isn't always the right guy," he says.

Shlomo would not have voted for Sharon, but he will still go to the rally. With the current pressures, he feels compelled to identify with a tribe. "Six months ago I wouldn't have gone, but I will now," he says. "Given British public opinion, I'll be going to make sure Trafalgar Square isn't half-full."

Stella, the café's middle-aged owner, will be with him. An east European Jew married to an Israeli, Stella routinely employs Muslims in her kitchen. But last month she took on a Muslim chef who resigned after one day. "He said he could not work for Jews because they send their money to Israel to buy weapons to kill Palestinians," she says. "I was livid. He knew it was a kosher restaurant. It was a provocation. He was just trying to make a point."

Stella used to be critical of Israel. But visiting her husband's family and her own relatives has changed her mind. "My relatives moved to Israel in the 1950s and are still not safe after all these years," she says. "Israel is the victim and I've lost faith in a moderate solution." So Stella sides with the hard men now, opposing Palestinian autonomy. "Let someone sit in a tree and they'll throw coconuts at you," she says. "I will be at the rally because it is important to make a stand. Look at what is happening in France. I don't want what happened to Jews in the 1930s to happen again." Peddlers of Zionist conspiracy theory meet their match in Stella, who is wildly suspicious of Islam. "Britain is now a refuge for all the Islamic countries and it is affecting government policy," she insists. "And the whole point of Islam is to convert. In south London, they are converting cats and dogs on the street."

Coming out of Golders Green library, schoolboy Elchanan, 18, from an Orthodox family, is similarly bullish. "If I could fight in the Israeli army, I would," he says. "But I can't even go to Israel because I'm sitting my exams. But I will be at the rally." He says his parents have stopped taking The Times newspaper, partly because they decided its smutty news coverage no longer had a place in their home, but also because of British media bias against Israel.

Not all British Jews, however, plan to be in Trafalgar Square. Lucie Russell, 40, a mother of two, will not risk appearing to side with the Israeli government. "I could never support what it is doing," she says. The problem with being Jewish, she continues, is that you always feel defensive in discussions about the Middle East. "You are always waiting for them to slide towards anti-Semitism," she says. "And your hackles just rise."

Russell has visited Israel many times and she says that Israeli Jews come from an entirely different culture from British Jews. She has been appalled by the Israeli military offensive. "I read in the paper that when the Israeli army left Jenin it left behind a sign saying, 'Fucking Arabs – don't mess with us again'. It is just so awful you feel embarrassed."

But she wishes that the logic applied to analysis of Palestinian violence would be used with as much generosity towards Israeli actions. "You have to understand how threatened Israeli Jews feel," she says. "The six million [killed in the Holocaust] has to have had some psychological impact on the people who created that country. You have to understand that they are paranoid. And you can understand, without having to condone."

Lionel Gordon, a former chairman of the Jewish Chronicle, and chair of a synagogue in Surrey, will be at home on Monday, too. "Jews find it difficult to distinguish between their sympathy for Israel and the acts of a particular government. I feel the military action is disproportionate, given what I've read about the havoc being wreaked. We have one of the biggest armies in the world going in against defenceless people. And it is just unacceptable."

He puzzles over why so many British Jews cannot see that, to outsiders, Israel is the bully, and thinks it may be connected to a feeling that they are personally accountable for Israel's actions. "In the past I have felt I ought to defend Israel, but not this time," he says. He describes assertions that the very existence of Israel is under threat as "bizarre". "How can this be when a military power is supported by the world's only superpower?" he says. "We know how to solve this. The endgame is two states."

It has been six months since the London Rabbi David Goldberg, a strong critic of the Israeli government, warned that worldwide solidarity rallies would soon test the relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. For some, he said, blood would always be thicker than water. For others, the gulf between Israel's political actions and Jewish ethical teaching would become too great. Individual conscience would determine whether Zionism and Judaism went their separate ways.

British Jews still have a few days to make up their minds. But Lionel Gordon believes his own position is currently unpopular. He expects a good turnout at the rally, for it looks as if the family may indeed be shelving its differences – and closing its ranks.

Some names have been changed