Edward Kessler: The time for decisions on Israel has arrived for British Jews

At Jewish New Year we have a duty to examine our recent sins. That means asking if we have kept faith with both biblical and Zionist ideals
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The Independent Online

The Jewish New Year, Rosh ha-Shana, which began last night, is traditionally a time when Jews look back over the last year, reflect on our sins and resolve not to transgress again. The events of 5763, the year just ending, appear to demonstrate the victory of violence over dialogue in many parts of the world. We think not only of the violence in Israel and Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia and in parts of Europe. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, a strictly observant Jewish charismatic movement, taught that we see or experience evil so that we can learn of our own guilt and repent for what is shown to us is also within us.

What should we learn from this evil? How should we respond to today's violence? Until the middle of the 20th century, the traditional and most common Jewish response to violence had been based on Jeremiah xxix,4-7:

Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all the captivity, whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem unto Babylon: Build ye houses, and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters . . . and seek the peace of the city . . . and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.

This yielding to outside force, and accepting the violence that sometimes followed, was the strategy that contributed to the survival and success of Jewish life. By relinquishing desire for sovereignty, Jews were able to gain maximum autonomy in regulating their lives. Under the motto "The law of the land is the law", the Jewish community based its existence on the law of a particular host society. As a rabbinic saying has it, "A person must be at all times yielding like a reed and not unbending like a cedar."

This was fine, as long as the regime played by the rules. When this changed, it was disastrous policy - as exemplified by the Nazi period. After the passiveness of the rabbinic model, with its acceptance of pogroms and massacres, Jews desired to take control in their own hands and, in the second half of the 19th century, the Jewish goal for self-determination in the Land of Israel became a key objective. The rabbinic model did not work any more.

The response of Zionism to anti-Semitism was to build up a Jewish army in Israel like biblical times in order to establish a protection against enemies who also had a military force. But mainstream Zionism has traditionally rejected the genocidal approach pursued by the ancient Israelites who, under Joshua's command, slaughtered "all the inhabitants" of his enemies' cities. Rather, the goal of the mainstream Zionists was to defend Israel and build a Jewish society based on compromise, partition and self-restraint.

Over the year now past it has become more and more evident that the decision to use military force sparingly has changed. Today in Israel military force and violence are being used aggressively as well as defensively, for conquest as well as for self-defence. The government of Israel has chosen the path of the gentile nations by building tanks, aircraft and bombs, and now fences and walls.

Whilst there are many valid and justified reasons for relying on military prowess to survive, it seems unlikely that a small people can wage an ethical military effort and carry on a decent society at the same time. Not even the Soviet Union, a continental superstate, could shoulder this burden. It is not altogether clear that even the richest society in the history of the world, the United States, can for generations wage continuous war - even "a war against terror" - and remain or create a decent society at home. The chances that Israel can do so are very small. Pursued to its logical fulfilment, this reversion to the biblical path leads to a dead end. And I do mean a dead end.

One of the Israeli leaders opposing Ariel Sharon's policy is Avraham Burg, who was Speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003. He has also acknowledged the dead end towards which Israel is moving. Burg has courageously called for a change of course. There is not much time, he warns. The time for decisions has arrived. "We love the entire land of our forefathers and in some other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs."

Burg calls on Diaspora Jews, for whom Israel is one pillar of their identity, to be bold and speak out. There is no better time than Rosh ha-Shana. As a friend of Israel I do not believe that Israel can do no wrong; rather, as a friend and admirer of Herzl's and Ben-Gurion's vision of Zionism I criticise it with care. Even whilst its own people are suffering, Israel must help move the peace process forward in negotiation and eventually in partnership with the Palestinian people.

As we Jews celebrate the New Year, I will join in the prayer for the peace of Jerusalem with added fervour but will pray that Israel takes the difficult but necessary steps towards that peace.

Edward Kessler is Director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge