Matthew Reisz: Can British Jews make a proportionate response to the bloodshed in Beirut?

Israel hitting back hard is the only, and least worst, option
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The Independent Online

Last week's Jewish Chronicle led with the results of an impromptu poll of British Jews: "84 per cent back Israel in Lebanon; 80 per cent say the media are unfair." That sounds about right to me. As the editor of a Jewish magazine, I get to hear all the concern about double standards in the UN, EU, newspapers and the BBC. I get to read impassioned, if often arcane, reflections about "proportionality" and the eroding distinction between combatants and civilians. And, despite a strong majority position, I am equally aware of the sheer range of views within Anglo-Jewry.

At one unattractive extreme there are those who thrill to see the Israeli army in action and are indifferent (at best) to any "collateral damage". In his column in the latest JC, Jonathan Freedland describes how he "winced" at "the teenage girls in youth-movement shirts, smiling and singing" at a recent Israel solidarity demo, seemingly "untroubled, if not gleeful, while Beirut burns". At the lunatic opposite extreme, there are one or two who argue that now, when Israel is under constant rocket attack, is the perfect moment to institute an economic and cultural boycott.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of British Jews are deeply anxious for friends and family in northern Israel, and often about the longer-term future, but see Israel as the victim of an unprovoked attack by a militia acting as proxy for a state vowed to its destruction. Since this leaves no room for negotiation, hitting back - and hitting back hard - is the only, and least worst, option. Even those deeply exercised by the moral complexities of relations with the Palestinians tend to view Israel as clearly in the right on this occasion - and are very distressed when others seem unable to accept this.

Playwright Ronald Harwood, for example, declares himself "in favour of Israel defending itself and its right to exist" against a joint operation orchestrated by Syria and Iran. "You can't deal with people on your borders saying we want to destroy you. I think the reaction has been too heavy, although I'm not able to judge what would be appropriate." And he is dismayed by what he sees as a "deep new current of anti-Semitism" in the British media: "If Israel captured Osama bin Laden, put him on trial and then let him off, it would still be accused of being anti-Islam."

Julia Pascal, another playwright, has spent recent days in "a constant level of anxiety ... I don't understand why the West has sympathy for a fundamentalist wing of Islam which is completely opposed to women's rights and whose whole ethos is murderous."

Literary agent Jonny Geller worries about the bloodshed, and what it can actually achieve, but still says: "I don't know what the alternative was. If what is happening to Haifa had happened to Durham, what do you think the response would be? It boils down to whether Israel has a right to exist. Most coverage has been about the horrific civilian casualties on the Lebanese side. That's the 'disproportionate reaction'. If I have to sit through another Fergal Keane weepie report..."

Other British Jews, although equally involved with Israel, have long been far more critical of its actions. While many of them too accept that the country had to meet force with force, some still feel desperately unhappy about tactics and likely consequences. Writer and producer Michael Kustow has put together a two-hour programme of performance and speeches in Trafalgar Square today for the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

"In the current situation," he told me, "where your friends and mine who live anywhere north of Tel Aviv are scurrying around and hiding away in bomb shelters, Israel had no choice but some sort of military action. But what we are seeing is military overkill. We're talking about Picasso's Guernica 2006 - with destruction of completely helpless civilians who happen to live next door to Hizbollah. They've acted as the best recruiting party for the terrorists."

When I phoned the food writer Claudia Roden, she was awaiting the arrival of a couple of Israeli friends "who want to leave the country because most people don't care about what happens to the other side". She herself felt "horrified for Lebanon and very concerned for Israel". Unlike most British Jews, she has travelled widely in the Arab world - she even attended a wedding in Baalbek when much of the town was draped in Hizbollah flags - and has been receiving anguished emails from Lebanese as well as Israeli friends. "Beirut took so long to survive civil war, occupation and bombing," she told me. She felt heartbroken for the people who were seeing "their hopes that the city was at last going to thrive totally destroyed".

Roden agreed the Israelis had to make a military response but questions the extent of it: "The international community, the Arab world and even the Lebanese would have accepted some sort of limited response. I am worried that Israeli actions have made Hizbollah more popular, just as they did with Hamas and Arafat, and will only bring more hatred and hostility on themselves." Her concern for Israel, she stressed, was paramount. "It is precisely because I care about the happiness and security of Israelis that I am so concerned about their actions."

For anyone who cares either about individual Israelis or the future of the state, these are painful and disturbing times. Although I would gladly see Israel inflict decisive damage on Hizbollah's military capability, it is impossible not to be haunted by images of suffering and memories of the 18 costly years Israel got bogged down in Lebanon. I long for a ceasefire - provided it is not just a hiatus which allows Hizbollah to increase its strength and leads to even fiercer fighting. Yet amid the confusion two things seem certain: this was not a battle of Israel's choosing and it absolutely had to strike back. To that extent, at least, I stand shoulder to shoulder with over four-fifths of Anglo-Jews.

Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'