Jack Omer-Jackaman’s book could not be more timely given the challenge facing Diaspora Jewry today, with heightened concerns over the rise in antisemitism in Europe and Anglo-Jewry’s anxiety over a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn which has a serious problem with antisemitism.
Omer-Jackaman seeks to answer the question: what was the impact of Israel on ‘what it meant to be a British Jew’ between the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Lebanon war in 1982? The subtitle of the book, ‘Caught Somewhere between Zion and Galut’ – The Hebrew term galut expresses the Jewish feelings of a nation uprooted from its homeland and subject to alien rule – refers to the tensions within the Anglo-Jewish condition in the post-1948 era, and these are illustrated convincingly by the author throughout the book.
Omer-Jackaman does not challenge the prevailing view in the literature that Israel/Zionism became an increasingly central component of Anglo-Jewish identity. Nevertheless, he argues that there was as much division as unity in Jewish community attitudes towards Israel. The author’s key argument is that the establishment of the State of Israel transformed collective communal identity and perceptions of Jewishness. The Jewish community demonstrated a ‘strong majority Zionist identity’ and identified itself with ‘the new Jew’ which helped to negate perceptions of Jewish weakness. As Amos Oz pointed out, ‘thanks to the might of Israel, even Diaspora Jews [could] hold their heads up high.’
One of the book’s strengths lies in its treatment of the perennial charge leveled at Diaspora Jewry for generations: that they have dual loyalties. In particular, it examines how this accusation affected Anglo-Jewry and its institutions in the decades following the establishment of the State of Israel. The author claims, for example, that ‘Zionism provided succour to the Jew-baiter’s portrayal of the Jew as an inherently disloyal alien.’ In discussing the wave of antisemitism that swept through the UK following attacks by Jewish terrorists against the British in Palestine, Jewish communal organisations such as the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Board of Deputies felt compelled to condemn the terror and to emphasise the allegiance of British Jews to their country. Interestingly, the author maintains that the establishment of the State of Israel, rather than weakening concerns over dual loyalty, actually intensified them. The pressure facing Jewish Labour MPs was clear for all to see during the Suez crisis of 1956 when all seventeen parliamentarians followed the whip and voted against Britain’s role in the Suez invasion, even though the attack on Egypt was supported overwhelmingly by Anglo-Jewry because of Israel’s involvement.
The author also analyses the impact that the Holocaust had on attitudes towards Israel in Britain and on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. For example, he argues that the Eichmann trial of 1961 exacerbated rather than healed tensions in the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Omer-Jackaman maintains that the creation of Israel helped to alleviate the trauma of the Holocaust, providing a new Jewish identity, one that contrasted strongly with notions of Jewish passivity.
The author is in agreement with the thesis of distinguished scholar David Cesarani who maintained that the Six-Day-War was the means through which Zionism replaced Judaism as the ‘unifying force in Anglo-Jewry.’ The war was significant in both the relief it brought to many British Jews who feared catastrophe but also because it transformed the image of the Jew in gentile and Jewish eyes. The transformative process by which ‘the new Jew’ was created was now complete, argues the author. Significantly, at the time, at least, the 1967 war was a unifying event for Anglo-Jewry unlike the later Lebanon campaign of 1982.
The Board of Deputies faced increasing dissent within the Jewish community over its refusal to criticise Israel following its invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. The Sabra and Shatila massacre in September of that year was a traumatic moment for the Jewish community. Omer-Jackaman writes, ‘whereas in 1967 proxy association with Israel was emboldening and affirming, in 1982 it was problematic and concerning.’ Anglo-Jewish critics viewed the war as a perversion of Zionism.
One of the most intriguing motifs in the book is its investigation of the relationship between the State of Israel and the Anglo-Jewish Diaspora. For much of the period surveyed by the book, Anglo-Jewry was an object of scorn as far as Israel’s leadership was concerned. Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion disparaged Anglo-Jewry and viewed it as ‘irrelevant’. In his view, only Israel could decide what was best for World Jewry, and the Diaspora had no choice but to follow dutifully. We read of a fascinating exchange between Ben-Gurion and the historian Cecil Roth at a conference at the Hebrew University in 1957. After Israel’s Prime Minister declared his scorn for Diaspora Zionism, Roth charged that ‘the State of Israel is completing the work of the Nazis in abolishing the International Jew and and his vast potentialities.’ Anglo-Jewry rejected Israel’s tendency to disparage the Diaspora with the definition of galut, offering a new defintion: ‘a pro-Zionist dignified and safe diaspora.’
While the book has considerable merit, there are numerous omissions and oversights which are perplexing. In particular, it is puzzling that the author chose to end his book in 1982. This is a pity. During the mid 1980s, left-wing anti-Zionism posed a major challenge for Anglo-Jewry with the banning of Jewish Societies at come universities (each swiftly reversed) and the controversy over Perdition, a play which sought to portray collaboration between Zionist leaders and the Nazis during the Second World War. I would have liked to see the author discuss the controversial case of June Jacobs, the Board of Deputies foreign affairs representative who met with PLO official Bassam Abu Sharif in 1989, causing a great rift within the community. In fairness, he does mention the dissent of Jacobs in the context of the Lebanon War, but I would argue that her actions in 1989 were more controversial and significant.
A further difficulty is the lack of any discussion on the broader Anglo-Israel relationship. For example, how did Anglo-Jewry confront the Attlee Government and the anti-Zionism of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin? The author might have mentioned the Heath government’s controversial decision to prevent arms reaching Israel during the Yom Kippur war. There is also the problematic claim in the fourth chapter that Prime Minister Harold Wilson did not intervene on Israel’s behalf during the Six-Day-War, when in fact he secretly authorised the sale of tank ammunition to Israel during the hostilities, overruling the Foreign Office in the process. (There is no discussion at all in the book of the prickly relationship between Zionist leaders within Anglo-Jewry and Whitehall.) The fifth chapter argues that the legitimisation of Menachem Begin and revisionist right-wing Zionism evolved far more slowly in the Anglo-Jewish Diaspora than it did in Israel. Begin’s visit to London in 1972 reopened old wounds within the Jewish community, with Omer-Jackaman emphasising that ‘Begin offended the Jewishness of his Jewish critics, and maligned their Jewish identity.’ One vital factor which helped to legitimise Begin was his role in the historic Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt of 1979. Interestingly, it was the Labour government of James Callaghan which decided to bring Begin out of the cold and invited him to London in 1977, seeing it as an opportunity to advance peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt. This would surely have helped to ease the tensions within Anglo-Jewry over Begin.
The absence of discussion of UK-Israel relations in this broader sense means that the author’s narrative on the dilemmas facing Anglo-Jewry lacks context. Much of the unease of Anglo-Jewish leaders over Israeli policies was directly related to their concerns over the response of Her Majesty’s Government. The turmoil in Anglo-Jewry over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon did not occur in a vacuum: relations between Britain and Israel were already in serious crisis when, two years earlier, the Begin government attacked London over its leading role in the EEC Venice Declaration of June 1980 which called for self-determination for the Palestinians and a role for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in peace negotiations. Also, Anglo-Jewry faced a dire predicament with Israel’s sale of arms to Argentina during the period of the Falklands War. This was a difficult episode for the Jewish community but this is also not mentioned.
Furthermore, the reluctance of the Board of Deputies to criticise Israel following its invasion of Lebanon is particularly interesting in light of the situation today. In 2018, the Board criticised Israel’s Nation State Law as a threat to its democracy, while in 2019, it condemned Benjamin Netanyahu for his alliance with the extreme right Otzma Yehudit party and his claim that Israel was ‘not a country of all its citizens.’ The emergence of organisations such as Yachad and the New Israel Fund which have challenged the longstanding communal consensus on Israel are part of this new trend. I would have liked to see the author address these developments in the conclusion.
Finally, the author makes no reference to the extraordinary challenge facing Anglo-Jewry over the last four years since Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour party, although there is a very brief allusion to the problems facing Jewish students at British universities. Some may be surprised by this choice, but I think the author is well served in not allowing his book to be weighed down with the controversy over the Labour party, as it has been discussed at length elsewhere.
Omer-Jackaman’s book is well researched, often fascinating and in its historical analysis of the vulnerabilities of Anglo-Jewry in the decades following the establishment of the State of Israel. It offers considerable value in shedding light on the difficulties facing British Jews today. As the book makes clear, these problems did not begin in 2015. They are also likely to be with us for some time to come.