Zionist Rabbi Questions 'Official' Assertions about Reborn Anti-Semitism

Rabbi John D. Rayner


Open Letter to David A. Harris, Executive Director, American Jewish Committee


Rabbi John D. Rayner, London, England

Dear Mr Harris,

You don't know me, so let me explain that I am a retired rabbi living in London, England, and have been a Zionist since my childhood in Nazi Germany.

What prompts me to write is that a friend and colleague has kindly sent me a copy of your ten-page 'Letter from One Jew to Another' of October 29, 2002. It is a brilliant piece of sustained rhetoric, which expresses as powerfully as anything I have read the currently dominant attitude of the leadership of our people both in Israel and in the Diaspora. But though the facts you cite — as distinct from the generalisations you derive from them — are true enough, you omit a whole lot of other facts, inconvenient to your thesis. That makes your letter an exercise in demagoguery rather than a sober appraisal.

Briefly summarised, your thesis is that there is a world-wide conspiracy to destroy the State of Israel and that in these circumstances it behoves all Jews to stand solidly together in unqualified support of the general direction of the policies of its present government. In my opinion that thesis is profoundly mistaken, and the policies that flow from it are hugely inimical to the best interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

You address yourself to 'all those Jews who remain fast asleep'. Although you don't identify them, I assume you have in mind those who may be broadly classed as the Peace Camp. Since that includes me, I feel bound to say that in my view many of its supporters, far from being asleep, are much more awake to reality than you appear to be. As you must know, they include many men and women of the highest distinction and eminence, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, not least politicians, generals, university professors, lawyers, historians, writers, editors and journalists.

You begin by documenting how until 2000 all was going swimmingly for Israel and the Jewish people, then everything went wrong. So sudden, as you see it, was this volte face that 'any serious supporter of Israel had to be stunned by the rapidity of Israel's changed international standing after September 2000'. Evidently, you have remained stunned ever since, for you make no attempt to offer any explanation, as though the world's anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist forces had suddenly decided, for no discernible reason, to have a field day.

But there is no mystery. Historical developments have causes, though they may take time to produce their full effects. So let me try to unravel the mystery for you.

  • The initiation of the Oslo process raised high hopes on both sides. It boosted Israel's peace camp, and it prompted 80,000 members of Al-Fatah to demonstrate in favour of it in the major Palestinian cities.
  • On the other hand, the very prospect of a peace settlement, involving territorial compromise, provoked the rejectionists on both sides, who refused to accept anything less than 'Greater Palestine' and 'Greater Israel' respectively. On the Palestinian side, Hamas immediately launched a new series of terror attacks against Israel. On the Israeli side, Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians praying in a Hebron mosque, and Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.
  • Under Shimon Peres the Oslo process made some headway, under Binyamin Netanyahu it was virtually halted, then resumed by Ehud Barak. But throughout all those years the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, begun in 1967, went full-steam ahead, in stubborn defiance of UN resolutions and world opinion. This crucial fact, which you don't bother to mention, was bound to arouse ever-increasing resentment among the Palestinians, and slowly to erode their initial faith in the Oslo process.
  • But the settlement programme involved much more than its mere arithmetic tells. It entailed the deployment of large detachments of the IDF to defend the settlers, the criss-crossing of the West Bank with connecting roads strictly for Jewish use only, the confiscation of Palestinian-owned land, the destruction of olive groves, the seizure of water supplies, and the strangulation of the Palestinian economy.
  • Furthermore, the measures Israel felt compelled to take to suppress the resultant unrest included collective punishments, house demolitions, curfews, and daily humiliations at the checkpoints. All this intensified the resentment still further — how could it not? — and by September 2000 it was like a powder keg. Then Arik Sharon, by his Temple Mount walkabout with a huge police escort, ignited it and so triggered the Second Intifada.
  • Israel's counter-measures became increasingly harsh, incited the Palestinian terrorists to step up their murderous activities, including suicide bombings, and caused the general Palestinian population, even though most of them continued to disapprove of violence, nevertheless to sympathise with them and to become a source of recruits for them. Hence the vicious cycle of attack, reprisal and counter-reprisal which we have witnessed in the last two years.
  • All this was sensationally, and not always fairly, reported by the world's media and so brought the escalating conflict graphically to the attention of the general public. Most people were horrified by the tactics, especially suicide bombings, of the Palestinian terrorists, but scarcely less so by the brutality of Israel's reprisals, including helicopter gunship raids and targeted assassinations. Considering, further, Israel's persistent defiance of UN resolutions, relentless colonisation of occupied land, vast military superiority, and the consequent disproportion between Israeli and Palestinian casualties, it is hardly surprising that many came to see the conflict as a grossly unequal one and to sympathise with the underdog.
  • This climate of opinion, in turn, gave the dormant forces of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism an opportunity to express themselves with a new brazenness, further feeding the growing animosity towards Israel to which you rightly draw attention. However, what this phenomenon calls for is not blanket denunciation but sober analysis. Not all anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Still less is all condemnation of Israel's present policies anti-Zionism. (On the contrary, much of it is pro-Zionism in the best sense of that word.) Consequently your assertion of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy Israel is a gross exaggeration.

And now let me comment seriatim on some of your key phrases.

Despite a left-of-centre government in power racing against its own self-imposed deadline to achieve a historic peace with the Palestinians, Israel found itself the target of a calculated campaign of Palestinian-instigated terror. What you fail to mention is that under the same left-of-centre government Israel went full-steam ahead with its settlement programme, eroding the Palestinians' faith in the Oslo process.

Likewise, that, contrary to Israel's official version, the eventual breakdown of the process is to be blamed, in some proportion, on both sides, as some of the best informed analysts, such as Dr Menachem Klein, have demonstrated. Furthermore, when you say that Israel 'found itself' the target of a calculated campaign of terror, you absurdly imply that Israel's antecedent policies, including its creeping colonisation of Palestinian land, and Sharon's Temple Mount provocation, had nothing to do with it. Finally, when you refer to the terror campaign as 'Palestinian-instigated', you obscure the fact that the terrorist groups involved were opposed to Arafat and the peace process, and did not have the broad support of the Palestinians, who, as opinion polls have repeatedly shown, have continued by a large majority to favour a return to negotiations towards a two-state solution.

And the media, with a few notable exceptions, came down hard on Israel. Media bias against Israel has been frequently alleged. I can only say that to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge of the British media, not one major newspaper or radio or television channel has ever editorially denied Israel's right to exist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders, or failed to be open to the expression of a wide spectrum of opinions.

What is Israel to do in the absence of a credible peace partner and faced by an unending war of terror? Regarding the second clause, Israel must of course take all necessary steps to defend its population. Nobody has questioned that, as distinct from some of the methods employed. As for the first clause, Israel has had several opportunities to make peace with the Palestinians but blown them, e.g., in 1967, when David Ben Gurion vainly urged its government to relinquish the conquered territories in exchange for peace, and has responded inadequately to peace initiatives by King Hussein in 1970, and by Anwar Sadat in 1977, and by American presidents and envoys and other world leaders at various times. In 1982 Israel failed to build on a cease-fire which (apart from one minor incident) the PLO had strictly observed for eleven months on Israel's northern border. On the contrary, Sharon invaded Lebanon for the very purpose of destroying the PLO as a potential peace partner, just as in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, for the same reason, he all but destroyed the PA. Similarly, he repudiated the Oslo process as soon as he became Prime Minister, forbade President Moshe Katzav to negotiate a cease-fire, and whenever any Palestinian terrorist group came close to deciding to cease targeting Israeli civilians, promptly ordered another military action. His whole record shows that what he wants is Greater Israel, or as much of it as possible, rather than a peace settlement involving the sort of territorial compromise that has any chance of being acceptable to the Palestinian people. Since he has done everything possible to prevent the emergence of a credible peace partner, to complain that Israel has none is more than a little perverse.

Arafat's direct complicity in terror. To the best of my knowledge that is not yet fully proven. In any case the history of conflict resolution has often involved dealing with former terrorists. (Some former terrorists have even become Prime Ministers of Israel.)

Are we to succumb to a moral equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian behaviour over the last two years? No, we are not. But that does not entitle us to condone Israel's violations of human rights, meticulously documented by its own impeccable watchdog organisations such as B'tzelem and Rabbis for Human Rights.

A world body hopelessly stacked against Israel. On the other hand Israel owes its very existence to the UN, whose General Assembly and Security Council have consistently affirmed and re-affirmed its right to exist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders. Your failure to acknowledge this fundamental fact, as if it were a minor detail, shows a regrettable lack of balance.

A worldwide campaign being waged to isolate, condemn, and weaken Israel. Another wild exaggeration. Besides, to a large extent, Israel has isolated itself by its defiance of world opinion, condemned itself by acts of excessive brutality, and weakened itself by its settlements, which extend its defence lines and entail vast expenditure, to the detriment of its economy, welfare services and social fabric. Above all, the impression you seek to convey, that the whole world is out to destroy Israel, flies in the face of the following facts.

  • That, as just mentioned, the UN has invariably affirmed Israel's right to exist in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.
  • That the same holds true for most of its Member States.
  • That Egypt and Jordan have concluded peace treaties with Israel.
  • That in 1993 Arafat, on behalf of the PLO, made a historic declaration recognising Israel's right to exist.
  • That the Oslo process nearly succeeded. At Taba, in January 2001, the negotiators issued a statement saying: 'The two sides have never been closer to reaching an agreement'.
  • That there have been several joint peace initiatives, including the 2001 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration, calling for 'No to bloodshed, No to occupation, Yes to negotiations, Yes to peace', which was signed by a large number of pre-eminent Israeli and Palestinian politicians and intellectuals, and the Israel-Palestine Coalition for Peace.
  • That less than a year ago, in Beirut, the Saudi peace plan, envisaging normalisation of Arab-Israel relations, was endorsed by nineteen Member States of the Arab League. It constituted a major breakthrough.

The combined weight of these highly significant facts, which you disdain to mention, comprehensively confutes your conspiracy theory.

Nobody pretends that the present situation is not fraught with great difficulties and dangers. Nevertheless the outlines of a realistically attainable solution have been crystal-clear for some time. They involve an agreement simultaneously to stop Palestinian terrorism and Israeli settlement building (as recommended by the Mitchell Report), evacuation of the settlements, acceptance of the 1967 Green Line (with minor adjustments) as Israel's border, the establishment of a demilitarised but viable Palestinian State with its capital in East Jerusalem, and massive world aid to build up the Palestinian economy and to resettle or compensate the Palestinian refugees in a way that does not threaten Israel's demography.

The achievement of such a resolution of the conflict is completely within the realm of possibility. It only requires that the large majority on both sides, who want peace, should assert their will, if necessary against their political leaders. There is no other way forward, and your letter, far from advancing it, militates against it. It does so by bolstering the currently prevalent mood of the Jewish people, which is one of self-pity and self-righteousness, paranoia and hysteria, denial of reality, refusal to listen, and adherence to the fatal illusion that peace depends on security rather than security on peace. It is the exact opposite of what responsible Jewish leadership requires at the present time.

Today the Jewish people face a fateful choice between two scenarios.

Scenario One: Continuation of the present policy. More of the same. An increasingly oppressive occupation of an increasingly resentful Palestinian population. An endless cycle of violence and counter-violence. Perhaps even resort to unconscionable expedients such as wholesale expulsions (ethnic cleansing) in a desperate attempt to remove the irritant and preserve the Jewish majority of Israel's population. Fortress Israel, loathed by humanity and defying humanity until doomsday.

Scenario Two: Israel negotiates a cease-fire based on the simultaneous cessation of terrorism and colonisation, then, with international help, a comprehensive peace. It withdraws to its 1967 borders and, within them, devotes its enormous energy and genius to the building of a democratic, just and prosperous society. It lives at peace with its neighbours, makes a positive contribution to the stability and progress of the Middle East, and regains the good-will of humanity.

Woe to the shepherds of Israel (Ezekiel 34:2) who lead — or follow — their flock in the wrong direction!

Now is a time to urge our people to embrace the way of peace because that is the most Jewish, the most Zionist and the most pro-Israel thing to do, and the only one that holds out any long-term hope for the future.

Yours sincerely,

Rabbi John D. Rayner