The parish magazine of St George’s in Belfast recently published an article reminding the Israeli Jews that two wrongs didn’t make a right. They had suffered the Holocaust but were now visiting something similar on a blameless people, the Palestinian Arabs. The editor graciously gave NIFI’s Steven Jaffe a right of reply.
As a Jew growing up in Belfast in the ‘80s, I knew of the parish Church of St George’s. What I recall is an embattled presence in a city centre which emptied at 5pm, and a great place to shelter during a downpour. I was aware it was called a “high church” but what exactly that meant was unclear to me. The running together of a Protestant church with rituals and liturgy which I associated with Catholicism confused me. The world told me what Ulster Protestantism was all about and St George’s didn’t quite fit.
I am therefore very grateful to the editor of the Parish Magazine who has allowed me- as a member of the Jewish community – to respond to an article entitled “Did your Mother ever say to you…”, concerning the Arab-Israel conflict.
Is the key to understanding the Middle East that the Israelis should be taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right”? The implication of the article is clear. The Jews suffered Nazi persecution and are now inflicting something similar on a blameless people. The Arabs were not responsible for the Holocaust and want nothing but peace with their Jewish neighbours.
My wife’s family are Iraqi Jews. A community which numbered 150,000 in the 1940s now consists of fewer than 10 individuals. The vast majority of Iraqi Jews were forced out, deprived of their citizenship and property, and are now citizens of Israel.
Israeli Jews from Arab lands form a very significant proportion of the Israeli population. They never experienced the full brunt of the Holocaust, but they did undergo ethnic cleansing by Arab regimes. In Libya there were 30,000 Jews in the 1940s, today there are none. In Yemen over 40,000 Jews have been reduced to fewer than 200.
I don’t mention this to add another example to the litany of wrongs which don’t make a right. Like an Anglican high church in the centre of Belfast, Jews from Arab lands defy efforts to stereotype and compartmentalise. The Israelis are not all Holocaust survivors from Europe. The Arabs are no more “blameless” than the Israelis.
Nor can the Arab-Israel conflict today be reduced to Israeli oppressors and Palestinian oppressed. Israel, a nation which is 12 miles wide at its narrowest point, has been invaded on repeated occasions. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank it would have less room to defend itself in than exists between Belfast and Bangor. The first war it loses will be its last.
Its neighbours include a Hamas regime in Gaza whose charter calls for the death of the last Jew in hiding and Hezbollah to the north which is wedded to a similar genocidal outlook. Both organisations have been armed and financed by Iran, which is engaged in developing a nuclear programme, and whose leaders have called for Israel to be destroyed. In Syria chemical weapons in the hands of a murderous regime may fall into the hands of even more extreme Jihadist rebels. Egypt is in turmoil. The stability of Jordan is in question.
While these facts may not keep well-meaning outsiders awake at night, they do weigh heavily on Israelis.
Yes, Israelis make mistakes, their conduct is not always correct and they need to make painful concessions for peace, but depicting them as Holocaust survivors who haven’t learnt the lessons of how to be nice to other people is neither helpful nor fair.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East to score the highest possible rating by Freedom House, an independent think tank which monitors human rights across the world. It is the only country in the region to have free elections, a free press, an independent judiciary and effective trade unions. It is the only country in the region offering freedom of worship to all its citizens, recognising over 15 faiths amongst its citizens, and is the only country in the Middle East to have a growing Christian minority.
A country like that deserves that its case be at least listened to. Looking forward, how can people in Belfast make a positive contribution towards peace?
There are many in Belfast who advocate boycotting Israel. Recent years have seen Israeli workers harassed at Castlecourt shopping centre, the Israeli flag burnt at city hall, a call for a Leonard Cohen concert at the Waterfront to be called off because the Jewish singer was also performing in Tel Aviv. Derry city council boycotts all Israeli goods and services – there are moves afoot for Belfast city council to also adopt a boycott policy. A wall near to the Jewish cemetery off the Falls Road declares: “Israel burn in hell”.
I would like to point readers to more positive ways that Northern Ireland is engaging with Jews and Arabs. The Equality Commission of Northern Ireland twinned with its counterpart in Israel to bolster legislation countering discrimination against Arabs, women and religious Jews; the Belfast-Jerusalem civic partnership looked at the realities of community relations in divided cities; and this year the East Belfast Mission is hosting Arabs and Jews to enable them to engage with Protestant and Catholic clergy and elected representatives. Perhaps most impressive of all, experts here in shared and integrated education are using their expertise to assist Jewish and Arab educationalists to raise children without hate.
I ask no one to be uncritical in their relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. But I do ask people to engage with both Israelis and Palestinians in a way which is fair, positive and contributes to peace.
Belfast-born Steven Jaffe represents the small Belfast Jewish community on the Board of Deputies (the representative body for the Jewish community in the UK). He also Co-chairs Northern Ireland Friends of Israel (www.nifi.org.uk). Educated at Belfast Royal Academy, Steven is a lawyer by training He works for the Jewish community in London.