Israel, my pride and my shame
It’s hard being Jewish when the nation you have had absolute faith in becomes a focus for world protest, writes Joel Brandon-Bravo
I have never felt embarrassed about being Jewish but last week, as I walked past a crowded Islamic Centre on London’s Kilburn High Road, I looked down to notice that the T-shirt I was wearing was covered in Hebrew. It was an old Jewish youth movement shirt that I had made on a camp in Israel as a teenager. For the first time in my life I felt it was wrong to be proud of Israel.
When I try to draw my Jewish friends into discussion on the subject of Israel, they are increasingly reluctant to talk. Then last week I got an e-mail from a friend asking me to go on a pro-Palestinian march — what could I say? So far in my life, being Jewish has only ever been a positive. Growing up as a Jewish kid means a ready-made social life: initially you mix with kids at cheder, or Sunday school, in preparation for your bar mitzvah. Then through the youth clubs you can form some of your closest friendships and — perhaps to discourage you from the cardinal sin of marrying out of the faith — you might meet your future wife. (For many that issue cannot be understated. Friends of mine from even the most liberal synagogues have had their clothes shredded and their families mourned their sons like the dead if they had non-Jewish fiancées.) I was lucky in never facing that pressure. My mother had not been Jewish when she met my father. My parents were keen that I be brought up with a sense of unity, understanding and belonging without religious ambiguity, hence my years of Jewish Sunday school, but my father’s attitude has always been on the liberal side (he helped set up a liberal synagogue in Nottingham).
The importance of my faith to my family could not have been clearer than in the eyes of my dying grandfather at my bar mitzvah. With his body failing, tears of joy rolled down his face at seeing me read the Torah before the local congregation. He passed away contentedly a week later.
It was partly through learning about the history, suffering and persecution of Jews that I began to understand the passion and the strong sense of community that mark out Jewishness in Britain, Israel and elsewhere. Where your family and cheder leave off, the youth organisations pick up. They give you a feeling of history and belonging.
I started as a member of the Nottingham chapter of the B’nai B’rith youth organisation. There my brother met his first love, and I had my first snog at the Sunday evening social club. I later joined the Habonim-Dror Jewish youth organisation, whose alumni range from the comedian Ali G to the film maker Mike Leigh.
Habonim-Dror had three strong tenets: Judaism, socialism and Zionism. At the age of 15 I went to Holland for my first summer camp with the group. The programmes were a mix of games, sport and cultural tourism. Once we played a Habonim variation of the Game of Life, a board game in which you progressed through a rewarding career and built a home. However, during the game increasingly harsh rules were applied to one player who, unknowingly, had been marked down as Jewish. Because of that he fell behind, was arrested and then worse. A powerful way to envisage Germany in 1937.
We visited Anne Frank’s house and her story stayed etched deeply on our minds. Worse to me, though, were the rail tracks at Westerbork, where the Dutch Jewry had been herded like cattle into carriages bound for Auschwitz. It was all part of teaching us our past — and who we are now. This forms much of the basis for Zionism.
While socialism was a small part of the curriculum, everyone was expected to pool his or her money on the trip. Seeing some kids fibbing about what they had brought with them deftly illustrated to me what prevents socialism and communism from working.
The following year, Habonim-Dror organised a month-long trip to Israel, which included a stay on a kibbutz. It was on this trip that I met Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G). He was likeable and friendly, if a little geeky, and seemed to find it easier to overcome social barriers by fooling around and cracking jokes.
Another way to make friends was to sing and play the guitar. My friend Simon went on to strum for the likes of Jamiroquai and Gorillaz and I to manage members of bands such as Groove Armada.
It was also on this trip that I was introduced to the hierarchy to which many within the group aspired. If you remained in the club after leaving school you became a youth leader and later, following a year off called sanat in Israel (which Sacha did), you could become a group leader of the next Israeli trip. After that the next tier was to make Aliah, meaning a move to the homeland. The most dedicated moved to the occupied territories. It was “Your Faith Needs You”.
We visited some of those who had moved to the territories at Moshav Avivim — a small mountain-top farm established by previous leaders of Habonim from Golders Green in north London. As wide-eyed teenagers we were in awe of their standing within the group and were encouraged to see this move they had made as the ultimate achievement for young Jews.
But this was too much for me. Having had a right-wing father and a desire to make it in the material world rather than live some ideological version of the good life, I remained unconvinced — but I was proud of those who were.
In Israel we also spent a couple of days in an Arab village in northern Galilee. We were introduced to Arab teenagers in the hope that we might understand how better to live side by side. While walking near the border, beyond the electrified fence on the Lebanese side I could see strips of green crops on the mountainside. My Arab host talked wistfully of former days when he could exchange chickens for the marijuana growing on the other side of the fence.
On another trip to Tel Aviv I had a more frightening experience of the uneasy cohabitation between Jews and Arabs. Waiting for a friend at a bus station, we decided to go and have a couple of sodas. On our return we found that the bus station had been bombed. It was a taste of the constant fear in which Israeli Jews have lived since 1948.
I’ve often thought of the scene in Havana in Godfather II when, about to invest in a Cuban operation, Michael Corleone witnesses a suicide bomber. At that instant he knows that a cause driven to that extreme will not be crushed and pulls out of the deal.
Under the Thatcher government, my father, as a Conservative MP, was part of an all-party parliamentary delegation to Tunisia in 1988, two weeks after the Palestinians held their first government in exile there. The Tunisian foreign minister asked them if they would meet representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Not talking to terrorists had been a key part of Thatcher’s strategy, but the Palestinians had for the first time indicated that they would be prepared to recognise the state of Israel under certain conditions.
As both a Jew and a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, my father felt that if they didn’t listen there was little hope of ever solving the problem.
The other Conservative member on the trip refused the meeting. But my father met several PLO delegates, including a man who had been accused of pushing a wheelchair-bound Jewish American off a cruise ship.
What my father learnt from that meeting is what drives the determination of Sharon and the hard right: that recognising Israel and a two-state solution was for the PLO only the first phase in attempting to eliminate it. As one of the Palestinians said, if a burglar takes over your house, you do not negotiate with him as to who has upstairs and who has downstairs.
How can anyone now expect my father to believe otherwise? And what choices can there be for Sharon in trying to protect the Israeli state? I am still proud of my faith. I may or may not marry within it, but I will try to do as my father did and ensure my children grow up understanding their heritage. I would be proud to send them to Israel, to go to an Arab village and to try to promote peaceful cohabitation. I still see friends from the clubs and the bonds between us feel as strong as ever.
But I also want to feel proud of the Israeli nation again. I am not alone in feeling torn between absolute commitment to the Jewish state and finding it impossible to justify the current course of action, particularly the massacres that seem to have been committed in Israel’s name in Jenin.
The current poll of its younger audience on totallyjewish.com shows voting split 50/50 as to whether Israel should withdraw from the West Bank.
The Jewish faith has always been proud — now, though, it seems too proud and as a result is making it ever harder for its friends around the globe to support it