Hear, O Friends of Israel

By Daniel Johnson
Thursday, February 2, 2012

In 1987, exactly a quarter-century ago, the appearance of a work of Jewish history caused a stir.  For one thing, the author was not Jewish; for another, the book was unashamedly supportive of the State of Israel, which even then was enough to provoke hostility, especially on the Left.  I refer to A History of the Jews, not merely out of filial pride (the author was my father, Paul Johnson) but because my work on the manuscript earned me a mention in the acknowledgements.  To this day A History of the Jews has never been out of print, and it occupies a unique place in the historiography of the subject.  Friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers, Jews and Gentiles alike, often come up to me to pay tribute to my father.  This is less surprising if one has read the book, which concludes with a rousing affirmation of a story that has often been treated as an endless catalogue of persecution and suffering:

"Jewish history teaches, if anything can, that there is a purpose to human existence and that we are not just born to live and die like beasts.  In continuing to give meaning to creation, the Jews will take comfort from the injunction, thrice repeated, in the noble first chapter of the Book of Joshua: 'Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest.'"

The need for Jews to take courage in the face of peril has certainly not diminished in the last 25 years.  As Paul Johnson wrote, "The Jews have been great truth-tellers, and that is one reason they have been so much hated."  Re-reading his book a generation later, however, one is bound to ask, how has the story evolved in the meantime?  What should we make of the present predicament of the Jewish state, menaced by threats from implacable enemies, threats that are sometimes appeased, often ignored, but rarely resisted by Israel's fickle friends?  Or should we take heart from this most recent chapter in the history of the Jews?

It seems to me that since the 1980s there have been five fundamental changes affecting the Jewish people:

a.      The end of the Soviet Union and the emigration of Russian Jewry;
b.      The transformation of the Israeli economy;
c.      The Islamic revival and global jihad;
d.      The return of anti-Semitism in the West;
e.      The persecution of Christianity.

In 1987, the most powerful enemy of the Jewish people was still the Soviet Union.  Not only had it armed and financed Israel's Arab foes; it still held millions of Jews in Babylonian captivity.  Like the Tsars before them, the Communists' attitude towards the Jewish minority was at best oppressive and at worst, under Stalin, genocidal.  By the time of Gorbachev, the threat of serious persecution had receded.  Yet it still required the combined efforts of the "refuseniks" led by Natan Sharansky, the dissidents led by Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, and the United States, led by Scoop Jackson in Congress and by Ronald Reagan in the White House, to force the Soviet regime to let the Jews go.

The impact of the former Soviet Jews on Israel has been transformational, and this leads us to the second major change over the past quarter-century.  Israel has changed from being an agricultural economy, prosperous by Middle Eastern standards but by no means comparable to America or Western Europe, to a nation that in per capita GDP ranks just below Spain.  (Indeed, given Spain's unemployment rate, consistently higher than Israel's by a multiple of three or four, and the Israeli economy's growing at twice the rate of the United States or the European Union, most young people might well prefer their chances in Israel.)

What we might call the Israeli economic miracle, which has gone largely unappreciated in the West, is based not on banking or real estate bubbles but on knowledge: specifically, scientific and technological innovation.  Not only is Israel by far the most highly educated country in the Middle East, including the oil-rich Gulf states, but four of its universities rank among the leading 200 in the world, according to the authoritative London Times Higher Education survey.  This transformation of Israel from the land where, as Goethe might have put it, the lemon trees bloom to the Silicon Valley of the Middle East has taken place in an astonishingly short time.  Between the mid-1980s and 2012, Israel's GDP has risen more than tenfold.

It is true that several Asian countries show similarly steep rises in GDP during this period.  Israel, however, has been handicapped by the need to spend, consistently, over six percent of its GDP on defense—substantially more than the United States, the only other Western country that is obliged by its global role to take defense seriously.  The only Middle Eastern country that regularly outspends all its neighbors, including Israel, is Saudi Arabia; but the Saudis can easily afford to do so, thanks to their oil revenues.  Israel, in contrast, would much rather reduce its military spending to "normal" levels—not only in the West but also in China and India—of one to three percent. The only thing that prevents such a reduction is the lethal threat to its physical existence that Israel faces from the global Islamist jihad, particularly in its Shiite Persian form.

This is the third great change since 1987. At that time, Iran had already threatened to wipe the "Zionist entity" off the map.  Ayatollah Khomenei had extended the scope of jihad by indoctrinating his people with a genocidal anti-Semitic ideology adopted from the Nazis and challenging the fundamental principles of Western liberal democracy with his fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  However, Iran had not yet begun to develop nuclear weapons; it was instead preoccupied by that grim exercise in mutually assured destruction known as the Iran-Iraq war.  Terrorism was certainly a threat in 1987, but not on the scale that the world has come to know since 2001.  Under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the West was resurgent and did not hesitate to use force against those who threatened its citizens or interests.  Today, after the experience of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither the United States nor the European Union seems inclined to take such action.

A fourth development, closely related to the others, has been the revival of anti-Semitism, not only in the Muslim world but also in the West.  I will give just one example.  In 1987, Margaret Thatcher was at the zenith of her career, having just been re-elected prime minister for an almost unprecedented third consecutive term.  Though airbrushed out of The Iron Lady, the new Hollywood biopic starring Meryl Streep, philo-Semitism was as central to Mrs. Thatcher's personality as support for Israel was to her foreign policy.  In the House of Commons she represented the North London constituency of Finchley, a seat with a high proportion of Jewish voters, and she included more Jews in her cabinets—as many as five at a time—than any premier before or since.  Her favorite clergyman was not the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie (with whom she clashed over the Falklands War and much else besides), but the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits.  Though Lady Thatcher has more achievements to her name than most people, the one of which she professed to be most proud was her part, together with her elder sister Muriel, in saving the life of an Austrian Jewish refugee, Edith Muhlbauer, whose descriptions of the humiliation and horror of life under the Nazis made a profound impression on her.  In giving the Jewish people her staunch (though not uncritical) support, Margaret Thatcher gave expression to the tradition of English philo-Semitism, from Cromwell to Churchill, so well evoked in Gertrude Himmelfarb's The People of the Book.  There are still statesmen and women today who uphold that tradition—Tony Blair, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith—but it must be conceded that Jews and Judaism play a more peripheral role in Britain and Europe today than they did 25 years ago. Indeed, anti-Semitic assumptions and language have mutated and re-emerged in the public square, particularly on the Left, to the point that one is no longer surprised when, to give just one example, a Labor Member of Parliament (Paul Flynn) openly questioned the loyalty of Britain's first Jewish ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould. Flynn was censured and forced to withdraw his contemptible and unparliamentary remarks by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who happens to be the first Jew to hold his ancient office. Parliament recently set up a permanent committee dedicated to investigating and combating anti-Semitism, thereby demonstrating that the tradition that animated Disraeli, Churchill, and Thatcher is still alive in the Mother of Parliaments.

It was this benign tradition that made possible the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the State of Israel.  However, there is of course another, malign tradition in British history, stretching from the creation of the blood libel and the expulsion of the Jews from medieval England to the modern manifestations of the oldest hatred chronicled in Anthony Julius's history of English anti-Semitism, Trials of the Diaspora.  Though a visceral double standard toward the very notion of a Jewish state has become characteristic of political elites in the European Union, it would be a mistake to see the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe as the main source of the gradual but unidirectional shift in British foreign policy towards the Palestinians and away from Israel.  Instead, in England, as on the Continent, this shift in attitudes has more to do with the emergence of a Muslim community that is many times larger than the Jewish one.

Yet the political, legal, and social claims sometimes made on behalf of this Muslim community not only far exceed those of any other ethnic or religious minority; they pose a direct challenge to the liberal foundations of toleration on which Jews have depended in the Diaspora.  A couple of recent examples: In January, 2012 three Muslims in Derby were found guilty of inciting hatred after they distributed leaflets demanding the execution of homosexuals under sharia law.  It was the first time that such incitement, which is ubiquitous in many British cities, has been prosecuted.  Only in the last few years has the scale of sex trafficking, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation in the Muslim community come to light; only now are these evils being investigated and punished.  Yet the Muslim Council of Britain blames such negative publicity on Islamophobia, the Council's head claiming that "minds can be poisoned as they were in the 1930s" and that Muslims are the new Jews.

Many Britons blithely accept such grotesque comparisons.  They also turn a blind eye to the radicalization of youth.  For example, it has recently emerged that British prisons are becoming madrassas of fanaticism and terror.  Not only do Muslims represent a disproportionately high 12.6 percent of the prison population, but many of them are radicalized while inside, while many non-Muslims (especially young black men) are converted to extreme forms of Islam.  Because Muslim prisoners are seen as well-organized and privileged, there is a strong incentive to join them; and more than 200 prison imams are paid for by British taxpayers.  Commenting on the rising numbers of Muslims in jail, a senior figure in the Muslim Council of Britain, Ibrahim Mogra, told the London Times that "it is forbidden by sharia, Islamic law, to engage in illegal activities"; but in fact a British Muslim who strictly follows sharia is bound to break the secular law, because sharia not only permits or mandates customs, such as polygamy or forced marriage, that are illegal under common law and statute but lacks a doctrine of separation of church and state that would enable Muslims to reconcile their religious obligations with their duty to obey the law of the land.

When Jesus said, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's," he gave expression to immemorial Jewish theory and practice since the captivity in Egypt and Babylon.  The Islam which developed over centuries in India was likewise adept at reaching accommodations with non-Muslim (especially British) rulers.  This was the Islam that established itself in post-war Britain among the immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In recent decades, however, more rigid forms of Islam have arrived from the Arab world, especially thanks to the Saudis' funding mosques, demanding sharia courts, and frustrating attempts at integration.  Islam increasingly presents a Salafist or Wahhabi front to the surrounding British society.  Even if Jews were not worried about physical assaults, which have risen sharply in recent years, the Islamist transformation of the political, legal, social, and cultural environment would pose a challenge to all non-Muslims.  We cannot expect the religious revival that has gripped the whole of Islam over recent decades to leave Jews and Christians unaffected, but neither can the latter be expected to acquiesce in what Islamists see as their demographic destiny.

This problem is connected to the fifth sea change since the 1980s: the persecution of Christians and their faith, mainly, though not exclusively, in the Muslim world.  From Nigeria to Egypt, from Pakistan to Iraq, the plight of Christians has deteriorated, in some cases catastrophically, in the past two or three decades.   So far, the West has reacted with indifference, though this may now be changing. But it is of great significance from a Jewish perspective that tens of millions of Christians now experience the kind of persecution that Jews have suffered for millennia.  No longer do Jews endure their ordeal alone.  The predicament of the Copts, for example, is one with which Jews can easily identify: The recent pogrom on the streets of Cairo was akin to "the Coptic Kristallnacht."  Europeans and Americans who tend to dismiss Jewish fears may re-think their position in response to the fate of their fellow Christians.

It is time to draw up the balance sheet.  Of the five big changes since 1987, two—the Soviet collapse and Israel's economic miracle—have been unambiguously good for the Jewish people.  Another two, the global jihad and the return of anti-Semitism, are unambiguously bad.  The last—the persecution of Christianity—may in the end serve as a reminder to those who are in danger of forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust, for what is needed is a recognition by Jews and Christians alike that we stand or fall together, that Jewish survival is not incidental but essential to the survival of Western civilization.  The State of Israel is but the latest expression of that providential pattern in Jewish history that Paul Johnson detected in his History: "The Jews believed they were a special people with such unanimity and passion, and over so long a span, that they became one.  They did indeed have a role because they wrote it for themselves."  That role was to set an example for humanity as a whole.

My own conclusion is somewhat different.  Solidarity with the Jewish people in their hour of need is an imperative particularly for Catholics, who bear the greatest responsibility for the historical injustices inflicted on Jews over 2,000 years.  It does not matter whether Jews continue to play their unique part in the history of mankind or instead become merely a "normal" nation, a consummation devoutly wished by many of them.  The present generation bears an obligation to prevent the future repetition of past wrongs; the dead maintain their silent vigil to stir the living into compassion for posterity.  Hear, O friends of Israel: Unless we act now to forestall them, the enemies of the Jewish people may destroy the temple yet again.

Daniel Johnson is the editor of Standpoint.  A version of this essay was delivered as a talk for the Tikvah Fellowship Program on January 30, 2012.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/hearofriendsofisrael

© Copyright 2021 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.