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A Controversial Rabbi

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Since becoming Britain’s Chief Rabbi on the eve of the Six-Day War, Sir Immanuel Jakobovits has frequently aroused widespread controversy by his remarks on aspects of Israeli policies and social trends.

Although he has frequently expressed Anglo-Jewry’s staunch solidarity with Israel, some of his views have earned widespread criticism. While defenders of embattled Israel have accused him of treason, others have hailed him as the true defender of Israeli interests.

Jakobovits has now attempted to explain himself in a book about his attitudes towards Zionism and Israel. Its title, “If Only My People …,” is taken from Psalm 18 which says: “If only my people would hearken unto me and Israel walk in my ways, I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their adversaries.”

The book is unlikely to make Jakobovits’ reputation any less controversial. It also reflects the extent to which the Middle East has overshadowed Jewish and international life during Jakobovits’ rabbinical career. It was far less prominent during the ministry of his two distinguished predecessors, Dr. Joseph Hertz and Sir Israel Brodie, Chief Rabbis from 1913-1946 and from 1948-1965, respectively.


As Jakobovits frequently points out, neither of these two Chief Rabbis referred to Zionism in their inaugural addresses and he himself was the first Chief Rabbi in Britain to have done so.

Nevertheless, both Hertz and Brodie were enthusiastic champions of Zionism at a time when mainstream Orthodoxy was closer to the Jakobovits position. While Hertz was often in trouble for being “too Zionist,” Jakobovits has achieved the opposite.

Born in Koenigsberg, Germany in 1921, the author admits that he was raised in a tradition “distinctly lukewarm to Zionism.” The book shows how deeply this colored his career, which has included 10 years as Chief Rabbi of Ireland (1948-1958); eight years at New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue; and the past 17 years as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, during which he has been knighted.


In this book, he pays tribute to Israel’s positive influence on the diaspora. But he also seeks repeatedly to discredit and denigrate what he describes as “secular Zionism” which he regards as a dangerous rival to traditional, Orthodox Judaism.

He goes so far as to accuse David Ben Gurion and other Labor Zionists of “hypocrisy” for having told British leaders in 1937 that “the Bible is our mandate.” He ridicules the notion of the “pioneers of secular Zionism” that an independent State would “solve the Jewish problem.” He calls this “probably the greatest illusion and the greatest disillusionment in Jewish history, ” adding that the secular Zionists had “seduced” most of the Jewish people to believe it.

According to Jakobovits, not only had Jewish statehood failed to normalize life in the diaspora but “in some ways it has added many new problems which never existed before.” In the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he adds, Israel had not only failed to solve the Jewish problem but had become “the core” of the problem “inasmuch as anti-Zionism became the principal feature and expression of anti-Semitism.”

Besides harboring these philosophical doubts, Jakobovits also found himself frequently at odds with successive Israeli governments on a wide variety of practical issues. These included military retaliation for terrorist attacks; refusing to repatiate Palestinian refugees; Golda Meir’s oft quoted scepticism over whether the Palestinian Arabs constitute a nation; and Israel’s armaments exports.


He also ruffled the Israeli establishment’s feathers by adopting an independent posture on Soviet Jewry, including a visit to Moscow at the invitation of the Soviet authorities. He claims to have predicted the decline in Soviet Jewish emigration and that this proves the wisdom of his proposal — ignored by Israel — to give equal stress to the fight for Jewish “equality” inside the Soviet Union.

Even though emigration has almost dried up, Jakobovits says “the campaigners still wear their blinkers and rehash their slogans with undiminished fervor in an endless succession of routine rallies.”

Although “secular Zionists” bear the brunt of his arguments, the rise of ultra-religious Jewish fanatics has belatedly given him a new target, manifested in the Gush Emunim settlement movement, and out-breaks of terrorism by Jews.

Describing his “haunting fear of a new pseudo-Messianism,” he says that militancy or radicalism would “exacerbate the divisions within Israel, eventually reaching some breaking point in war or civil strife.”

On this issue, he is at last in step with the majority in Israel and the diaspora. But with seven more years before he is due to retire, Britain’s voluble Chief Rabbi may have many more opportunities for speaking up when others prefer him to remain silent. “If Only My People: Zionism In My Life, ” is published in Britain by Weidefeld and Nicolson.

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