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Britain’s Chief Rabbi Causes Row over Call for Change in Foreign Policy of the Begin Government

July 10, 1978
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Anglo-Jewry’s anxiety over Israel’s international image broke into open controversy today following a call by Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits, the Chief Rabbi, for a change in foreign policy by the Begin government. The Chief Rabbi’s Sephardi counter-part, Dr. Solomon Goon, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Jakobovits was wrong to have “rocked the boat” at a time when the maximum unity of Jewish ranks was needed. “Rabbis should not interfere too much in day to day politics,” Goon said. “Once you start playing that game, you never know where it ends.”

The Chief Rabbi’s criticism of the Israel government was contained in a 1,200 word letter in Friday’s Jewish Chronicle. He strongly endorsed an editorial published in the paper two weeks previously calling for Israel to declare that, once her neighbors had established completely normal relations with her, she would withdraw from most of the occupied territories and would agree to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian entity.

Apart from turning the tables on the Arabs by challenging their sincerity, Jakobovits argued, such a policy could also ease the “perilous divisions” which now threaten the Jewish people. Ironically, though, the Chief Rabbi himself has accentuated these divisions, whereas Goon, the Haham, has only criticized the fact that it was written, other communal leaders bitterly take issue with its content.

Eric Graus, president of British Herut, termed the letter a “disgrace.” This time, Jakobovits has “gone to the limit,” he told the JTA. Dr. Lionel Bloch, a prominent solicitor and honorary legal adviser to the Israel Embassy, termed the letter “a rabbinical aberration.” It implied that Israel was wilfully not putting forward a plausible peace plan which the Arabs could consider. The Chief Rabbi had “no right to break ranks,” he added.


It is unlikely that the controversy which Jakobovits has stirred will be contained by the self-restraint of the principal lay leadership of the community. Although some of them entertain doubts about aspects of Israel foreign policy, the leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Joint Israel Appeal, Zionist Federation and Anglo-Jewish Association have studiously refrained from airing them in public. They evidently have no wish to spread what Lord Weidenfeld, the Jewish peer, has called the “eleventh plague” of Jewish disunity.

So far the debate has not spilled beyond the confines of the Jewish Chronicle into the fault of the Chronicle itself which gave advance copies of its June 23 editorial and the July 7 letter by the Chief Rabbi to national and foreign newspapers, including the London Times and the New York Times. Some papers, such as the Paris “Le Monde,” quoting the Jewish Chronicle’s criticism of Israel, described the Chronicle as “the organ of British Jewry,” the sub-title which it carries under its masthead.

Previously, the main Jewish criticism of the Begin government was voiced here some months ago by Sir Siegmund Warburg, of the Anglo-Jewish banking family known for its long-standing support of Zionism. In a letter to the Times, written shortly after meeting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Paris, Sir Siegmund criticized Israeli Premier Menachem Begin’s alleged lack of adequate response to the Egyptian leader’s peace initiative. Although Warburg’s letter caused deep embarrassment in Anglo-Jewry, it failed to trigger the explosion of controversy which some feared.

However, this time there is bound to be considerably more reaction to the Chief Rabbi’s outburst. It should be added that Jakobovitz’ views clash with those of his revered predecessor, Sir. Israel Brodie, who has spoken up more than once in defense of Begin. In the opinion of Bloch, the debate had to come to a head because of the “rotten leadership” of Anglo-Jewry. However, he was confident that the grass roots of the community were “sound, united and loyal to Israel.”


(Meanwhile, in New York, the presidents of two of the largest organizations of Orthodox synagogues in North America strongly criticized Jakobovits for “undermining the united support of the world Jewish community for the position of the Israeli government and characterizing Israel’s religious and political leadership as ‘intransigent.'”

(Harold M. Jacobs, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Fred Ehrman, the Union’s Israel Commission chairman, and Nathaniel Saperstein, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said they supported Israel’s willingness to “discuss withdrawal only in the context of peace negotiations and not as a pre-condition to those negotiations.” They endorsed Israel’s reluctance to agree in advance of negotiations to a specific course of action many years from now and expressed full confidence in the democratically-elected Begin government.)

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