Rabbi David Goldberg, Mugged by Reality, Again

Rabbi Dr David J Goldberg OBE is minister emeritus of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. He is a nice man and in many ways, the model of  a liberal and progressive cleric. He seeks out partners for dialogue, across religious and political divides, and does his very best to advance intercommunal understanding and good relations.

Unfortunately, his open and trusting nature leads, in his words, to being “mugged by reality”, repeatedly. Here he is on CiF.

I never thought the day would come when, like the egregious Melanie Phillips and other attack dogs of the right, I might describe myself as a liberal who had been mugged by reality. But that was before Monday’sPanorama programme about 40 Muslim weekend clubs and schools in the UK using Saudi textbooks that, among other niceties, describe Jews as descended from “monkeys” and “pigs”, denigrate nonbelievers, advocate killing homosexuals and refer to the “reprehensible qualities of Jews”.

I would be more inclined to accept the Saudi embassy’s protestations of innocence in the affair were it not for the fact that the kingdom has previous form. It was the custom of the late King Faisal to present copies of that notorious tsarist forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other antisemitic tracts to visitors. In 1972 he solemnly informed an Egyptian magazine that while he had been in Paris on a recent visit the police had arrested several Jews for the murder of five children whose blood had been drained to mix in the bread (sic) that Jews eat on their annual festival of vengeance.

The king died 35 years ago, but the obsession with Jewish eating habits lives on at the university named after him. In March 2002, a lecturer there informed readers of the al-Riyadh newspaper that the Jewish ritual of “spilling human blood to prepare pastries for their holidays is a well-established fact”. For Purim goodies, she explained, “the victim must be a mature adolescent who is … either Christian or Muslim” – unlike the Passover cannibalism that had so upset King Faisal, when “children under 10 must be used”.

Then, as now, Saudi officials reassured shocked critics that a rigorous reappraisal would be undertaken of material used in school and university textbooks. The fact remains that much of the antisemitic and Holocaust-denial literature available worldwide in Arabic originates from Saudi Arabia.

My own modest experience of Saudi ambivalence on this issue concerned the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park. Its first director,Zaki Badawi – the shrewdest, most effective spokesman yet to represent the UK Muslim community – became a warm personal friend. Along with the vicar of St John’s Wood church we arranged the first ever trialogue meetings to be held in this country, attracting large audiences, and were able to defuse several potentially difficult situations involving our Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.

The co-operation continued for over a decade, despite tensions from the worsening conflict in the Middle East. Then Badawi left the mosque, in the aftermath of the furore over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. His successor was a charming Saudi who, after an amiable first meeting, displayed no inclination to maintain the mosque’s connection with its local church and synagogue.

Not long afterwards, a congregant told me that the Protocols was on sale in the mosque bookshop. I wrote to the new director in a carefully modulated more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone to say how surprised I was, given the close relationship between our two places of worship, to learn that such a scurrilous antisemitic forgery should be on sale to mosque visitors. He replied with effusive apologies, assuring me that it had been an unfortunate mistake committed by an underling, and the book would be withdrawn.

And so it was, but from school textbooks to supposedly scholarly works for the advanced student, in this country and the wider world modern-day Muslim readers have at their disposal the whole gamut of Nazi antisemitic mythology and iconography, much of it published in Saudi Arabia.

This is not the first time that Rabbi Goldberg has extended the hand of friendship, only to receive a slap in the face in return. A decade ago, he was persuaded to attend and host various events organised by a group called Deir Yassin Remembered. Here, on their website, is a reproduction of a piece in the Jewish Chronicle about one such event.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Goldberg and the other participating Liberal and Progressive rabbis did not realise that Deir Yassin Remembered is run by Paul Eisen, a close friend of the antisemite Gilad Atzmon, who is also associated with the campaign. Eisen also brought onto the board, the Russian antisemite who at one stage called himself “Israel Shamir”. The discovery of the true nature of Deir Yassin Remembered resulted in Rabbi Goldberg’s colleague at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, Rabbi Solomon delivering a sermon in which he said:

I am sad to say that the Deir Yassin Remembered group, which Rabbi Rayner and I understood to be calling for the just acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering, have been steered in the direction of outright antisemitism and blatant Holocaust denial, and can no longer be supported by any Jew who cares about the truth of history or the survival of our own people.

Rabbi Goldberg was also one of the founder members of Independent Jewish Voices. He resigned from that position, for a number of reasons:

“I’ve become disappointed at the lack of direction. It had a wonderful start due to the publicity value of the eminent names who were persuaded or who were willing to sign a statement on human rights, Israel and the Occupied Territories.

“Since then, the enthusiasm engendered by that has been dissipated.”

He went on: “When it comes to an urgent and topical issue which requires an unequivocal response, such as the academic boycott [of Israel], the tired old mantra is repeated that it is not an organisation with a programme but a collection of individuals. I find that unsatisfactory.”

Rabbi Goldberg also said: “I’ve become aware how little in touch with the Anglo-Jewish community so many of its [IJV’s] people are, when they make the good old Board of Deputies the axis of evil.”

He was also concerned at increasing willingness in some circles to countenance the idea of a binational state rather than a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I think a big worry for Israel is the way a binational state is being floated. For all of us who believe in the right of the Jews to have a state, no matter how critical we are of the Israeli government, this is the thin end of the wedge. More and more academics are taking it up in their ivory towers.”

It is a very good thing for liberals to reach out across divides, with optimism and trust. However, it is also important for us to realise that not all opponents of our opponents are our friends. Liberals are required to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis every day. It is important that we do it better.