Rabbi David J Goldberg: ‘People everywhere employ selective moral vision’

The controversial emeritus leader of the Liberal Synagogue discusses the State of Israel and what it means to be Jewish today

�Wherever Rabbi Dr David J Goldberg OBE goes, he seems to get someone’s back up. After being the first prominent Jewish person in the UK to call for recognition of legitimate Palestinian rights in 1978, Goldberg, the Emiritus Leader of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, was pronounced a self-hating Jew. In more recent times, his involvement in Independent Jewish Voices – a liberal Jewish group who committed themselves to putting human rights first in the context of the Israel-Palestine issue, caused another heated debate with Melanie Phillips on Newsnight. As he gives me a cup of coffee (and insists on two biscuits for me) in his study, nestled in his Kentish Town home, I find it strange to think that this mild-mannered man in his seventies has caused so much fuss.

Goldberg has authored several books, the most recent of which was almost titled (quite sensationally) Reflections Of A Self-Hating Jew but has instead been titled This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism And Israel. The book discusses lots: the State of Israel; the contrasts of Diaspora versus Israeli identity; who is a Jew in today’s society; Jewish ethics and provides a welcome discourse on the changing practice of religion today – as it applies to Judaism and consequently other religions. Few stones are left unturned by Goldberg’s fearless critique – as he pronounces wittily that “there is no evidence to suggest – as he seems to think – that atheism was first discovered by Richard Dawkins” and refers to the “rather too pleased with itself London Review of Books” in less serious, but still sensational sentences of the book.

The biggest problem – a mountain rather than a stone perhaps – is the way forward with the Israel-Palestine situation. Goldberg makes a case for open dialogue and negotiation, with each party questioning their actions, although he doesn’t believe it will happen quickly or easily. “I’m very pessimistic about the way forward because there is such obduracy on both sides and I fear now a kind of ingrained hatred of the other. Thus far, there’s never been at the same time on both sides, a leader big enough to be able to overcome this. When Israel’s had great leaders, there’s been no interlocutor on the other side and vice versa. Apartheid came to an end, not only because of Mandela, but because of the clerk on the whites’ side. That has not happened equally in this struggle.”

The accusations of anti-semitism towards critics of Israel is “a very slippery slope to be on”, he argues. Adding to the difficulty is the conflation between the State of Israel and the Holocaust and how the latter has become, according to the book, “a thriving growth industry”. This might provoke a reaction, I suggest. “I think good taste has long since gone in the way that the Holocaust has become so commercialised. The story of the Holocaust museum in Washington, and the fighting and the infighting that went on over custody of it, does not do credit to anybody. The Holocaust has certainly been commercialised, I’d say.” He’d be happier to see the lessons of the Holocaust for the world left undiluted – so everyone can continue to learn from them, he adds.

All this and more has made Rabbi Goldberg a somewhat hated figure in some communities, not least the ephemeral group that he refers to as “The Israel Lobby”, who, he suggests, go to great lengths to conceal their existence. He was first accused of being a self-hating Jew in the 70s and insists now he wears it as a badge of honour, seeing as the term is bandied about so much. It hasn’t always been this way. “The first time, 20 to 30 years ago, it is very unpleasant. If you are used to civilised discourse, when a complete stranger will either write to you or will write letters in the Jewish press, it is quite a shock. It’s very painful, hurtful. I think it is very sad really if the nearest thing people can come to refuting an argument is to accuse the person of being an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew – it’s not on a very serious intellectual level is it?”

I wonder if his struggle in his own community has led him to question his faith. He acknowledges in the book that “religion has discredited itself as a force for peace in the Middle East” and, for someone in his position, that must be a disappointment, to say the least. “More serious things than that challenge my faith – like the behaviour of God. I’m not surprised (about the Palestine issue) because people everywhere employ selective moral vision. They will speak in very hifalutin ideals but when it comes to their own behaviour they have always got some justification for it.”

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This leads Goldberg down another path of thought – into the modern-day practice of religion, something on which he has lots to say. “As far as Judaism the religion is concerned, I would say very few Jews today, meaning only an infinitesimal number, ultra orthodox, believe in the Old Testament God. The rest have substituted with moral values – ideas about peace justice and love – and it is in those great ideals that we find sustenance. Therefore, for me, it breaks down if all it is reduced to is particularism, that is: ‘I believe in justice, love or whatever but as far as I’m concerned, whatever we do is right.’”

It is testament to him that, as a reviewer remarks, “the book spreads its light upon the deceits and hypocrises of all religious forms today”. Indeed, Goldberg does not spare other religions of his unflinching analysis. “It has been very interesting watching the Church (of England) getting its knickers in a twist. I have got some very good friends in the Church and we have talked about the problems they face: homosexuality, women priests, keeping the worldwide communion going, at the expense of simple, natural justice. When religion gets into nitpicking about text, when there’s surely a kind of universal simple moral imperative, then I very quickly lose my respect for organised religion.” Even the Left, which I assume is his political bastion, doesn’t escape his sharp and gentle criticism. “I don’t take the Left very seriously – not about Israel only – generally. It’s modish affectation, I feel, because they are not great causes. I can’t really see myself marching about the top band of income tax. It’s not exactly like the Jarrow March of the 30s. It’s tweaking still a fairly affluent welfare state, a social democracy. It does come in to a rather pseudo-affectation.”

Goldberg reminds me, that his branch of Judaism has “always been the most radical and the most concerned with ethics above ritual”. Shortsightedness seems to be his main frustration, and perhaps the cause of the all-encompassing book. “Where I get annoyed with my people now, is that they are busy sending out indignant statements about refusal of the authorities in Israel to allow women to pray at the wall. But sometime over the last five years I would have preferred to hear an unequivocal moral statement about the blockade of Gaza, for example. That has been a deafening silence.”

n This Is Not The Way: Jews, Judaism And Israel is published by Faber, �14.99