Writing home. Malcolm Rifkind on why a miraculous intervention is needed if peace is ever to return to the Holy Land

Letters to Auntie Fori: 5,000 years of Jewish history

Martin Gilbert <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 37

Martin Gilbert is a splendid but sometimes idiosyncratic historian. To write the definitive biography of Winston Churchill took him eight volumes. To write what he describes as "the 5,000-year history of the Jewish people and their faith" has taken him 373 pages. The title of his book is disconcerting, too. "Auntie Fori" is a 90-year-old lady, married to an Indian diplomat, unrelated to Gilbert, but whom he befriended many years ago. He has discovered that she is Jewish and she has discovered, rather late in the day, a desire to know about the Jewish people and faith to which she was born. The result was 140 letters from him to her, which he has now published as a book. It is a sparkling and informative narrative, but I am bemused that Gilbert, one of our foremost historians, describes Part I as history. In fact, it is merely a potted version of the Old Testament, from Adam and Eve to Isaiah.

We are told, for example, that "Moses was in his eighties when he led the Children of Israel through the inhospitable Sinai desert for 40 years". There are similar unqualified references to the various miracles that God, directly or indirectly, performed on behalf of the chosen people. I have no problem with the Old Testament being used as a source of material (though, curiously, the Bible is not included in the bibliography, despite it being described as "the works consulted during the writing of these letters"). But it is disappointing that Gilbert has not used his formidable knowledge and intellect to advise both Auntie Fori and the general reader of the extent to which modern scholarship has confirmed or refuted the claims made in the Five Books of Moses.

There are only passing references to such fascinating questions as whether the Flood actually happened and whether the Ark is likely to have ended up on Mount Ararat. Likewise, more than a sentence would have been justified on our latest knowledge about the Israelites as bondsmen in Egypt and how they realised their freedom. One assumes that Gilbert has studied these questions. As he is writing not a religious tract but a history, he should have shared his knowledge with the reader.

Enough complaints. Gilbert has been researching the origins of Islam. Some of his findings show how the current agony of Israel and its Arab neighbours could have been very different if events had worked out differently 1,400 years ago. He suggests that "Mohammed was prepared to convert to Judaism, his basic religious beliefs being so similar, provided the Jews recognised him as being the last of the Jewish Prophets". In support of this, Gilbert points out that, at first, the dietary laws of Islam were a version of the Jewish laws of kashrut. The Muslims of that time similarly fasted on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and when they prayed, they faced Jerusalem, not Mecca. But the Jews were stubborn and uncompromising. As a result, Mohammed increasingly became opposed to them and, as they say, the rest is history.

As one reads Gilbert on the 5,000-year odyssey of the Jewish people, one is constantly reminded of the present impasse in the Middle East. What does happen when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But in one fundamental respect, we are offered a way forward. The problem about the future of the Holy Land is that the dispute has not been just about boundaries. Even more difficult has been the reluctance of Arabs to accept that the Jews have an equal entitlement to a state of their own in Palestine. In part, this has been because the early Zionist settlers were mostly European, and their colonisation of the land was seen in terms similar to the colonial empires in Africa and Asia. Even today, Israel is thought of as an extension of Europe in the Middle East (which may not be surprising, given its participation in the Eurovision Song Contest). The reality is that modern Israel is not exclusively European. A high and growing proportion of its Jewish population have come to Israel from the Arab countries, North Africa and other parts of the third world.

Gilbert here describes not only how the Diaspora was formed, but also how the exiles have returned. If the Arabs could accept the Jews as a people who have inhabited Palestine for several thousand years and whose right to live in Palestine is at least as great as their own, progress would have been made. The Israelis, for their part, must acknowledge that even in biblical days they shared the land that flowed with milk and honey with other tribes and other peoples. In the modern world, that means two states are needed: one is Israel, the other will be Palestine.

Naturally, the delineation of boundaries, the future of Jerusalem and compensation for refugees will be difficult to resolve; but if, in their hearts and their minds, Arabs and Israelis can accept the legitimacy of each other, their combined future will be bright. Some will say that such a state of affairs would need a miracle. Martin Gilbert's book reminds us that that can also be delivered if necessary. As they say in Israel, anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995 to 1997