A state like no other. Israel, once seen as a refuge, has become one of the few places where Jews are attacked simply for being Jews. Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the troubled history of a homeland

Jacob's Gift: a journey into the heart of belonging

Jonathan Freedland <em>Hamish Hamilton, 395pp,

One of the best things Bernard Levin ever wrote was an essay for the New Statesman in 1965 called: "Am I a Jew?" He knew the answer perfectly well, but he wanted to examine what "this means to me", as a man who did not believe in race and had neither any interest in Jewish culture (beyond a fondness for Jewish food and Jewish jokes) nor any religious belief. As to the obvious tests of group loyalty, Levin thought that the Final Solution was wicked, but no more so than Stalin's slaughter of innocent millions. And he could not see that his attitude towards Israel distinguished him from a Gentile of similar political outlook: he admired the achievement while expressing "the strongest condemnation of her crime against her original Arab population and the campaign of lies she has waged ever since on the subject".

Forty years later, the difficulties Levin raised are more pertinent than ever. Every Jew has to ask some version of his question, to address the two great central events of modern Jewish history - the murder of the European Jews and the creation of a Jewish state - and to come to terms with the problems of identity and loyalty. The issues have become sharper, because things have not worked out quite as expected (when do they?). The popularity that Israel once enjoyed has faded, notably among the liberal left, and the exultant identification in which Diaspora Jewry basked following the Six Day War of 1967 has been replaced by a new set of anxieties and problems.

Although Jonathan Freedland would scarcely borrow Levin's title - he is engaged in Jewish life and faith, keeping kosher and observing high holy days - he, too, wants to find out what being Jewish means, what it has meant, and what it will mean to his young son Jacob. Freedland examines this through what is in part a fascinating and moving family memoir. Most British as well as American Jews are descended from the great westward migration that lasted little more than 30 years between 1882 and the First World War, and which now provides such a fascinating pattern of interwoven relationships and unlikely connections across three continents (Lauren Bacall and Binyamin Netanyahu are cousins).

More peripatetically than most, the various families from which the author descends moved between their home town of Dunilovich (in Lithuania), London and the Holy Land. Freed-land tells his story around three people in particular: two of his great-uncles, Nathan and Mickey Mindel, and his mother, born Sara Hocherman. Menachem Yitzhak Mindel came from Dunilovich to the East End as a young boy. Renamed Nathan Isidore, he was quickly Anglicised at school, at University College London and then in the army. Before the First World War ended, he was posted to what was shortly to become British Mandatory Palestine. It was there that Nat found his ambiguous destiny, as an official devoted to his adoptive country, but also an enthusiast exhilarated by the Zionist idea.

Lasting less than 30 years, the Palestinian Mandate was one of the sourest episodes in imperial history. The British won no sympathy and deserved none, having made incompatible promises to Arabs and Jews. It is impossible not to feel sorry for a man such as Nat, who clearly tried to act even-handedly, but who nevertheless ended up getting it in the neck from all sides. In its sad way, his story illustrates the problem for the most high-minded and least bigoted British officials, who discovered that "the underlying philosophy of nearly all Englishmen", as A J P Taylor put it, "did not work. In Palestine, there was irreconcilable conflict between Arabs and Jews, not a community of interests which the two peoples merely failed to recognise by mistake."

The other kinsman found a different cause. Mick Mindel became a trade-union organiser and a communist, and a bitter story it is. Freedland's weakness as a journalist tends to be his gullibility, and he is far too indulgent towards Mick. Many Jews were captivated by communism, but most became disillusioned, if not by the mounting evidence of Stalin's brutality before the Second World War, then certainly by his undisguised persecution of Russian Jews after it. Freedland assures us that Mick had his own doubts, and he conveys these in the form of not very plausible imaginary dialogue.

A cockney policeman speaks in a voice with "the timbre of beer and pies". When the Nazi-Soviet pact is explained to the comrades in 1939, Mick whispers: "Ours is not to reason why," with "a sneer in his voice". (Does Freedland actually know this?) Ten years later, grim news comes from Russia about the death of the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels. "They're saying Mikhoels has been assassinated," Mick is informed. "Who by? Fascist agitators?" "Mick, they're saying he was killed by agents of Stalin." Mindel would not, in fact, have heard about the appalling judicial murder of the former leaders of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1952, as Freedland implies, because their trial was strictly secret and the news only leaked out years later. Mick's story could have been told with an appropriate mixture of pathos and sarcasm, but surely not with any real sympathy. "Mick never tore up his party card," Freedland writes. "For that he paid a heavy price" - but not as heavy, one is bound to add, as that paid by many Jewish communists living in Russia rather than England.

More truly poignant is the story of Sara. Freedland's mother is a woman who has known very deep sorrow, poverty, bereavement and illness. When the war began, her school in Hackney was evacuated to Shefford in Hertfordshire, while her mother, Feige, remained in London. On 27 March 1945, at the very end of the war, Feige and 120 other Jews were killed when a V2 rocket hit their block of flats. It was at a recent ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of this tragedy that Oona King, the present local Labour MP, who is also Jewish, was pelted with eggs.

In his penultimate chapter, "In Search of Zion", Freedland looks at the extraordinary cause in which many of his family members were caught up, and with which he feels more than a loose connection. He unarguably says that, for many Jews throughout the world, Israel "has become central to their . . . identity, outstripping the Torah, even Judaism itself, as the force that commands their loyalty". The way that ever greater numbers of people openly question the right of a Jewish state to exist "hurts more perhaps than many non-Jews realise", and is distressing even to Jews who recognise that legitimate criticism may be directed at what is "a state like any other".

But surely the whole problem is that Israel, whatever else may be said about it, is quite obviously not like any other state. This is the conundrum that Jacqueline Rose re-examines in her remarkable book The Question of Zion. Enormous amounts of news coverage and polemic are devoted to Israel, and the conflict in the Holy Land is the single most bitterly contentious struggle on earth. And yet, as Rose points out, little attention is given to the roots of the Zionist movement and the impassioned debates that once surrounded it: "While Israel barely leaves the front page of the daily papers, Zionism itself is hardly ever talked about."

In the early decades of the 20th century, many Jews talked about little else. Was political Zionism the right course, and was a national state the proper destiny of the Jewish people? Many Jews passionately opposed the idea, though their opposition took various forms. Freedland mentions some of these as personified by his family: the Marxist objection to exclusive nationalism, and the fundamental religious objection. The latter is now quite forgotten except by zealous Hassidim, who are treated as fanatics in Israel, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries almost all Orthodox rabbis and their pious followers believed that although the restoration of the Jewish people to the promised land of Israel would one day arrive through the redemptive coming of the Messiah, any human anticipation of it was a form of blasphemy.

Just what a strange creed Zionism was, and how unlike other nations its out-come, are part of Rose's theme. Two of her chapter titles - "Zionism as Messianism (Vision)" and "Zionism as Psychoanalysis (Critique)" - illustrate this exceptionalism: it is hard to imagine similar phrases being applied to other national movements. But then Zionism was, uniquely, as much a psychological and social project as a political one, intended to rescue the Jews from what Zionists considered to be their fallen state.

Today the most widespread objection to Zionism is that "original crime" against the Palestinians. Both Freedland and Rose look askance at the notorious phrase "a land without people for a people without land", but perhaps it once was not as scandalous as it now seems. When Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, the inhabitants of Palestine numbered barely half a million, which is to say, not much more than the combined Jewish populations of Budapest and Vienna, Herzl's native and adoptive cities. It was surely tempting to see it as an empty place waiting to be filled, much like California or New Zealand.

While the most penetrating Jewish critics - Ahad Ha'am, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Hans Kohn - did not neglect the effect Zionism would have on the Arabs, they were at least as concerned about the effect it would have on the Jews. Some were deeply attached to an idea of Zionism as a path to moral and spiritual rebirth, but were dismayed by its political and military manifestations. Buber lived to see the creation of Israel in 1948, and to call it a "catastrophe". He warned against the injustice that was being inflicted on the Arabs, but also predicted that the new nation would not only be permanently under attack, but that, as Rose paraphrases it, "by the mere fact of becoming a normal nation, it will corrupt its inner life and will not survive".

"More gravely, Zionism can seem to have failed even in its minimal purposes," Freedland writes. "It was meant to be a refuge, the one place in the world where Jews would not be attacked simply because they were Jews. And yet, at the turn of the 21st century, Israel had become one of the very few places in the world where Jews were attacked simply because they were Jews." This, too, was foreseen by critics who questioned the wisdom of gathering the Jews into a place of great danger: in 1958, Kohn pointed out that "nowhere have Jews felt so exposed as in Palestine".

Still, if some writers are to be believed, Jews are now better off even in Gaza than in Europe. Gabriel Schoenfeld's The Return of Anti-Semitism, like several other recent American books, takes the line that anti-Zionism is illegitimate in principle, and in practice is a cover for anti-Semitism; Israel is a victim and a whipping boy, judged by unfair double standards; her attempts to defend herself are never set in context; the international media are poisonously biased; Europe is once again a hotbed of anti-Semitism.

Although there is some evidence to give colour to these charges, they are largely what lawyers call bad points, or dialectical own goals. Arab newspapers, and publishers and broadcasters, too, often pour out frightful venom, which is lapped up by some Muslim immigrants in Europe; but then it is from European Muslims that most of the danger comes. A recent European Union report on anti-Semitic attacks came to a conclusion worthy of Lord Hutton in the way it flew in the face of its own evidence, concluding that unruly whites were responsible for most of the attacks, when the truth - which has become politically unacceptable - is that they are largely the work of disaffected, non-white Muslim youths.

Plainly, there is today a vast gulf bet-ween European and American attitudes towards the conflict in the Holy Land, but it is hard to reconcile the idea that European sympathy for the Palestinians is no more than a new manifestation of old anti-Semitism with the fact that countries such as Holland, where that sympathy is strongest, are also those where anti-Semitism is weakest. Schoenfeld plays one of the latest variations on the theme when he argues that criticism of the Washington neoconservatives is yet more bigotry. "Winks about the dark force behind government policy gave way to 'Jewish' and other explicit synonyms," he writes - a point David Brooks of the New York Times made more wittily when he wrote that "neo-con" is now an abbreviation in which "con is short for 'conservative' and neo is . . . short for 'Jewish'".

But neoconservatism is an episode, an important and interesting one, in the in-tellectual and political history of Jewish America, and it is impudent to call anyone who mentions this a bigot. Schoenfeld suggests that only racist crackpots ever query the commitment of senior Washington officials, but it was Jack Straw, himself a descendant of Jewish immigrants, who said of Lewis Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff: "It's a toss-up whether Libby is working for the Israelis or the Americans on any given day."

Even more damaging to Schoenfeld's case is his failure to distinguish between different shades of criticism. When Tom Paulin compares the Israeli army with the German SS and A N Wilson also accuses it of genocide, that is spiteful and ignorant, but many critics of Israel are neither. Schoenfeld comes close to claiming that anyone who objects to Israeli policy in the West Bank is a neo-Nazi, and he reaches the height of absurdity when he comes to "an especially painful subject - namely, the degree to which such anti-Semitic ideas have been propagated or actually endorsed by some Jews".

After rounding up the usual subjects - Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Michael Lerner - Schoenfeld adds, in a wonderfully barmy passage, that "more extreme than Wieseltier is Tony Judt". Leon Wieseltier is the author of Kaddish, a long and compelling meditation on Jewish identity, and he is by most standards a loyal supporter of Israel. His offences, in Schoenfeld's eyes, are to have supported the peace process and a Palestinian state, and to have dismissed the idea that Europe is awash with anti-Semitism. Judt is a distinguished historian whose crime is to have voiced considered objections to coarse and regressive Jewish nationalism. What neither they nor other such commentators have made is a simple point that demolishes writers such as Schoenfeld: if criticism of Israel, however trenchant or one-sided, is treated as anti-Semitism, this represents a profound failure on the part of Zionism.

From various Jewish writers, we are indeed now hearing echoes of Kohn and Buber, and also reverberations of the objections once voiced by emancipated Jews in Europe and America. Claude Montefiore was speaking for many proud and pious Jews when, in the course of a fierce though unsuccessful attempt to forestall the Balfour Declaration in 1917, he deplored any idea of investing settlers in Palestine with "rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population"; this would surely "prove a veritable calamity for the Jewish people", for whom the principle of equal rights was vital. "The establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded in this theory of Jewish homelessness," he said, "must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands, and of undermining their hard-won position as citizens and nationals of those lands."

More than a hundred years after Herzl launched his project, and nearly 60 years after the Jewish state of his dreams was born, these debates have come full circle. It is easy to understand the anguish of Jews trapped in a dilemma as Israel grows ever more isolated. But then read those words of Montefiore's again, and ask whether he might not have had a point.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book The Controversy of Zion won an American National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is The Strange Death of Tory England (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press)