Chairman's message: Simon Goldhill

I was just in Jerusalem - where, from the English freeze of February, the clear blue skies, the pleasant 75 degree temperatures, and the rich glow of the old walls were particularly wonderful. The elections had happened, Gaza had happened, and the beauty of spring did not seem to have stopped any of the feverish arguments around town.

I was there for a meeting of a group I work with, a group of Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians, on the potential for managing sites of shared cultural heritage, religious sites, historical sites, and sites of natural resources - from Har Habayit to the Jordan River valley. After two years' work, the first signs for the first six sites were ready to go - signs in English, Arabic and Hebrew, telling the same story for visitors in different languages. Agreeing a shared story for sites of such potential contention, and finding the language to express those stories, was no easy task. It isn't just a question of weaving a way through the politics. The agreed text was first drafted in English, translated into Hebrew, and then translated into Arabic, and then back into English, when, like the Forth Bridge, we had to start again as the new text was so different from the text we had started with!

Unfortunately, the situation was such that nobody felt that a public meeting of such political sensitivity could take place, and the formal business of the committee was deferred for better times. Instead I met informally with a set of friends and colleagues: the head of archaeology from the Waqf for the Temple Mount; the just retired editor of Haaretz, the head of UNESCO, a human rights lawyer from the Geneva talks, and so forth. The talk was all of politics and the current difficulties. The discussions were all riveting, informed, and aimed at a fundamentally decent exchange of views. I found even with my ultra-religious friends the same thing - an engaged reasonableness, and a despair about the leadership of the country, and especially the corruption and blinkers of those striving to take control of the country. And the same tone in the shuk with my Arab friends in the stores there.

It was an extraordinary feeling. I was absolutely exhilarated to be there, to be having these profoundly moving and exciting conversations - about such depressing and awful topics. It is not often that exhilaration and despair come together so strongly.

These conversations seemed so different from the debate about Israel in this country. Reading the newspapers here - and hearing the arguments around the University - is just depressing. No exhilaration at all. Why?

For me, it is not only because of the relentless attacks on Israel, profoundly dispiriting though they undoubtedly are. Nor is it because some of these attacks are from Jews. Nor is it because so much of what is touted is so ill-informed about history. Rather, what disturbs me most is the shrill, totalitarian, extremism of the attacks, and - and this too is worrying - the effect this has on the replies, which are often as un-nuanced as the attacks.

What are the key signs of the current British extremism? There are always verbal ticks to mark:

"sixty years" - the claim that for sixty years the Israelis have been oppressing Palestinians. That is, the very foundation of the State is an oppression, the attacks on it by Arab armies are irrelevant, and so forth -- the conclusion of this argument is extremely threatening indeed.

"Democratically elected" - as if the fact that Hamas won an election is a mantra of certain political value. Elections without accountability are meaningless, as Zimbabwe shows. The morality and aims of Hamas are not to be evaluated according to the means by which they came to power.

"Deliberately": that children were shot by Israelis "deliberately", thus demonizing all Israeli soldiers, and ignoring all attempt to minimize civilian casualties.

"Massacre", "slaughter" - never just death in war.

"Home made" - as if rockets that kill are cuddly or somehow heimisch, when home made - an argument that is rarely heard for the home made bombs of 7/7 or Lockerbie.

"Resistance" - as if all forms of resistance were equivalent. The atmosphere created by the constant repetition of these mantras of extremism is poisonous.

But it will not do to reply with an extremism of one's own. It will not do, for example, to turn a blind eye to the fact that Lieberman, who won 13 seats in the recent elections and has a leading role in forming a coalition, is a politician whose policies include aims we should as Jews be ashamed of - and whose rhetoric is as unpleasant as any ultra-right wing politician in Europe - where we would be the first to complain bitterly of the dangerous return of such exclusionary and racist thinking. It will not do simply to say that whatever Israel does is right - if only because we know it is not true.

It is essential to hold on to the centre. Firmly, clearly and repeatedly to point out, again and again, the falseness and extremism of the rhetoric of the attacks on Israel. But also firmly and clearly to be prepared to debate intelligently and in an informed way about Israeli policy, its failures and successes. At the Seder, you dip your finger in the wine and shed a drop for each plague in order, we are told, to resist triumphalism, to remember the suffering of the enemy. You are required to recall and debate history. To tell the story; and even if you think you know it all, you are required to debate it again. One of the greatest threats to freedom is the threat that comes from the closed-minded certainty of extremism - on all sides. The most fascinating survey of recent months revealed that 80% of Israelis and 80% of Palestinians wanted peace, but believed that the other side was not sincere in its attempts to make peace. As one friend in the shuk put it - in despairing irony rather than in hope - "We should let Lieberman and Hamas get together - at least you know where you are with them". When there is such distrust, confusion and uncertainty, then extremism emerges with the lure of certainty. And the failure of imagination that extremism represents is as crippling as the historical, social and cultural ignorance it propagates. Freedom can be frightening and unsettling. But without the ability to imagine the suffering of others, to imagine a better world for others as well as oneself, to imagine the flaws of certainty, one will remain a prisoner of one's own naivety and prejudices - and try to make others prisoners of them too.

I wish you all a happy and kosher chag Pesach.

Professor Simon Goldhill, Chairman, CTJC.