This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret, where it was published today.
Clear signs of changing attitudes towards Israel among British Jews have been emerging in recent years. And yet old thinking dies hard. Whereas a very significant proportion of British Jews who want to declare their attachment to Israel also want to be able to voice their criticism of Israeli government policies in public, among other Jews the knee-jerk response to defend Israel come what may remains strong.
Five or six years ago, even relatively mild criticism of Israel during panel discussions at the yearly Jewish Book Week would be greeted by wild shouts of anger from the audience, and I recall the words ‘traitor’ and ‘fifth columnist’ being used on one occasion. This year 600 people sat and listened attentively and very broadly sympathetically to Gideon Levy in conversation with a columnist on a national daily newspaper, Johann Hari, who has been accused of antisemitism by Israel’s ultra-loyalists. Nevertheless, in advance of the event, the community’s newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, attacked the Book Week organizers for giving a platform to two such ‘Israel-bashers’. Other staunch Zionists went much further and advocated boycotting the yearly festival.
There have always been different groups within the community expressing conflicting views about Israel, but what we are now witnessing is something quite different from the old debates between Labour Zionists, General Zionists and Revisionists. The differences today are so sharp that it becomes hard to see how the views held can exist within the same moral universe, how the people who hold these views can see themselves as part of the same community. But the issue is more complicated than that because it’s not unusual to find quite contradictory views being expressed by the same person.
I had been wondering for some time about why this is now happening and how the situation is being sustained, when it occurred to me that two recent developments throw some light on the issue.
The first is the coming into being (I use this phrase advisedly) of what has been called the UK ‘J Street’. In 2010 rumours abounded that a group of pro-peace, pro-Israel activists were discussing with one or two Jewish journalists, some progressive funders and a few dovish communal leaders how to set up a liberal pro-Israel lobby appropriate for the British political scene. The possibility of such a group being created was widely welcomed among individuals and organizations opposed to the occupation and in favour of a human rights-based solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And it seemed more feasible than ever judging by the results of the JPR survey of British Jewish attitudes to Israel released in the summer.
But towards the end of 2010 it became clear that the British group was going to be a very different animal from J Street. Rejecting the pattern of a broadly based progressive coalition, those leading the UK effort were looking for safe figureheads from the communal mainstream to be part of a carefully chosen core group that would exclude so-called ‘extreme’ critics of Israel, or critics they regarded as ‘beyond the pale’. It was to be called ‘Yachad’, ‘Together’, a fine name no doubt, but clearly indicating that this was not going to be a group advocating for a just Israel to politicians and opinion-formers, but rather aiming to influence communal opinion. And there would be no formal launch. Its existence would gradually become known.
Why anyone would think that this pantomime horse could tap into the same sentiments that gave J Street such an encouraging start was beyond me. Among the ‘extreme’ critics they were shunning were veteran peaceniks who cared deeply for Israel but who were being demonised by the Jewish and Zionist establishment. ‘Yachad’ was therefore conniving in the perpetuation of that demonisation while proclaiming that they were mounting the barricades to overcome it.
The second development is the announcement by the community’s ‘independent’ organization that aims to generate support for Israel, BICOM—Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre—of an ‘advocacy conference’ in May ‘with leading world experts in advocacy and persuasion as the keynote speakers. It will empower and motivate friends of Israel, creating a grassroots network of positive champions. The conference will give you the tools to turn back the negative tide that seeks to delegitimise the State of Israel.’ But with Israel’s image what it is today, anyone who believes such an aim is achievable through what is essentially ‘hasbara’ is living in cloud-cuckoo land. And I don’t believe that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Israeli government really believes it either, since they’re convinced that hostility is due to prejudice, not to lack of awareness of Israel’s scientific achievements.
What strikes me about these two examples is how utterly divorced they both are from how Jewish Israelis are currently confronting—or avoiding confronting—the current situation. These are fundamentally diasporic initiatives seemingly aimed at the object of devotion. But the essential truth is that the loved one doesn’t reciprocate. The traditional Israel-Diaspora ‘relationship’, to which both of these initiatives belong, no longer comprises an Israel that ‘needs’ the Jewish diaspora in the way it once did. The care that ‘Yachad’ Jews or BICOM Jews demonstrate for Israel is not matched by any collective care directed towards them on the Israeli side, and there’s no reason why there should be any. Israel is a state that is pursuing its national interests just like any other state and the great majority of its Jewish citizens see the world with the same mindset. The Jews who would identify with Yachad or BICOM are fulfilling their unique need to express their Jewish identity largely through their identification with Israel. So the reason why polarised views seem to be able to coexist within a fractured community is because both sympathetic critic and diehard loyalist are fulfilling fundamentally similar needs: to maintain and express a key part of their diasporic identities—not an act in which any Israeli Jew could indulge.
Pro-Israel Jewish Organizations Are Likely to Have a Negative Impact on the Object of Their Affection
Apart from running down the battery on my BlackBerry at a phenomenal rate, the Twitter feed I activated recently does have its positive side. Tweets about breaking developments in Egypt and Libya gave me a sense of immediate and uncanny connection to what was going on. Not everything tweeted was necessarily accurate, but the sense of a rapidly changing scene was conveyed brilliantly.
Twitter also brings you news of things you had no idea were happening. Two nights ago I began to get tweets from people who were apparently participating in a public meeting of some kind with the leadership of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. What seemed like a youngish audience was questioning Vivian Wineman, the President of the Board, and Jonathan Arkush, the senior Vice-President, about the Board’s failure to issue a statement supporting a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, whether it could really be said to represent the community, how it could be reformed and so on.
The tenor of the tweets was one of some excitement, as if the exchange going on was unprecedented and presaged some fundamental sea-change in the Board’s relationship with the wider community. But at the time, where the meeting was taking place and in what format were a mystery to me.
The following day a tweet directed me to the personal blog of Hannah Weisfeld, who had written about the meeting and was clearly one of the key people involved. The meeting was held at the London Jewish Cultural Centre and attended by more than 100 people. Over the last 6-9 months Hannah has been one of the leading lights in the attempt to set up what was initially and informally being called the UK J Street, a ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ lobby group modelled on the very successful American organization aiming to counter the hugely powerful right-wing Zionist, pro-Israel lobby organization AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). So it was no wonder that the principal aim of the meeting was to question the Board’s leaders as to why the Board failed to pass the resolution below when it discussed its policy on Middle East peace:
… the Board of Deputies of British Jews … supports Israel’s efforts to seek a lasting negotiated peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution ensuring Israel’s security and respect for the welfare of all of the people in the region
despite the fact that 78 per cent of those Jews who responded to a UK survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) supported a two-state solution. At the time, an open letter was circulated on the internet to be sent to Vivian Wineman asking the Board to reconsider its decision, and it attracted more than 1,000 signatories. Those attending the meeting at the LJCC were from among those signatories.
The confused and contradictory reasons given by Wineman and Arkush for the Board’s decision, as reported by Weisfeld, show just why the Board utterly fails to act in any other than a retrogressive fashion in its attempts to represent a view of the Jewish community on Israel. The British government may pay lip service to the formal notion that the Board ‘represents’ British Jews, but for very many years now other institutions and powerful individuals have been sought out by governments when they have wanted to convey policy messages to the Jewish community or to seek an understanding of what the community ‘thinks’. And those self-same institutions and individuals have far better and more regular access to government ministers than the Board.
The meeting at the LJCC was clearly intended to explore whether the Board could be brought to convey strong support for a two-state solution to the conflict. Hannah Weisfeld’s conclusion was very clear:
Most of all I take heart from the following: There was an impassioned plea from the floor for an organisation that could represent a strong pro-Israel pro-peace voice on the basis that the Board of Deputies was clearly not the place to do this. If we had any doubts (which we didn’t) we were on right track, the energy, enthusiasm and frustration displayed last night confirms that there are large numbers of people in our community desperate for their voice to be represented by an organisation with a vision for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, living in safety and security alongside a Palestinian state.
Those at the meeting who believed that the Board might fulfil such a role were suffering from touching naivety. Anyone who knows and understands the history of the Jewish community over the last 50 years would have realised that, in terms of achieving any practical change, such a discussion with the Board’s leaders was a waste of time. It’s always good to talk, of course, and Wineman is known to hold views more dovish Israel-Palestine than those held by the deputies as a body. But Hannah Weisfeld’s attempt to get a body off the ground that somehow mirrors the ethos of the US J Street – and it’s clear that this meeting was a stage in that process – would have been better served by holding discussions with groups and individuals who have long been advocating two states for two peoples and an end to the occupation of Palestinian land.
In my view, this meeting and Hannah Weisfeld’s conclusions reveal just how solipsistic and unreal are the efforts she and her colleagues are making to set up this putative ‘organization’. Both this initiative and the Board’s dimwitted efforts are being completely bypassed by what’s actually happening today in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, both in terms of events on the ground and political debate, such as it is. Neither of them is addressing the fact that the two-state solution is all but dead or that airy talk about ‘a vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’ simply fails to convey any sense of urgency about the damaging erosion of democratic values in Israel, a process that has been ongoing for decades because of the cancer of the occupation, but has gained frightening pace with the slew of bills and legislative and administrative proposals dreamt up by the right wing forces in the Knesset over the last few years.
What is emerging more clearly than ever is that this kind of Jewish activity relating to Israel has nothing to do with any reciprocal relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Any such reciprocal relationship died decades ago. What the UK J Street people and the Board are doing is expressing their diasporic identities and needs and they are more likely to have a negative than a positive impact on the object of devotion, Israel. Israel has no time for the needs of the Jewish diaspora and takes from the diaspora’s tangled and angst-ridden attitudes to Israel whatever it needs to strengthen Israel’s hold on the status quo.