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.
Anthony, I wonder if this article isn’t unduly negative. I was at the meeting and there was a real sense of energy around the people there. Let’s look on the positive side: We have a Board leadership that is pro-peace and seeking to move this ancient body into the 21st century, we have figures like Mick Davis speaking out and criticising Netanyahu and we have an embryonic group that is pro-Israel, pro-peace and so possibly capable of reaching the mainstream community.
I would say the position of British Jewry, and its representatives, is looking hugely more positive than it was even 2 years ago. Let’s be hopeful of change.
I take your point Henry. You’re right that the enthusiasm is encouraging. What worries me, however – and this is what I tried to convey in my post – is that the enthusiasm could be misdirected and will not achieve any substantive goals. To achieve change vis-a-vis the Board of Deputies and the other retrogressive institutions in the community I think it’s very important to know some history about why they are like they are and how and why past efforts to implement reform, either from within or from outside, failed. I’m afraid I don’t get a strong sense from what has happened so far that the people heading this initiative have this important perspective. In the aphorism most closely associated with Santayana, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. The Board has been a past master at absorbing and neutralising grassroots dissent or ignoring it.
You’re right we should be hopeful of change, but without a realistic and hard-headed understanding of what one is doing, I fear the change won’t come and the people who are working for it will be disappointed.