A Damp Squib?: Doubts About the New UK ‘Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace’ Movement

Yachad, a new ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ movement, inspired by the American J Street liberal, political lobby group, was launched in the UK in April. Much heralded and anticipated, since its website went live, little has been heard from it. Is Yachad a damp squib?

To answer this, it’s important to understand the context out of which Yachad emerged.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that over the last 15 years Jewish opinion in the UK has become increasingly critical of policies pursued by Israeli governments. So what? Well, at 300-330,000, however small is the UK Jewish population, its backing for Israel, as one component of Diaspora Jewry’s worldwide support, is seen as very important by the Israeli leadership. On the one hand, should Jews in the UK en masse do the unthinkable and formally dissociate themselves from Israel’s policies, I can imagine that a Netanyahu government would, in public, shrug it off and find excuses to explain it. On the other hand, I’m sure that, in private, they would be appalled and very worried since Israel exploits Diaspora Jewish support to provide legitimacy for its actions and as a crucial cushion bolstering its deteriorating international position. Practically every Israeli government has treated Diaspora Jewry as an extension of its domestic constituency, coopting it, speaking on its behalf, as Netanyahu did recently, especially at times of great political difficulty, as a way of exporting its internal crisis.

Potentially, therefore, if critical Jewish opinion could be mobilised on a large scale, it could have a serious impact on Israeli strategic thinking and policy-making and bring much closer the conclusion of a just peace with the Palestinians. But the big question is: Can critical opinion be mobilised on such a scale? I have endeavoured to be optimistic about this possibility. When the American J Street liberal lobby group was formed in 2008, proclaiming itself ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ and setting out to challenge the hegemony of AIPAC, I welcomed it and hoped something similar could be set up in the UK. Late in 2009, I acknowledged that no one had yet ‘discovered the formula for turning dissent and deepening disquiet among many Jews, not just in America but worldwide, into an effective political force’, but remained hopeful that encouraging such a development would bear fruit. Then, in July 2010, the results of an online poll of British Jews’ opinions on Israel, conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) with advice from Ipsos MORI, revealed ‘signs of considerable disquiet’. In a Prospect magazine web exclusive I wrote:

It’s true that British Jews also feel a continuing close attachment to Israel—most of the respondents said that Jews have a special responsibility for its survival— . . . But when the majority of respondents (67 per cent) also see Israeli politics as corrupt, and three quarters think that orthodox Judaism has too much influence in Israeli society, British Jews are sending a strong signal to Israel’s government.

The poll also revealed that over half of British Jews feel that they have the right to judge Israel and over a third say that ‘if Jewish people consider criticism of Israel to be justified, they should always feel free to say so in the British media.’ In the winter 2010-11 Jewish Socialist magazine I wrote: ‘A broader, more assertive Jewish coalition can surely speak out to the UK. Only a bold and imaginative leadership is required to mobilise it.’

I wrote this last comment, the Jewish Socialist article as a whole, as well as the previous two pieces for Prospect and the Guardian‘s Comment is Free, aware that there was much talk going on about setting up either a European J Street-type group or a UK one. Although I personally did not feel that J Street’s positions on Israel-Palestine went far enough, I recognised that it was an important development and should be supported. So in the same vein, I felt that an equivalent British organization, appealing to the Jews in the UK who feel close to Israel but also feel a deep sense of disquiet, could make a major impact both within the British Jewish community but also in the wider society, among opinion formers, policy-makers and politicians. In my own small way, I wanted to encourage it and argue that it should be a ‘broad church’, like the US J Street, including in its ranks those Jewish critics of Israel whose criticisms of the country have led to their being demonized by the mainstream, establishment organizations of the community and often deemed unfit to be considered as members of the community.

Two months ago, a group taking its inspiration from the US J Street cautiously and in a rather low key fashion edged its way into existence through the launch of its website and a report in the Jewish Chronicle. The group, which describes itself as a ‘movement’, is called Yachad, Hebrew for ‘together’. Yachad, according to its director Hannah Weisfeld, ‘ is about standing together with our community and with Israel – with those who want to see a secure and peaceful Israel flourish’. Like the American J Street, it stands for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the securing of Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state. It expects that the border between the two states would run close to the 1967 lines, ‘subject to minor adjustments through mutually-agreed land swaps, with a Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and an Arab Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.’ It uses the same language as J Street, calling on all those who are ‘pro-Israel and pro-peace’ to join, help build support for the steps that would lead Israel ‘to make peace a reality’, especially since ‘the two-state solution is now in peril’. Significantly, the opening paragraph of Yachad’s statement of core principles, reads:

We are Jews who love Israel, who stand with Israel, whose lives are bound up with Israel. We believe in its right not just to exist, but to flourish. We stand against those who defame it.

Although inspired by J Street, Yachad is significantly different. First, its Hebrew name signifies that its primary focus of attention is the Jewish community. Second, it’s not a political lobbying organization. Rather, it will concentrate on education and advocacy, although what the content of the advocacy will be is not explained. Third, it seems to set a qualification for membership not demanded by J Street by stating ‘We are Jews who love Israel’. So Jews who want it to exist and flourish but would not say that they ‘love’ Israel are presumably unwelcome.

Given that Yachad made a deliberate choice not to launch itself on the real public stage with bells and whistles, as opposed to launching in cyberspace, it may seem unfair to draw attention to the fact that it made very little impact. But, it’s not at all unfair since a number of other web launches have been managed much better and secured extensive media coverage. Moreover, a reservoir of goodwill towards the initiative had been building up. Many people felt that the time was right for the establishment of a UK J Street, especially since Mick Davis, the chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal, the UK Jewish community’s largest Israel charity, last autumn publicly criticised Netanyahu’s policies and said that it was only right that British Jews should make their feelings known about the impact Israel’s policies were having on the Jewish community. Even a few short years ago, what Davis did would have been unthinkable. If he could say such things, why not also the ‘silent majority’ of British Jews who feel the same?

Unfortunately, there are too many things about Yachad which suggest that it stands little chance of being the voice of the silent majority. First, take the name. A Hebrew word that even relatively few Jews would understand is hardly likely to help the organization have an impact outside of the Jewish community. Yet to fulfil its aim of helping Israel take steps for peace, Israeli governments are only likely to take notice if they see such an organization commanding widespread support among Jews and having influence outside the Jewish community. With a name like ‘Yachad’, which non-Jews are likely automatically to mispronounce, it’s very doubtful that the movement would ever have such influence.

I suppose that the response to this would be: ‘But Yachad explicitly states that it’s not a political lobby’ (which takes me to my second point). To my mind this is part of the problem: the conflict is a political one. For a group like this, which is focused on achieving a clear political objective, not to engage directly with the forces that make and influence British Middle East policy is a big mistake. Yes, lobbying here is not the same as it is in America. Yet it has become more like America in recent years and there is no doubt that lobbying is an integral part of the British political scene.

Third, J Street, which is focused largely but not exclusively on developing a Jewish constituency, feels no need to require ‘love of Israel’ from its members and supporters. Why is it necessary to ‘love’ Israel to be able to sign up to Yachad’s statement of core principles? If Jews want to express their relationship with Israel using the word ‘love’, then they have every right to do so. But for me, and I know also for many others, love of country has an unconditionality about it that is entirely inappropriate because it too easily licences an unbridled nationalism. It also excludes a whole range of complex relationships that many Jews have with Israel, which may be to do with largely positive or largely negative experiences of the country, or may arise through political or intellectual reconsiderations, renewed engagement with autonomous Diaspora Jewish life and so on, but which do not mean that such Jews do not have Israel’s best interests at heart. Yachad may think that what it’s doing is transcending a traditional left-right political divide, but it’s creating other unnecessary divisions instead.

Fourth, following on directly from ‘love’, it became clear during the discussions that were taking place  prior to the launch that Yachad wanted to distance itself from Jewish Israel-Palestine activists that it regarded as too ‘extreme’. However it wanted to present itself – as young, new, untainted, mainstream, loyal or whatever – there seemed to be no room for veteran activists with years of experience in working for Israel-Palestine reconciliation and peace because someone had deemed them to be beyond the pale. This hardly seems to comply with the wording of Yachad’s core principles which speak of ‘broadening the current conversation about Israel in the Jewish diaspora’. Excluding such people from Yachad rather suggests that instead of striking a blow against the demonization of Jews whose criticisms of Israel are judged to have put them outside of the ‘communal consensus’, the movement is regrettably reinforcing that demonization.

I understand that there was some rethinking of this wrong-headed approach shortly before the web launch and an informal meeting with some long-standing activists took place, but my sense is that it was very half-hearted and that very valuable suggestions put to Yachad’s founders were ignored.

Fifth, I wonder whether there are some internal problems hampering Yachad’s development. For an organization so long on the drawing board, with Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland acting as a key non-executive advisor and Stephen Grabiner, formerly of Sir Ronnie Cohen’s private equity partnership Apax, a key player, the lack of a serious infrastructure – the director, Hannah Weisfeld, is the only paid professional – suggests that substantial funding for operations has not been forthcoming.

There are clearly some very media savvy, intellectually able and youthful people on Yachad’s Board, so perhaps they are confident that they know what they are doing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that at the moment. And there will be serious repercussions if Yachad fails to become the broad movement, tapping into the disquiet that a majority of Jews feel about Israel’s direction, that it has set out to be. Given the upheavals in the Arab world, the seemingly unstoppable further entrenchment of the occupation, the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and the anti-democratic direction being taken by Israel’s polity, there is an urgent need to mobilise British Jewish opinion that is both critical and constructive. Failure to do so at this juncture will leave the peace camp in the UK even more fragmented than ever and the chance to challenge the Jewish establishment’s deleterious position on Israel will have evaporated.

I fear that without a serious rethink of Yachad’s strategy and some major changes in its core principles, it will be the damp squib it needn’t have been.

Follow me on Twitter: @tonylerman

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