By Anthony Lerman
The launch of Brits For Peace Now (BFPN) at Portcullis House, London, on 27 February reflected well on its young leadership whose energy and dynamism ensured a good turnout — testament to the continuing desire for a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict among British Jews. Between 150-200 people made the very large reception room look comfortably populated. I had a sense that spirits were lifted by this demonstration of interest in the rebirth of an organization that, in its former guise as British Friends of Peace Now, was in effect defunct. The enthusiasm of the two co-chairs, Dan Arenson and Dan Levene, was infectious. Yossi Mekelberg, the Middle East expert at Chatham House, acknowledged that this was not a propitious time for the peace movement but it was right ‘to lay the groundwork for when the time for peace is right’. The chair of Peace Now Israel, Yariv Oppenheimer, insisted that the two-state solution was the only way of achieving an end to violence and lasting peace. Fighting for this and for Israel’s democracy, now under political attack in the Knesset, were Peace Now’s priorities. The support of BFPN was important for Israel.
But slick PR, a prestigious venue, hopeful words and youthful passion are all very well. The question is, will BFPN make any difference? I certainly couldn’t see anything in the event itself that suggested it will. Unfortunately, to attract 150-200 to a launch of this kind does not mean very much. Especially since I’m sure that a significant proportion were people already involved in other peace groups. I myself saw at least 20-25 friends and acquaintances I knew to be active in at least one other such organization. Providing yet another framework for the same people who are already active is hardly going to change the way the Jewish community thinks.
I suppose that with a young leadership BFPN perhaps might have more luck reaching out to what is indeed a very important constituency: Jews in their 20s and 30s. And they must be given a chance to do this. However, the launch of Yachad, billed as the UK’s J Street, set out to do something very similar, but I have not seen any evidence that they have achieved any kind of breakthrough. Moreover, while I’m all in favour of creative competition in the Jewish community, to have two such similar organizations targeting the same generation seems rather unwise. There is certainly a level of disquiet about Israel’s policies across much of the Jewish community and it should be possible to tap into it to build a broad coalition. But the re-launch of a British Peace Now support group suggests that no one is achieving that aim. One more small and worthy organization is merely added to the existing list.
The heartfelt words of Mekelberg and Oppenheimer also did little to suggest BFPN is offering anything new. Mekelberg tried to strike an optimistic note, but it was telling that his most memorable line was that being at the launch was ‘like going down Memory Lane’. Peace Now was founded in the late 1970s, long before the Oslo Accords. To carry the word ‘Now’ in the name of an organization for more than 30 years must raise questions about what it can ever do to help reach a resolution of the conflict. Don’t get me wrong, Peace Now does some very important work, first in monitoring settlement activity and seeking to combat the proliferation of illegal settlements in the West Bank, and second in combating anti-democratic trends in Israeli society. But it’s losing the battle on both of these fronts.
Oppenheimer laid great stress on the two-state solution, as did Mekelberg, as if it were the only sure fire way of reaching a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict. But their failure to acknowledge that the actual possibility of achieving such an outcome is now virtually non-existent, given the entrenchment of Israeli power and control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, showed a depressing failure to face up to the truth. A creeping, repressive, undemocratic one-state reality is being constructed by the Netanyahu government. If Peace Now in Israel and BFPN don’t face up to this fact and address it, they will remain marginal to whatever’s coming down the pike.
It’s understandable that the director of Peace Now in Israel should want to garner as much support from diaspora Jews as possible. It needs financial and moral assistance. But whether another UK branch of an Israeli organization is what British Jews need as a vehicle for expressing their views on the Israel-Palestine conflict is very doubtful. BFPN aims to educate Jews and non-Jews about the dangers of West Bank settlement, publicise the struggle for peace taking place in Israel and lobby the British government to encourage peace negotiations, but being tied to an Israeli organization, there is no guarantee that it will do that with a clear-eyed focus on what is best for British Jews. It says that it’s ‘also in a unique position to combat advocacy of the one-state solution, as well as calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions in British political discourse’. But why it should be so positioned is not clear. And why should it be seen as such a good idea anyway, when the language BFPN uses usually means buying in to the levelling of demonising accusations of antisemitism against people who advocate one-state and BDS?
I still firmly believe that British Jews can help themselves, Israel and the Palestinians by acting independently to make people aware of Israel’s disastrous policies and by taking a hard-headed, human rights-based approach to advocating a peace with justice for Palestinians and Israelis. While I wish the BFPN team well, they have a long way to go before they can confidently prove that this is the role they are fulfilling.