March 28, 2011 by Antony Lerman
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.