Anglo-Jewish leadership is again under the spotlight following its response towards recent behavior by UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Today every Jewish community engaged in dealing with government feels challenged by the need to balance silent diplomacy with public action. Even the American Jewish leadership, which prides itself on strident public action, is in a quandary as how to respond to the conflict between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But Anglo Jewry has a long and unique tradition of maintaining a low profile as a matter of deliberate policy, even extolling the effectiveness of Jewish action based on “whispering” rather than “shouting.”
The problem is exacerbated with the status awarded to anti-Israel Jews, who are increasingly quoted approvingly in the mainstream media and frequently given greater prominence than the established Jewish leadership.
In addition, there is a growing inclination, conscious or otherwise, by increasing numbers of Jews to adopt an anti-Zionist chic in order to distance themselves from the growing anti-Israelism which saturates all levels of society. This is brilliantly portrayed in Howard Jacobson’s 2011 Booker prize novel, The Finkler Question, which satirically portrays an assimilated British Jew seeking to escape his Jewish heritage and “integrate” by turning against his people.
Last November, with British media hostility against Israel reaching an all-time high, this trend climaxed when Mick Davis, Chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), publicly urged British Jews to be more critical of Israel, and made a number of bizarre statements condemning Israeli security policies. The issue was covered in a Jerusalem Post column I wrote earlier this year.
Needless to say, no serious person denies the right of diaspora Jews to criticize aspects of Israel or condemn moral lapses by Israelis in public life. However, until recently, it was considered reprehensible for Jews living outside the Jewish state to exert pressure in relation to security policies which could have life-and-death implications for Israeli citizens.
No other Jewish community, including that of the US, whose Jews are considered far more liberal than their British counterparts, would tolerate such outbursts from a purportedly mainstream leader. Davis, is after all, head of the UJIA, not a spokesman for J Street.
It is in such a volatile environment that the well intentioned leaders of the Board of Deputies are groping for solutions. But alas, their obsession with the merits of retaining a low profile, not rocking the boat, and determination to avoid confrontations does provide credence to accusations that they are frequently perceived as “trembling Israelites.”
Together with BICOM – a lavishly funded organization commissioned to promote Israel advocacy – they are continuously on the defensive, desperately seeking to prove their bona fides to the Left, investing more efforts against marginal fascist groups than the far more threatening Arabs and indigenous anti-Israeli extremists.
They also indulge excessively in ritual condemnations against Islamophobia, but are reluctant to confront the leaders of the Muslim community for their failure to condemn terrorism and extremism in their own ranks.
At the universities, the situation continues to worsen.
Campaigns to promote boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel are the order of the day. Many Jewish students are intimidated by the aggressiveness and violence of pro-Palestinian leftists and Arabs.
Yet even in these instances, the leadership calls for “restraint.”
A few months ago, a Jewish student handing out pro-Israeli pamphlets was brutally attacked, bitten on the face and hospitalized. Instead of supporting him, the executive director of the Jewish Leadership Council claimed that the student had brought this upon himself: “If they go looking for trouble, they really shouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing happens,” he said.
The Conservative British government appears to be even more hostile to Israel than its Labor predecessor. In March this year, Cameron delivered a major speech to the Jewish community extolling its contributions and condemning anti-Semitism, claiming that his belief in Israel was indestructible, and even describing himself as a Zionist. Yet despite chanting mantras about purported friendship with the Jewish state, he and Foreign Minister William Hague are known to be at the forefront of the European anti-Israeli bloc. This was exemplified by Cameron’s recent decision to terminate the century long tradition of British prime ministers acting as patrons to the Jewish National Fund. The move was in response to intensive lobbying campaigns from anti-Israeli and Arab groups who had initiated a “Stop the JNF Campaign” during Gordon Brown’s tenure but had then been rebuffed. Whilst initially claiming that the move was made to ease Cameron’s workload, the Jewish Chronicle subsequently reported that a spokesman from the PM’s office had confirmed that the reason for withdrawal was the JNF linkage with Israel. The editor of the Jewish Chronicle went so far as to describe the prime minister’s decision as the “equivalent of sticking two fingers up to the Jewish community of Britain.”
With the exception of a statement by the Zionist Federation and the UK branch of the JNF, Anglo-Jewish leaders responded to this affront with deafening silence.
Yet, true to form, Davis of the UJIA, and his colleague Gerald Ronson, head of the CST (Community Security Trust) – the organization created to combat anti-Semitism – last week did speak up. They immediately dissociated themselves from a UK JNF condemnation of the move as capitulating to pressure from extremist anti-Israeli groups. In what could be defined as groveling, they provided Cameron with a total clean bill of health, describing as “ridiculous” the suggestion that “the decision to step down had anything to do with pressure from anti-Israeli groups or reflect a negative opinion on Israel” because the Prime Minister is a “staunch friend” of Israel.
Today, at a grass roots level, some British Jews – and even a number from leadership ranks – are becoming fed up with the attitude of their spokesmen who they accuse of being in denial and excessively downplaying the extent of the anti-Semitism. They are demanding more vigorous responses to anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli onslaughts.
This was manifested in protests by rank-and-file representatives at the Board of Deputies plenum, and the adoption of a more assertive tone by the Zionist Federation.
The “British Coalition for Israel,” a new body primarily promoting pro-Israel advocacy, has received enthusiastic support from wide sections of the community.
Despite the escalating level of anti-Semitism in the UK, the primary battle must be to ensure that a generation of new leaders will emerge from within the Jewish community who have the courage and conviction to stand up and defend their interests.
If those who bury their heads in the sand and fail to confront the forces demonizing and delegitimizing Israel carry the day, it will have a catastrophic impact on youngsters whose self-confidence is undermined as they observe their elders running for cover. If anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli libels are not confronted, the younger generation will absorb the false Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which portrays Israel as a rogue state, born in sin, occupying Arab territory and denying Palestinians their basic human rights.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post
This article was adapted from remarks presented to a joint session at the Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism & the University College London Israel Alumni Association on June 16.