By and large, Anglo-Jewish leaders — with whom I have worked over many years — are dedicated, well-intentioned Jews, genuinely striving to serve their community. The problem is that their reliance on discreet appeals to those in authority rather than public protest as the method of pursuing Jewish objectives — a policy known in Hebrew as shtadlanut — appears to have become the accepted doctrine within the Anglo-Jewish establishment.
Many Anglo-Jewish leaders also tend to bury their heads in the sand, denying the extent of antisemitism. For example, a Jewish journalist, dismissing claims about growing UK antisemitism, wrote: “There are no pogroms in the high street, no concentration camps in the parks, and no crematoria on these shores.”
For me, the depiction of Anglo-Jewish leaders as trembling Israelites, grateful for the protection accorded them and desperate not to rock the boat, is an accurate one. This outlook is epitomised by the president of the Board of Deputies, Henry Grunwald. A decent man, but a firm worshipper of shtadlanut. He formally articulates the need to direct Jewish affairs on the basis of “softly softly” — which he insists will achieve the best results. He summed up his approach in the Jerusalem Post: “Why must one shout when a whisper can be heard?”
Another Anglo-Jewish phenomenon is the condemnation of Israel by those who proclaim their Jewish origins. The list of Jewish, anti-Israeli activists includes academics, writers, actors, musicians and even some Progressive rabbis whose signatures regularly appear in petitions and advertisements hostile to Israel.
One of those who falls into this category is Antony Lerman, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a body funded by Jewish philanthropists and purporting to be the premier think-tank of Anglo-Jewry. In his address to the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights on March 21 2005, he publicly stated that in view of the fact that the State of Israel and Zionism have been “failures” and that Israel “perpetrates human-rights abuses”, the Jewish state should be transformed into a bi-national state which would “repeal Israel’s law of return” and enable “the right of return of Arab refugees”.
Such views are now often expressed by left-wing Jewish fringe groups, but to have such views expressed by the head of the JPR is obscene. It is symptomatic of an impotent communal leadership that it lacks the backbone to act against the chief executive officer of a publicly funded Jewish think-tank who endorses the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.
Many rank-and-file Jews do not share the UK Jewish establishment’s preference for silent diplomacy. At the start of the Intifada, the leadership refused to hold public protest meetings, insisting it would be counterproductive because few Jews would participate. It was pressure from the community which forced them to change their approach. The subsequent level of participation demonstrated that British Jews are willing to be more up-front than their leaders.
The letters I receive from British Jews when I write on this theme confirm that many of them — especially the younger generation — are keen to adopt a more assertive public posture.
My experience as a leader of the Australian Jewish community has convinced me that a twin-track approach of tough lobbying alongside parallel silent diplomacy can transform the role of a Jewish community from one of inferiority and subservience to one of pride and dignity.
Also relevant to this debate is the relationship between levels of antisemitism and a strong or weak Israel. Whenever Israel is perceived as becoming weaker — for instance, during the recent war against Hizbollah — the anti-Israeli forces become more strident.
Today the principal disaster in Britain, as in many other Western countries, is that Jews have failed to convey the Jewish narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the public — and often to their own children. In failing to do so, they have permitted the near-universal acceptance of the distorted versions disseminated by the Arabs and their allies, who have succeeded in positioning Israel as a rogue state, illegally occupying Arab territory and denying the Palestinians basic human rights.
It is still not too late to galvanise our community to fight back in the war of ideas — but we must do so with determination, not quiet diplomacy.
Isi Leibler is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and former senior vice president and former chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress. He now lives in Jerusalem.
This is extracted from a lecture delivered at a Hebrew University symposium last week on “Islam, British Society and the Terrorist Threat”