The simmering tensions associated with the “restrained” Anglo Jewish leadership approach to Israel advocacy, exploded at the last plenum meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Senior vice-president Jonathan Arkush launched a bitter attack on the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) a group primarily comprised of wealthy British Jews and their acolytes who, although unaccountable, are allegedly determining communal policy.
To widespread applause from the plenum, Arkush accused the JLC of being “unelected, unaccountable and therefore unacceptable” as spokesmen for Anglo Jewry.
However he was immediately castigated by the president and members of the executive for “an intemperate outburst” and making “unhelpful and incorrect” comments. There were also calls for his resignation.
The JLC head, Mick Davis, blatantly threatened to terminate ongoing financial support to the Board if it could make such “unwarranted and egregious attacks”.
Davis, who also heads the United Jewish Israel Appeal, had previously created a storm by urging British Jews to criticize the Jewish State’s handling of the peace process. Employing the terminology of our enemies, he warned that Israel was in danger of becoming an “apartheid” State. In remarks unprecedented for any diaspora Jewish leader, Davis stated “I think the government of Israel has to recognize that their actions directly impact on me as a Jew living in London, UK. When they do good things, it is good for me when they do bad things, it’s bad for me. And the impact on me is as significant as it is on Jews living in Israel. I want them to recognize that”.
Board of Deputies leaders are themselves frequently criticized for their muted approach. The preceding president boasted that the Board operates on the basis of “whispering” rather than “shouting” and sought to avoid confrontations by concentrating on silent diplomacy.
Current president Vivian Wineman is an urbane, committed and cultured Jew and unquestionably well intentioned. But some critics feel his behavior is rather befitting an academic than a street smart communal leader.
In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, he adamantly denied that he and his colleagues were “trembling Israelites”. He previously conceded that the Board has “good access” but “no influence” over government and mentioned that he had recently met Prime Minister Cameron (as part of a JLC delegation) and found him receptive. However in the same breath he observed that “the important people are the civil servants who brief ministers”. He failed to note that UK Foreign Ministry officials are inclined to be even more hostile to Israel than elected ministers.
But the unaccountable JLC clearly remains in the driver seat.
This was confirmed only a few days later, when Arkush released a letter abjectly apologizing for his critical remarks and praising the JLC, describing his comments as inappropriate and expressing regret for having introduced divisiveness at the Board plenum. It was a humiliating retreat from a man previously admired for his independence who had apparently capitulated under brutal pressure from his colleagues and a group of unaccountable individuals whose control of the purse strings enables them to impose their will on the community. It is relevant to note also that JLC head Davis had previously muzzled feisty Zionist Federation vice-chairman Jonathan Hoffman by threatening to initiate costly legal action after he made similar critical remarks.
These leadership struggles are taking place at a time of great turmoil for the declining Anglo Jewish community. Whereas there are signs of cultural revival and increased ethnic solidarity, the overall situation of British Jewry is profoundly depressing.
Robert Wistrich, the expert on global anti-Semitism, refers to the “evil wind blowing through England’s green and pleasant land” in which anti-Israeli rhetoric has infiltrated all levels of the British intelligentsia to the extent that “it may be time to leave”.
Yet in this context, Anglo Jewish leadership remains in denial. In his Jerusalem Post interview, Wineman conceded that “there is an awful lot of anti-Israeli feeling which sometimes morphs into anti-Semitism”. Yet, when Robin Shepherd, a leading non Jewish academic and friend of Israel, remarked that the dramatic upsurge of anti-Israeli feeling and boycotts suggested “that the darkness is closing in… for the Jews of Britain”, Wineman castigated him for being “misguided and alarmist”.
The truth is that the current Conservative government is at the forefront of the European anti-Israel pack. In classical “Perfidious Albion” style, Prime Minister David Cameron describes himself as a Zionist but then refers to Gaza as “an open air prison camp” and condemns Israel for its “attack” on the Mavi Marmara flotilla. Last year, in order to appease anti-Israeli and Arab groups, he even terminated a century-long tradition of British PMs acting as patrons to the Jewish National Fund – an act which the editor of the Jewish Chronicle described as “equivalent to sticking two fingers up to the Jewish community in Britain”.
Campaigns to promote BDS and calls from unions to boycott Israel have reached feverish heights. The vicious anti-Israel Ken Livingstone is again campaigning for election as Mayor of London which has emerged as the European hub of Israeli delegitimization. There are constant demonstrations by the far-left supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. The Anglican Church and other Protestant denominations are fiercely anti-Israel. Jewish academics and activists who loathe Israel spearhead efforts to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state and frequently receive more favorable media coverage than official Jewish spokesmen.
The visceral anti-Israel hostility radiating from the media, especially the BBC, has intensified hatred of Jews and Israel to the extent that many perceive the Jewish community as a pariah group. Yet Jewish leaders underrate the impact of this vitriol and invest more efforts against marginal fascists than the far more dangerous anti-Israel left and the radical Muslims who they persistently seek to appease in futile efforts to prove their bona fides. They also understate the critical role of Muslim anti-Semitism and Jihadism and continuously issue statements warning of the dangers of Islamophobia which is puny compared to the violence and threats leveled against Jews.
The situation at the universities is absolutely horrendous and increasingly more violent. Every day preachers of hate assail Israel and the Jewish people.
Some Jewish students, seeking to avoid social isolation, have distanced themselves from Israel and joined the anti-Israeli chic. A number of Union of Jewish Students leaders, funded and encouraged by the Jewish establishment, sought unsuccessfully to appease Muslim and anti-Israeli activists by condemning students who mounted counter protests. They also sought to persuade Jewish Societies to cancel public addresses by Kasim Hafeez, a brilliant former Muslim extremist turned pro Israel advocate, on the spurious grounds that his presence would make things worse for Jews during Israel Apartheid Week. To placate Moslems, they distributed Palestinian as well as Israeli flags at universities which merely intensified contempt against them.
Last year, a Stand With Us activist demonstrating for Israel was bitten in the face. In response, the CEO of the JLC remarked that “if they go out looking for trouble, they should not really be surprised if this sort of thing happens”. The perpetrator was charged but acquitted whilst his supporters in the gallery chanted “Zionists always lose”.
But despite this depressing state of affairs, dramatic positive changes are also underway.
Chief amongst these is the British Israel Coalition (BIC), a relatively new body headed by Sam Westrop, a talented and dynamic young man. It now has in excess of 5000 members and is growing rapidly, despite the fact that it is denied funding from most of the established Jewish leadership. It holds regular demonstrations, monitors and acts against anti-Israel agitators at all UK universities and aggressively combats Israel boycott movements. It allies itself with other organizations and even introduced pro-Israeli Moslem activists like Hafeez to the forefront of its campaigns.
It is currently expanding operations to promote political lobbying and positive media exposure and publish monthly reports documenting anti-Israeli activity at universities. With a minimal budget it is penetrating areas in which other lavishly funded establishment organizations have made little progress.
BIC recently coordinated a campaign to neutralize the appearance at a major Manchester secondary school of local Islamic extremists raising funds for Hamas who were on record for hailing suicide bombers as freedom fighters, referring to Jews as the descendants of apes and pigs and promoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. BIC was castigated by Jewish establishment leaders for indiscreetly exposing the event in the media but the headmaster was forced to cancel the event.
The fledgling body deserves much of the credit for last week’s enforced resignation of the xenophobic anti-Israel Baroness Tonge from the Liberal Party following a toxic speech at Middlesex University. It spent months preparing for Israel Apartheid Week and Richard Millett, one of its key activists, filmed the incriminating speeches at the Tonge event and published it on his blog. BIC subsequently coordinated the complaints, presented them to the University and police and on the morning prior to Tonge’s resignation, BIC leader Westrop lobbied the Liberal Democrat Party to take disciplinary action against the incitement by Tonge. The Board of Deputies and JLC sought to take credit for the outcome but it was clearly a product of the determined activists rather than back door whispering.
There is also the Academic Friends of Israel which has been confronting the academic boycott for over ten years. Currently its head Ronny Fraser has a pending legal action of institutional anti-Semitism against the Lecturers Union.
Another recently created body is Lawyers for Israel headed by Jonathan Turner. It actively employs the law to neutralize those seeking to delegitimize Israel and expose Muslim organizations acting as fronts for raising funds for terrorists. It recently intervened, successfully, obliging the Lord Chancellor to formally rebuke a British judge who had exonerated vandals after destroying $300,000 worth of military equipment destined for Israel because of its alleged “immoral” behavior towards Gaza.
None of these independent organizations are funded or supported by the Board or the JLC.
There are also prominent individuals like the indefatigable Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who is reviled by much of the Jewish establishment for courageously promoting Israel advocacy. She also contributes to the Jewish Chronicle as does urbane historian Geoffrey Alderman who continuously excoriates the Jewish establishment for its cowardice and silence in the face of concerted anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attacks.
Despite the tortuous capitulation under pressure by Board of Deputies vice president Arkush, more and more representatives are beginning to express disapproval of the weak approach to Israel adopted by their leaders and increasingly objecting to the dominant communal role of the unaccountable arrogant leaders of the JLC.
That groups like the British Coalition for Israel are enjoying increasing grass roots support is a healthy sign. They represent the only hope that Anglo Jewry will find the courage to speak up on behalf of Israel and ensure that future generations of young Jews will not follow the example of their elders running for cover and overwhelmed by the torrents of hatred and lies emanating from the current hostile British social climate. They deserve greater support from the community.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post
The following are links to some of the feedback/responses to my column above
Jews in the UK by Jonathan Hoffman
Flexing our Muscles by Vivian Wineman
A British Jew in AIPAC’s Court by Jamie Slavin
You don’t defend Israel properly by Marcus Dysch
A wake-up call by Tal Ofer