What are we to make of JCall, the new European liberal Jewish movement launched last week?
Two Jews and three opinions is a tirelessly repeated joke that conveys a sense of how contentious Jewish discord can be. Anyone familiar with Jewish media, organizations and grassroots activism can attest to that - as best characterized by the iconic line in Monty Python's "Life of Brian": "Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?," followed by the response: " F--- off! We're the People's Front of Judea."
In this context, JCall is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, it is a disingenuous one.
Jewish "wars" punctuate Jewish history - Jews revel in their cacophonous legacy, even though historically, it has cost them dearly. Thus swings the Jewish pendulum - publicly should Jews speak in one voice or air their differences? This question is largely rhetorical: No dispute (Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim; Zionists vs. Bundists; Orthodox vs. Reform; Diasporism vs. Israel-centric; Peace Now vs. Greater Israel ) goes unnoticed. Jews argue - in the press, on the air, in academia and across their organizational alphabet soup. These days, such discord is even easier to conduct. In the Internet age, anyone can express an opinion - however different from the mainstream - without much effort, financial or otherwise.
Enter JCall, a group of European Jewish individuals and organizations mainly from the left. Their online petition, recently launched at a well-attended event in the European Parliament, alleges that the view it reflects finds no representation in the mainstream Jewish establishment, because of a presumed tendency of Jewish organizations to uncritically support any Israeli policy while silencing internal dissent.
The "uncritical support for Israeli policy" charge sets the stage for the JCallers' arguments: Israel's settlement policy is disastrous because it stands in the way of the two-state solution and will lead to the demise of the Zionist dream. Europe must pressure Israel to reverse this policy. And Jews, spearheaded by JCall, must break their communal code of silence and persuade Israel to heed this pressure.
Of the three arguments, the last is the most befuddling, and not just because the allegation of a code of silence, more suitable to the Mafia, is hardly applicable to the Jewish world. JCallers' views are the most mainstream and least contentious one can think of in the European landscape. If JCallers seek to promote a firm European stance against Israeli settlement policy, then they should already proclaim victory and go home. In Europe, Israel lost this argument long ago. If they seek to speak out, there is no shortage of sponsors who will gladly give JCallers a platform. By contrast, outside the narrow and largely parochial world of small-circulation Jewish media, only a handful of extravagantly pro-Israel magazines and papers - themselves with a small and dwindling readership - will give Israel's case a fair hearing.
Anyone familiar with the European lecture circuit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows that speakers are rarely to the right of the JCall signatories themselves. They, not those whom they attack for supposedly silencing them, form the mainstream of public debate.
Any one of the almost 5,000 signatories to the JCall petition who can write, therefore, stands a chance of airing his or her views. Besides, many Jewish organizations stand behind the initiative. The suggestion that the Jewish establishment is silencing them is puzzling. They are the Jewish establishment - the intelligentsia, the academics, the cultural circles. The dark imagery alleging an uncritical Jewish leadership that sings from an Israeli score sheet while silencing dissenters smacks of insincerity. The self-depiction of a "band of brothers" intent on challenging the dominant paradigm is self-indulgent counterculture by self-important sofa intellectuals. It is far from the truth.
No mainstream European Jewish organization stands today against the two-state solution, or applauds, supports or fundraises for settlement activities. From left to right, organized Jewry across Europe tends to reflect Israeli political divisions on the existential questions Israel faces, including vociferous anti-Zionist groups on the margins of Jewish communal life but in the spotlight of public debate. It is hardly surprising then that JCallers feel on the margins: their views fail to strike a chord, not because of internal censorship, but rather because, having seen the Oslo process shipwreck and a decade of Palestinian violent rejectionism, not many Jews are convinced that peace will come on the wings of more Israeli concessions alone.
The JCall argument is also self-serving, because it allows the group to don the mantle of victimhood. By depicting criticism as censorship, the JCallers spare themselves the need to engage criticism, since anyone disagreeing can be dismissed as a censor.
Still, if their presumably unflinching support for Israel coupled with their discomfort with Israel's settlement policies reflect mainstream views, why have they been immediately met with a torrent of criticism?
First, because such is the nature of Jewish debate - JCallers should take their critics seriously rather than preemptively dismissing them.
Second, because their pledged love for Israel is overshadowed by the blame they squarely lay at Israel's doorstep. For them, solving the conflict is all about settlements. Not Palestinian civil wars, Palestinian rejectionism, Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism, not even Iran: Israel's settlements are the epicenter of all troubles. They will find few Jews ready to endorse this worldview.
European Jews have been at the forefront of peace initiatives, reconciliation efforts and interfaith dialogue for as long as one can remember - JCall offers nothing new. In contrast, an equivalent "call to reason" among Arab and Muslim intellectuals across the Islamic world and beyond - now that would be news! Only when Israel's enemies choose moderation over extremism will peace stand a chance. When that moment comes - and only dreamers can see it coming today - settlements will not be an obstacle.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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