Israel’s new ambassador to the United Kingdom − should Avigdor Lieberman ever get round to appointing one − will face an interesting dilemma after settling down in Thackeray’s old study in the elegant house on Palace Green. What is to be done about Yachad? It’s the British “Pro Israel, Pro Peace” organization that was officially launched yesterday.
It can be described as the British version of J Street, three-year-old American political lobby operating under the double-pro banner; J Street calls on both the American administration and the Israeli government to act more decisively for a two-state solution and encourages American Jews not to instinctively support the right-wing policies of the Israeli government.
And thus incurs the wrath of much of the local Jewish establishment.
The embassy in Washington, anxious not to seem out of step with the Jewish leadership, especially as J Street was almost immediately perceived as a rival to AIPAC, described some of J Street’s actions as “worrying,” and Ambassador Michael Oren snubbed an invite to its first national conference. In December 2009, he tried to ostracize J Street further, describing it as “a unique problem in that it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream.”
Eventually, Oren had no choice but to meet with J Street’s leaders and agree on “ground rules” for engagement between the organization and Israel’s government. He had no choice. J Street quickly gained influential backers, thousands of supporters among the rank and file of Jewish America and − perhaps more significantly − was endorsed by the Obama White House, which made a point of inviting J Street to briefings of Jewish leaders.
Will Ron Prossor’s successor in London draw lessons from Oren’s embarrassing retreat and not pick a fight? It depends somewhat on the new ambassador’s political masters in Jerusalem. Lieberman and his deputy, Danny Ayalon, will certainly not warm to Yachad’s message, but I doubt either of them cares much about what Britain’s Jews have to say, so it will probably be the ambassador’s call.
Yachad at its launch made one significant decision that will make it more palatable to official Israel. Unlike J Street, it will concern itself mainly with working within the Jewish community, and not act as a political lobby in parliament and government circles. The new movement will try and educate British Jews on the reality of Israel and the region and serve as an outlet for those who hold its views and have not find a voice in existing organizations. Will this be enough to evade the inevitable “fifth columnist” slurs that will be hurled from the right wing?
Yachad’s backers take comfort in last year’s survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research that found that 78 percent of British Jews are in favor of achieving peace through a two-state solution; 74 percent are against expanding the settlements in the West Bank; and 67 percent are in favor of trading land for peace. If that’s not enough, 52 percent are apparently for negotiating with Hamas; in terms of Israel’s political spectrum that puts them to the left of Meretz. When the survey came out, I had reservations on its methodology and I still do, but the survey lends credence to Yachad’s claim that it represents the mainstream.
However, even if its views represent the majority, it is a largely silent one. The more voluble Jewish voices still tend to adhere to the policies of the Israeli government of the day, and those who do express critical views are often died-in-the-wool activists or card-carrying pro-Palestinian people who, for most of the community, are beyond the pale.
I think it’s safe to predict that Yachad’s launch and acceptance into the Jewish landscape in Britain will be relatively smooth, without much of the strife that accompanied J Street’s trajectory. It obviously has a place, and the communal discourse there tends to be more polite than in America. Will it achieve anything?
If the IJPR survey is to be trusted, most British Jews already hold Yachad’s views, and those who don’t are firmly entrenched on either the far right or the far left. By articulating that position, Yachad may help to engage a young generation who feels estranged from the Jewish establishment. That is one of the movement’s main aims and is certainly a worthy cause. What wider effect can Yachad have? For now, Yachad is not trying to influence British foreign policy; after all, successive Labor and Tory governments have firmly supported the two-state solution. Could it influence the Israeli public? Slim chance.
As I have often observed in this column, Israelis don’t care much about what their brothers overseas have to say, especially not criticism. Six months ago, one of the most senior British Jewish leaders, Mick Davis, chairman of both the UJIA and the Jewish Leadership Council, caused an uproar in London when he said at a public gathering that if Israel continues with its current policies, it risks becoming a “de facto apartheid state.” It did not cause even a stir in Israel. The Hebrew-language press barely reported his words on its back pages, no senior politician or significant columnist thought they warranted mention. The only responses I received from various spokespeople asked: “Mick who?”
British Jews hate to face the facts; they are a second-league community. Not only the United States, but France, Canada and Russia all outrank Britain in terms of Jewish world influence. This diminished standing reflects the community’s shrinking size, but mainly Britain’s increasingly puny stature on the global stage. Britain is still a world-power in only one sphere, the media. British news networks − the BBC, Sky − and The Economist, The Guardian and the Times not only compete as equals with their American counterparts, but they take an inordinate interest in Israel and its conflicts, often leading international coverage. Here is the real minefield for Yachad. Hannah Weisfeld, Yachad’s director, and until fund-raising picks up, its sole employee, tells me that she believes the public “can absorb a more nuanced take on Israel.”
Well, maybe British Jews can, but how will she fare once the news programs begin calling?
Weisfeld and anyone else speaking under Yachad’s banner on the BBC will come under the community’s microscope and have to perform an impossible tight-rope act between self-hating Jew and “shill for Israel.” There will be many waiting for her to fall.
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