Earlier this month, Laurence Brass, treasurer of the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s main umbrella organization, said he would stand down from its executive and not seek reelection.
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“I felt constrained not to have been able to speak out on subjects that are close to my heart, such as the treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the discrimination still being suffered by Arab citizens of Israel,” he told a plenary. His speech was reportedly followed by a standing ovation.
Some have interpreted his move as a sign of an imminent revolutionary shift within a community whose image, with some justification, has long been one of quiet, polite and unquestioning pro-Israel advocacy.
Brass, who had been tipped as a potential board president in the May 2015 elections, caused controversy last year when he lamented the “miserable existence” of Palestinian villagers he met during a West Bank tour organized by left-wing British activist group Yachad.
His criticism, which sparked a message of support from a group of former Israeli diplomats and politicians, was met with calls for his resignation from a former board vice president.
Gerald Steinberg of the right-wing NGO Monitor weighed in with further criticism, and Yoaz Hendel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s former media adviser, declared Brass should “ask himself about his continued service as a leader of the Jewish community.”
This kind of furor can be reliably expected whenever an Anglo-Jewish leader expresses some criticism of Israeli government policy. A similar storm erupted in 2010 when Mick Davis, the South-African-born businessman who chairs the Jewish Leadership Council, an influential representative body, warned of the danger of Israel becoming “an apartheid state.”
“I can’t see any of the establishment organizations saying anything overtly critical of the occupation,” said one former Board of Deputies insider. “Some people might feel that way privately, but they get jumped on as soon as they speak in public.”
Changes, not revolution
Adam Ognall, head of the New Israel Fund UK, said that any talk of a paradigm shift within British Jewry had been vastly overstated. But there have been changes.
“[Those] within the community that oppose the occupation and are not afraid to say so publicly are more confident in doing so, receiving less bite back for doing so and growing in numbers,” he said.
“I think there is also a generational piece going on - not only that younger people are more opposed, but also a recognition by their parents that they need to engage and accept this.”
The community appears to have generally more moderate views than those reflected by its leadership’s public statements.
A landmark survey carried out in 2010 by the Jewish Public Policy Research Institute showed that Anglo-Jewry was highly engaged with Zionism - 95 percent had visited Israel - but certainly of a center-left bent.
The poll found that 78 percent favored a two-state solution, while 74 percent opposed the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank. A majority even supported negotiating with Hamas to achieve peace.
More than a third of respondents - 35 percent - thought that Jews should always feel free to criticize Israel in public, while a further 38 percent said this would be acceptable in some circumstances. Only a quarter said this was never justified.
Most British Jews reflexively support Israel and feel the Jewish state gets an overly hard time in the international media. The consensus that is growing is on the center-left, liberal Zionist end of the spectrum, rather than any kind of revolutionary zeal.
`Dissent heard, even if whispered’
“Britain’s Jewish establishment still speaks broadly as one in its advocacy of the Israeli government, but dissenting voices can be heard, even if they are often whispered,” said Richard Ferrer, editor of the Jewish News.
“This change of tone is reflected in the rapid rise of left-wing pro-peace group Yachad, which, despite being regularly accused of being too critical of Israel, was given official communal representation last November when it was voted onto the Board of Deputies.”
That vote passed by 135 votes to 61, although many of those who voted for the group’s inclusion did so for reasons of pragmatism rather than ideological support.
“It was deemed better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in,” noted Geoffrey Alderman, veteran columnist and historian of the Anglo-Jewish community.
When Yachad was established in 2011, an informal accommodation was reached with organized Anglo-Jewry. The traditional institutions would continue to represent the community at the government level, while Yachad would keep its distance from external politics and focus on its work within the community.
That modus vivendi has proved pretty successful, as far as Yachad is concerned.
“Yes, there are definitely changes and it is almost certainly the case that it is completely fine to talk about occupation today in a way that it wasn’t five years ago,” said Yachad director Hannah Weisfeld.
“I think you couldn’t even say the word occupation five years ago. I don’t think you are going to see British Jewish communal leaders come out en masse and criticize it but they aren’t going to berate others for doing so.
“We can definitely take some credit for it,” she says. “The fact there are so many ways now for people to access information about the occupation, actually get out and see it on the ground, and that so many of the next generation are now talking about it all the time, is because of Yachad. I don’t think it is overstating our impact to say that we are responsible for keeping the occupation on the agenda.”
Outspoken criticism exploited
Alderman is unconvinced, seeing little change in Anglo-Jewry’s debate over Israel’s direction.
“There is a certain body of opinion within the Board of Deputies that Judea and Samaria are millstones round the neck of the Israeli state and that there is a moderate Arab leadership willing to make peace,” he said. “The view has always been there, it has waxed and waned. In the aftermath of the most recent Gaza conflagration it has probably waxed.”
The problem with outspoken criticism from Jewish leaders, he continued, was that “such statements are exploited by the many enemies of the Jewish people in this country - indeed, they are pounced upon.”
If British Jews could vote in Knesset elections, Alderman estimates that they would lean toward Likud rather than Labor, an inclination he sees stretching back for decades.
“[Menachem] Begin was quite popular among Jews in this country,” he notes.
Looming large on the not-so-distant horizon are Israel’s March 17 elections, tipped to produce a far-right government. This may prove a tipping point for a generally loyal but moderate diaspora community.
“There is a fear that the outcome of the March election may impact the direction of debate within the community,” said New Israel Fund UK’s Ognall, “with the result that the community leadership will find it increasingly difficult to maintain unity around Israel.”
Yachad’s Weisfeld agrees: “If we end up with an extreme right-wing government in the election, I think we are going to see deeper splinters and cracks inside the community that I am not sure any communal body will necessarily be able to plaster over.”