By Admitting Pro-peace Group, British Jews Show More Maturity Than U.S. Counterparts

Sunday's acceptance of Yachad stands in contrast to the U.S. Conference of Presidents' decision to refuse J Street entry. But it doesn’t mean British Jewry is engaging with all of its issues.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
File photo: Yachad members on a tour of Hebron organized by anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence.
File photo: Yachad members on a tour of Hebron organized by anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence. Credit: Rocco Giasante
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

At one stage of Sunday's meeting of the Board of Deputies, British Jewry's main representative organization, it seemed that members were competing to say how much they detested the beliefs and tactics of Yachad, the pro-Israel and pro-peace movement which was requesting acceptance as members of the board.

However, many of those who presented themselves as opponents of Yachad were strenuously arguing for its inclusion - on the basis that as much as they disagreed with the movement's criticism of Israel, they felt that it was a debate which should be taking place within the community.

Ultimately, Yachad was accepted - following a 135-61 vote in its favor, apparently breaking the records for the most heavily attended debate in the Board's 254 year history.

It's hard to gauge from this seemingly overwhelming majority any clear indication of the Jewish community's feelings. For a start, Yachad needed a two-thirds majority to be accepted - and while it received that, the fact remains that 30 percent of those present feel strongly that a movement which supports Israel but lobbies for an end to the occupation of the West Bank must be excluded from the Jewish mainstream.

Or, as one of the deputies opposing the motion, George Weiss put it, "the role of this board and the role of this community is to support Israel and not to criticize it. If anyone thinks that anyone is helping Israel by criticizing it, they're living in cloud cuckoo land."

In the weeks leading up to the vote, a vigorous online campaign was waged portraying Yachad as "dangerous" to Israel. Perhaps it was one of the youngest participants in the vote, the president of the Union of Jewish Students, Ella Rose, who best encapsulated the debate. In speaking in favor of Yachad's inclusion she said that "it isn't about politics but about our community's lack of confidence to discuss these issues and to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict." For once, it seemed, British Jews had overcome their insecurity and were willing to hold that debate.

The Board of Deputies has throughout its existence been criticized of not fully representing the views held in the community. Most recently it has been attacked for both not acting forcefully enough to condemn anti-Semitism and support Israel, and at the same time of disregarding the fact that the huge majority of British Jews (77 percent according to a survey made in 2010) are in favor of a two-state solution - and therefore to the left of Israel's current government.

Allowing Yachad to join the Board may help to conduct a wider and more open debate, though there is at the least a slight suspicion that some of Yachad's members would have actually preferred to lose the vote and continue presenting themselves as outsiders, martyrs to the lack of freedom of speech on Israel within the Jewish community. Being part of the community mainstream, as they have now been accepted, could stifle their enthusiasm and lessen their appeal to younger members.

The right wing-dominated Zionist Federation did them exactly this favor a couple of years ago when it decided not to accept Yachad on the basis of a secret vote of its membership. It is interesting to speculate whether the Board vote today would have gone differently had it not been an open one. But it certainly did itself a massive favor and prevented a huge embarrassment by conducting the debate, which at times was passion-filled and uncharacteristically relatively raucous for the normally staid Jewish establishment, in the way it did.

Some are already rushing to compare today's vote with the decision earlier this year of the U.S. Conference of Presidents not to accept to it ranks J street, which is widely seen as Yachad's inspiration.

The two cases, however, are not analogous as J Street is a lobbying group operating also outside the American Jewish community while Yachad prefers to focus on education and advocacy within. But the conclusion that British Jews have shown a maturity on the Israel debate lacking in the American community is unavoidable.

That doesn't mean that British Jewry is engaging with all its issues however. The furor over the Yachad vote overshadowed a much briefer debate that took place at the end of the Board's session over the problematic relationship between the community and the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP's decision last month to allay itself in the European Parliament with a Polish far-right party - which includes Holocaust-deniers among its leadership - has caused consternation among the Jewish leadership and a rare denunciation from the Board.

In the short debate, wildly diametrical opinions from speakers who said that UKIP was no worse from the other British parties since they all included critics of Israel, and those saying that a community descended from immigrants must be extremely suspicious of a party such as UKIP - and that it's policies toward Israel must not be the only consideration. Yet another Israel-related debate British Jews lack the security to hold.

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