There is a growing recognition that Diaspora Jewish communities are becoming increasingly divided over the question of Israel. In my recent book Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, I examined how, since the start of the second intifada in 2000, a range of Jewish positions on Israel have emerged in the British and U.S. Jewish community, leading to often fractious and bitter conflicts.
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These conflicts concern not just Israel itself, but questions of Jewish community in its broadest definitional terms - what its boundaries are and how it should be led. So it is that the most recent round of conflict in Gaza and Israel has sparked in the British Jewish community an often acrimonious debate about the responsibilities and conduct of institutions that claim to represent the Jewish community.
We’ve been here before of course: In the last few years, left-wing Israel-critical Jewish groups such as Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians, have repeatedly and publicly challenged the right of mainstream Jewish groups to speak for them. But what is unprecedented about the most recent conflict is that it has led Jews who are staunchly pro-Israel (in their own terms) to attack central Jewish communal bodies.
One of the flashpoints in this conflict is the Board of Deputies of British Jews, whose quasi-parliamentary structure has made it the most important voice of British Jewry for over 200 years.
The Board has always been something of a whipping boy for discontented British Jews. Over its long history it has struggled and often failed to incorporate the views of, variously, Zionists (pre-1948), Reform Jews, Haredi Jews and, post-2000, Israel-critical Jews, all of whom were at one stage excluded or excluded themselves. In recent years it has also leached authority to another body, the Jewish Leadership Council, a coalition of major Jewish organizations.
Last week, as this round of the Gaza conflict finally drew to a close, the Board issued a statement ‘For Peace, Wisdom and Hope Over Conflict in Israel and Palestine’, jointly authored with the Muslim Council of Britain. On the back of an upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks and with Jewish-Muslim relations in the UK and elsewhere strained, the statement condemned anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, called for “constructive dialogue” and argued that British Jews and Muslims should not “import conflict”.
While much of the statement was not controversial, it nonetheless provoked much angry Jewish criticism from some quarters for two principle reasons. First, the Muslim Council of Britain has had an often difficult relationship with the Jewish community, particular for its refusal for a number of years to participate in Holocaust Memorial Day and for what some have seen as its too-close relationship with some Islamist groups and leaders. Second, the section of the statement arguing that, “The targeting of civilians is completely unacceptable and against our religious traditions” was seen by some as tacitly admitting that the IDF targets civilians.
The Jewish Chronicle has led the charge against the Board, editorialising against the statement and giving voice to considerable anger from the more vociferous pro-Israel Jewish activists that had already torn through social media.
This anger comes on the back of frustration, from a vocal, but unquantifiable, section of pro-Israel opinion, that the Board and other leading Jewish organizations had been too passive and polite in their defence of Israel during the Gaza conflict. Although the Board never criticized the operation and had indeed been involved in a rally supporting Israel, held towards the start of the conflict, this was not enough for some.
Just as new Jewish Israel-critical organisations and ad-hoc initiatives from the left have grown up over the last few years in the UK and elsewhere, so new forms of pro-Israel activism have begun to emerge, taking a much more robust and combative approach to what they see as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic forces. The Board, together with other long-established, mainstream Jewish organizations, is caught in the middle here: Too supportive of Israel for some, too weak in its defense of Israel for others.
Ironically, part of the problems that some mainstream Jewish organizations are facing at the moment is due to their recognition of the diversity of the community. UK Jewish leaders in the last few years have often talked about ‘big tents’ in which different strains of pro-Israel activism could co-exist and cooperate. This may work to some extent during times of peace (although it still leaves many Jews who don’t define themselves as pro-Israel out in the cold), but it doesn’t work when Israel is at war. The contortions that Jewish organizations perform in trying to keep a broad section of opinion on board satisfy few.
The time has come to stop pretending that Diaspora Jewish consensuses on Israel are possible anymore. Beyond the majority of Jews supporting the right of Israel to exist, everything else is contested. Central Jewish organisations such as the Board need to find a new role, of providing a space for dialogue and reconciliation between Jewish factions. While the Board has a quasi-democratic structure, at the moment it doesn’t have a democratic culture: When the Board speaks publicly, it aims at an illusory consensus, rather than acknowledging the diversity of opinion in the community and within the Board itself.
Ultimately, Jews of whatever view on Israel would be much empowered and at ease with themselves if they could go all out and fight for what they believe without trying to bring other Jewish factions on board with them.
Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community and three other books. He is the editor of The Jewish Quarterly http://jewishquarterly.org/. Follow him on Twitter: @KeithKahnHarris