British Jewish Leaders, Why the Lukewarm Support for Israel at War?

Diaspora Jewish communities’ mainstream pro-Israel opinion isn’t being reflected robustly enough by their leaders; and there’s a growing backlash.

Roslyn Pine
Roslyn Pine
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Pro-Israel demonstrators in London during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, July 20, 2014.
Pro-Israel demonstrators in London during the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, July 20, 2014.Credit: AFP
Roslyn Pine
Roslyn Pine

Just as the latest conflict saw support for Israel's defensive actions soar to unprecedented levels within Israel, so too did broad swathes of Anglo-Jewry rally behind her.

Keith Kahn-Harris, in his recent Haaretz opinion piece (“Stop the pretense: There’s no consensus among Diaspora Jews on Israel”), is right to point out that the furious backlash of many against the U.K.'s Jewish representative bodies was unprecedented, but wrong to attribute this to the emergence of a new strain of a vocal pro-Israel constituency. The "strain" has always been there, but only now has it been sufficiently provoked to find its voice.

Harris invokes anti-Israel fringe groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices (whose Jewishness is defined by their anti-Israel animus) as evidence of community disunity regarding its support for Israel, yet ignores their irrelevance.

In terms of signatories to their mission statements on their own websites, they have mustered grand totals of 1,903 signatories respectively, a numerically insignificant achievement in the context of 250,000 U.K. Jews.

Anglo Jewry, reflecting the character of the its cultural environment tends to be restrained and low-key, so when the leaders of the long-established representative organization, the Board of Deputies, and the more newly-founded Jewish Leadership Council, were confronted by an angry audience at a public meeting called during latest Gaza war to address concerns about their failure to counter rising anti-Israel feeling and anti-Semitism in the U.K., they were mightily taken aback. One woman received a standing ovation when she demanded that the Board president "pull his finger out".

In a previously largely placid and consensual community, how did this level of hostility to the established Jewish leadership arise? In fact, dissatisfaction with the community's leadership over Israel has been building steadily in recent years; the Gaza war was the catalyst for the release of tension suppressed over a long period prompted by the weak and 'polite' (read ineffectual) defense of Israel. At the same time the Gaza conflict triggered a process of escalating hostility and hatred directed against British Jews because of their perceived or actual support for Israel. The anger felt at community meetings reflected frustration that this snowball effect had not been addressed robustly enough over recent years, and by the Board of Deputies in particular.

The Board is a cross-communal and democratically elected organization that has been the collective voice of the Jewish community in Britain since 1760, acting as the interface between the community and the U.K. government and national institutions. It exists to protect the civil and religious rights of British Jews, and also, according to its constitution, to support and promote Israel's interests wherever possible. Deputies are elected for a three-year terms from synagogues spanning all Jewish streams and many community organizations. It is a respected 'brand' and is listened to at the highest government levels.

Are the latest criticisms leveled at the Board justified? Is it a genuinely democratic body representing the breadth of U.K. Jewry or just a façade for a few powerful individuals within it?

The reactions to disclosure that I am an elected Deputy to the Board invariably follow a similar pattern: "It's a waste of time...What does it even do?... It's just a talking shop,” and so on.

Its scorecard has been mixed. The Board has been exemplary regarding the protection of our rights such as shechita, Jewish education, freedom from harassment in the workplace and so on, and it is right to acknowledge the debt we owe to those who work tirelessly and in a voluntary capacity to secure for us what many take for granted.

The question of its defense of Israel is another matter. The Board’s five-person Executive is increasingly seen to ignore the views of Deputies if they conflict with their own.

The recent and extraordinarily ill-judged joint statement of the Board with the Muslim Council of Britain inflamed community tensions. The statement - delivered without the knowledge of the Board's Defence Division, the subcommittee responsible for interfaith relations - declared the two organizations’ determination to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, drawing what many see as a false equivalence between the two. The MCB is widely seen by those within the U.K. Jewish community and more widely to have deliberately avoided confronting the behavior of radical Muslims in the U.K. that pose a key threat to both Jewish communal life and the British way of life more generally.

Days later the joint statement was expanded upon by the leaders of the Board and of the MCB in The Guardian; one comment below the line was revealing. "The BoD [Board] does not represent British Jews. I imagine that such sentiments are reflective of this specific trendy clique of left-wing Jews who have always been embarrassed by Israel's very existence, and very few others". Somewhat harsh, but understandable.

Events over the past couple of years have rightly contributed to this perception. Most notable was the early 2013 tie-up between the Board and the charity Oxfam in the 'Grow/Tatzmiach' project to combat world hunger, in which Oxfam would mentor young Jewish volunteers for six months. The executive initiated the project without the knowledge of the Deputies, but once publicized, there was a storm of protest, both amongst Deputies and in the wider Jewish community; the widespread revulsion and anger against the partnership was fueled by Oxfam's anti-Israel agenda, as it was generally perceived.

Based on the condition that if Oxfam were to cross three 'red lines' the executive had drawn up, the project would be suspended immediately, the Deputies approved the partnership. These red lines included not partnering or supporting groups that called for Israel's destruction, or with those condoning or engaged in violence against Israel, or those calling for a boycott against it. I was on the monitoring committee balanced equally between those for and against the partnership; after several months the majority verdict was that Oxfam had indeed crossed these red lines - yet the Board's executive did not honor its pledge to cancel the joint project.

The Board's 260-plus Deputies do indeed represent a broad sweep of Anglo Jewry from the strictly Orthodox, mainstream United Synagogue, Reform and Liberal to the unaffiliated, from students to the geriatric, and all shades of political opinion from hard left through to right wing. They have all been democratically elected by the synagogues, charities or communal organizations that sent them.

Yet it is clear that there is no genuine democracy in the way the Board functions and very often controversial policy decisions are made without the consultation, approval or even the knowledge of the rank and file.

The roots of this may go back to a growing dissonance between how the U.K.'s Jewish leaders on the one hand, and its members on the other, see as the critical areas of engagement and 'positioning' for organized Jewry in the U.K. This gap doesn't necessarily mirror the familiar Jewish communal divisions of left vs right, or Orthodox vs non-Orthodox. The leadership shows a tendency towards seeing the Jewish community as a community among other minority communities, with a need to find common cause with those other minorities and to be more engaged with more universalistic issues. The rank and file want attention to be focused on pressing issues at 'home' - standing up for Israel and for the U.K.'s Jewish community (which is, after all, what the constitution of prominent organizations declare as their raison d’etre).

The majority of U.K. Jews aren't seeking to dissociate or isolate themselves from the wider society in which they live; but they have a basic expectation that the U.K.'s central Jewish communal organization will act and lobby to protect their personal and communal security and will reflect the overwhelmingly pro-Israel stance of the community. Without a clear public commitment to this course of action, the Board will further lose the respect of the U.K. Jewish community that it was founded to represent.

Roslyn Pine is an elected deputy to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a founder contributor to CiFWatch and a comment writer for the London Jewish News.

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