The Center Cannot Hold

The comfort of a connection with the Jewish state, of fond memories from teenage Israel trips − none of this makes up for getting slapped down if you criticize Israel's policies.

LONDON − Another week, another broiges. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Anglo-Jewish community, where the latest rumpus is a rather manufactured debate around comments made by one Mick Davis, chairman of the United Joint Israel Appeal.

Speaking at a communal event in late November, Davis’ point was that he and others in Diaspora leadership were troubled, when it came to Israel, by such issues as settlement building, the proposed loyalty oath and the inequality suffered by the country’s Arab citizens. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in Davis’ opinion, lacks the courage to move forward toward peace, and he expressed concern that if a two-state solution was not enacted, Israel would run the risk of becoming an apartheid state, with the minority ruling over a majority.

So far, all pretty familiar sentiments. Israeli leaders from Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak have gone further, and even among the notables of the Jewish Leadership Council − whose executive committee is chaired by Davis − there was a consensus that what Davis said wasn’t different from anything that anyone says behind closed doors. For all the squeamishness about that big Jewish no-no of airing your dirty shmattes in public and thus, as the cliche goes, giving succor to our enemies, Davis’ comments were made in a Jewish context, to a Jewish audience and on a panel with several other Jews ‏(including Peter Beinart, the author of a landmark polemic earlier this year on U.S. Jewish leadership‏).

Jerusalem remained sanguine in the face of this apparently novel liberalism with a number of Israeli officials rather pointedly swearing that they had never heard of this Mick Davis ‏(apparently multi-millionaire Jewish philanthropists are of no great interest in Israel these days‏).

The only real criticism heard here − loud as it was − came from what even establishment insiders variously describe as “the hard right,” the “lunatic fringe” and “mad mental right-wingers.”

But Davis’ comments are nonetheless of interest, reflecting as they do the fact that the Jewish community leadership in Britain finds itself in a bit of a pickle. A few years ago, during the intifada, when Israel seemed under constant attack, they could rouse enough enthusiasm among the troops to defend the Jewish state. Now, there’s a growing concern that younger members of the community, who would have once segued seamlessly into becoming the next generation of leaders, are drifting out of the mainstream-affiliated groups. People aren’t that fired up about Israel’s anticipated next battle with the amorphous demon of delegitimization.

That’s not to say that Anglo-Jewry is experiencing an outbreak of galloping anti-Zionism among its younger ranks, or that the community is set to devote itself to pursuing a binational secular state. U.K. Jews will still jump up and down as needed over issues such as academic boycotts and the need to deal with Iran. But all the comfort of feeling a wider connection with the Jewish state, of fond memories from teenage Israel trips and annual visits to Herzliya − and even the pleasurable sense of outrage elicited by comfort-zone grumbles about British media bias − none of this makes up for getting slapped down if you dare to criticize Israel’s policies or find yourself dumbfounded in the face of Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman or his proposed loyalty oath.

People here are exhausted by self-censorship and a relentlessly monolithic obsession with anti-Zionism. The best proof of this was the July 2010 survey on Anglo-Jewish attitudes toward Israel by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the most definite study of its kind to date. It reflected a community with a strong attachment to Israel − 95 percent had visited the country − but one very far from the frothing ultra-Zionism evinced by some of our columnists.

While 77 percent felt that Jews have a special responsibility to support Israel, nearly the same number thought they also have the right to criticize Israel, even in the general media. Nearly three-quarters oppose settlement expansion, and more than half favor peace talks with Hamas. Previous “niche” interests, such as activism to support Israel’s minorities, are gaining ground, even among the communal establishment, and some canny Anglo-Jewish leaders well understand the danger posed by not shifting with the tide.

If they leave others to take over the center ground, then they will make themselves increasingly irrelevant − and not only to their own community. The Jewish leadership also knows that if they want the British government to take them seriously, they have to reflect a more nuanced view. A particular worry is the emergence of bodies such as the U.K. version of J Street, which is currently being organized. Like the American original, this political group aims to more accurately reflect what it says are the more liberal political views of the majority of the Jewish community in the U.K.

“The idea of J Street is not healthy for us in the establishment” says one Jewish leader, warning that the emergence of an alternative Israel advocacy group will have an erosive impact on the power and influence still held by mainstream communal groups.

Perhaps what Mick Davis has reflected is a growing awareness that the center ground has shifted in the U.K. Even within our own provincial little bubble of broiges, Jewish leaders need to move with it to maintain their legitimacy.

Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.