“A GOOD opportunity”, “a new mood since the Gulf war”, “a tragedy to let this opportunity slip” — such was the official phraseology of the Board of Deputies of British Jews on the prospect of an international . peace conference on the Middle East. The comments could be construed as merely a public-relations exercise in readiness for a Palestinian refusal to meet Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s terms for the composition of their delegation. Yet such optimism may indicate a change in the attitude of British Jews during the past 10 years towards the stagnation of Israeli government policies. While virtually all British Jews are “pro-Israel”, today not all are “pro-Israeli government”.
The trauma of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 Unnerved most British Jews. The massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in the Sabra and Chatila camps, as the Israeli army stood by, was a source of intense shame for a people with a long history of being victims. It also precipitated a re-evaluation of blanket support for Israeli government policies.
The colourless Mr Shamir did not instil confidence either. He did not speak English well and his rhetoric was uninspiring compared to that of his rival, the Labour leader, Shimon Peres.
Certainly, Mr Shamir’s ability to stonewall before the mighty appealed to many Diaspora Jews. To create a hubbub of activity while doing little, to make superpowers treat minutiae as all-important issues, was a political comedy that many Jews could smile at. Yet there was also a growing realisation that this was a smokescreen and no substitute for coherent policies. Mr Shamir’s appeal to the survivalist instincts of older Jews who remembered the Holocaust seemed increasingly irrelevant to the younger Diaspora generation.
In Britain, opposition to Israeli government policies has not been confined to the Jewish left. From the retiring Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, to Jewish MPs on the right wing of the Conservative Party, there have been frequent calls for dialogue and negotiation with the Palestinians.
When the intifada commenced, many prominent Jewish writers and intellectuals, such as Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Steven Berkoff and Anita Brookner, condemned the policy of beatings, in published advertisements in The Jewish Chronicle, under the title “Jews for a Just Israel”. Sir Isaiah Berlin, and Greville Janner MP, a past president of the board of deputies, refused to attend Mr Shamir’s stage-managed “Prime Minister’s Conference of Jewish Solidarity with Israel” in 1989, designed to show opposition to the initiation of US-PLO dialogue. When the British Friends of Peace Now hosted a meeting of Israeli Knesset members and representatives of the PLO, there was standing room only.
Yet while the opinion of a Jewish organisation or synagogue on the Israel-Palestine issue may be known through resolutions or statements, no surveys of British Jews have been carried out to ascertain the views of ordinary people. In the United States, the American Jewish Committee has carried out annual demographic surveys of US Jews. These concluded that throughout the Eighties it was “fair to characterise American Jewry as tilting in a dovish direction” on Israeli foreign policy.
The elderly, the under-educated and the religiously observant tended to be more conservative. Jewish leaders were shown to be more hawkish than those they claimed to represent.
This analysis probably applies to most British Jews, except that the leadership is increasingly in step with the community. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, seems to hold similarly dovish attitudes on Israel to Lord Jakobovits. There is a new, open-minded editor, of The Jewish Chronicle, Ned Temko, and an enlightened elected leadership at the Board of Deputies.
The thread linking these opinion-makers is a belief in a “Jewish glasnost”, where all things should be discussed openly. If the Eighties was a period of silence and confusion, this decade promises a much more rational and independent appraisal of Israeli policies by discerning British Jews.
Independent 13 August 1991