With the fog of publicity lifting, it is still difficult to know what Independent Jewish Voices actually stands for. Its advocacy in support of the universality of human rights, condemnation of racism and a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not exactly revolutionary. It is certainly not new. The political innocence of its open letter was clearly attractive to the many academic, literary and theatrical celebrities who signed it.
Yet many other Jewish commentators in England were decidedly bemused by unworldly claims that “this could be the most serious challenge to the Jewish establishment since the creation of the State of Israel.” One labelled them as “freedom fighters from Hampstead” (a well-to-do London suburb) who were stuck in a time warp, believing that this was still the epoch of Yasser Arafat and that the rise of Islamism had never taken place.
Significantly, a large number of Jews of liberal and left-wing opinion were never approached to sign. It seems that the common denominator here has been a disqualification of those who were unwilling to sufficiently distance themselves from Zionism or to turn a blind eye to issues such as the academic boycott of Israel or the comments of London Mayor Ken Livingstone. Indeed, the failure to cultivate well-known liberal writers such as Howard Jacobson and David Aaronovitch has led to highly critical articles in the British press.
The central issue that has been trumpeted has been the lack of communal space to espouse alternative views. Yet groups such as the British Friends of Peace Now or the annual Limmud conference have been in existence for more than 20 years. Whereas such cries of censorship may have arguably been true in Britain at the time of the Lebanon war in 1982, there is a much more open Jewish media today, and through the advances of technology a multitude of ways of expressing alternative views.
Despite this, there is the claim that institutions such as the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbinate do not reflect communal views. It is probably true that a majority of British Jews, if asked, would wish to see further evacuation of the settlements on the West Bank. Any representative body should not merely offer an arena for debate, but also be prepared to act on such views. Yet no one from the long list of signatories, it seems, has actually ever been elected as a member of the Board of Deputies and argued this position. The ambiguity of Independent Jewish Voices is that it wants to be represented, but does not wish to participate. The list of signatories comprises a stream of the disappointed, the alienated and those whose Jewishness is neither primary nor central to their being. Several signatories were not previously known to be Jewish, while others were not inclined to parade their Jewishness in public. Others, dedicated liberal rabbis and devout Bundists included, compensated for this.
Although Israel is featured predominantly, the letter is very much a Diaspora matter. It is more about the politics of identity than freedom of expression and representation. Some signatories have spoken of their embarrassment and shame about Israeli policies. Yet this is more than expressing an identification with Palestinian suffering. In one sense, they reflect a part of the liberal intelligentsia in Britain which is highly selective in its outrage – opinions which often appear in the Comment and Debate pages of The Guardian. A part of the body politic which never speaks about Chinese dissidents, Burma or Zimbabwe, but focuses solely on Western failures – and of course, Israel. There is another part of the Left – with a significantly disproportionate number of Jews – which does not close its eyes to human rights abuses wherever they occur.
This difference is also reflected in the opposition to the IJV initiative. Independent Jewish Voices is more the Jewish reflection of the British Left than the standard bearers of the Jewish Left per se. The repeated emphasis on universalism rather than particularism suggests a distancing from Israel, yet they are constantly reminded and often asked to take responsibility for Israeli actions. On the other hand, there is a dislike of crude displays of Jewish tribalism in their eyes which others understand as displays of solidarity. How to relate to Israel is an ongoing problem. Should Israel be regarded as merely a fait accompli that you have to live with or a good thing in itself? If you disagree with Israeli actions, how do you make yourself heard? There is no doubt that the Aksa intifada and last year’s war in Lebanon have brought such feelings bubbling to the surface and catalyzed the formation of the IJV. The initiative of the IJV is unlikely to influence a Jewish community which is essentially composed of small businessmen, accountants, estate agents and taxi drivers – people for whom Israel is a pillar of their identity and who often have family ties to the country. IJV’s tactical weakness is that it approaches the community from the outside and is not embedded in the mundane reality of its existence. The IJV initiative will, however, probably produce a community of sorts, one that is troubled by and reacts to the overzealous activities of advocates for Israel in the Diaspora. Yet there is a certain resemblance to the haredim. Not in a religious sense, but in a belief that Jews should not be nationally assertive. That Jews should be confined to their synagogues, to their devotion to customs and traditions. That the community should operate quietly and civilly and not be publicly troublesome. Identification with Israel, for good or ill, is therefore a rather large fly in the ointment. Yet this initiative is probably yet another step on the road toward an accommodation with neo-progressivism in British society. If disillusionment with Israeli policies, Diaspora assimilation and the ignorance about Zionism among non-Jews deepens, not raising your head above the communal parapet will become a more familiar cry. If the mainstream community shrinks, there will probably be more voices in the coming decades to imitate Independent Jewish Voices’ pleas. Zionism and the rise of the state was a revolt against Jewish history and the designated place of Jews in non-Jewish societies. There were at least another 22 solutions to the Jewish problem a century ago. It should not be surprising that such ideas should now be gaining credence among some Diaspora Jews who feel increasingly uncomfortable.
Jerusalem Post 15 February 2007