Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s attempts to be re-elected by confronting the White House, two weeks before Israel’s election, antagonised many American Jews, over two thirds of whom had voted for President Barack Obama; it highlighted fundamental differences in approach between the Jewish state and the most powerful Diaspora community.
The same was true in 2004: 22% of American Jews voted for George Bush, but opinion polls in Israel showed that 80% of Israelis were in favour of a second Bush presidency. Israelis viewed Bush as their protector in the aftermath of the al-Aqsa Intifada. American Jews saw their mission as the development of a just society in the United States regardless of any identification with Israel. The national interests of Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States are different—and in one sense opposed.
Netanyahu’s pre-election speech to the US Congress portrayed him as the uncrowned leader of the Republican Party, a wise neo-conservative among loyal friends. While this did not endear him to many American Jews—even loyalist Jewish organisations were critical—it did point to Netanyahu’s dilemma. Was he a Republican pragmatist who could compromise, or a radical zealot entrapped by ideology? Netanyahu’s approach to governance has been characterised by veering from one option to the other throughout all his administrations.
In Britain, the picture is slightly different. According to a Jewish Chronicle poll in March 2015, British Jews overwhelmingly preferred Netanyahu over his Labour challenger, Isaac Herzog. On closer examination, however, more than half were either “don’t knows” or “wouldn’t vote” from the thousand respondents. Still, it may well be that British Jews would have preferred Netanyahu, with the caveat that, unlike Israeli Jews, there are a number of other factors that could distort reality: unfamiliarity with the vagaries of Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s name recognition, his good command of English, and the gut reaction to a known quantity rather than an untested challenger.
By the end of this term, Netanyahu will have been in power for a decade and quite possibly be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Despite the exhortations of their official representatives, Diaspora Jews have never shown much affection for him or his politics. A Pew Center Report in 2013 suggested that only 38% of American Jews believed that his government was making “a sincere effort to establish peace”.
But how should dissent be expressed? In the UK, while individuals are relatively free to articulate such dissenting views in the Jewish press, a dignified acquiescence by those in leadership positions is expected.
Jewish organisations have always had a problem with a different narrative. The debate over whether or not to admit the lobby group Yachad to both the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies is only the most recent case in point. And yet Judaism treasures the dignity of difference; Tractate Sanhedrin, in the Babylonian Talmud, states that if there is no dissent in a capital case and only an unthinking uniformity, then the defendant is thereby acquitted since the judges have not debated the issue deeply enough.
British Jewry has a long history of dissident Zionists; and the accompanying attempts of leadership to isolate them. When the first settlements on the West Bank were established by Labour in 1968, British organisations such as the branch of the Marxist Zionist party, Mapam, voiced opposition. New organisations such as Siah (Israeli New Left) and Breira (Alternative) emerged in the 1970s, to challenge the prevailing wisdom. In the wake of the ill-fated Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the British Friends of Peace Now was formed in London, leading opposition to Likud policies in the 1980s. The former Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, and the former Israeli Ambassador, Moshe Raviv, spoke on Peace Now platforms with the advent of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Many Jewish leaders suddenly located their inner peacenik.
Since Menachem Begin’s election as Israeli Prime Minister in 1977, Likud apparatchiks in Israel, and their sympathisers in the UK, often labelled those with a different narrative as self-hating Jews, Arab-lovers and even of being in the pay of Saudi Arabia. This reversed during Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership in the 1990s: British Jews were now exhorted, by a Likud in opposition, to protest against the Oslo accord “to save Israel”. And in Washington, an office of Israeli lobbyists was established to propagate the Likud line within Congress to rival the Israeli Embassy. But in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak hinted at his willingness to divide Jerusalem during the Camp David negotiations with Yasir Arafat, many British rabbis—including the current Chief Rabbi —protested publicly and passionately. So while dissent has spread from the liberal left to the illiberal right, the latter clearly believe that it is their duty to voice a different narrative when certain ideological and religious red lines are crossed—something not permitted to the left (which is why Peace Now and Yachad provide a welcome sanctuary from blind conformity).
Yet the rise of Palestinian Islamism, and its cohort of suicide bombers, have fragmented the Jewish “peace camp” in Britain. The situation in the Middle East has not only become worse, it has become more complex—and this is reflected in attitudes among British Jewry. Some convince themselves that nothing has changed since Arafat’s day, that there is no difference between Fatah and Hamas, they are all merely oppressed Palestinians. Organisations like Jews for Justice for Palestine and Independent Jewish Voices appear in an outburst of supernova enthusiasm, and then fade quickly from view. Frustrated Israelis go into self-exile in London, in the belief that they can relate to the British left as they did to their own, and abruptly realise that the British left is profoundly different.
Netanyahu’s policies have also caused a crisis of identity for many Jews who do not regard themselves as part of the formal Jewish community. The wave of criticism, particularly from the British left and literati, has reminded assimilated Jews of their origins. Similarly acculturated Jews, who regard themselves more as Jewish Britons than as British Jews, see any association with Israel as a threat. While anti-Zionism can spill over into anti-Semitism, to suggest that anti-Zionism is always anti-Semitic is simply historically inaccurate.
The politics of stagnation has also radicalised many hitherto Zionist Jews. Like many Russian Zionists who were persuaded by the here-and-now of Communism after 1917, they have proved to be zealous converts. Many have wandered into the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) camp. If the question were put to them: “Do you think that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was a good thing?”—there would be a mix of widely differing answers. And yet such a fundamental question would be brushed aside by the BDS leadership; nothing would be allowed to challenge the unifying principle of a broad coalition of opposition to Netanyahu’s policies.
Remember that Menachem Begin formed the Likud in 1973 from his own hard-line Herut—the Liberals and defectors from Labour, with Begin remaining at the helm to ensure no deviation from his ideological direction. The leadership of the BDS movement believe they, too, have to remain at the helm. For those looking for instant solutions to the Israel-Palestine imbroglio, they could appear as the opposite of the sabra; hard and uncompromising on the inside, soft and accommodating on the outside.
BDS grew from opposition to the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David agreement in 1979, and the Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn in 1993. Such rejectionists opposed any normalisation with Israel and vehemently condemned any agreement. Such a peripheral anti-peace process movement benefitted from the collapse of the Oslo Accords, and the rise of Islamism.
In Britain, the widespread opposition to the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, allowed such views to move from the margins into the mainstream—undoubtedly aided and abetted by polarising right-wing policies in Israel.
The BDS mantra appeals to those who vehemently oppose the occupation. Yet what is the meaning of their doctrine of anti-normalisation? Some will see this as a necessary pressure to force Israel to the negotiating table and relinquish territory. Others understand anti-normalisation in terms of delegitimisation—rooting out a poisonous Zionist weed growing on Arab land. Netanyahu’s policies and the acquiescence of many British Jews therefore suit the latter. If a new Rabin were to arise, and sign a fair agreement with the Palestinians, this would produce such political fissures that the BDS movement would be consigned to an irrelevant limbo once more. Like many a Jewish leader in the UK, the advocates of BDS fear a different narrative that draws confused Jews away from their orbit.
The ripples of this situation will continue to be felt in the UK, the US, and the wider Diaspora for the foreseeable future. Jewish organisations will continue to be seen as merely appendages to the official view, despite the inner turmoil of many a Jewish leader. Public relations in Britain will be a welcome diversion from public reality in Israel. Howard Jacobson’s “ashamed Jews” and the US equivalent will continue to verbally flagellate themselves in public. The traditional approach of debate, discussion and dissension will not disappear. But it will take a period of calm, and a disappearance of provocative acts in the Middle East, to allow the peace camps in both Israel and Palestine to once more gain the upper hand from the reactionaries in progressive clothing. Only then will British Jews, American Jews, and all Diaspora Jews, have a genuine role to play in securing a just peace.
Jewish Quarterly 22 June 2015