This Friday marks the start of the Jewish New Year, a time to reflect on the passing year and voice aspirations for the one coming. The central concern for many British Jews this year will be the deep division in Israel over the government’s “judicial reform” which removes the checks and balances that preserve an independent judiciary.
A recent survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) asked: “What do Jews in the UK think about Israel’s leaders and its future?”. From those who gave an opinion, 79 per cent disapproved of Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. This was not a survey of a few hundred but one answered by almost 4,000 people.
The two-day visit of Israel’s minister for the diaspora, Amichai Chikli, last week became the occasion for unprecedented protests and demonstrations, the cancellation of a meeting by a major Jewish cultural centre in London and closed meetings at which community leaders berated him. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews asked Chikli to relay the profound concern of the Jewish community to Netanyahu’s government.
All this shows a widening chasm between an illiberal Israeli government and an increasingly irritated Jewish community here. Most UK Jews, it appears, want a separation of powers between government, parliament and the judges in Israel on the British model, as laid down in the Act of Settlement of 1701.
There are three strands of opinion among British Jews: a rapidly shrinking band of hardliners, a growing collective of critics from across the political spectrum and a group emanating mainly from central orthodoxy and its rabbinical leadership that refuses to take a stand. The latter calls for unity and compromise in the name of consensus. While this may be a worthy goal, as the former Israeli president Ruvi Rivlin commented: “You can’t have half a democracy!”
Past surveys have found that post- Holocaust generations distinguish between support for an Israeli government and support for the state — and that an overwhelming majority of British Jews do not disparage the label of Zionist.
The JPR survey showed that a mere 13 per cent of British Jews approved of Netanyahu. Jewish groups have previously preferred not to recognise how few these supporters are, according them equal status with his critics in the spirit of communal harmony. Clearly all this is changing.
The JPR survey also found that 72 per cent of British Jews are pessimistic about the future of democratic government in Israel. A heavy thought to carry into the New Year.
The Times 11 September 2023