This week saw the launching of the Independent Jewish Voices initiative by a group of prominent left-of-center Jews in the U.K. The initiative intends, according to its founding statement, to “promote the expression of alternative Jewish voices.” Its sponsors believe that “individuals and groups within all communities should feel free to express their views on any issue of public concern without incurring accusations of disloyalty.” The signatories wish to contend that voices critical of Israel are receiving insufficient attention in British discussions of the Middle East. The claim is a strange one.
Do opponents of Israeli government policy in the U.K., Jewish or non-Jewish, truly feel that their arguments are not being heard? Is it really their contention that the British Jewish leadership is setting up “unwritten laws,” which establish the boundaries of what may or may not be discussed? If the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main U.K. Jewish communal body, is indeed attempting to create unwritten laws and to foster anxiety to silence opponents of Israeli policy, it is doing a remarkably poor job. The public debate on Israel in the U.K. affords willing space to the most extreme of anti-Israel positions.
If we take, as an example, contributors to the Guardian, which published the IJV’s founding statement, Jews who have successfully found the courage to resist the Board of Deputies and its anxiety-inducing unwritten laws include Daphna Baram, who wrote in a recent op-ed that Israel is an “apartheid state”; Jacqueline Rose, whose book, as her Guardian interviewer reminded us, “draws tentative analogies between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews,” and Ilan Pappe, the Israeli academic who recently wrote in support of a boycott of Israeli academia.
These opinions fit comfortably into parts of the British debate, in which denial of the right of Israel to exist and allegations of conspiracy theory are accepted within the parameters of polite discussion. British-born Jew Tony Judt, for example, was able to promote his thesis advocating the dismantling of the Jewish state in the London Review of Books.
If one expands the search for a moment to include non-Jewish opponents of Israel, it may be recalled that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer found a home at the same title for their claim that the Jewish lobby controls U.S. foreign policy. The supposedly objective BBC Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, considers Israel exclusively to blame for Palestinian internecine violence, according to a recent leaked memo. This is not to mention those open supporters of Palestinian suicide bombings who are regular fixtures in the British Middle East debate – such as Dr. Azzam Tamimi.
The U.K. has seen a number of public initiatives toward the delegitimization of the Jewish state in recent years. These have included the attempted lecturers’ boycott in 2005, a subsequent attempt at a similar boycott by architects and the demonstrations during last summer’s war in Lebanon, featuring support for a Shi’ite Islamist organization with the slogan “We are all Hezbollah now.” A number of Jewish organizations openly hostile to Israeli government policy already exist – such as Jews for Justice for the Palestinians, and the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights. Such is the climate of debate in the U.K. on Israel.
In the midst of all this, the initiators of Independent Jewish Voices believe that “an oppressive and unhealthy atmosphere” has emerged, as a result of the Board of Deputies stifling anti-Israel opinions.
The Board of Deputies represents mainstream Anglo-Jewish opinion regarding Israel. Britain’s Jews, like Jewish communities throughout the world, are strongly pro-Israel. The large attendance at pro-Israel rallies held on two occasions in the last years is testament to this fact.
It is generally held in mainstream Jewish opinion that the Jewish state is currently passing through a moment of some danger. An aggressive, Islamist regime in Tehran is spreading Holocaust denial and openly calling for the destruction of Israel. This regime is currently seeking a nuclear capacity. It is also sponsoring proxy organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are engaged in murderous violence against Israelis.
A climate of opinion has emerged, in which a shocking increase in anti-Semitic violence in the U.K. in the last year receives less than the attention it deserves, because the perpetrators are mainly emerging from within Britain’s Muslim communities.
In such a situation, unsurprisingly, individuals such as the Independent Jewish Voices initiators, who ignore these realities or who are in some cases sympathetic to the perpetrators, may find themselves treated in mainstream Jewish circles with less than the exquisite courtesy which is undoubtedly their due.
But as we have seen, mainstream outlets in the U.K. welcoming the contributions of Jews (and non-Jews) hostile to Israel are proliferating. There are broad swathes of contemporary British opinion in which a breezy dismissal of all Israeli and Jewish concerns is very much the bon ton. There have, indeed, rarely been better days to be a Jewish opponent of Israel in Britain.