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British Zionism, Jews and Gaza

The reaction of British Jews to the offensive in Gaza confirms that Zionism no longer serves as a glue holding most of the community together, whilst the right-wing ideology of the pro-Israel leadership is only intensifying divisions.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza left British Zionist organisations dazed and confused. Whilst Zionist leaders appear secure, even strengthened, in their ideological and political commitment to Israel as they battle the country’s critics, they look terribly like a bunch of  lost souls digging themselves ever deeper into a hole, out of which their Zionist ideological map offers them no way of climbing.

Zionism today: not like it used to be

I was an enthusiastic young Zionist in the 1960s and maintained—albeit a diminishing—adherence to Zionism for more than 20 years, before finally ceasing to be a Zionist at the turn of the century. So I remember very well what British Zionism was; and the differences between then and now are stark. It’s not that Zionism was any more right or wrong then than it is now, but there was at least a very lively debate between very different kinds of Zionism, ranging from the Marxist Zionism of the Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard) youth movement to the corporatist and fascist-influenced Zionism of Herut (Freedom) —the party of Menachem Begin, who, in 1977, brought an end to 30 years of coalition governments in Israel led by the Labour party.

Today, any ideological differences between the organized diaspora Zionist groups are largely symbolic. For example, the socialist-Zionist youth movements may argue with mainstream Zionists about Israel’s political direction, but these arguments are divorced from political reality in Israel where they have no currency. Most Jews professing Zionism are simply expressing their practical and emotional connection to Israel as an existing country that they have visited, where members of their families live; and to the idea that the ‘Land of Israel’ is the ancestral home of the Jewish people.

As I argued in a 24 August op-ed I wrote for the New York Times, there’s only one form of Zionism of any consequence today, either in Israel or in the Jewish diaspora: right-wing, exclusionary, discriminatory ethno-nationalism, inspired by religious messianism. It has consequences and agency because it manifests itself in a very real project of continuous national self-realisation, purification of the tribe and dispossession. Liberal Zionism is the only other recognisable brand. Although rather a vague term, it implies a commitment to certain values e.g. democracy, human rights and equality, which are increasingly at odds with the political realities in Israel. It could almost be seen as the last redoubt for Jews who wish to declare a Zionist attachment.

In the UK, the main umbrella body of Zionist organisations is the Zionist Federation (ZF), and its history stretches back to 1899, but it does not represent all of them. Yachad (Together), the new-ish ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ group, which is the flag-bearer for liberal Zionism today, and which is seen as on the left and has a mostly young following, is not a member. Neither is the New Israel Fund (NIF), which ‘exists to help secure Israel's long term survival and prosperity for all its citizens’ and stands for a de-politicized form of liberal Zionism. The NIF was specifically established as an alternative to the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), the man fundraising body for Israel, whose mission is ‘to ensure that British Jewry supports, engages and loves Israel’, and is affiliated to the ZF. The NIF lays great stress on supporting human rights projects involving Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, but only within the Green Line. It did not seek affiliation to the ZF. Yachad did—but was turned down (more on this below). This was a clear sign of the right-wing’s dominance of what is supposed be a broad church. And given that you are required to express ‘love of Israel’ to be a member of Yachad, the uncompromising nature of the right-wing’s Zionism is plain for all to see.

In decline, but fighting back

A June 2010 poll of the UK Jewish population revealed continuing Jewish closeness to Israel, but a significant proportion of respondents favoured a more robust, critical, pro-peace stance. One-fifth said they were ‘non-Zionists’. Over half said Jews in Britain had the right to judge Israel and more than a third that they should be free to criticise Israel in public. And with more than half agreeing that Israel should negotiate with Hamas, an underlying sense of unease with Israel’s political trajectory was clearly discernible.  Meanwhile, there has been a decline in the influence of the organized Zionist/pro-Israel organisations and movements which can be illustrated quite simply by comparing the numbers of people from the Jewish community who have turned out for pro-Israel demonstrations during major crises.

On Sunday, 5 May 2002, between 30,000 and 50,000 Jewish demonstrators attended an official community rally in central London to express solidarity with Israel. This was during the second intifada and the suicide bombing campaign carried out mostly by Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. In 2009, at the time of Operation Cast Lead, as the Israelis called their then bombardment of Gaza, 15,000 attended a similar rally at Trafalgar Square in central London. On Sunday, 20 July this year, the ZF together with 60 other Jewish organisations again called on the community to express solidarity with Israel, this time at a ‘Yes to peace, no to terror’ rally outside the Israel Embassy, as its land, air and sea offensive against Gaza continued. This time only around 1,500 attended, though the organizers claimed a higher figure, up to 5,000. Even allowing for the smaller space and the short notice given for the rally, this was a bitterly disappointing turnout.

On the other hand—and this may seem incongruous in light of the above—the Zionist right has become stronger and further entrenched, not numerically, but rather in terms of the way it communicates and frames its message. Once Israel advocacy groups—a term encompassing avowedly Zionist organisations and others calling themselves simply ‘pro-Israel’—became fully aware of declining attachment to Israel among Jews, they, together with the institutions of the Israeli government responsible for Israel-Diaspora relations and the Foreign Ministry, began to plough vastly increased resources into what is referred to in Hebrew as hasbara (information), transforming the scale and quality of their propaganda. Sharper and simpler formulas were devised for persuading Jews to show more uncompromising solidarity with Israel, such as the ‘We believe in Israel’ campaign.

In the past, Israeli spokespersons were heavily criticised by pro-Israel groups in the UK for speaking poor English and often coming off worst in encounters when interviewed on radio and television. A new breed of more articulate, westernised, media savvy performers came on the scene and, as we saw during the bombardment of Gaza, in the first two weeks or so of the conflict very few news anchors were able to lay a glove on them. Their simple messages, continually repeated by all of their team, dominated most news outlets, whose simplistic notion of maintaining balance played into Israel’s hands.

Many Jews find what they hear from these spokespersons very comforting. And they are reassured even more by the fact that the supposedly representative institutions of the Jewish community, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), which work hand in hand with the pro-Israel groups and are set to merge, essentially put over the same messages. Jews supporting Israel’s actions who were active on social media, either as part of organized groups, or simply as individual activists, repeated these messages consistently and frequently.

Zionist activists criticize their leaders, demand tougher counterattack

Even so, the scale of the protests against Israel’s Gaza bombardment, widely seen as more vehement and widespread than those during previous conflicts, took the Zionist groups by surprise. And as the death toll in Gaza mounted and the cries of disgust and anguish became ever more vocal and visible, Jews defending Israel felt increasingly embattled.

The starkest evidence of this was the ‘town hall’ meeting for the Jewish community arranged by the leading Jewish and Zionist organisations on 13 August at the Jews Free School in Kenton, which was attended by 700 people. Leaders of the main communal organisations, including the pro-Israel groups—BoD, JLC, BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), UJIA, Community Security Trust (CST), ZF—sat on the platform explaining to the attendees how they had been defending both the Jewish community and Israel. But instead of being reassured, the audience voiced powerful and angry criticism of the leadership’s inadequate action. Do more to defend Israel and do it far more openly, was the message. The Jewish response to perceived media bias against Israel and the need simply to put Israel’s case in the face of the barrage of rockets being fired by Hamas into Israel, in the form of letter writing and other means of complaint, were unfavourably compared to what was said to have emanated from pro-Palestinian sources levelling their own criticism of the media and drawing attention to the devastation being wreaked by the Israelis in Gaza.

A telling moment in the proceedings came when one of the platform speakers mentioned Yachad. Some of the audience booed, a sign that the dominant hard-line, right-wing Zionists find even this utterly loyal, Israel-loving, but cautiously critical group, which has taken great care to steer clear of any Jewish activists they deemed to be too ‘radical’ in their approach to Israel-Palestine matters, too much to stomach. This same mindset was behind the deeply troubling protest mounted against the Jewish Chronicle for printing the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal for humanitarian aid for Gaza. But it’s probably more of a surprise that the JC printed the ad at all than that the editor, Stephen Pollard, apologised for doing so afterwards, claiming that it was a commercial decision and therefore beyond his control.

Conflating Jews and Israel: an own goal

Across the range of the main Jewish organisations, Jewish leaders have come under severe pressure from all sides. If their fundamental task has been to defend the Jewish community and defend Israel, whilst at the same time not allowing Jews and Israelis, or Jews and Israel, to be conflated when criticism of Israel is made, they have singularly failed.

The rise in antisemitic incidents as reported to the CST was predictable. It happens every time there is such violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However diligent CST may be in defending Jewish institutions, much of what they record is beyond their control because it does not take the form of high profile attacks on buildings or other Jewish sites. And they make their job even harder by politicising their response through taking a vigorous stance against the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and declaring it antisemitic. This only strengthens the notion that Jews themselves voluntarily conflate the interests of Israel and the British Jewish community.

Nothing illustrates this more starkly than a comment from someone who attended the 13 August town hall meeting, which came to me via social media. The unnamed participant was keen to emphasize that they are not quick to spread propaganda, but stressed that the main outcome of the meeting was the need to do more—write more letters, make more complaints of bias in the media, stand up more for Israel. Noting that there are huge resources to help with this, the writer specifically named BICOM, referring to it as ‘basically the PR arm of the Board of Deputies.’ BICOM, the main lobby group working on behalf of Israel in the UK, is very well funded and works in close cooperation with the Israel Foreign Ministry and the Israel Embassy, producing slick briefings, with, when necessary, nods to mild criticism of some Israeli government policies to add credibility to their messages. They would deny vehemently that they are the PR arm of the BoD, as would the BoD. But Spinwatch’s report on BICOM, Giving Peace a Chance?, documents the connections and collaborations between BICOM and the BoD. This in itself powerfully illustrates how the institutions of the Jewish community conflate Jews and Israel. But the writer, clearly a very loyal community activist, whose language is not extreme and who acknowledges that there are mixed views in the community about Israel’s actions, shows that the conflation is not just an institutional phenomenon, but is widely approved at the grass roots. The link between what happens in Israel and the position of the Jewish community is indisputable.

Protest against the bombardment of Gaza by Zionist Jews

The longstanding approach of the communal leadership has been to marginalize most left dissenting groups, either by ignoring them or demonizing them with accusations of disloyalty and Jewish self-hatred. But it has certainly been harder for communal leaders to know how to handle groups that clearly proclaim their support for Zionism while at the same time voicing what they regard as constructive and balanced criticism of selected Israeli government policies. Yachad and the NIF fall into this category.

As a fundraising body, NIF steers clear of any kind of overt political statement or affiliation. Mainstream leaders avoid attacking it openly and some of them are donors to the charity. But Yachad is different. It is political, though it tries to wrap any critical statements about Israel in the warm blanket of love for the country. Though sometimes spoken of as a lobby, its main focus is the Jewish community itself, not the British government or even the Israeli government. Yachad wants to build not just a larger constituency that couches its critique of Israel within the context of unwavering solidarity with the country, but one that is knowledgeable about what is actually happening on the West Bank by organizing tours to the area.

Yachad was established in 2011 with the encouragement of the Chairman of the JLC, Mick Davis (at the time, Chief Executive of the huge mining conglomerate Xstrata), and by other more dovish mainstream leaders. They wanted to create a safe space for young people who were feeling, or beginning to feel, estranged from Israel, in which they could identify with the country, but remain critical of government policies, if necessary, and strongly advocate the establishment of a Palestinian state. Although these leaders, and the young people involved in setting up Yachad, must have known that some within the Zionist camp would not be happy, I doubt whether they expected to be booed at the 13 August meeting. And yet, the writing was on the wall. As noted above, when Yachad applied for affiliation with the Zionist umbrella body, the ZF, they were turned down, causing some considerable controversy.

During the entire Gaza crisis, Yachad tried hard to find a way of expressing strong reservations about Israel’s bombardment and at the same time laying great stress on the threat posed to hundreds of thousands of Israelis by the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas. By organizing three campaigns—a joint Muslim-Jewish fast for peace, a statement of support for peace signed by more than 1,000 people, and a letter to Britain’s UN representative, currently president of the UN Security Council, imploring him to broker a cease-fire—they avoided apportioning responsibility and relied on public sentiment that naturally yearns for peace to build support for their activism. According to their director, Hannah Weisfeld, they experienced ‘a massive surge of support’ and they claim to have been ‘much bolder’ than in 2012, the last Gaza crisis.

The dissenting Jewish left finds its voice?

But other dissenting left-wing groups were far less reticent about drawing attention to Israel’s fundamental responsibility for the crisis. Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP), established in 2002 and one of the older dissenting groups, say their social media ‘total page reach is now close to a million’. According to a Haaretz report, their ‘facebook page, set up on 9 July, had logged 27,500 visitors and 56,000 views by the end of the month and racked up more than 38,000 “engagements”—likes, comments and shares—compared with the Jewish Chronicle’s 167.’ JfJfP states: ‘We oppose Israeli policies that undermine the livelihoods, human, civil and political rights of the Palestinian people. We support the right of Israelis to live in freedom and security within Israel’s 1967 borders.’

Together with JfJfP, Young Jewish Left, ‘a loose grouping that has highlighted the plight of Palestinian victims during the war’, the Jewish Socialists Group (JSG), which dates from the 1970s, and Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), set up in 2007, Jewish groups constituted a significant block on all the Gaza demos. JSG, which ‘fights for freedom and equality’, has a Bundist outlook and opposes Zionism. IJV, established as a loose framework for Jews—from Zionists to anti-Zionists—wanting to speak out on the repression of Palestinians on the basis of human rights values, organized collective letter protests to major newspapers. The London-based Jewdas group, which emerged around 2006, has a young, radical, diasporist, anarchistic following and is fond of ironic performative protest. But it chose solemnity when it demonstrated outside the British ZF conference on 27 July. The activists recited Kaddish (Jewish mourner’s prayer) for the Gaza dead followed by a two-minute silence. ‘Some of them also went inside the building to try and engage the participants, though to little success’, reported Dimi Reider.

Bereft of ideas, in denial about Palestine, the leadership flounders

Although it would be hard to deny that the balance of opinion among British Jews remains pro-Zionist and very pro-Israel, the leaders of the Zionist organisations, the Israel-advocacy groups and the Jewish representative bodies have felt severely embattled. They have struggled to cope with all of the ways that opposition to Israel’s actions has manifested itself throughout the country. They stand accused of being weak and ineffectual by Jewish activists demanding a much more outspoken, unashamed, centrally-organized campaign to defend Israel. They have found it difficult to deal with the increase in fear of antisemitism among Jews, though the increase in anti-Jewish hostility and antisemitic incidents reported to the CST could hardly have been unexpected. They seem to be without any new ideas, essentially seeing opposition to Israel’s actions as hypocritical and to a great extent antisemitic. They ask questions like: Why do people focus so exclusively on Israel, when there are so many far worse conflicts throughout the world, such as in Syria?

This leadership cannot face up to the reality that the Israel-Palestine conflict is an inter-communal problem playing itself out on the streets of Britain, let alone show any awareness of its implications. It may not take the form of the violence seen in France—demonstrations and marches in the UK have been overwhelmingly peaceful—but what has happened over the last two months in the UK is the continuation of Israel-Gaza war by other means. Failure to grasp this was evident in the cack-handed announcement of a joint Muslim-Jewish statement by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the BoD calling on their faiths to ‘export peace’ to the Middle East. In a patently awkward joint appearance on BBC Radio 4’s World At One on 29 August, Vivian Weinman, President of the BoD, and Shuja Shafi, Secretary General of the MCB, could not agree on whether daubing the slogan ‘Free Gaza’ on a synagogue wall was antisemitic or not. The statement simply brushed the difficult issue of Palestine under the carpet. An important article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, by Fiyaz Mughal, persuasively argued that this issue had to be squarely faced if dialogue between Muslims and Jews was to mean anything.

For the Jewish dissenting left, there has been no evidence of a wholesale shift of Jewish opinion in their direction. Discussions about the situation among dissenters themselves have, in my experience, displayed a deep sense of despair at the sheer brutality and callousness of the violence and at the possibility of doing anything that can make a difference. And yet there has also been something about the awfulness of this round of Israel’s periodic battering of Gaza, and its sheer futility, that has galvanized activists, no matter how hopeless the situation may appear to be, to make their voices heard and to capitalise on the growing rumblings of doubt about Israel’s actions among some sectors of the Jewish population. This would suggest that the heading of Daniella Peled’s report in Haaretz, ‘Left-wing UK Jewish groups thrive during Israel’s Gaza war’, has substance.

Peled also reports the ZF claims of a ‘doubling of the number of calls to its north London office’ and quotes a spokesperson as saying that they had received ‘a lot of interest from the ultra-orthodox and the Reform [Jews]—groups who previously haven’t had strong ties with us,’ claiming that ‘This shows that the ZF is a centrist Zionist organisation rather than right-wing, which is what we were previously painted as.’ The idea that the ‘ultra-orthodox’ are turning Zionist in any significant numbers beggars belief. Though few openly express anti-Zionism, the notion that Israel is a Jewish state in any sense that conforms to their unbending theology is quite alien to them. And if some Reform Jews are turning for succour to the ZF it’s a sign that they are turning right, not that the ZF is becoming more centrist.

Zionism isn’t the answer for doubting Jews

What the Gaza crisis shows is that Zionism, already increasingly irrelevant as an expressly ideological choice for Jews, no longer serves as a glue holding most of the Jewish community together. In fact, it’s a source of division: there is growing polarisation between right and left, with the right better equipped than ever before with the tools of slick propaganda (the limitations of which became increasingly evident as the Israeli bombardment continued) and the left perhaps more astutely probing the cracks in the Zionist wall.

There is still a middle where significant numbers of Jews remain mostly silent, thereby giving the impression of a hollowed-out space. But my impression, from many private conversations, interactions on Facebook and Twitter, and emails, is that those in the middle are deeply unsure about what Israel is doing. They would prefer not to know the truth about the country’s current trajectory, but still feel they must offer support because they see it as surrounded by implacable enemies and a victim of antisemitism. They may want to voice their doubts, but decide not to, partly because of fear of giving succour to antisemites and partly because of what this might do to personal relations between friends and family. They may never come to identify in any significant numbers with the dissenting Jewish left, but it seems hardly likely that what the leaders of the ZF, the Israel advocacy groups and the Jewish communal and supposedly ‘representative’ organisations serve up as Zionism offers them any positive way out of their unease and confusion.

 

Crossposted with thanks to New Left Project.

About the author

Antony Lerman is a Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna and an Honorary Fellow at the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Southampton University. He is also a member of the Black-Jewish Forum, a member of the Advisory Committee of the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum and a founding member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights and the Independent Jewish Voices steering group. He is the author of The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (Pluto Press 2012). He tweets @tonylerman.

 


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