British Jews and Annexation

  • Do British Jews, committed to Israel, have a right to criticise a policy of its government?

An old question which has been around since 1948 – but have we moved from a time when there was never a scintilla of criticism to a more open approach? Is this linked to a new generation which does not carry the reticence of those who went before them? Is it a reflection of the unpopularity of Benjamin Netanyahu and the bearpit of Israeli politics generally?

The recent letter of Anglo-Jewish notables — Simon Schama, Robert Winston, Anthony Julius, Luciana Berger and many others — suggest a watershed in relations between British Jews and the current government of Israel.

There have been numerous examples of this growing openness.

The Board of Deputies recently condemned the nation-state law of the Netanyahu government.

A remarkable JC leader in December 2018 which attacked Naftali Bennett, then Minister of Diaspora Affairs, commented: “The diaspora does care, profoundly and deeply, about Israel — but to politicians of Mr Bennett’s stripe, caring about Israel means unquestioning support of whatever he and his fellow ministers do in government. If we dare to express a more nuanced view, we are told that we do not understand Israel, we do not live there and we should stop interfering in its business. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” 

Today on the vexed question of annexation of part of the West Bank, there are those who believe that you do not annex your own territory while others feel that annexation without genuine Palestinian participation is a deeply flawed idea.

Representative communal organisations refuse to offer a lead, ironically allying themselves with those who passionately support annexation in that they both prefer silence, albeit for different reasons.

Yet the diaspora doctrine of non-intervention in the politics of Israel is highly selective. Only some dissenters are criticised.

Last week, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbinical Beit Din visited Hebron in the West Bank. It met representatives of the Jewish settlers who had returned to Hebron after the Six-Day war in 1967 — having been expelled in 1929 when many Jews had been killed by their Arab neighbours.

The Chabad rabbis discussed the Trump Plan whereby 20-30 per cent of the West Bank would be annexed to Israel – a plan proposed amidst a plethora of mixed messages from Washington and signals about a possible unilateral annexation by the current Israeli government.

Whereas there has been a concerted campaign within British Jewry to support those Israelis who oppose annexation, there is similar opposition from the West Bank settlers themselves, but for different ideological reasons.

Many feel that their settlements will be left outside of any annexed territory, marooned in an archipelago of disconnected enclaves. The ultimate danger is that in the event of any agreement, they would be enveloped within a Palestinian state.

The Hebron settlers beseeched the Chabad rabbis to utilise their influence in the White House to remedy the situation.

Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have been long-time supporters of Chabad, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to worthy Chabad projects. Jared Kushner was close to Chabad as a student at Harvard and the Kushner family now attend a Chabad synagogue in Washington on many a Shabbat. During the US election campaign in 2016, the Kushners paid a visit to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to pray for the victory of Donald J Trump.

In Britain, the hundreds of young Jews who signed a petition, opposing annexation, have been attacked for having the temerity to express an opinion amidst the deafening silence of communal organisations on this issue. This was opposed by a considerably smaller number of young people who voiced their support for annexation.

If it is right for Lubavitchers in Washington to intervene in Israeli politics in opposing annexation, why is it wrong for these young people in London to do the same — albeit for different reasons?

Red lines are historically moveable if the situation demands it. In January 2001, the collapsing government of Ehud Barak was contemplating the future of the Temple Mount and perhaps transferring control to a third party as a means of circumventing the intractable dispute about the site.

This very idea was regarded as heretical by many Israeli rabbis. Natan Sharansky organised a demonstration in Jerusalem and invited diaspora leaders to participate. Several United Synagogue rabbis on a delegation in Israel took up his invitation.

Jonathan Sacks, then Chief Rabbi, wrote to Ehud Olmert, then the Mayor of Jerusalem: “Not even a democratically elected government has the authority to abandon the prayers and dream of generations” and cede the Temple Mount.

Lord Rabbi Sacks argued that his view transcended politics, but his heartfelt plea was rebuked by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Minister for Diaspora Affairs.

So why was the then-Chief Rabbi right in 2001 about the Temple Mount and the young signatories of the petition against annexation wrong in 2020? Both intervened in Israeli politics.

Every time that there is an election in Israel, political leaders flock to the diaspora to raise funds for their party’s campaign. Philanthropists support them according to their own ideological beliefs and these donations are duly recorded by the State Comptroller. Why then do philanthropists have a right to intervene in this fashion in Israeli politics, but those who oppose annexation do not?

It is often argued by representative communal organisations that they offer a solution to this inconsistency in that they endorse a consensus view for a two-state solution. They point to the JPR Survey of 2010 on their websites — 78 per cent of British Jews supported a two-state solution.

However the same survey indicated that 74 per cent of British Jews opposed the settlement drive on the West Bank — almost the same figure. Why then is opposition to the settlement drive also not promoted as a consensus?

Clearly, even if they privately agree with the hundreds of young people who opposed annexation, many leaders feel that it would cause them just too much tsores to devote time and effort to such matters when they could be working for the communal good on many other questions.

After all, Netanyahu is more interested in American Jewry because it has political clout in the corridors of power. For him, Britain is a small island off the European mainland. Dissenters are therefore dispensable.

Clearly there are large gaps in communal attitudes towards the policies of an Israeli government. They have become more obvious as the previous generation — a survivalist generation which brooked no dissent — has passed on. British Jews are in transition between the approach of no criticism in the past to a growing willingness to speak out in the present.

During the last 40 years, alternative, more open, organisations have proliferated to a remarkable extent. Jews who live amongst non-Jews in the diaspora have joined in large numbers. They transcend both left and right.

In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher much preferred Labour’s Shimon Peres to Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. The former President of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Sir Ivan Lawrence and Dame Margaret Hodge, the doyenne of the struggle against the Corbynistas, have both publicly opposed annexation.

These alternative organisations fulfil an important task in that they provide a safety net for the many young people who, disillusioned with Mr Netanyahu’s governance, identify it with the State of Israel itself. These organisations prevent such people from falling off the cliff edge — in this sense they do holy work.

No one knows what the future holds in these uncertain times and how Israel will evolve. We are all involved in a voyage of discovery, but past rules no longer make sense. Politically aware young people are in need of a new means of identifying with Israel in the 21st century — it is a need that mainstream organisations will sooner or later have to grapple with.

Jewish Chronicle 5 June 2020

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