Limmud, the Board and Naftali Bennett

Thousands of eager participants are returning from the UK Limmud Festival, whose message of openness in Jewish life has proved a challenge to conformists within the Jewish world and spawned more than 80 Limmud communities across the world – from Beijing to Jerusalem and from New Zealand to New York, run by the brightest and best of young Diaspora Jews.

It is an arena where Benjamin Netanyahu can be praised as a far-sighted seer or denounced as a charlatan lacking any moral compass; where Orthodox and non-Orthodox, atheist and believer explore Jewish learning together; where the richness of Jewish life can be explored by every kind of Jew.

It started nearly 40 years ago when a few dozen people gathered at British Jewry’s rural boarding school, Carmel College, outside London – and it has now spread across the globe,

Yet what is truly remarkable is that Limmud did not emerge from famously Jewishly progressive United States or from the Jewish state, Israel, but from Jewishly conservative England. Its genesis was during the Begin years, when Arik Sharon was Israel’s Minister of Defense. It coincided with the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when UK communal leaders robotically supported Begin’s government initially but were forced to change course by a cacophony of protest by mainly younger Jews.

Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, left, talks with Israeli troops on his visit during the Israeli occupation םכ East Beirut, Lebanon. July 2, 1982
Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, left, talks with Israeli troops on his visit during the Israeli occupation םכ East Beirut, Lebanon. July 2, 1982AP

The misnamed 1982 “Operation Peace for Galilee,” when Israel invaded south Lebanon in response to PLO attacks, forced young British Jews to challenge the UK community’s unspoken policy of survivalism dominant since 1948. That stance was predicated on “Israel, right or wrong,” and was reinforced by Likud apparatchiks who wanted to delegitimize any criticism of Israel (even from within solidly Zionist Diaspora Jewish communities) by equating it with seeking the Jewish state’s destruction.

Many of these dissident currents from the early 1980s have become ideologically acceptable to a new generation of communal leaders. The community’s main representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was seen as staid and tired, but earlier this year, it elected a new leadership which is attempting to break the mould. Its new president and two of its vice-presidents are women – as is its secretary-general, who are already challenging the over-cautious and largely male-dominated communal leadership. 

It has condemned Orban’s authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in Hungary, and attacked the British nationalist, Tommy Robinson.

One deputy with a long time reputation for intolerance and abusive language (calling her fellow deputies “modern day Kapos”) was suspended for six years for making Islamophobic remarks on social media, following up by declaring on the record that she “detests the creed of Islam“; the incoming Board president Marie van der Zyl was direct. “I will not tolerate any anti-Muslim hatred whatsoever.” 

While not exactly acts of revolutionary fervor, the Board has provided badly needed rational leadership – a breath of fresh air.

There is also a fresh willingness to voice explicit criticism of Israeli policies – and politicians. The Board expressed its dismay at the Jewish Nation State Law in a letter to the Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev and has supported efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Last week, the Board slammed Likud MK Oren Hazan’s “reprehensible comments” in which he urged Israel to put the country’s Muslims into Chinese-style re-education camps: “It is a betrayal of the Jewish conscience to suggest placing any ethnic or religious group in to camps. Oren Hazan clearly needs an urgent and sharp lesson in Jewish history.”

Netanyahu’s self-evident indifference to Diaspora concerns – particularly after the Pittsburgh killings – and the general conduct of his government, has moved a more self-confident British Jewry to voice its concerns publicly rather than behind closed doors. Sir Mick Davis, a key establishment figure and funder, and the founder of the flagship Jewish Leadership Council, has serially criticized successiveNetanyahu administrations – a far cry from when British Jewish donors willingly allowed themselves to be taken on a tour of Lebanon in 1982 by Begin and Sharon and earned Abba Eban’s scathing comment about “the vulgarity of the philanthropists.”

The advent of the internet and social media have undoubtedly given rise to a plethora of anti-Semitic and racist comments, but it has also given Diaspora Jews access to a far wider circle of information: British Jews today are much better educated about Israel, its society and its government than in the past.

Only weeks ago, the Jewish Chronicle published a leader entitled “Diaspora Defamed,” following Israeli Education Minister and erstwhile Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s comment about ‘an unprecedented crisis’ between Israel and the Jewish world.

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The editorial stated that British Jews do profoundly care 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.” A warning that the Diaspora will no longer be taken for granted, no longer an appendage to Israel government policy.

The celebrated historian Sir Simon Schama similarly attacked Bennett’s “detestable comments.” His riposte was indicative of the traditional response of many members of the left-leaning Jewish intelligentsia in the past. Now they have found new allies within the communal mainstream and the Jewish business community in general. The accusations of “anti-Israel, self-hating Jews” no longer wash.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a Jewish community demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Parliament Square, London. March 26, 2018
Protesters hold placards and flags during a Jewish community demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Parliament Square, London. March 26, 2018\ HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

The community has also stood up and made its voice heard in relation to the ongoing anti-Semitism crisis in the UK Labour Party, once the natural political home of many British Jews, organizing  protests and repeatedly condemning Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to seriously identify and deal with anti-Semitism from its ranks. Given the real possibility of a future Corbyn government, it has not shut its doors on dialogue with Labour’s front bench either.

It came in for severe criticism for inviting Angela Rayner, the Shadow Minister for Education, to its Hannukah reception at the House of Lords. The Board was accused of effective collusion with Jeremy Corbyn and breaking ranks. That kneejerk rancour was unable and unwilling to recognize the clear political differences that exist between Jeremy Corbyn and many on his front bench, including Rayner.

A member of the soft Left and no Corbynista, Rayner was woefully ignorant about Jewish history and the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yet she made a powerful speech at the reception in which she condemned anti-Semitism and admitted that she had a lot to learn.

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The approach of Marie van der Zyl, the new president, was that “engagement [with Labour] does not mean concessions.” Despite the energetic campaign to vilify the Board’s leadership, there was no boycott of the reception, which was attended by large numbers of communal leaders, the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador.

Taken altogether, these are positive indications that the establishment British Jewish community is developing a thoughtful and self-determined Diaspora stance that reflects the largely liberal, two-state values of the UK community. Rejecting Corbyn’s distaste for Israel does not automatically mean turning to the Right and embracing Netanyahu – as it may have done in the past.

Today, British Jews can confidently state that they reject both Corbyn and Netanyahu. It does not have to be either/or. And the community also recognizes that if Israel won’t stand up to Europe’s right-wing anti-Semitism, then it needs to know that it must rely on itself.

Diaspora Jews – who live amongst non-Jews and treasure the principles of universalism within Jewish tradition – may not have the vote in Israel, but they certainly have an opinion about Israel. It is a sign of their commitment, not of their disaffection. And even if Netanyahu and Bennett ignore this, at their peril, UK Jews have now tasted what it’s like to be a loyal, but firm, opposition.

Ha’aretz 27 December 2018

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