Loyal Dissent is Beginning to Bite

AS ANGLO-JEWISH personalities fly out from London to attend the “Prime Minister’s Conference on Jewish Solidarity with Israel”, a group of prominent Jewish writers, academics. intellectuals and communal leaders has issued a statement which casts doubt on the value of their visit.
Asking “which Jews today do not express solidarity with Israel?” they commented that ‘it seems increasingly likely that this is a public relations exercise where Jewish leaders will be instructed to endorse Mr. Shamir‘s policies prior to his departure for the United States.’
Paradoxically the necessity for this ineptly-titled conference is the clearest indication yet to Jewish moderates in Britain that Mr. Shamir does not have full support for his policies in the Diaspora and that loyal dissent is beginning to bite.
Within the Anglo-Jewish community. the intifada has catalyzed a fierce debate. Until the Six Day War, there was a genuine consensus supporting the broad aims of the Israel government of the day. The effect of the occupation of the West Bank has fragmented that support.
Many Jews in Great.Britain have been persuaded that there is a profound difference between alignment with Israeli government policy and solidarity with the state itself. The activities of the West Bank settlers, the invasion of Lebanon and now the Palestinian uprising have convinced many life-long supporters of Israel that their duty to the Jewish State lies in criticizing bad policies and their apologists at home and abroad rather than in maintaining an embarrassed silence.
Arik Sharon’s military adventure in Lebanon proved to be a watershed in Diaspora perceptions of the Middle East conflict. Initially British Jews gladly imbibed the official wisdom which portrayed Sharon as the embattled Jewish warrior manifesting a purity of arms. Such fan-club Zionism evaporated when Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies subsequently massacred Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla.
Since 1982 there has been a discernible movement away from mechanical adoration of Israel government policies. Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sir Claus Moser, Lords Goodman and Rothschild have all embraced the idea of “land for peace“ in welcoming the Shultz initiative. The Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, has long supported the aims of the religious peace camp in Israel. Last year virtually every major Jewish writer including’ Harold Pinter, Anita Brookner, Dan Jacobson and Stephen Berkoff signed a statement in the Jewish Chronicle under the title of “Jews for a Just Israel“ which condemned the government’s policy of “might, force and beatings.“
At its meeting in December, the leadership of the Board of Deputies, the representative body of Anglo-Jewry, were taken aback when member after member advocated that “Arafat should be tested”. In particular. the leading parliamentary defenders of Israel Labour’s Greville Janner and the Conservative Ivan Lawrence, both recommended communication with the PLO.
During the last few weeks, public meetings featuring PLO leaders and members of the Knesset in London and in Oxford have attracted extremely large audiences representing a cross-section of the community.

For anyone acquainted with Anglo-Jewry as a docile backwater of undiluted conservatism, such events are without precedent. Yet some Jewish leaders seem psychologically unable to absorb the meaning of this sea-change and continue to repeat the official explanations of the Israel government. Given that this often means propagating the diverse aims of a coalition of irreconcilable opposites, organizations such as the Board of Deputies have on many occasions found themselves enmeshed in fundamental contradictions not of their own making.
The Board’s problems arise from its traditional role as lobbyist in presenting a plethora of communal interests to the British government. This may work on a wide range of issues; but on the question of current Israel government policies Anglo-Jewry not unexpectedly reflects the division into hawks and doves within the Jewish State itself. Therefore visits of Jewish leaders to a rumbustious Mellor or a Bible-quoting Waldegrave proceed on the basis of a very weak mandate indeed — a fact well known to the British Foreign Office.
In reality. it is very difficult to know exactly what British Jews really think — there are no opinion polls or demographic surveys as in the United States. Significantly. the I986 survey of American Jews under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee indicated that a majority of respondents believed that U.S. Jewish organizations were “too willing to automatically support the policies of whatever Israeli party happens to be in power.”
In addition. a wide-ranging poll of American Jews undertaken for the Los Angeles Times last year showed that they favoured Peres over Shamir. If recent activities are any indicator and if there is no resolution of the Palestinian problem in the short term, hard-pressed Jewish leaders in Britain may shortly find themselves in the unenviable position of choosing between the increasingly moderate views of Anglo-Jewry and the official policy of the Israel government.
The division within Anglo-Jewry is to some extent a generational one. For example, meetings of the British Friends of Peace Now have attracted much larger audiences, more youthful and better informed than official Zionist bodies. They argue that as committed Jews, they have a duty to contribute to the debate in Israel whilst leaving the real political power to the Israeli voter.
Yet for the older generation – the generation which witnessed Mosley‘s anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel — Jewish criticism of official policies is regarded as nothing short of treacherous. The depths of such psychological scars obstruct any real dialogue between the generations on the Middle East conflict. Indeed the post-war generation which is much more selective in its analysis often avoids such painful confrontations in the knowledge that it too would have held such diffuse views, had it been born one generation earlier.
A comprehension of the dynamics of changing attitudes within Anglo-Jewry does not mean conversely that the PLO are viewed through rose-coloured glasses. as virginal guardians of the total truth. What does appear to have happened is that many British Jews have begun to assert their independence and to regard their own communal organizations as merely appendages of the Israel government of the day.
And Diaspora Jews can wield political clout outside the conventional public relations role as witnessed by
Arafat’s clarifications in Stockholm when pressured by an American Jewish delegation. With Habash eagerly waiting for failure on the Palestinian side. probably a broad section of Anglo-Jewry believe that the present opportunity will not recur.
Amos Oz used to be an acerbic critic of the PLO. but he undoubtedly symbolized this new assertive spirit of Diaspora Jews when he recently remarked in the Israeli press:
“Zionism has awaited this moment for many years. Political wisdom may well forbid us to rejoice out loud. but it certainly precludes closing the eyes. pretending nothing has happened.”

Jerusalem Post 15 March 1989

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.