Independent Jewish Voices

Brian Klug is highly selective in his choice of Jewish communal figures to bolster his argument. Many left wing Jewish academics and writers, such as Norman Geras and Howard Jacobson, opposed the initiative of Independent Jewish Voices. They were never approached to sign the IJV letter probably because they did not distance themselves sufficiently from Zionism or turn a blind eye to issues such as the proposed boycott of Israeli academics – many of whom were founders of the Israeli peace camp. Neither did they ignore the rise of Palestinian Islamism in place of Arafat’s rationalist nationalism nor regard it as enlightened and progressive. Despite the fog of publicity, this is not so much a split in the Jewish community, but more a split in the Jewish Left as the outcome of frustration with the situation in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The IJV initiative is Sharon’s posthumous victory in fragmenting the Jewish peace camp.

The central issue has been trumpeted as the lack of communal space to espouse alternative views. Yet groups such as the British Friends of Peace Now or the annual Limmud conference have been in existence for more than 20 years. Whereas such cries of censorship may have been true in Britain at the time of the Lebanon war in 1982, there is a much more open Jewish media today, and through the advances of technology a multitude of ways of expressing alternative views. After all, will the Guardian turn down someone like Harold Pinter from expressing his views on the say-so of the ‘all powerful’ Board of Deputies?

It is probably true that a majority of British Jews, if asked, would wish to see further evacuation of the settlements on the West Bank and the establishment of a contiguous viable Palestinian state, probably along the lines of the Clinton Parameters. Any representative body should not merely offer an arena for debate, but also be prepared to act on such views. Yet no one from the long list of IJV signatories, it seems, has actually ever been elected as a member of the Board of Deputies and argued this position. The ambiguity of Independent Jewish Voices is that it wants to be represented, but does not wish to participate. The list of celebrities comprises a stream of the disappointed and the alienated. Moreover, several of the signatories were not previously known to be Jewish, while others were not inclined to parade their Jewishness in public.

The IJV initiative is very much a Diaspora matter. It is more about the politics of identity than freedom of expression and representation. Some signatories have spoken of their embarrassment and shame about Israeli policies. Yet this is more than expressing an identification with Palestinian suffering. In one sense, they reflect a part of the liberal intelligentsia in Britain which is highly selective in its outrage – which never speaks about Chinese dissidents, Burma or Zimbabwe, but focuses solely on Western failures – and of course, Israel. There is another part oldie Left which does not close its eyes to human right abuses wherever they occur. This difference is also reflected in the opposition to the IJV initiative.

For the IJV, how to relate to Israel is an ongoing problem. There is a real distaste for what is perceived to be crude displays of Jewish tribalism which others understand as acts of solidarity. Should Israel be regarded as merely a fait accompli that you have to live with or is it a good thing in itself? If you disagree with Israeli actions, how do you make yourself heard?

The IJV initiative is unlikely to influence a hard working Jewish community composed of small businessmen, accountants, estate agents and taxi drivers. One left wing critic labelled them ‘freedom fighters from Hampstead’. IJV’s tactical weakness is that it approaches the community from the outside and is not embedded in the mundane reality of its existence. A UJIA survey in 2004 of British Jews indicated that 78% of the respondents identified with Israel and is a pillar of their identity. They might vehemently disagree with the policies of an Israeli government, but they do believe that the Jews have a right to national self-determination.

The IJV has received something of a drubbing in the Jewish pre and within the community despite widespread communal opposition (to the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The IJV may coalesce as community of sorts and produce further well-heeled initiatives in the future, but it has made little impact so far on the Jewish reality on the ground.

The Middle East in London April 2007


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