The Reflection of Israel within British Jewry


The Reflection of Israel within British Jewry


A Special Role

British Jewry has played a unique role in the often ambivalent relationship between Britain and Israel. Sometimes it has been characterised as an emboldened advocate for Zionism during the Atlee government during the late1940s. On other occasions, it has been seen as an interlocutor between more liberal British administrations and hard line Israeli governments. For example, the views of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s were closer to the Labour opponents of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir and this produced friction in British interactions with the Likud administrations. Yet this pivotal role was not one that British Jews had actively sought.

The Zionist movement historically arose in Eastern Europe and it was here that the Jews first became a people in the modern sense of a nation. The Haskalah and the legacy of the French Revolution, however, affected the two halves of Europe in different ways. Eastern Europe integrated the new ideas into tradition and political discourse as a means of coping with the breakdown of Judaism and Jewishness. Various solutions – as many as twenty two[1] – were on offer. Territorialism was one and within this, Zionism as a specific sub-section. In Western Europe, the effect of the Haskalah and the French Revolution was disintegrative where assimilation, acculturation and conversion were attractions for many Jews. Although establishment Britain formally distanced itself from the new philosophies, the liberal-conservative nature of the society gently absorbed the general view that Jews had a right to full citizenship and the vote. London was not the address for revolution and ideological violence, but instead the exemplar of gradual change through the parliamentary system.  Britain was admired for its civilised pedestrian approach by the oppressed East European Jewish masses and this attitude was shared by most shades of Zionist opinion. For example, Jabotinsky, an inveterate critic of British policy in Palestine, told a meeting of Polish Revisionists in October 1937


We may have a number of grievances against England but the English government is and will be the government of a well-disposed mother. We must have patience. We shall finally achieve our aim of a Palestine on both sides of the Jordan. This will be achieved with the aid of the England who always puts obstacles in our way and always helps us.[2]


Although the idea of a Jewish return to the Holy Land had gained currency in Victorian Britain, it was the defeat of the Ottoman Turks and subsequent British governance of Palestine that parachuted British Jewry into the cauldron of Zionist politics. British Jewry was famously fragmented over the question of Zionism. There was severe opposition to the Balfour Declaration, both from Jewish grandees as well as Jewish organisations. Even within the Government, there were differences. Herbert Samuel attempted to advance the cause of Zion while his kinsman, Edwin Monatagu tried to thwart it. The Balfour Declaration became for British Jews a question of identity politics – in essence British Jew or Jewish Briton. While some fervently embraced Jewish nationalism, others defined their Jewishness by transcending it. Although the centre of Zionist activities had moved to neutral Scandinavia during wartime, the Balfour Declaration and the British invasion of Palestine meant in reality that London was the city of negotiation and deliberation. Yet it was not indigenous British Jews who led the Zionist initiative, but anglophile East European immigrants and émigrés – such as the academic and scientist, Weizmann, the writer Sokolov and the journalist Jabotinsky. Indeed, on the eve of World War I, the English Zionist Federation could claim less than 6% of British Jews as its members.[3] Jews had indeed settled comfortably into their English environment – Jewish nationalism was the prerogative of a peripheral minority. London provided a home for these East European Zionists to conduct their struggles with successive British administrations which attempted to provide new interpretations of the Balfour Declaration in an attempt to backtrack on the commitments of Lloyd-George and his government. But perhaps the first success of Zionists based in London was Weizmann’s reversal of the political consequences of the Shaw Commission and the Passfield White Paper through the MacDonald letter of 1931. The hapless Lord Passfield, Colonial Secretary, better known as the Fabian Sidney Webb, was highly influenced by his chief civil servant Sir John Shuckburgh[4] who wished to expunge the Balfour Declaration of any meaningful content. His wife, Beatrice Webb compared the Zionists to the white settlers in Kenya and was quite open in her dislike for Jews per se.[5] Passfield complained about the deluge of protests from Zionists in Britain over his policies and indeed was perplexed by the outburst.[6]


1948 and After

With the establishment of the state in 1948, Zionism entered its post-revolutionary phase. There had previously been a broad acceptance that the term ‘Zionist’ defined someone who immigrated to Israel and wished to participate in the construction of a new society there.  By the 1950s, Ben-Gurion extended the title of ‘Zionist’ to Jews who wished to identify with Israel. If formerly, Zionism had been the property of the Zionists, it now embraced the entire Jewish people. Although there was undoubtedly a strong and personal identification with Israel after 1948, this allowed for the expansion of the political hinterland for the policies of successive Israeli governments. British Jews were expected to unquestioningly support views which could abruptly alter at any moment. The success of Zionism meant the subservience of the Diaspora. If Jews chose not to live in Israel and did not avail themselves of the right to vote in elections, why, it was argued, should they have a right to express contrary opinions while in self-imposed exile. No doubt many in leadership positions saw themselves as historic participants in the Zionist revolution in the Ben-Gurion mould and loyal servants in the struggle against Israel’s enemies – and thereby this intellectually justified their political stand. The first sign of fragmentation came with the election of Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977 and its increasing dominance in Israeli politics. Begin and his policies hitherto had been anathema to the leadership of British Jewry – now they were asked to embrace him as the elected leader of Israel. Indeed his first official visit to Britain as leader of the Likud in the early 1970s catalysed demonstrations by ‘Zionists Against Begin’. The watershed in this looming crisis was undoubtedly the exceeding of the stated aims of the ‘Peace for Galilee’ incursion of Lebanon under the political leadership of Begin and Sharon.

Up until the summer of 1982, the formal organisational leadership of British Jewry through bodies such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews or the Zionist Federation traditionally decried criticism of the policies of an Israeli government. With the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, this consensus finally broke down. At that time, Jewish intellectuals, academics and writers established the British Friends of Peace Now which attracted large numbers of younger people. Its views and activities  contrasted dramatically with the traditional methods of utilising a crisis to raise political and financial support for an Israeli government than for Israel itself. In this war, Israel, itself, was divided and large sections of the population disagreed with Menachem Begin’s view that it was a war of no choice. This schism was reflected in Britain and in the Diaspora as a whole. The activities of leaders in the Diaspora also provoked criticism from Israeli liberals. Abba Eban – who had close ties with the British Jewish community – described the practice of Diaspora Jews of blind support for Begin’s policies as ‘the vulgarity of the fundraisers’.[7] Young people were also found to be more discerning about who was an enemy of Israel. In contrast, the older generation argued that their views had been formulated through experience, as observers and participants in the tragedies that had overwhelmed the Jewish people in the earlier part of the century.

Ironically, following the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, philanthropists had begun to breach the consensus themselves. After each election in Israel, the State Comptroller now began to publish details of Diaspora donations over $10000 to specific candidates and thereby the endorsement of their policies. The Jewish public could now discover the real allegiance of their philanthropic leaders. Ironically, it was the right wing opponents of the Oslo Accords and the Rabin government who punctured the argument of ‘no interference in the internal affairs’ of Israeli politics by Diaspora Jews. The rationale of this volte-face in the 1990s was that the political situation was now so dire that the very future existence of the state was in question and the Zionist imperative to avert this catastrophe superseded any previously held convictions of not criticising Israeli government policy. The implicit conclusion was that it was not the right to criticise that was in question, but the nature, context and future implications of the criticism. Yet both the Israeli and Diaspora Right had not made this differentiation in the 1980s – and particularly during the period of the war in Lebanon.

British Jews who were close to the leadership of the British Labour Party often utilised their positions to bring about Israeli-Arab dialogue and negotiations. Thus the discussions between Shimon Peres and King Hussein was facilitated by and took place in 1987 in the home of Lord Victor Mishcon who had previously held high office in the Board of Deputies.[8] Lord Michael Levy, a friend of Tony Blair and fundraiser for the British Labour Party served as an intermediary on behalf of the British government in facilitating contacts between the Arab world and Israel. It was surely no accident that his wife and other members of his family repeatedly added their signatures to Peace Now advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle.[9] Levy’s son was a prime mover in facilitating the Geneva Agreement of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo.

There has been a growing acceptance of the plurality of views about Israel as the succeeding generation has taken over the reins of authority in the Jewish community – a general recognition about the increasingly complex nature of Israeli politics. The sense of subservience to an Israeli government became less important. Thus the current President of the Board of Deputies criticised the appointment of the new Israeli Ambassador in 2004 because of his lack of experience as a diplomat. Moreover, representative Jewish organisations have become more selective in the policies which they choose to defend. For example, no Jewish organisation – apart from those on the Right or who support the National Religious in Israel – declares its allegiance to the principle of settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. A former Israeli Ambassador in London, Moshe Raviv and the late Chief Rabbi, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits thereby shared a Peace Now platform on the eve of Ehud Barak’s election in 1999 – this would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. It was perhaps also a reaction to the recognition that Diaspora affairs – with perhaps the exception of the United States – did not rank highly on the agenda of the Israel Foreign Ministry. In 1986, the then Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, circulated a list of Israel’s priorities to embassies around the world. Interest in the Diaspora ranked fifth.[10]


What Do Jews Really Think?

The trauma of division over Israeli policies in the1980s raised the question whether communal policies on Israel were truly representative. Throughout the 1980s, the surveys of American Jewish attitudes towards Israel by Steven M. Cohen on behalf of the American Jewish Committee indicated considerable, if qualified dissent. It was only in the mid-1990s that Jewish organisations in Britain began to consider what ‘the ordinary Jew in the street’ thought. Indeed, the factual results of such research often confronted the unelected and the unrepresentative in the community with a challenge to their views. Previously research into attitudes towards Israel had featured peripherally in communal surveys in two London suburbs, Edgware in North West London in 1968 and Redbridge in East London in 1978. The Report of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in November 1997 on ‘The Attachment of British Jews to Israel’ was the first scientific analysis, based on a sample of 2194 British Jews, to be carried out and not simply based on supposition.[11]

It confirmed that attachment to Israel was a fundamental component of Jewish identity – and the stronger the sense of Jewishness, the stronger the adherence. When asked to define themselves, only 26% felt more Jewish than British. A majority – some 54% – felt equally British and Jewish while a minority of 18% regarded themselves as primarily British. When asked about attachment to Israel, 43% responded that they had strong ties to Israel, 38% were moderately attached, 16% no special links and only 3% projected negative views. When the minority of those Jews who defined themselves as more Jewish than British were questioned, 73% professed a strong affiliation with Israel compared to 43% of the general sample. It was clear that a majority of British Jews identified with Israel with varying degrees of intensity. This was emphasised by the fact that 66% of the general sample had visited Israel at least once during the previous ten years and 70% stated that they had close friends or family in Israel. The survey also indicated an age factor with the over-50s feeling more strongly about Israel than their younger counterparts. While visiting Israel undoubtedly heightened a sense of identification, it was significant that even for those who had never been to Israel, 34% of older people felt a strong attachment to the state while this diminished to a mere 3% of younger people. Clearly, those closer to the Shoah, the establishment of the state and the broad twentieth century saga of the Jews were more aware of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. The report commented that this was evidence of a connection with Israel ‘based on ideology and emotion rather than experience’. It concluded that the relationship between British Jews and Israel was very much age-related and in apparent decline.


British Jews as Liberals

Given that the JPR survey had been carried out in the few months before Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, 69% agreed with the land for peace formula with 62% of this group advocating the return of most of the West Bank. A similar percentage agreed with the Rabin administration’s approach to the peace process with only 9% opposed. The liberal attitudes of British Jews also applied to the establishment of new settlements. Only 5% advocated new outposts. Nearly half the respondents wanted a settlement freeze while allowing existing ones to remain while another 32% desired a freeze and a gradual evacuation. The liberal outlook – admittedly elicited during the optimistic phase of the peace process – towards Israel and its political problems reflected a broader finding of other JPR surveys. This showed that British Jews in comparison with their non-Jewish counterparts from the same socio-economic background were far more liberal in their world outlook.

Significantly, this liberal outlook reflected more the view of British advocacy groups on behalf of the Israeli peace camp than the formal approach of communal organisations, but these were not the views of those who actually immigrated to Israel. This was perhaps more symptomatic of the post-1967 swing from a secular socialist-Zionist ethos towards a right wing national religious direction. Moreover, this survey did not ask questions about Zionism, but only about identification with Israel. It thereby did not make a differentiation between the national religious who were Zionists and the haredim who were not. Yet the ‘strictly orthodox’ of the survey visited Israel more often than any other group and opposed the Oslo peace process and the ‘land for peace’ formula more than other group. No doubt yeshiva study which had become a peer group vocation for many young Jews contributed to the high number of visits.

The JPR survey testified to the dominance of a pronounced ‘Israelism’ as a component in the Jewish identity of British Jews. But was this the same as Zionism? While classical Zionism had ended with the establishment of the state in 1948, it was unclear what had taken its place. Ben-Gurion commented as far back as the 1960s ‘The title of Zionist now embraces entirely different things among which there is no connection, and to speak of Zionism per se has no real meaning’.[12] Yet if a central facet of classical Zionism is understood as immigration to Israel and building a just society because the Diaspora represented past failure and future assimilation. Then the JPR survey of the mid-1990s effectively distinguished between those who were classical Zionists and those who identified with Israel as part of a broad ‘Israelism’. When presented with the statement that ‘the only long term future for Jews is in Israel’, 61% rejected this view. Moreover, within the 18-39 age range, this rejection was far higher. Even amongst those who strongly identified with Israel, a minority, 46%, disagreed with this proposition.


Contemporary Events

On the eve of the breakdown of the peace process, a JPR Commission in March 2000 on the representation of the interests of the British Jewish Community asked opinion makers and communal leaders vital questions about British Jewish opinion on Israeli affairs. The Commission concluded:


There was no great appetite for British Jewish representative bodies to take political positions vis-à-vis Israeli government policies, from either an ideological or a geopolitical perspective. Some felt that single-issue groups should be free to do as they wished in representing their views on Israel through a variety of means; others felt that there should be no public criticism of the government of Israel -an argument which has been made repeatedly for many years in the community. However, in the event that issues of concern did arise, it was felt that the proper channel of communication should be through the Israel Embassy via a ‘central body’ such as the Board of Deputies, or by means of special-interest bodies and Zionist organizations, which would then communicate their concerns via corresponding channels in Israel.[13]


This approach reflected the overall conservatism of the leadership of the community in openly espousing dissenting views. It also reflected the desire of some in positions of authority to accept that there were clear differences of opinion on Israeli policies within the leadership which should be aired and groups such as the British Friends of Peace Now should be allowed to express such views. A differentiation was thus made between ‘official’ representative groups who should not speak out and ‘single-issue’ ones who should. This was, effectively, an unofficial, unspoken division of labour. This policy appears to have continued during the current Intifada.

In 2004, the United Jewish Israel Appeal published a study of Jewish identity in Britain, but based on a sample of ‘moderately engaged Jews’.[14] The report remarked that the UJIA spent £3.5 million on Jewish renewal each year in Britain and thereby needed to target its funding on real needs rather than postulated ones. Although a more narrowly defined group than the broad JPR sample of 1995, 47% of those questioned agreed with the proposition ‘I am a Zionist’. 26% were unsure and 27% disagreed. Yet when it came to identifying with Israel rather than with Zionist ideology, the choice was much more decisive. 78% agreed with statement ‘I care deeply about Israel’. While 17% were unsure and only 5% disagreed. This differentiation between ‘Zionism’ and ‘Israelism’ even amongst ‘moderately engaged Jews’ was striking. Significantly 91% had visited Israel and 68% three times or more. When questioned about the media’s coverage of Israel, 75% felt that it was biased, but believed that the consequences were not immediately threatening. Significantly, non-Jewish friends and colleagues were described as neutral or passive on Israel. When asked whether they supported the Sharon government’s policies, only 6% strongly concurred while another 22% providing moderate agreement. A similar percentage disagreed, but a majority were unsure or ambivalent in their responses. Asked to identify themselves as hawks or doves, 63% preferred not to commit themselves to either category. Yet for those who did, the doves outnumbered the hawks by almost four to one.

Regardless of their personal views, media attacks on Israel per se rather than on the policies of the Sharon government appear to have galvanised British Jews. In 2002, between 45-55000 people turned out for a demonstration in Central London in support of Israel. Despite the absence of the haredim, the aged and the infirm, those who came solely as the representative of entire families, those who refused to come through fear of a terrorist attack, those Zionists who stayed away in protest against the presence of Netanyahu as the main speaker – this was an impressive fraction of Britain’s 300,000 Jews.

British Jews in 2005 thus do not appear to have waned in their attachment to Israel. This has been fortified by a strong educational programme in Israel for Jewish youth to counteract a declining interest in the fate of the Jewish state. British Jews appear to have maintained their broad liberal credentials while moving away from the Left which is perceived to be hostile to Jewish interests and Israel. For those who choose to participate in the debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is a continuing identification with dovish policies.

  1. Ezra Mendelsohn On Modern Jewish Politics (Oxford 1993) p3
  2. Vladimir Jabotinsky 11th Hour 24 October 1937
  3. Joseph Finklestone Zionism and British Jews, Jewish Year Book (London 1997) p xxii
  4. Sir John Chancellor Memo to Lord Passfield 17 January 1930 PRO CO 733185/3
  5. Beatrice Webb  in her diary 2 September 1929 in The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb ed. Norman Mackenzie Vol 3 Pilgrimage 1912-1947 (Cambridge 1978) p315
  6. Sidney Webb Letter to Beatrice Webb 22 October 1930 in The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb ed. Norman Mackenzie Vol 3 Pilgrimage 1912-1947 (Cambridge 1978) p 334
  7. Colin Shindler Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and ideology from Begin to Netanyahu (London 1995) p163
  8. ibid p 212
  9. Jewish Chronicle 28 October 2002; 10 October 2004
  10. Colin Shindler Ploughshares into Swords? Israelis, Jews in the Shadow of the Intifada (London 1991) p 87
  11. Barry A. Kosmin, Anthony Lerman and Jacqueline Goldberg The Attachment of British Jews to Israel JPR Report no 5, November 1997
  12. David Ben-Gurion Where There is No Vision, the People Perish in Unease in Zion ed. Ehud Ben-Ezer (Jerusalem 1974) p71
  13. A Community of Communities: Report of the Commission on Representation of the Interests of the British Jewish Community JPR Report, March 2000
  14. The UJIA Study of Jewish Identity: A Survey of Jewish Parents (London 2004)


Israel, the Diaspora and Jewish identity ed. Danny Ben-Moshe and Zohar Segev (Sussex Academic Press 2007)


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