The Silence of Jewish Leaders

LAST WEEK, DAVID FRIEDMAN, the US ambassador to Israel, gave a flurry of interviews to explain and justify the possible annexation after July 1 of part of the West Bank by the new Netanyahu-Gantz government. In an article in the New York Post, he was clearly upset about a recent proposal in Foreign Policy magazine by Philip H. Gordon and Robert Malley which called upon a future Biden administration to declare that it will remain faithful to long-standing US policy to support only negotiated territorial changes.

Biden has previously expressed his opposition to annexation, and the authors – foreign policy analysts under Clinton and Obama – called upon a future President Biden to  “withdraw US recognition of annexation” even in the event of a fait accompli by the Trump White House.

Mainstream Jewish organisations in Britain are hedging their bets in attempting not to align themselves with either one side or the other. On the one hand, they are waiting to see who will be the next occupant of the White House. On the other, silence from the Diaspora encourages Netanyahu to seize this window of opportunity before it closes shut.

What then is the responsibility of Jewish organisations to their communities? Are they merely an appendage of Israeli governments to repeat the latest words of wisdom from Jerusalem? Or should they recognise that they represent a wider constituency?  Should they articulate the views of the vast majority of the community in opposing the settlement drive on the West Bank – as indicated by numerous academic surveys?

Probably an overwhelming majority of Diaspora leaders privately oppose annexation, do not believe that Netanyahu’s conduct provides a moral compass for Jewish youth and wring their hands in despair at the latest whirligig of political behaviour in the Promised Land. In public, however, they are silent. Why?

One explanation is that it produces dissension and instability which in turn impairs relations with government and its operation in the wider world. While most Diaspora communities are liberal, any schism by the far Right produces a nucleus for unrepresentative opposition and a diminution of authority.

A Jewish community is a voluntary organisation with which not all Jews identify. As history records, escaping from Jewishness is also a sign of Jewishness. A Jewish representative body is not a Jewish parliament. It is not democratic in the sense that all Jews will vote on one day to elect candidates, standing on different platforms. It is more a representation of voluntary Jewish organisations.

This, in itself, is a reflection of the dispersion of the Jews, of powerlessness and the imperfect attempt to gain a voice in the corridors of power. It is an argument for the establishment of a Hebrew republic which would protect the Jews worldwide.

The generation that fought Nazism and celebrated VE Day 75 years ago subsequently embraced Israel with a great passion, blemishes and all. This generation believed in survivalism and would not hear a scintilla of criticism against Israel. This generation was shaped in the aftermath of the Shoah, the leadership of Ben-Gurion and the victory of the Six Day war.

The succeeding generation, more distant in time, was shaped by the election of Menahem Begin, the rise of Palestinian nationalism, the settlement drive and the debacle of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

In Britain, as in the rest of the Diaspora, there was a huge eruption of protest, directed against Begin and Sharon, during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 which established Jewish organisations could neither control nor counteract. It was the basis for the formation of groups such as the British Friends of Peace Now, Yachad, New Israel Fund and many others – which provided a thoughtful alternative for Diaspora Jews as to how to relate to Israel.

However, this dictum when it relates to the question of silence on annexation, aligns representative organisations with the far Right in the community – albeit for different reasons – and stokes frustration among the young.

In the United States, Netanyahu is more reliant on the Christian evangelicals who relate to biblical borders than on liberal American Jews who have always voted for the Democrats in disproportionate numbers. As one evangelical put it: “We are better Zionists than you!”

For many years, critics were labelled “self-hating Jews” or simply “anti-Israel”, whereas in reality they reflected a large section of opinion in Israel. It was only after Rabin’s victory in the 1992 election that this message began to change on the basis that “Israel is in danger”.

Netanyahu even set up a rival lobbying group on Capitol Hill to cultivate politicians. The Israeli embassy in Washington was not amused.

When the issue of dividing Jerusalem arose under Ehud Barak or the conversion quagmire swirled around the Knesset, many Diaspora rabbis suddenly found their voice – and criticised. In 1996, one faction of Lubavitch told their adherents to vote in the national election because “Netanyahu is good for the Jews”.

Moreover, philanthropists willingly donated to political parties to assist their election campaigns – as delineated by the State Comptroller’s annual report. Is this not intervention into the internal affairs of Israel?

The issue of annexation has also highlighted the fact that not every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite – and not every Zionist is a Netanyahu supporter. Recently Dame Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP, the doyenne of the fight against anti-Semitism on the far Left and bitter opponent of Jeremy Corbyn, signed a petition of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, denouncing annexation.

As a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause, Lisa Nandy MP was recently appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary for the Labour party. She refused to serve under Corbyn’s leadership, condemned anti-Semitism and even produced her own seven-point plan to deal with the situation of Jew-hatred in Labour. She recently met representatives of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London.

The annexation of part of the West Bank may or may not take place. There are differences of approach between Ambassador Friedman and Jared Kushner, between Netanyahu and Gantz – and of course, there is the interpretation of the ambiguity of agreements and statements.

Unlike the accords forged under Begin and Carter, Rabin and Clinton, there is no Arab presence in the Trump Plan. For the Palestinians, it is a question of take it or leave it. The official explanation remains that ‘there is no one to speak to’. Yet Netanyahu knows that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfil the century-long ideological claims of his father and that generation to Judea and Samaria.

The question remains: Will the Diaspora look the other way and meekly accept whatever transpires?

Plus61J 12 May 2020

Leave a comment

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