We Mustn’t be Afraid to Speak Out

Tensions: A soldier and Palestinian clash on the West Bank

Diaspora critics of Israel’s government’s policies occupy an uncomfortable position on the political spectrum, between those who repeat the latest wisdom from Jerusalem and those who think that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was never a good idea. Either wrap yourself in the flag or burn it. Yet black or white is easy, the grey reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict is more difficult. Criticism of the policies of a government – any government – of Israel is almost as old as the state itself.

The first overt diaspora reaction to Israeli policies was in 1953 when Major Ariel Sharon led Unit 101 in an attack on the Arab village of Qibya – with the result that 69 of its inhabitants – men, women and children – were killed. Diaspora comment aligned itself with the Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett who was aghast at what had happened rather than with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion who tried to cover up the incident.

The establishment of new settlements on the West Bank by successive Labour governments, following the Six-Day war in 1967, produced ripples of criticism from the Zionist Left in Britain, from formal parties such as Mapam to new groups such as Siah (Israel New Left). With the election of the right-wing Likud in 1977 and the building of settlements within Arab populated areas, greater numbers of young Jews in the diaspora aligned themselves with such ad-hoc groups. This was in distinct contrast to the opinions of the older generation.

Following the Shoah and the establishment of Israel, a policy of survivalism was adhered to by many Jewish organisations. Public criticism of government policy was equated with criticism of the very state itself.

After 1948, Israel had become an integral part of Jewish identity and any whiff of dissent was regarded as tantamount to treason. All this was thrown to the winds during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon.

Criticism of its policies is almost as old as the state of Israel itself

While Sharon’s deceptions and Begin’s confusion were apparent to a younger generation, the older generation simply could not contemplate that they had been lied to.

Many communal leaders and philanthropists were taken to Lebanon to see the progress of the military campaign while at the same time the newly-formed British Friends of Peace Now attracted large numbers to their gatherings in London. The division was laid bare when several younger deputies called for the resignation of Begin and Sharon at the monthly meeting of the Board.

Several decades ago, the American Jewish Committee initiated annual surveys of US Jewish attitudes to Israel. Many of the findings indicated that the views of the ordinary Jew in the street and the Jewish organisations that purported to represent them were decidedly different – and often more liberal. In the UK, the JPR survey of Jewish attitudes in 2010 indicated that 74 per cent opposed the settlement drive while 67 per cent espoused “land for peace”. Yet representative bodies feel that they are unable to represent this majority because they believe that it will hand “ammunition” to opponents and split the communal consensus in supporting Israel per se.

Many see their role as presenting “the case for Israel”. However, it is not always clear what this is. Is the drumbeat of “better public relations” the cure for all the problems of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Moreover is “hasbarah” closer to “information” or to “propaganda”? Is it aimed at cultivating the British public or educating the Jewish community? Or both?

During Operation Protective Edge, many organisations strongly supported Israel’s right to eliminate Islamist missiles in Gaza which were targeted at Israeli civilians. In this, they probably represented the views of a majority of British Jews. Yet they have also adopted a position of studied neutrality when it comes to the settlement drive on the West Bank.

In part, there is no desire to go against the Netanyahu government or to create division within British Jewry. Yet not becoming involved and not expressing an opinion can easily be construed as quiet support.

Criticism of Israeli policy was voiced mainly when the Likud was in power – although Labour governments were not immune. Many on the Right saw such dissent as “a leftist plot” even though criticism had spread far beyond the traditional Left. Critics were often turned into “self-hating Jews” and only rarely was a distinction made between “loyal” dissenters and true opponents of the state of Israel.

Such accusations abruptly stopped in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin came to power. The handshake on the White House lawn between Rabin and Arafat was traumatic for the Right.

Many Jewish organisations were similarly bewildered. Yesterday Arafat had been the devil incarnate, today he was a partner for peace.

The campaign to halt the Oslo peace process was justified by the Zionist Right because it was interpreted as a campaign “to save Israel”. Likud adherents in the diaspora now felt able to speak out against a government of Israel in aid of such a higher cause. Netanyahu, as leader of the opposition, established a parallel diplomatic lobby of the US Congress of former government employees and advisers to undermine Rabin. The diplomats at the Israel Embassy in Washington were not amused.

While diaspora critics were accused of unwarranted intrusion into the internal affairs of Israel, this principle did not seem to apply to many diaspora philanthropists who willingly funded the candidates of their choice during each Israeli election. A perusal of the state comptroller’s annual report reveals such contributions to Israeli political parties.

Sheldon Adelson, the US billionaire and long time supporter of Netanyahu, has rapidly been buying up Israeli media. His free newspaper, Israel Hayom, is now the country’s top circulated daily. Critics have termed it an anti-newspaper, designed to import far-right views from the diaspora and to destroy the free press.

The fading away of the 1948 generation has paradoxically tended to lead to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the past, many a Jewish leader was torn between private beliefs and supporting Israel government policy. The rationale was that fidelity to the state trumped individual opinions.

When the late Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits postulated in February 1980 the future emergence of a Palestinian state – almost 30 years before Netanyahu embraced this view – he was aggressively assailed for breaking ranks. Today, there are Jewish leaders who publicly condemn Netanyahu as well as Zionist groups who take British Jews to see the reality of the West Bank.

Yet the fear still lurks that a misplaced sentence or an ill-thought-through action will provide solace for those who continue to condemn Israel whichever government is in power.

Moreover, those who recognised the point at which anti-Zionism tipped over into primitive antisemitism and those who were highly critical of the West Bank settlers appeared to reside in two distinct camps. In recent years, there has undoubtedly been a coalescence.

The US journalist Peter Beinart has pointed out that all too many young Jews cannot relate to the Israel of 2014. In part, this is due to distortions in the media. In part, it is due to the policies of the Netanyahu government. All too many acknowledge only the first half of the problem. It is based on the belief that there is no difference between unity and uniformity. It is in this area that critical Zionists play a more important role than traditional organisations, they perform the role of independent individuals who dare to ask difficult questions – and this impresses young, thinking Jews.

It is a bulwark against alienation, disaffection and the deep irritation at the absence of a Jewish voice on issues that matter.


Jewish Chronicle 27 November 2014

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