In times of crisis, UK Jews return to public support for Israel

The diversity of views that has developed has been temporarily obscured by Operation Pillar of Defence.

The image that outsiders often have of the UK Jewish community, and the image that some insiders try to project as well, is one in which the vast majority of Jews are fervent supporters of Israel who will defend the Jewish state come what may. This majority is opposed by a small but vociferous minority – beleaguered heroes or traitors according to taste – who oppose what they see as Israel’s crimes and are attacked and suppressed by the Jewish establishment for their pains.

If this simplistic picture was ever accurate, it has become less so over the last few years as greater number of liberal-left Jews in Britain have begun to question where Israel is going. The "tipping point" was Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Not only was the organisation of the traditional "solidarity rally" in Trafalgar Square that usually accompanies times of war in Israel, accompanied by much behind-the-scenes discomfort among those who were concerned at Israel’s harsh actions in Gaza, but a letter published in the Observer on 11 January by a number of liberally-inclined community leaders expressed deep concern at the consequences of the loss of so many Palestinian lives.

Following Cast Lead, community leaders have begun to talk about a "big tent" that would encompass a diversity of views on Israel, while excluding anti-Zionists and pro-BDS activists. On top of this, the formation of the "pro-Israel pro-peace" group Yachad in 2011, modelled in certain respects on the US lobby group J Street, meant that the UK now had a liberal Zionist voice for those Jews who wanted to defend the increasingly threatened two-state solution.

Operation Pillar of Defence was the first big test for this emerging, guardedly heterogeneous, Jewish polity. It is striking then how far the public response seemed to reflected an earlier era of unanimous public support. On 15 November, just one day after the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the Jewish Leadership Council sent a public letter of support to the Israeli Ambassador, signed by 71 Jewish leaders from most major UK Jewish organisations.

The letter was a "message of support and solidarity from leaders and key institutions of the UK Jewish community" and claimed that "These sentiments prevail across all sections of our community." It described Operation Pillar of Defence as "an entirely understandable response to the intolerable assault upon the citizens of Southern Israel" and "took pride" in Israel’s commitment to "leave no stone unturned in seeking to avoid civilian casualties."

Just as striking was a statement put out by Yachad on 16 November (not available online) that "We unequivocally support Israel's right to self defence" and that "it is also a guiding principle of every Israeli military operation that it will do all it can to minimise civilian casualties." It was only groups such as Jews For Justice for Palestinians on the left that provided a Jewish voice criticising Israel’s actions.

So does Operation Pillar of Defence indicate a retreat into unequivocal mainstream UK Jewish support for Israel? It’s not that simple. The private conversations and interactions on social media that I’ve had in the last couple of weeks have demonstrated that many liberally-inclined UK Jews were and are deeply disturbed about Palestinian civilian casualties, worried by the drift to the right in Israel and ambivalent about the ultimate results of Pillar of Defence.

Yet during periods of violent conflict, many Jews feel a string sense of connection to Israel and are worried sick about Israeli casualties. This sense of kinship temporarily overrides more critical feelings.

At the same time, solidarity with Israel in time of war stores up credit that can be spent on being more questioning in calmer periods. One signatory to the letter told me that his signing "will allow me to be more critical the rest of the time." A temporary suppression of doubt can pay political dividends later on.

During the next period of relative quiet, the big tent will be erected again and Jews will feel safer to explore their concerns about Israel’s current direction. But is this good enough? What Pillar of Defence has exposed is that the more critical conversations about Israel that have emerged in recent years are still taking place in a political void. There is still great reluctance to actively campaign against Israel, in times of peace or war. Liberal Zionists have constructed a yawning gap between what they want Israel to be and their willingness to fight for it.

But UK Jews are not unique in this. Members of the pro-Palestinian movement are equally prone to suppressing their doubts in the service of solidarity. How many of those on the left who take to the streets in defence of Palestine have private worries about Hamas’s fundamentalism?

This is the pathology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it raises such intense emotions that it overrides genuine idealism in favour of public vehemence.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and is the co-author of “Turbulent Times: the British Jewish Community Today” (Continuum, £19.99)

Demonstrators wave Israeli flags outside the Israeli embassy in London on 15 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and is the co-author of “Turbulent Times: the British Jewish Community Today”

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.