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”

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war