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Shhh! Don’t mention Israel

British Jews are beginning what will be a long and painful process – to recognise the existence of pluralism on Israel, says Keith Kahn-Harris.

This piece accompanies David Cesarani's lead essay: "Who speaks for British Jews?"

Although the British Jewish community has always been fractious, after 1948 – and particularly after 1967 – Israel came close to working as a point of consensus. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, at least, this near consensus has been breaking down. Disquiet at Israeli actions has moved substantial numbers of left-leaning Jews to become highly vocal in their criticism.

Jews for Justice for Palestinians, founded in 2002, has become a public voice for Jews supportive of the Palestinian struggle. Yachad, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group founded in 2011, offers a liberal Zionist home for supporters of Israel who are concerned about the country’s current direction. The growth of such groups has posed a challenge to those who claim to represent British Jews.

The dominant strategy of Jewish leaders since 1948 has been to support Israel in public and to express criticism – if ever – only in private. This is no longer viable. Too many Jews will not keep silent and will resist anyone who claims to represent them. In 2007, for instance, a group of left-leaning Jews formed Independent Jewish Voices.

There has been a move among some leaders to open up the Israel conversation cautiously to face these challenges. At a public meeting in 2010, Mick Davis, chair of the United Jewish Israel Appeal and trustee of the Jewish Leadership Council, asserted the right of diaspora Jews to criticise Israel as “the government of Israel . . . have to recognise that their actions directly impact me as a Jew living in London”. Nevertheless, this new openness operates within strict limits. There is no suggestion that Zionism itself could or should be criticised.

The strongest attacks on the legitimacy of Jewish representatives now come from the right and the centre. The Zionist Federation questioned putting the blame “entirely on Israel” and Davis’s stance was denounced by the chair of the Jewish National Fund, who argued that diaspora Jews should never criticise Israel in public. Frustration at what is seen as the Jewish establishment’s weak defence of Israel has led to the setting up of grass-roots organisations such as the British Israel Coalition to fight what they describe as a rising tide of hatred directed at Israel.

The Board of Deputies is one of the battlegrounds on which the ever-widening divisions play out. Its constitution states that it will “take such appropriate action as lies within its power to advance Israel’s security, welfare and standing”. This is already too much for anti-Zionist Jews. Conversely, to many of the board’s deputies, it is betraying its constitution by failing to commit to tough action against “anti-Israel” forces.

Another battlefield is the Jewish Chronicle. Stephen Pollard, the editor since 2008, has steered the paper rightward, offering a platform to some of Israel’s most vociferous defenders. Its political editor, Martin Bright, works tirelessly to expose what he sees as Jewish toleration for Islamist infiltration of groups such as London Citizens. While today’s JC is always an invigorating read, it is often criticised for stirring up tensions.

Know your enemy

Against this background, the issue of anti-Semitism has become almost as toxic as that of Israel. Earlier generations of Jews may have differed on what caused anti-Semitism and how to fight it, but they more or less agreed on how to identify it. Today, the question of when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic is contentious.

The Community Security Trust, which tries to unite Jews in Britain against anti-Semitism, frequently becomes mired in controversy, as in its unsuccessful attempt recently to encourage the UK to expel Raed Salah, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, for an alleged “blood libel”.

It is now impossible for any Jewish organisation truly to speak on behalf of British Jews about Israel or anti-Semitism. Surveys show that a large majority of British Jews see themselves as supportive of Israel and Zionism, yet the tensions within this majority are substantial, to say nothing of the significant minority that does not support the state of Israel.

British Jews are beginning what will be a long and painful process – to recognise the existence of pluralism on Israel. I, too, have tried to make a small contribution by bringing Jewish leaders together over confidential dinners to try to nurture a more civil conversation about our differences.

There is something that non-Jews can do to help this. When outside forces – on the left or the right – champion one distinct kind of Jew as especially righteous, they only stoke the flames of intra-Jewish conflict. Jews and non-Jews have to recognise that, for every Jew whose opinion they admire, there will be at least one other with whom they will disagree – and they’re not going to go away.

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

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

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?