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)