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The claim that Israel ‘violates the values’ of British Jews reveals a damaging split in the Diaspora

May 12, 2020 at 10:40 am

A small group holding Israeli flags are part of a counter protest to the demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in solidarity with Palestinians in London, UK on 30 March 2019 [Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency]

Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank is threatening to cause a rift among Britain’s Jews as longstanding supporters of the Zionist state have spoken out against its “violation” of the values that are held dear by the Jewish Diaspora. One prominent member of the pro-Israel camp has gone as far as to suggest that donating money in the cause of Israel and keeping quiet about its policies is no longer an option.

“The ‘keep your wallets open and your mouths shut’ model of Israel-Diaspora relations was viable when Diaspora Jewry saw in Israel’s political leadership an embodiment of its values, rather than a violation of them,” wrote Sir Mick Davis in the Jewish News. The former chair of the Jewish Leadership Council argued that the support of British Jews is being taken for granted and encourages Israel’s rogue behaviour.

Davis is also a former Chief Executive of Britain’s Conservative Party, and is reported to have given millions of pounds to Israel and Israeli causes over the years. “Large swathes of the Diaspora see Israel’s liberal democratic values as under threat,” he said, before predicting that, “Diaspora Zionism will dwindle, leaving the case for Israel solely in the hands of hard-right cheerleaders.”

The palpable disillusion with the Zionist project shown by Davis in his hard-hitting article is not uncommon, especially amongst so called Liberal Zionists. Self-proclaimed liberal Jews are discovering that the space from which to mount a moral defence on Israel’s behalf is shrinking. Many have made the Damascene-like conversion to become staunch anti- Zionists, upon discovering that any hope of Israel’s redemption by becoming a genuine democracy, despite its history of colonisation, land theft and racial discrimination, is an illusion.

READ: British MPs urge government to impose sanctions on Israel if it annexes West Bank

What united liberal Zionists is the belief – or at least the hope – that Israel can reconcile and balance being a Jewish and a democratic state. The threat of annexation is threatening to shatter this fantasy, kept alive by none other than the promise of a “two state-solution”. The reality of the two state discourse is that it has been used as the kind of comforting lie that is required to justify prolonged conditions of injustice and oppression, while also exonerating Israel’s past and present behaviour in the hope of its future redemption. Critics of the two-state paradigm never bought into the blind optimism that Israel could one day end its domination and control over the lives of millions of Palestinians by giving up territory set aside for a Palestinian state.

Davis’ comments triggered a backlash last week during a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews convened to discuss Israel’s planned annexation of the West Bank. The online meeting was attended by Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, along with a number of Jewish leaders in Britain. In its report of the meeting, the Jewish Chronicle said that the Board’s President, Marie van der Zyl, urged British Jewry to stay united and continue to back Israel over the annexation plans.

Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, 23 November 2018

Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, 23 November 2018

Van der Zyl reportedly rejected calls from left-wing deputies to criticise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly: “There isn’t going to be a consensus that is going to be reached and I am very concerned that the Jewish community stays together as a community at what is clearly a divisive time.” Indeed, the leader of the Board argued that British Jews are “in the main Zionist” and that their interests “overlap” with the interests of the Israeli government.

READ: UK Supreme Court rules against government attempt to curb BDS

Others taking part in the meeting denounced the Board’s position. Tal Ofer, the deputy for Chigwell and Hainault Synagogue, accused it of “dodging tough questions on the occupation and settlements for a long time.’’ He accused the Board of “paying lip service” to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. Echoing Davis, Ofer predicted that the annexation of the West Bank was the “last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution,” which he pointed out was “in direct opposition” to the declared policy of the Board of Deputies.

Another participant questioned if the Israeli government was taking the view of Diaspora Jews into consideration in light of the growing resentment towards its plans to annex the West Bank.

However, Davis was criticised by Vicki Harris, the Deputy for Hampstead Garden Suburb United Synagogue, who said that the article published by the veteran Israeli advocate “does not represent the Jewish community at all.” Regev sided with Harris and lauded British Jewry, saying that he had found the British Jewish community to be “a very strong and Zionist community — one of the most pro-Israel communities on the planet.”

The rift triggered a surprising intervention by a self-styled Muslim reformist urging British Jews to get behind the Israeli Prime Minister. “British Jews should stop attacking Netanyahu,” said Ed Husain in an article for the JC. The former Muslim extremist has acquired a well-earned reputation for defending Gulf tyrants as much as for defending Israel. His remarks appeared to be intended to mediate between rival Jewish voices to help shape a pro-Netanyahu consensus amongst pro-Israel advocates.

READ: Pro-Israel newspaper bailed out by former BBC exec and advisor to No 10

This section of the British Jewish community has drifted further apart from equally vocal pro-Palestinian Jews in recent years. In fact, relations between the two are such that the latter are having to defend themselves frequently against accusations from fellow Jews that they are anti-Semitic for holding strong views opposing Israel’s policies against the Palestinians.

Husain suggested that attacking Netanyahu would empower Israel’s enemies in an article that was criticised widely on social media for comparing Jewish critics of the Likud leader with terrorists and Iranian proxies; it baffled many. The message seemed to be that British Jews need to exercise restraint when it comes to criticising Netanyahu and that strong denunciations of him are somehow equivalent to doing the bidding of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The former Hizb ut-Tahrir activist urged British Jews to back Netanyahu and overlook any global backlash that is certain to follow Israel’s annexation of occupied Palestinian territory. He warned that ongoing criticism risked making them look out of date, “still fighting the last battles while unaware of the new horizon across the sand dunes.” British Jews, he said, should visit the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to get a true sense of Israel’s position in the region.

Moreover, in his attempt to defend Israel, Husain resorted to the familiar sleight of hand of conflating all Jews with the Zionist state. Bizarrely, he also argued that the continuous presence of Jews in Palestine over the millennium, their history of co-existence and their protection by Muslim leaders somehow justified Israel’s colonial takeover of Palestinian land.

The end result of the anti-Netanyahu rhetoric, Husain concluded, “Is a weakened, isolated Israel, boycotted and sanctioned by the world, which will then be on its knees, with its borders reshaped and Jews again expelled from the Middle East.” In response to this, Tal Ofer suggested on Twitter that Husain should replace the word “rhetoric” with “annexation” to see what would really result in a “weakened, isolated Israel…”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.