Is the US state department’s decision to label extremist settler violence as “terrorist” going to make the Israeli government more likely to enforce the law to protect Palestinians? Those diaspora Jews already critical of Israel’s trajectory will surely doubt it. But is the Israeli government really bothered by the doubts of Jewish critics abroad?
The fact is that Jewish diaspora support is vital for Israel, whose governments have taken that support for granted for decades, exploiting it to bolster the country’s international position. But they also treat Jewish communities as subservient to Israel by claiming to speak and act on behalf of Jews everywhere. Were that support to weaken dramatically and Jewish diaspora critics of the Netanyahu government’s policies become dominant, Israeli officials privately acknowledge that the state would face an unprecedented crisis.
While this outcome is far from realisation, fear that growing Jewish criticism could seriously challenge Israel’s assumption of Jewish solidarity is a principal reason why the country is devoting resources to strengthen Jewish support, in close collaboration with Jewish communal leaders and pro-Israel advocacy groups worldwide.
One method of achieving this is to make it harder for Jews to criticise by accusing them of disloyalty, succumbing to “Jewish self-hatred”, and being “fellow travellers” of antisemites â€“ spurious and groundless charges. Jewish critics with radical ideas for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict â€“ particularly those who stress there is a Jewish moral obligation to support Palestinian rights and that this is in Israel’s own interests if it wants to be a genuinely democratic state â€“ are subjected to a process of vilification, demonisation and marginalisation. Since such Jews often describe themselves as being outside the organised Jewish community, ostracising them has been effective.
The Jewish establishment in the UK â€“ which includes the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, the Zionist Federation and numerous private groupings of the great and the good â€“ is highly experienced at this. I saw it happen in the 1980s when communal leaders sought to make life impossible for the small but highly active radical Jewish Socialists’ Group. And I became a target for such treatment myself when I was appointed head of the influential Jewish Policy Research (JPR) thinktank for a second time in 2005, an experience I recall in my book The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist.
By then I had served the community professionally for 26 years. A Zionist for decades, I was one no longer. But I wished passionately that Israel would become a democratic state for all its citizens, end the occupation, recognise the Palestinians’ right of return, and acknowledge that Israel’s establishment in 1948 was a Nakba, a catastrophe, for the Palestinians. I had no intention of using JPR as a platform for advocating these views but rather made one of my principal aims creating space for Jewish critical thinking and debate about how Jews should relate to Israel, to its policies towards Palestinians and to the serious impact of its actions on European Jews. I believed that only through open and civil discussion of these issues could the necessary change in diaspora Jewish opinion occur.
But those who thought my views were beyond the pale had other plans for me. As head of one of the community’s major institutions, I represented far more of a danger than so-called marginal Jews. Brazen efforts were made to prevent my appointment, and then, once hired, to force me out. Prominent public figures staged high-profile resignations from JPR’s board. Communal leaders secretly sought to silence me and undermine JPR’s work. After three years, I concluded it was impossible to carry out my responsibilities effectively, and at the end of 2008 resigned.
In the four years since then, has anything changed? Is it any easier for critics to find a receptive communal audience? There are reasons to think it should be. A 2010 survey of Jewish opinion in the UK revealed that while 72% described themselves as Zionists, 74% opposed settlement expansion and 35% said Jews should always feel free to voice public criticism of Israel. New “pro-Israel, pro-peace” groups that support a two-state solution and an end to occupation have emerged. Even one of British Jewry’s most senior leaders â€“ Mick Davis, chair of Britain’s largest pro-Israel charity and CEO of the mining conglomerate Xtrataâ€“ criticised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, questioned some of Israel’s policies, and called for criticism to be voiced freely throughout the community.
But even as opportunities for expressing dissent appear to have grown, rightwing Zionists staged a media-savvy fightback, using the usual accusations of disloyalty and “giving succour to our enemies”, especially targeting liberal Zionist Jewish critics. The latest charge is “‘Jew-washing‘, Jews using their Jewishness to give token cover for [boycotting Israel] and even antisemitism” â€“ a calumny, itself redolent of antisemitism, promoted by the Israel-based, rightwing NGO Monitor. Spearheading this crusade is an assortment of columnists, bloggers and thinktankers of an aggressive and apocalyptic mindset who smear their targets to the edge of actionable defamation. Even Mick Davis was attacked and has since been tellingly silent. Many leading Jewish communal professionals I know have grave doubts about Israel’s direction but censor themselves for fear of losing their jobs, funding or establishment support.
Yet attacks on Jewish critics are becoming desperate, for obvious reasons. Even many liberal Zionists are demonstrating their support for a “selective” boycott, aimed at shunning everything to do with the Jewish settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territories. So, too, are some prominent Israelis, including Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset, a well-known and influential figure among diaspora Jews, who publicly announced his position in an Independent op-ed. Many young British Jews are exposed to the reality of life in the occupied West Bank through visits and contact with Israeli human rights groups. While a just Palestine-Israel peace has never seemed more distant, the tectonic plates of Jewish diaspora awareness of Israel’s self-destructive path are definitely shifting.
That dissenting Jews are still demonised is shameful and undermines Jewish pluralism. But it’s manageable. Because the Jewish diaspora’s support matters so much to Israel’s leaders, the quest for serious, open and civil debate among Jews about what is really best for Israel must continue.
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