Official British Jewry has a long record of unconditional loyalty to Israel. To betray that loyalty has been to invite opprobrium. When, in 1991, Britain’s former chief rabbi Lord Jakobovits reportedly said that the suffering of Palestinians at Israel’s hands was a “stain on humanity,” the Anglo-Jewish establishment was outraged. Soon Jakobovits was insisting that his views had been scandalously misrepresented.
So it was an extraordinary development when last week a leading figure in the British Jewish community spoke out against Israel, censuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to advance the peace process and asserting the right of British Jews to take issue with Israel’s conduct.
The figure in question, Mick Davis, chairman of the Jewish charity organization UJIA, was addressing a Jewish debate in London whose participants included the American writer Peter Beinart, author of the controversial recent polemic attacking the Zionist zealotry of the US Jewish establishment and the lack of sympathy with the Zionist project of many young American Jews.
Among other things, Davis conveyed that Jewish leaders in Britain were greatly concerned about unrestrained settlement building and the proposed Jewish loyalty-oath for non-Jewish immigrants to Israel.
Davis warned that without a change of direction Israel’s capacity to deal with existential threats will diminish in the coming years. It dismays him that Israel pays no attention to Diaspora Jewry, apparently regarding it simply as a source of philanthropic support.
In a remarkable outburst, he declared that the government of Israel needed to recognize that certain of its actions directly impacted on him as a Jew living in London. “When they do good things it is good for me, when they do bad things it is bad for me. And the impact on me is as significant as it is on a Jew living in Israel.”
Davis’ remarks reflect the sense that British Jews are in danger of being identified with the increasingly brutal and intransigent stance of Jewish state itself. They also reflect his anxiety that the building of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories is rapidly expunging the possibility of a two state solution to the Middle East conflict.
Davis echoes the pragmatic belief of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that in the absence of a two state solution Israel faces the dilemma of either becoming a single state and forfeiting its essentially Jewish identity or of persisting with the status quo and effectively declaring itself an apartheid state.
Davis’ views have shocked the British Jewish community. But they have perhaps had a more measured reception in Britain than in the US where they have drawn ferocious Zionist condemnation for their failure to recognize the life and death decisions that Israeli leaders are obliged to make. The British Jewish establishment may be more susceptible to disquiet about Israel’s intransigence than its US counterpart, more conscious of the need to accommodate itself to the changing climate of opinion.
A further reason why Davis has spoken out perhaps is the recognition that many younger Jews share the unease about Israel’s conduct of much secular liberal opinion. With talk of the possible establishment in Britain of a version of J Street, the American left-of-center Zionist group, the Anglo-Jewish hierarchy has cause to fear the alienation from it of younger Jews who have no wish to be associated with blind support of Israel.
Yet it is a question how far Israel is interested in the opinions of Diaspora Jews — for all that it spends billions on PR. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who now lives and works in Britain, is all too mindful that not only the Israeli political establishment but the mass of Israelis no longer care what people in the world at large, Jews or otherwise, think about Israel’s actions. Pappe believes that the security wall that Israel has built to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorism is paralleled by the endemic psychological insulation of Israeli society.
In 2008 Pappe decamped to Britain’s Exeter University, having become a public enemy in Israel on account of his anti-Zionist activism and insistence that Israel was founded on the “ethnic cleansing.” In his eye-opening new book, Out of the Frame: the Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel, he explains how, though brought up as a Zionist, he rejected an ideology that he regards as inherently racist and became a radical historian who supports the “One-State solution.”
His book evokes the increasingly chauvinistic and intolerant atmosphere that emerged in Israel after the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. Its most compelling pages concern an episode that challenges Israel’s claim to be an open society that upholds freedom of inquiry. Pappe describes his involvement at the University of Haifa with the historical research of a mature student, Teddy Katz, who amassed powerful evidence of a war crime, the killing by Jewish fighters of a large number of the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Tantura in May 1948. Katz ended up being sued for libel by military veterans of 1948 and subjected to a harrowing commission of inquiry by the university authorities.
Spurned by his colleagues and vilified in the Israeli Knesset, Pappe himself was in due course to be hounded out of Israel. It is astonishing that the persecution he suffered has not been covered in depth by the more liberal sections of the British media.
Committed to the case for sanctions against Israel, Ilan Pappe is hardly an ideological soul mate of Mick Davis who wishes not to de-legitimize but re-legitimize Zionism. Yet, albeit from very different perspectives, both are contributing to the growing effort to make the Jewish state heed international opinion. Pappe writes that what “conscious and conscientious people” throughout the world think about Israel and what politicians decide to do about it “holds the key to changing the reality in Israel and Palestine.” It is a sentiment with which pained Diaspora Jews like Davis might well concur, far though they may be from sharing Pappe’s militant anti-Zionism.
*Published in the Saudi-based ARAB NEWS on Nov. 26, 2010