Anglo-Jewish leadership is again under the spotlight following its response towards recent behavior by UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Today every Jewish community engaged in dealing with government feels challenged by the need to balance silent diplomacy with public action. Even the American Jewish leadership, which prides itself on strident public action, is in a quandary as how to respond to the conflict between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But Anglo Jewry has a long and unique tradition of maintaining a low profile as a matter of deliberate policy, even extolling the effectiveness of Jewish action based on “whispering” rather than “shouting.”
The problem is exacerbated with the status awarded to anti-Israel Jews, who are increasingly quoted approvingly in the mainstream media and frequently given greater prominence than the established Jewish leadership.
In addition, there is a growing inclination, conscious or otherwise, by
increasing numbers of Jews to adopt an anti-Zionist chic in order to
distance themselves from the growing anti-Israelism which saturates all
levels of society. This is brilliantly portrayed in Howard Jacobson’s
2011 Booker prize novel, The Finkler Question, which satirically
portrays an assimilated British Jew seeking to escape his Jewish
heritage and “integrate” by turning against his people.
Last November, with British media hostility against Israel reaching an
all-time high, this trend climaxed when Mick Davis, Chairman of the
United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), publicly urged British Jews to be
more critical of Israel, and made a number of bizarre statements
condemning Israeli security policies. The issue was covered in a
Jerusalem Post column I wrote earlier this year.
Needless to say, no serious person denies the right of diaspora Jews to
criticize aspects of Israel or condemn moral lapses by Israelis in
public life. However, until recently, it was considered reprehensible
for Jews living outside the Jewish state to exert pressure in relation
to security policies which could have life-and-death implications for
No other Jewish community, including that of the US, whose Jews are
considered far more liberal than their British counterparts, would
tolerate such outbursts from a purportedly mainstream leader. Davis, is
after all, head of the UJIA, not a spokesman for J Street.
It is in such a volatile environment that the wellintentioned leaders of
the Board of Deputies are groping for solutions. But alas, their
obsession with the merits of retaining a low profile, not rocking the
boat, and determination to avoid confrontations does provide credence to
accusations that they are frequently perceived as “trembling
Together with BICOM – a lavishly funded organization commissioned to
promote Israel advocacy – they are continuously on the defensive,
desperately seeking to prove their bona fides to the Left, investing
more efforts against marginal fascist groups than the far more
threatening Arabs and indigenous anti-Israeli extremists.
They also indulge excessively in ritual condemnations against
Islamophobia, but are reluctant to confront the leaders of the Muslim
community for their failure to condemn terrorism and extremism in their
At the universities, the situation continues to worsen.
Campaigns to promote boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel
are the order of the day. Many Jewish students are intimidated by the
aggressiveness and violence of pro-Palestinian leftists and Arabs.
Yet even in these instances, the leadership calls for “restraint.”
A few months ago, a Jewish student handing out pro-Israeli pamphlets was
brutally attacked, bitten on the face and hospitalized. Instead of
supporting him, the executive director of the Jewish Leadership Council
claimed that the student had brought this upon himself: “If they go
looking for trouble, they really shouldn’t be surprised if this sort of
thing happens,” he said.
The Conservative British government appears to be even more hostile to
Israel than its Labor predecessor. In March this year, Cameron delivered
a major speech to the Jewish community extolling its contributions and
condemning anti-Semitism, claiming that his belief in Israel was
indestructible, and even describing himself as a Zionist. Yet despite
chanting mantras about purported friendship with the Jewish state, he
and Foreign Minister William Hague are known to be at the forefront of
the European anti-Israeli bloc. This was exemplified by Cameron’s recent
decision to terminate the centurylong tradition of British prime
ministers acting as patrons to the Jewish National Fund. The move was in
response to intensive lobbying campaigns from anti-Israeli and Arab
groups who had initiated a “Stop the JNF Campaign” during Gordon Brown’s
tenure but had then been rebuffed. Whilst initially claiming that the
move was made to ease Cameron’s workload, the Jewish Chronicle
subsequently reported that a spokesman from the PM’s office had
confirmed that the reason for withdrawal was the JNF linkage with
Israel. The editor of the Jewish Chronicle went so far as to describe
the prime minister’s decision as the “equivalent of sticking two fingers
up to the Jewish community of Britain.”
With the exception of a statement by the Zionist Federation and the UK
branch of the JNF, Anglo-Jewish leaders responded to this affront with
Yet, true to form, Davis of the UJIA, and his colleague Gerald Ronson,
head of the CST (Community Security Trust) – the organization created to
combat anti-Semitism – last week did speak up. They immediately
dissociated themselves from a UK JNF condemnation of the move as
capitulating to pressure from extremist anti-Israeli groups. In what
could be defined as groveling, they provided Cameron with a total clean
bill of health, describing as “ridiculous” the suggestion that “the
decision to step down had anything to do with pressure from anti-Israeli
groups or reflect a negative opinion on Israel” because the Prime
Minister is a “staunch friend” of Israel.
Today, at a grass roots level, some British Jews – and even a number
from leadership ranks – are becoming fed up with the attitude of their
spokesmen who they accuse of being in denial and excessively downplaying
the extent of the anti-Semitism. They are demanding more vigorous
responses to anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli onslaughts.
This was manifested in protests by rank-and-file representatives at the
Board of Deputies plenum, and the adoption of a more assertive tone by
the Zionist Federation.
The “British Coalition for Israel,” a new body primarily promoting
pro-Israel advocacy, has received enthusiastic support from wide
sections of the community.
Despite the escalating level of anti-Semitism in the UK, the primary
battle must be to ensure that a generation of new leaders will emerge
from within the Jewish community who have the courage and conviction to
stand up and defend their interests.
If those who bury their heads in the sand and fail to confront the
forces demonizing and delegitimizing Israel carry the day, it will have a
catastrophic impact on youngsters whose self-confidence is undermined
as they observe their elders running for cover. If anti-Semitic and
anti-Israeli libels are not confronted, the younger generation will
absorb the false Palestinian narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict,
which portrays Israel as a rogue state, born in sin, occupying Arab
territory and denying Palestinians their basic human rights.
This article was adapted from remarks
presented to a joint session at the Sassoon International Center for the
Study of Anti-Semitism & the University College London Israel
Alumni Association on June 16.