Lobbying in an English accent

Political chief of UK Jewry says the UK's rise in anti-Semitism is by no means comparable to pre-WWII Germany.

By YIGAL GRAYEFF
March 22, 2006 23:13

 
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Jon Benjamin, the chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, is the embodiment of UK Jewry's approach to dealing with the world around it. He is polite and calm, and answers each question very carefully, studiously avoiding giving controversial replies, but every so often coming out on the attack. He is like a test cricketer who plays a defensive straight bat to fend off most deliveries, but swats the occasional ball away to the boundary when the opportunity presents itself. Benjamin started his job in January 2005 - a year that would turn out to be the second-worst on record for anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, with the Community Security Trust documenting 455 - and it has been a tough first year or so at the Board, which is the elected representative body of UK Jewry. At around the time Benjamin assumed the role, Prince Harry went to a party dressed as Nazi, and not long afterwards London Mayor Ken Livingstone compared a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard and refused to apologize. (This week, while fighting a suspension due to those remarks, Livingstone again caused a ruckus when he called on two brothers, Jewish property developers David and Simon Reuben, to "try their luck with the ayatollahs" - a remark perceived by the Jewish community to have blatantly anti-Semitic connotations.) Last February, the ruling Labour Party published a pre-election picture on its Web site depicting Jewish Conservative opposition leader Michael Howard as a Fagin- or Shylock-type character, saying, "I can spend the same money twice." In April, the Association of University Teachers (AUT) voted to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities, although the decision was overturned in an emergency session a month later. Last month, the Synod of the Church of England, the official religion of the state, voted in favor of divestment from companies that benefit from Israel's policies vis a vis the Palestinians. Given all this, it's no wonder that Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said in October that it has become "uncomfortable" to be a Jew in Britain, and two months later referred to a "tsunami of anti Semitism," albeit one which was "taking place a long way" from Britain. However, despite the non-stop furor, Benjamin doesn't believe his job is totally about crisis management, although he did acknowledge that there is a fair amount of fire-fighting involved in it. "You can't always foresee everything that's coming up," he said. "Whether something is a crisis or you are just managing issues as they come up I suppose depends much on the structures and mechanisms you have for dealing with these things." The events of the past year have raised concerns about the scale of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling in the UK and placed question marks over the Jewish community's response to this, as embodied by the Board especially. However, Benjamin puts the picture into perspective by saying that the situation is nothing like Germany in the 1930s. "I don't think there's any comparison," he said. "Even in the 1920s or the early 1930s, before the Nazis came to power… there were very large popular political movements that were openly and avowedly anti-Semitic. We don't have anything like that," he said. "Today, we're in a different place. It's at a much lower level," he added. "There is a perception amongst many people that the threshold of what can be said and what sort of language enters the political debate seems to have been moved. A lot of what concerns people is not necessarily intentional anti-Semitism…It's a lack of sensitivity and a lack of appreciation that someone's actions can be troubling to the Jewish community even if they don't intend to be anti-Semitic," Benjamin said. One such example was the Labour pre-election picture of Michael Howard, who was also depicted as a flying pig, as was fellow Jewish Conservative politician Oliver Letwin. "The jury is still out as to whether there was any deliberate intent, or whether it was a sort of a recklessness," said Benjamin, adding that the Labour Party quickly apologized and took the pictures off the Web site. Another example Benjamin gave was that of Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, who wrote in the Independent in December that there was evidence that the Israeli embassy in London encouraged British Jews to file complaints to the BBC. "There are echoes of Jews being part of a world wide Zionist agenda in the control of foreign powers, which does sound unfortunately like the sort of propaganda of the 1930s, although that was deliberate and this I'm sure was unintentional. It's that kind of thing that makes people very, very uncomfortable. Is this a rise in anti Semitism? I think it's just a lack of appreciation of the language that people use," said Benjamin. When instances like this do arise, he believes the way to respond is to do so calmly. "I just think we have to flag up - I won't even say sound the alarm bells - but we just have to flag up when people are rather more loose in the language that they use about Jews and relationships to Israel," he said. Benjamin prefers to work behind the scenes to try and influence opinion rather than kicking up a storm in the media, choosing to "whisper" rather than "shout," as it has been described in The Jerusalem Post's opinion pages. However, he's not averse to using both methods. "We should certainly sometimes be vocal, and sometimes it pays not to be. Every situation is different," he said. However, the approach of "flagging up" issues and "not raising the alarm bells," has come under increasing attack, as criticism of Israel in the media and among politicians has turned into action by high-profile organizations. Just before the second AUT vote, one British Jewish academic, Irene Lancaster, said that the British Jewish leadership appears to be grateful merely for being heard, as opposed to being proactive. "If you took things head on, something might be accomplished. Talking quietly behind the scenes does not work anymore," she said. Benjamin disagrees, saying the traditional approach of not publicly rocking the boat has worked. "No, the approach is not (a failure), because the British Jewish Community lives a very comfortable, safe existence," he said, his voice suddenly robust. "Most people in this community go about their business. We don't have armed guards on our synagogues, as they do on the Continent, but we do have to take security measures," he said. "Shehita [Jewish ritual slaughter of animals for kashrut purposes] from time to time is challenged. That is a serious challenge. It hasn't reached the critical stages, like in Sweden, where it is seriously under threat. We have Jewish schools and we don't have the issues like in France where you can't wear a kippa in a public school. We can be very pleased with where we are as a community," he said. WHILE LIFE in Britain - as Benjamin asserts - may be good for the Jews, it could be argued that it is far better in the United States, due to the American Jewish community's outspoken approach. The Jewish lobby organization, AIPAC, is seen as one of the most powerful and effective in influencing government policy. Another factor is that pro-Israel tendencies in Britain are much weaker - and the anti-Israel lobbyists much stronger - than they are in the US, as the events of the past year indicate. Shouldn't UK Jewry, therefore, adopt the US model? "Anti Israel sentiment on US campuses is very strong - and the situation is no better than in Britain," Benjamin said. "Church divestment campaigns started in the US and have wide support, such as in the Presbyterian Church there," he said. "One cannot apply the US model to this country, but we can work together and be open to new ideas. If MPs were open to the charge of bending to Jewish lobbying, they might be less inclined to help, not more so," he added. Benjamin also pointed out that the UK Jewish community is small and not as significant as some may think. "It's assuming a great deal about its power and influence to think that we can change everything and get it just the way we want it. That's not going to happen," he said. "Some battles you are not going to win. Are there examples of when we squeaked when we should have roared, then tell me. I don't know that there are. I don't say we've won every battle, but we can't single-handedly unseat Ken Livingstone or (anti-Israel politician) George Galloway." Benjamin believes that the overturning of the AUT vote was a justification of his approach. "The AUT dispute was a textbook case in point. There was no debate at this initial conference, which was on a Friday afternoon, erev Pessah, and yet a month later when there was debate, the resolution was overturned," he said. During the interim period, the Board established the Campaign Group for Academic freedom and lobbied AUT members. "It was a simply a matter of finding friends and advocates and people willing to listen," he said. "There was no substitute for having AUT members overturn a resolution of the AUT. It was the only way you could do it. You could have shouted until you were blue in the face, but that wasn't going to actually do anything other than just make a lot of racket. "It was of no use whatsoever having a bunch of American Zionist organizations crying foul and calling the union per se and more than 48,000 members anti-Semitic." Particularly, he added, since only 233 were registered to attend the council in April. Just over 260 were registered to attend in May. "I think it's by far better to leave the people on the ground or in a particular country to determine how to respond to issues that come up on their home patch," he said. Moreover, Benjamin believes that adopting a more publicly aggressive approach would be counter-productive. "We occupy a position where…(we are) regarded as a safe pair of hands, a sane commentator, someone who, if we say to the BBC that something is seriously wrong, then it's seriously wrong." This is in keeping with Dyke's position, expressed in the Independent that "passionate advocates of a particular view on any issue are not 'impartial,'" and therefore their allegations should be treated "with a degree of skepticism." Nonetheless, Benjamin said he appreciates the different methods used by other organizations. "Even people who take a very different approach provide a service to us. There are things that the Board can't and won't do that others can and should do," he said. "Sometimes it can be very helpful for someone other than the Board to write letters to the papers… There is a place for all of these groups. And it's very helpful that other groups keep monitoring the press, and that there are people scanning and scouring media output and political pronouncements around the world. A lot of that is fed into us and it's extremely useful. What they make of it as individual organizations or individual people may be different, but we thoroughly appreciate the work that other people do. I suppose it's like the good cop, bad cop approach."

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