Borderline Views: Supporting Israel in the UK

Left-wing critics are far more influential in countering the attempts at delegitimization than the blind supporters of an Israel who can never do wrong.

All is not well in the world of Zionism in the UK. A public difference of opinion has broken out between the chairman of the United Jewish Appeal (UJIA), Mick Davis, and the Israeli ambassador, the eloquent Ron Prosor.
Davis argued that the policies and public statements of the Netanyahu and Lieberman government have resulted in a worsening of international opinion and an even greater isolation of Israel within foreign media and diplomatic circles. This is serving to discourage the younger generation of Jews from supporting Israel. It is only right, Davis argued, that the Diaspora community be critical of Israel and its policies where it disagrees with them.
Davis made these comments in a conversation with Peter Beinart at an open meeting a couple of weeks ago. Beinart had previously published an article in the New York Review of Books about the lack of criticism of Israeli government policies which, in his view, stemmed from a concern that his young children will not be attached to the country in the way he is because of its changing policies. Davis had previously aired similar comments in a private meeting of the right-wing pro-Israel lobby, BICOM, in the UJIA patron’s speech and in an op-ed in the main Anglo-Jewish paper the Jewish Chronicle, which itself has taken a distinct right-wing turn over the past two years.
Davis’s statement was backed by all but one member of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), even by those who have been known for their right-ofcenter positions on Israeli-policy making, such as Poyu Zabludowitch, main funder of BICOM. Among Davis’s supporters are those who supported Menachem Begin in 1982 and criticized the critics of the Lebanon War.
The JLC can best be described as a sort of self-appointed Jewish House of Lords for the UK community. Originally founded to coordinate fund-raising and lobbying among the many community organizations, it consists of two types of members. There are those who, by virtue of their heading major Jewish and Israeli organizations (such as the Board of Deputies, UJIA, JNF, etc;) are members, while there is also and a significant group of “invited” members from among the community’s leading philanthropists and lobbyists. It is not an elected body, and there are many who feel it is unrepresentative of the different views on Jewry and Israel which have developed during the past decade.
Prosor, undoubtedly one of Israel’s most skilled diplomats, has – perhaps not surprisingly – come out strongly against Davis’s remarks. While not denying Davis’s strong support of Israel, he has accused him of using the language of Israel’s enemies in the process of delegitimizing it. In using this argument he has joined the ranks of a host of right-wing Jewish personalities who have come out strongly against any form of critical discourse, even when voiced by supporters who do so out of deep concern for the future of the state. Whether Prosor’s comments were entirely his own or partly dictated by a hostile foreign minister, is not clear.
WHY DID Davis and other community leaders, many not known for their support of liberal positions, come out with their statements? There are a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is growing frustration with the detrimental international effect of the present government’s policies and its stalling of any real moves toward peace and meaningful negotiations. Continued settlement activity in the face of all international opinion, along with intransigent and wild statements by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been a global diplomatic catastrophe.
Second is a real concern among Diaspora Jewish leaders that the younger generation is being completely turned off by the government’s intransigent policies. When they do voice alternative positions, they are viciously attacked by the right-wing super patriots in an attempt to disenfranchise them. This only serves to push them even further away.
There is also a growing concern among the community establishment at the gradual rise of the pro-peace liberal lobby among those who refuse to be alienated, starting with J Street in the US, followed by community leaders and intellectuals throughout Europe and, most recently, by similar moves within the Anglo Jewish community. This, along with the highly successful and influential New Israel Fund, are providing alternative forums and mouthpieces for Israel, and even the US and British governments are consulting with these groups.
In short, the UJIA, JNF and other organizations are losing their political and financial influence. Perhaps, Davis and his colleagues think, it is better to coopt the alternative views rather than compete with or attempt to delegitimize them. This may explain the fact that the UJIA and NIF have recently agreed to cooperate on the community task force created to look at ways of improving the status of Israel’s Arab community.
On one point Prosor is totally right, however. The real struggle is not taking place within the meeting rooms of the JLC or UJIA. It is taking place in the street, on British university campuses by those who counter the proposed boycott, and by those British Jews who have opted to live and work in Israel, pay their taxes, and whose children undertake national service and encounter the conflict – with all its rights and wrongs – on a daily basis.
I know many of these people, both in the UK and in Israel, and they are as equally represented by left-wing critics of the present government as they are by the unthinking supporters of an Israel that can never do wrong. And the left-wing critics are far more influential in countering the attempts at delegitimization, because they are people who are listened, as contrasted with the blind supporters of the Right who are almost immediately dismissed as cranks.
Indeed, some right-wing supporters cause far greater damage to the image and the security of the state than any of the liberal pro-peace groups whom they so vociferously oppose. Their demagoguery brings into question Israel’s true commitment to democracy in a way which has never previously been questioned by the international community.
Anglo-Jewry, as all of Diaspora Jewry, must promote a diverse and balanced debate. Its left-wing supporters must be allowed to be critical of right-wing governments, just as its more vociferous right-wing supporters oppose governments which evacuate settlements. Davis has realized that the most effective work on behalf of Israel is done by those who are prepared to be critical of their friends, and it is to be hoped that the Foreign Ministry will also eventually realize that this is a much more effective position than trying to delegitimize legitimate critics.
The writer is professor at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed represent his opinions alone.