Borderline views: British Jewry and their attitudes toward Israel

It is nothing short of a British understatement to state that it is not easy in today’s climate of renewed terrorism to focus on human rights.

Hassidic Jews in the United Kingdom (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hassidic Jews in the United Kingdom
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last Sunday I was present at the largest two events within the British Jewish community that week. In the evening I attended the annual dinner of the New Israel Fund, preceded just two hours earlier by the big North London soccer derby between Arsenal and Tottenham.
Needless to say there were a significant number of attendees at the dinner who arrived slightly late for the pre-dinner reception as they sought to find their way out of the crowded 60,000 stadium, a large percentage of whom were the Jews who live predominantly in North London and are fanatical supporters of one of the two teams.
Luckily enough for the dinner participants, the game ended in a draw so that all could turn their joint attention to the evening events without having to claim bragging rights as is normally the case following these fiercely fought derby competitions – the arguments often extending into next week’s Shabbat morning discussions at the local synagogues.
An impressive 400 people, including many of the Anglo-Jewish leadership, turned up at the New Israel Fund dinner.
During the dinner, three prizes were awarded to Israeli guests for their work in promoting human rights throughout Israel.
The first prize was awarded to a religious Israeli, Gad Gevaryahu, a leading light in combating extremism in a country increasingly faced with terrorism. Gevaryahu is the chairperson of Tag Meir, set up as an alternative to the right-wing extremism of the tag mechir or “price tag” phenomenon which has targeted Arab and Palestinian institutions.
Tag Meir responds within 48 hours of a hate crime by organizing solidarity visits to victims as well as demonstrations against racism and violence. Established in 2011, Tag Meir, now an umbrella body of over 40 smaller NGOs and like-minded organizations, seeks to transcend religious divides, enlisting support from across the Jewish spectrum, from secular through Reform and Conservative to Orthodox and even the ultra-Orthodox.
Tag Meir also organizes interfaith public activities, raises public awareness about hate crimes and fights for policy change. In the wake of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, which took place almost 20 years to the day before this year’s dinner, Gevaryahu created the foundation Yud Bet Heshvan (the Hebrew date of the assassination) to promote a tolerant, moderate religious-Zionist voice. The foundation has since started a number of schools and founded a youth movement.
The second human rights award was given to Samah Salaime Egbariya. Samah is the founding director of the Arab Women’s Centre. Established in 2009, AWC works to fight domestic violence and create economic and social opportunities for Arab women in mixed cities such as Ramle and Lod. Samah also founded Women Build a Shared Future, a Lod-based project that brings Russian-speaking and Palestinian women together for dialogue.
Samah’s other role is co-director of the Education for Shared Society, an organization working for full equality between Jews and Arabs inside Israel.
The recipient of the third award of the evening was the CEO of Memizrach Shemesh and vice executive director of Kol Israel Haverim (Alliance), Eli Bareket. He has fought for Mizrachi empowerment, education and social justice for over two decades. Memizrach Shemesh promotes a deeper practice of social justice, activism and learning. It cultivates and trains leaders in Israel’s geographic and social periphery, with hundreds of participants working toward improvement and change in their communities.
During his 10-year tenure, Memizrach Shemesh has grown from working annually with 170 participants to more than 600.
The organization runs programs from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Arad in the south, for different age groups from post highschool students to parents as well as members of Israel’s Border Patrol.
The dinner coincided (the same week) with the publication of a survey entitled “The Attitude of British Jews Towards Israel,” conducted by three of the country’s leading scholars, Colin Shindler, Stephen Miller and Margaret Harris, under the auspices of City University between March to July 2015, and funded by the pro-peace Zionist organization Yachad.
The project, undertaken some five years after the previous survey carried out by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (IJPR), examines the nature of British Jewish attachment to Israel and the level of support for its current policies and conduct. It covers a wide range of issues including attitudes toward settlement expansion, Palestinian rights, the 2014 Gaza conflict, the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs, the need for security, and priorities for the Israeli government.
The findings indicated a clear position on three key matters: Peace is seen as a priority by 61 percent of respondents; the two-state solution is perceived as being the only way forward to achieving this goal (71%), even if that means having to withdraw from most of the West Bank; 72% of respondents supported the right of the Palestinians to an independent state of their own.
These attitudes reflect a strongly dovish stance on peace, largely in keeping with the findings of the JPR study conducted five years ago.
At the same time, a majority of the respondents (70%) asserted that the Palestinians “must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, not just recognize Israel’s right to exist,” and that there has to be a credible partner and a return to regional stability for movement toward a renewed peace process to take place.
Surprisingly, even within the Jewish community Israel is currently seen as having a negative approach to peace negotiations, and as many as 73% of respondents think Israel’s approach is damaging to its “standing in the world.” 64% consider that continued expansion of the settlements will create “unstoppable pressure for sanctions.”
A majority also see the Israeli government as “constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in the peace process.”
A majority (64%) consider that they have “the right to judge Israel” even though they do not live there. A comparison with a similar question in the 2010 JPR survey suggests that Jews now consider it more acceptable to make judgements about Israel than they did five years ago.
Interestingly, the percentage of respondents who call themselves Zionists appears to have declined – 59% compared with 72% in the 2010 JPR survey – and this probably ties in with a similar sentiment among Israeli citizens who, while professing their commitment to Israel, the country of their birth, are fed up with the question of whether they are sufficiently Zionist or not, a term which many believe has effectively long passed its “sell by” date in a state which was established over 70 years ago (the ultimate success of political Zionism), and in which its survival and strengths should be measured in practical terms of daily survival, rather than through an ideological prism which, many believe, is no longer a relevant term of reference, and to which they are held ransom.
The large attendance at the dinner, along with the results of the survey, indicate a concerned and caring Jewish community, whose support for Israel is unquestionable but who clearly believe in an Israel which values democracy, human rights and constantly seeks a way forward to disengagement from the Palestinians if Israel is to remain strong and secure in the future.
It is nothing short of a British understatement to state that it is not easy in today’s climate of renewed terrorism (not least following the latest events in France) to focus on human rights in a society which, in the eyes of many, has become less and less tolerant over the years. It was therefore also refreshing to see among the participants at the dinner a senior representative of the Israeli embassy, alongside the head of the UJIA, clearly indicating that the valuable contribution of groups of all political persuasions are an essential part of what makes Israel the vibrant society it is and what it aspires to in the long term.
The importance of such messages could not have been more strongly imprinted on my mind when, just a few days later, I returned home to Israel and almost at the same moment that my plane touched down on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion airport, another despicable and brutal act of terrorism took the life of an innocent father and his son, on their way to celebrate the pre-wedding Shabbat of their daughter in my home community of Metar.
The bridegroom to be, the son of the local rabbi, is a friend of my son and we too were intending to attend the Shabbat celebrations followed by the wedding just a few days later (actually today) in Jerusalem. The wedding was postponed for a week as the bride to be spends this week sitting shiva for her father and brother, as what should have been the most joyous week of her life was, in an instant of violence, brutality and terrorism, transformed into the saddest event of her life.
As the world focuses on the war against terrorism and fundamentalism, a war which knows no boundaries or borders, and which must be categorically won by a total alliance of Western powers if we are ever to regain and retain a world of human decency, democracy and respect for the “other,” it is refreshing to know that, even in these most bitter and depressing of times, there are people and groups out there who still hold out the hope for peace and future reconciliation.
It may appear to be as much of a dream right now as was Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state at the end of the nineteenth century.
His dream came about against all odds and in the face of history’s ultimate atrocity – the Holocaust. We must hope that the atrocities of the contemporary global terrorists do not have to reach a similar point before we can get back to implementing the second part of his dream – a state which is secure and safe from acts of terrorism and violence, a state which is a democracy where the rights of all other groups are respected, a state where we take pride in our own sovereignty and self rule but where we no longer rule over others.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, the views expressed are his alone.