Candidly Speaking: The perils facing Anglo Jewry

While most British Jews remain committed to Israel, in most cases, the leadership fails to publicly confront and dissociate itself from anti-Israel Jews.

Britain's Theresa May speaks during a Board of Deputies of British Jews event in London in 2015 (photo credit: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)
Britain's Theresa May speaks during a Board of Deputies of British Jews event in London in 2015
Over 10 years ago, I warned that the passivity of the Anglo-Jewish leadership would likely lead to disastrous political consequences and negatively impact the younger generation, which was being inadequately educated to face its challenges.
I described Anglo-Jewish leaders as “trembling Israelites, whose uppermost objective was to lie low and, above all, avoid rocking the boat.” The policy for confronting anti-Israel or antisemitic adversaries was summed up by then-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Henry Grunwald as the “softly softly” approach, generally opposing demonstrations and urging “not to shout when a whisper can be heard.” It was a classic case of shtadlanut – avoiding any public display and attempting to resolve problems by silent intercession.
Despite dissent from Jews at a grassroots level, the prevailing tendency of the leadership was also to ignore the fierce waves of antisemitism and hostility rising from both Muslim immigrants and the Left.
At the time, Ken Livingstone, a 21st-century Oswald Mosley, was the mayor of London, ranting his anti-Israel and antisemitic utterances. The Jewish leadership sought to ignore him.
When the Muslim leadership called for the abolition of Holocaust Memorial Day, the cowardly Board of Deputies leaders responded with an apologetic press campaign claiming that Holocaust Memorial Day was no longer restricted to Jews but also “covers Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans and elsewhere.”
To enhance their social acceptability and approval ratings in the anti-Israel media, some Jewish leaders also publicly condemned Israel.
Tycoon Mick Davis, then chairman of Anglo Jewry’s United Jewish Israel Appeal, made comments at the time unprecedented for a mainstream Jewish leader. Davis proclaimed that Israel was in danger of becoming an “apartheid” state and warned the Israeli government that its “bad” actions directly impinged on him in London. The Jewish leadership failed to condemn Davis for his remarks or request him to withdraw them.
In 2006, Melanie Phillips wrote Londonistan, a book predicting the growth of Islam in the UK and the consequent dangers facing society. She was immediately assailed by the Jewish leadership, which publicly condemned her as a mad extremist. Yet less than a decade later, the reality proved to be even worse than her nightmarish prophecies had predicted.
The community was stunned when the Labour Party elected as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who would qualify as a modern Trotskyist. He was a staunch supporter of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and made no secret of his hatred of Zionism. On various occasions, he associated with a variety of antisemites and even Holocaust deniers. He also supported terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which he maintained were committed to peace.
British Jews, the majority of whom were longtime Labour supporters, were shocked. More so after many Labour MPs uttered antisemitic remarks, leading to a pseudo-investigation by the party, after which a few of the most extreme were suspended but the majority were considered kosher on the tenuous basis that their comments were anti-Zionist rather than antisemitic. More recently, the party diluted the internationally accepted definition of antisemitism by removing references such as accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their own country; claiming that Israel’s existence is a racist endeavor; applying a double standard to Israel; and comparing contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
As a consequence, Jews have defected from Labour in droves, and in the last election the clear majority voted for the Conservative Party, whose leaders, especially David Cameron, were all highly supportive of the Jewish community.
In 2015, Jonathan Arkush was elected president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. After a series of cowardly leaders, who refused to speak out or protest against those promoting antisemitism, Arkush proved to be a courageous leader and boldly confronted antisemites, especially Corbyn. Since his assuming the position, the Board of Deputies has emerged as a true representative of the community. This, hopefully, will be maintained by his recently elected successor, Marie van der Zyl.
But the current situation is seriously worrying. Anglo Jewry faces grave threats. If an election were held today, there is every possibility that the next prime minister would be an outright antisemite.
However, aside from that, an additional serious peril facing the community is the atmosphere from within. I refer to fringe groups like Yachad that publicly criticize Israel. Over 500 Jews signed a petition condemning the Board of Deputies for chastising Hamas and failing to deplore the Israeli killings of those attempting to penetrate Israel’s borders and engage in terrorist attacks.
But the most worrisome development is the status of the younger generation, whose members have been influenced by leaders over the years to accept their fate and remain silent.
Antisemitism at the universities has risen to record levels, and many, if not most, Jewish students simply lie low and try to avoid confrontations with anti-Israel Muslims and radicals. Moreover, even many committed Jews seeking social acceptability feel the need to be publicly critical of Israel.
Last month, there was an extreme display of this when a group of over 50 youngsters protested Israeli policy outside Parliament and then, emulating their American counterparts, named the individual Hamas terrorists killed trying to breach Israel’s border and recited kaddish for them. They also chided the Jewish community for not condemning “the Israeli occupation and the disproportionate force of the Israeli regime,” and expressed anger at Jewish leaders “for refusing to speak about the Nakba and refusing to listen to Palestinian initiatives.”
Their behavior, which received national and even global exposure, shocked and embarrassed most Jews, but what occurred subsequently was even worse. Most of the youngsters involved were members of the Reform youth group Netzer, which purports to be Zionist. One of them, Nina Morris-Evans, had been appointed as a leader of a youth tour of Israel, but she was informed that her actions made her ineligible for this position.
This led to a petition addressed to the Jewish leadership from over 100 signatories describing themselves as “past and present leaders from a range of Zionist youth movements.” They conveyed outrage at being “abused, harassed and bullied online – particularly in a violent, misogynistic manner extending even to death threats.” They pledged not to bow to intimidation and, as “Zionists,” would insist on supporting a plurality of narratives, including those critical of Israel.
What was significant about this petition was that all the participants were either former or current Zionist activists, including a small number from Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement, who were apparently unaware that their own party in Israel would have condemned them.
But the majority were from Netzer, who obviously had the imprimatur of their rabbis, which accounted for the large number who signed such a hostile anti-Israel petition.
For the record, Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner and Geoffrey Marks, the chairman of Reform Jewry, described the abuse of Morris-Evans as “misogynistic and violent,” condemning the critics as “bullies,” stressing that Reform Judaism would encourage young people to express their views publicly.
The reality is that today, most Reform rabbis are non-Zionist, and though paying lip service to love of Israel, they are in many cases outrightly critical and even anti-Israel.
These elements are supported by Davis, now chief executive of the Conservative Party, who condemned those “seeking to hound kaddish participants from their jobs.” He added that there was an absence of Zionist leadership for which one turns “to Israel but finds little to inspire.”
The response from the leadership was muted, and there is yet to be heard a reprimand by the Zionist Federation pointing out that such behavior is incompatible with purporting to be a Zionist.
The Jewish Chronicle editorial adopted a neutral position, conceding that most Jews would consider the kaddish for Hamas warped, but claimed that the open letter reflected “a potentially seismic change in the community” and called for “goodwill on all sides.”
Anglo Jewry is confronting painful challenges. The fact that “Zionist” youth can publicly express such hostility toward Israel reflects a breakdown in education.
While most British Jews remain committed to Israel, in most cases, the leadership fails to publicly confront and dissociate itself from anti-Israel Jews. It legitimizes them when applying the policy that the community must tolerate the presence of extremists within the “big tent.” There will be disastrous long-term consequences if demented fanatics like the Jewish deviants reciting kaddish for Hamas or those who, in the name of pluralism, demand toleration of such views are enabled to remain within the Jewish or Zionist mainstream.
In this climate of overt antisemitism in the Labour Party, coupled with the inadequate education of its Zionist youth, the Jewish leadership faces its greatest challenge. If it fails, all that will ultimately remain of Anglo Jewry will be clusters of haredi communities.;