Borderline Views: Critical friends of Israel

If the recent JPR Institute of London survey is any indication, it seems one can be both pro-Israel and pro-peace.

Last month’s publication of the findings of the independent research think tank, the Jewish Policy Research Institute of London, concerning attitudes of the Anglo-Jewish community towards Israel, makes for interesting, but not surprising, reading. Given President Shimon Peres’s remarks about the growing face of anti-semitism in Britain, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
The study entitled “Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel” was based on over 4,000 individual responses, with fieldwork conducted by Ipsos MORI and with the support of several leading experts in Jewish demography and sociology. The findings show that four-fifths of respondents say Israel plays a central or important role in their Jewish identities, and one in five says they are very or fairly likely to live there in the future.
Like the other great success story of the Anglo-Jewish community, Limmud, the JPR has succeeded in maintaining an independent stance, relatively free of the direct influence of sectoral Jewish interests, some of whom were less than eager for the survey to be carried out in the first place for fear of the possibility that the findings would not suit the sorts of messages that they, as the formal representatives of the wider community, put out to the wider public. The survey was open, enabling anyone residing in England to respond through the website and it has been assumed that the 4,000 respondents is a large enough sample as well as representative of different strands of opinion within the community, to provide a fairly accurate reflection of the community as a whole.
THE FINDINGS show the strong pro-Israel and Zionist sentiments of the Anglo-Jewish community. Nine out of ten British Jews have visited Israel, and a similar number consider it their “ancestral homeland.”
This is not surprising given that over ten percent of Anglo- Jewry have, during the past sixty years, made aliya and reside in Israel with their families – the highest percentage of any western country.
Significantly, Jews in Britain clearly desire peace, and are eager to see the Israeli government take steps to achieve it.
Over three-quarters favor a “two state solution” as the “only way Israel will achieve peace with its neighbors in the Middle East,” and two-thirds favor trading land for peace.
Furthermore, three-quarters oppose the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Some go further still – just over half (52 percent versus 39%) would support Israeli government negotiations with Hamas. These messages reflect a much greater diversity of opinion among Anglo-Jews than is reflected in the messages put out by the representative organizations of the community and which have, in recent years, moved from moderate left to the center and from the center to the right. This is partially due the more intransigent stances which have been adopted by the present Israeli government and which are automatically expressed (as would be expected of Foreign Ministry representatives) by the country’s official legations abroad, as well as the fact that the main pro-Israel lobby in the UK, BICOM, is financed mostly by members of the community holding clear rightof- center views – some of whom also fund right-wing causes in Israel and the West Bank.
It is unfortunate that this large group of pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations, promoting Israeli and Jewish values of democracy, Jewish statehood, understanding the suffering of the “other,” is the target of a constant process of delegitimization by some of the more right-wing Jewish and Israeli organizations in recent years – even to the extent of collectively labeling them as anti-Zionists, delegitimizers of Israel and, in some of the more extreme cases, self-hating Jews.
These groups find it increasingly difficult to bring their voices to bear within the Anglo-Jewish community, despite the fact that the JPR survey indicates that a slight majority (53% to 45%) believes that Jews living in Britain have the right to judge Israel, and nearly three-quarters believe that Jews should be free to speak their mind about Israel in the British media in at least some, if not all circumstances. We, in Israel may not always necessarily agree with this, but for as long as we require and request support – politically and financially – from the Diaspora, we cannot expect the Diaspora communities to remain silent. At the same time, however, we would expect that any such critique would be across the board and not just from one side of the political spectrum alone.
MUCH OF the renewed pro-Israel lobbying in the UK has largely been as a response to the growth of anti-Israel and, in some cases anti-Semitic, sentiments throughout the UK, of which the proposed academic boycotts (largely unsuccessful) is but one indication. This ties in with the sentiments expressed in the recently published book on contemporary Anglo-Jewry by Keith Kahn-Harris and Ben Gidley, entitled, Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today. The authors argue that whereas thirty years ago, the Anglo-Jewish community acted out of a position of security, this has changed dramatically and that the present situation is reflected in growing feelings of insecurity. The authors imply that, while incidents of anti-Semitism have definitely been on the increase in recent years, it is nowhere near as bad as some of the Jewish newspapers and headlines suggest. But Peres’s remarks go a long way to expressing how British anti-Semitism is viewed in Israel and has inflamed the debate within Britain and the local Jewish community. This growing feeling of insecurity among some elements partially explain the significant growth in the numbers of young families who are leaving the UK for Israel – in the past almost all aliya has been a result of the positive desire to live in Israel and contribute to the Jewish state, while today much of the present growth in aliya is due – for the first time – to a growing sense of insecurity brought on by the increase in anti-Israel sentiment. The Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, which facilitates aliya from the Western world, has recently increased its full-time staff who deal with olim from the UK to meet the increased demand for their services.
The attitudes of the Anglo-Jewish community towards Israel will become all the more complicated as the UK sends its first ever Jewish ambassador, Matthew Gould, to Israel, and as the post-Gordon Brown Labor Party elect what looks likely to be its first ever Jewish leader – one of the Miliband brothers who are competing against each other to take over the reigns of power within the British socialist party. Similar feelings of uncertainty were felt some years ago, when the Conservative Party elected its first ever Jewish leaders, Michael Howard, or when, in previous governments, Malcolm Rifkind (under John Major) and David Miliband (under Gordon Brown) occupied the positions of Foreign Secretary.
There was much discussion at the time within the Jewish community whether this was good or bad for the relations between the UK and Israel. Would the respective foreign ministers demonstrate their natural Jewish affiliations by strengthening the relationship between the two countries, or would they bend over backwards to show that they did not have dual loyalties and that they did not favor Israel over any other country? Notwithstanding, the Anglo-Jewish community is not scared to demonstrate its strong support for Israel and the recent JPR survey findings only serve to banish the myth that the younger members of the Diaspora communities no longer support, or feel empathy, towards the Jewish state.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.