Flexing our muscles

Globally, our responses to Boycott Delegitimisation and Sanctions are seen as examples of best practice.

Queen Elizabeth with Vivian Wineman, Jewish leaders 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Queen Elizabeth with Vivian Wineman, Jewish leaders 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is often said that there is more truth in the adverts than in the news. Adverts show cars that work and drinks that cheer, whereas newspapers dwell on the minority of cases when things go wrong. It is the same with communities. A community that is vibrant with religious and cultural events makes less news than one beset by anti-Semitism, divided leadership and broken morale.
No wonder Isi Leibler finds this picture attractive.
I generally enjoy reading his pieces but found his March 7 column, “Anglo Jewish leaders and ‘trembling Israelites,’” to be a long way from reality.
Before proceeding to correct his surprisingly ill-informed picture of the UK, there is one fiction which I must correct. I am quoted as saying that as a community we have access, not influence. Isi can be forgiven for this since I presume he read it in The Jewish Chronicle.
He should have checked this with me. In fact I said no such thing, and the quote, as the Chronicle itself has subsequently acknowledged, is simply the product of an over-imaginative sub-editor.
What I actually said was that while the community had influence, we should not overestimate it and should not confuse it with access. Since then events have borne out my claim that we do have influence and are listened to at the highest levels. The passage of legislation relating to universal jurisdiction making it possible for Israelis to visit the UK without fear of arbitrary arrest, the withdrawal of the UK from Durban III, the removal of anti-Israel videos from government websites, and pro-Palestinian materials from schools, I could go on as the list is a long one but they all testify to the influence exerted by a small but well organized community arguing its case forcefully, but with cogency, and delivering successful campaigns.
The rest of Isi’s picture is one which the people actually living here would find particularly hard to recognize. Some statements are just plain incorrect.The Jewish Leadership Council (JCL) CEO never made the statement attributed to him following the trial Liebler cites. Equally, the claimant against the University and College Union is an active and vocal member of the Board of Deputies, enjoys their support and that of the JLC.
Similarly, the reprimand issued by the Lord Chancellor to Judge Norman Bathurst who acquitted the anti-Israel vandals, and the resignation of Jenny Tonge, both followed strong representations from the Board. (In the case of Jenny Tonge the chief rabbi also played a vital role, despite claims to the contrary by Rabbi Boteach in his Jerusalem Post column).
If we have a failing as communal institutions it may well be our reticence to claim public credit for our successes.
AS A result of our efforts the fight against anti-Semitism is taken seriously by all the main political parties. Former Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane chaired an independent parliamentary inquiry into it. Its recommendations, which focused heavily on campus matters, were adopted and a cross-departmental task force was established in which the Board of Deputies, Community Security Trust (CST) and JLC are full participants holding government departments to account. Since then the situation on campus has measurably improved. This example of government working alongside the community in a formal, structured way is now seen as a global model of best practice.
Globally, our responses to Boycott, Delegitimization and Sanctions are seen as examples of best practice. Our “Fairplay” campaign against BDS and anti-Zionism has just been emulated as Fair Play South Africa. The global task forces convened by the government of Israel on BDS and Media are both co-chaired by senior UK Jewish community officials.
With all due respect to Isi, we are the ones at the coal face.
The campus situation is worrying, but not as desperate as Isi suggests. Almost all incidents are nonviolent and the total number in 2010 reported to the CST was 44, down from 97 in 2009 when they peaked during Operation Cast Lead.
Recent surveys have shown, however, that around one third of Jewish students reported experiencing anti-Semitism, discrimination or harassment. These surveys are much higher than the reported statistics and this disparity is a cause of concern. Statistics for fear of anti-Semitism (4-17%) are much lower, suggesting that the support services put in place by Union of Jewish Students and CST and backed by the leadership of the community are indeed working.
Likewise, hate speakers continue to give cause for concern. We work to challenge and expose them on campus and have called on government and university authorities to adopt tighter regulations to ensure that freedom of speech does not come at the expense of the security of our students. Following calls from UJS, the National Union of Students has developed hate speech guidelines and we have been persuading the university authorities to do likewise.
Campus problems are not unique to the UK.
There are problems worldwide. The Harvard One State Conference marked a low point in the USA campus environment. No UK university would have dared to provide its imprimatur for such an event.
The rest of Isi’s picture is equally remote from reality. True, there have been cases of politicians who have made unacceptable statements about Jews and Israel – recently Paul Flynn, Sir Robert Atkins and Aidan Burley – but in every case there was a vigorous public protest by the Board, representations by key communal leaders, all followed by a clear apology. In the case of Atkins, who called on Jews the world over to put a stop to Israel’s “crimes,” he was in my office the very next day to issue an apology and point to his previously blameless record on Jews and Israel.
Apart from this, there is the vital work carried out by the Board in the field of inter faith. The chief rabbi is the most recognized religious figure in the UK outside the Anglican church, but the regular contacts are made through the Board and our relations with the churches and with all the other faith groups have not only helped community relations but have also helped stem the growth of a fierce BDS movement in the churches. Similarly, the grass roots activist movement developed by the Board and our strategy of being proactive against anti-Israel groups have paid dividends which we cannot always broadcast.
I could multiply examples of the community’s vitality and the Board’s activity in education, cultural and religious matters had I space, but let two examples suffice. Last Hanukka, representatives of the community lit a hanukkia in the prime minister’s home at 10 Downing Street while Jews in London and up and down the country celebrated in public squares, culminating in a mass Hanukka lighting in Trafalgar Square, the capital’s most public space, attended by thousands of people.
On the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, 45,000 British Jews marched and rallied in the streets of London and Manchester in the only “Salute to Israel” parades ever to have been held outside of North America.
Trembling Israelites? I don’t think so.
The writer is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.