The writing on the wall

Jews in Britain are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, according to a new survey. For now, that is.

FZY britain 311 (photo credit: FZY Israel)
FZY britain 311
(photo credit: FZY Israel)
On the face of it, the news coming in from the UK is pretty good. A survey published last week by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research showed that 90 percent of Jews in Britain believe that Israel is “the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people,” 82% consider it to play an important and even central role in their Jewish identities and 72% categorize themselves as Zionists, in contrast to only 21% who do not. Furthermore, an estimated 95% of Jews in Britain have visited Israel at least once, 77% agree that Jews have “a special responsibility to support Israel” and 87% agree that Jews are responsible for ensuring “the survival of Israel.”
The report, entitled “Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel,” is the result of the most extensive and definitive research ever conducted on this topic, and in its exploration of some of the political views of the Jewish population of Britain, it contains findings that will warm the hearts of those both on the Left and the Right of the political spectrum.
The dovishness of the community comes across very clearly: 67% favor giving up territory for peace; 74% are opposed to the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank and, perhaps most strikingly, 52% think that Israel “should negotiate with Hamas in its efforts to achieve peace.”
However, at the same time, the hawkishness of the community is also apparent: 72% consider the separation fence/security barrier “vital for Israel’s security” and the same percentage viewed Operation Cast Lead as “a legitimate act of self-defense.”
Furthermore, fully 87% of respondents believe that “Iran represents a threat to Israel’s existence.”
We struggled with how to interpret this combination of dovishness and hawkishness when we were initially analyzing the data, but on reflection, came to the conclusion that, in many respects, the apparent paradox captures perfectly the nature of Israel’s ongoing dilemma. The peace versus security equation needs to be balanced on a daily basis; most overtures toward peace involve taking risks on security, and most clampdowns on security involve damaging prospects for peace. What Jews in Britain are saying – in much the same way as Israelis are saying – is that we want both.
THE FINDINGS were greeted positively by the British Jewish community’s best known newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, which ran with the headline “UK Jewish bond with Israel as strong as ever.” While it is distinctly possible to read the data in that way, my personal view is that there are signs of considerable disquiet in the findings, which indicate that all is not quite as rosy as some would like to believe.
Consider the following. In our investigation of the state of Israeli society, 67% agree that there is “too much corruption in Israel’s political system.” Approximately six out of 10 believe that both Jewish and non-Jewish minorities “suffer from discrimination.”
Three-quarters think that “Orthodox Judaism has too much influence in Israel’s society” and that includes, surprisingly perhaps, almost half of those who self-define as “religious.”
Each of these findings suggests that a majority of Jews in Britain is looking at these aspects of Israeli society and struggling in some way to reconcile the realities they see with the values they believe ought to underpin a Jewish state. Perhaps it is the allegations against Ehud Olmert or Moshe Katsav, perhaps it is the growing alienation of Arab Israelis, perhaps it is the stranglehold Orthodox authorities have over the conversion process, but whatever the reason, it is clear that these types of difficult issues are leading some Jews in Britain to view Israel through quite critical eyes.
There’s more. A clear majority considers Israel to be “an occupying power in the West Bank.” Forty percent do not think that control of the West Bank is vital for security; 43% do not believe that Israel has “little or no choice in most of the military action it takes.”
And one-third thinks that Israel holds either as much responsibility – or even more responsibility – for the failures of the peace process than its neighbors.
To date, none of this appears to be eating away at the foundations of the relationship Jews in Britain have with Israel. On the fundamentals, the support is still overwhelming.
But below the surface, there is evidence to suggest that a significant number of people are starting to ask some probing questions.
One can only guess at what the long-term impact will be, but we should not rule out the possibility that the currently strong foundations might begin to crumble in the years to come. Right now, Jews in Britain remain deeply tied to Israel; the future, however, looks far less certain.
The writer is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. He is coauthor of the recently-published report ‘Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel.’