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Jewish opinion in Britain is shifting


A critical diaspora is good for Israel

More and more British Jews are questioning Israel’s policies. David Cameron should capitalise on this

Antony Lerman, 29th July 2010  —  Issue 173

David Cameron’s description of Gaza as a “prison camp” and his strong condemnation of Israel over the Turkish Gaza flotilla has, predictably, angered some commentators and politicians and pleased others. But if those who attacked his words, like Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel, believe they are reflecting popular opinion among British Jews, they are wrong—according to the latest survey evidence.

In an online poll of British Jews conducted by the institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) with advice from Ipsos MORI, more than half of the respondents agreed that Israel should negotiate with Hamas. While this alone doesn’t prove that most British Jews would agree with Cameron’s “prison camp” terminology, when taken together with other data from the poll the “signs of considerable disquiet” identified by JPR director Jonathan Boyd are clear. For example, 55 per cent agree that Israel is “an occupying power in the West Bank” and 40 per cent believe controlling the West Bank is not vital to Israel’s security.

It’s true that British Jews also feel a continuing close attachment to Israel—most of the respondents said that Jews have a special responsibility for its survival—and the Jewish Chronicle used the report to declare the British Jewish bond with Israel “as strong as ever.” But when the majority of respondents (67 per cent) also see Israeli politics as corrupt, and three quarters think that orthodox Judaism has too much influence in Israeli society, British Jews are sending a strong signal to Israel’s government.

Do the opinions of British Jews matter? Not nearly as much as the views of American Jews, of course. But support from the Jewish community worldwide has always been vital for providing Israel with legitimacy for its actions. And with traditional Israeli political circles and think tanks in a virtual panic today about left-wing “delegitimisation” of Israel—most effectively orchestrated from London, or so it’s claimed by Israel’s Reut Institute—hanging on to that support has become increasingly important. The data from the JPR survey is only the latest reinforcement to an existing picture revealing how difficult the shoring up of Jewish solidarity has become.

In June, a seminal New York Review of Books article by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, who was well known for his staunch defence of Israeli government policies, slammed American Jewish leaders for supporting Israel at all costs and betraying the liberal values to which US Jews have always been deeply attached. Controversy raged over the piece, but, against the background of growing support for the alternative “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street, it was a watershed moment. And the sentiment was echoed in Europe by the launch of JCall, an online petition critical of Israeli policy signed by thousands of Jewish intellectuals, and especially significant for the involvement of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut: high-profile French philosophers who had previously been indefatigable defenders of Israel and Zionism.

Make no mistake, all this matters to Israel’s leaders. Former senior members of the Israeli security establishment I have spoken to say that these changes among diaspora Jews are giving the country’s political leaders serious collywobbles.

In Britain, Jewish leaders can hardly say they weren’t warned. The last major sample survey of Jewish opinion on Israel was published by JPR in 1997, and I was the lead author of a report on the findings. Signs of the emergence of a more pragmatic attachment to Israel were clear and we predicted that, if these trends continued, we would see Israel appealing more to traditional and orthodox Jews. The attachment to Israel would be based more on experience than ideology, Zionism would become less relevant, and Israel would be more a source of communal division than unity. All of these predictions have come true.

One factor possibly driving this shift in attitudes is the awareness of increased antisemitism. In the recent survey, among those who witnessed or experienced antisemitism about half said it was related to the perpetrators’ views on Israel, which suggests that more Jews might be drawing a link between Israel’s actions and growing anti-Jewish hostility. This, in turn, could be prompting bolder demands from the diaspora that Israel moderate its behaviour and start pushing much harder for a just end to the conflict.

David Cameron is, I suspect, on far more solid ground when he criticises Israel today than he was at the time of the 2006 Lebanon War, when prominent Jewish Conservative supporters rounded on William Hague for daring to use the word “disproportionate” about Israel’s actions. Perhaps Cameron’s advisors have alerted him to the results of the survey. Certainly, if he wanted to contribute to a more sustained international effort to get Israel to comply with its international obligations, the existence of a substantial, critically-minded, mainstream Jewish peace group in Britain would be of great value to him. It’s clear that Jewish criticism of Israel is no longer the preserve of minority radical groups. What’s needed now is a Jewish leadership that can mobilise this sentiment—and further undermine Israel’s ability to rely on the support of the diaspora no matter what.

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