Liberal Jewish critics of Israeli policies have the wind in their sails
The Jewish Chronicle is awash with the follow-up to the call by Mick Davis, head of the UJIA, for a more open debate about Israel in the Jewish community.
The paper provides an unsigned overview of reactions; David Landau, former editor of Ha’aretz writes warmly of Anglo-Jewish realism at last; and Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador doesn’t like it at all. Now that’s good news!
Jewish Chronicle, 2 December 2010
Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, this week struck back at UJIA chairman Mick Davis over his outspoken comments on Israel, accusing him of using language “straight from our opponents’ lexicon”, calling much of his criticism “unwarranted” and urging British Jews to take greater pride in the country.
In an article in today’s JC, Mr Prosor sprang to the defence of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accused by the UJIA leader of lacking the courage to advance the peace process.
The diplomat protested that criticism even from friends of Israel was now couched in the language of its enemies.
Mr Prosor initially refrained from responding to the remarks made by Mr Davis at a public meeting nearly three weeks ago, but he has now made his feelings known following support for Mr Davis given by other Jewish leaders in an open letter to the JC last week.
The ambassador, acknowledging that there was “unease” and “anxiety” about Israel, wrote that he also noticed unease “from those who see how distorted debate on Israel has become and feel frustrated when even committed friends seem unable to see it”.
While some of the criticism frequently aimed at Israel was deserved, he said, much of it was “unwarranted, unfair and unhelpful”.
He went on: “It is surprising, therefore, that Mick Davis’s public expression of critical views should make such a splash. They were hardly Wikileaks-style revelations. More surprising is the characterisation of such statements as ‘brave’. By what version of reality does a panel discussion in North London constitute bravery?
“…Leading troops into battle – that’s brave. Standing up for Israel on British campuses is brave. So too is Israel’s Prime Minister, standing up at Bar Ilan University and declaring a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state, despite so many years of Palestinian rejectionism and hostility. So is pushing a sceptical Israeli cabinet to agree a settlement freeze to promote genuine peace negotiations.”
While well-intentioned, much of the recent criticism of Israel’s leaders was “misplaced”, he said. “It does however highlight how even among staunch friends and supporters of Israel, which Mick Davis certainly is, the narrative of Israel’s enemies is setting the agenda and tone of debate. Talk of Israel ‘losing its moral compass’ or becoming ‘de facto an apartheid state’ is straight from our opponents’ lexicon.”
In face of the demonisation campaign waged against Israel by its adversaries, the ambassador urged the Jewish community “to stand with more pride for Israel, before addressing the prejudice of our critics”.
Mr Davis also voiced reservations over some Israeli policies, fears of the risk of its becoming an apartheid state should a two-state solution fail and concern over the impact of Israeli actions on diaspora Jews.
He declined to re-enter the debate this week by commenting on the ambassador’s riposte.
But strong endorsement of Mr Davis came in Israel this week from Kadima MK Ze’ev Bielski, the former head of the Jewish Agency. He was responding to an attack on Mr Davis from Jerusalem Post columnist Isi Leibler, a former leader of Australian Jewry who now lives in Jerusalem.
In a letter in the Jerusalem Post, Mr Bielski recalled the UJIA head’s philanthropic record and efforts to lobby on behalf of Israel with the British government.
Mr Bielski wrote that, having met most of the world’s Jewish leaders, “it is my most fervent wish for the state of Israel and world Jewry to be blessed with more who are of the calibre, modesty, generosity and vision of Mick Davis”.
But his testimonial only prompted a fresh assault by Mr Leibler who in a new letter to the Jerusalem Post challenged Mr Bielski to find “even one other example of a reputable diaspora Jewish leader making such statements and retaining his position”.
Mr Leibler’s censure is unlikely to cut much ice with Mr Davis, who also chairs the executive of the Jewish Leadership Council. At last month’s meeting, he referred dismissively to Mr Leibler as “that mad Australian who seems to be against everybody”.
Meanwhile, another British Jewish leader has also signalled concern about the wider impact of Israeli policy. Poju Zabludowicz, chairman of the Israel advocacy organisation Bicom, wrote in its annual review that it also had a duty to “ensure that Israel’s leaders appreciate the effects that their actions can have on us as Jews throughout the diaspora”.
David Landau, 3 December 2010
What a warm feeling of Zionist solidarity awaits me in London next week. To stand before UK Jewish groups and cry: “Gevalt! Israel is becoming an apartheid state”- and know this warning is no longer repressed heresy but mainstream discourse within Anglo-Jewry.
I was invited by the New Israel Fund to speak about anti-democratic trends in Israeli politics and society. I accepted willingly because I believe that recent vicious attacks inside Israel against the NIF exemplify those worrying trends. I was wondering how to make my points without stirring resentment, when slowly I began to realise that the long-held stereotype of this community is crumbling.
Mick Davis’s brave, pained, honest criticism of Israel’s occupation policies and his questioning of its courage and sagacity, has led other leaders in Anglo-Jewry finally to cast off misplaced inhibitions and to rise to the responsibilities that Jewish leadership demands of them. Suddenly, Anglo-Jewry is no more a mere adjunct of AIPAC, a hurrah chorus for unconscionable – and, worse, unsustainable – Israeli policies.
The message of the shocking apartheid analogy invoked by Davis is not that we should back the Palestinians and boycott Israel as right-thinking people backed the blacks and boycotted white South Africa in the days of apartheid. That is the false message that the hurrah corner tries to pin on Zionist realists, as though they were Israel’s enemies rather than its loving friends, fearful for its future.
The message of realists like Mick Davis is: Look to recent history for a compelling precedent of what happened to a strong, rich but beleaguered country pursuing an ultimately untenable domestic policy. It imploded under the weight of domestic strife and international opprobrium. Of course, historical analogies are never perfectly applicable. But they are ignored at peril.
Now that Davis and other key figures in this community have made their voices heard, one can hope they will percolate through the thickening layers of smug xenophobia speciously portrayed as Zionist patriotism.
“Percolate”, because sometimes a lone, prophetic voice, like that of Jerusalem philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz 40 years ago, or that of Britain’s own Chief Rabbi Jakobovits nearly 30 years ago, needs time to achieve its full resonance. “A smaller and more intensively Jewish Israel,” Jakobovits wrote in 1984, “is both safer and more ideal than a greater Israel in which the Jewish majority and its Jewish ethos are increasingly at risk… Military strength cannot guarantee Israel’s security indefinitely; only moral superiority can… Nothing menaces Israel and Judaism more than the explosive compound of religious and political extremism.”
Meanwhile, three tasks for Zionist realists:
1. To ensure the divide between them and their traducers does not follow the fault-line between Liberal and Orthodox in the Jewish People. That would be disastrous. Anglo-Jewry has a unique contribution to make, by revisiting and revitalising the religious-Zionist heritage of its late, great Chief Rabbi.
2. To ensure their voice is heard inside Israel. Israelis don’t like being lectured to, especially by Jews. They grew to maturity showered with philanthropic beneficence and uncritical political support. J Street shows it can and must be done. Israel needs its friends – and foremost among them world Jewry – to help haul it back to pristine Zionist pragmatism. The rabbis taught: tafasta merubeh – lo tafasta. If you grab too much – you end up with nothing.
3. To pray that when the great Jewish enterprise of our age, the state of Israel, recovers its Jewish wisdom, it won’t be too late.
David Landau is a former Editor of Haaretz and is writing a biography of Ariel Sharon
Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, 3 December 2010
I spend a lot of time with the British Jewish community. I hear considerable support for Israel’s resilience, creativity and innovation; our economy and arts; our moral fortitude, including our purity of arms. I hear support for what the state embodies and represents – the realisation of the millennia-long Jewish yearning for freedom in our historic homeland.
I also hear anxiety and pain – about Israel’s direction and circumstances, about public discourse surrounding Israel, and about the impact of that discourse on Jews here – from true friends who devote time, money and energy helping Israel and from those who see how distorted debate on Israel has become and feel frustrated when even committed friends seem unable to see it.
I hear frequent criticism of Israel, some deserved, but much unfair and unhelpful. It is surprising, therefore, that Mick Davis’s public expression of critical views should make such a splash. They were hardly Wikileaks-style revelations. More surprising is the characterisation of such statements as “brave”. By what version of reality does a panel discussion in North London constitute bravery? Leading troops into battle – that’s brave. Standing up for Israel on British campuses is brave. So, too, is Israel’s Prime Minister declaring at Bar Ilan University a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state, despite so many years of Palestinian rejectionism and hostility. So is pushing a sceptical Israeli cabinet to agree to a settlement freeze to promote genuine peace negotiations – and then trying again a second time, even though the first freeze didn’t work.
Israel hears criticism. We listen. But every hour of every day, Israel’s leaders face historic life or death decisions.
Every day, Israel’s leaders face life or death decisions
While well-intentioned, much recent criticism is misplaced. It does, however, highlight how even among staunch friends and supporters of Israel, which Mick Davis certainly is, the narrative of Israel’s enemies is setting the agenda. Talk of Israel “losing its moral compass” or becoming “de facto an apartheid state” is straight from our opponents’ lexicon.
The fundamental priority behind everything we do is the well-being of our people in our land. We must better explain our challenges – from enemies seeking our destruction and from campaigners waging propaganda wars without ever helping us build real peace.
We must also do more to celebrate the achievements of which we and our diaspora partners are justifiably proud, in education, science and the arts; as a society which has absorbed immigrants from every corner of the world to create a democracy as vibrant, animated and accountable as any.
We need Anglo-Jewry to stand up and say what is on your mind, not only about Israel, but about those who challenge Israel. Israel and the Jewish community are facing a new kind of war, one that hijacks the language of law and human rights to target our legitimacy. While some criticism might make sense, it lacks sensibility. To paraphrase another Jane Austen title, I urge the Jewish community to stand with more pride for Israel, before addressing the prejudice of our critics.
Let’s harness our shared commitment towards a thriving Israel, by ensuring Israel enjoys the diplomatic understanding essential for true peace; by demanding that Iran’s nuclear ambitions receive a firm, unified international response; by educating all people, especially our young, on the unbreakable unity of the Jewish people.
In recent days I have spoken with leaders from across the community. We agree that we need more, not less. More trips to Israel for Jewish youth; more outreach to boost understanding of Israel and its place in Jewish hearts; more pro-Israel activism on campus; more academic and cultural exchange between Israel and Britain; more investment in Israel; more pride in Israel, not less.
We need more bravery, too – real bravery – to tell all governments when they are wrong, not just Israel’s; to challenge the media when it distorts the truth and demonises Israel; to call openly and unashamedly for unions, churches and others to end the vilification of Israel. We must not only reach out to moderates but also urge them to stand resolutely against those who promote violence, terror and hatred.
I am proud to represent the state of Israel and proud of what it represents. Israel and the Jewish community must work in partnership to make Israel’s case with greater conviction and impact than ever before. This is the agenda that unites us all. This is the agenda that, together, we must strive to promote.