There is no appetite among Jews living in the UK for giving Israel carte blanche to do what it likes, according to a new report
Antony Lerman, 16 July 2010
Here in the UK, the last time a representative sample of the Jewish population was asked its views on Israel was back in 1995, and the results were published in 1997 in an Institute for Jewish Policy Research report of which I was the principal author. But now we can once again gauge Jewish attachment to Israel following the release yesterday of the results of an online survey carried out by JPR, with initial help and advice from Ipsos-Mori, which examines the attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel. The analysis of the 4,081 responses was entirely the work of JPR.
Some of the headline findings will provide reassurance for Zionist organisations and staunchly pro-Israel groups in the UK, and also to the current Israeli government: 95% have visited Israel (78% in 1995); 90% see it as the “ancestral homeland” of the Jewish people; 86% feel that Jews have a special responsibility for its survival; and 72% categorise themselves as Zionists.
But, as in 1995, the Jewish population shows dovish tendencies: 67% agree that Israel should yield territory for peace (69% in 1995, at the height of enthusiasm for the Oslo Accords); 78% favour a two-state solution and 74% oppose settlement expansion.
Nevertheless, this dovishness is accompanied by continuing concern for Israel’s security: 72% say the security fence is “vital for Israel’s security”; 72% agree that the Gaza war was a “legitimate act of self-defence”; and 87% agree that “Iran represents a threat to Israel’s existence”.
Throughout the report, there are plenty more examples of Jewish closeness to Israel. But does this evidence, which leads The Jewish Chronicle to claim “UK Jewish bond with Israel strong as ever”, indicate that there is little or no emergence of the more pronounced “critical friend” stance Freedland and others identify elsewhere? The report’s authors say: “Evidence that this position is penetrating British shores is rather thin.” However, there seems to me to be much data that shows there is a significant minority, and in some cases a majority, favouring a more robust, critical pro-peace stance.
Especially striking is the 52% of respondents who agree that Israel should negotiate with Hamas. Taken together with the 55% who agree that Israel is “an occupying power in the West Bank”, the 47% who say “most Palestinians want peace” (38% disagreed) and the 40% who say Israeli control of the West Bank is not vital to Israel’s security, the propensity for Jews to see things from a Palestinian perspective is considerable.
Even on security and peace issues, there is no appetite for giving Israel carte blanche to do what it likes. Responding to the statement that Israel has little or no choice in the military action it takes, 43% disagreed, and 34% agreed that Israel holds less responsibility for the recent failure of the peace process than its Middle East neighbours.
The potential for, at the very least, the emergence of a much clearer and more pronounced J Street-style “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp can also be seen in what is surely the marked absence of ideological rigidity in the way in which people describe themselves as “Zionist” or “non-Zionist”. For example, more than one-fifth say they are non-Zionists – a not insignificant figure in itself – and yet most of these respondents see Israel as the Jewish “ancestral home”. On the other hand, 62% of self-described Zionists agree to yield territory for peace and 48% agree that Israel is an occupying power in the West Bank – two hot-button issues for many Zionists today, who tend to see no partner for peace. As the authors say, “those who define themselves as ‘Zionists’ are not always firm supporters of Israeli government policy”. Equally, there is no truth in the notion that those who call themselves “non-Zionist” want to dismantle the state of Israel.
And there’s additional encouragement for those who want to see a more assertive and independent-minded diaspora: 53% of respondents think that Jews living in Britain do have the right to judge Israel and more than a third (35%) say that “if Jewish people consider criticism of Israel to be justified, they should always feel free to say so in the British media”.
There is much more that has a bearing on the strength of a “critical friend” tendency: for example, less than one third say Israel is central to their Jewish identity; among those who witnessed or experienced antisemitism, about half said it was prompted or related to the perpetrators’ views on Israel, which suggests that an end to the conflict would significantly reduce anti-Jewish hostility; and highly educated and secular respondents were significantly more dovish and critical of Israeli policy than religious Jews with lower educational achievement.
For what are probably good practical reasons, it seems that it was not possible to replicate many of the 1995 questions in the 2010 survey, so few direct comparisons can be made. Nevertheless, I venture to suggest that most of the changes that we predicted would occur in the 1997 report have come about: Israel appeals more to traditional and orthodox Jews, attachment is based more on experience than ideology, Zionism is ideologically less relevant, Israel is more a source of communal division than unity and its centrality in Jewish life is diminishing. The basis for a broader, more assertive, open and constructively critical coalition of Jews, which can speak to the mainstream, undoubtedly exists. Only a bold and imaginative leadership is required to mobilise it.