British Leaders Silent in Face of Anti-Israel, Anti-Semitic Rhetoric
In what’s becoming a regular and predictable occurrence, yet another leading British politician recently attacked Israel and the American Jewish lobby. This time it was former Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor, MP Jack Straw. Speaking of Israeli “theft” of Palestinian land and “Germany’s obsession with [defending] Israel,” Straw lamented the “unlimited funds available to Jewish organizations … used to divert American policy and intimidate candidates.”
With this blistering, Protocols-of-Zion-like comment warning the world of Jewish political hegemony, Straw has joined the ranks of a growing number of British leaders who libel the Jewish state with impunity as a matter of course.
In January, Liberal Democrat MP David Ward wrote on his website that he was “saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust… could be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians.” Later in the year, he called Israel an “apartheid state.” [BBC, July 18, 2013]
Labour MP Paul Flynn, in late 2011, suggested that Matthew Gould, the UK’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, had “divided loyalties.” [Jewish Chronicle, December 1, 2011]
Aidan Burley, a Conservative MP, attended a Nazi-themed bachelor party. [The Guardian, December 18 2011]
In June, one of the UK’s largest trade unions voted to ban its members from visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories on delegations organized by the Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), a London based organization that supports cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian workers. [Jerusalem Post, June 8th, 2013]
Former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, Baroness Jenny Tonge, said in 2006: “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party.” [BBC, September 21, 2006]
In May, 23-year-old Chip Cantor was deported from a British airport simply for having Israeli stamps on his passport [Jewish Press, July 2, 2013]. And no one can forget the arrest warrant handed out against Tzipi Livni in 2009, [BBC, December 15, 2009], or the fact that the BBC Olympic profile picture for Israel was originally an Israeli soldier shouting violently at a defenseless Palestinian, before it was removed due to complaint. [Jerusalem Post, July 25, 2012]
But equally troubling is how this tsunami of Israel hatred is met with silence on the part of many in the British Jewish leadership. The outrage over Straw’s appalling comments came not from the Office of the British Chief Rabbi or other senior Anglo-Jewish figures, but from former Israeli Knesset member Einat Wilf, and Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the outstanding Daniel Taub.
When I arrived in England 25 years ago as emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and established the Oxford L’Chaim Society, anti-Israel bias was of course present, but nowhere near today’s levels. The Oxford Union hosted several anti-Israel speakers and we responded with six Israeli Prime Ministers. Back then it would have been nearly inconceivable for a Member of Parliament to say that the Israeli government is comparable to Nazi Germany, as MK George Galloway does openly and shamelessly. When I was in Oxford, I had never heard reports of Jewish students afraid to publicly identify as Jewish, or wear a Yarmulke, although it has become common at some English universities today. There was also the utterly astonishing proposal to bar Israeli academics at Oxford University in February, and, not to be outdone, senior Cambridge University professor Stephen Hawking joined the BDS movement this past May.
While Lord Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of England, he met each of these challenges to Israel’s legitimacy with near silence. Worse, he invariably found himself in the company of some of Israel’s worst critics, telling The Guardian in 2002 of the Israel Defense Forces: “There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” He added that Israel’s posture in the Middle East was “incompatible” with the deepest ideals of Judaism and was slowly becoming “corrupted.”
I have a long-professed admiration for Rabbi Sacks’ eloquence and unmatched articulation of Jewish ideas. But the wave of anti-Semitism that washed over the UK through the more than two decades of his Chief Rabbinate undermined his stature and significantly diminished him as a leader. It appears that even in retirement, where he can no longer cite the limitations of his office to speak freely, he has chosen to remain a neutral observer in the war to delegitimize Israel.
In Britain, hesitation often wins out over defense, with the fear that the mainstream can grow even more hostile if antagonized. Moreover, the absurd mentality of being a guest in someone else’s country continues to prevail in some Jewish quarters. As in every other democracy in which Jews live, we are no better, nor less, than anyone else.
When I voiced these objections, Jonathan Arkush of the British Board of Deputies attacked me as being out of touch, claiming that he knows of not “a single British university” where Jewish students feel fear harassment or bias. Yet Rabbi Sacks himself contradicted him when he said in 2008: “We hope that university vice-chancellors will recognize the feeling of vulnerability that Jewish students have expressed at many university campuses.” (Jewish Chronicle)
Arkush praises former Chief Rabbi Sacks for having “spoken up for Israel fearlessly and eloquently.” Yet we in the United States were incredulous when Sacks, an alumnus of Cambridge, uttered not a word of protest to Hawking’s public attack on Israel.
Rabbi Sacks was similarly quiet when George Galloway walked out of a debate at Oxford this past February merely because his adversary was an Israeli citizen, even though Sacks is highly respected in Oxford as well.
The central quality of leadership is not eloquence, nor even scholarship, but the courage to stand up bravely for one’s convictions and inspire others to follow suit, even if one is hated and vilified for it.
In the global battle for its reputation and name, Israel deserves not silence but our courageous and indefatigable engagement.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and is the international best-selling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.