British Jews Under Pressure
Reviewing the status of Anglo-Jewry can lead to diametrically opposing conclusions. Residing in a northwest London Jewish suburb, one can easily be deluded that life for Jews in the U.K. is rosy. Jewish cultural and religious life is thriving, as exemplified by the mushrooming of synagogues and kosher facilities, not to mention the highly successful educational initiatives like Limmud. Indeed, insulated from the outside world and living and socializing primarily in a Jewish “ghetto,” it is not difficult to convince oneself that life in this Anglo-Jewish Diaspora is almost idyllic.
But this picture is delusional and a far cry from reality. The demographic projections reflect snowballing intermarriage offset by the high birthrate of the ultra-Orthodox — which will make them the dominant element in the Jewish community within the not too distant future.
More importantly, even though British Jews have not yet suffered from the bloody jihadi violence and murders of their French counterparts, as European Jews they will ultimately face the same threat, and if they believe they are in a different category, they are in denial.
Although Muslim jihadi elements are currently less dominant in the U.K. than in France, they face very similar threats from ISIS followers and homegrown terrorists. Moreover, indigenous antisemitism in the form of feral anti-Israelism is as blatant in the U.K. as in France.
One need only peruse the vicious anti-Jewish talkbacks to appreciate the extent of the problem. The media, especially the BBC, effectively incites hatred against Israel by its biased and distorted reporting, which at best portrays Jewish victims of terror and the perpetrators with moral equivalence and frequently condemns Israelis for defending themselves.
The regular mass support for anti-Israel demonstrations headed by leftist and human rights groups — for whom Israel-baiting is considered axiomatic — confirm that hatred of Jews has become a central feature of the British political system. Some of the banners and placards at these demonstrations, such as “Jews to the gas,” resemble Nazi antisemitic campaigns.
The situation at universities is appalling, with BDS being promoted at all levels and pro-Israeli speakers denied the opportunity of expressing their views and frequently facing violence. This has led to the intimidation of Jewish students and the exclusion of lectures or activities relating to Israel.
This has led to the atrocious situation in which cowardly Jewish student leaders even justify their refusal to engage in pro-Israel advocacy so as to cater to “non-Zionist” members and avoid confrontation with anti-Israeli student unions.
The most shocking developments are at the parliamentary level, despite the presence of the pro-Israel Prime Minister David Cameron, who consistently displays friendship toward Israel. For over 20 years, until Ed Miliband headed the Labour Party, a tepid but overall bipartisan positive approach toward Israel prevailed. Labour leaders including Tony Blair proved to be among Israel’s staunchest supporters.
However, the tide has turned as Labour has now elected as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who after a visit to the Middle East in 2015, characterized Israeli policies as “immoral” and “illegal” and related to the genocidal terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” insisting they be recognized as key negotiating partners.
Corbyn was accused by the London Jewish Chronicle and others of links with – and even in one case funding of – Holocaust deniers, terrorists and outright anti-Semites. In July 2015, Corbyn described as “a very good friend” the fundamentalist Islamic preacher Ibrahim Hewitt, who believes apostates and adulterers should be killed and is considered by the U.S government as a promoter of Hamas funding.
The change in attitude by the Labour Party toward Jews was recently reflected by an outburst from the hostile Jewish Sir Gerald Kaufman, a veteran Labour MP who accused the Conservatives of being influenced by “Jewish money” and claimed that the stabbing attacks on Israeli civilians were fabricated by the Israelis in order to “execute Palestinians.” It took a week for Corbyn’s party to respond to protests and then it merely expressed concern over Kaufman’s obscene remarks but failed to condemn or censure him.
Although opinion polls show that under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour would be overwhelmingly defeated in an election, the fact that the alternative party to government could elect such a person should have sent chills throughout the Jewish community. That is particularly so because, in these volatile times, unexpected upheavals could bring about the downfall of the government and the opposition could assume control by default.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the representative body of Anglo-Jewry founded over 250 years ago, today finds itself in a difficult position. It is vastly underfunded and understaffed to cope adequately with the complex challenges facing the community.
In recent years, its leaders have been subject to major criticism and dubbed “trembling Israelites” for insisting that silent diplomacy or shtadlanut is more effective than public activity. It has been accused of pursuing a policy of not “rocking the boat,” opposing public demonstrations and generally seeking to retain a low profile.
The former president, Vivian Wineman, was head of the far-left New Israel Fund and linked the Board with a number of dubious projects. He was strongly supported by Yachad, a group with similar objectives to the US J Street and which demonizes the Israeli government and urges British tourists to Israel to join their Ramallah tours designed to promote the Palestinian cause. It recently commissioned an opinion poll based on biased sampling methods, which falsely stated that over 70% of British Jews believe Israel’s approach to peace is damaging. Needless to say, this group is embraced and hailed as courageous by the anti-Israel media and pro-Palestinian activists.
This year, the Board of Deputies elected Jonathan Arkush as its 47th president. Arkush is a lawyer, a traditional Jew and a passionate Zionist, two of whose children have made aliyah. He cannot be expected to revolutionize the Board overnight, but there is little doubt that he represents a new leadership style. Hopefully, he will generate support among grass-roots activists previously alienated by Jewish leaders who failed to speak out forcefully against the prevailing anti-Israel stream. Arkush has already vigorously condemned Yachad for calling on the British government to exert pressure on Israel over settlements.
The greatest obstacle facing the Board of Deputies is the so-called Jewish Leadership Council, which primarily comprises a group of wealthy Jews, many of whom bankroll and control charities.
The power of some of these tycoons provides them with ready access to politicians, but instead of using this to support the official umbrella body or engage directly with them, they have created an organization with absolutely no accountability to anyone. The Council frequently bypasses and undermines the Board of Deputies and takes initiatives that are not in sync with the official roof body.
To make matters worse, this body is headed by Mick Davis, the South African-born mining tycoon who has a long record of using public platforms to castigate Israeli governments. In 2010, he accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “for lacking the courage to take steps” to advance the peace process, blaming Israel for being the obstacle to peace and predicting “an apartheid state.” His arrogance was reflected in the statement that “the government of Israel has to recognize that their actions directly impact on me as a Jew living in London. … The impact on me is as significant as it is on Jews living in Israel. I trust them to recognize this.”
Last week, in his capacity as chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, Davis called for the cessation of settlement activity, demanded “voluntary resettlement” of those resident over the Green Line, and stated that “Israel has simply not done enough” for peace and that “the consequences of that failure are enormous and growing.”
Needless to say, the role of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the standing of Israel are deeply compromised when wealthy Jewish “supporters” of Israel exploit communal platforms in order to promote such negative views.
Anglo-Jewry faces enormous challenges and is only marginally less vulnerable than most European communities. Official leaders must wrest control from the unaccountable tycoons seeking to displace them.
But if they view themselves dispassionately, Anglo-Jews who place a premium on a meaningful Jewish life should recognize that their status is unfortunately only likely to deteriorate. They should at least encourage their children to make aliyah.
This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.