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Communal Consistency of Causes: a response to Dan Jacobs

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Harry Marin responds to Dan Jacobs’ piece, ‘Leaders take a moral stand on the Uyghurs, why not on Palestine?’

On 22nd July, JewTh!nk published an article entitled: ‘Leaders take a moral stand on the Uyghurs, why not on Palestine?’ This article by Dan Jacobs raised a number of interesting questions (statement of conflict of interest: Dan is a friend of mine) and provoked a series of lengthy discussions on social media; some of it from people who’d actually read the article.

I should state from the outset that – like Dan and probably many others – the concern driving the article is one that also, at times, troubles me. Essentially, it might be paraphrased as:

I’m very happy that the Jewish community and its leaders speak out about things like the Uighurs, the Bosnian Muslims, the Rwandan genocide, and other atrocities. But it does look a tad hypocritical when they are silent on certain actions of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians.

However, in substantiating its line(s) of argument, the article seemed to contain a number of assertions which are open to challenge.

JewTh!nk has, very kindly, suggested that the points I made in my discussion of the piece be published on their own forum. So, here we are.

This response – counter-intuitively, perhaps – looks at some of the assertions made in the original piece, and then (tentatively) proposes an alternative take in answering the above question. I recognise that I have formulated the question in my own words, which may not reflect the exact perspective of the author of the original piece; however, I am sure that if that is the case then he will correct me accordingly.

Part A: the lines of argument

There appeared to be two main thrusts of the argument: that communal leaders were remaining silent on Israel-Palestine despite there being a majority-agreed position; and secondly, that – as set out in the title of the original article – there is a lack of moral consistency in what communal leaders make statements about. I have approached them in this order, since I think the ‘moral consistency’ argument relies to some extent on the ‘majority agreement’ argument.

A (1) – does the majority of the community agree?

To support this first argument, in paragraphs 7-9, the author says [emphasis added]:

I’m talking about the lack of speaking out by our leadership on aspects upon which most Jews in the UK agree. That the occupation is unjust and needs ending, that settlements are an obstacle to peace and that even the threat of unilateral annexation would be terrible for Israel and especially the Palestinians […] Surveys of Jewish attitudes in the UK show that these views are by far in the majority here. Most UK Jews support the existence of Israel, and most are in favour of a two-state solution.

The first challenge in assessing the validity of the assertions above, was that the link evidencing the claims was to a JPR Report from 2017 on Antisemitism in Contemporary Great Britain. This report does not seem to contain surveys of these views; in fact, a word-search indicates that it doesn’t even mention them. Moreover, since the JPR Report is from 2017 when there was no overt Israeli government threat of annexation, it’s also unlikely that this would be particularly on respondents’ minds.

Next, it could be argued that there is highly unlikely to be majority-agreement with the following:

i) ‘settlements are an obstacle to peace’. 

The term ‘settlements’ encompasses a range of different situations, histories, geographical locations, and levels of strategic importance – as disparate as Gush Etzion, Modi’in, Neve Yaakov, and the hilltop-caravans surrounded by barbed wire (and reluctant soldiers). It would be surprising if the majority of UK Jewry agreed that all of these types constitute an obstacle that should be given up for the sake of peace, particularly a non-guaranteed peace.

ii) ‘the occupation is unjust and needs ending’

It is difficult to believe that this is a majority-held view, particularly as expressed here. A more-qualified approach would probably gain greater acceptance – something like: ‘the Occupation is not good for either Israel or the Palestinians, but right now there’s no other option‘.  Certainly, I’ve heard the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks express such a position in speeches, and – here’s my assumption – this would be a view of a substantial proportion of the Board of Deputies.

iii) ‘most UK Jews … are in favour of a two-state solution’

This, I’d agree with the author, is a majority-held opinion. However, while a majority of UK Jews are – almost certainly – in favour of a two-state solution, they’re only in favour of such a solution if it can guarantee the safety and security of the State and its citizens. This provides a very different basis for leadership when deciding whether to speak out or not.

Implications if these aren’t majority-held positions

The line of argument used appears to be that these opinions are agreed upon by the majority and therefore there is no excuse for recognised communal representatives not to speak out on them. 

However, if, on the contrary – and hopefully as demonstrated above – the community diverges on these issues, then communal leaders (particularly the BoD) would be making statements that are disagreed with by a sizeable proportion of the communities and organisations they represent.

Theoretically, this shouldn’t matter – the article makes the excellent point that the BoD, Chief Rabbis, JLC … etc. should lead the Jewish community, rather than just representing them. Unfortunately – as history shows – if the leaders speak contrary to the majority of the community, then there’s a strong chance it could lead to their defenestration as communal leaders, or a less-severe approach of them just being ignored. 

More importantly, if they can’t be said to speak for the community, such as it is, we end up with the somewhat-weaker position of ‘someone important in the Community expresses a personal view‘. As the article makes clear – by quoting the example of the former Head of the BoD and others – this is not what it is seeking, not least because it lacks the force of a communal representative.

A (2) – moral inconsistency or just very different situations?

The second line of argument, encapsulated in the headline – that there is a lack of moral consistency in what communal leadership speaks out about – is undermined by the fact that the author was at pains to put forward a balanced argument. 

The article is careful to employ a number of caveats about the complexity of the Israel-Palestine situation, and its incomparable nature with the situation in Xinjiang. 

But, if, as the article admits, the two situations are not comparable – and all the more so if, as set out above, Jewish opinion in the UK is not agreed on critical aspects of the Israel-Palestine situation – then there’s a very good reason for the difference in approach.

Essentially, the treatment of Uighurs, with all its dark echoes of the treatment of Jews in 1937-45, is something that UK Jewish organisations & leaders can talk about in unequivocal terms; we have seen this horrific situation before, we saw the world ignore it as it happened, this can’t be allowed to happen again.

In comparison, the reason why UK Jewish leaders/organisations do not speak out about Israel-Palestine is because it’s a highly complex situation, where hardly anyone agrees on any point, with nuance in every sub-section of the discussion. 

That’s great for a forum in which one can set out complex, nuanced arguments over 2,000+ words, but in a 5-paragraph (maximum) statement from the BoD or CR or JLC … etc., all you can get is vague platitudes. And, as we’ve all seen, the danger with vague platitudes is that they risk misrepresentation and achieve nothing; basically, the minimal amount of juice really isn’t worth the somewhat-risky squeeze.

Part B – the essential question

In light of the above, I hope to have shown that the underlying question is – and I mean no disrespect to the author of the original article – perhaps better served by avoiding comparisons with Uighurs (or any other horrific episodes in recent history). 

Instead, I think the original article might have led to a more-profitable discussion had it focused on the second part of the underlying question, which might be stated as: 

why are the generally-perceived community-leaders of UK Jewry apparently incapable of speaking out about Israel-Palestine?

And, now, having – in a style familiar to anyone who has attended a session at Limmud – restated the question to one which I prefer, I’m now going to try (and probably fail) to suggest some answers:

B1) The intended audience for public statements – intra-communal vs. external

It’s important to remember that – contra to some of the claims surveyed in the 2017 JPR Report on contemporary antisemitism – UK Jews do not control the UK Government’s foreign policy (the USA’s foreign policy, on the other hand … ) (joke, calm down). 

Such communal-leadership statements as the ones about the Uighurs are aimed at adding to the voices calling on the UK Government to exert all possible pressure on foreign governments; this is because the only chance for effective exertion of pressure is by our Government on the relevant government.

However, when it comes to Israel, I’m not sure how much of UK Jewry (outside the antizionist movement) would feel comfortable with calling on the UK Government to exert pressure on the Israeli government; particularly, when you consider all the suspicions of the Foreign Office’s Arabist tendency.

B2) There is no cross-communal monolithic position

Another major challenge is that – as discussed previously – many members of our community spend considerable amounts of time debating Israel-Palestine, delving into the detail, arguing nuance and yet still failing to come to any agreement.

The BoD, JLC and 68 communal leaders (all ‘Trumpists’ according to a Mr P Willsman of the Labour NEC) can speak out about antisemitism in Labour, knowing that they probably speak for over 75% of the community. In contrast, nobody can claim to speak for a majority of the jewish community when it comes to specific actions of the Israeli government.

B3) Why need the BoD when your own perspective is already represented 

This is a slightly-strange argument, but I’d suggest that it’s not certain that we need communal ‘Leaders’ to articulate a position on Israel.

So many of the UK Jews who care about Israel (in some way or another) are members of organisations that represent their point of view, be that JNF, UJIA, WZO, Emunah, Yachad, Na’amod … etc. 

This broad range of organisations, each catering for one of the multitudinous perspectives, are perfectly able to make public statements; and frequently do so, as attested to by my junk email folder.

In such a case, it could be argued that there is little need – and, given the risk vs. reward, less desire – for communal leaders to speak out even on things that might have a substantial proportion in agreement, when there are lots of organisations that will issue communiques and support organisations on the ground in Israel.

Conclusion

The underlying premise of Dan Jacobs’ article gave voice to questions that (at least) a sizeable minority of the community has been pondering for a while. 

If we take the challenge beyond the deceptively-simple question of public statements on Israel-Palestine, we end up looking at the deeper questions about the role of communal leadership, and what areas that leadership should comment on publicly, as opposed to curating discussions within the community. 

In particular, there needs to be a discussion of whether the community wants or, indeed, needs its leadership to take a public ‘moral stance’ about world events, or instead thinks that the only things that should be spoken about publicly are issues that directly impact Jewish life in the UK. 

Whilst I may disagree (respectfully) with Dan regarding his lines of argument, and how easy it is (or should be) for communal leaders to make public statements about Israel-Palestine, his article is a valuable staging-post for a wider discussion about the roles and responsibilities of our communal leadership.

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Harry's day job is monitoring the development impact of infrastructure projects for PIDG, and in his spare time he is Chair of Grassroots Jews. He used to blog about politics, capitalism, and development, but stopped a while ago, because he's lazy. His opinions are in a personal capacity. "
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Ben Gidley
1 month ago

The original post gave the wrong reference but there are two solid surveys of UK Jewish opinion on israel/Palestine: a 2010 survey for the Pears Foundation and a 2015 survey for Yachad. Both found wide support for Israel but a predominantly doveish line. On settlements, 75% agree the  expansion of settlements on the West Bank is a major obstacle to peace (2015). On the occupation, there was no consensus. Half see the occupation has a security necessity, at least in the short term, but a sizeable majority (around 30-40% depending on the question) oppose the occupation and only 14% strongly agree Israel has the right to retain control over the West Bank for the foreseeable future. On two states, 71% supported it in 2015.

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