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Keeping the show on the road

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Since the pandemic began, the UK Jewish community has been forced to face unprecedented issues of resilience. We have been obliged to consider whether we are too dependent on certain ways of doing community and whether we might need to rethink them in the light of both long and short-term social changes.

There is a tension between the pressure to adapt to change and the desire for everything to be as it was. As the UK at least appears to be returning to something that seems like ‘normality’, it is still unclear whether the pandemic will have driven the UK Jewish community to make long-term changes. But in the last few weeks, in response to events in Israel/Palestine we have unexpectedly been forced to confront yet another resilience challenge at a time when we can barely cope with the existing ones.

At bewildering speed, May 2021 has seen a disastrous outbreak of war and inter-communal violence everywhere from Sheikh Jarrah, to Gaza, to Lod and Gush Dan. In the UK and elsewhere, we have seen in response an uptick in antisemitic incidents, some physically violent.

There has been a lot of speculation that Hamas’s rockets may have ‘saved’ Netanyahu, allowing him to demonstrate his natural right to rule at a time when he was on the verge of being ousted. At the time of writing, we still don’t know whether this will prove correct. What is certainly true is that Hamas’s bombardment of Israel and the fearsome Israeli response, was something that we’ve seen on multiple occasions in the past. This familiarity has allowed many different parties around the world revert to well-worn patterns of behaviour – including within the UK Jewish community.

Back in the dim and distant past (early May 2021) it did appear as if something disturbingly unfamiliar was starting to play out. The protests in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem and elsewhere, together with far right marches in Israel, could not be easily assimilated into familiar narratives. In particular, for Diaspora liberal Zionists, the injustices of the threatened East Jerusalem evictions, together with the rise of neo-Kahanists, were difficult to defend. Before Hamas’s dramatic entry into the story, the grassroots Palestinian protests could not be easily dismissed. The fervent desire for Israel to be a peaceful liberal democracy, threatened only be external forces, was at risk of being undermined.

Hamas’s rockets changed all that. The sight of Israelis huddling in bomb shelters was familiar and there were multiple precedents for what UK and other Diaspora Jewish communities must do in response. Previous Gaza wars and conflagrations – in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2018 – together with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and the Lebanon war in 2006, all led to public acts of solidarity with Israel in the Diaspora. The simultaneous outbreaks of antisemitism against Diaspora Jews created a sense of crisis among Jews that reinforced this desire for solidarity.
At the same time, for all the pressure for a unified communal response, these ’rounds’ of conflict have also strained the UK Jewish community’s representative infrastructure to its limits and raised searching questions about its resilience.

The post-1967 communal consensus (broken only at the margins) that Israel should never be criticised in public, has been strained to breaking point since 2000. This isn’t just a matter of Jewish anti-Zionists becoming more vocal and organised, but also of left-leaning liberal Zionists taking a more critical and public position on Israel, leading to the emergence of new organisations such as Yachad in the UK and J Street in the US. In recent years, Na’amod in the UK and IfNotNow in the US have positioned themselves as a youthful insurrection against automatic Diaspora Jewish support for Israel. And it isn’t just on the left: One of the consequences of the 2014 Gaza war was the development of ‘grassroots’ pro-Israel organisations as a reaction to what was perceived as the passivity of the ‘mainstream’ Jewish community leadership.

The emergence of this fractious plurality has highlighted the contradictions inherent in many of the UK Jewish community’s representative bodies. The Board of Deputies, while its representation of Haredi and secular Jews is limited, is the closest we have to a democratic body and it certainly emphasises its democratic credibility. As such, its Deputies are not united over Israel or much else. Yet, at the same time, its Executive and its elected officers feel themselves obliged to act as if it were a united voice for British Jewry, without any public clarification of the existence of minority voices within it. The same is true for the Zionist Federation, which includes a diversity of Zionist organisations covering a diversity of views on Israel, yet it publicly acts as if it were a unified body promoting uncritical support for Israel.

This contradictory unity was displayed at last Sunday’s solidarity rally in London. In the logic of the UK Jewish community, it simply had to happen, given that this is what always happens when Israel is seen to be under attack. If it had not happened, the Board at least would be subject to an insurrection from the right and from more vociferous pro-Israel voices. Board President Marie van der Zyl had only recently seen off a tighter-than-expected re-election challenge from a right-wing Deputy, Jonathan Neuman.

As on previous occasions, the demonstration was designed to be an ‘apolitical’ show of support, focusing on Hamas as well as antisemitic attacks in the UK, to maximise is inclusivity. Yet the possibility of an inclusively apolitical support for Israel has never been more challenging to achieve. The organising coalition did not represent more liberal pro-Israel organisations or communal bodies but did include right-leaning organisations such as the Israel Advocacy Movement. While the presence of far right activist Tommy Robinson was swiftly denounced, the contradiction between the denunciation and the warm reception for Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely – whose ethnocratic vision for Israel is far from democratic – was glaring.

Yet, as I say, it had to happen. It was expected, because when Israel is under fire that is what we do. And therein lies the problem. Just as the pandemic has painfully exposed our reliance on a certain kind of Jewish life, so every round of conflict in Israel/Palestine exposes the ways in which ‘mainstream’ Jewish communal life is predicated on the assumption that certain facts will never change: That the Palestinians/Arabs will always be the aggressors, that Israel will always be a democracy and that Diaspora Jews will always be able to come together in solidarity with Israel.
The UK Jewish community only just avoided a reckoning with its lack of resilience over Israel. Should Hamas not intervene ‘next time’, should demonstrations become the preferred mode of Palestinian political activity, should the neo-Kahanists reach the centre of government and should Israel embrace annexation and abandon democracy – what then? We cannot necessarily rely on antisemitism to provide a balancing force for cohesion against the forces of fragmentation.

The answer is the same as it has always been: British Jews should recognise that Israel and Zionism are and always were political. There cannot be an apolitical demonstration of pure solidarity. The multiple factions in British Jewry should fight for the Israel they believe in. Communal representative bodies like the Board should act like other democracies and accept that democratic government always means speaking for those who elected you and not for the opposition.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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