07 February 2007

07 February 2007 - On Jewish dissent

British Jews are now enduring what South African Jews experienced more than five years ago: a vigorous debate over who represents the community’s views on Israel, and what those views should be. The debate was triggered by the launch of a new group calling itself “Independent Jewish Voices” (IJV), which announced its birth on the web and in the pages of the UK’s left-wing Guardian newspaper.

It may be no coincidence that this splinter group has emerged at a time when antisemitic attacks have reached a peak in Britain. (Here I use antisemitism in its original and proper sense, as a pseudo-scientific euphemism for the hatred of Jews and not so-called “Semites.”) In South Africa, too, the emergence of Ronnie Kasrils’s “Not In My Name” group followed the disastrous Durban racism conference in 2001, which left the country’s Jewish community in a state of shock.

These splinter groups have caused outrage among many Jews—not because Jews are hostile towards criticism of Israel, and not because Jewish leaders try to impose a uniform view on the community. (There are some Jews and Jewish leaders to whom these accusations would apply, but hostility to groups like IJV comes from across the spectrum, and often from Jews who are themselves critical of Israel.)

Nor is it true that the dissenters provoke anger because they dare to express their criticisms of Israel in public, beyond the intimate confines of the Jewish community. Jews who disagree with Israeli policies seldom try to hide their views. Rather, what irks mainstream Jews is that the dissenters aim their criticism of Israel at the general public in a calculated attempt to generate as much publicity as possible.

The reason they do this is that their paramount goal is to ensure that non-Jews see them as distinct from (and superior to) the Jewish mainstream. It is telling, for example, that the IVJ manifesto begins not by endorsing Palestinian rights but by arguing that “the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole.”

The Kasrils declaration in South Africa began in the same way, complaining in its opening sentence: “Successive Israeli governments and the world Zionist movement have consistently denounced their critics as anti-semites and blamed the Palestinians for the failure to reach a negotiated settlement. We emphatically reject these assertions.” (Subsequent drafts were modified to exclude this sentence.)

The lists of signatories to these manifestos often include some of the most well-known Jewish intellectuals, activists and artists—though not typically those who are known for their connection to Jewish causes. They are—with a few exceptions—indifferent to their Judaism, or would prefer to be so. But in today’s climate, these elites feel exposed by the fashionable and facile anti-Israel views of the smart set.

The dissenters are not responding to Israeli policies, but to antisemitism—albeit through a strategy that attacks the victims instead of the perpetrators. That is clear from their attacks on the Jewish establishment—even liberal rabbis like UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It is also clear from their ignorance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is quickly exposed. Brian Klug, an IJV leader, continues to refer to the “occupation” of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew two years ago.

Some of the dissenters are genuinely motivated by concern for Palestinian human rights, and by a genuine desire to see the peace process resume. But others seem more worried that abuses might be committed “in their name” than that they are committed at all. They argue (correctly) that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism, yet feel that Jewish support for Israel reflects poorly on them personally.

There is a positive side to the emergence of these splinter groups. By challenging the mainstream views of the Jewish community, they do provoke vigorous internal debate. They may prompt Israel to be more conscious of how its actions are viewed abroad. They may even, as some dissenters claim, help to defuse antisemitism by showing the general public the great internal diversity of the Jewish community

On the other hand, the splinter groups do little to challenge antisemitism directly. In their eagerness to cast the Jewish community as intransigent and monolithic, they reinforce antisemitic stereotypes. In their rush to blame Israel for the conflict , they give crude anti-Israel propaganda legitimacy it does not deserve. And while encouraging debate, they also polarize opinions within the Jewish community.

Whatever their subjective motives, these dissenters—not ordinary critics of Israel, but those who seek to help the Palestinians by first attacking the Jewish community—are objectively aiding the enemies of the peace process. They are reinforcing the lie that Jews are the real problem, a delusion that has prevented the Palestinians from taking their destiny into their own hands for so many decades.

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