Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
July 31, 2009 - 12:00am

For the most part, London's Jewish community is a shining example of social cohesion and pastoral care. Large charitable donations are raised on a constant basis and distributed to those in need of assistance; sick or lonely individuals are clutched to the communal bosom and provided for by welfare associations and concerned neighbours; and the ethics inculcated into each new generation are built on a bedrock of values dating back to biblical times.

Yet the blind spot that persistently handicaps those from the upper echelons of power down to street level is British Jewry's relationship with Israel. The community is bewitched by a 60-year old spell which dictates that to be a "loyal" Jew, one must profess unconditional love for Israel, regardless of the many faults and failings of the Jewish state.

People who apply logic, reason, and above all compassion in every facet of their daily lives suspend their principles when it comes to Israel, preferring to don a mantle of defiance and defensiveness when dealing with one of the most thorny issues to face Judaism in modern times.

I've just spent a month in the heart of the north-west London bubble, running the gauntlet of pro-Israel zealotry almost every time the Israel/Palestine issue reared its head. Accusing dissenters of being self-haters, traitors and of washing Israel's dirty linen in public is the bread and butter of the diehard Zionist brigade – and that's just to those Jews daring to speak out against Israeli policies and crimes.

Non-Jewish critics of Israel are immediately branded antisemites, with entire media organisations and political parties derided as pathologically obsessed with Israel and the Jews, despite the hypocrisy of those pointing the finger and organising the witchhunts. When journalists or politicians are deemed "friends" of Israel, then those championing their cause can't get enough of the sympathetic press coverage or the cosying-up in diplomatic circles.

Likewise, those demanding an end to dissident voices emanating from Israel are the very same who decry the tyranny in Arab countries. The old guard rule the roost in the British Jewish community, and they've got both the money and the machers to make sure their hegemony remains unchallenged by anyone disagreeing with their stance.

The sheriff's posse can be rounded up at the drop of a hat, and once they've mounted their steeds, the dissenters are swiftly run out of town, or at least driven underground and denied a public airing for their differing opinions. Those at the helm of communal affairs pull rank whenever Israel is deemed to be vulnerable, even if to do so means defending the indefensible in times when Israel's leaders wildly overstep the mark.

The latest figures on antisemitic hate crimes are indisputably unpalatable, yet those releasing the statistics play their own part in ensuring that the Venn diagrams of anti-Israeli and antisemitic sentiment overlap again and again, thanks to their own interlinking of Jewish and Israeli interests.

The CST thought nothing about protecting one of the most insensitively timed and insensitively inspired communal gatherings of recent years, in which the Board of Deputies of British Jews held a mass solidarity rally for Israel right in the midst of the Gaza onslaught. CST acknowledges that the upswing in antisemitic incidents this year is linked to Operation Cast Lead, yet point-blank refuses to see that British Jewry's harnessing itself to the Israel-right-or-wrong bandwagon in the heat of battle gives a green light to any racist looking to label all Jews as supporters of Israeli brutality.

Jewish schools offer classes in "Israel advocacy" to their students, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for British Jewish pupils to be armed with facts and figures to defend the reputation of a state hundreds of miles away and with a vastly different constitution and a set of policies to the country in which they were born, raised and now live. That the Israeli government intends to pay young Israelis to become internet hasbara warriors is bad enough, but for impressionable British teens to be roped into the cause without any recourse to alternative political thinking in the classroom is beyond the pale – and demonstrates the smothering attitude of educators when it comes to dealing honestly with Israeli affairs.

Much of the problem is a generational one: those currently calling the shots in the British Jewish community grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and at a time when Israel appeared to be the besieged underdog, valiantly fighting for survival against all the odds. The narrative of those who lived through those times cannot be easily dismissed, yet the experience of my generation – in which Israel has behaved as both aggressor and occupier on an unending basis – is at least equally valid, if not more so than that of those harking back to a bygone age.

However, just because a new breed of young Jews is emerging, doesn't mean that the influence of our elders is in any way on the wane. For every one open-minded activist or youth worker trying to unyoke themselves from the harness of blind support of Israel, another hundred are happy to swallow the lies fed to them from on high.

For as long as Israel remains beyond the realms of serious criticism or censure by those forming mainstream opinion among British Jews, the community leaves itself open to charges of dishonesty and untrustworthiness by those on the outside – which is the last thing we need – and is a stain on an otherwise laudable reputation. While there is never an excuse for antisemitic violence or rhetoric, we must do everything in our power to put ourselves above reproach so that the racists cannot find any hook for their bilious attacks.

Professing blind support for Israel as though she can do no wrong is the achilles heel of our community. The same honest debate and rational approach that we demand from other sectors of society must be applied by us in the Israeli-Palestinian arena; to do otherwise undermines everything we purport to represent, and will come back to haunt us time and again for as long as the denial continues.


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