After reading Isi Leibler’s recent article on the state of British Jewry, I could weep from the vivid picture he paints of a community under siege from outside and held hostage from within. From outside, a staggering range of anti-Semites and Israel-haters, from grassroots activists up to the British Conservative prime minister, make Jewish life virtually unlivable. From within, a supine, acquiescent, yet wealthy Jewish leadership consisting of “trembling Israelites,” to borrow from the title of Leibler’s piece, holds the community hostage to its unaccountable whims.
It is a disturbing and depressing picture. Or would be if it was true. But thankfully, as an unashamed, outspoken and proudly pro-Israel British (in fact, Welsh) Jew, this is not the Britain I inhabit. That’s not to say British Jews don’t face grave and intensifying challenges. Britain’s global media, universities and NGOs have indeed made the country an international hub for the delegitimization of the Jewish state. And it is true that the community could and should be more forthright in confronting that.
The issues we face are of such long-term importance, however, that it is vital they are addressed sensibly and with a firm grounding in reality. Help and encouragement from outside the UK is welcome and appreciated. But when commentators who don’t live in Britain, and rarely visit, distort that reality to serve their own agendas, it is of questionable assistance. It certainly seems unhelpful for friends from abroad to seek to deepen divisions within the UK Jewish community. It is even more extraordinary to attack and deride communal figures who, of their own volition, have given tirelessly of their money, time and energy.
Many of the communal leaders who aroused Leibler’s vitriol are not paid for their efforts, and are at a level in terms of professional reputations and success that they don’t need their community work to boost their profiles or feel important. They do it solely out of commitment. Leibler criticized a former Board of Deputies president for advocating an approach to campaigning based on “whispering,” not “shouting”; harsh criticism when that president was Henry Grunwald, a distinguished lawyer who led the biggest communal campaign since the days of Soviet Jewry, which successfully overturned proposed anti-shechita legislation.
Mick Davis, a preferred target for some, is known to say no to charity engagements with a £5,000 check. And while it’s true his critical comments regarding the Israeli government triggered upset in many quarters, to paint Davis as anything but a committed and vocal Zionist is absurd. It is an open secret that many of the more public displays of pro-Israel activism in the UK, such as mass rallies in Trafalgar Square, would not have taken place without Davis’s moral, and not just financial, support.
The recent bickering from a minority element within the Board of Deputies toward the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) was not rooted, as Liebler writes, in “tensions associated with the ‘restrained’ Anglo Jewish leadership approach to Israel advocacy.” To suggest so is a distortion. Instead, the dispute should be seen for what it really was: A combination of insufferable, but by no means untypical communal politics of the sort found anywhere, and, pure and simple, the politics of envy.
The Board of Deputies is 250 years old. The JLC is not yet 10. It is natural that it may take time for a clear definition of communal roles to emerge. But there is no doubting that the JLC has access, which it has used for the good of the community. In the old days, as I found from my time at the OCR, the money-men never consulted, going off on frolics of their own without much strategy or coordination. Today, however, to say that the JLC is unaccountable is baloney. Each of its affiliated organizations has to seek approval from its own board in order to pay the JLC subscription fee. This is something I know as a board member of World Jewish Relief. The WJR board vigorously debates the issue each year, with the JLC summoned to present its case. The JLC only exists with the full participation and consent of its constituent Jewish organizations.
As for Jewish life in Britain: Despite the challenges, it is thriving. Are there problems? Of course. Physical threats to the community are fuelled by extreme hostility to Israel. That threat is illustrated by the £2 million for the protection of Jewish schoolchildren from attack, granted by the British government Leibler lambasts to the highly respected and effective Community Security Trust (CST), a cornerstone of the Jewish leadership he criticizes.
We are right also to be concerned by extremism on British campuses and anti-Israel sentiment in sections of the British media, trade unions and NGOs. More needs to be done, but signs of progress are there. As we fight the calls for boycotts, for instance, what better response than the recent figures announced showing trade between Britain and Israel hitting £3.75 billion, up 34 percent in a year?
The challenges facing UK Jewry are significant and cannot be ignored, but neither should they be distorted or embellished. Increasingly, from Jewish schools to Limmud to Jewish Book Week, Jews are celebrating their identity with confidence, vitality and innovation. British Jewish life is experiencing something of a resurgence, proud of its heritage, connected to Israel and finding its voice. Far from running for cover, British Jews are walking tall.