Be mindful about the impact of annexation debate on our community

A Palestinian boy looks behind a wall separating Jewish  (Jewish News AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A Palestinian boy looks behind a wall separating Jewish (Jewish News AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Baroness Altmann’s “should not offer succour to its enemies” defence of the Board of Deputies’ decision to not issue a statement on Israel’s proposed annexation, of at least parts, of the West Bank from next month opens up a whole set of questions and concerns that deserve attention irrespective of your views on Israel’s plans.

To be clear and upfront.

I am opposed and have deep fears about the proposed annexation. I

have been listening carefully to what my colleagues and our partners in Israel are telling me about the unilateral plan.

I fear the grave consequence for the Palestinian people, but also for Israel; for its democratic character, its security and its international standing. Also, neither I or the New Israel Fund have been involved in any meaningful way in the campaign to have the Board of Deputies speak up or in the ensuing debate. This is not a criticism of the young people from our community and others who have raised their voice. Rather it reflects the focus of NIF in supporting the work of civil society on the ground in Israel.

The questions and concerns that Baroness Altmann’s article – and an earlier defence by Baroness Deech – raise are about the value, credibility and purpose of defending the Board or any other communal body remaining silent with a “playing into the hands of people who hate Israel and who hate Jews” line.

I have three headline questions for those articulating this line. The first is about the evidence for it? I do not underplay the real issues of anti-Israel hate and its connection to antisemitism. However given its implications for those motivated by a positive relationship and care for Israel, the extent to which the Board of Deputies or others making a statement on Israel fuels hate needs to be understood. I have heard this argument and concern about giving succour to Israel/our enemies for many years. Indeed I have a strong recollection of the first time I was challenged with this argument during my time as co-Chair of the Zionist Youth Council in the late 1990s. It would be great to see arguments drawing on evidence. 

The second question I have for Baroness Altmann and others is whether the extension of their argument is that the Board of Deputies and other representative bodies should have no policy positions on Israel? And indeed, whether they should go as far as withdrawing their existing policies. Is a position critical of annexation more likely to “give succour” than other publicly-stated positions? There is an argument here about consistency. The Board has a detailed and recently re-affirmed position in support of a negotiated two-state solution. Should this be dropped for fear of what it might give to Israel’s enemies? There are many experts who consider unilateral annexation the antithesis of a negotiated two-state solution and it is certainly risks being a “superior view”. 

Understanding how far the concern about having a position extends also helps clarify the motivations of those articulating it. We have seen attempts by those supportive of Israel’s annexation plans co-opting this approach with the intention to stifle dissent. Holding a view that a community representative body should hold no public views on Israel is very different for stopping at ‘don’t have a view on annexation’. 

My third question is one about the potential costs or downsides of this approach. Our community’s engagement and support of Israel has never been uniform or sterile and in particular our young people have regularly called out our community leadership on whether and how to use their voice. My memory is long enough to recall the passionate debate in the 1990s pre- and post-Oslo Accords on exactly this question.

My three questions to Baroness Altmann of course do not relate to annexation itself but to our community, the health and strength of our relationship to Israel and Israel’s role in our personal and communal identity. As the debate about the Board of Deputies and how it relates to the threat of annexation continues we should all be minded to consider the potential impact in our community. 

About the Author
Adam Ognall is Chief Executive of the New Israel Fund.