David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Britain and Israel – A Meaningless Debate

Board of Deputies debating Israel. Acknowledgement: Board of Deputies

Todays visit to Israel and the Occupied Terrritories by the British foreign Minister, Dominic Rabb is almost as meaningless as was the decision by the  Board of Deputies of British Jews two days ago to declare its support for the two State solution, following weeks of internal dispute amongst community leaders and organisations over the potential implications of Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements, an action which was never likely to have taken place and finally went out of the window as the political agreement between Israel and the UAE was announced two weeks ago.

British Foreign Minister Dominic Rabb. Picture: open Access, Foreign office

Britain has long ceased to be an actor of any importance in the Middle East, especially in Israel / Palestine. Long before Britain’s decision to leave the European Union it no longer had a major role to play as one of twenty seven countries in the Union, while following its departure, it’s influence has declined even further.

And while the visit of Prince Charles on an official state visit just a few months ago was played up in both the Israeli and the Anglo Jewish press, it was largely ignored by the both the Israeli and British public. The less than 24 hour stay in the country to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, played little role in promoting the peace process or in enabling Britain to have special status with regard to Israeli foreign diplomacy.

The same can be said for the month long discussions, debates and arguments which have occupied the British Jewish community in recent months and which culminated in last Sunday’s plenary debate at the Board of Deputies. This elected  organisation which sees itself as representing almost the entire Jewish community,  spends far too much of its time debating and making headlines about Israel, than it  does dealing with the critical issues facing the community itself – not least the alarming rise in anti Semitism which has been experienced in recent years.

The British Jewish community is a proud and pro active community. For a relatively small community, numbering approximately 270,000 people, it kicks well above its proportion in the population. In all fields of life, ranging from politics to the law and from commerce to the academia, members of the British Jewish community figure prominently in public life. There are few international Jewish public figures on the world stage who have as wide a recognition factor as does the emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

But when it comes to Israel, the community leaders, like Britain as a whole, remain wrapped up in an era which has long since passed. Britain’s role in the Mandate, in issuing the Balfour Declaration, in preventing the establishment of a Jewish State in the immediate pre and post World War II years and in eventually departing Palestine in 1948 are of little but historical interest. Depending from which end of the prism you are looking from, Britain’s role in the region has  not always been as positive as some would like to make out.

That does not ignore the fact that most British governments and prime Ministers (unlike its Foreign Ministers) have been highly supportive of Israel, from Harold Wilson to David Cameron and from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown. This situation would have changed radically had Jeremy Corbyn been elected as prime Minister in last years elections. Boris Johnson may not exactly be everyone’s cup of British tea, but as far as the British Jewish community are concerned, including those whose entire life and social activism had been spent as members and activists within the Labour Party, breathed a strong sigh of relief when Corbyn was so heavily defeated. This has enabled many of them to return to the party which has traditionally represented the interests of ethnic and immigrant groups and which, in their eyes, had betrayed its core values in recent years with its focus on anti-Semitic racism which had previously been the exclusive domain of the far right.

Recent years has seen the Balfour Declaration regaining prominence as an annual event focusing on Anglo-Israel relations, but even this has been overplayed and taken out of context given the many political and international events which have taken place in the hundred years since the famous letter was issued. An annual dinner held in Israel, usually with the presence of a senior British political figures, goes unnoticed by the vast majority of the well over thirty thousand British Jews who have come to live in Israel (made Aliyah) in the seventy years since the establishment of the State of Israel. The percentage of British Jews who have come to live in Israel is by far the highest percentage of any free Western democracy who have not been forced out of their country of origin by fears of anti-semitism, but by a positive desire to live in Israel. The descendants of the thirty thousand now number  in the hundreds of thousands – children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They  see themselves as Israelis rather than as British expatriates and find such events as the Balfour dinner to be a quaint  memory of an era past, but with no relevance or significance for today’s political and social changes which take place within Israel itself.

Unlike North American Jewry, a high percentage of British Jews have visited Israel. The shorter distance, the cheaper flights make this possible. A growing number, disproportionately from amongst the religious community, now have holiday homes in Israel – mostly in Jerusalem, Netanya and Ranana – where they  relocate for entire festival periods at Succot and Pesach (Corona year excepting). Many feel that this somehow gives them a right to become more verbose about Israeli politics and society – even though they do not work here, bring their children up here, pay taxes or serve in the army and , in far too many cases, are unable to read the Hebrew press or understand the local news channels. This means that such debates as those which took place last Sunday are often based on limited, and incomplete understandings of the contemporary political complexities, on translations and headlines of the English language press,  lacking any real knowledge of what the maps or borders look like, how they have changed over time or what the demographic changes and projections really are.

Make no mistake, the British Jewish community has much going for it. It is culturally and religiously dynamic, it has become less formal and stuffy than the past and it has a growing involvement in leadership positions of younger highly qualified, socially and media conscious, individuals who, in the past would have been frozen out of such positions until they were in their fifties or sixties. It is a strongly pro-Israel community, although there will always be small sections, be they from the intellectual left or the Haredi right, who do not share this support. At the same time, it is a community which has far too many organisations and charities who seem unable to streamline, to  amalgamate and join forces (probably three times too many),  and is clearly unable to support all of them. It nevertheless remains a highly generous and philanthropic community, for general, Jewish and Israeli causes.

But neither the community or the government have any form of special status with regard to Israel. The public petitions and declarations sent to the outgoing Israeli ambassador, Mark Regev,   opposing annexation, demanding a different ambassador to the one who has been appointed and is in the process of taking up her new position (a young, religious, right wing, Mizrachi woman – unlike anyone who has ever been appointed to an ambassadorial position between the two countries, but who could yet be a future political leader in Israel), and the suchlike, made a laughing stock of the community in the eyes of those few Israelis who heard about it, and of course had absolutely no influence whatsoever in government circles. The left wing critique drew, in its wake, the vocal Anglo Jewish  right wing opposition, which made the argument taking place in London even the more absurd, as though one is more concerned or more patriotic about Israel than the other, while sitting in London.

I am very proud to have grown up in the British Jewish community, one which I continue to visit, lecture in and write about. It is a community which has taken huge steps forward over the past three decades even if it has declined demographically and it can be truly proud of  its cultural breakthroughs with Limmud, the JW3 and a revamped and reinvigorated United Synagogue, now celebrating its 150th anniversary.  But equally it should, as too the British government, recognise its diminished position with regard to current events taking place in Israel, and in the Middle East as a whole. Israel’s political leadership recognises the continuing strategic importance of the USA, the growing importance of Asia, and the role – even if often disagrees with them – of the EU as the major European power in today’s world. And it has, as last weeks agreement demonstrates, understood the importance of creating ties, for the sake of geopolitical realism, with as many countries in the Middle East as is possible – if only because they share a common enemy and not necessarily out of any love relationship.

In the past, any such relationship between the Levant and the Gulf would have fallen within the British realm of diplomacy, but no longer. London may remain a preferred location for much of the ongoing Track II meetings and discussions (although this form of diplomacy is also on the decline as compared with ten years ago), but this is due to its convenient and attractive location and often takes  place without the knowledge or participation of the British diplomatic community and even local journalists. The fact that a preferred informal place of meeting between representatives of these countries may often be found on the terraces of the local premier league football teams, is but one such form of backroom diplomacy which has been seriously impacted by Covid 19.

President of the Board of Deputies, marie van der Zyl
Acknolwedgement: Board of Deputies.

The days when the Anglo-Israel Accord were defined by the Balfour Declaration have long long passed, and it is time to grasp a sense of reality about just where the region is today – both in terms of global diplomacy and in terms of the Jewish world and the Diaspora.   No doubt the Board of Deputies will get back to discussing, and dealing with, the local community issues which are of great concern to them and which, under the present leadership of President Marie Van de Zyl, they do eminently successfully. They should not allow themselves to get side tracked about issues over which they have absolutely no influence and at the end of the day, are meaningless. Equally, Foreign Minister Dominic Rabb should not be deluded into believing that Britain still has a major role to play in bringing greater harmony to this region, as Britain’s declining global and regional power is, unfortunately in the eyes of this writer, pushing it even further to the margins of world diplomacy.


About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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