Debates around Israel should not cause further divisions in our community

Young Jews protest against the US embassy move

I am certain many of you have been following the recent domestic developments in Israel. As many self-proclaimed experts within the community have attempted to do so already, I do not think providing my own thoughts on the issue would be of much interest to anyone. However, I wish to draw attention to something which I believe to be as important, and that is how the debate around it has played out in British Jewry. I am concerned by how many of those in the diaspora have approached this sensitive conversation, and it seems that some have not considered the effects that these very public and aggressive political campaigns have on community cohesion.

I would like to begin by making it clear that the West Bank annexation issue is a contentious one, perhaps especially so in Israel where there is a free press and a vibrant democracy. We also know that there is a wide range of perspectives among individual British Jews on the matter, across all ages and demographics. As they say, two Jews, three opinions!

Given this, it is impossible to say that there is a consensus or a majority among British Jews in favour or against any action Israel may be about to take. A 2010 survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on British Jewish attitudes towards Israel found that on contentious topics such as settlements and Israeli policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank, the community was bitterly divided pretty much down the middle. Unsurprisingly, there was a sizeable denominational split, in general orthodox and traditional Jews tended to be more unequivocal in their support for Israel’s policies whilst Jews from religiously progressive movements were more likely to be critical.

There was another notable division that the survey revealed, namely educational achievement. This was also a factor that impacted people’s political stance towards Israel. British Jews with at least postgraduate qualifications were more likely to condemn actions of the Israeli government. Conversely, those in our community with a more elementary educational background were stauncher in their defence of the Jewish state. What struck me is how analogous this was to the Brexit referendum of 2016, which exposed very similar social divisions.  I suspect there might have been other demographic correlations based on age, geography and class – although the survey did not address these issues explicitly.

I say all this because recently I have seen a lot of noise from friends on social media campaigning either for or against the proposed actions by the Israeli government. Of course, you have free speech and I don’t wish to censor you in anyway. However, I think it is important you bear in mind a few things when or if you choose to do this.

  • Firstly, please understand that your voice only represents yourself and not the whole Jewish community. This goes for people both in favour of the ‘annexation’ and those against it. Please also realise that whenever you take a side on the matter, automatically almost half of British Jewry will inevitably disagree with you. As I said the community is bitterly divided on sensitive topics like this and I urge you to avoid exacerbating these rifts. I will come on to this later.
  • Make sure when you post or share things you do not make unsubstantiated claims or issue statements based solely on conjecture. I have found that this is particularly common in debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which I can attest is one of the most complicated and multi-faceted political disputes in the world. Whenever you make a claim, try and back it up with evidence or a link of some sort.
  • Realise also that we all live in our own echo chambers. Trust me, we do. Among many of my friends who have publicly expressed their disapproval with the Israeli government, they almost unanimously share the same political persuasions (are broadly liberal or progressive in their outlook on most matters) and are generally quite affluent and middle-class (many went to posh private schools in North London and live in the leafy metropolitan suburbs of Hampstead and Camden.) They are also from predominantly non-orthodox youth movements and are Ashkenazi. This contrasts with many Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews who tend to have much more right-leaning views on Israel due to their own families’ historical experiences in the Middle East and North Africa. I ask everyone to break out of their echo chambers, strive to be open-minded, and to expose oneself to as many views as possible. That is how people grow and learn.
  • When or if you criticise Israel publicly, make sure you do not feed into the antisemitic trope that somehow British Jews have undue influence over the policies of the Israeli government. The widely accepted IHRA definition of antisemitism states that British Jews should not be held responsible for the actions of Israel. If we lobby the Israeli government too hard to act a certain way, it might be perceived by many that we can instruct the Israeli government to change its policy whenever we demand it do so. Therefore, I urge people to at least display a certain degree of caution when they do this.
  • Every British Jew should understand that we do not live in Israel at this time. I accept that still means you may have the right to an opinion, but we do not share the same experiences that Israelis have to go through. None of us were conscripted into an army where we might have needed to risk our lives defending our country, we do not have a ‘safe’ room in our house which can convert into a bomb shelter, and neither do we have to go through airport style security when we visit a shopping centre. This is the daily reality for our Israeli friends and family. It is all very easy to pontificate in our cosy and safe houses over here but understand that thousands of miles away the reality on the ground is very different. We don’t live it or breathe it. It is also arrogant to suggest that we as British Jews know more, where Israelis might be incapable of seeing the broader picture.
  • I would also like to warn those who use and distort the Torah, Halakha or any other religious text to promote their political agenda. For example, I have seen statements on the internet along these lines:

‘Judea and Samaria have been promised to the Jews as a divine right and applying sovereignty there is the will of the Almighty.’

Conversely, a statement as silly from the other side might be something like this:

‘The religious commandment of Tikun Olam and social justice mandates all Jews like me to oppose annexation.’

There is no Mitsvah in the Torah which tell Jews where they must specifically stand on the political spectrum. Mixing religion and politics in such a direct and blatant manner can only have very dangerous repercussions. Ultimately, this is what drove Yigal Amir to assassinate Yitschak Rabin. Unfortunately, I see this happening more often by those both on the right and the left and I urge everyone to refrain from doing it as soon as possible.

  • Finally, I would like to express my concern that the current discourse around Israel is creating a toxic paradigm of ‘good’ Jews versus ‘bad’ ones. The ‘good’ Jews are the cool ones ‘woke’ enough to call out Israel publicly, whilst the ‘bad’ Jews are the ones who for various reasons feel uncomfortable doing so. Disavowing the Jewish state in such a public way in the hope that somehow the world will like Jews more will never work. In fact, anti-Semites flourish when Jews are divided, and they are more than willing to pit one against another. Appeasing anti-Semites will not make their Jew hatred disappear – if anything it will have the opposite effect of exacerbating it.

If your sole purpose for publicly chastising Israel is to conform to the latest trendy bandwagon, I would ask that you reconsider the impact of your behaviour. Such virtue signalling can have adverse consequences for all Jews.

I would like to finish by reminding everyone of two very fundamental Jewish values. The first is that whenever we discuss these very controversial discussions, either in the public forum of a newspaper or even around a Friday night table, we always do it לשֵׁם שָׁמַֹֽים, for the sake of heaven. The centrality of Israel in most of our identities is so precious that it should not be used as an opportunity to engage in cheap political point scoring. If someone wishes to criticise Israel constructively, they should only be doing it out of love and with a desire solely to improve it.

The other is the principle of Jewish unity. אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל; we are brothers, all the House of Israel. We are a very diverse people in many ways, and that can also be seen very clearly in our political differences. However, political disagreements should never be an excuse to cause further discord. Whether you are Bibi or not to Bibi, a Na’amodnik or a Likud-Herutnik, or ultimately pro or anti ‘annexation’, this should not matter. Regardless of which political mast you nail your colours to, our bond as a people should always be stronger, and that should always overcome our differences. If that is seemingly impossible, then I do worry for the future of Jewish life in the diaspora.

About the Author
I am a British Jewish student studying mathematics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. In my spare time I represent the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Additionally, I am the chair of the Birmingham Israel Society, a student led initiative dedicated to educating the wider population around the culture, politics and history of the modern Jewish state. In a similar capacity I am a fellow for CAMERA on Campus.
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