In the recent two-part Jewish News special report on political divisions in the UK Jewish community a number of interviewees directly or indirectly made reference to Na’amod, a British Jewish anti-occupation group. As a fast-growing organisation building our membership, it’s always nice to be talked about. When even some of the more rightwing, enthusiastic supporters of the brutal reality of the occupation publicly acknowledge the importance of our anti-occupation views within the UK Jewish community, its a sure sign we’re here to stay. It is a shame though that the JN failed to reach out to us to be part of the discussion.
If this decision seems odd, it is in keeping with the frequent practice of Jewish community leaders and organisations to talk around the occupation without ever directly confronting it as the elephant in the room. This tactic no longer works: Na’amod’s vocal criticism of the occupation is not a “fringe” position anymore.
Given the pace of our growth and the resolve of our members, those seeking to heal the community’s divides will not do so by ignoring us, or (more importantly) the reality of the situation in Israel-Palestine.
While some progressive figures quoted such as Rabbi Laura Jenner-Klausner recognise the corrosive effect that our community’s active and passive support for the occupation has had, other communal leaders still bend over backwards to defend the occupation and demonise its critics. Increasingly, communal leaders are having to choose between defending the status quo, or showing the moral leadership our community deserves.
This is nowhere more the case than at the Board of Deputies. In the second part of the report former BoD President Jonathan Arkush is quoted as saying that “…Our job as British Jews is to turn up the volume on Jewish life and defend Israel.” When he describes debating the reality of what goes on in Israel-Palestine as “futile” he is out-of-touch. Many in the community do want to engage with the reality of what is happening on the ground. Increasingly, Jews in the UK are asking why it should be our “job” to defend the Israeli government or the vicious militarised occupation it maintains. Arkush’s position risks conflating British Jewish interests with those of the ascendent Israeli hard-right. He also claims “annexation is misunderstood”. This seems a trifle disingenuous: annexation of territory by conquest is illegal under the UN Charter. Perhaps annexation is misunderstood then, but precisely by whom?
Na’amod’s current campaign, “Racism Isn’t Kosher”, highlights how anti-Palestinian racism plays a role in upholding our community’s support for the occupation. Rabbi Shaw’s contribution to the report emphasises the need for this work. In his celebrated 1978 text Orientalism, Palestinian academic Edward Said outlines how common Orientalist tropes in western cultural imaginaries construct a self-image of the “Enlightened” and “rational” West through opposition to the “savage” and “backward” Oriental Other. Rabbi Andrew Shaw’s reference to Israel as “an oasis of peace in a desert of savagery” is a classic example of one of these tropes. As Said notes, the problem is not simply that portraying Palestinians or other Arabs as violent savages is offensive: such epithets are also used to help justify keeping millions of people under an oppressive regime of occupation by diminishing their humanity.
What might we say about community divides if asked to be part of the discussion?
Firstly, our growing membership attests that the Jewish community in this country is nowhere near as comfortable with the daily infringements of human rights and natural justice that the occupation entails as many of our community leaders and institutions would have us believe. Secondly, some divisions are important. We need to be more open to having difficult conversations about Israel in our community spaces, rather than dismissing them as “futile”. No longer can the occupation be tolerated as if it were a mere temporary arrangement, or on the basis that there is community consensus around a two state solution which is ever more unlikely. Finally, we believe our community needs to apply the values we hold around equality and justice on international issues elsewhere to Israel-Palestine. Moreover, we need to ensure there is no room for any form of racism anywhere in our communities.
Unfortunately, at the moment much of our community leadership is committed to unquestioningly defending the occupation. With some notable exceptions, they seem far more concerned about making it unacceptable to call Israel an apartheid state than about the unacceptable practices that lead to the word being invoked. Too often, leaders pay lip service to a two-state solution, whilst ignoring the reality with which Palestinians must live. Our community deserves a better, more honest approach.
The vacuum this leaves helps explain why Na’amod orientation events for new members are so extraordinarily popular. Our membership bridges geographical, denominational and generational divides. We have a range of views on Israel-Palestine, but share a steadfast opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. We oppose the demolition of homes of Palestinian families for whom obtaining planning permission is an impossbility, we oppose the epidemic of settler violence designed to pressure Palestinians into leaving their homes, we oppose the application of two different legal regimes to Palestinians and Jews living in the West Bank. Excluding us from the conversation won’t make us, or the issues we’re raising, go away.