Jews have opinions about everything, as would be apparent to anyone who has ever been at a Kiddush (remember those?) or taken part in lockdown webinars. As a writer who favoured Brexit, there was a time when I refused to engage on the subject for fear of being cast into the outer darkness.
Acquaintances in the medical and legal community have a variety of views on Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid-19. And while everyone can feel nothing but horror over the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there are a variety of views as to whether protest (breaching lockdown law) and tearing down history is really the best response.
If Jews in the UK think it is okay to have views on race and protest in the US, the future of Hong Kong, the EU and everything else, why not Israel? Every so often, an issue arises that divides British Jewry. The community was more or less united in speaking out against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. It rallies to Israel’s defence when there is military conflict and there is a deep vein of Zionist loyalty that pulses through all tribes of British-Jewry. Even the most eloquent voices on the rights of the Palestinians gladly own second homes in Israel and relish its achievements.
It is fine for British Jews to have a strong public view on the Netanyahu-Trump peace plan and the proposals for annexation of settlement lands and parts of the Jordan Valley. The case against annexation is well rehearsed.
In global affairs, unilateral actions, whether it was Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, or Russia’s attempt to assert sovereignty over parts of Ukraine, end badly. Properly negotiated treaties or truces may be hard to achieve, but tend to have buy-in from most sides. A deal over the Jordan Valley, which excludes the Palestinians from any say in their fate, will always lack legitimacy. It may even leave Jewish settlers more isolated as part of hostile enclaves inside Israel with a redrawn eastern boundary but more formally surrounded by Palestinian territory.
A convention has grown up inside the Board of Deputies of British Jews that to pronounce on an issue as contentious as annexation is none of its business and a matter for Israel alone. The mantra of a negotiated two-state solution and sitting on the fence is the resulting fudge.
But if it is fine to rush to the barricades in defence of social justice for African Americans and other world wrongs, it is surely fine for it to have a view on annexation. Not becoming involved, on the grounds it is none of our business, would be a historic error. It might be seen as similar to earlier misjudgements when parts of Anglo-Jewry were lukewarm about the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the 1948 march towards a Jewish state because it might undermine their standing as British citizens.
I can do without the self-satisfied preening of round-robin letters by the great and the good. The letter to Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev signed by such distinguished figures as Simon Schama and former secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a case in point. Most of the signatories have sufficient status to speak out on their own account, as Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis did with such moral power on Corbyn and antisemitism before the 2019 election.
The fact the letter writers felt the need to speak out draws attention to a leadership deficit. Communal groups pay a representation fee to the Board of Deputies and elect deputies to express a view, not to have strong opinions neutralised. Our elected and self-appointed community leaders cannot simply sit on their hands and claim it is a matter for Israel alone.
If something is morally and diplomatically wrong, speak up. If the elected leadership thinks the annexation idea is just what is needed to secure Israel’s future then get the backing of deputies and say so.
Standing back and waiting for an improvised bomb to detonate should not be an option.