The Board has mistaken silence for neutrality

A Board of Deputies plenary, with President Marie van der Zyl (second left)
A Board of Deputies plenary, with President Marie van der Zyl (second left)

The Board of Deputies’ statement of 22nd May statement explained that they would not take a position on Israel’s anticipated annexation of parts of the West Bank because they “do not in good faith support one view over the other”. However their rationale, that by staying silent they support neither those who are for, nor those who are against, annexation, is flawed. In fact the Board’s silence provides tacit but powerful support for annexation.

With annexation looking imminent, there are two choices: opposing it, or silently watching it proceed. Silence always benefits those holding power by smoothing the path for their actions. The Board’s silence sends a message to the Israeli government that the Diaspora will remain silent and offer continuing unquestioning support even as it accelerates its violation of Palestinian rights and hammers the final nail into the coffin of the two state solution. Silence in these circumstances is not impartiality. There is a reason that the debate in the community is betweenthose who ask the Board to speak out and those who ask them to remain silent – proponents of annexation understand that the Board’s silence helps them.

The Board’s statement explains that they have to take into account that Israel has an elected government which reflects the will of Israeli voters. However suggestions that we have no right to express a view because we do not live and vote in Israel miss the point. It is appropriate and important for the Board to make clear how annexation is perceived by many British Jews and how it will affect the British Jewish community’s relationship with Israel. It is then a matter for the Israeli government as to whether to take Diaspora voices into account.

We must also recognise that annexation is not an internal Israeli matter that can be legitimately determined solely by Israeli voters or officials. Annexation will determine the future of the Palestinian people living in the West Bank and beyond, who cannot vote for the Israeli government. This is an international issue and international voices have a valid and important role.

As for those who argue that speaking out on this issue would give succour to antisemites – whether the Board stays silent or whether the Board speaks out, antisemites will use the position to further their own ends. This inevitability cannot determine the Board’s position on an issue of such fundamental importance.

Whilst the Board have also referred to the diversity of views in the community as a reason for silence, the extent of opposition to annexation is clear, and is illustrated by the signatories of the youth letter opposing annexation ranging from Yachad to Stand With Us, and the anti-annexation letter from prominent Jewish community members including figures from across the political spectrum. It is evident from the breadth and depth of this opposition that annexation would irredeemably damage our community’s relationship with Israel, even if some community members support it. The Board should acknowledge this publicly.

It is not too late for the Board to change course. Some of the key assumptions underlying their initial stance have now been undermined. Their statement emphasised their “continued belief in a negotiated two-state solution, leading to a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state”, and the Board’s President, Marie van der Zyl, has suggested that annexation is compatible with a negotiated two state solution. Whilst this may have been a convenient way of side-stepping having to make a decision, it is now abundantly clear that it is not a sustainable proposition.

In an interview with Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom in late May, Netanyuahu was asked about a Palestinian state. He replied “If they [the Palestinians] see fit to meet and accept about 10 stringent conditions… then they will have an entity of their own that President Trump defines as a state. There are those who claim and – an American statesman told me: ‘But Bibi, it won’t be a state.’ I told him, call it what you want”. Plainly, Netanyahu envisages neither negotiations nor a Palestinian state. In the same interview Netanyahu was asked whether the several thousand Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, one of the areas to be annexed, would receive Israeli citizenship. His response was unequivocal: no. This is indefensible.

Over a hundred prominent Israeli and international experts on international law last week joined to condemn annexation as a “flagrant violation of bedrock rules of international law” which would “pose a serious threat to international stability”. Israel cannot be a light unto the nations if it is actively destabilising the international legal order through blatant disregard of its basic norms.

The time has come when all of us have to pick a side, even if we would prefer not to have to. This has been underlined by Israel’s choice of their next ambassador to the UK: Tzipi Hotovely, a woman who last year criticised the Board of Deputies for supporting a two state solution saying “the idea of a Palestinian state is one that the State of Israel completely opposes… an organization that supports the establishment of a Palestinian state is clearly working against Israeli interests”.

In selecting Hotovely as the next UK ambassador the Israeli government is sending a clear message to British Jewry, also telling them to make a choice: you can either be with us and unequivocally support our vision, or we do not want your support. It’s time for the Board to heed this message, make a choice, and acknowledge that Netanyahu’s vision for Israel’s future is one that dismays most British Jews.

Standing up against injustice is rarely the easy option. However for the Board to continue to choose silence means they are, in effect, choosing to support annexation, the end of the two state solution, the denial of self-determination for the Palestinian people and the end of Israeli democracy. It’s time for the Board to make the right choice.

About the Author
Anna Roiser is a lawyer also studying part-time for an MA in Israeli Studies at SOAS.
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