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The uncomfortable silence of British Jewry

In the battle being waged against Israel's legitimacy, U.K. Jews are sitting ever so quietly on the sidelines

In what’s becoming a regular and predictable occurrence, yet another leading British politician attacked Israel and the American Jewish lobby. This time it was MP and former Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw. Speaking of Israeli “theft” of Palestinian land and “Germany’s obsession with [defending] Israel,” Straw lamented the “unlimited funds available to Jewish organizations … used to divert American policy and intimidate candidates.”

With this blistering, Protocols-of-Zion-like comment warning the world of Jewish political hegemony, Straw has joined the ranks of a growing number of British leaders who libel the Jewish state with impunity as a matter of course. But equally troubling is how these accusations of Jewish conspiracy are met with near-silence in the British Jewish community. The outrage over these appalling comments came not from the Office of the British Chief Rabbi or other senior Anglo-Jewish figures but from former Israeli Knesset member Einat Wilf, and Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the outstanding Daniel Taub, both of whom were quick to denounce Straw’s comments. Joining them were The Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. But the wider British Jewish community played it safe.

This December marks the 25th anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe sending me and my wife to serve the needs of the students of Oxford University. When I arrived in England and established the Oxford L’Chaim Society, anti-Israel bias was of course present, but nowhere near today’s levels. The Oxford Union hosted several anti-Israel speakers, and we responded with six Israeli Prime Ministers. Back then it would have been nearly inconceivable for a Member of Parliament to say that the Israeli government is comparable to Nazi Germany, as MK George Galloway does openly and shamelessly. When I was in Oxford, I had never heard reports of Jewish students afraid to publicly identify as Jewish, or wear a Yarmulke, although it has become the norm at some English universities today. There was also the utterly astonishing proposal to bar Israeli academics at Oxford University in February and, not to be outdone, senior Cambridge University professor Stephen Hawking joined the BDS movement this past May.

While Lord Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of England, he met each of these challenges to Israel’s legitimacy with near silence. Worse, he invariably found himself in the company of some of Israel’s worst critics, infamously telling The Guardian in 2002 of the Israel Defense Forces: “There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” He added that Israel’s posture in the Middle East was “incompatible” with the deepest ideals of Judaism and was slowly becoming “corrupted.”

I have a long professed admiration for Rabbi Sacks’ eloquence and unmatched articulation of Jewish ideas. But his reluctance to defend Israel against growing assault and the tsunami of anti-Semitism that erupted through the more than two decades of his Chief Rabbinate undermined his stature and significantly diminished him as a leader. It appears that even in retirement, where he can no longer cite the limitations of his office to speak freely, he has chosen to remain a neutral observer in the war to delegitimize Israel.

There are high expectations for the newly installed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, whom I knew when I lived in the UK and who is receiving high marks for his warmth and communal engagement. But now is the time for him to rise to world prominence and reestablish the thinning office of Chief Rabbi by becoming a defender of his people and speaking truth to power.

Anglo-Jewry hosts countless active Jewish organizations. British Jews are among the most charitable and generous of Jewish communities anywhere. But numbers continue to decline because institutions don’t engender the same ferocious Jewish pride of their American counterparts, which can only come about through the assertion of Jewishness in the face of withering, unjust critique. Most American Jews are not very observant. But they love and defend Israel. The American Jewish community lobbies unashamedly for Israel, and organizations like AIPAC are formidable advocates. American Jews are prepared to criticize their government, its senators, and even its president if their policies are unfair to Israel.

In Britain, however, hesitation often wins out over defense, with the fear that the mainstream can grow even more hostile if antagonized. Moreover, the absurd mentality of being a guest in someone else’s country – antithetical to the whole idea of democracy – continues to prevail in some Jewish quarters.

While at Oxford I had the honor of befriending the great philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, a man of unparalleled wisdom, humanity, and humility. But once, while walking on the Oxford High Street together on a sunny spring day, Sir Isaiah told me I ought to tuck in my tzitzis. He also opposed the large Chanukah menorah I erected in the city center each year. “My cousin” — by which he meant the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to whom he was related — “is a missionary. But [England] is not our country, and we have no right to impose our religion on its citizens.” Mind you, Sir Isaiah was one of the proudest Jews I had ever met. He proudly asserted his Jewish identity at all times and in all places. But even he succumbed to the idea of a Jewish community that is the guest of a foreign host.

Today’s British Jews are in need of creating a new paradigm in which Jews are the absolute equals of every other British citizen and can confidently and unashamedly challenge their elected representatives when they say something horrendous about Israel.

As in every other democracy in which Jews live, we are no better, nor less, than anyone else.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.