Is the organized British Jewish community stifling debate over Israel by raising the specter of anti-Semitism against critics?
A group launched in early February called Independent Jewish Voices believes the organized community is indeed stifling debate. The mainstream community says the claims are baseless and not worthy of a response — but it is responding.
“Independent Jewish Voices arose out of our sense of frustration that British Jewry [was] assumed to talk with one voice, and also that criticism of Israel from Jews is often targeted as anti-Semitic,” Jacqueline Rose, a founding member of the group, told JTA.
IJV said its intent is “to promote the expression of alternative Jewish voices because the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole.”
She continued, “certainly we are hoping to open up a broader space for debate, and our aim would be to involve the widest possible participation from the Jewish community in this country.”
The step comes as some have warned of rifts in the community.
“Different views are healthy,” one British-Israeli academic, Ronnie Fraser of Academic Friends of Israel, told JTA. “Discussion and argument is part of Jewish culture. But there’s more factionalism now within the community than for a long time. Internal fighting shouldn’t be our priority right now. I find it worrying.”
In a country where Jews account for less than one-half of 1 percent of the total population, you might not expect the launch of a Jewish splinter group to cause much of a flap. But it has, with more than 1,000 responses lodged within a week after the IJV posted an open letter and declaration Feb. 5 on a feature of the Guardian newspaper’s Web site called Comment is Free.
Perhaps the attention is due to the prominence of some IJV members, such as Mike Leigh, an Academy Award-nominated director, and playwright/actor Stephen Fry.
IJV’s letter put forth five principles it wanted upheld “in respect of the grave situation in the Middle East” — that human rights are universal; that Palestinians and Israelis have the right to live peaceful and secure lives; that peace and stability require a willingness to comply with international law; that there is no justification for any form of racism; and that the battle against anti-Semitism is undermined when opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic, as they claim it is.
It was the final point that most raised the hackles of the mainstream British Jewish community, with the implication that the Jewish establishment is somehow silencing voices of dissent.
“The whole suggestion that anti-Israeli voices are not heard is such nonsense that it really doesn’t merit a response,” said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
“They are entitled to their view, but it is far from the prevailing one in the community,” Benjamin went on to tell JTA. “They seem not to be able to accept that most British Jews have formed a different view to theirs and instead ascribe it to some kind of malign influence from above.”
“The minority view must accept that the majority will be critical of them,” Fraser told JTA.
Other prominent British Jews reacted with equal amounts of indignation and even stronger words.
Melanie Philips, a highly vocal British Jewish commentator who debated IJV signatory Rabbi David Goldberg on the BBC’s “NewsNight” program, called IJV on her Web site “an unlovely collection of congenital Israel bashers.”
She then branded them “Jews for Genocide,” accusing IJV members of maintaining “either the most tangential or even no connection with the [Jewish] community or Judaism” who only “identify themselves as Jews in order to vilify the Jewish nation state.”
But many voices came out in support of IJV. One blogger on Comment is Free wrote, “It’s refreshing to hear honest critique from within the cabal… Long live your brave and enlightened initiative. May it function as a clarion call for many other like-minded souls.”
One American blogger wrote, “This is a wonderful development. Speaking as an American Jew attempting to do the same here with our hidebound leadership, I applaud what you’re doing. Much success.”
Fraser said “nobody could disagree with” IJV’s five guiding principles, or with the group’s right to free speech, but she sees the rift in the Jewish community as a concern.
If IJV indeed aimed to open up the debate about the community’s connection to Israel, it has achieved its goal.
One blogger on Comment is Free noted the old Jewish saying, “If you put two Jews in a room, you will get three different opinions.”