PRAGUE (JTA) — The launch of JCall has brought the debate that American Jewry has seen over J Street to Jewish Europe: Outside of Israel, how critical in public should you be of Israeli government policies you believe are not in Israel’s best interests?
The founders of JCall, who seek to push what they see as a recalcitrant Israeli government closer to a two-state solution, say criticism of Israeli policies is constructive and necessary.
“All of us are Zionists, but by the same token we can express our ideas about the situation and the two-state solution,” David Chemla, a JCall co-founder and the head of Peace Now in France, told JTA. “It is sane to have the debate openly and not leave it to the radicals.”
But the emergence of JCall, which held its official launch Monday at the European Parliament in Brussels, has aggravated European Jewish communal leaders with a long tradition of unconditional defense of Israel. The European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing elected European Jewish community leaders, condemned JCall’s petition calling for European pressure on Israel’s government as “divisive, counter-productive and unhelpful.”
“It is important to note that continued one-sided pressure on Israel does not encourage the Palestinians to engage in serious negotiations and only endangers the already unstable situation in the region,” European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor said, arguing that JCall represents a minority viewpoint in Europe.
The debate JCall has engendered in Europe mirrors the one in the United States ever since the left-wing, pro-Israel lobbying group J Street was founded in 2008 as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Chemla and other JCall leaders said they were inspired by J Street.
So far, the group’s main activity has been to amass signatures for an online petition calling for the European Union to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution, repudiating blind support for Israeli policies, and affirming that the establishment of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state is vital to Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state. The group says it is nonpartisan.
“The European Jewish Call for Reason,” as the JCall petition is titled, seeks to “allow the opinions of European Jews, who have been silent for too long, to be expressed publicly and to allow a Jewish voice to be heard that is both committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government.”
As of Tuesday, the petition had more than 4,000 signatories.
Among JCall’s supporters are some prominent French Jews, including philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy and essayist Alain Finkielkraut, as well as Jews from Belgium, Britain, Germany and Switzerland. Prominent Israelis, including Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, and Elie Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to France, showed up at the Brussels launch to lend support to the cause.
"If the situation stays in Israel as it is now, with the settlements and a lot of Arab people inside the country of Israel and no separation and no two-state solution, in not so long there will be a majority of non-Jewish people in Israel,” petition signer Michele Szwarcburt, president of the Secular Jewish Community Center in Brussels, told JTA.
JCall represents a turning point for European Jewish communal voices on Israel, and it comes in a much different context than the United States provides for J Street.
While polls over the past two decades have shown that Americans are more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians, the opposite is true in Europe. In a 2003 EU poll, 59 percent of European respondents said Israel was a greater threat to world peace than Iran, North Korea or Pakistan.
In addition, according to the Stephen J. Roth Institute in Tel Aviv, anti-Semitic incidents in Europe skyrocketed in 2009 following Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. Many communal leaders in Europe say they are concerned that criticism of Israeli policies could escalate into anti-Jewish sentiment, and thus argue that it is essential to line up in public behind Israel.
“The word Zionist has become an insult in France,” Roger Cukierman, the former president of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, told JTA. “In our streets we hear ‘Israel murderer, Israel apartheid.’ They set fire to the flag of Israel, they boycott its products.”
Although Cukierman said he empathizes with JCall’s sentiment, “it divides publicly our support for Israel. I believe it would have been more clever had the debate gone on within the community.”
In France, the country with the largest Jewish population in Europe, a counter-petition to JCall’s has received much media attention and the CRIF executive board unanimously condemned JCall.
David Hirsh, a signatory of JCall’s petition who runs Britain’s Engage network to combat boycotts of Israel instigated by trade unions and academics, said he, too, opposes delegitimizing and boycotting Israel, but that “criticism is not the same as hostility or demonization.”
Among European Jewish leaders, the secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, has been the lone Jewish community executive to openly give his blessing to JCall.
“I think it’s a great idea and that it shows a lot of courage,” Kramer said. “They all are being called traitors, but that’s wrong.”
As for JCall’s future plans, the main effort now is to coordinate discussions among countries. Whether it will become a potent political force or another marginalized European Jewish group critical of Israel remains to be seen.
“JCall could become a big part of this soft anti-Zionist mush, like Jews for Justice for Palestinians,” Hirsh said, “or it could fizzle out, or it could really be something new and interesting.”