Britain’s oldest Jewish leadership institution, the Board of Deputies, has long been in denial about the reality on the ground for Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. But in the lead-up to this week’s European Parliamentary Elections (today in the UK and 25 May across the continent) the Board’s attitude is starting to make it look like a communal body with a terminal condition. Not only has it lost touch with political reality but it has turned its back on traditional Jewish ethics as well.
For Palestinians this may be of only marginal interest. What would you expect from a staunchly Zionist Jewish institution? But with the the collapse of the Obama/Kerry initiative and the growing success of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns in Europe, the dynamics of Jewish community politics across the continent are starting to look a lot more interesting.
A close reading of the Board’s EU manifesto, designed to give candidates an understanding of Jewish “issues and concerns”, reveals the moral mess it has got itself into by choosing to take such an uncritical line on Israel at the expense of mainstream Jewish values. These internal contradictions are becoming all the more glaring now that Washington has barely tried to disguise its frustrations at the Israeli government’s intransigence. Any European politician with even a passing knowledge of the conflict is going to find the Board’s position curious, if not laughable, in its apparent naivety.
Let me illustrate the ethical contortions and the political blindness that the Board is now displaying which I believe will lead to its ultimate undoing.
The Board’s EU manifesto starts off in a high minded tone that links Judaism and Jewish history to the development of human rights. There’s plenty to warm the heart of any liberal Western European Jew.
“Human Rights are a central tenet of the Jewish faith. From the Bible onwards numerous texts speak about the importance of caring for others and upholding their rights. Genesis 1:27 tells us that all people are created ‘in the image of God’. If all humans are created in the ‘image of God’, it follows that all human beings have an equal, innate dignity which must be respected.”
The manifesto goes on to co-opt to its cause René Cassin (1887-1976), the French Jewish co-author of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cassin, the manifesto reminds us, was profoundly influenced by the ethical framework of his Jewish background, as well as the recent experience of the Holocaust.
And then things come right up to date with the Board’s call for European action:
“Human Rights abuses continue to occur throughout Europe and around the world, and the Jewish community urges the EU to continue to address these issues.”
All very worthy, until you try and search for any example of the Board expressing the slightest concern over the mounting documentation of human rights abuses against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem.
The Board prefers not to comment on human rights abuses where the Israeli government is concerned. Jewish establishment institutions in the UK, and across Europe, are typically liberal, religiously pluralistic and multi-cultural in all matters – until it comes to Israel. At which point a different set of rules seems to apply and René Cassin, even though he was a supporter of Zionism, is no longer a part of the reckoning.
And so the moral schizophrenia emerges, caused by decades of allowing the State of Israel to dictate policy to the European Jewish diaspora.
So how does this play out in the Board’s advice on EU-Israel relations to would-be European parliamentarians?
Essentially, the Board insists that Europe be nice to Israel as the best way to encourage it to make peace.
“The EU undoubtedly has a role in assisting the peace process. In addition to facilitating high level diplomatic meetings, the EU could offer a variety of incentives that encourage both sides to make strides towards peace, including financial investment packages in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the promotion of trade between the two sides, building trust and links between them.”
Tell that to John Kerry, he could do with a chuckle. After all the “variety of incentives” political and economic offered by the Americans you’d think they might have got something in return. Does the Board really expect MEPs to now believe that Israel will voluntarily give up power, privilege and territory without some kind of external pressure? Show me a moment in history where any group or country has responded only to the carrot.
Now I don’t expect the Board to be promoting BDS, but its opposition only reveals more of its double standards. When it comes to Iran, sanctions are to be kept up until Tehran backs down, according to the manifesto. It seems only Israel has the right to have nuclear weapons. But the right of the Palestinians to call for non-violent economic protest in support of human rights is presented as unfair and illegitimate.
I began to search in the manifesto to find any mention of the word “Settlements”. But no joy. This despite the international community (including the UK, EU and USA) all recognising that they are a central obstacle to any peace. Nor does the document ever mention anything called “the occupied territories” or even “disputed territory”.
Why should any EU politician take this manifesto seriously when it fails to mention the giant blue and white elephant sitting in the room? Especially after Israel gave the green light to nearly 14,000 new Jewish homes on the West Bank during the 9 months that Kerry was trying to get agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. Such denial of the facts on the ground is making the Board look increasingly irrelevant.
And having lost the respect of the Euro-politicians, the Board will soon find itself increasingly at odds with the next generation of British Jews. The mismatch of proclaimed Jewish ethics and the unquestioning defence of Israel will eventually cause an open schism in the Jewish community. At which point the Board will no longer be able to claim the cross-community Jewish consensus that inhibits politicians of all parties, national and European, from taking a more principled stand on Israel/Palestine.
The Board itself may have already started to acknowledge its perilous position. A leaked internal memo reported in the UK’s Jewish News shows the Board’s executive starting to agonise over its self-inflicted wounds. Some soul searching is long over due.
As American intervention scales back, thanks to the domestic election cycle and the US pro-Israel lobby, it could be Europe’s moment to step up and make a move. European politicians will have to overcome their post-Holocaust guilt complex to do this but the behaviour of institutions like the Board will make it a lot easier for them.
As a British Jew in active solidarity with the Palestinian’s cause, Europe is looking to me like an increasingly interesting place to be.
Robert Cohen is a UK blogger. A related post appears at Micah’s Paradigm Shift.