Internal and external factors in intra-Jewish conflict over Israel and antisemitism

Jewish community of Stamford Hill. Demotix/Piero Cruciatti. All rights reserved.Ethnic,
national and religious groups in most countries are rarely internally
homogeneous. The British Jewish minority is no exception. No more than an
estimated 450,000 strong at its height immediately after World War Two, figures
based on the 2011
census show that there are now less than 300,000 ethnically and/or
religiously self-identifying Jews in the UK.

Sephardim, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, they trace their ancestry from a wide
variety of countries, although the majority are now British-born. They include
secular, reform, conservative, modern orthodox and Haredi Jews (groups which
themselves are internally diverse), and they hold a variety of political
positions on Jewish issues, antisemitism, Israel and much else.

This internal
diversity has only recently started to become visible outside the Jewish
minority and to be recognised within it. For many years, the dominant and
long-established Jewish ‘representative’ institutions
such as the Chief Rabbinate and the Board of Deputies attempted to present an
image of a loyal, secure and united British Jewish community –
what Ben
Gidley and I have called the “strategy
of security”.
This strategy was never uncontested, but in the post-war period it became
increasingly unviable as a variety of Jewish groups sought their place at both
the public and communal tables.

questions of Israel and antisemitism have become a source of ever greater
conflict in British Jewry

While this strategy
initially developed in a nineteenth-century Britain that required ‘loyal’ citizens
who would be publicly British and only privately Jewish, it was sustained
longer than might have been expected in the post-war period. However, by the
1990s, Jewish religious diversity at least had become impossible to ignore both
internally and externally.

The fiction, for
example, that the Chief Rabbinate was the religious authority for all British
Jews – when
he does not represent secular, non-orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews –
was untenable not just inside the Jewish community, where
non-orthodox Judaisms fought hard to find a place at the communal table, but
also in non-Jewish circles too. For example, it now became routine for
non-orthodox as well as orthodox leaders to be invited to national ceremonies
and to be consulted by government.

Religious diversity
is still a difficult issue today inside the British Jewish community, but it
has become much more manageable and accepted as a permanent reality. However,
other differences remain much more difficult to navigate. Since 2000, although
starting before then, the questions of Israel and antisemitism have become a
source of ever greater conflict in British Jewry, as well as in other diaspora
Jewish populations.

The problem is less
the existence of difference itself, so much as the recognition of that
difference and the right of certain groups to be seen as legitimate
participants in Jewish communal life.

Jews and Israel

Jewish community of Stamford Hill. Demotix/Piero Cruciatti. All rights reserved.In my
recent work on the Jewish conflict over Israel, I have argued that, between
1967 and 2000, the dominant position that prevailed in the Jewish community on
Israel was that diaspora Jews should always support Israel publicly. This
position was not uncontested, but it dominated Jewish communal institutions and
its leadership.

Post-2000, with the
collapse of the Oslo process, the second intifada and subsequent wars in
Lebanon and Gaza, a host of Jewish positions emerged, whose protagonists
asserted their right to speak critically and publicly about Israel. These
positions range from Jews who reject contemporary Zionism (in groups such as
Jews for Justice for Palestinians), to liberal Zionists who oppose the
occupation (in groups such as Yachad and J Street), to centrist Zionists who
nonetheless argue for a degree of pluralism in the Zionist camp, to supporters
of the old consensus, through to neo-conservatives and right-wing religious

The relative size
and influence of these different positions vary considerably but are hard to
pin down precisely. It is clear that the majority of British Jews are
supportive of Israel and the Zionist project: the last major survey to look at
British Jews’ relationship to Israel found that 82
percent believed that Israel plays a “central” or “important
but not central” role in their Jewish identities; 90
percent believed that Israel is the “ancestral
homeland” of the Jewish people; 95 percent have
visited Israel at some point in the past and 72 percent categorise themselves
as Zionists.

Beyond this general
support, the majority are broadly “dovish” in Zionist terms, with 67 percent
favouring giving up territory for peace with the Palestinians; 78 percent
favouring a two-state solution; 74 percent opposing the expansion of existing
settlements and 52 percent favouring negotiations with Hamas. The same survey
found that the more religious the respondents were, the more “hawkish” their positions were on Israel. What
these findings suggest is that while positions that oppose the Zionist project
are supported by a small, but not significant minority of Jews, other Jewish
positions on Israel can be assured of the support of greater numbers of British

debates cannot stay internal

The relationships
between supporters of these various positions range from tolerance to outright
conflict. Yet the debates and divisions over Israel that characterise the UK
and other diaspora Jewries are made more complex and difficult because they are
not entirely ‘about’ Israel
itself. While different visions of what Israel could and should be are of
course important in generating these differences, just as important are
different visions of what diaspora Jewish communities could and should be –
and in particular their boundaries and the responsibilities
of their members.

At stake in
diaspora Jewish conflicts over Israel are profound questions of what Jews owe
each other and the Jewish state (what Ilan Baron has
called questions of “transnational
political obligation”),
and what entitles a Jew to consider themselves part of a Jewish community.
These questions are closely tied into questions of antisemitism –
what it is, and how it should be fought –
further complicating the conflict.

In many respects
then, Jewish conflicts over Israel and antisemitism are conflicts over ‘internal’ issues,
in as much as they concern how Jews should relate to each other and how they
should organise themselves. Yet boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are
more permeable than ever in today’s
world in which mass communication and the internet have eroded the possibility
of keeping anything ‘behind closed
doors’. One of the results of this is that
internal debates cannot stay internal, but are deeply implicated in wider ‘external’ political

While debates
within Israel, as well as the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are
significant ‘external’ factors
in diaspora Jewish conflicts over Israel, I want to concentrate on the
significance of non-Jewish actors outside of Israel-Palestine.

actors in the Israel-Palestine debate

PSC protest. Demotix/James Cropper. All rights reserved.The politics of
Israel-Palestine in the UK, US and many other countries are as heavily
contested as the politics of Israel in diaspora Jewish populations or within
Israel-Palestine itself. The boundaries between the Jewish debate and the wider
debate are repeatedly breached, as non-Jewish actors –
both wittingly and unwittingly –
make interventions in debates between Jews, further
stimulating conflict.

The diversity of
Jewish and non-Jewish opinion over Israel and antisemitism effectively allows
most non-Jewish positions to find some kind of Jewish support and vice versa.
Although this process might appear to render Jewish and non-Jewish debates
identical, in reality it can often exacerbate the distinction between Jewish
and non-Jewish actors. The reason being that Jewish and non-Jewish actors are
mobilised for particular purposes in Jewish and non-Jewish spaces.

One way in which
this process works can be seen in the case of disputes over the relationship
between antisemitism and the Israel debate. ‘Israel-critical’ (to
use David Landy’s term) Jewish groups in the UK have
made repeated interventions that question accusations of antisemitism directed
at those who criticise Israel and Zionism. For example, the founding
declaration of Independent Jewish Voices asserted that: “The
battle against anti-Semitism is vital and is undermined whenever opposition to
Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic.” Similarly,
the slogan of Jews for Boycotting
Israeli Goods – “It’s kosher to boycott Israeli goods”

forcefully gives Jewish approval to a practice that other
kinds of Jews have deemed antisemitic.

Jewish groups and
opinions are often given a prominent position in pro-Palestinian activism. For
example, following the August 2014 pro-Palestinian rally against the Gaza war,
the Palestine Solidarity Campaign made sure to include in their press release
the words of Glyn Secker, of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, from
the rally:

“Today, an image remains in my mind. It
is the image of a Palestinian father carrying the flesh of his son in a plastic
bag. As a Jew, I will not ever be associated with these monstrosities. Never in
my name, never in my life, never in my children’s life.”

In the Palestine
Solidarity Campaign’s
submission to the “Prevent Duty Guidance” consultation in January 2015, Jews for Justice for Palestinians were liberally

“As Jews for Justice for Palestinians
(JfJfP) pointed out in its submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on
Antisemitism in November 2014: ‘Criticism
of Israel must be taken at face value and assessed on its merits, and not
dismissed in advance as essentially antisemitic in its origins.’”

accusations ride roughshod over the deeply felt Jewish commitment of many
Israel-critical Jews.

Such interventions
by Israel-critical Jews are often bitterly resented by other Jews. They have
been accused, for example, of being ‘new
conservatives’ who spread a message to non-Jews that
they do not
need to worry about antisemitism. They are sometimes satirised as ‘asaJews’ whose
only Jewish identity consists of distancing themselves from the Jewish people
and/or Israel, ultimately for the purpose of garnering
non-Jewish approval. Such accusations, aside from being psychologically
crude, ride roughshod over the sincerity and deeply felt Jewish commitment of
many Israel-critical Jews.

Nonetheless, the
mobilisation of Jewish opinion by pro-Palestinian activists does have
problematic aspects. The existence of support from one kind of Jew can be used
to effectively indemnify oneself from the concerns of another kind of Jew. This
in turn often leads to resentment from Jews who have made the accusation
towards Jews who have rebutted the accusation, further stimulating and
deepening Jewish divisions. There are considerable risks here, both of
cynically using Jews against each other and of effectively only taking into
consideration the opinions of those Jews with whom one is in agreement.

However, one of the
reasons why Jewish criticism of Israel-critical Jews is often highly
inaccurate, is that it ignores the similar mobilisation of pro-Israel Jews by
pro-Israel non-Jews. For example, the writer Julie Burchill has, in her book Unchosen and
other writing, expressed enduring love of Jews and of Israel, an affection
returned by some Jewish groups. This love goes along with often vicious
criticism of Jews who have different opinions on Israel. She appears to use her
self-defined philosemitism to grant herself licence to define who Jews should

More politically
significant is the Christian Zionist movement in the USA, whose self-proclaimed
love of Israel has indemnified it from scrutiny by at least some Jewish
organisations and leaders, despite the presence of arguably antisemitic
eschatological theologies in some quarters.

and distinction

Boycott Israel protest. Flickr/Jonny White. Some rights reserved.The issues I am
drawing attention to here do not only impact on Jews. They are part of a wider
phenomenon in which the internal diversity of groups has become increasingly
evident. Just as Jewish diversity is exploited for various ends, so Islamic
diversity has become open to similar exploitation. The diversity of Islam and
Muslim communities is starting to be recognised and that has allowed for Muslim
and non-Muslim alliances to be built, which simultaneously marginalise other
kinds of Muslims and indemnify against accusations of Islamophobia.

In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,
she distinguishes between ‘Mecca’,
‘Medina’ and
‘Modifying’ Muslims
(with the latter being the only ones worth supporting). The distinction she
makes is between types of Muslims rather than ideological strains within Islam

Leaving aside the
validity or otherwise of such a typology, when viewed on the back of her
considerable popularity in conservative and even Islamophobic circles, together
with her own rejection of Islam, one can read into her distinction between
kinds of Muslims another distinction: between those Muslims ‘we’ should
care about and those that ‘we’ should
reject. A similar distinction appears in John Mearsheimer’s contrast
between ‘Righteous Jews’ and
‘The New Afrikaaners’.
Again, the distinction enables a similar division between those Jews worth
caring about and those worth rejecting.

It is not that
distinctions between types of Jews and types of Muslims are necessarily
invalid. The problem is when the existence of a type of Jew or Muslim with whom
one is in sympathy is used to justify a rejection of another kind of Jew or Muslim.
Note that I am referring to Jews and Muslims here rather than Judaism and Islam

it is the personalisation that is relevant here. This has
two problematic effects in particular. One is to stoke intra-communal conflict
by supporting one or other protagonist. The other is to create far-reaching
changes in what anti-racist/anti-antisemitic/anti-Islamophobic practice can be.

If taking the
concerns of those who perceive themselves to be victims of antisemitism,
Islamophobia or racism is contingent on them being the ‘right’ sort
of victim, then any kind of universalist approach to prejudice and
discrimination is undermined in favour of supporting particular kinds of
people, in particular times and spaces, for particular reasons.

It may be
possible at least to fight one’s
own internal battles without bringing in external supporters who tend to
inflame matters

Nonetheless, the
alternatives to this kind of practice are also unpalatable. It is neither
practical nor desirable to treat communities and minorities as homogeneous. Nor
is it practical or desirable for non-Jews or non-Muslims to concern themselves
with ‘every’ Jew
or Muslim. The increasing awareness of the diversity of Jewish, Muslim and
other minority communities has, at the very least, had the advantage of
undermining the power of elites within those communities who sought exclusive
rights to represent them in the public sphere.

What I would
suggest, then, are three modest steps that can help scholars and activists,
both within and without Jewish and Muslim minorities, to ensure that some of
the problematic consequences of internal conflict are managed.

Firstly, it is
inadvisable to treat the denials or affirmations by community members that
something is or is not racist as ‘the
last word’.
For example, just because some Jews do not find the campaign for Boycott,
Divestment and Sanctions against Israel antisemitic does not obviate the need
to take the concerns of those who do seriously. A vast swathe of contemporary
debate over forms of contemporary racism consists of making judgements about
whether a certain discourse or practice is racist or not. Such debates cannot
be cut off simply by taking the side of one particular protagonist

Secondly, activists
and scholars should endeavour to maintain lines of communication and dialogue
with members of minority communities beyond personally-favoured sub-sections
within it. For example, quiet ‘back
channel’ contacts between pro-Israel and
pro-Palestinian groups and leaders may, in certain circumstances and given
time, allow for some tensions to be mitigated and concerns aired.

Finally, just as
those external to minority communities need to try and avoid exacerbating and
exploiting them, so members of those communities themselves need to try and
avoid exploiting external resources in their internal conflicts. While there is
no going back to a time when internal conflict was kept ‘behind closed doors’,
it may be possible at least to fight one’s
own internal battles without bringing in external supporters who tend to
inflame matters.

the process of editing this paper, the editors pointed out to me the
relationship between people and ideologies: Jews and Judaism, Muslims and Islam
and so on. I want to make clear that this paper has been concerned with the
former, with the relationship that Jews, Muslims and others have to each other.
One common feature of the discourses that I have been exploring, is that
attempts are sometimes made to separate people and their religions/ideologies.
So, for example, it is common in some circles to clarify that one is
criticising Zionism but not Jews and that the conflation of the two is
problematic. My argument is that people and ideologies cannot be disentangled
completely and that there is no disembodied and purely ideological space within
which different ideologies can freely contend. 

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