Should Jewish communal organizations aim to achieve consensus above all or bear witness to the truth?
Both in the Diaspora and in Israel, Jews are divided over politics, religion and worldview. These arguments, moreover, generally carry an emotionally fraught sub-text; that the opposing side threatens to undermine Jewish security and the existence of the Jewish people.
This makes it even more difficult for Jewish organizations whose aim is to protect and defend the Jewish people from ever saying anything about contentious issues of the day.
In the United States, J Street has called on AIPAC publicly to oppose Israel’s proposed “annexation,” the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, and parts of Judea and Samaria.
AIPAC has sidestepped the issue, observing merely that it would be a “mistake” to allow such a move, should it occur, to affect U.S.-Israel ties.
In Britain, some 500 young Jews have called upon the community’s main leadership body, the Board of Deputies, to speak out against “annexation,” which they claim would make a “two-state solution” impossible to achieve.
Their call has been echoed in a letter signed by 33 board members, ranging politically from a Conservative MP to the left-wing group Yachad, who claim that “annexation” would cause large numbers in the community to “disengage” from Israel. As their leaders “fail the test of leadership” by staying silent on this issue, they say, “the outcome would be hugely detrimental to communal life.”
The board, however, has received much support for refusing to take a position one way or the other. More than 190 members have called on it to “stay silent on any change to Israel’s borders.”
The reason is obvious. The matter is deeply controversial. Those claiming that the board will prove its irrelevance if it doesn’t speak out are making a partisan point because only one view is to be permitted. If the board were to say it supported “annexation,” those same people would be the first to protest that its position was too divisive to be expressed.
The Jewish community is institutionally averse to rocking the boat, and the board is institutionally programmed to represent a claimed consensus. As a result, when it comes to contentious issues, it generally settles on the position that will attract the least flak.
In general, the only people who challenge the policy of saying nothing are the political left. So the board supports the “two-state solution” because it assumes, correctly, that there is no head of steam in the community to oppose this.
That’s partly because there is no British equivalent to the Zionist Organization of America, whose support for Israel is generally far more robust, uncompromising and outspoken than the circumspect positions taken by America’s other mainstream communal bodies.
Indeed, while the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations and the American Jewish Committee have joined AIPAC in a studied silence over “annexation,” only the ZOA has supported the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the lands in question and roundly criticized the plan’s opponents.
With the U.S. Jewish community bitterly polarized over policies pursued by both U.S. President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC makes a fetish of bipartisanship. Accordingly, the claim being bandied about by some Democrat senators that “annexation” would destroy bipartisan support for Israel exacerbates an already neuralgic anxiety.
But it is fanciful to assume that if “annexation” doesn’t happen, then bipartisan support for Israel will be saved. Although the Democrats remain far more broadly supportive of Israel than any British political party, their steady slide to the left means that the party’s hostility towards Israel will increase whatever Israel does or doesn’t do.
Moreover, public silence has a virulent downside. It allows lies about Israel to remain unchallenged and continue to poison the atmosphere not just for Israel, but for Jews everywhere.
The claim that “annexation” would destroy the possibility of a Palestinian state is untrue. Every serious Middle East peace plan has accepted the eventual incorporation into Israel of the three major settlement blocs to safeguard its security.
The undeniable fact is that it’s the Palestinians who have destroyed the possibility of a Palestinian state. Offered it repeatedly from the 1930s onwards, they have refused it every time while Israel always accepted it.
How long will it take before the two-staters begin to suspect that nine decades of the Palestinian Arabs rejecting the two-state solution might possibly mean that the Jews aren’t the obstacle?
How long will it take before the two-staters realize that if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and swims like a duck, it actually is a rejectionist, murderous, exterminationist duck?
Opposition to the “annexation” is driven by the belief that Israel illegally occupies these territories. U.K. Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly said the United Kingdom was “deeply concerned” about the proposal which he claimed was “contradictory to international law.”
But this is untrue. As several legal experts have pointed out over the years, the Jews are the only people to have a legal and moral right to this land. In 1922, the international community gave them the never-abrogated right to settle what is now Israel, the disputed territories and the Gaza Strip.
Restoring Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria will therefore actually correct a historic act of illegality. It will apply the rule of international law for the first time since the 1930s, when Britain reneged on its own treaty obligation to settle the Jews throughout the land then known as Palestine. And it will help protect Israel against its existential enemies.
So those urging communal organizations to speak against the move are in fact telling them to endorse a continued act of illegality based on a lie—on the basis that if the law is now finally enforced, this will prevent those aiming to exterminate Israel from continuing to dictate the terms that will enable them to do so.
But if these communal organizations remain silent, they will be doing nothing to combat the big lie that Israel is a rogue state that illegally steals another people’s land. Not only does this lie drive hatred of Israel in the West, it also foments attacks on Diaspora Jews who are held responsible for Israel’s actions.
So don’t Jewish organizations have a duty to speak up for law, justice and the truths of history to combat this damage to the Jewish people? Is this really more dangerous than a consensus that does nothing to challenge a lethal big lie?
Would the cause of Israel and the Jewish people really be better served if the ZOA stopped rocking the boat by consistently speaking up, as it does, in support of truth, history and Jewish values? Or would the cause of Israel and the Jewish people actually be better served if other Jewish organizations followed its example?
Jewish history tells us that we do most damage to ourselves when we are divided. But it also tells us we have an absolute duty to stand up for truth and justice, and defeat our enemies. In the Diaspora, that last bit seems to have been all but forgotten.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy,” in 2018. Her work can be found at: www.melaniephillips.com.