The fact that people are shocked, just shocked, that a Jewish leader would speak honestly about the true state of Israel shows how utterly constipated is the debate over the Middle East in the Jewish Diaspora:
One of British Jewry’s most senior leaders this week shattered a longstanding taboo by publicly criticising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the peace process, voicing moral reservations about some of Israel’s policies, and calling for criticism of Israel to be voiced freely throughout thecommunity.
Mick Davis, chairman of both the UJIA and the executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, also warned that unless there were a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Israel risked becoming an apartheid state.
As news of his views, aired at a meeting in London on Saturday night, began to ripple around the Jewish community, other leaders backed his stance, although it also drew criticism.
Mr Davis said that British Jewry had a “left-of-centre leadership” concerned about “where Israel goes” but which previously had “never spoken publicly about that”.
Leaders wanted openly to address moral dilemmas over settlement building, or a “repugnant” loyalty oath for non-Jewish immigrants, he said. But they felt constrained by the fear of giving ammunition to enemies of Israel who sought to delegitimise the state.
Criticising Mr Netanyahu for “lacking the courage to take the steps” to advance the peace process, he said: “I don’t understand the lack of strategy in Israel and that’s what I want to address.” Although he added that the country’s present electoral system “cannot deliver strong government or courageous politicians”.
He said that if the world community were to lose hope in the possibility of a two-state solution, then demographics would eventually cause Israel to become an apartheid state “because we then have the majority going to be governed by the minority”.
Mr Davis was appearing in a discussion with Peter Beinart, author of a recent essay critical of America’s Zionist leaders which sparked widespread debate overseas. But many of the packed, and largely sympathetic, audience of 160 at the London Jewish Cultural Centre were surprised at the forthrightness of the head of the UJIA, British Jewry’s leading Israel-oriented organisation.
He said that many Jewish leaders shared his views, although he acknowledged that he was “out of step with the majority in this country that have the view that what you do and say should be done quietly, behind the closed doors”.
But he warned that unless there were some movement, “we are going to contribute to what is potentially a very unsatisfactory next 10 or 15 years in which Israel’s capacity to deal with the existential threats is diminished”.
He also vented his frustration that Israel’s political leaders did not pay attention to diaspora Jewry, arguing that philanthropic aid to Israel was not enough for Jews abroad.
“I think the government of Israel … have to recognise that their actions directly impact me as a Jew living in London, the UK,” he said. “When they do good things it is good for me, when they do bad things, it’s bad for me. And the impact on me is as significant as it is on Jews living in Israel.”
Support for Mr Davis was forthcoming from across the UK Jewish religious spectrum, with Reform movement head Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield praising him as “a remarkable man and a true Zionist leader”.
Rabbi Bayfield said: “The views that Mick expresses are typical of the mainstream, grassroots of our community – honest and courageous in Israel’s defence but also honest and courageous in giving our backing to the pursuit of a just and sustainable peace through two states.”
United Synagogue president Simon Hochhauser, a JLC trustee, speaking in a personal capacity, said: “There is nothing in the quoted comments I would disagree with.”
But there was a more dismissive reaction to Mr Davis abroad. Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in the USA, accused him of “intellectual arrogance. What I found most objectionable is the quote that Israel has to recognise that its actions directly impact on him as a Jew in London. That is arrogant nonsense.
“The Israeli government has to make decisions that have life and death consequences for Israelis. So what, if what they do socially embarrasses him with his friends? Big deal.”
One Israeli minister remarked tartly: “Mick Davis may be important within the Jewish community in Britain but in the wider world of Israel-diaspora relations, he is virtually unknown.”
The one JLC member to come out openly against Mr Davis’s position was JNF chairman Samuel Hayek, who said “diaspora Jews should never criticise Israel”.
But another, Brian Kerner, a former UJIA chairman, said that although “broadly supportive” of Mr Davis’s views, he was against voicing them in public because “it’s only picked up by our enemies, distorted and used against us”.
Lucian Hudson, chairman of Liberal Judaism, said: “The danger is that anyone sceptical or critical of Israeli policy feels so frustrated that they give up on Israel altogether, or become indifferent, and that’s the worst threat. We need to re-engage over what matters to them. “
Joy Wolfe, the veteran Manchester-based activist, commented: “Mick Davis is probably articulating what many people are thinking but it is uncomfortable hearing it from one of the UK’s top Zionist leaders, which clearly will be picked up by our enemies.
“I am reluctant to criticise a fellow Zionist leader. But I strongly disagree with his concern that what Israel does should take into account its impact on Jews outside of Israel. Israel has to do what is right for Israel.”
Harvey Rose, chairman of the Zionist Federation, while agreeing with “much” of Mr Davis’s position, said: “How Israel is perceived in the UK has a direct bearing on our comfort levels in Britain. It troubles me that so many people place the blame entirely on Israel.”
Vivian Wineman, the president of the Board of Deputies and chairman of the JLC, said: “Mick Davis is entitled to make his remarks – there are a wide range of views both in this country and in Israel on these issues.”