Opponents of annexation in UK Jewish community loudest, despite neutrality

The Jerusalem Post, 15, 2020

As plans advance in Israel to implement the components of the Trump peace plan allowing for the annexation of parts of the West Bank, debate on the issue has heightened not only in the Jewish state, but also in the Jewish Diaspora, no more so than in the UK.

Public letters, op-eds, and lobbying motions deliberating on annexation have all been sent, published and deliberated on as the community debates the issue and examines what stance, if any, it will take.
Typically for the traditionally moderate and reserved community, the major Jewish organizations are anxious to maintain a neutral stance on the issue, in keeping with their long-standing tradition of maintaining as broad a tent as possible for the community to remain under on political issues, domestic or foreign.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main umbrella organization, has so far refrained from adopting a position, and although there are efforts afoot to evince a firm stance it appears unlikely that it will break its traditional neutrality.
The Jewish Leadership Council has also refrained from commenting, as has Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who like his predecessors almost never comments on politics.
What is noticeable however is that when individuals and communal organizations have spoken out on annexation on the left and right, it has largely been to criticize such measures, while there have been very few if any prominent members of the Jewish community who have publicly backed it.
The most notable incident was earlier this month when 40 prominent members of the community wrote an open letter to Israel ambassador to the UK Marc Regev, outlining their opposition to annexation.
They asserted that annexation would have adverse consequences for Israel’s “future as a Jewish democracy,” and argued that such steps would be “a shot in the arm for the BDS movement and the delegitimization of Israel,” in which calls for sanctions against Israel would move into the mainstream.
The list of signatories included Jews from the left of the political map such as Lord Jon Mendelsohn, a Labour party member of the House of Lords and a trustee of the New Israel Fund, as well as Luciana Berger, until recently a Labour MP until she was hounded out of the party by antisemites due to her opposition to then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Celebrated author Howard Jacobson, of the left but a firm Zionist, was another co-author.
But other signatories were firmly from the right, including Sir Mick Davis, a prominent member of the Conservative party, Lord Daniel Finkelstein, a Conservative Party peer in the House of Lords, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former British Foreign Secretary in conservative John Major’s government.
And although the representative bodies of British Jewry have declined to take a position, more politically oriented groups have however weighed in.
Yachad UK, a left-wing lobbying group similar to J Street in the US has embarked on a full blow campaign against annexation.
The Labour Friends of Israel pro-Israel lobbying group has said that it “unequivocally opposes any Israeli annexation in the West Bank,” saying that “Unilateral steps are a barrier to peace,” and that those who support a two-state solution must “redouble” efforts to thwart measures that might stymie such an outcome.
And the Jewish Labour Movement, an affiliate of the Labour Party, has also publicly opposed unilateral annexation, and was a signatory to a letter to the Board of Deputies calling for it to publicly oppose such measures as well.
Meanwhile the Conservative Friends of Israel has so far refrained from commenting and did not respond to a request for comment on the issue, although its chairman MP Stephen Crabb told The Jerusalem Post in February that the British government “regard[s] settlements as illegal.”
One well placed source within the UK Jewish community and a senior official in a political group said that although there was vocal criticism against unilateral annexation, much of the criticism has been careful not to cross lines into advocacy for punitive measures against Israel should annexation go ahead.
But the source also said that annexation is making defending Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians much more difficult.
“The majority of people here think two states is the right thing, and find moves like this unacceptable. We’re trying to convince people to support Israel, that it isn’t some imperialist land grabber, but this makes things much harder,” they said.
The Zionist Federation UK, the UK affiliate of the World Zionist Organization currently chaired by Paul Charney, has also refrained from directly commenting on the issue of annexation itself.
Speaking to the Post, Charney said that organization’s stance was to back and support the Israeli government, regardless of whether that government was adopting right-wing or left-wing policies.
“The Israeli government is democratically elected and has the right to take decisions on its own future, and we will defend the Israeli government’s right to make those decisions on behalf of its people.”
Charney has however spoken out in favor of annexation, writing in the local weekly Jewish News, that “Palestinian intransigence” left Israel with “little option other than to take unilateral steps to secure its borders.”
His comments were strongly criticized by liberal-leaning affiliate members of the Zionist Federation, who said his Charney’s stance made maintaining the broad tent that is so important to British Jewish organizations more difficulty.
Jonathan Arkush, a former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said however that despite the prominent left-of-center criticism of annexation, he did not believe it was representative of most of UK Jewry.
“I’ve listened to the views of people who are left of center, and I understand the depth of their feeling, but I don’t believe they represent the solid majority of the voice of British Jews,” Arkush told the Post.
“That voice respects Israel’s strong democracy, understands Israel has a government of national unity, and appreciates that both [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Alternate Prime Minister Benny] Gantz support extending Israeli law to parts of the territories.”

Share This Article