How the UK's Jewish Leadership Killed Off the Two-State Solution

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UN Partition Plan for Palestine 1947

Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia


In the last month it has become clear that the UK’s Jewish leadership, despite its constant mantra, has no interest in promoting a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. At least not in a way that has the slightest practical significance.
We may hear the consistent rhetoric that claims to support compromise and bilateral negotiation, but in reality our public representatives now look as thoroughly intransigent as Israel’s right-wing coalition government.
And if that’s the case we have a serious problem on our hands. It’s a problem that leads directly to the increase in anti-Semitic attacks on our streets and it’s undermining local community dialogue with our Christian and Muslim neighbors.
The lack of credible independence from the Israeli government and the abdication of the role of critical Jewish friend to Israel is not doing the Jewish community in UK, or the State of Israel, or its standing among the family of nations, any good whatsoever.
The latest evidence for the abandonment of honest support for two-states is the behavior shown during the run-up and aftermath of the House of Commons vote to recognize the Palestinian state earlier this month (13 October).
Before looking at what happened at Westminster, it’s worth revisiting the best research we have on the attitude of UK Jews to the conflict.
According to the most recent polling data (2010) carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, UK Jews hold the following views about Israel.

  • Two-thirds (67 percent) favor giving up territory for peace with the Palestinians
  • Almost three-quarters (74 percent) are opposed to the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank
  • A large majority (78 percent) favors a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians
  • A clear majority (55 percent against 36 percent) consider Israel to be an occupying power in the West Bank

So UK Jews are thoroughly dovish on the key issues.
And remember, this survey was carried out just a year after Operation Cast Lead, which was the last time Israel carried out a major assault on Gaza comparable to what took place this summer. The 2010 poll found that 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the military action that Israel carried out in Gaza was a legitimate act of self-defense. However, despite that perception of where blame lay, just over half (52 percent) thought that Israel should still negotiate with Hamas.
Now I don’t expect Israel’s official lobbyists in the UK, such as British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), the Zionist Federation, We Believe in Israel, and the Friends of Israel party political bodies to do anything other than Jerusalem’s bidding. They long ago chose to position themselves as Israel’s defenders of right or wrong, so why should they take account of UK Jewish public opinion? They are entitled to do their political work.
But what of The Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the religious denominations, in particular the United Synagogue (which employs Britain’s Chief Rabbi) and Reform Judaism? If they really believe in achieving the two-state solution they are going about it in a way guaranteed to frustrate its already very slim prospect of ever happening.
Rather than use their influence as representatives of world Jewry, our religious and communal leaders have thrown their lot in with the Israel hard-liners and are disregarding the more conciliatory position of much of the Jewish community.
On current form, it would be easier to openly slip a prayer for Gaza’s dead children into a crevice of the Wailing Wall than to find an Israel policy gap between the UK Zionist lobby and our religious and communal leadership.
So how did we see this Israeli take-over of UK Jewish communal affairs played out this month?
In the two weeks leading up to vote in the House of Commons my email inbox become full of requests from Israel lobby groups, as well as from the Board, JLC, United Synagogue and Reform Judaism, to write to my MP, urging them to oppose any motion that did not tie recognition to the successful completion of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In other words, Israel, and only Israel, gets to decide when the Palestinians deserve their right to self-determination and who should be their representatives in those negotiations.
Judging by the frantic efforts to mobilize Jewish constituents, you would have thought MPs were voting on a motion to de-recognize the State of Israel rather than supporting a purely symbolic act that would place the Palestinians on a (slightly) more level playing field in any future talks.
In the end, the amended motion favored by our Jewish leadership did not get Commons’ support. However, an additional clause, put forward by the former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was accepted by the motion’s sponsors. So on the night here’s what our MPs, who chose to turn up, overwhelmingly voted to support:

This House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.

But even this non-binding statement of evenhandedness turned out to be totally unacceptable to our communal leadership.
The Board’s President Vivian Wineman wrote the following day:

“This resolution and amendment, however well-intentioned it may be, is a most unfortunate and misguided development…This is bad news as it gives fuel to Palestinian rejectionism. This would only contribute to the delegitimisation campaign against Israel, with the Palestinians using international courts, pushing for boycotts and other activities which the vast majority of British politicians oppose.”

Is it just me, or does that sound like a massive over reaction?
I suspect John Kerry will have a different view on where the rejectionist behavior is coming from and would be delighted to find out from Mr. Wineman where exactly the “negotiations” are taking place.
And did you notice the sudden leap to “boycotts” and “international courts”, the two Palestinian tactics that put such horror into the hearts of the Jewish establishment. So the warning to our legislators from our Jewish leadership is: give the Palestinians an inch and they will take a mile. The Board’s position does not strike me as one predisposed to the kind of political compromise that will underpin a two-state solution.
And Mr. Wineman had more to say:

“The only way forward is negotiation, and not being derailed by those who seek to block a meaningful peace process…After all unilateral moves have not contributed to the peace process”.

Was there anything in the Commons’ motion that called for anything other than negotiations?
And while the Board of Deputies is condemning “unilateral moves” did it have anything to say about the announcement in August of Israel’s unilateral appropriation of 1,000 acres of land belonging to five Palestinian villages on the West Bank? Or did I miss that press release?
Meanwhile, the Jewish Leadership Council chose to issue a joint statement with the Zionist Federation and BICOM along almost identical lines to the Board of Deputies. It makes you wonder if we really need all of these organizations when there is so little to distinguish their positions on such a central issue of Jewish concern.
So what should a commitment to a two-state solution look like from our communal and religious leadership, especially if they were genuinely concerned about the ever-growing democratic deficit on both sides of the 1967 Green Line?
Well, if they were serious about promoting two states, I would expect to hear from Vivian Wineman regular calls for an end to the illegal occupation of the West Bank. I would look forward to Simon Johnson of the Jewish Leadership Council criticizing the expansion of the Settlements as undermining political confidence in a peace process. I would welcome the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, preparing the Jewish community for the idea of a shared Jerusalem. And Reform Judaism would be asking how Jewish ethics aligns with discrimination on house building and water access in the 60 percent of the West Bank which Israel controls completely.
If our leadership were truly committed to justice and reconciliation through two states, we would be seeing other activity too. There would be important community based educational work to co-ordinate and support. Decades of denial that Israel has the slightest culpability in the Israel/Palestine impasse would be confronted and discussed. A little less Israel advocacy training and a whole lot more unbiased history teaching would encourage a communal environment ready to press Israel to get serious about negotiations.
In truth though, I suspect it is all far too late in the day.
And if the chances of a two-state solution really have died, then our Jewish leadership can share some of the blame for killing it off. For years they could have spoken out and influenced governments of every shade in Jerusalem, raising the legitimate concerns of the Jewish diaspora. But they chose not to. Instead they opted to mimic the same belligerency that is taking us to a political and moral dead end.
In the meantime, land will continue to be stolen. Israeli soldiers will continue to arrest and shoot dead Palestinian children with impunity and Israelis will be outraged when all of this prompts a counter reaction.
And closer to home, interfaith relations with Christians and Muslims will falter and stumble and anti-Israel motivated attacks against Jews and Jewish property will rise because we have done nothing to counter the perception that 21st century Zionism, Judaism, and the views of the UK Jewish community are all one and the same thing.
Next year we have a general election in the UK. The Board of Deputies has already published its “manifesto” aimed at influencing candidates’ attitudes on issues of Jewish concern. Once again it declares a UK Jewish commitment to a two-state solution. If I were a would-be MP for the next UK parliament, I would be asking the Jewish religious and communal leadership to spell out exactly what they have done to encourage the two-state outcome they claim to be so wedded to.
Robert Cohen’s work can be found on his blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.