Being defensive no longer works

Only a minority is 'out to get us' - time to build alliances with all sections of society

By Tony Bayfield, September 2, 2010

I went to a reception for a departing Israeli diplomat. She told me with passion and conviction that Britain was terrible for its pro-Arab attitudes and deep-rooted antisemitism. She couldn't understand how Jews could live here.

President Shimon Peres talked recently about pro-Arab, anti-Israel sentiments in our establishment. He described Britain as Israel's next big problem. Many American Jews say that Britain is a place where even the universities are infected by blatant antisemitism masquerading as a boycott of Israeli academics.

In the last analysis, Israelis and Americans don't live in Britain, though the diplomat in question had lived here for years. I was shaken. I asked myself, does growing frustration with Israel betray extensive pro-Arab sentiment and widespread antisemitism?

I think the answer is no. I do not believe that Britain is irredeemably pro-Arab. Still less do I think I live in a nation of antisemites. But whether I am right or wrong, it is time for a significant strategic change. And what better time than on the brink of a new Jewish year?

For as long as I can remember, the community, quite rightly, has seen that its future and the future of Israel are inextricably interwoven. We love Israel with all our heart, soul and might. It has therefore followed that we have been extremely suspicious of anyone - person or organisation - who does not see Israel as we do. Either you are with us or you are the enemy - ours as well as Israel's. We have turned our backs and gone into a defensive huddle. The response is understandable, but no longer serves us well.

On the basis of "just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean you're not out to get me", turning one's back on one's enemies is a fatal thing to do. Facing up to your enemy may be an inadequate defence but it beats offering your back.

If you adopt my view - that there are people who are out to get us, but not everyone is out to get us - a different strategy is called for. The only people who see Israel the way we do are Jews. How could it be otherwise?

But I am as certain as I can be that there are people and organisations who, while not seeing Israel through the eyes of Rabbi Bayfield or the UJIA, are not antisemites in anti-Zionist clothing. They include people and organisations who contribute to public policy and influence public opinion.

Rather than turning our backs, we need to reach out, forming alliances where we can work together on projects underpinned by shared values and overlapping goals. It is only through engagement with people - partnership activity, building relationships of trust - that we can expect others to stand in our shoes and see the world in general and Israel in particular a little more as we do. And, who knows, by standing in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes, we may learn things that can help us become more effective advocates for Israel.

This thought struck me a few weeks ago in connection with the Methodists. Had we maintained a long-term relationship with the Methodists - based upon the common interests of religious groups in secular Britain - it is just possible that the anti-Israel report might not have been adopted.

I have maintained a personal relationship with Oxfam over the past decade. I know about Oxfam's reputation within the Jewish community. We have talked openly about what politics does to an aid agency committed to the relief of poverty when many of the world's poorest countries are Muslim. Yet we have still been able to build relationships of trust. Of course Oxfam does not see Israel through Jewish eyes. But out of mutual respect and trust has come deeper understanding, not to mention the heightened website profile given to the work that Oxfam does in Israel with civil organisations.

Someone told me recently that he didn't share my enthusiasm for interfaith work because all one discovers are terrible prejudices that he would rather not know about. I think that is part of a mindset that, understandable though it may be, we need to discard.

But even if I am wrong, the defensive huddle no longer works. We have to engage and build alliances. For Israel's sake and for our own. The New Year summons us to discard what no longer works and risk real change.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield is Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism

Last updated: 11:28am, September 2 2010