A harmonious choir of liberal conformism

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, November 26, 2010
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Israeli tanks return to Israel from the Gaza Strip. Should diaspora Jews pronounce on those in the line of fire?

Israeli tanks return to Israel from the Gaza Strip. Should diaspora Jews pronounce on those in the line of fire?

As the saying goes, you should practice what you preach - not what emerged from the recent panel discussion between Peter Beinart, former editor of the US liberal weekly the New Republic and recent heir to the late Tony Judt's critique of Zionism, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, and Mick Davis, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council.

Davis lamented the existence of a supposed conformism among Jewish community leaders when it comes to voicing criticism of Israel in the open and called for more frank introspection - but the panel failed to make room for dissenting views, offering instead a harmonious choir of opinionated liberal conformism.

On one thing Davis is right - Anglo-Jewry's leadership is largely tilted to the left. That Beinart, an outspoken critic of Israel, would be invited to speak at all shows the limits of Anglo-Jewish support for Israel. Clearly, there are self-imposed boundaries on what views about Israel are voiced within the Jewish establishment. These boundaries constrain support, rather than criticism of Israel, given that Jewish leaders are not prepared to travel further than the Israeli left-of-centre worldview of the Middle East - and even that they find increasingly arduous to do. It is their right to take such a view but it is hardly uncritical support.

That Davis's comments failed to elicit much of anything beyond Britain's borders (praises from the usual anti-Zionist corners notwithstanding) is mainly a consequence of the fact that in the UK, his comments are hardly revolutionary. They are another example of 'everything has been said but not everybody said it.'

Regardless, some of his comments deserve a mention, because they reflect a growing problem among Diaspora Jews - a proclivity to form judgement through the BBC rather than tedious fact-checking. Consider his lament on Israel "forcing non-Jews to take an oath about the nature of the Jewish state". If passed, the draft amendment to the Citizenship Law would apply only to non-Israeli non-Jews seeking naturalization (not to non-Jewish Israeli citizens). Israel needs such a law - the growing numbers of foreign workers in Israel (whose children often were born in Israel) demands a legal provision for naturalisation.

Most Western countries have oath requirements on foreigners born on their soil who wish to acquire citizenship. Europe's enlightened liberal democracies, with some exceptions, do not rush to hand citizenship to foreigners, even when they were born here.

Nor is there equal treatment - children of citizens get citizenship even if born and raised abroad, but children of foreigners have to meet stringent requirements even if they were born and raised here.

One can debate the wording of Israel's legislation, of course. One could reasonably propose an equal treatment visited on those acquiring Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return (if Davis makes aliyah, for example, he should not be exempted, for equality's sake). But to call this a moral dilemma is preposterous. If such questions truly elicited a moral dilemma, where is Anglo-Jewry's leadership outrage at the demands Great Britain imposes on aliens seeking naturalisation? Should they not be as concerned, if not more, since this is where they live?

The answer is that Davis is upset because Israel's actions have an impact on Diaspora Jewry - so are most Diaspora Jews by the way, because nobody likes to see police patrolling Jewish institutions across Europe. But most Jews would blame anti-Semites for distorting Israel's actions and then using them as a pretext, rather than blaming Israel for their own discomfort.

Regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of Israel's actions, it comes down to this. Do you blame the rape victim for wearing a miniskirt or do you blame the rapist? Most sane people know the answer - there is no excuse for rape.

And then there's Davis, who, if logic follows (and it does not necessarily always do), should blame the rape victim and advocate more modest dressing.

This kind of logic sits at the helm of Anglo-Jewry today - something that should concern us infinitely more than the impact of Israel's actions on Jewish comfort levels in Great Britain or the extent to which we allow ourselves to criticise Israel's actions.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington

    Last updated: 10:50am, November 26 2010