Analysis: Jeremy Newmark

By Jeremy Newmark, July 30, 2009
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The revelation that Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP) is reviewing its policy on boycotts of Israel is no surprise. Until now, JFJFP has flaunted its non-policy on boycotts; it supported occasional campaigns against Israeli-linked companies, while indulgently appearing on the “anti” side of public debates on an academic boycott. As with almost every issue of substance, such as a commitment to a two-state solution, JFJFP preferred to fudge on a boycott.

But this year, after their annual conference voted to actively support boycotting Israel, JFJFP’s leadership decided to survey their members, to discover their views on the subject.

(Oddly, JFJFP’s so-called members include anyone who has ever signed any version of their declaration. Less than a third of these responded to the survey, a self-selecting group rather than a proper sample.)

The results are clear. Fifty-nine per cent of JFJFP members support a total boycott of Israeli goods, 61 per cent support divestment from any company that invests in Israel, and half want a boycott on tourism to Israel.
So why has JFJFP not come out in support of these policies? The answer is revealed by the next survey question — 60 per cent of JFJFP members acknowledge that adopting a public boycott position would discourage other Jews who are critical of Israel’s policies from joining their organisation. They know it would frighten the horses, so have generally kept their extreme views hidden to encourage more recruits.

Why the change of policy now? At their annual conference, JFJFP ran a workshop on boycotts where they discussed a number of real-world examples. Reading through these examples is instructive. All of them involved another organisation — such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) — asking JFJFP to join an existing boycott move.

It seems like this is a regular occurrence; when anti-Israel activists start a campaign, they call up the useful idiots at JFJFP or Neturei Karta for political cover. Perhaps JFJFP had begun to feel bad at saying “no” too often, or perhaps they were worried that they were out of step with the rest of the anti-Israel world, concerned that their loyalty to the cause is being questioned.

Anti-Zionist Jews are accepted by the anti-Israel movement so long as they are more zealous and extreme than anyone else; a Jewish pro-Palestinian group that won’t lead the boycott campaign will be treated by groups like the PSC with the lurking suspicion that they aren’t really “one of us”.

This costs JFJFP credibility in the internecine internal politics of the Jewish anti-Zionist world, credibility that it had to work hard to attain in the first place. In March 2007, another such group — Jews Against Zionism — put a motion to PSC’s conference to stop the PSC working with a group run by Holocaust deniers. JFJFP leaders reportedly worked with the PSC leadership to cripple the motion.

There is now little doubt that JFJFP stands poised to join the movement to boycott Israeli goods, sports teams, theatre groups and even holidays. JFJFP itself is a fringe group with no real traction in the Jewish community or the wider world, but its change in stance is important; it is another sign that the debate around Israel is shifting, that it’s becoming impossible for a group to be seen as pro-Palestinian unless it’s pro-boycott. This shift doesn’t help Palestinians at all, it impacts upon the Jewish community, and it contributes to the creeping delegitimisation of Israel.

In recent years, as the agenda of their leadership has been exposed, respected Jewish campaigners for Palestinian rights such as Norman Geras, David Hirsh, John Strawson and Linda Grant have distanced themselves from JFJFP. So the real question for the remaining signatories to JFJFP’s declaration must be: was this what you signed up for? If not, what are you going to do about it?

Jeremy Newmark is the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, and on the board of the Fair Play Campaign Group, which opposes boycotts that target the people and supporters of Israel.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010