Leaders trade blows over Mick Davis Israel criticism

Mick Davis

Mick Davis

A group of prominent British Jews rallied behind UJIA chairman Mick Davis as arguments over his outspoken criticism of Israel reverberated across the community this week.

An open letter signed by 22 men and women, including nine current or past members of the Jewish Leadership Council, backed "public and honest discussion" over Israel and voiced support for Mr Davis for encouraging debate.

The signatories included former UJIA leaders Sir Trevor Chinn and David Cohen, donor Sir Harry Solomon, Bicom chairman Poju Zabludowicz and new peer, JLC vice-president Stanley Fink.

Israel's embassy in London kept out of the public fray, but elsewhere strong reaction against Mr Davis's intervention began to surface, particularly among Jewish leaders in the north.

Mr Davis, who chairs the JLC executive, last week criticised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, encouraged the airing of moral concerns over Israeli policy and warned that Israel could become an apartheid state if a two-state solution failed to materialise.

He also suggested that Israeli actions had as significant an impact on diaspora Jews as on Israelis themselves.

JLC member Lucille Cohen, the president of the Manchester Jewish Representative Council, doubted whether his opinions "reflect the majority view" there.

She said: "The danger lies in the public airing of democratic debate when it is picked up and utilised to fan the flames of a virulent deligitimisation of Israel."

While some Zionist youth movements came out in support of Mr Davis, Mrs Cohen said: "We see a growing misguided influence of post-Zionism on our youth which is detrimental to their understanding of Israel."

Martin Harris, chairman of Leeds UJIA, worried that Mr Davis was "tarring UJIA with these views which should not have been expressed in public".

He added: "I don't believe he has the right to criticise the Netanyahu government and it could not have come at a worse time, with the delicate nature of the peace talks."

Myer Green, co-founder of Scottish Friends of Israel, said that although some of Israel's policies had "sorely taxed" its supporters, he was "taken aback" that Mr Davis "should legitimise the language and perception of Israel's enemies by suggesting that Israel's might be heading along the path to apartheid".

Hilton Lorie, the president of Leeds Jewish Representative Council, dismissing the JLC as "a self-appointed body that does not represent anybody", observed that wisdom lay in knowing "when to keep shtum".

Taking a more measured line, Joshua Rowe, president of Manchester UJIA, said: "It is perfectly legitimate for him to express his views, but what it tells me is that Israel and the Israel's supporting communities are not getting the message across."

But praise for the UJIA leader came from former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who saluted "his very brave and impressive comments" in a Twitter post.

Hannah Weisfeld - the leader of efforts to set up a doveish Israel campaign group in the UK inspired by America's J Street - welcomed the "opportunity" for open discussion.

In an even-handed statement issued on Tuesday, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, said that there was "much to be gained by an honest debate within the Jewish community about its attitudes to Israel, so long as it is made clear throughout that our commitment to the state and its people is unshakeable".

He said that Israelis should have no doubt that they enjoy the "loyal support" of British Jewry but - appearing to differ with Mr Davis - went on: "For it is the people of Israel who suffer the direct consequences of the forces ranged against them and it is their children who are in the front line of its defence."

Lord Sacks's adviser on Israel, Rabbi Barry Marcus, took a sharper line: "I am not saying people can't or shouldn't make comments," he said. "But what Mick has done does not benefit Israel," he said. He said that Israelis had "enough Katyushas to live with without more missiles coming from here".

Grassroots anger was visible when several members of an audience at a JC-sponsored Any Questions evening at a north London synagogue on Monday called on Mr Davis to resign.

But the UJIA head could take heart from Habonim and the Liberal and Reform Zionist youth movements which jointly signed a letter headed "At last the silence is broken". They stood "wholeheartedly in support" and declared: "We should define our Zionism independently of anti-Zionism, not as a response to those who wish to see Israel pushed into the sea."

Last updated: 4:12pm, November 25 2010