'British Jews have new confidence' leaders tell Knesset

By Nathan Jeffay, May 24, 2012

Israelis should stop sensationalising the problems facing Jews in the UK, a British Jewish leader urged in the Knesset on Tuesday.

Mick Davis, head of the Jewish Leadership Council and chairman of the UJIA, said: “The hyperbole and headlines which dominate the discourse in Israel about the UK often harm our community and bilateral relationship.”

Mr Davis was addressing a special meeting of a Knesset subcommittee on diaspora affairs, which chairwoman Einat Wilf convened “to address the challenges faced by the Jewish and pro-Israel community in Great Britain”.

He acknowledged that Britain was “the hub of hubs” of the movement to delegitimise Israel, saying that it “exports” deligitimisation due to the international importance of its media. He voiced concern about boycotts, saying that even when limited to settlement produce and not all Israeli goods, they are “the thin end of the wedge”.

But he insisted that the community was fighting back with new confidence. There was a “new approach in the public arena,” he said, and went on to argue that Israel’s supporters could take advantage of Britain’s importance and “recast London into a global hub of fighting deligitimisation”.

Dermot Kehoe, chief executive of Bicom, echoed this, saying: “We should not just see the UK as a threat, but as an opportunity to win the argument.”

Mr Davis stressed repeatedly that British Jewry was, in the main, at one with the general British population. “Things are not as bad as I read about,” he said.

But the Zionist Federation’s representative at the meeting sharply dismissed Mr Davis’s assessment. Addressing Ms Wilf, Andrew Balcombe, chairman of the ZF’s Israel office, said: “I think, madam chairman, that you should understand that from an activist point of view, that speech would have been terrific five or 10 years ago.” He hit out at Mr Davis as removed from reality, saying that the top officials in the JLC — which the ZF has refused to join — are “maybe 27 levels above what is going on on the ground”.

Asked after the meeting about his objections, he said: “I disagreed with the description of the state of British Jewry in relation to Israel. The word antisemitism was hardly mentioned, the divisions in the leadership of the Jewish community were not mentioned, and the overstretched and underfunded work done by activists was hardly mentioned.”

Michael Dickson, Israel director of the organisation StandWithUs, told the meeting that on occasions pro-Israel action was “hindered by our own side”. One small group of UK Jewish leaders had tried to block a campus tour by a pro-Israel Muslim speaker for fear of “inflaming the campus atmosphere”, he said.

There had been a “strategic underinvestment in real pro-Israel grassroots action in the UK”, Mr Dickson said.

The meeting was organised to brief Israeli politicians on the situation in the UK, but there was one obvious problem — a lack of Knesset members. Only Einat Wilf remained for the whole meeting, and just one other, Anastassia Michaeli of Yisrael Beiteinu, made an appearance.

Asked about the absence of her parliamentary colleagues, Ms Wilf, who represents the Independence party, said: “I do my best to promote the subject. Sadly, still, Israeli-diaspora relations are an elite preoccupation among MKs.”

She pledged to bring the proposals, including Mr Davis’s suggestion of a “Big Conversation” between Israel and the diaspora, to a full plenum of the Knesset.

Last updated: 2:29pm, May 24 2012