Diaspora Jews are now all about social justice

Far-right Israeli politicians like Smotrich have failed to keep up with shift in Western culture


Head of Israel's Jewish Zionism (Zionut Datit) list Bezalel Smotrich (C) gestures as he visits the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of the Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on May 10, 2021. - More than 300 people were wounded in renewed confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque complex, as an Israeli celebration of its 1967 takeover of Jerusalem risked inflaming tensions. The violence since May 7 has been Jerusalem's worst since 2017, fuelled by a long-running bid by Jewish settlers to evict several Palestinian families from their nearby east Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. (Photo by Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP) (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images)

February 18, 2022 12:05

When the Board of Deputies told far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich that he was unwelcome in the UK recently, the Israeli reactions were telling. Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist party, is notorious for racist and homophobic pronouncements. These include supporting the segregation of Arab and Jewish mothers on labour wards, telling Arab lawmakers that they were only there because Ben-Gurion didn’t “finish the job” and “throw [them] out” in 1948, and organising a “beast parade” in 2006 in response to Jerusalem’s gay parade.

Many understood that these attitudes were unacceptable in a civilised society. But a vocal minority complained that it was wrong for an elected Knesset member to be treated this way. Hundreds of Israeli tweeters and commentators accused the Board of being weak and cowardly — that is, too diasporic. 

They argued that our main representative organisation is in fact unrepresentative of the community and its views. Worst of all, it’s apparently “Reform” and “left-wing.”

The reaction shows how little Israelis understand about Anglo-Jewry’s demographic makeup, our institutions and how different we are from our American cousins. Increasing Israelis’ basic knowledge of — and respect for — the diaspora is essential, if we are to continue to be one people.

But it also shows how out-of-sync Israelis are with a profound cultural shift taking place in the West, one which has serious implications both for Israeli-diaspora relations and for Israeli hasbarah. I’m referring to anti-racism — and, to a lesser extent, gay rights — emerging as core values of our society. Of course, these have been important for years. But the success of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter have recently turned racial equality and justice into non-negotiables. No decent, respectable Briton wants to be identified as racist or homophobic. It is instant social and political death.

It is hardly surprising that this has spread through the Jewish community, including its more moderate Orthodox ones, as we are well-integrated into wider society. 

In my last column, I wrote anecdotally about the increasing “wokeness” of some modern Orthodox youth. While their parents may not be quite in the same place, there is widespread recognition that — at minimum — Jews today cannot afford to be identified as racist or homophobic, particularly if we are to fight other people’s racism against us. Practically the only Orthodox Jews who met Smotrich in London were two Bnei Akiva emissaries, Israelis who (together with Charedim) are amongst the most culturally isolated groups. When the Board effectively “cancelled” Smotrich, there was no real objection from British Orthodox organisations. With few exceptions (such as Chabad-Lubavitch), they supported it or stayed quiet. 

Of course, this is welcome. But it also foreshadows a new potential threat to Israeli-diaspora relations. 

Over a decade ago, American writer Peter Beinart argued that young American liberals were increasingly turned off by Israel’s move away from democratic norms and the imbalance of power between Jews and Arabs. His vision of a rift with mainstream Israelis, driven by a gap in values, has largely come true. 

The danger for Israel is that a similar gap could emerge between Israelis and more traditional British Jews — including Orthodox ones — who find signs of normalisation of racism in the Israeli body politic increasingly unpalatable and offputting. This has nothing to do with the two-state solution or Israel’s security issues, on which the British-Jewish centre-right remains roughly aligned with the Israeli centre-right. It’s about culture.

As for Israeli hasbarah, the golden rule of any public relations effort is that you must understand where your audience is coming from and speak to their beliefs and values. The Palestinians have always been masters at tapping into Western concerns for justice, victims and anti-colonialism. Israelis have, less usefully, tended to argue facts.

If Israel hopes to argue its case, it has to understand that there has been a genuine shift in the way the West regards social justice and it’s now a top concern across the political board. 

Proudly racist Israeli MKs or policies can no longer be easily explained away or ignore. Nor should they be. And they are not peripheral to Israel’s case.  If Israel is not cleaner than clean on these issues, it’s more vulnerable than before. The West does not look past perceived racists right now. They get cancelled.

So Smotrich’s angry supporters are wrong to dismiss what happened last week in London as a sinister left-wing, Reform conspiracy or an aberration by an out-of-control organisation. 

If you’ve lost our mild, cautious Board of Deputies, it’s a bellwether.

February 18, 2022 12:05

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