It is easy to dismiss Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. The self-styled “Rabbi of America” has a reputation as a publicity hound, and his credibility took a serious blow with his relationship with Michael Jackson.
When it comes to Anglo-Jewry, he has alienated many by repeatedly calling Britain anti-Israel in the international media, and waging a bitter personal campaign against Lord Sacks for allegedly shirking his responsibility to stand up for the Jewish state.
It comes as no surprise, then, that in his interview with the JC last week , Boteach railed again against the “spirit of intimidation” against British Jews on campus, and declared that “it is much harder to be a proud Jew in the UK than in the United States”.
He complained that British Jews are pussyfooting around with their activism, following a “softly softly” approach that aims to “hold back this tsunami from growing” but not to turn it back.
Although I haven’t seen replies to this piece, almost every op-ed by an American Jew making similar claims about Anglo-Jewry is followed by denials, claiming the Americans are ignorant of reality on the ground and unaware of the enormous efforts of British Jewish organisations. Our natural reaction is to bristle and roll our eyes. We’re offended, indignant, tired of defending our life here. But could we be wrong?
Much as we may dislike this messenger, there is unfortunately more than a grain of truth in Boteach’s claims. In fact, he’s not saying anything I haven’t heard numerous times around local Shabbat tables, particularly when Israel is under attack and the anti-Israel atmosphere rises several notches. The reality is that it is harder to be a proud Jew here than in America. While many of us lead comfortable Jewish lives, the levels of antisemitism and anti-Israel invective in the public domain can sometimes reach frightening levels.
I know too many people who avoid discussing Israel because they’re frightened — at work, and particularly on campus, where one student at a top university recently told me that defending Israel would immediately end his social life. Too many people, also, who seriously considered leaving the UK for Israel during the last Israel–Gaza war. What does it say about this country that they preferred, however briefly, to face real rockets than to face British public opinion?
On the communal level, our organisations cannot compare to their powerful American equivalents (AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, the Anti-Defamation League and the like) in terms of funding, staffing and impact. The establishment of the Jewish Leadership Council was a step in the right direction but has not fundamentally changed the equation.
As a result of this weakness and inherited, assimilatory “we mustn’t offend anyone” attitudes to lobbying, our organisations prefer to defend Israel behind closed doors. One only need think back to the widespread dissatisfaction with the visibility of the Board during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 — leading to the founding of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, and the then-president of the Board being booed when he appeared at one of their rallies — to realise that this is a source of dismay for many in the community.
With the attacks in Paris and the rising terrorist threat, the climate in Europe is changing for the worse. We need more public, assertive and decisive action defending Israel, supporting our students and combating antisemitism if the Jewish community is going to continue being comfortable living in this country.
The temptation is to dislike Boteach because he is an outsider washing our dirty linen in public. But it doesn’t make him wrong.