Saturday, December 04, 2010

Taking the Mick

As the fires burn in the Carmel, as the debate rages in the pages of the JC, as the British cold makes me feel ever more ill and homesick, I realised it has been many weeks since my last posting.

Let's first try to understand something about what Mick Davis said. A transcript of his remarks can be found here. I think it is quite incredible that the interviewer and all the subsequent participants in the public debate on his comments (pro and con) have totally overlooked the most startling sin of his remarks.

This is that he has used his controversial opinion on Israel as a smokescreen for having no real answers about Anglo-Jewry.

He was asked a question about characterising the leadership of Anglo-Jewry  (he sits on the Jewish Leadership Council so he ought to know a thing or two about this) and chose instead to answer it through the prism of where he thinks they sit on the spectrum of opinion about Israel. 

Actually I think this sidesteps the key issue - how are they doing at leading British Jewry? The answer is - disastrously. I do not believe that the British Jewish community has at all come to terms with the fact that its communal structure has totally failed to adapt to the realities of Generation Y.

Our generation lives in an increasingly busy marketplace of ideas. The Jewish community, spearheaded by the UJIA as its biggest funder of communal activity, the Board of Deputies as its official mouthpiece, and the United Synagogue as its largest body of shuls and being under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi, has failed to tackle assimilation, build a strong and positive identity that has Jewish spirit at its core, create a safe and respected place for the Jewish community in the wider UK, or find a way to weave real support for Israel into its activities.

Instead it trumpets Jewish primary schools as the single biggest success that will provide a panacea for the community, even though most parents, if honest with themselves, will tell you they send their kids to Jewish schools because they think they are better than non-Jewish schools, not because of their belief in faith schools. In fact, I would venture that for too many parents, sending kids to a Jewish primary allows them to absolve themselves of much of the responsiblity of inculcating a positive Jewish identity in their children.

Where are Mick Davis's thoughtful comments on how new British Jewish leadership is developing? Why are there so few voices questioning why, after being here for over 350 years and apparently being so well-respected by our "hosts", we still have elected leaders whose idea of speaking out loud and proud on our behalf is "why shout when a whisper would suffice?" When some of our figureheads dare to challenge this way of thinking, they are ignored - who has even heard of Samuel Hayek? Yet I would hazard that Mick Davis gets the column inches because editors are happier promoting his position.

Why is it that the only exciting things going on in our community are apparently happening outside the big organisations mentioned above? Much as I don't agree with their politics on Israel and general lack of quality shampoo, the likes of Moishe House and Wandering Jews are at least providing some alternative, fun and imaginative activities, such as the Jewltide Party. And when it comes to laying on the style and quality, the CJL are a mile ahead of any US-affiliated NW London shul trying to compete in the same space. Limmud is still streets ahead in its presentation of a wide spectrum of opinion on all things Jewish and Israeli, and it continues to be a mark of shame on the United Synagogue that they cannot find any formal way to participate.

Let's look at some of Mick Davis's concerns (my comments in italics):
1. Minority rights in Israel, Arabs as second class citizens, lack of UK Jewish leaders who speak up for them

Whilst there are organisations such as the New Israel Fund who spend increasing time and resources trying to bridge the undoubted quality gap between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens, ultimately I think it is a case of identity. If Arab citizens of Israel continue to consider themselves victims of a historical injustice and that they live in a terribly discriminatory society in which nothing they can do will ever let them improve their position, and if they are Israeli when it suits them and then suddenly Palestinian when it suits them (and apparently incapable of reconciling the two identities and being Israeli Palestinians or Palestinian Israelis), this gap will remain. 

The reality is that whilst there is a gulf between them and us, it is exacerbated by cultural differences, for example in the way that Arab municipal councils choose to spend their allocations, compared to Jewish or Druze ones. By most metrics, "our" Arabs have among the highest quality of life in the Arab world. Netanyahu has recognised that they represent one of our largest untapped resources, and more should be done to integrate them into the economy and the cultural fabric of Israeli society. But I strongly believe they have to want to be a part of this, and I remain unconvinced that they have made this choice yet.

How about Mick Davis using his influence to get the British Arab community to do something positive and co-invest alongside the UJIA in Arab Israeli projects? That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre.

2. Settlements and bulldozing

There are compelling arguments that the "settlement enterprise" and the tactic of bulldozing houses are tactically bad, especially when one takes into account the international PR effects. However, we are swallowing our detractors' own line if we really believe the "settlements" are the core issue. 

As I have said many times before, there are "settlements" and there are settlements. Places like Gush Etzion, where we bought and built perfectly legally pre-1948, and reclaimed and restarted post-1967, have a different moral value to me than some of the strategic hilltop settlements that were built on land that was appropriated from the locals, even if it may be that there was no legal title. In between are border "settlements" built on land that geographically should naturally form part of Israel and were built on unused or no-man's land, those like Ma'ale Shomron which were built on ruins of ancient Jewish sites and displaced no more than the odd shepherd. To lump them into one category and label them all "illegal" is a gross simplification.

The Palestinian leadership uses the "settlements" as a lever against Israel and excuse not to come back to the talks, because it knows it is not ready to run its own state without  first consolidating its power vis-a-vis Hamas, and letting its middle class interact with Israel (including the dastardly settlements!) to build a viable economy in the West Bank. Of course, if Israel has to stop its building because it prejudices a final outcome of the peace talks, surely the Palestinians should not build either - and in fact, those Israeli Arabs who would rather call themselves Palestinians should probably down tools as well, in case they decide to "go back". But then it's ORFTORFU.
A reading of opinion surveys in the West Bank, among both Palestinians and the "settlers", shows that there is a consensus on the ground that neither the Palestinian or Israeli leadership is really listening to. About 70% of both groups would be willing to accept a middle ground scenario in which most or all the so-called settlements became part of the West Bank by sovereignty, inhabited by Israeli citizens with Palestinian residency rights. A similar option could be given to Israeli Arabs who might prefer to be Palestinian citizens with Israeli residency.

The advantage of this outcome is that nobody has to leave their home, and both sides get the demographic majority they desire, in a democratic framework. I also think this presents the best way for the two peoples to find common ground to collaborate and to integrate their economies to the benefit of both. Israel's single biggest protection against another intifada is the success of the Palestinian economy.

Perhaps Mick can use his access to British and Israeli politicians and diplomats to present a radical and innovative solution to one of the key stumbling blocks in the peace process. That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre.

3. Jewish loyalty oath

The big issue with this loyalty oath is that it's ORFTORFU of the wrong kind. We should expect ALL new citizens of the state to take this oath. I can think of plenty of Jews who have moved to Israel and delighted in taking their aliyah benefit, before going on to write rabid pieces for the Guardian or work for NGOs which hardly seem to have Israel's best interests at heart.

Many countries require some kind of citizenship test and oath of loyalty. I imagine a lot of British Jews would be willing to take one to dispel any notion that our twin loyalties to Britain and Israel are in fact contrasting and contradictory ones. Whereas there may be other sectors of society who cannot. 
This is Mick's chance to speak in a forthright manner on how ALL citizens of a given state should be willing to show their loyalty to it, not in every policy of the government of the day, but in the principles under which that state exists and functions, and should be showing how Anglo-Jewry's largely successful integration into British mainstream society lets us take a front-running position on this debate. That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre.
 
4. Netanyahu's strategy

Mick may be a very successful CEO of a very successful business, but Netanyahu is the twice-elected PM of the OECD's most resilient and recession-proof country.  It would be pretty naive to think that Netanyahu is doing all this with no plan. His Bar Ilan speech showed the confidence he has in pulling Likud away from the right hand fringe and towards the centre, and his understanding that Israeli society is increasingly of the pragmatic centre-right. 

There is a growing national consensus on most issues - not least the need to reach accommodation with the Palestinians and create a viable state for them, the need to put economics first and eliminate the extremism and the poverty gap between our society and theirs, and within our own society. Netanyahu is at the forefront of this new way, like him or loathe him.

Surely Mick could be bringing the lessons of how to unify a far more complex society with radically more challenging problems than those of the UK,  and how to steer an economy through the turbid waters of the global meltdown, to the British political scene?  That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre.

5. Dangers of de facto "apartheid state"

We all know that Israel is not and will never be an apartheid state. We do however know that Israel and Palestine need a divorce (in the words of that famous fascist Amos Oz). It is true, and Mick alludes to it, that if we fail to reach agreement soon, we may have fewer and less palatable options in terms of how we live with or separate from them. What Mick lacks the nuance to understand and articulate is that the Arab side, not just the Palestinians, have grasped that they win either way. If they do not get the state they want, they can wait us out, then force an end-game that gives them what they want or forces us to make unpalatable choices. 

Meanwhile non-Muslims continue to live in apartheid dhimmitude across the Arab world while Mick stays silent. Perhaps Mick could speak out against this as well as the horrific slur of associating Israel, in ANY circumstances past, present or future, with being an apartheid state. That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre. 

6. How the Diaspora is affected by Israel 

The second intifada and continued correlation of heightened violence in the Middle East to increased anti-Semitic incidents in the UK show that the Diaspora is affected by Israel. 

As was put very succinctly in their letter to the JC, Jonathan Hoffman et al:
"...the crassest comment was to suggest that Netanyahu’s policies have as much impact on Davis - sitting in London - as on Jews in Israel. We were not aware that Hampstead is within target of Iranian or Hamas missiles, nor that its residents have to send their children to defend the Jewish State for three years."
This is of course not to say that Israel, or we, should kowtow to violence and surrender what we have gained through legitimate means such as a UN Partition Plan and successive wars of defence, and built on with a society that has absorbed waves of immigrants and stands proud among the nations as a member of the OECD with PhDs, patents and Nobel Prizes per capita that are the envy of every nation. 

If only the Diaspora could be similarly affected by innovation and brilliance, and the acceptance of new points of view. If only our Chief Rabbi could find a way to allow children who feel they are Jewish enough to go to JFS, just as the Israeli rabbinate finds a way to accept those who feel they are Jewish enough to serve in the IDF. That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre.

7. Debating the above within Anglo-Jewry

I think the single biggest failure of Anglo-Jewish leadership is on the side that opposed Mick Davis's opinions and decision to express them in such a public forum. Of course I do not agree with some of Davis's views, or his willingness to air them in this way. But the failure is that of the community to be a genuinely "big tent" where the merits of Israel and different ways to defend it should have been thoroughly debated before now, and a single communal strategy should have emerged, with some consensus on the issues he raises, in terms of the public line we should take.

Instead, we are left looking divided and indecisive, and for some reason are bewildered when someone like Davis shoots his mouth off in this way, allowing our enemies to predictably jump on his comments and use them to damage us even further. 

Either that, or just accept that every individual and organisation is going to speak with its own voice, and deal with the resultant selective quotation to undermine Israel, rather than admiration for our diversity and openness.

The main reason why I think Mick Davis is a disgrace is because he has shown a complete lack of Jewish leadership, on this or any other issue. He has not earned the right to be a the voice of the Anglo-Jewish community or a publicly dissenting voice from it. If he is the best Anglo-Jewry can do for leadership, the community is doomed.

I think Mick Davis and the entire JLC should fall on their swords because they have clearly failed in their mission. They should allow a new generation to rise up in their place that actually represents the next generation. That would be Jewish leadership of the highest calibre.