The headline summary of British Jewish attitudes to Israel was ‘Committed, concerned and conciliatory’.
I’d like to explore if the findings really matched the conclusions and also add some comments as to how this reflects my own views and experiences, or not, as the case may be..
Firstly, let’s see what the JPR says about itself:
The Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) is a London-based independent Jewish research institute. It aims to advance the prospects of Jewish communities in Britain and across Europe by conducting research and developing policy in partnership with those best placed to influence Jewish life.
I’m not sure what ‘advance the prospects’ means. I take it to mean that this group, supported by the Pears Foundation, wants to influence the ‘policy’ of those who are influential in Jewish life in Britain. In this context, I take it that they want to assist in helping the development of policy vis-a-vis Israel.
The survey, therefore, is meant to provide communal leaders and organisations with data on their own constituency.
Looking at the Pears Foundation website, it would appear that ‘Committed, concerned and conciliatory’ could be their own mission statement when it comes to Israel.
The Pears Foundation also supports the New Israel Fund which has been the subject of much controversy recently. The NIF was accused by NGO monitor (which is an Israeli NGO itself), of being anti-Zionist. There were other accusations of supporting Palestinian-Arab groups which deny Israel’s legitimacy. This year, Im Tirtzu which is a Zionist student organisation, accused the NIF of collaboration with the UN’s Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead and providing it with the ammunition with which to attack Israel. It was all a bit messy.
This is the provenance of this report. I would point out that Pears and NIF are both heavily involved in the advancing the welfare and economic status of Israeli Arabs. This is a laudable and commendable mission but it is fraught with the dangers of Israeli and Palestinian political entanglement. It is probably unavoidable that the objects of charitable causes in Israel can be, in turn, targetted by Palestinian and, indeed, Israeli political groups whose agenda is not charitable but to attack or even delegitimise the state.
Given this provenance we must tread carefully and see whether there is any political interpretation of the data. After all, the expressed aim of JPR is to develop policy, and policy is the offspring of politics.
First point is that the pdf document is annoyingly a 2-column format which makes it very difficult to read in a browser.
Are the data truly representative of the Jewish community? As the report authors say in the Introduction:
Short of an official census which all members of a population are required to complete, no sample survey can provide a perfect representation of the target population. That is particularly the case when sampling the Jewish community, because members of the population cannot be identified by a list, or accessed by any form of random process. Further, in a survey such as this, which was carried out on-line, and where respondents are self-selected, there is additional potential for bias in the data.
There were 4,081 responses. There is no way of telling that all these respondents were actually Jewish or even British. 4,000 represents something like 1.5% of Britain’s Jewish population, but a significantly higher proportion of its adult population, perhaps 4-5% or 1 in 20/25. This is a remarkable sample. If you were to have an online survey directed at the UK population, the same percentage would return 3-400,000 responses from the adult population, if my maths are correct.
Yet it remains the fact that respondents, including myself are a) Internet savvy, b) are aware of the survey and c) want to respond.
It would be a fair assumption that those responding want to express their views and those who don’t are uncommitted or have no strong desire to contribute to the data and the story they tell.
The Executive Summary is broken down into a number of headings.
Deep ties and strong commitments
This is borne out by the data. An overwhelming majority believe that Israel is central to their identity, is their ancestral homeland, believe themselves to be Zionists and believe they have a ‘responsibility to support Israel’ and that Jews are ‘responsible for ensuring the survival of Israel’.
So, British Jews still overwhelmingly cleave to a Jewish identity anchored in the soil of Israel. This also confirms Jews affinity with other Jews (as we say every New Month, chaverim kol Yisra’el – all the people of Israel are one brotherhood) and adds up to a national identification as a Jewish People.
Dovish stance on key policy issues
The data clearly show that British Jews are in favour of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and do not wish to see any further expansion of settlements.
The next statistic, however, is worrying: 52% believe that Israel should negotiate with Hamas. Only 39% do not.
This is worrying because it means that 52% of correspondents actually believe that Hamas would ever negotiate with Israel. Hamas have repeatedly rejected any such negotiations. Israel will not talk to them until they forswear their genocidal policy against Jews and Israel. Clearly the Jewish public in Britain are not informed about the nature of Hamas. I’m sure there ‘vote’ is for the best intentions, but there is a clear lack of understanding of the nature of Hamas and perhaps some confusion.
Clear support on security issues but with some reservations
This section dealt with Israel’s control of the West Bank (Judea/Samaria), the Security Barrier, the Gaza War and Iran. Again, the respondents generally appear to adhere to a progressive Zionist view of Israel’s ‘occupation’ of the West Bank. They feel it is a necessary evil whilst there is a threat but are prepared to cede land for peace. Only 48% of professed Zionists saw Israel as an occupying power.
The definition of Israel’s position on the West Bank is a complex historical issue. If Israel is occupying the West Bank, which country is being occupied? Palestine has never existed even though the West Bank is land earmarked as a future separate state in the 2-state solution. The land is termed ‘disputed’ by those who don’t like ‘occupied’, but the religious Right see it simply as Israeli/Jewish land by right. But it matters little; the main thrust of the response is that British Jews are willing to cede most of this land for peace and to create a viable Palestinian state.
Most (72%) supported Cast Lead , the Gaza War in 2008-9 (even though, as mentioned above, 52% want to negotiate with Hamas. Again, negotiate what? The destruction of Israel?) and the same number also support the Security Barrier as vital.
The response on Iran as representing a threat to Israel gained a massive 87% agreement. Jews have learned by bitter experience that anyone who calls for the destruction of Jews should be taken seriously.
Some mixed feelings about the state of Israeli society
The main concerns were corruption in Israeli political life, the influence of Orthodox Judaism (the Haredim) and a lesser concern, but still a majority, about discrimination against minorities in both the Jewish and non-Jewish community. This too shows a what could be termed a somewhat left-leaning view of Israel and is completely commensurate with British Jews growing up in and identifying with the values of British society and desiring those same values are observed in Israel.
Corruption in the UK parliament with the expenses scandal may affect their views on accusations of corruption against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But more likely is a desire to avoid the embarrassment of Jewish leaders facing criminal charges.
Concern for minorities is also a natural and commendable expression of British mainstream multi-culturalism but also, and perhaps even more so in this context, an expression of Jewish moral values and a belief that Israel, though a state of the Jewish people, can accommodate non-Jews and a varied ethnic mix in a cohesive society. Jewish charities have historically concentrated their efforts on Jews in Israel. As Israel has become more affluent this is shifting slightly toward assisting with integration of non-European ethnicities and improving the lot of Arabs. The data reflect these concerns.
20% of correspondents do not believe democracy is ‘alive and well in Israel’. I would hazard a guess that these 20% are either hard Left or concerned with corruption, the vagaries of the Israeli voting and multi-party system and the situation in the ‘territories’. Maybe democracy is alive but has a bit of a temperature would be more apt. But at least it is a democracy.
Some divergence of opinion on the will for peace
Confusion on who wants peace. Only 59% thought Israel was less responsible for the failure of the peace process and only 47% believed the Palestinians want peace. As we cannot know what Palestinians really want we can only go by their actions. 60 years of rejectionism and the failure of Fatah/PLO/PA to accept a Jewish state should have convinced more people that Israel has always been willing to make sacrifices for peace and the Palestinians offer rockets and intifadas in return.
Apparently this view is not at all universal in the Jewish community and I suspect the reason is an exasperation with the Netanyahu government and the antics of Lieberman.
Israel is prominent in the daily lives of Jews in Britain
This was really interesting.76% believe Israel is relevant to their lives but most of these do not feel a conflict of interest with loyalty to Britain. This is wholly commensurate with a population that has roots over 4 or more generations in Britain and still feels gratitude to Britain for absorbing their grandparents and great grandparents fleeing from Russisan pogroms over 100 years ago. I know I do. This loyalty is even reflected in the prayer for the Royal Family recited in synagogues every shabbat.
About a quarter feel uncomfortable living here because of events in Israel. This is mainly due I would suspect, to anti-Israel demonstrations and the rise in anti-Semitic incidents every time Israel is pilloried in the press for defending itself. For me this is not a permanent state of being. But I felt considerable wariness walking to synagogue during Cast lead and after the Mavi Marmara incident with a vague feeling that I was a potential target for the rage of some sections of British society who make no distinction between Jews and Israelis.
This feeling was an almost atavistic sense of impending pogrom and even guilt, even though I supported Israel’s actions, I was the perennial Jew, the outsider, the enemy within braced for the abuse of a passing motorist or a missile lobbed from across the road. These fears were not realised, but the feeling they could have been was fuelled by anti-Israel sentiment in the news and media. And or me, anti-Israel always means anti-Jew on the streets of Britain.
The survey showed why I have these feelings:
• Almost a quarter (23%) of the sample had witnessed some form of antisemitic incident in the previous year. Of these, over half (56%) believe that the incident was ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ related to the abuser/assailant’s views on Israel.
• More than one in ten respondents (11%) said they had been subjected to a verbal antisemitic insult or attack in the 12 months leading up to the survey. Over half of the victims (56%) believe that the incident was ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ related to the abuser/assailant’s views on Israel.
Division of opinion on the right to speak out
Again,a surprise for me. Only 35% said Jews should always feel free to criticise Israel in the British media. As many as 25% said this was never justified.
Although I can sympathise with a reluctance to criticise when there are more than enough non-Jews around who are more than willing to do so, I think it is false loyalty not to speak up when you feel Israel is wrong. The problem is, as I’ve said before, that when so much of the so-called debate is so shrill and vicious, it is not easy to add your reasonable voice to a cacophony of vituperative polemic which is neither reasoned or reasonable.
However, just because the general debate is malign should not deter a Jew or a supporter of Israel from expressing reservations or criticism. The attempts to demonise Israel cannot be used as an excuse for moral cowardice if you feel Israel is wrong.
The survey came up with another , for me, unfortunate statistic: 45% do not believe Jews in Britain have a right to criticise Israel because we don’t live there. This is crazy. I don’t live in Iran but I have a right, in this country at least, to criticise it. Jews have a long history of not wishing to ‘rock the boat’, to put up the shutters and retreat behind a communal defensive wall where any criticism of Israel is disloyal. This is an absurdity in the 21st century.
If Israeli democracy cannot take external criticism or if Jews feel pangs of disloyalty as critical diaspora Jews then the relationship between the diaspora and Israel will lose an important linkage. However, this line of thought can lead to J-Street whose ‘pro-Israel’ criticism hides a more pernicious agenda which is decidedly anti-Zionist. Nevertheless, we live in free societies and the antidote to anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiments, from Jews or anyone else, is confidence to express support and valid criticism and to confront invalid criticism or views inimical to the best interests of Israel.
Religiosity and educational attainment
The final summary section simply states that the more religious, the more hawkish, the better educated, the more dovish. What about well educated ‘frummers’?
Education may lead to dovishness because it exposes the individual to views not encountered within closed communities and, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has explained in her latest book :
The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century gave birth to schools and universities run on the principles of critical thinking…
(Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, pp xviii and xix, published by Simon and Shuster, 2010)
The critical thinkers are more likely to reject religious certainty for nuanced rationalism and so be able to see both sides of an argument. This leads to greater toleration of opposing views and the willingness to find compromises.
The survey is fascinating but, unless you are a BBC reporter, there are no real surprises.
Jews generally support Israel, and sometimes uncritically.
Jews care about Palestinians but only if Israeli security can be assured.
British Jews support democracy, compassion and moral behaviour, but they also believe that, in face of existential threats, Israel has a right to defend itself robustly.
British Jews want peace and reconciliation, a plural democratic Israel respecting all faiths and ethnicities.
British Jews’ bond with Israel is strong and affectionate as is their loyalty to Britain.
Hence, ‘Committed, concerned and conciliatory’ appears to be a correct conclusion.