Over the past three months, the movement to promote a boycott of Israel in the United Kingdom has had some alarming successes. In April, the National Union of Journalists voted to boycott all Israeli goods. In May, the University and College Union decided to promote an academic boycott. And last week, Unison, the biggest trade union in the country, pushed through an “economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.”
Although these motions are the work of a few hard-left ideologues and have been widely condemned in the media, they have helped entrench in popular imagination the disastrous impression that Israel deserves to be an international pariah.
While all other reasonable people are questioning why Israel alone is singled out for such treatment, the question haunting Jews around the world is why Britain’s Jewish community did so little to pre-empt the boycott motions — at one stage leaving the American Jewish community to lead the fight. Indeed, the backlash against the British community leadership has been so pronounced that the boycott saga may very well force the British Jewish community to turn toward a more American style of lobbying.
It’s not that the community did nothing. The two main groups representing Anglo Jewry — the archaically named Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council — established the Fair Play Campaign Group, which raised the profile of joint British-Israeli academic projects before the University and College Union vote and brought a delegation of Israeli academics to meet their British counterparts before the union’s conference. But in the context of a vicious campaign to delegitimize Israel, these were mere gestures.
Following the University and College Union vote, the American Jewish community sensed that the British Jewish community had dropped the ball and decided to pick it up. The Anti-Defamation League took out large ads in the Financial Times and in major American newspapers, calling the boycott motions antisemitic. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz got 100 of his colleagues to promise legal action against any lecturer boycotting Israel. And 2,000 American academics, including at least nine Nobel Prize winners, pledged to stay away from any event excluding Israelis.
Naturally, the high-profile intervention was severely embarrassing to British Jewish leaders, and a sudden flurry of anti-boycott activity quickly followed. The Jewish Leadership Council and the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre launched a “Stop the Boycott” campaign and published ads of their own in the Times and the Guardian.
For many in the community, however, this was too little, too late — and there was a palpable sense of anger against the leadership.
What went wrong? Some surmise that the Board of Deputies was lulled into a false sense of security after a 2005 boycott against two Israeli universities by the Association of University Teachers was rapidly reversed following an international outcry. They seemed to think that those behind the boycott were exposed as extremists with limited support, and that the fight against the boycott resolutions could be safely left to other bodies such as Engage, a far-left group that fights antisemitism.
Others think the board appreciated the scale of the threat, but erred by sticking to its longstanding belief in quiet diplomacy rather than grand gestures. This policy goes back centuries and stems, first and foremost, from the British Jewish community’s insecurity.
Before multiculturalism became the norm, Britain encouraged conformity, and Jews, like all minority groups, craved acceptance. As a result, they were extremely careful not to upset successive British governments, as shown most famously in their ambivalence about pushing the United Kingdom to allow in Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Because they avoided thinking of themselves as anything but British, they also did not develop their own political agendas.
By contrast, in the United States — where Jews number roughly 6 million to Britain’s 270,000 — the Jewish community has always been much more confident of its place in American life, and therefore more upfront and aggressive about its political goals. Organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby openly for causes backed by American Jewry, and even less effective communal organizations have developed professional strength and expertise that top British Jewish groups lack.
However, following the recent boycott debacle — and despite the awkward timing, with the myth of a powerful Zionist lobby gaining currency in mainstream British debate — British Jews can expect to see their leaders increasingly taking on the bolder American style.
The British Jewish leadership has finally discovered that the current political climate does not reward timidity. The far-left and Islamist elements driving the moves against Israelis and other Jews do not respond to gentlemanly persuasion, which at any rate is not the approach that the majority of the Jewish community want their leaders to take.
British Jews are beginning to recognize that they have become politicized; against their will, they are becoming political targets. This new situation calls for an entirely different level of organization and an entirely new way of thinking about the Jewish community’s place in British society.
The Jewish leadership must put its historical reservations aside and carefully adopt a more assertive approach — or face the indignity of more American interventions.
Miriam Shaviv is a London-based journalist.