While I spend much of my time researching and writing about the British Jewish community, I’ve always been a keen observer of the American Jewish community. So it was fascinating to discover during a recent teaching visit to Houston that my British Jewish preoccupations seemed to resonate so strongly with Jews there.
Much of my work in the past years has been concerned with the ways in which Jewish communities in the Diaspora have become increasingly divided over the question of Israel. I’ve tried to argue that communities need to institute practices of civility and dialogue in order to manage the resulting conflict. While my research has drawn on American examples, I have inevitably been most strongly influenced by the U.K. Jewish community within which I am heavily involved.
My discussions in Houston confirmed that the “symptoms” of the Israel conflict in the U.K. Jewish community can also be found in the United States: bitter disputes, anger, and intractable problems within Jewish communal institutions that struggle to accommodate the different views of their members. My visit took place during Operation Protective Edge, a time in which emotions were particularly heightened and the fault lines within the community were particularly visible.
But while I am more convinced than ever that the U.S., U.K. and some other Diaspora Jewish communities (including South Africa and Australia) are facing major challenges in managing differences over Israel, it is also clear that there are important differences between those countries. Highlighting those differences can help communities to understand themselves better and find responses to the Israel conflict that respond to their own needs.
So how do the U.S. and U.K. differ? Three areas seem to be particularly important:
First, the right is stronger in the U.S. Jewish community. The U.S. is the birthplace of neo-conservativism, a movement in which Jews have played and continue to play a prominent role; U.S. Jews such as Sheldon Adelson and funders such as the Hebron Fund have played an important role in funding the Israeli right and the settlement project; right-wing pro-Israel groups such as the Zionist Organization of America have a strong voice in the Jewish community and outside.
In contrast, while there is a British Jewish right, it has much weaker voice and following than the U.S. There was no equivalent, for example, to the demonstrations in 2005 held in the U.S. against the Gaza disengagement. Further, central Jewish organizations in the U.K. have generally been much more enthusiastic in embracing the two state solution and are more inclined than their U.S. equivalents to uphold the right of Jews to criticize Israel (albeit guardedly so).
Second, the wider political environment in the U.S. is much more supportive of Israel than in the U.K. The strength of the Christian right also ensures that religious right-wing Israeli positions have influential advocates in the U.S. Conversely, the pro-Palestinian movement is marginal in America outside particular spaces such as some universities.
While in the U.K. all the major parties are committed to Israel’s right to exist, there is little political support for the Israeli right and there are more advocates for Palestinian rights both in parliament and outside. While in the U.K. Jewish critics of Israel are bolstered by support from outside the community, in the U.S., it is Jewish supporters of Israel that are strengthened by the surrounding environment.
The third principle difference between U.S. and U.K. is that the American Jewish community is much less centralized that the British. While of course there are strong central umbrella institutions such as the Federations, the U.S. has no equivalent to the U.K.’s Chief Rabbinate and the quasi-parliamentary Board of Deputies of British Jews. While these differences are partially a function of size (there are only around 300,000 Jews in the U.K.), the US Jewish community is less invested in trying to achieve ‘unity’, since the community is too big, too diverse and too spread out for it to be possible. What this means is that it is much more difficult to marginalize some kinds of Jewish voices than it is in the U.K. – adding to the cacophonous conflict over Israel.
Over and above these differences, it is also clear that situation in both countries is fraught with paradoxes and ironies. U.S. Jewry’s greater diversity and decentralization is much more empowering to Jews with different opinions – but it also creates weaker ties between Jews, leading to more severe conflict. British Jewry’s greater investment in unity makes it a more oppressive space for those with minority opinions – but it also ensures greater closeness that can mitigate conflict.
Perhaps most ironic of all is that U.S. Jewry – with its Israel flags on synagogue bimas and its important voice in how the US government relates to Israel – may be much more vociferous in its support for Israel, but only a minority of American Jews have actually visited the country (although the number is growing due to Birthright). In the U.K. – with its lesser ability to have an impact on Israeli policy and its weaker support for the Israeli right – over 90% of Jews have visited the country and the ties connecting the Jewish community to Israel are deep and strong.
It is in this last difference that the U.K. might provide a positive model for the U.S.
While both communities are clearly struggling with divisions over Israel, in the U.K. at the very least there is a stronger sense of Israel as a real and complex place. This helps to mitigate at least some of the extreme idealization that both supporters and detractors of Israel often fall into.
One of the cutting edge players in Israel education today, the Makom initiative, which is hosted by the Jewish Agency and works principally with American Jews, tries to create meaningful ties to Israel by embracing the rich complexity of ‘real’ life in the country. It’s worth noting that much of the impetus and ideology behind Makom comes from British-Jewish educators. In such modest ways, the U.K. Jewish community may have things to offer the U.S. community in learning how to relate to Israel.
Keith Kahn-Harris is the author of Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community. He is the editor of The Jewish Quarterly and works as an educator and research for a number of Jewish communal organizations.