No one has the right to speak for British Jews on Israel and Zionism

By Brian Klug, a senior research fellow in philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and associate editor of Patterns of Prejudice (THE GUARDIAN, 05/02/07):
If there is one thing on which Jews can agree, it is this: it's good to argue. Jewish culture has thrived on argument - frank, sincere disagreement - ever since Moses disputed with God. But today an oppressive and unhealthy atmosphere is leading many Jews to feel uncertain about speaking out on Israel and Zionism. People are anxious about contravening an unwritten law on what you can and cannot discuss, may or may not assert.

It is a climate that raises fundamental questions: about freedom of expression, Jewish identity, representation, and the part that concerned Jews in Britain can play in assisting Israelis and Palestinians to find their way to a better future.

As the situation in the Middle East deteriorates yearly, more and more Jews watch with dismay from afar. Dismay turns to anguish when innocent civilians - Palestinians and Israelis - suffer injury and death because of the continuing conflict. Anguish turns to outrage when the human rights of a population under occupation are repeatedly violated in the name of the Jewish people.

No one has the authority to speak for the Jewish people. Yet during Israel's war with Lebanon last summer, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, told an American audience: "I believe that this is a war that is fought by all the Jews." His belief is not based on evidence: it is an article of faith, a corollary of the doctrine that Israel represents Jewry as a whole - in Britain included.

This is a fallacy; and, moreover, a dangerous one, since it tars all Jews with the same brush. Yet this misconception is reinforced here by those who, claiming to speak for British Jews collectively or allowing that impression to go unchallenged, only ever reflect one position on the Middle East. On its own account, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (which calls itself "the voice of British Jewry") devotes much of the time and resources of its international division to "the defence of Israel". When a "solidarity rally" was held in London last July in the midst of the conflict with Lebanon, it was the board that organised it.

All of which suggests that British Jewry, speaking with one voice, stands solidly behind the Israeli government and its military operations.

Two things are wrong with this suggestion. First, it's false. Jews were deeply divided over Israel's campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon last year. Certainly, there were those who shared the sentiment of the chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, who, addressing the rally, said: "Israel, you make us proud." Others felt roughly the opposite emotion.

Second, the board has no business taking a partisan position on the Middle East. Let groups such as the Zionist Federation or perhaps the Israeli embassy organise solidarity rallies. The role of the board is to promote the welfare of British Jews in all their variety, not to defend Israel. Similarly, the chief rabbi is entitled, ex officio, to bring a religious perspective to political matters, but it is not his role to act as political spokesman for his flock.

Faced with this state of affairs, a group of Jews in Britain has come together to launch Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). We come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life. Some of us are religious, some not. A number feel a strong attachment to Israel as Jews, others feel none. We do not all share the same vision for the Middle East. We are a network of individuals, not a movement or political party.

But we are united by certain fundamental commitments. These are set out in our launch statement, published today on the Guardian's Comment is Free website and in advertisements placed in the Jewish Chronicle and the Times. They include: putting human rights first; giving equal priority to Palestinians and Israelis in their quest for a peaceful and secure future; and repudiating all forms of racism aimed at Jews, Arabs, Muslims or whomever.

We believe that these commitments - not ethnic or group loyalties - define the limits of legitimate debate. We invite like-minded Jews in Britain to add their names to the list of IJV signatories.

Jews abroad who are confronted with the same climate are taking similar steps to make their voices heard. The Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians has been formed to promote "an alternative public Jewish voice" on Israeli policies. Last July "concerned South African Jews" appealed to "all who share our commitment to a common humanity" to call for Israel to stop its bombardment of Lebanon. In the past few years, Jewish groups speaking out against Israel's violations of human rights have proliferated, notably in the United States, but especially in Israel itself.

We are not setting ourselves up as an alternative to the Board of Deputies or any other body. But we challenge the standard concept of "the Jewish community" as a collective entity for which the board is the secular voice and the chief rabbi the religious voice. This system was developed in another era - though it is being used today as a template for other minorities. It pictures "the Jewish community" as a single bloc that, whatever its internal complexity, presents a common face to the outside world via its ambassadors.

There is an affinity between our initiative and the New Generation Network, which was launched in the Guardian last November. A diverse group of Britons questioned the idea that the pie of British society (or that portion consisting of "minorities") can be divided into neat ethnic or religious slices: discrete "communities" with authoritative "leaders". For many of us, this model is suffocating and goes against the grain of our experience.

Among other things, it places a premium on keeping disagreement "in the family". For Jews, this ethos is especially stifling if the subject is Zionism or Israel. Some people, rightly condemning demonisation of the Jewish state, do not hesitate to demonise fellow Jews who, when expressing their views on these subjects in public, cross an invisible line of acceptability. We reject any attempt to suppress legitimate public debate and we abhor the culture of vilification.

The slur of "traitor" or "self-hating Jew" is especially noxious. For, if we feel compelled to protest against injustice to Palestinians, this is partly because of the lessons of our own history: the Jewish experience of marginalisation and persecution. Furthermore, when the language of human rights is spoken, many of us (secular and religious) hear the voices of those Hebrew prophets, rabbis, writers, activists and other Jewish figures down the centuries for whom Judaism means nothing if it does not mean social justice.

So, when we speak out against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or the bombing of Lebanon, or discrimination against Palestinians within Israel itself, we are not turning against our Jewish identity; we are turning to it. Some of us, recalling that nearly 40 years have passed since Israel's occupation began, hear a resonance. This was the length of time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, near the end of which Moses gave them a directive: "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). It is a compass bearing for all humanity, especially when we are trying to find our way - or help others to find theirs - to a better future.