Most liberal Jews believe that the plight of Palestinian Arabs inside and outside Israel presents the Jewish State with an important test of its commitment to social justice—a test that Israel is failing. Many wish to be publicly critical of Netanyahu’s Israel. But all too often they hold back, because in the vehemence of left-wing Israel hatred they sense something besides concern about Israelis or Palestinians. When liberal British Jews see anti-Israel marchers holding signs saying “Jews back to the gas” and “Hitler was right” and they don’t hear loud and universal condemnation of such bile from the left, they begin to fear that there is another agenda there that is not about social justice. They sense anti-Semitism.
Yet for many British Jews, the vehemence of leftist anti-Zionism—minus the Nazi slogans—is a problem, too. When liberal British Jews hear of organizations like the PSC applauding a call to destroy Balfour’s damned legacy, that doesn’t feel like a constructive critique of Israel and its policies—the kind that could be justly leveled at both Britain and America in recent history; it feels like blind rage and deep loathing.
Because here’s the thing that is rarely said: If your anti-Zionism is such that you hate Israel’s very existence, then for most British Jews the effect of this is similar to anti-Semitism, because to a greater or lesser extent, most British Jews are Zionists, meaning that they believe that the project of collective Jewish existence is a legitimate one, or as legitimate as the existence and aspirations of any other nation, including the Palestinians. And because Israel is the Jewish state, British Jews take Israel-hatred personally. Asking them to disavow their affiliation to Israel in order to maintain their liberalism therefore presents an agonizing choice.
“For the first time in five decades,” wrote veteran British actress Maureen Lipman in November, “I shall not be voting Labour.” Her primary reason was simple: Israel. She excoriated Miliband for his demand that the British government recognize a Palestinian state without a peace deal. She also disapproved of his party’s double standards attacking Israeli aggression when it was responsible for launching a war in Iraq. “Come election day,” she wrote, “I shall give my vote to another party. Almost any other party. Until my party is once more led by mensches.”
Lipman is not alone. Last August Kate Bearman, the former head of the Labour Friends of Israel, resigned her membership to the Labour Party, citing the fact that its “leadership issues simplistic statements that are at odds with the realities Israel faces.” She felt that she was “forced to choose between my party and my support for Israel. And I’ve chosen.”
Many younger Jewish liberals also no longer feel they have a political home. Alex Tenenbaum, 27, is a comedy writer living in north London. His politics have always been liberal, but he has moved further to the left after spending much of the past two years working in disadvantaged London state schools confronting vast inequality. Despite this, he sees no place for himself in today’s Labour Party.
“I couldn’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t vote Labour and yet at the point in my life that I’m at my most fair-minded on many social issues, I don’t feel I’ve got a party to vote for,” he said.
“Some people on the left, educated people, are so quick to use the word Holocaust against Israel, almost with a grin because they think they legitimately can. Don’t get me wrong, Israel does a lot I don’t agree with, but I don’t find myself criticizing them to anyone who isn’t Jewish because I don’t want to be associated with people who freely use words like holocaust and ethnic cleansing.”
Ben Bowers, a 19-year-old student, describes himself as politically liberal. “In the past I may have voted for Labour, but a few years ago I started to move away from them,” he said. “I would never say that I switched allegiance based on Israel, but it undoubtedly makes me feel uncomfortable when I see ultra-liberals joining in alliance with homophobic and sexist Islamists to denounce a democratic country under a veil of anti-Semitism.”