Jews speak up for rights of Palestinians, criticise support for Israel

By staff writers
6 Feb 2007

Independence from those who claim to represent the country's diverse Jewish community is being declared today, by a group of prominent British Jews, both, secular and relgious. In particular, they raise concerns about an uncritical stance on the policies of the state of Israel.

The group says that establishment Jewish spokespeople often put support for Israel above the human rights of Palestinians, and is in conflict with core Jewish principles of justice and compassion.

Independent Jewish Voices is publishing an open letter on the Guardian's Comment is Free website calling for a freer debate about the Middle East within the Jewish community. Among the more than 130 signatories are Stephen Fry, Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh, Jenny Diski and Nicole Farhi, as well as leading academics such as Eric Hobsbawm and psychotherapist Susie Orbach.

"We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole," the letter says. Jewish leaders in Britain, it argues "put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people" in conflict with Jewish principles of justice and compassion.

The statement does not name the institutions it is criticising. But one signatory, Brian Klug, an Oxford philosopher, writing an accompanying article on Comment is Free, singles out the Board of Deputies of British Jews for calling itself "the voice of British Jewry" while devoting "much of the time and resources of its international division to the defence of Israel".

Mr Klug also criticises Britain's chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, for telling a pro-Israeli rally in London last year: "Israel, you make us proud."

"Others felt roughly the opposite emotion," Mr Klug writes.

The emergence of the group, which calls itself a "network of individuals" and can be found at www.ijv.org.uk comes at a time of ferment over attitudes towards Israel, stoked by the war in Lebanon and the bloodshed in the occupied territories. The question of whether radical opposition to Israeli policies necessarily amounts to anti-Semitism is central to the debate.

The row was brought to a head in recent weeks by the resignation of board members of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) after it emerged that its director, Antony Lerman, had voiced support for the merging of Israel with the Palestinian territories into a single bi-national federation and a repeal of the "law of return" giving the right of anyone of Jewish descent to Israeli citizenship.

Stanley Kalms, the former head of the Dixons Group, stepped down as the IJPR's honorary vice president, saying Mr Lerman's views made his position "untenable". Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Lord Kalms called his views "dangerous and unacceptable" and "contrary to my concept of the role of the diaspora - to support the State of Israel, warts and all".

The row has brought furious exchanges to the Jewish Chronicle's letter pages. "Some of our biggest mailbags lately have been prompted by prominent Jewish public figures voicing dissenting views of Israel, which typically provokes angry rebukes from other members of the community," David Rowan, the editor, said.

A parallel struggle is under way in the US where the American Jewish Committee published an article accusing liberal Jews such as the historian Tony Judt of fuelling anti-Semitism by questioning Israel's right to exist. The essay by Alvin Rosenfeld said that "one of the most distressing features of the new anti-Semitism" was "the participation of Jews alongside it".

Prof Judt told the New York Times: "The link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is newly created." He feared the two would become so conflated that references to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust would be seen as "just a political defence of Israeli policy".

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