British Jews remain deeply connected to Israel following “seismic shock”

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By Lianne Kolirin

In a recent article for The Guardian, columnist Jonathan Freedland tried to explain “why it’s hard, if not impossible, wholly to disentangle antisemitism from Israel”.

Freedland said: “Most — not all — Jews feel bound up with the country.”

It is a statement strongly backed up by the data. In its most recent report — admittedly carried out before the Hamas attacks of 7 October — the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR) revealed that “73 per cent of British Jews feel either very attached (41 per cent) or somewhat attached (32 per cent) to Israel”.

The study, Jews in the UK Today, showed that 88 per cent of British Jews had visited Israel at some time. For many, the connection is almost like a family relationship — it’s complicated.

As Freedland wrote: “They may be enraged by it, they may despair at the direction it has taken these past few months — or even these past 57 years, since the occupation that began as a result of the 1967 war — but they are deeply connected to it.”

Jonathan Boyd, executive director of JPR, gave the Religion Media Centre a detailed explanation of the close links between the British Jewish community, its cultural identity and Israel.

“For most British Jews, Israel forms an important, even central part of their Jewishness,” he said. “It has tremendous theological significance — it has played a key place in Jewish liturgy for millennia and has long been the focus of Jewish prayer — Jews pray towards Jerusalem.”

The theology is just a starting point, however. Israel also “plays an important role in the maintenance of Jewish life everywhere”, he said.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, all non-Israeli Jews are entitled to settle in Israel and receive full citizenship — an all-important fact, Dr Boyd said.

“Jews everywhere know that the country serves as a kind of Jewish insurance policy: if antisemitism rises elsewhere, Israel exists as a haven for Jews who will be there to protect and defend them,” he said.

“So the implications of the state of Israel failing, or being destroyed, would be utterly devastating to Jews everywhere — indeed, it is unlikely that Judaism as a culture and civilisation could survive that. Most Jews care deeply about what Israel is, what it becomes, and how it manages its relationship with its neighbours, and those issues almost inevitably shape and inform the nature of their Jewishness.”

The JPR will poll the community on the impact of 7 October later this year.

“Emotions are still very high, and it is best to wait a little longer before assessing the situation empirically,” Dr Boyd said. “Anecdotally, we can see two main trends. The first points to a closer and deeper relationship based on a feeling that Israel is far more vulnerable than people thought.

“The sheer scale and barbarity of the Hamas attacks on 7 October has had a profoundly traumatic effect on many Jews, both in Israel and around the world, and has compelled many to consider and acknowledge just how fundamental Israel is, both to their own overarching sense of Jewishness and to their sense of security as Jews in the world.

“The second points to a weakening of ties due to the strength and force of the Israeli response to the attacks and the effects it has had on the population of Gaza — some, certainly, are struggling with that from a moral perspective.”

A recent report by the Community Security Trust (CST) revealed 4,103 cases of anti-Jewish hatred last year — the highest level since records began. It attributed the surge to “the unparallelled volume of antisemitism perpetrated following the Hamas terror attack on Israel on 7 October”.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, as adopted by many international bodies including the UK government, sets out several examples.

One of these is: “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” Other examples include accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations and drawing comparisons of Israeli policy to the Nazis.

But whatever the guidelines might say, they are clearly not being read by those who perpetrate anti-Jewish hatred. According to the CST, “the most common form of anti-Jewish discourse used in antisemitic incidents throughout the year either referenced or was linked to Israel, Palestine, the Hamas terror attack, or the subsequent war”.

Michael Wegier, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who describes himself as a “centrist”, ruffled feathers in 2022 when, under his leadership, the board tweeted that Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionist Party and current finance minister, was not welcome in Britain.

Nevertheless, whatever the fallout was then, there is no question about the community’s solidarity. Wegier told the RMC there were 270,000 Jews in Britain who espoused a “range of different views”.

However, he added: “The overwhelming majority of British Jews have a deep connection to Israel. In that context, the events of 7 October were a seismic shock for the community because people took it personally.” That trauma was compounded by events closer to home, he said. “Even before the community had time to grieve, we saw this massive spike in antisemitism.”

Pointing to the CST data, Mr Wegier said the biggest spike in antisemitism occurred before any retaliation from Israel. “It was triggered or inspired by what Hamas did and it’s a really worrying situation,” he said.

Richard Ferrer, editor of the Jewish News, said: “Millennia of exile and annihilation have idealised the importance of a Jewish homeland. As the greatest living Jewish author Howard Jacobson famously said, ‘In Israel, Jews see a version of themselves.’

“Nine out of 10 of us have spent time in the country and most have family there and take great pride in it being socially liberal and religiously pluralistic in a region infamous for the opposite. This deep bond has only intensified since 7 October.

 “That’s not to say British Jews don’t have profound reservations about what happens in Israeli politics. It’s difficult to recall a time before 7 October but, for the 12 months leading up to it, my newspaper faced frequent and unjust accusations of betraying its readership for loudly opposing Israel’s political direction — the anti-democratic judicial reforms of the Netanyahu coalition and emergence of far-right loons like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. Support for Israel is not without its limits when the country falls below the standards British Jews aspire for.”

Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist and author of Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, said: “British Jews have never been united over Israel but at times when Israel is under threat, or perceived to be under threat, some of the wagons get circled,” he said.

He said Jews in Britain have experienced a “pretty substantial” trauma since 7 October, although “not quite as visceral” as for Israelis.

“There’s certainly a sharing of Israeli grief and trauma particularly about the hostages and just as in Israel, that trauma is hiding some of the divisions,” he added. And there was also “a substantial body of Jewish people who have been horrified by Israel’s actions”, he said, and consensus within Israel was “starting to fragment quite substantially”.

One such individual is Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Synagogue, who in recent weeks posted a statement to the website of the Masorti movement expressing his “deep concern over Israel’s potential actions in Rafah”, which made “it impossible to remain silent”.

David Davidi-Brown, chief executive of New Israel Fund UK, told the RMC that his organisation, which partners and funds “Israeli organisations that defend democracy and deliver a fairer society for all”, has been involved with a project called Our Jewish Values.

Hundreds of people from across the community, among them many rabbis including Rabbi Wittenberg, have signed the online “statement of Jewish values and principles” in response to the conflict.

It states: “We are Jews who believe wholeheartedly in the right of Israel to exist and flourish and the right of Palestinians to self-determination in a state of their own. We refuse to give up on the vision of Israel and a Palestinian state one day existing side-by-side.”

Mr Davidi-Brown said: “The most confusing thing for people to understand is that on the one hand you can’t hold Jewish people around the world responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.

“On the other hand, the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain care deeply about it as a place so we do feel bound up in what’s going on there. That doesn’t necessarily mean people agree with the government.”

His organisation has also been involved with Together for Humanity, an initiative set up by Brendan Cox — whose wife, Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered in 2016 by a white supremacist — to combat divisions and hatred stirred up by the conflict.

“We need to not let this descend into political division and hatred in the UK,” Mr Davidi-Brown said. “It isn’t a case of one or the other. The same people who are concerned about what happened on 7 October and are worried about antisemitism can also be worried about the Palestinians.”


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