British Jews send a wake-up call to Israel

As well as continuing to lose its standing on the international stage, Israel’s image is also slipping among world Jewry

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told British-Jewish leaders in London that “settlements are not the issue” with regard to the conflict with the Palestinians. However, according to a poll published last week, British Jews would beg to differ.

Three-quarters of them agree that “the expansion of settlements on the West Bank is a major obstacle to peace,” and 68 percent have a “sense of despair” whenever new expansion is approved.

As such, they are unlikely to be as angry over new EU guidelines for labelling products from Israeli settlements - which are illegal under international law because they are built on occupied land - as Netanyahu, who hysterically likened the decision to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses (never mind that, unfortunately, the EU is not boycotting settlement products, merely labelling them).

The poll - the first to ascertain the attitudes of British Jews toward Israel since 2010 - reveals other major divergences between the former and the latter, and should make for sobering reading for Israeli leaders and society.

Israeli intransigence

Almost three-quarters of British Jews believe Israel’s approach to peace is damaging its world standing. Just under half see Israel’s government as “constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in the peace process” - less than a third disagreed with that statement. The number of British Jews identifying themselves as Zionists has fallen to 59 percent from 72 percent in 2010.

As well as continuing to lose its standing on the international stage, Israel’s image is also slipping among world Jewry

Sharif Nashashibi

Furthermore, 71 percent see the two-state solution as the only way Israel can achieve peace, 72 percent reject the statement that “the Palestinians have no legitimate claim to a land of their own,” 62 percent support ceding territory to achieve peace, and 58 percent believe Israel will be seen as an apartheid state if the occupation continues. Half believe in territorial withdrawal even if it poses a risk to Israel’s security.

These statistics jar with the hawkish attitudes of Israel’s public - as shown in various opinion polls - as well as its government, which contains numerous senior figures (Netanyahu included) who have categorically rejected the notion of a Palestinian state - not to mention the implementation of policies by every Israeli government that deny the possibility of its establishment.

The findings also suggest that the attitudes of British Jewry more closely reflect those of their liberal organizations - such as Yachad, which commissioned the poll - than their hawkish counterparts - such as BICOM, the Zionist Federation, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews - which have long regarded themselves as representatives of the community (Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies - the UK’s largest Jewish organization - told me in February that there was no Gaza blockade!).

Almost a quarter of British Jews would “support some sanctions against Israel” if this would “encourage the Israeli government to engage in the peace process.” The proportion willing to back sanctions under these conditions rises to 41 percent among those under 30.

Though not a majority, this will still be shocking to an Israeli political establishment that increasingly views the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as the country’s biggest threat.


Less than a fifth of British Jews have considered moving to Israel because of concerns over anti-Semitism. This despite Netanyahu’s strenuous efforts to encourage European Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Earlier this year he called for “massive immigration,” adding: “We say to our Jewish brothers and sisters, Israel is your home.” Most do not feel the same way, and many have reacted angrily, saying such comments are exploitative and endanger their status in Europe.

“Netanyahu is... wrong... if he thinks all Jews define themselves in relation to his nation; and... wrong to disregard the enormous pride integrated, assimilated, successful Jewish diasporas have in their country of birth,” Richard Ferrer, editor of the British newspaper Jewish News, wrote in February. All in all, the poll’s findings undermine Israeli governments’ claim to speak and act on behalf of world Jewry.

Speaking up

Commenting on the survey, Yachad director Hannah Weisfeld said: “Members of Anglo-Jewry, who have previously been afraid to give voice to their concerns over Israeli government policy, should realize that they are in fact part of the majority.”

There are important reasons why Israeli leaders should heed the opinions of British Jews. Firstly, they are a long-established part of a country whose governments are closely allied to Israel, and which was pivotal in its creation. Secondly, Israelis themselves recognize the importance of their country’s relationship to the UK. According to a poll published last month, Britain was ranked among the top six most important countries to Israel.

However, the Yachad-commissioned poll reveals a particular contradiction that is cause for concern: 70 percent back Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state. This is exactly the kind of obstacle created by Israel “to avoid genuinely engaging in the peace process,” which more British Jews acknowledged was the case than those who did not.

This demand has been made only recently of the Palestinians, and was not part of Israel’s peace deals with Jordan and Egypt. Backing by British-Jewish organizations of such a demand, which is a non-starter for Palestinians and their supporters, will hinder outreach efforts.

Overall, however, the poll suggests that as well as continuing to lose its standing on the international stage, Israel’s image is also slipping among world Jewry. The question is whether Israel, in its ultra-nationalistic fervor, is oblivious to this, or whether it is dismissive of the extent or impact of Jewish disillusionment with the very country that claims to represent them.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending