Beyond the headlines – The relationship of Britain’s Jews to Israel
Author: Open Forum
Date posted: Friday 16 Jul 2010
Why do British Jews appear to be both hawks and doves?
By Dr David Graham
Although it is the political headlines that will inevitably grab the attention, there are other important findings from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s new report, Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel.
Looking closely at those headlines reveals what many observers might regard as being a rather odd or even contradictory stance. Jews in Britain appear to be both hawkish and dovish at the same time.
On the one hand, according to the survey, more then seven out of ten Jewish people believe that Israel’s highly controversial invasion of Gaza was a “a legitimate act of self-defence” and a similar proportion believes that the equally controversial security fence/separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank is “vital for Israel’s security”. These views fly in the face of national and international opinion. Both the war and the fence have attracted severe criticism and, on occasion, outright condemnation.
On the other hand, the survey also found that two-thirds of Jews in Britain favour giving up land for peace with the Palestinians and almost eight out of ten favour a two-state solution to the conflict. Furthermore, three-quarters are opposed to the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank. And, perhaps the most dovish finding of all, just over half think that Israel should negotiate with Hamas, its implacable enemy.
What accounts for this contradictory “Jewish stance” on Israel? The answer lies in the nature of the relationship between Jewish people and Israel, and, indeed, the nature of Jewish identity itself.
On a practical level, the survey showed that almost all Jewish people in Britain have visited Israel at some point in the past. This is because, for eight out of ten Jews, Israel plays a “central” or “important” role in their Jewish identities. Further, almost as many say that Israel has a day-to-day relevance to their lives in Britain.
With this in mind, it is not surprising to find that three-quarters believe that Jews have “a special responsibility to support Israel” and almost nine out of ten feel that Jews are responsible for ensuring “the survival of Israel”. This is a clear expression of a belief that Israel has a political right to exist, that Jews have the right to self-determination in their own state, and that Jews in general have a responsibility towards that state.
But for me, the really interesting data on the relationship of Jewish people to Israel lies elsewhere. For example, nine out of ten respondents believe that Israel is the “ancestral homeland of the Jewish people”. And yet, less than half believe that the “Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by God”. A similarly intriguing finding is that almost nine out of ten say that Jews in Britain are part of a global Jewish “Diaspora”, yet less than two out of ten think that Jews who live outside Israel are in ‘exile’ from the Land.
The connection to Israel as seen here is therefore a distinctly ethno-cultural attachment as opposed to a religious or faith-based attachment. And herein lies an explanation to the seeming contradiction of a simultaneously hawkish and dovish Jewish stance that goes to the heart of the nature of Jewish identity.
Whereas Christian identity is primarily focused on faith and religious doctrine, Jewish identity is more sociologically complex. It consists of a mixture of religious, cultural and ethnic attachments. For example, the Israel Survey found that over half of all respondents described their outlook as “Secular” or “Somewhat secular” as opposed to “Religious” or “Somewhat religious”. Yet all the respondents consider themselves to be Jewish and three-quarters belong to a synagogue.
Thus, when it comes to Israel, Jewish people’s attachment need not be religious, and indeed, for the majority it is not religious; rather, it is ethno-cultural. Jewish people, many of whom are fourth generation Brits, feel a strong sense of support for Israel as a country, and a strong sense of responsibility for its survival, which, by the way, must be clearly distinguished from support for a particular Israeli government. Further, they feel this not primarily out of religious conviction, but rather out of a strong personal, cultural attachment and a view of Israel as their ‘ancestral homeland’.
Understandably therefore, they want peace for Israel, and being relatively free of religious concerns, they also find they have plenty of room for political compromise. In the interests of achieving peace, a majority feels that Israel should stop expanding settlements, give up land, move towards the creation of a Palestinian state, and even, if absolutely necessary, talk to Hamas.
These are indeed the headlines, but beyond them is a clear expression by Jews in Britain of a strong ethno-cultural attachment to Israel—one which desires a secure Israel, but also a peaceful Israel and, above all, one which accommodates a willingness to see sacrifices made to achieve this. Understood in this way, any seeming contradiction between Jews’ hawkishness and dovishness begins to disappear.
Dr David Graham is the Director of Social and Demographic Research at JPR/Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and is the co-author of its new report Committed, concerned and conciliatory: The attitudes of Jews in Britain towards Israel. This article also appeared in The Times and can be viewed by clicking here.
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