Where are our Leaders?
Updated: May 18, 2019
First published in the Jewish News. August 27, 2014.
I’m disappointed with the leadership of the Jewish community in the UK. It’s been nearly two months since Operation Protective Edge got underway in Israel as a direct response to thousands of Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli citizens since the Jewish state pulled out of Gaza. Two months of probably the worst wave of anti-Israel expression I have witnessed in more than 30 years working in the media. Two months where incidents of antisemitism have doubled year-on-year in our community, including attacks on shuls, Jewish charity shops and supermarkets selling kosher food.
And where have been our Jewish leaders? If you read the Jewish Chronicle a few months ago you will have noticed the huge amounts of money that we, the community, pay individuals to be Jewish civil servants. I’m not talking about Jewish charity organisation here who look after the elderly, those with disabilities or disease. I’m talking about the representative organisations of the Jewish community. Simply put, the people we pay to lead us.
There isn’t a week that passes where the Board of Deputies of British Jews (those are the ones we elected) and the Jewish Leadership Council (they’re the ones that no one elected, who appointed themselves) don’t have some sort of public spat about which truly lead us. Both groups say that they represent our community the best. And they both sincerely want your vote. Well, not exactly your vote in the case of the latter, but your support.
My concern is not in representation. Bless us, we have a combination of elected leaders, self-appointed millionaires and business folk, co-opted representatives of charities, synagogues etc etc who delight in mixing with the movers and shakers of this country, representing us ordinary Jews.
I’ve lost count of how many people represent me in the Jewish community. Let’s see now, there’s my synagogue reps, the people representing me via the organisations my wife and children belong to like Maccabi, BA, etc, the charity’s I support have representatives too, student movements, just about every group that Jews belong to the UK comes replete with a representative, and that’s just on the Board of Deputies. The Leadership Council, if you look at its website, has been busy co-opting loads of people on to its committees and boards over the last few years too.
No, we have plenty of representation. What we are lacking is leadership. What we’re lacking is organised, directional and practical support.
This is without doubt the worst media assault that Israel has seen in its lifetime. For a start the quantity is huge, representing the growth in the use of social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter and blogs. But it’s more than that. That Israel is often misreported is a given particularly in the British media. But the last few months have seen an unprecedented bias against Israel.
Just one recent example last night. During the 11th ceasefire since the beginning of the Israeli Operation, Hamas fired a plethora of rockets into Israel a few hours before the ceasefire was due to end, while Israelis were still in Cairo negotiating for peace. No debate about these facts. Story headline should have been Hamas Breaks Ceasefire. Within hours, Israel retaliated and bombed key buildings in Gaza. How did the BBC report it? No prizes for guessing that its headline ran words to the effect of Israel Bombs Gaza, followed by the numbers of people and buildings hit. Only after a few paragraphs did the newsreader say that Israel’s actions were in response to Hamas launching rockets on Israeli citizens, breaking the ceasefire. Once again, Israel the aggressor. Had it been reported about any other country, it would have said that one party launched rockets and broke a ceasefire, and the other party retaliated.
The slow drip feed of lies and smears, with biased editorial selections and omissions of stories on Israel has done its job and continues to provide a fertile ground for anti-Israel media hatred.
The effect of this media tsunami against Israel, aimed at demonising and delegitimising the Jewish State has led to more and more instances of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the UK. If you had to explain to a non-Jewish stranger what it’s been like living as a Jew in London over the last few months, you have to honestly say it’s been very scary to say the least. When you see a swastika painted over an ordinary Jewish house in Hendon, it has to affect you. When you get name-called in the street, when you see protest banners in your own country calling ‘death to Jews’, when you see Jewish food taken off supermarket shelves, you get nervous. This week, the shul where I had my barmitzvah had a brick thrown through its window and a local Jewish charity shop had anti-Israel stuff plastered on its windows.
For the majority of Jews in the UK who support the state of Israel and its right to exist in peace and be recognised and treated equally by the world, these are becoming dangerous times. David Cameron’s comment on the news last night that there are probably over 500 British citizens currently fighting in Iraq and Syria, makes the situation of the security of our community even more concerning.
So, what are our leaders doing about it? What are the people who are paid to represent us doing? I have to say that unless they are doing lots of secret things behind the scenes that we know nothing about, the answer is very little. Before you reach for your keyboard to respond to this, and I suspect it will only be people working for Jewish organisations who do, please take a look at Facebook.
Dozens of committed, well-meaning Jewish people are putting their own names out there on the cyber front line, responding proactively and reactively to the anti-Israel onslaught with no training or support, in their own time. They give out names, addresses, telephone numbers and emails and urge people to get in touch with a particular MP, or to write to a certain newspaper or to respond to a tweet. Practical suggestions on how to counter the anti-Israel lies and exaggerations out there.
In addition to the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council and not forgetting the CST and others, there are an awful lot of Israel organisations who should be leading the way too. The Zionist Federation, Bipac, the Israeli Embassy press office, the JNF, UJIA and the list goes on and includes the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
Okay, so there was a meeting last week where 700 people attended and vented their frustration on the inactivity of our leaders. I’m sure things will get better now, at least it’s out on the table. But in the meantime the real heroes of the defence of Israel in this country have been the dozens and probably by now hundreds of ordinary people who’ve just taken it upon themselves to represent Israel out there in the media bubble.
For example, somebody posted a video of the odious George Galloway speaking about boycotting Israeli tourists amongst others. The poster gave the telephone number of the Bradford police station and the West Yorkshire Police Authority and suggested that we give them a ring. I did so. I complained that his comments could be construed to be an incitement to racial hatred. I understand 299 others did the same. As a result, it looks like the police have already interviewed him and are debating prosecution.
From the pulpit last week at my United Synagogue, our rabbi told us that the Chief Rabbi had suggested we take action. A member of the synagogue ran a small class for an hour the following week, giving email addresses and advice on who to write what to. It’s a great start.
I think our leaders should have sat down after the first two weeks of Israel’s Operation in Gaza, after we saw the way it was going and the way it was being reported, and decided on a strategy of practical media awareness and response training and advice, backed-up with supporting facts and figures. They should have decided what they wanted our community to do - write to MPs, people who tell outrageous lies about Israel in the press, on TV news desks, etc. They should have been in forefront, leading the way. It’s still not too late, in the unlikely event of anyone up there reading this. Organise emergency workshops if necessary, show people the sort of thing they should write, how to write and where to write. Give them addresses. Phone numbers. Practical professional support is what we need.
Of course the great Jewish public will continue to do its best. Email lists let us know what’s happening in the community, alongside social media and other digital comms. But I can’t help feeling disappointed that even at this late stage, the good and the great in our community aren’t speaking out to help us in a practical way, and to respond to every anti-Zionist libel. I want to hear the President of the Board of Deputies on all the media. I want to hear the boss of the JLC calling in to LBC or the Chief Rabbi on Vanessa Feltz show, putting Israel side across. Not just once or twice, a ‘there, I’ve done-my-job’ exercise. But on an ongoing, continual basis, again and again.
There are a lot of Jewish people in our community, and a lot of non-Jews too, who are only too willing to help. If you can’t provide leadership, then give them support. Otherwise, we find it hard to understand what you’re being paid to do at the moment, that is more important than this.
A friend of mine who worked in the Prime Minister’s office told me one day that he loved working there during Chanukah. When I asked why in some surprise, he told that he loved it when the official invitations went out to Jewish community leaders, those who were lucky enough to be invited to witness the Prime Minister lighting the menorah at number 10. It was always fun the few days before the event, he said. ‘You get loads of calls from Jewish leaders who felt that they should have been invited as they were head of such and such organisation and perhaps we could check to see whether their invitation got mislaid’.
I can’t help wondering if our leaders are worrying about the wrong things.