Simon Schama urges UK Jews to condemn Israel’s ‘horrifying’ shift to far right

Harriet Sherwood

The Observer  /  March 5, 2023

Historian and TV presenter is among those to speak out as protest grows over Jewish settler violence against Palestinians.

British Jews must speak out over the “complete disintegration of the political and social compact” that underpins the state of Israel, the historian Simon Schama has said.

His call comes amid mounting disquiet among Jews in the UK and the US at the threats to Israeli democracyviolent attacks on Palestinians and a police crackdown on Israeli protesters.

Next Sunday, Israelis living in the UK will take to the streets to voice their opposition to the actions of the most rightwing Israeli government in the country’s 75-year history.

Protests are also planned by expat Israelis and Jews in other countries in solidarity with huge demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against the government.

In a sign of the changing mood, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, considered to be a conservative and staunchly pro-Israel body, issued a rare statement condemning a call by a senior Israeli minister that a Palestinian town in the West Bank should be “wiped out” in response to the murder of two Israelis.

“We utterly condemn Bezalel Smotrich’s comments calling for the Israeli government to ‘erase’ a village which days ago was attacked by Israeli [Jewish] settlers. We hope that this and similar comments will be publicly repudiated by responsible voices in the governing coalition,” the board said.

The board’s statement was a reflection that British Jews across the political spectrum are deeply troubled by “dangerous extremists” in the Israeli government, said one insider.

This is of concern to Jewry the world over. It’s utterly horrifying. We should not be lily-livered about it – Simon Schama

Speaking to the Observer, Schama said that Israel was at risk of becoming a “nationalist theocracy” with the inclusion of ultra-religious, far-right parties in the coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Key government posts have been handed to extreme hardliners Itamar Ben-Gvir and Smotrich – both ideological settlers committed to Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

The government has begun moves to undermine judicial independence and expand Israeli [Jewish] settlements in the occupied territories.

The army has failed to contain a surge of settler violence, and the police last week fired stun grenades and water cannon at peaceful protesters in Tel Aviv.

“This is of concern to Jewry all over the world,” said Schama. “It’s absolutely, utterly horrifying.” Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence – “a noble document, which promised equal civil rights to all religious and ethnic groups” – had disintegrated, he said.

Jews must speak out, he added. To do so was “not a betrayal of Israel, it’s a passionate declaration of support for the enormous number of people [in Israel] who feel as anguished as we do. We should not be lily-livered about it”.

Margaret Hodge, the veteran Labour MP and parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said an “assault on democracy” combined with “vicious attacks on Palestinian rights” was creating a “dangerous moment” for Israel.

She had always been a “critical friend” of Israel, but said she and other British Jews must now be “more vocal. The voice of the Jewish diaspora must be stronger, we must exert what pressure we can to curtail the excesses of the Israeli government.”

Anthony Julius, one of the UK’s most prominent Jewish lawyers, said the Israeli government incorporated “the worst features of the populist, anti-liberal democratic parties that operate in Europe and in America as well, but with a special kind of antinomian Jewish intensity”.

Sweeping reforms to give the government total control over the appointment of judges and to allow parliament to override supreme court rulings were “destructive”, he said in Haaretz newspaper last month.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the “vast majority” of his congregation in Maidenhead, Berkshire, was “deeply worried” about what’s happening in Israel. “The extremist faction in the government is anti-gay, anti-women, anti-civil liberties, anti-pluralism, hostile to Palestinians,” Romain said.

“The mood is shifting from British Jews being out-and-out supporters [of Israel] to being critical friends – and voicing that criticism publicly.” His constituents were “more worried about the direction of Israel than at any time previously”, he said.

Next weekend’s protest, under the banner “Defend Israel’s democracy”, is open to all expat Israelis “and all supporters of Israel and democracy”, the organizers said.

Reuven Ziegler, a law professor at Reading University, who will be speaking at the protest, said: “The demonstrations are a very patriotic act because they are an attempt to save Israel from making substantive mistakes that would ultimately change its character. They are anything but hostile to the Israeli state.

“Since this government was formed, it has given many reasons for people in the diaspora to find themselves alienated from it.

“In the past, faced with certain expressions of antisemitism, many Jews have felt the need to defend Israel, right or wrong. That sentiment may be weakening, but ultimately the blame for that lies squarely with the current government.”

Hannah Weisfeld, the director of Yachad, a UK organization that advocates for a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said: “There is real disquiet in the community over Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. The settler attack on Hawara was quite a game-changer.”

People, she said, were starting to understand there was “a connection between the undoing of democracy and settlers running wild in the West Bank.

“It’s very painful for British Jews, particularly those from an old-school Zionist background. Many have family in Israel who are telling them that a dictatorship is coming. We’re not quite at a tipping point yet, but I think we’ll get there.”

Six European countries, including the UK, on Saturday condemned recent Palestinian militant attacks that killed Israeli citizens in the occupied West Bank and called on Israel to halt expansion of settlements there. “We urge the Israeli government to reverse its recent decision to advance the construction of more than 7,000 settlement building units across the occupied West Bank and to legalize settlement outposts,” said the countries in a joint statement.