Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A new song for Europe (or The Jewish antidote to the Board of Deputies EU manifesto)

It's European Parliament Election time here in the UK. The voting takes place on Thursday 22 May.

So what's all this got to do with a Jewish blog about Israel-Palestine?

Well it gives me a chance to talk about how the oldest and most well-known of our Jewish leadership bodies, The Board of Deputies of British Jews, is working hard to demonstrate to European politicians just how detached from the real world the Board has become. It also gives me a opportunity to give the would-be MEPs some advice myself.

Let me explain.

The Board (in conjunction with European partners) has produced its first European Manifesto to guide candidates standing in the election about "Jewish interests and concerns".

It's important to note at this point (and EU Parliament candidates please pay close attention) that Jews in the UK do not vote as an ethnic or religious bloc. You will find Jews supporting all parties and Jewish politicians representing the left, right and centre. As I like to remind people, Jews maybe monotheistic but they are not monolithic. There are even Jews standing for the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) despite its strong anti-immigration position and its tendency to attract the more unpleasant strains of British nationalism. So the Board is trying to be helpful by guiding candidates of all persuasions on some of the hot (but not politically partisan) Jewish topics.

The manifesto includes sections on Religious Freedom, Extremism, Racism & Antisemitism in Europe, Holocaust issues and, of course, EU-Israel relations.

As you might guess, it's the section on Israel that took my interest but I was also struck by the inclusion of an early paragraph in the document highlighting the contribution of the French Jew René Cassin (1887-1976) in drafting the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

This first passage from the Board’s EU manifesto could have come straight from a previous post on Micah's Paradigm Shift:

1.4 Human Rights
"Human Rights are a central tenet of the Jewish faith. From the Bible onwards numerous texts speak about the importance of caring for others and upholding their rights. Genesis 1:27 tells us that all people are created ‘in the image of God’. If all humans are created in the ‘image of God’, it follows that all human beings have an equal, innate dignity which must be respected."

Nothing to argue about there. And it gets better…

"Human Rights abuses continue to occur throughout Europe and around the world, and the Jewish community urges the EU to continue to address these issues. The role of Jewish thinkers, shaped by biblical ethics and the experiences of the Jewish people, has been crucial to the development of human rights. Indeed, René Cassin, one of the principal authors of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was openly and profoundly influenced by the ethical framework of his Jewish background, as well as the recent experience of the Holocaust by Jews and others."

I was starting to like this document a lot and beginning to look forward to reading how the Board would call on the European Parliamentarians to also hold Israel to account on this score since the stack of documents detailing human rights abuses against Palestinians living on the West Bank is getting mighty high. A couple of examples can suffice for now. Here's a report from UNICEF published in March 2013 which examines the arrest and detention of children on the West Bank by the Israeli Defence Forces. Or try this one. Amnesty International's 'Trigger-happy: Israel's use of excessive force in the West Bank.

But of course the Board does not like to comment on human rights abuses where Israel is concerned. Jewish establishment institutions are typically liberal, religiously pluralistic and multi-cultural in all matters - until it comes to Israel. At which point a different set of rules seem to apply and René Cassin, even though he was a supporter of Zionism, is no longer a part of the reckoning.

So how does the Board see the Israel-Palestine situation and what calls does it make to MEPs?

Admittedly, the Board's manifesto went to print (or PDF) before the collapse of the John Kerry led attempt to switch back on the life-support system for the two state solution. So the Board did not have the benefit of hearing the hardly concealed blame that the Obama administration has put on the Israelis for scuppering even a framework for future talks. Nor would they have known that Kerry was going to use the dreaded word "apartheid" to describe the future of the West Bank without a peace settlement. An apartheid future, by the way, that most people think already arrived some years ago.

The Board will also have missed this helpful list of Israeli government activity regarding the West Bank which went on during the 9 months of Kerry's shuttle diplomacy. It was complied by the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

• Approved or advanced plans for 13,851 new settlement units to be built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of both international law and official US government policy.
• Destroyed approximately 500 Palestinian structures, including more than 300 homes, displacing almost 900 people.
• Killed approximately 50 Palestinians, including a number of minors, an 85-year-old man, and a mentally ill woman.

So having watched Obama and Kerry (Israel’s most important political allies in the world) stumble, fall and give up, what strategy does the Board put forward for how Europe should pick up the peace baton?

This is where the fantasy world of the Board of Deputies really comes into view.

In essence, the Board insists that Europe be nice to Israel as the best way to encourage it to make peace.

4.1 Peace

“The EU undoubtedly has a role in assisting the peace process. In addition to facilitating high level diplomatic meetings, the EU could offer a variety of incentives that encourage both sides to make strides towards peace, including financial investment packages in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and the promotion of trade between the two sides, building trust and links between them.”

The Board certainly does not want to see anything that could smack of pressure being applied. God forbid! And yet has anyone ever heard of a country giving up power, privilege or territory without some kind of external pressure being brought to bear? Please send me any examples that I've missed.

After all the money and political support that America has given to Israel (at least $3bn a year and endless political cover at the United Nations) you’d think they might have got something in return.

The idea of any kind of boycotts or sanctions or divestments aimed at changing Israeli policy is, of course, totally unacceptable to the Board. When it comes to Iran though, exactly the opposite applies. The Board calls on the EU not to drop the pressure on Tehran to stop its nuclear power programme. It seems only Israel has the right to have nuclear weapons. But the right of the Palestinians to call for non-violent economic protest is presented as unfair and illegitimate.

“…we urge MEPs and prospective MEPs to resist calls for boycotts of Israel. By their very nature, such measures attribute blame to only one side of the conflict, and through this stigmatisation they perpetuate a one-sided narrative. This in turn prompts intransigence from both sides. Moreover, Europe should be seen as a place to unite and not further divide.”
This line of argument always sounds so mature and reasonable but it hides the reality of a conflict that is staggeringly asymmetric. These are not two armies facing each other with equal strength and resources. The Palestinians are a people under occupation trying to protect what is left of their land, economy and culture by encouraging an international campaign to bring about a recognition of their neglected human rights following a near 50 year occupation.

I began to search in the manifesto to find any mention of the word “Settlements”. But no joy. This despite the international community (including the UK, EU and USA) all recognising that they are a central obstacle to any peace. Nor does the Board ever mention anything called “the occupied territories” or even “disputed territory”.

Why should any EU politician take this document seriously when it fails to mention the giant blue and white elephant sitting in the room?

I'm tempted to give up on the Board of Deputies ever waking up to the reality of Israel's actions on the West Bank. Or that the Board will ever acknowledge the crippling effects on the health and economic well-being of Palestinians in Gaza as a result of Israel’s blockade. It appears that the long night of Jewish leadership denial has a some way to go.

And while that long dark night of the Jewish soul continues, the Board will find itself losing the loyalty and respect of the next generation of British Jews. They are the ones who recognise that a fundamental conflict has arisen between Jewish values, as expressed by René Cassin, and the Jewish ethnic nationalism that the Board, chooses to defend, or at best remain silent on.

So my message to European parliamentary candidates is to learn the lesson of the Obama/Kerry failure. The softly, softly, carrot and carrot approach with the US trying its best to shift Israeli intransigence did not work. We have had more than 20 years of “process” with no peace to show for it. What we do now have, is half a million Israelis (and the number grows by the day) living on land that is meant to be a Palestinian State according to the EU.

It’s the end of the road for Obama on dealing with Israel. The US election cycle and the power of the American pro-Israel lobby mean further efforts will not be made.

So, it's time for Europe to step up and make a move.

European politicians have to overcome their post-Holocaust guilt complex and start to put some real pressure on Israel. If René Cassin visited the West Bank today I don't think it would take him long to spot that his Declaration was not being upheld. The Board of Deputies might like to think about that before co-opting him onto their political agenda. While they are at it, the Board may like to reflect on what Isaiah and Jeremiah would say about Jewish ethics on the West Bank too.

I'm bored of the Deputies and it's high time that this institution re-thought its relationship to the State of Israel. If it does not it will soon find itself increasingly irrelevant.

The debate has moved on. It's time for a new song for Europe.