Leading British Jewish historian urges diaspora to condemn Israel’s government

Leading British Jewish historian urges diaspora to condemn Israel’s government
British historian Simon Schama arrives at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on May 21, 2019 for a meeting with French President and other authors and philosophers who signed the tribune "Europe at risk". (AFP)
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Updated 06 March 2023

Leading British Jewish historian urges diaspora to condemn Israel’s government

Leading British Jewish historian urges diaspora to condemn Israel’s government
  • Simon Schama: Country risks becoming ‘nationalist theocracy’
  • Board of Deputies of British Jews issues rare rebuke of Israeli minister who called for Palestinian village to be ‘wiped out’

LONDON: Israel risks becoming a “nationalist theocracy,” a leading British Jewish historian has warned, urging members of the diaspora to protest against the current government.

Simon Schama told British newspaper The Observer that Israel faces “disintegration of the political and social compact” over moves to radically alter the judicial system and expand Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

His words echo those of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who warned earlier this week that the country is on the brink of “constitutional and social collapse.”

Judicial reforms would give the government more influence over the appointment of judges and reduce the power of the Supreme Court.

The coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn criticism from across the Jewish diaspora over the plans, as well as its inclusion of extreme right-wing politicians in its ranks.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently called for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out” in retaliation for the murder of two Israelis.

In the wake of the forming of the coalition, considered the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, there has been an increase in violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians, with the Israel Defense Forces failing to stop many of the attacks.

Last week, the UK was among six countries to issue a joint declaration urging “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.”

Schama told The Observer that Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence “promised equal civil rights to all religious and ethnic groups.”

Many other prominent members of the UK’s Jewish community have also condemned the actions of the Israeli government.

Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge, parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said: “The voice of the Jewish diaspora must be stronger, we must exert what pressure we can to curtail the excesses of the Israeli government.”

The pro-Israel Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a rare rebuke over Smotrich’s comments.

“We utterly condemn Bezalel Smotrich’s comments calling for the Israeli government to ‘erase’ a village which days ago was attacked by Israeli settlers,” it said.

“We hope that this and similar comments will be publicly repudiated by responsible voices in the governing coalition.”

Last month, prominent British Jewish lawyer Anthony Julius told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Netanyahu’s 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.”

British Rabbi Jonathan Romain told The Observer: “The mood is shifting from British Jews being out-and-out supporters (of Israel) to being critical friends — and voicing that criticism publicly.” 

Demonstrations are set to take place in the UK in the coming weeks, organized by Jewish groups that have invited Israelis in Britain to attend.

Reuven Ziegler, a law professor at Reading University, 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, director of Yachad — a British Jewish organization that supports a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — told The Observer that “many” British Jews “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.”