Hasan Suroor

Their campaign is meant to challenge the claim of the Israeli state and its proxy institutions abroad to represent the opinion of all Jews, especially on the Palestinian issue.

SOME OF the leading British Jewish intellectuals such as Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, Marxist thinker Eric Hobsbawm, and film-maker Mike Leigh have come together on a common platform with a cross-section of others from the community to start a debate on free speech. This, they hope, will encourage independent voices in other communities also to stand up against attempts to gag them in the name of religious, ethnic, and national "solidarity."

In what has been billed as a "unilateral declaration of independence" from the Jewish Establishment, their campaign is meant to challenge the claim of the Israeli state and its proxy institutions abroad to represent the opinion of all Jews, especially on the Palestinian issue. More significantly, it questions the idea that any criticism of Israel is, ipso facto, an attack on the Jewish people and therefore amounts to anti-semitism.

It is this aspect of the campaign, launched by the newly created Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) last week, that has wider resonance. No doubt, Jewish sensitivities around race identity and nationhood are particularly acute because of the history of their persecution but it is not something unique to Jews. We have all met Muslims who see any criticism of their community as an attack on Islam itself; Hindus who regard critics of Hindutva as anti-Hindu; and Sikhs who are quick to dub the slightest criticism of Sikh practices an insult to their faith.

Novelist and writer Lisa Appignanesi, joining the IJV debate on The Guardian's Comment is Free website, makes an interesting point saying that many of the coordinated attempts to silence public expression have come from faith or immigrant groups and have been directed against their own people. "It was young Muslims who, back in 1989, burned Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It was Sikh rioters and a critical community who managed to close Gurpreet Bhatti's play Behzti, because the rape she depicted of a girl by an elder was considered shaming. The filming of Monica Ali's Brick Lane had to move to a secret location after protests from a small group of local Bangladeshis. Groups who may in some way feel vulnerable confound dissent with disloyalty," she says.

Given the long and robust tradition of argument and debate among Jews, she feels sad that they too should have been "infected" by the same "spirit of intolerance, the same attempt at silencing dissenting views" as the more vulnerable immigrant groups.

What the IJV has set out to challenge is the attempt to force people into medieval-style tribal loyalties by calling them disloyal and unpatriotic if they don't sing from the same sheet. For example, if an Indian is not seen cheering the current hype over India's "great" future his nationalistic credentials become immediately suspect; a Pakistani must share the Establishment view on Kashmir or be open to the charge of sleeping with the enemy; and in George W. Bush's America the stark choice is: either you are with "us" or with the enemies of America.

Indeed, the provocation that led to the formation of IJV happened on American soil when an influential Jewish lobby, which wants all Jews to be unquestioningly loyal to the Israeli state and its policies, picked a fight with those who insist that they have a democratic right to make legitimate criticism of the Israeli Government's policies without inviting the charge of "disloyalty." The trouble started a few weeks ago when the American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of America's oldest and most powerful Jewish advocacy groups, published an article calling upon the community to "confront" Jews who, according to it, were engaged in attacking Zionism and the Jewish state. It also attacked playwright Tony Kushner and the U.S.-based British historian Tony Judt both prominent liberal Jews denouncing their criticism of Israel as "anti-semitic." Professor Judt hit back with an interview in The New York Times accusing AJC of trying to stifle dissenting views about Israel. "The link between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is newly created," he said calling it a "political defence of Israeli policy."

Last October, a lecture Professor Judt was to give at the Polish consulate in New York was suddenly cancelled under pressure from AJC and other Jewish lobby groups protesting against an article in which he called for the creation of a secular bi-national state of Jews and Palestinians. The Polish consul general at the time acknowledged receiving telephone calls from hardline Jewish lobby groups. "The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure," said Krzysztof Kasprzyk.

In Britain, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, an independent think-tank, was embroiled in a controversy when a number of its high-profile members resigned protesting the remarks of its director Tony Lerman reportedly questioning the viability of Israel and arguing for a Jewish-Arab state. The comment, made long before he joined the institute, was seen as anti-semitic and tantamount to proposing the "suicide of the state of Israel."

It was against this background that IJV was launched. In its manifesto published, the group says that its aim is to promote alternative Jewish voices particularly in respect of the "grave situation in the Middle East which threatens the future of both Israelis and Palestinians as well as the stability of the whole region."

The group, comprising Jews from diverse backgrounds and political affiliations, is united by its members' "strong commitment to social justice and universal human rights." It is also defined by what a prominent member of the group called its "abhorrence" of a "culture of vilification" in which anyone who does not support the official Israeli policies is denounced as a "traitor" or a "self-hating Jew."

The IJV sees itself as a response to a climate in which many Jews feel frightened to speak openly about Israel's approach to the Palestinian issue for fear of being vilified by Jewish organisations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, whose aim ostensibly is to promote the interests of British Jews but which, its critics say, has effectively become a mouthpiece for the Israeli government.

"People are anxious about contravening an unwritten law on what you can and cannot discuss, may or may not assert. It is a climate that raises fundamental questions: about freedom of expression, Jewish identity, representation, and the part that concerned Jews in Britain can play in assisting Israelis and Palestinians to find their way to a better future," wrote Brian Klug, a Jewish Oxford academic and an IJV activist, in The Guardian.

Not monolithic

Apart from seeking to uphold the right of individual Jews to speak openly about Israeli actions, IJV campaigners want to highlight that Jews are not a monolithic entity with a collective worldview. Equally importantly, they want to expose the "fallacy" of Israeli claims that the worldwide Jewish community supports all its policies whether in relation to the Palestinian territories or elsewhere. Many Jews in Britain and elsewhere indeed including Israel were angry when during the Israel-Lebanon crisis last summer, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "I believe that this is a war that is fought by all the Jews."

They questioned Mr. Olmert's claim saying it was misleading and part of Israeli claim to represent Jews all over the world. "This is a fallacy; and moreover a dangerous one, since it tars all Jews with the same brush. Yet this misconception is reinforced here (in Britain) by those who, claiming to speak for British Jews collectively or allowing that impression to go unchallenged, only ever reflect one position on the Middle East," said Professor Klug.

The view is echoed in the IJV manifesto, which says that the group believes that the broad spectrum of opinion among British Jews is not reflected by those institutions that claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole. "We further believe that individuals and groups within all communities should feel free to express their views on any issue of public concern without incurring accusations of disloyalty," it says.

A five-point charter, which will guide the group, stresses that human rights are universal and indivisible, and the rights of Palestinians living in occupied territories are as important as those of Israelis. This principle, it points out is "contradicted" when those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and elsewhere consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people. The IJV declares support for the Palestinian struggle and opposes any attempt by Israel to impose its own solutions on the Palestinians.

However, the significance of such an initiative lies not so much in the position it takes on individual issues but in its attempt to reclaim the great Jewish intellectual tradition from Israeli propagandists and lobbyists. Britain's Jews have set an example. Will Muslims care to follow?