Is an anti-occupation revolt brewing in the British Jewish establishment?

Leader in top communal organization announces he is leaving post to speak out freely against Israeli policies — and gets standing ovation from membership.

For many years I have felt that the only way to end the occupation is through outside pressure because Israel is just scorched earth politically, and will never do it on its own. On that basis, the announcement last week by a prominent figure in the British Jewish establishment, and the reaction to it by his colleagues, was a more hopeful sign than anything that’s happened in the current Israeli campaign or is about to happen on Election Day on March 17.

What happened was that Laurence Brass, treasurer of the leading British Jewish organization, the Board of Deputies, told a meeting of the board’s plenary that he was quitting the leadership ranks after the board’s May election, The Jewish Chronicle reported. The reason, he told the plenary, was:

I felt constrained not to have been able to speak out on subjects that are close to my heart, such as the treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the discrimination still being suffered by Arab citizens of Israel.

When he had tried to voice his opinions in the past, he said he faced “very harsh and often quite abusive personal criticism …”

What’s even more encouraging is that Brass, according to The Jewish Chronicle, “received a standing ovation after his speech.”

Is something happening in the British Jewish establishment? It sure seems that way. It sounds like there’s a potential revolt against Israeli policies simmering in the ranks of the most pro-Israel – or supposedly most pro-Israel – citizens in all of Great Britain.

When I look at how far the international movement against the occupation has to go before it will be strong enough to force Israel’s hand, I tend to despair. But then I see how mortally frightened the Israeli and pro-Israeli establishment is of this movement, and I say – maybe something is brewing here.

The attempt to muzzle Brass when he first began speaking out, following his visit to the West Bank last spring, was remarkable for the fear it revealed on the part of Israel’s mouthpieces. A lone individual, the treasurer of the British Board of Deputies, starts criticizing the occupation – and NGO Monitor’s hit man-in-chief Gerald Steinberg, as well as Netanyahu’s former head of hasbara and current head of the blue-chip Institute for Zionist Strategies, Yoaz Hendel, pile on him.

A Ta'ayush activist argues with an Israeli soldier in the South Hebron hills, August 11, 2012. (Photo: Anne Paq/
A Ta’ayush activist argues with an Israeli soldier in the South Hebron hills, August 11, 2012. (Photo: Anne Paq/

Brass, after going on a Passover tour led by Breaking the Silence to see how Palestinians in the south Hebron hills are persecuted by settlers and the army, said:

The miserable existence of the Palestinian villagers we met will stay with me for a long time.

Shock and dismay beset the communal leadership. Former Board of Deputies vice president Eric Moonman said Brass should apologize for his remarks or resign as treasurer.

But then a line-up of elder statesmen of Israel’s peace movement – ex-Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, ex-New Israel Fund president Naomi Chazan, ex-attorney general Michael Ben-Yair, and ex-ambassadors to South Africa Alon Liel and Ilan Baruch – wrote a letter in support of Brass. Lauding his “willingness to see the grim reality on the ground in the West Bank,” they added, “What a shame that there are not more leaders of the Anglo-Jewish community willing to tackle these troubling issues.”

More shock and dismay. Steinberg, who said Liel, Chazan and the Israeli combat veterans of Breaking the Silence “are not the people to provide ethical grades to diaspora Jewish leaders,” accused Brass of taking a “radical position based on what he is told and sees through the lens of a very narrow Israeli constituency.”

Hendel, however, went further, joining Moonman in saying such talk as Brass’ cannot be tolerated from British Jewish leaders:

If someone comes to Israel and hears the point of view of only one side, and is not aware of the efforts made by the state of Israel and the IDF on behalf of Palestinian citizens in the area, or of the challenges, obstacles and limitations we face but encounters only a point of view that is used to delegitimize Israel, he should ask himself about his continued service as a leader of the Jewish community.

My favorite line of attack here is that Brass expressed his opinions after hearing “only one side.” As a 40-year veteran of the British Board of Deputies, Brass has been swimming his entire adult life in “only one side,” the official Israeli side, he can recite this side backwards and forwards, and for once he dares to hear the real other side, the side Steinberg, Hendel, the British Board of Deputies and pro-Israel forces everywhere have always muzzled, and suddenly he’s being “one-sided.”

Brass, a judge, has been elected twice as Board of Deputies treasurer and was considered a contender for the presidency before he went rogue. He told The Jewish Chronicle:

There have been countless times over the last six years when I’ve been bursting to criticize the Israeli administration, but I’ve restrained myself. I want to be released from the chains of office to contribute to the wider debate on the Middle East …

How many Board of Deputies members who gave Brass that standing ovation were thinking the same thing? Here’s what I’m thinking: It’s premature for despair. And thank you, Judge Brass; you’ve struck a nerve.

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