Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Misplaced shots at true Zionist
By Jonathan Freedland, December 9, 2010
Nearly a month has passed and the fallout keeps falling. The episode that future historians of Anglo-Jewry will surely dub "The Mick Davis Affair" goes on and on, as supporters and critics of the chairman of the UJIA argue ferociously about his right to speak, his motives and his judgment following the remarks he made about Israel and the diaspora at a public meeting in London in mid-November.
As it happens, I was at that meeting. In fact, I was in the chair, asking the questions of both Davis and his fellow speaker, the American-Jewish writer Peter Beinart. As such, I got to hear his comments in full: I know both their context and tone. The same cannot be said for most of those who have denounced him.
So far, the focus has been entirely on him, some of it viciously personal. Witness Isi Leibler in the Jerusalem Post, slamming Davis for the "sheer arrogance" of sounding off from "his London mansion" and sinking to a new "level of unprecedented vulgarity". In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman has kept up the assault in similar vein - backed by some of my colleagues on this page.
Which is why I want to shift the focus - away from Davis and on to his critics. David Aaronovitch rightly wrote last week of "the constant need to slaughter the messenger" that infects any debate about Israel. The Davis affair has revealed a specific aspect of that: the instant assumption of bad faith in anyone who criticises Israeli policy.
So Foxman believes that, when Davis declared that Israel's actions affect him as a Jew, what Davis really meant was that he opposed Israeli decisions because they "socially embarrass him with his friends."
Leibler went further, throwing in a few ethnic assumptions: Davis was speaking out because he didn't like it when "his gentile friends" complain about Israel's behaviour and that he was worried about his "image in non-Jewish circles".
Yet Davis was speaking of no such thing. When he uttered the words that became the JC's front page headline - "When [Israelis] do good things it is good for me, when they do bad things, it's bad for me" - he was not making some selfish statement about social discomfort in the salons of Hampstead. He was actually speaking about those Jews who are so intensely bound up with Israel that they feel themselves intertwined with its fate: Israel's joys are their joys, its tragedies their tragedies.
Perhaps the UJIA chairman could have expressed himself better. But by ripping those words out of their context, and denuding them of the tone of voice in which they were spoken, Davis's critics have mocked what was actually a declaration of the profound kinship and affinity diaspora Jews like him feel for Israel.
This habit is hardly new among those on the Right. They routinely brand any Jew who criticises Israeli policy - even full-throated, passionate, life-long Zionists - as craven seekers of non-Jewish approval, weak-willed and spineless. So Mick Davis could not possibly have reached in good faith the conclusion that Israeli policy risks inflicting damage on Israel itself. No, he must have "succumbed" to "prejudice," according to my good friend Geoffrey Alderman.
A similar reflex is at work in the refrain that it was wrong for Davis to take such a "political" stance given his communal roles. According to this view, he is entitled to express views as a private citizen but not as a community chieftan.
But when Mick Davis stood in front of thousands in Trafalgar Square to support Israel during Operation Cast Lead, was that not taking a political stance? It certainly looked that way to me - and I criticised him for it in this very slot. But, to the right wing, only criticism of an Israeli government counts as "political"; support is somehow neutral and objective.
Given this climate, it is laughable to suggest, as some have, that there is now no need for any effort within the community to push for the policies that will make a two-state solution achievable. Those siren voices who are saying "Mick has spoken, job done" are wrong. As the Davis debate has proved, this is an argument that is far from won.
Jonathan Freedland is a 'Guardian' columnist