Why British Jewry Isn't "Drifting Away" from Israel

British Jews may not be much less liberal than their American counterparts, but their debates over Israel stop well short of corrosiveness.

Prince Charles meets Lord Jonathan Sacks and his successor Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (L) before Mirvis was formally inducted as 11th Chief Rabbi of the UK. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images.

Prince Charles meets Lord Jonathan Sacks and his successor Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (L) before Mirvis was formally inducted as 11th Chief Rabbi of the UK. Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images.

July 14 2016
About the authors

Yossi Shain, a member of Israel’s Knesset, is Romulo Betancourt professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and founding director of the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.

Daniel Goldman is the chairman of Gesher, former co-chair of World Bnei Akiva, and managing partner at Goldrock Capital.

A few years ago, in an essay titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” the American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart chastised the organized community for being out of touch with the critical view of Israel increasingly held by young American Jews. “For several decades,” wrote Beinart, “the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door. Now, to [its] horror, it is finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Israel’s sin, according to Beinart, was its continuing occupation of Palestinian territories; only by terminating this heinous practice could the Jewish state hope to recover the affections of the next generation of American Jews. The job of Jews alarmed by the situation was to do everything in their power to save Israel from itself.

Although the views expressed by Beinart were not new—they had been circulating on the liberal left since the 1980s, if not since the late 1960s—he managed to capture the mood of that (Obama-influenced) moment in American Jewish life. And in one respect his analysis has been vindicated: it is now widely believed that large portions of U.S. Jewry, especially but not only the young, are indeed drifting away from Israel.

But why is that? In his recent thoughtful essay in Mosaic, Elliott Abrams, while stipulating the reality of “drift,” argued that it has less to do with the particulars of Israeli politics or policy than with deep changes in the makeup and political disposition of the American Jewish community itself. In support of his thesis, Abrams noted that British, Canadian, and Australian Jews, although just as attuned to Israeli actions as their American counterparts, if not more so, have remained strikingly more faithful to Zionism.

In what follows, we dig deeper into this comparison by focusing on the British case in particular. Why is it that Israel is so much less divisive an issue among Anglo-Jewry? Are there really no British Beinarts—and if not, why not? Answering these questions requires looking into the differences between the two communities, and what those differences reveal.


We start with the most basic difference: size. In total, the Jewish population of the United Kingdom stands at about 300,000; American Jews, by contrast, number over five million, a figure more than ten times as great. True, the significance of this difference may appear to shrink when one considers relative rather than absolute numbers: British Jews make up just over 0.14 percent of the UK population, American Jews an almost equally minuscule 1.8 percent of the U.S. population. Still, at a certain point, absolute numbers make a difference in relative clout, and there’s no gainsaying the American Jewish advantage in that respect.

Mitigating this numerical advantage, however, is another demographic fact: American Jews, despite gravitating toward the major coastal cities, are significantly more dispersed than British Jews, who are concentrated in two or three main population centers. As the British sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris has argued, the relative smallness and compactness of Britain’s community, with its “tight webs of personal ties and geographic closeness,” encourages social cohesion and serves to moderate extreme views, or at least their open expression.

The historical memories of the two communities also differ, in ways that affect present-day attitudes. Although both underwent the same experience of immigration and integration, and both now participate fully in national life and play important roles in society, British Jews have generally felt less secure about their place and have gone to greater lengths to obscure or downplay their Jewishness. At least until the 1970s, there was a palpable feeling that Jews could be British—that is, members of a social and political entity—but never fully “English” in the sense of belonging to the dominant ethno-national group.

The difference is partly rooted in history: whereas in America Jews were accepted as citizens from the outset, British Jews did not receive full legal equality until 1890. But there’s more to it than that: at least since the middle of the 20th century, U.S. minorities have been encouraged to celebrate and express pride in their racial and ethnic identities. With the integration into American popular culture of Jewish customs, foods, holidays, and humor, American Jews feel themselves to be more at home, less a people apart. The effect has been paradoxical. On the one hand, “at-homeness” has fostered an impressive cultural vibrancy; on the other hand, it has led increasing numbers to evince little or no interest in Jewish culture itself and to disaffiliate themselves from Jewish institutions of any kind.

British Jews remain more ethnically distinctive, and more particular. Thus, while not necessarily strictly observant, fully 70 percent belong to Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox synagogues; by contrast, most of their American brethren are either non-Orthodox or unaffiliated. Similarly, 60 percent of British Jewish children attend Jewish schools, as opposed to less than a third of their American counterparts. The statistics for teenage trips to Israel tell a similar story.

In sum, Jews in Britain are more interconnected, more homogeneous, and more closely tied to Israel than Jews in the U.S., and far likelier to take part actively in Jewish life.

Finally, reflecting the relative cohesion of British Jewry is its official even if not always unified leadership. The Board of Deputies, a democratically elected, 250-year-old body representing synagogues and Jewish organizations, has had the ear of the government on major issues regarding both the domestic rights of British Jews and relations between Britain and Israel. Its closest American counterparts—the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—do not exercise anything like the same authority or make the same claim to speak for American Jewry as a whole. Something similar can be said about the 300-year-old position of Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth: an institution as natural in a country with an established church as is the free-for-all of American Judaism in the decentralized universe of American Protestantism.


Taken together, all of these factors have a bearing on the way each community faces difficult and potentially contentious issues affecting its security and its ability to influence its own fate.

Perhaps the most consequential issue of this kind is anti-Semitism. It’s not too much to say that Jews in America have developed a sense of immunity to anti-Semitism, generally believing it to exist only at the margins of society. British Jews by contrast, are much more aware, and wary, of anti-Semitism—and for good reason: they are more likely to encounter it, including in an openly political guise.

A recent case in point: ever since the 2014 war in Gaza, anti-Semitism on the British left has become increasingly transparent, culminating in the crisis currently engulfing the Labor party. While that party has long harbored a number of hardcore anti-Zionists, its leadership was traditionally seen as friendly toward Israel. Now its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has taken the party radically leftward, announcing a preference for Hamas and Hizballah over Israel and thereby inviting anti-Zionists and outright anti-Semites to move from the party’s margins toward its center.

As if these developments weren’t troubling enough, among those responsible for recent anti-Semitic outbursts have been several well-placed Muslim members of the Labor party. This is a difficult-to-ignore sign of something that keen observers have been pointing out for years: the increasing convergence in Europe of left-wing anti-Zionism with Muslim anti-Semitism, the latter emanating from immigrant populations wielding significant electoral power.

What’s especially noteworthy in our context is the Jewish response. In Britain, heightened awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism has strengthened the unity of the community’s leaders, who are well versed in the art of setting aside internal differences—including conflicting views about Israel—in the fight against public expressions of anti-Semitism, often masked as “only” anti-Zionist.  And the same can be said of British Jews in general. Such is the sensitivity of the community to this issue that it has affected voting patterns: British Jews have shifted their electoral support from the Labor party, their historic home, to the Conservatives. Correlatively, the proportion of Jewish MP’s representing Labor has dropped from 77 percent (in the two decades following World War II) to 21 percent by 2010.

One need not harp on the contrast with America, where these same contentious issues have little effect on Jewish voting habits—or so it would appear from the community’s unwavering loyalty to the Democratic party despite its steady movement away from its once-reliable solidarity with Israel. At the same time, no less obvious is the painfully corrosive fight within and among American Jewish organizations over the position to be adopted toward Israel, toward anti-Zionism, toward the rising anti-Semitism on American university campuses, and perhaps above all toward the putative “drifting apart” of American Jews and the Jewish state.


To illustrate how these disparate trends play out in the two countries, consider the case of the left-leaning British organization Yachad, which, like J Street in America, defines itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” In America, J Street’s application for membership in the Conference of Presidents was turned down after a bitter and closely fought internal debate. Across the Atlantic, admittedly after some controversy, Yachad was accepted as a member of the Board of Deputies—welcomed, in other words, into the big tent of official British Jewry.

And notice the differences all down the line. Yachad, since its founding in 2011, has explicitly forsworn lobbying activity. J Street, for its part, exists primarily as a lobbying group, whose priority has been to lobby Congress on behalf of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy and to sell that policy to the American Jewish community. If Yachad is much more modest in its goals, that is precisely because it does not wish to break ranks with the rest of British Jewry, or to be perceived as doing so. Meanwhile, the Board of Deputies itself serves as a centripetal force, moderating extremes.

Another difference: the political mission of J Street is predicated on the existence, or the perception, of Jewish electoral power in the U.S.—as well as on the confidence of American Jews in lobbying the government as Jews, without recourse to an official Jewish representative body. If British Jews want to lobby 10 Downing Street over specifically Jewish issues, they will do so, with what might be termed an English sense of propriety, through the Board of Deputies, the Chief Rabbinate, and the newer Jewish Leadership Council.

The bottom line is that in many respects British Jews may not be much less liberal than their American counterparts (witness, for example, the recent “Brexit” referendum in which the Jewish vote ran two-to-one for remaining in the European Union). Nor are British Jews altogether immune to the demographic trends affecting their non-Orthodox American brethren, although intermarriage rates, for example, remain substantially lower than in the U.S. When it comes to Israeli policy, a wide range of views can be heard, often leading to controversy.  But—and this is the crucial “but”—such are the deep-seated ethnic and religious commitments of Anglo-Jewry that there is no prospect of a “drifting apart” from Israel.


It would be foolhardy to suggest that the positive features of the UK Jewish community could be transferred wholesale into the American context. Nor should they be. No one would wish the American Jewish community to be smaller, less comfortably situated, less heterogeneous, or less disputatious than it is. Still, with advantages come costs, and with blessings, responsibilities.

British Jewry’s steadfast support for Israel, and the fact that its intra-communal debates over Israel stop well short of corrosiveness, stem in part from peculiarly British circumstances but in greater part from the community’s stronger sense of Jewish identity, higher overall level of Jewish education, greater participation in religious and communal life, and more travel to the Jewish state: goods in themselves, and all essential to building a strong Jewish community in the Diaspora. Inculcating these same goods in the life of the American Jewish community is a goal urgently worth pursuing.

At the same time, no less essential are the willingness, and the wisdom, to come together in the face of shared threats and to stick up for shared interests, whether through political activity or through the tactful but self-confident treatment of Jews overly eager to weaken or to defame the Jewish state. On that crucial front as well, British Jews may have valuable lessons to impart to their American cousins.

More about: British Jewry, Israel & Zionism, United Kingdom