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Independent Jewish Voices: New British Group Speaks Out on Israeli Policies in Occupied Territories

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A group of prominent British Jews have launched an organization to counterbalance what they perceive as uncritical support of Israel by major Jewish institutions in the U.K. The organization, called Independent Jewish Voices, or IJV, includes well-known public figures in Britain’s Jewish community, including Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter and fashion designer Nicole Farhi. We go to London to speak with two of the group’s members. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This week in Britain, a group of prominent British Jews launched an organization to counterbalance what they perceive as uncritical support of Israel by major Jewish institutions in the U.K. The organization, called Independent Jewish Voices, or IJV, includes well-known public figures in Britain’s Jewish community, including Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter and fashion designer Nicole Farhi.

IJV criticizes Britain’s well-known pro-Israeli Board of Deputies of British Jews for claiming to represent all Jews. The IJV declaration states that “those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people.” Reclaiming what they call the Jewish tradition of “support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice,” members urge other Jews to express their views about Israeli policies without fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, self-hating, or disloyal.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now from a studio in London are two founding members of Independent Jewish Voices: Sir Geoffrey Bindman is a human rights jurist and chair of the British Institute of Human Rights; Professor Susie Orbach is a writer and psychotherapist in London, well-known for her groundbreaking book, Fat is a Feminist Issue. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Sir Geoffrey Bindman, let’s begin with you. Explain this statement that you have put out.

SIR GEOFFREY BINDMAN: Well, what we are concerned about is that the so-called organs that represent the Jewish community are not expressing the views of many Jews in Britain, who support strongly the human rights of Palestinians, as well as Israelis. And there is even an attempt by these organizations to suppress and demonize those who do not wholeheartedly support the policies of the Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: Susie Orbach, tell us how you came to this issue and how you became one of the original signatories to the statement.

SUSIE ORBACH: Well, I came to this, because for a very, very long time I’ve always been struck by this sort of strange phenomenon that in Britain, as a Jew, you get criticized for publicly wanting to talk about Israeli government policy, but when you’re in Israel, there’s such a kind of vibrant conversation and so much support for various kinds of settlements with the Palestinians, and that actually it’s quite crazy for both the Israeli government to claim that it speaks in the name of all Jews and for the British organizations of Jews to say that we speak with one voice, when patently we don’t. And as part of Jewish writers who were trying to make contact with and have that voice heard, we came together with another group and formulated this proclamation, I suppose you might call it.

And what’s been really, really interesting is the kind of support we’ve garnered this week. The front of The Jewish Chronicle, which is the mainstream Jewish newspaper, not something that Sir Geoffrey and I particularly read, because we’re both secular Jews and active in human rights issues in other kinds of ways, has come out with, you know, seven pages, I think, of articles about this, and they are not hypocritical, which is what we usually expect. So I think the mood has really changed, where people feel less frightened and that the kind of monolith position, which is that all Jews everywhere have to keep their disputes within the family, rather than be able to say, no, there are other voices — I think something is being broken by our statement, and I’m very, very pleased about that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sir Geoffrey Bindman, you’re no doubt aware of the book by former President Jimmy Carter here, that compares the situation in Palestine to apartheid.


JUAN GONZALEZ: You’ve been a jurist on missions to both South Africa and to the Occupied Territories. What’s your sense of that and also the sharp criticism that he’s received and controversy that’s arisen as a result of his book?

SIR GEOFFREY BINDMAN: Yes, well, I must admit, I haven’t read the book, but I do believe that criticism of people who make some comparisons between the policies of the Israeli government and the apartheid state in South Africa are wrong, because there are comparisons. Of course, they’re not identical situations by a very long way, but the subjugation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the demonization of Arabs, which takes place in Israel, and the attitude towards Palestinians does resemble, in some respects, the attitude of the former South African regime towards black people in South Africa.

I wouldn’t overemphasize these parallels, but when you mention apartheid at all, you mention South Africa, there’s a storm of abuse, hits you, from the people who are totally uncritical about Israel and feel that any kind of analysis or comment, which is in any way picking any fault with Israeli policies, is somehow letting the side down, is even anti-Semitic. One commentator, extreme commentator, recently described it as genocidal, as if we, the critics of Israel, are in some way contributing towards the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people. It’s just such nonsense.

AMY GOODMAN: Susie Orbach.

SUSIE ORBACH: Can I come in here? Because I think one of the motivations for me joining IJV — and we are a network, so we don’t all have the same point of view — is that actually I am very concerned about the survival of Israel, and I think its actions now do not speak well for it, and that is one of the things that really concerns me. It kind of feels like a terrible stain that a Jewish state is acting in this way. And so, there are people in our network who are very, very strong supporters of either the two-state solution or of the continuation of the state of Israel, but who are disturbed by its practices vis-à-vis Palestinian people.

SIR GEOFFREY BINDMAN: May I say, I very much agree with Susie on that point. And it does seem to me that there is a real problem for Israel, which is a democracy and believes in human rights internally within the state and has a very proud record, in many respects. There is real freedom of expression in Israel. Israel’s constitution is enviable and could be a model for other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, it seems to me, it lets itself down very badly by its treatment of the Palestinians, by its occupation of the West Bank, which has been condemned by the United Nations and which, in my opinion and that of many, many lawyers, is clearly illegal, and by the treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, which contradicts the Geneva Conventions in all sorts of ways. It violates international law. This lets down Israel. It undermines Israel’s valid claims to be a democracy and a model society.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Susie Orbach, I would like to ask you about the reaction outside the Jewish community in England to your announcement. Here in the United States, the biggest support, outside the Jewish community, for Israel comes from fundamentalist Christians who uncritically support Israel. What about in England, in terms of the general non-Jewish population?

SUSIE ORBACH: I mean, I think — I don’t know. I think it’s — we don’t have fundamental Christianity in that way.

SIR GEOFFREY BINDMAN: It’s not an issue that has ever raised itself in Britain. We’re not really aware of fundamentalist Christians having that kind of influence. I mean, there are obviously such people.

SUSIE ORBACH: But don’t you feel that in England, that the situation in the last few years has escalated, so that if one is, as one often is in England, because it’s not like being in New York City — it is an incredibly heterogeneous — I mean, it’s a very, very mixed culture — that people feel very uncomfortable until they’ve addressed the question of what is going on in Israel, if they’re from the progressive or liberal elements in our society? When they are sitting with somebody who they know to be a Jew, they actually feel they need to have a conversation with you, and they feel exceedingly uncomfortable. Many people have written to say that they like this statement, because it gives a chance for us to have a debate which is on human rights grounds, rather than on ethnic grounds.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to read the five principles, quickly, that you have signed onto, the original signatories.


AMY GOODMAN: “Human rights are universal and indivisible and should be upheld without exception. This is as applicable in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as it is elsewhere. Two, Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peaceful and secure lives. Three, peace and stability require the willingness of all parties to the conflict to comply with international law. Four, there is no justification for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia, in any circumstance. And, five, the battle against anti-Semitism is vital and is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as anti-Semitic.” Where do you go from here, Sir Geoffrey Bindman, with this declaration?

SIR GEOFFREY BINDMAN: I don’t know that we need to go anywhere. It seems to me that’s a very succinct statement of those attitudes, which are held in common by the people who’ve signed our declaration. As was said earlier, we don’t agree on everything. We don’t even know each other, necessarily. We are not a group, in the sense of a tightly knit organization, at all. We’re simply people who have signed up to these general principles. We are concerned, in the main, about human rights, social justice, and I think most, if not all, of us feel that Israeli government policies have undermined its own commitment, the commitment of the Israeli state in its founding declaration, to respect human rights, to observe human rights, because they have not properly behaved —

AMY GOODMAN: Sir Geoffrey Bindman, we’ll have to leave —

SIR GEOFFREY BINDMAN: — towards Palestinians in a way consistent with those principles.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, Sir Geoffrey Bindman, chair of the British Institute of Human Rights, co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices, also a professor of law at University College London; also Susie Orbach, writer and psychotherapist, co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices, as well, in Britain. I want to thank you both for being with us.

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