The timing of the "Jewish Call for Reason" (or JCall) in Europe last week, as well as the identity of its authors, created a splash in the European media. The question pundits are asking is whether JCall represents a genuine attempt by European Jews to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation begun in 1967 or to distance the authors from the policies of an ever more right-wing Israeli government. Simply, will it provide an opportunity for greater cohesion among advocates of peace in Europe?
The authorship of JCall is relevant. It was initiated by a group of prominent Jewish figures in Europe, mostly French with some Israeli intellectuals and former senior diplomats. Among the initiators are writers well known for their unconditional support of Israel. One of them, Alain Finkielkraut, had specialized in recent years in systematically attacking and suing critics of Israel on charges of anti-Semitism, including Jewish intellectuals. The call rallied signatories from among the traditional activists of the Jewish peace camp in Europe dismayed by the collapse of the peace movement in recent years who decided that the initiative, though insufficient, was worth encouraging. The group’s message echoes the arguments of the U.S.-based J Street to which it refers explicitly: It speaks out of concern for Israel and sees that there are necessary risks to take for achieving peace — namely, that the survival of a Jewish and democratic state is conditioned on the creation of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. It also calls for active engagement with the European Union and for the European Union and the United States to put pressure on "both parties."
The reference to J Street, though, is misleading in many ways. JCall has yet to fully establish its identity, while J Street is already both a movement and a political lobby. JCall is a highly heterogeneous group, and the cautious wording of the text suggests that it is the result of a laborious compromise between widely diverse views on the key issues of the conflict, making it difficult to turn it into a significant movement with sustained strategy. The choice of the European Parliament in Brussels as the launch venue reflects the primary intended target: specifically, the institutions of the European Union.
Although it is too early to predict how it will evolve, its importance for now lies in the fact that it includes members from conservative Jewish organizations and that it was initiated in France, where public opinion is no less reluctant to criticize Israel than in Germany, where similar feelings of World War II-era guilt continue to run high. Although it is seen as insufficient at best by some — and certainly from an Arab perspective — and might well sound timid from an American perspective, JCall nonetheless restores the prospect of reconcilable visions between Jewish and Arab communities originating from abroad, at a time when this is proving impossible on the ground. It is thus indicative that Palestinian diplomats in Europe have in effect welcomed it as an encouraging step.
In response to attacks for breaking the rule of solidarity with Israel and for seeking to put pressure on Israel, the signatories say they are concerned by the damage caused by the policies of the Netanyahu government to the Jewish communities of Europe. The initiative also raised suspicions among Arabs who see an attempt to diffuse the growing irritation with the Netanyahu government’s policies within European official circles and pre-empt possible punitive measures against it.
The language of the call clearly seeks to re-situate the debate on moral rather than legal grounds. It presents the initiative as a voice of wisdom and ethics; it opposes occupation as a moral fault in addition to being a political error. Occupation and settlements in the West Bank and in the Arab neighborhoods of East-Jerusalem are described as dangerous for Israel because the alternative to ending occupation is a regime that would dishonor the Jewish state. There is no word about the illegal occupation of East-Jerusalem, nor is there a reference to international law or any UN resolutions.
Depicting as morally problematic policies that are downright violations of international law is definitely a flaw. At a moment when the European Union is starting to hint its seriousness about drawing the implications of what it has repeatedly condemned in words as illegal behavior on Israel’s part, the suspicion that the call seeks to pre-empt policy decisions from the EU is justified.
But there is more to ponder. The fear of the "de-legitimization" of Israel, which they see as spreading from the Muslim world to Europe, is genuine, and the shadow of the Goldstone Report looms large. It was therefore urgent for the liberal Jews of the diaspora to re-gain the initiative in denouncing the wrongs of Israel.
For all the reservations and suspicions it raised, JCall nonetheless conveys an important message to European policy-makers and provides them with political cover to increase pressure on the current Israeli government. If JCall is serious, it will support a more hard-nosed EU policy vis-à-vis Israel.
And for Palestinians, the lesson is clear: peaceful campaigning over the illegality of Israeli policies is starting to pay off.
Bassma Kodmani is the coordinator of the European Experts Group on the Middle East which advises the European Eminent Persons Group initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative.