TEL AVIV // A new left-wing Jewish lobbying group in Europe calling for a stop to Israeli construction in the Palestinian territories has infuriated right-wing Israelis and could step up international pressure on the country's hardline government to end its settlement activity. JCall, which describes itself as the European J Street, the liberal, pro-Israel Jewish lobbying group that is based in Washington, was launched at the European Parliament in Brussels on Monday by unveiling a fast-growing online petition called "European Jewish Call for Reason".
According to the petition, signed by almost 4,000 European Jews, including prominent intellectuals, politicians and activists from such countries as France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy, the Israeli government's "continuing pursuit of settlements in the West Bank and in the Arab districts of East Jerusalem is morally and politically wrong". The petition's organisers warned that such policies are feeding into the "delegitimisation process" that Israel is increasingly facing in Europe. The formation of the group, which includes some of Israel's most ardent defenders in Europe, indicates that opposition to the country's settlement activities is spreading even among Israel's Jewish backers abroad, and might threaten its relationship with European allies.
Bernard Henri-Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, French philosophers who often speak out in support of Israel, such as during its devastating military attack on the Gaza Strip that ended in January 2009, are participants in the initiative. Others include Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an organiser of student demonstrations in the 1960s, and now at the leadership of the Greens in the European Parliament in Brussels, as well as former Israeli ambassadors to France and Germany.
Their initiative has spurred anger among right-wing Israelis. Michael Ben Ari, a legislator from Ichud Leumi, an ultra-nationalist, pro-settler party, accused JCall's participants of anti-Semitism. He added: "Self-hate did not help the intellectuals in Nazi-era Berlin. Instead of reproaching us, it's time that they pack their belongings and immigrate to their only homeland." Otniel Schneller, a right-leaning legislator from the opposition Kadima Party, warned that the new effort could "hurt the solidarity that world Jews share with Israel". He added: "Like J Street in the US, this new organisation wants to dictate to the Israeli public its future, and is a new and dangerous phenomenon ? with their actions, they are widening the rift between European Jews and Israel."
The new group has also drawn criticism from some Jewish organisations in Europe, especially in France, home to Europe's biggest Jewish population. Richard Prasquier, president of CRIF, the umbrella representative body of the Jewish community in France, declined to sign JCall's petition and criticised what he indicated was the group's meddling in Israel's internal affairs. In a piece published by Le Figaro newspaper, he wrote: "Do Israelis need the Jewish diaspora to know what is 'the right' decision, what should be the borders of the country that their sons and daughters are protecting?"
Prominent dovish figures in Israel, however, hailed the new bid. Yossi Sarid, a former cabinet minister, said in a column in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, this week: "These are the people who seize every opportunity to defend Israel publicly and have remained faithful to her ? but they are now also running out of patience and their hearts are filled with sincere concern." Michael Warschawski, founder of the Jerusalem-based Alternative Information Centre, an Israeli-Palestinian activist organisation, said the growing criticism by prominent European Jews of the Israeli government is a "strong sign" of the country's increasing isolation in the international arena. In a posting on his group's website, he added: "The question is whether or not, and when, that message will be understood by Israeli public opinion.
"For the time being it seems that public opinion in Israel is no less deaf than the government." However, some left-wing activists in Israel and Europe criticised the fact that JCall stopped short of publicly acknowledging that Israeli settlements were illegal, according to international law and had also omitted any mention of the blockade that Israel has been imposing on the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians live.
JCall's leaders have stressed that they are acting in the interests of Israel, and urged the European Union to join the United States in putting pressure on the country, cautioning that "systematic support of Israeli government policy is dangerous and does not serve the true interests of the state of Israel". David Chemla, the head of the dovish, anti-settlement group Peace Now in France, said at the press conference that the survival of Israel "as a Jewish and democratic state depends on the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state".
Elie Barnavi, a former Israeli ambassador to France who is a participant in JCall, added: "It is not enough to speak about a two-state solution. "It is also essential to implement it, and this will only begin with the end of the occupation." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org