This week a pro-Israel rally due to take place in Manchester in the north of England at the end of this month was abruptly called off after the venue cancelled the booking.
The organisers of No to Terror, Stand with Israel, a relatively new group called North West Friends of Israel (NWFOI), is crying ‘foul’ and blaming the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement for putting pressure on the hotel. At the time of writing, the Sheridan Suite in Manchester is yet to comment.
The whole (non) event has revealed a great deal about how the most prominent and vocal sections of the Jewish community in Britain view the Israel/Palestine conflict. And since NWFOI is insisting that this is only a temporary setback to its plans, it’s worth looking closely at how the rally was being billed and the language being used to describe the current wave of stabbings and car ramming aimed at Israeli civilians.
When the rally began to be promoted a week ago it was clear it had the backing of the mainstream Jewish community in Britain: the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Zionist Federation, and the Chief Rabbi. The Jewish Chronicle suggested 2,000 would turn up. Big numbers for Britain’s small Jewish community of around 270,000.
I never thought a single publicity poster could sum up so much about what’s wrong with the Jewish community in Britain when it comes to Israel. But this one said it all. And what it didn’t say was equally revealing.
Take a look and then I’ll explain more.
No to terror/Stand with Israel
The language is meant to sound common sense and reasonable. As Facebook commentators were saying to me last night, “what’s wrong with wanting to ‘Stand with Israel’?” And “why would you not say ‘No to terror’?”
Another supporter of NWFOI pointed out to me: “105 stabbings in Israel in the last 5 months. People of all faiths wanted to gather together to show solidarity. Israeli lives lost to terror matter the same as those tragically lost in Paris, London or anywhere else in the world”.
So why am I so critical of this kind of language and positioning of the situation?
A few years ago the slogan for this rally would have been different. No to terror, Yes to peace was the favoured coupling designed to articulate that we the Jews were the good guys willing to go the extra mile by giving back some of what was never ours to take in the first place.
But now, taking the lead from seven years of Netanyahu led intransigence on negotiations, peace-making is no longer a priority. Instead, managing the status quo is the order of the day. As for our Jewish communal leadership in Britain, they respond to the theft of Palestinian land and resources and the daily abuse of Palestinian civil rights with silence, insisting it will all be dealt with through negotiation. Apparently, it’s not our place to comment.
So out has gone ‘Yes to peace’ to be replaced by ‘Stand with Israel’. At least there is now some honesty in the pro-Israel lexicon. ‘Stand with Israel’ is the new mantra regardless of the increasingly ugly facts on the ground.
Be it Paris or Jerusalem
The rise of violent Islamic extremism and its targeting of Jews in Western Europe is the other development determining the organisers’ framing of the conflict.
Be it Paris or Jerusalem uses five words to insist that what is happening in Israel today is all part and parcel of the rise of Islamic State and Jihadi fundamentalism. Who needs context for a 100 year plus conflict when it’s so much easier to brand your opponents as violent, irrational, religious fanatics?
If Jerusalem is the same as Paris then there is no point in negotiating. These Palestinian terrorists will hate us forever no matter what we generously concede to give them. This is a clash of civilisations. Western values versus medieval monsters.
In all of this, Israel remains the innocent party, the victim (according to the publicity poster) of “incitement” by Palestinian leaders, the “so called partners for peace“.
I don’t condone the attacks on Israeli civilians, not for one moment. But it has to be seen for what it is. Desperate acts of resistance from a generation that’s had its land, its rights and its hopes stolen.
What bothers me about the way the rally was being promoted (and how it will be re-promoted again) is my own community’s deep denial, and for some a wilful deceit, about what has led us to this current phase of an on-going tragedy.
The idea that Israel’s near 50 year Occupation of Palestinian land and the blockade of Gaza could possibly count as incitement in itself appears to be beyond the comprehension of North West Friends of Israel. If you bomb Gaza into oblivion killing thousands of civilians and injuring many more then you are foolish not to expect a reaction somewhere down the line. And if you fail or refuse to understand this then you will also fail to make peace.
The same willingness to see the situation in Israel only through the lens of Islamist extremism has already been voiced by Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi, in his ‘knife Intifada sermon’ last October. He called for better communication between the two sides but then demonstrated how he closes his ears, his eyes and his mouth when it matters most. It was a low point in his tenure as a religious leader but I suspect he’ll repeat the performance when this rally is rescheduled.
The publicity’s promise of “multi-faith” support is a nice touch. But beware of religious promiscuity.
One of those billed to attend the event was Archbishop Doye Agama who leads Britain’s Pentecostal churches with their long tradition of Christian Zionism. I’m always struck by how happily Jews around the world are to make alliances of convenience with Christian Zionists without bothering to delve just a tiny bit into their theology.
Christian Zionism is not the same as Jewish Zionism. It’s not about responding to anti-Semitism and supporting a national home for the Jewish people. It’s about the fulfillment of New Testament scriptural prophesies using interpretations that require the in-gathering of the Jews to the modern State of Israel to prepare the way for the Second Coming. But Jews be warned. When that Second Coming comes there will be no room in Heaven or on Earth for Jews as Jews. Trying asking them about this.
To me Christian Zionism is an anti-Semitic theology. But who cares as long as our Christian friends ‘Stand with Israel’. This is what happens when ethnic nationalism trumps Judaism. Expect the newly launched British branch of Christians United for Israel to turn up too when the rally gets its new date and venue. The big bear hug Christian Zionists offer to Jews is not as cuddly as it seems.
This on/off/on event displays a hardening of Jewish attitudes on Israel promoted by emerging grassroots Jewish activists. The new ‘players’ on the scene including Sussex Friends of Israel and Jewish Human Rights Watch are demanding more robust and confrontational tactics to counter what they see as threats to the Jewish community caused by the rise of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.
It’s an attitude that’s being willingly taken up by the more established communal leadership, notably the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the oldest and most well-known body. The Board appear to be looking for ways to address the criticism it received during the summer of 2014 for not being effective enough in defence of Israel at the height of media reporting on the Gaza war.
What’s clear is that BDS campaigns have become the number one issue of concern for those that refuse to make any distinction between anti-Semitism, Jewish interests in Britain and the policies and behaviour of State of Israel. Like terror attacks in Paris and Jerusalem, BDS and anti-Semitism all amounts to the same thing. It’s lazy and tiresome thinking. But very convenient for those who have no wish to enter meaningful dialogue that leads to the serious compromises required for a just peace.
Jewish dissenting voices
But is a rally like No to Terror/Stand with Israel truly representative of British Jewish opinion? Recent research data suggests not entirely.
An academic study commissioned by the Liberal Zionist group Yachad last year revealed a picture of Jewish attitudes to Israel at odds with the official community leadership as well as the grassroots insurgents and indeed the editorial writers at the Jewish Chronicle.
The data suggests high levels of disquiet and implicit criticism of Israel among British Jews.
75% of respondents agreed that “the expansion of Settlements on the West Bank is a major obstacle to peace”
73% felt that Israel’s current approach to the peace process has damaged its standing in the world.
24% were prepared to “support some kind of sanctions against Israel if it would encourage the Israeli government to engage in the peace process”
The sanctions supporters rise to 41% when you ask Jews under the age of forty.
There has always been a spectrum of Jewish opinion on Israel in Britain despite the small size of the community. Not all Jews are willing to ‘Stand with Israel’ come what may. But those that don’t struggle to be heard or are unwilling to be as public as the pro-Israel majority.
Yachad won a place on the Board of Deputies following a controversial vote last year but how well they can moderate mainstream Jewish opinion from inside the tent remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, North West Friends of Israel say they want to reschedule No to Terror/Stand with Israel for March to coincide with the arrival of Israel’s new ambassador to Britain, the former high profile Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev.
No doubt Regev will be delighted that his previous life spinning the news for Bibi has worked so well on the British Jewish mainstream leadership and stirred up a grassroots movement even less willing to express the slightest culpability for the conflict.