On a humid evening last week London’s JW3 and United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) – the UK community’s largest Israel charity and supporter of all the Zionist Youth Movements – sought to take the heat out of recent community discourse on Israel. At Ceasefire, a diverse panel of speakers including Ella Rose (Executive Director of the Jewish Labour Movement), Rabbi Andrew Shaw (Chief Executive of Mizrachi UK), Natasha Hausdorff (volunteer with UK Lawyers for Israel) and Adrian Cohen (lay Chair of Labour Friends of Israel) came together. Their role was to spark reflections and discussion on the furore and fallout from ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ and recent warnings that diaspora discourse on Israel has never been more polarised, vicious or impoverished, by former Jewish Leadership Council and UJIA Chair Sir Mick Davis.
Approximately 150 people attended, made up of passionate groups from the left and right, community professionals and lay leaders connected to organisations working for or around Israel, and interested members of the Jewish and wider community. The chair, Henry Grunwald QC OBE, made the unusual request that audience contributions were welcome, or indeed preferred, as comments rather than questions.
The format may have been unusual but, sadly, much of the substance wasn’t; there were entrenched views, negating of other’s intentions or intelligence, abusive language and aggressive behaviour… the norm, it seems, when UK Jewry discuss Israel.
Arguably the most right-leaning panellist, Rabbi Andrew Shaw, barely got the opportunity to express himself before audience members shouted “Racist!”. I accept that describing Israel as an “oasis of civilisation in a desert of savagery” is not the most refined choice of wording but, when he was finally allowed to complete his sentence, Rabbi Shaw explained that he was referring to specific parts of the Middle East facing savagery at the hands of Islamist terrorists not suggesting that the whole Middle East, minus Israel, is savage.
More patronising presumptions were expressed with two of the panellists Rabbi Shaw and Natasha Hausdorff suggesting progressive Zionists have internalised Palestinian propaganda. Natasha Hausdorff implied Jewish critics of Israel are motivated by a feeble desire to be welcomed by “polite English society”: “The more Jews that take these overtly and unjustifiably critical positions with respect to the only Jewish state in an effort to be accepted and acceptable … the more skewed and twisted the narrative on Israel becomes”. Astoundingly Natasha continued with a suggestion that Jews’ challenging of Israeli actions and policies “serves to promote terrorism and is playing into Hamas’ hands”.
Maybe less critical Israel advocates would better understand progressive Jews if they understood them on their own terms as motivated by concern for Israel’s moral and material wellbeing. Many have spent significant time in Israel and have seen realities that move them to criticise Israel’s government. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin – no liberal lefty – has felt compelled to speak out in recent weeks at proposed measures that signal a worrying retreat from democratic values by Israel’s coalition government. I hope defenders of Israel will be less dismissive of the convictions and capabilities of a disciple of Jabotinsky.
As the audience participation began, Jonathan Hoffman, who introduced himself as one of the two bloggers who identified the ring-leaders of the so-called ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ claimed that “the allegations of abusive language … is just a smokescreen to divert attention from the original action”. A young woman responded by expressing her fear, having been harassed online. Mirroring the disproportionate online attacks against young women involved in the Kaddish for Gaza event, a handful of older men angrily interrupted her with calls of “show us! show us!” – ironic considering she was, indeed, showing, or telling, them. I took the opportunity to answer their request, sharing examples of vile and violent language, including labels of “kapos”, “half-breed”, wishing people dead, questioning people’s Jewishness, and misogynist language too profane to type.
Much of the audience participation become a back and forth between those involved with or at least sympathetic to the views of the Kaddish for Gaza ‘team’, and those most vociferously disgusted by their activity. Two contributions that broke from this pattern challenged the framing and assumptions of the discussion. One audience member asked whether, as someone who isn’t a Zionist but is committed to her community, she is welcome at these events. This appeared to be a response to discussion suggesting that the disagreements in the community are only about how we express our Zionism, not whether we are Zionist. Another attendee asked why none of the panellists were asked to consider the large number of UK Jews who are entirely comfortable with the direction of the State of Israel and its current government. ,
A quote attributed to Epictetus reminds us “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Despite some of the troubling or unhelpful parts of the evening, I feel hope that many did listen and learn.
The fact that a number of audience members stayed on to discuss the issues of the evening late into the night, filtering out into various spaces within JW3 including, symbolically perhaps, the bridge, was a positive sign.
It appeared to me that those from the more progressive parts of our community, and particularly those who organised Kaddish for Gaza, could hear the pain many people felt – and indeed still feel – at seeing Rabbis and educators reciting the Jewish prayer of mourning for people affiliated to a terrorist organisation intent on Israel’s destruction and the murder of Jews.
Some attendees who appeared to be of the view that the UK Jewish community adopt a celebratory and combative tone in defence of Israel did seek to hear the genuine pain felt at the repeated and regular loss of life.
I hope we can all listen to the multi-layered wisdom within our tradition. In my experience progressive Jews often cite “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdorff (Justice, Justice you shall pursue)” as a rallying call for action. Rarely is the rest of that verse considered: “so that you may thrive and occupy the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
I’m not suggesting those most concerned with an understanding of justice accept the beliefs of those who seek a god-given right to Greater Israel. Neither am I expecting that religious Zionists accept what they perceive as a partial application of Torah by those interpreting Judaism as a call to social action, including justice for the Palestinian people. If Ceasefire was the start of many of us seeking to listen twice as much as we speak, our communal discourse will be much improved. Our tradition, and our community, contains multiple voices and values. The contradictions between these voices and values may be inescapable; the conflict between us is avoidable.
David Davidi-Brown is CEO of the Union of Jewish Students [UJS]
Read more about the event and watch a recording of the live stream here.