By Marcus Dysch
July 14, 2011
Earlier this week I attended three events, on consecutive evenings, which revealed much about British Jews and their relationships with Israel.
One discussed the rising boycott and delegitimisation campaign, another looked at support for Israel from the left, and the third was something altogether different, and, thankfully, more positive.
On Sunday I watched my JC colleague Jonathan Freedland bravely attempt to argue the case against cultural boycotts despite overpowering anti-Israel fervour which at times bordered on outright antisemitism.
Although Jonathan and his “opponent” on the night – Palestinian boycott activist and author Omar Barghouti – tried to keep the atmosphere on the panel as friendly as possible, the make-up of the audience meant Jonathan’s case was doomed to failure from the start of the debate – in fact even from before the start.
Taking my seat in the Southbank Centre I watched as familiar faces from the anti-Israel circuit showed up. Piling in one after another were the likes of Tony Greenstein and Deborah Fink, flanked by dozens of anti-Zionist supporters.
Meanwhile I saw barely a single recognisable pro-Israel face in the auditorium. My suspicions were proved right when the Q&A got underway after the panellists’ impressive opening statements for and against the motion on cultural boycotts.
The bombardment unleashed against Jonathan – who had already spoken out against the West Bank occupation and various aspects of Israeli government actions – was as ferocious as any I can recall against a Jewish panellist in recent years. The response to almost every word uttered by his fellow panellist, American author Carol Gould, was just as vitriolic, with the audience laughing, mocking, shouting and at times even hissing as she spoke.
What really struck me – and seemingly shocked Jonathan too – was how little interest the pro-boycotters had in any form of rational debate whatsoever. Practically every audience intervention was less question, more a direct attack on him and/or Israel. Not on Bibi’s administration per se, but on Israel herself.
They were vicious, argumentative, rude, and revealed views which were absolutely and utterly entrenched, without the slightest prospect of yielding as much as a millimetre to the anti-boycott panellists.
Jonathan summed the evening up rather aptly when he told the audience: “Tonight has been hugely revealing. I thought my disagreement with the boycott movement was because I want to see the end of occupation and you want to see the end of occupation and it was an argument about tactics. What has come through loud and clear is your motivation is not actually just the end of occupation but it’s with Israel itself – you have a fundamental problem with it.“
As shocking as the evening had been, what struck me later was a slightly different issue – where were the pro-Israel campaigners? Why, at a well-publicised, impressively-panelled, London Literary Festival event, had barely a single anti-boycott, pro-Israel activist turned up to either argue against the BDS brigade, or put forward a good word for the Jewish state? How could it be that as abusive question after abusive question rained down on Freedland and Gould, no one came to their defence? Even if there were friends of Israel in the audience, they kept their heads down.
At Parliament on Tuesday night I attended a fairly glum Labour Friends of Israel event at which another panel debated the difficulties facing the left when defending Israel while in opposition.
Former Middle East Minister Ivan Lewis encouraged supporters to promote Israel’s positives and be less defensive.
The Bury South MP rightly pointed out that the boycott and delegitimisation campaigns had led to a “siege mentality” among Israel supporters, telling them that they should “not allow themselves to always be judged through the prism of being defensive”.
The room was packed with Jewish Labour supporters, and yet – perhaps strangely – it was largely left to non-Jewish panellists such as former NUS president Wes Streeting and JC political editor Martin Bright to offer advice on standing up for Israel.
Whether the audience’s dispirited mood was down to the strain of backing Israel in hard times, or finding themselves in opposition after 13 years of power, is hard to say. But what was abundantly clear was that being a supporter of Israel on the left is an uncomfortable position in which to find oneself.
Wes and the others tried to rally the troops, talking of the need to “nail the hypocrisy of the left”, but as far as I could see their efforts fell on deaf ears. There were few, if any, shafts of light to be found during the 90-minute Portcullis House event.
Sandwiched between these two events was, thankfully, a bright ray of sunshine. On Monday, the admirable British Friends of Reuth charity put on a hugely enjoyable showing of the brilliant Israeli TV show Srugim.
The cinema was packed. Hundreds of supporters turned up, filling the cinema. Families squeezed up together to enjoy the show. People genuinely shouted “more, more!” as the broadcast ended.
I was desperate to see the show having heard so much about it and loved the evening. It was impossible, however, not to notice the difference in atmosphere and attendance to the other events. Here were hundreds of (mainly religious) Jews enjoying, effectively, a pro-Israel night out. Where had they been the night before at the Southbank Centre?
It left me wondering – why are British Jews so reluctant to publicly show their support for Israel?
Coughing up extortionate air fares to sit on the beaches of Tel Aviv and Eilat is one thing, but at home in Britain the battle is being lost. More has to be done.
Moaning to each other around the Friday night dinner table just doesn’t cut it any more. Out there, beyond the leafy suburbs, in the blogosphere, in the media, on the streets, Israel’s UK-based enemies are having a field day.
Make no bones about it – in many places and many ways the likes of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Justice for Palestinians are buoyant. They are thriving in their role as underdogs, safe in the knowledge that in the vast majority of cases they will face little if any face-to-face debate from Israel supporters.
Where are our community leaders? Where are our highly-trained professional lawyers and advocates? Dare I say it, where are our celebrities? Why has no one got the stomach to stand up for what they believe in?
Except for a few individual campaigners here and there (and Jewish students), many pro-Israel British Jews seem to either not have the bottle for the fight, or prefer to show their colours only in comfortable, safe surroundings such as East Finchley’s comfy Phoenix Cinema.
Perhaps a combination of battle fatigue and a sense that arguments are being lost have discouraged many. Others are simply happy to sit back and let the few take the strain.
The We Believe in Israel conference in May was heralded as a new start, a way forward. Grassroots groups would spring up all over the show, activists would be armed with the information and tools to take on Israel’s haters.
Based on this week’s events, the opportunity has been either missed, or ignored.
Defending Israel in Britain will get no easier in the months to come. Israeli government policies such as this week’s ridiculous anti-boycott legislation will ensure that.
But if Britain’s Jewish community, the majority of whom wholeheartedly supports Israel, cannot be relied on to stand up and defend her, then who will?
If you’ve made no effort to stop it, then it takes some chutzpah to sit around complaining as the tide of hatred washes over you.
UPDATE - The Southbank Centre has helpfully posted an audio recording of Sunday's event online, so you can now listen to the whole debate, and judge for yourselves.