Limmud's Cambridge education finds a highly receptive audience

By Bernard Josephs, November 10, 2011
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Naomi Wolf at Limmud

Naomi Wolf at Limmud

"A Cambridge education on a single day" was offered to a crowd of more than 700 at the Limmud held in the city on Sunday.

They heard eminent speakers and engaged in discussions on weighty topics such as the future of Israel. There were also lighter sessions and, for the younger family members, fun activities - for example, the messy business of making hummus.

Among the many star turns was world renowned Israeli writer A B Yehoshua, whose trenchant criticism of Jews who did not want to live in Israel sparked some spirited discussions over bagels and coffee during the morning break.

In his address - "Is there any continuation of the Zionist Revolution?"- Mr Yehoshua said the situation represented both a failure of Zionism and of the Jewish people to understand the reality of the world around them. His view was that from the Babylonian exile onwards, there had been the "illusion" that Jews enjoyed a better life in the diaspora.

Shoshana Goldhill

Shoshana Goldhill

This was simply not true, he asserted, pointing to the poverty and pogroms in Eastern Eur-ope, and then the Holocaust. Zionism was the "medicine for the Jewish disease called diaspora".

Another personality who attracted a large and enthusiastic audience was Naomi Wolf, the American writer and civil liberties activist who was handcuffed and arrested during the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York.

She said afterwards that she felt like Cassandra, the ancient Greek prophetess, in coming to Limmud to warn about what she saw as a dangerous erosion of civil rights in America and Britain.

In her view, both countries had a growing tendency to see political activists as potential terrorists. She pointed out that she had been placed on a government "watch list" during the Bush era.

There was evidence that the London riots and anti-capitalist demonstrations such as the St Paul's Cathedral protest had prompted the authorities to go "down the slippery slope towards intimidation and the limitation of civil liberties".

The UK authorities could detain people without charge on security grounds, something that did not happen in the States.

Ms Wolf also pointed to the increased deployment of surveillance techniques, saying that although these were first used to identify terrorist suspects, they were now monitoring the activities of ordinary protesters and others acting within the law.

In America, there was evidence that the Obama presidency - which she had supported - was adopting controversial Bush administration policies. She had visited the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which President Obama had pledged to close, and it was "getting bigger".

Other sessions covered the "new" antisemitism, the nuclear threat from Iran and extremism on university campuses. And there were some intriguing alternative contributions.

Barrister and mediator Gary Webber attracted a largely female audience - but sadly no diplomats - to his guide "to save your marriage and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all in one session".

In both cases, he said, the answer was mediation by someone who was not judgmental and was able to deal with different points of view.

Whether in rocky marriages or fraught international disputes, there was fear of loss, as well as prejudice and a failure to listen to the other side of the argument. The goal was to find "the best alternative to not agreeing".

At the lighter end of the scale, singer Daniel Cainer - the "new comic bard of Anglo Jewry" - had his amused audience begging for more as he subjected their lives as English Jews to close and hilarious inspection.

Songs brimful of wry humour were variously populated by feuding tailors, a young Jewish woman in a fundamentalist Christian cult and a cocaine-dealing rabbi.

Unsurprisingly, there was also considerable interest in the talk by Nathan Abrams, senior lecturer in film studies at Bangor University, on "I'll have what she is having", covering Jews, food and sex in the movies. Films discussed ranged from Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally to American Pie.

For the younger audience, one of the most popular sessions featured New Yorkers Matt Bar and Ori Salzberg rapping verses from the Bible.

A mother whose daughter took part said she had told her "it was one of the happiest days of her life. The great thing was that this was a learning experience both for myself and my daughter."

Event chair Shoshana Goldhill said the day had been "amazing - beyond our wildest dreams.

"The speakers were inspiring and the turnout was the biggest we have ever had."

Last updated: 4:16pm, November 10 2011