British left plans own Israel lobby

Activists inspired by dovish J Street in US

By Simon Rocker, September 21, 2010

The face of Israel advocacy in the UK could be changed by a group of young activists who plan to start a new campaign organisation inspired by the liberal American lobby group, J Street.

The key figure in the initiative is Hannah Weisfeld (right), who recently left her job as social action co-ordinator of the Jewish Community Centre for London in order to pursue it.

Others involved include Guardian and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland.

One communal observer said that the initiative was "the worst-kept secret in the Jewish community", while adding: "I don't think it's been decided yet whether it would be a lobby or an education group."

There have been talks between a number of activists, although Ms Weisfeld, 29, stressed that the idea remained at an exploratory stage.

She said: "I think people feel frustrated that the only acceptable way to express support for and love of Israel is only ever to support Israeli governmental action, even if you think it is detrimental to Israel's future.

"There is frustration among a great swathe of grassroots people who are huge supporters of Israel and come from a place of concern, but feel that that concern is not represented or articulated in the right way - or even that it is not an acceptable thing to feel.

"This is about saying to people in the mainstream of the community that it's ok to be concerned, and to articulate that."

J Street launched two and a half years ago as an alternative to the existing American pro-Israel lobby and has been explicit, for example, in describing West Bank settlements as an "obstacle to peace".

Ms Weisfeld said that while J Street was "certainly an inspiration", the UK project "has come out of the grassroots of the UK community".

She declined to name others involved but said that talks were being held "right from grassroots to lay and professional leadership.

"No-one has said 'I am going to fund this organisation, or be on its board'… but there is lots of interest."

She was clear that any organisation would be "pro-Israel" and "pro-community", adding: "This is about how we think Israel can flourish, and grow as a place embedded in Jewish values that we have a relationship with."

Mr Freedland said of the group: "Discussions have been going on for a while and I've been part of some of these. I would be surprised if something doesn't happen in the immediate future".

Douglas Krikler, chief executive of the UJIA, said: "There is a clear need for people in the community to explore issues - doubts and dilemmas - in the context of their support for Israel. The onus on us in the communal establishment is to create a space to allow that to happen."

    Last updated: 2:53pm, September 21 2010