Big Tent's pitch brings on applause

Manchester advocacy conference is hailed as a resounding success

By Jonathan Kalmus, December 1, 2011
Israel’s ambassador Daniel Taub is given the warmest of welcomes by the Big Tent delegation in Manchester

Israel’s ambassador Daniel Taub is given the warmest of welcomes by the Big Tent delegation in Manchester

The controversies over Manchester's Big Tent Israel advocacy conference, starting with the deadlock between organisers and Bicom over the political make-up of speakers, were sidelined on Sunday as Bicom chief Lorna Fitzsimons stole the show.

The 700-strong attendance, just under half the size of London's We Believe event last May, was drawn mostly from a community that represents around 10 per cent of Anglo-Jewry, while others came from London, Leeds and Liverpool. Most delegates stayed to be brought to their feet by the day's closing, rallying cry from Ms Fitzsimons.

"If you won't look your colleagues in the face and say you are proud to be friends of Israel, who will? That awful fear of social embarrassment: it's just not good enough to duck. I want to ask every single one of you to go out of this room and embrace your fear," she declared.

The day, dedicated to sparking a new, grass-roots movement to counter delegitimisation campaigns against Israel in the UK, opened with keynote speaker, Israel's ambassador Daniel Taub.

Drawing from Manchester's history as "the centre of world Zionism" created by Chaim Weizman, he told the opening plenary: "If Manchester played such a crucial role in the establishment of the state of Israel, I think what brings us all here to Manchester today is the sense that that battle is not fully over."

Speaking just before the ambassador, MP Ivan Lewis praised the Big Tent's convenor, Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, and noted that, "far too often, those who claim the mantle of leadership in our community would rather ignore some home truths. And the leaders who have the integrity to speak out in a very moderate and balanced way are sometimes vilified."

Mr Lewis said: "Let us respect our differences, free of some of the rancour and personal vitriol we have seen over the last few weeks."

During the day's 22 panel sessions, the storms over inter-communal bickering were repeatedly, although momentarily, washed away with applause.

Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society told 200 delegates that as an "outside observer" of the Jewish community, he noted that "pro-Israel groups spend more time attacking each other than they do their mutual enemies.

"It's like the scene in the Life of Brian when no one remembers who their enemy is," Mr Murray said. The sentiment was echoed in more serious terms by many of the conference's 40 or more speakers.

But the day did not pass without controversy, the least of which came from 14 pro-Palestinian protesters. Denied entrance to the Manchester city-centre hotel where the event took place, the group shouted outside for about half an hour. Earlier in the week, a writer for a vehemently anti-Israel website, Electronic Intifada, had complained of being unable to gain press access while claiming he would have reported the event critically but "accurately and honestly".

The Big Tent, living up to its name, included speakers from a wide range of political positions. Hannah Weisfeld, director of the left-wing Israel advocacy organisation Yachad, strenuously defended the right of pro-Israel groups to criticise the Israeli government.

"I challenge the notion and strongly refute [the belief] that you cannot engage with critics of Israel by admitting Israel's flaws," she said.

But Douglas Murray, who admitted a cross-political effort for Israel was needed, countered: "If this argument for Israel is going to be won - and, let's face it, it is being lost - we need a tool-box approach to doing that. That tool-box will include people who are hammers, and there will be some spanners in it."

A more potent clash broke out later in a public relations panel debate with Jewish PR guru Shimon Cohen, who told Lorna Fitzsimons he did not agree with a word she had said on positive PR efforts by the Israeli government.

Mr Cohen, who led the recently successful, pro-shechita campaign, said: "Israel's PR sucks," and urged the audience to try to focus the media on positive Israel stories rather than countering the negative. He also attacked Jewish communal leadership.

"When we started Shechita UK, I was told we didn't need it; our leaders would have a quiet word at the top. That is utter rubbish. People matter, opinions matter, voices matter. Thanks to the great Jewish public, a voice got across and we won," he said, urging that the same PR effort should now be made for Israel.

If there was an absence in the conference, it was of younger participants. The Union of Jewish Students' campus sessions appealed to around 20 students who attended, but most delegates were aged 50 and over.

King's College, London, medical student, Adam Showman, 26, had travelled from the capital to attend, but observed: "I don't think this has engaged a lot of young people."

Manchester University student, Corinne Abrahams, 19, who spent the day on one of the youth-movement stalls representing Hanoar, said the lack of youth was "a massive shame. The topics of the sessions were very good and people would have been interested."

But the aim of the Big Tent to create a grass-roots activism movement worked for Brian Freeman, 70, from Hale, who pledged to use his recent retirement to start a local pro-Israel group. He was one of hundreds of delegates who signed activism pledge cards.

"The day has brought perspective to the problem; for me it's brought it to life," he said. Big Tent organisers said they were already planning "mini Big Tent events" across the UK over the next year.

Last updated: 12:16pm, December 1 2011