I am at the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign’s (SPSC) Holocaust Memorial event in an ex-army drill hall. A handful of tired-looking SPSC members mill around, all matted hair and colourful knitwear. At a side table, two well-dressed gentlemen are deep in discussion in Arabic. One is Assam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London and self-confessed Hamas supporter.
We take our seats an hour late. The presenter slouches to the fore. He apologises for the late start, quipping “We’re on Palestinian time”. The Palestinian speaker, impeccable, punctual, shoots him a look and for the first and last time I am on Assam Tamimi’s side.
I’ve been to quite a few HMD events, even performed at some with my band Yiddish Song Project. There’s something very special about acts of remembrance, especially shared with others. But my day with the SPSC held no moments of quiet reflection honouring the dead of many nations. Instead, it was a day of relentless anti-Israel ranting. It seemed not one of the 32 people in the room would have accorded Israel the right to exist.
The Jewish Chronicle is mentioned a few times, in conjunction with words like “biased” and “disgusting”. I identified myself as present on behalf of the paper and sat there with my mouth shut and my notebook open.
When I first converted to Judaism I was adamant I wanted nothing to do with Israel. I was making a spiritual choice and that was that. My sponsoring rabbi took a lenient view, saying life would sort it out. How right he was, for as my Jewish life began to unfold, I noticed Israel being treated differently to other nations, held to account more intensely, burdened with automatic guilt. Why should this state be treated so differently? The only answer I found was that it is Jewish. I found myself challenged and held responsible for Israel’s actions. Gradually, I simply had to accept it had come about because I was now Jewish.
At the coffee break, I’m approached by a kindly grey-haired Scottish gentleman, let’s call him Woolly Jumper.
In a soft-spoken, Edinburgh way he tells me he’s a Hamas supporter and hangs out a lot with Palestine supporters. “Things can get a little antisemitic at times, but I always crack down on that and say — come on, no room for that. Oh yes, don’t you worry.”
Why should we Jews worry? With Woolly Jumper on our side, who needs the state of Israel?
A self-proclaimed Marxist comes to chat. He thinks Judaism is a religion and Jews not a people. I choose not to reveal my convert status; it may somehow make my defence of Israel’s existence less justifiable. Later, I realize the opposite is true. I fear for my future grandchildren and worry that if the world takes a terrible turn, as we know it can, they could suffer for my choice.
I get the Marxist to agree that people who don’t have a state are stuffed. “So we Jews are stuffed if we don’t have a state, right?” I ask, hoping we’re getting somewhere. “You live here, you have a state. Why not assimilate?” I want to say that I de-assimilated.
I’m not sure if that was the strangest moment of the day but it’s up there with the suggestion that we don’t need the BBC because Al Jazeera now broadcasts in English, and the moment when the other Jew present, a wild-eyed lady wearing pyjama bottoms, leapt up to announce her father was on the JNF board. It is like step 10 in some weird 12-step programme to turn you into the “right kind of Jew”.
But the most striking thing about the day is still Tamimi. Inflammatory though his words may be, he has passion, he is sincere and in his eyes I sense a wound that will not heal.
“You cannot expect a lady who has been raped to lie down willingly with the man who raped her,” he says. “And we have been raped.” The words hang in the air; negotiation and compromise seeme hopeless. But how can we stop hoping for peace? So I hum Hatikvah all the way home.