Don’t talk about the Occupation
Inside the “We believe in Israel” conference
On Sunday, Left Foot Forward’s Seph Brown attended the “We believe in Israel” conference in West London; hosted by a coalition of Jewish and pro-Israel groups, the conference was the first of its kind in the UK and the largest gathering of Zionist activists, thinkers and politicians the UK has ever seen
As a pro-Palestinian activist and UK director of a campaign to support the construction of a Palestinian state, I knew the conference was likely to be a challenging experience. I attended with an open mind, in the spirit of engagement and understanding. On the surface, the event was quite exciting.
Of the 50 or so panel discussions, lectures and training sessions on offer, there were many insightful questions posed. It looked in many ways like a community in self-reflection, challenging itself to answer difficult issues around supporting the state of Israel.
Over the years I have developed three assumptions about pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli positions. No matter how much you disagree on the details, most reasonable, moderate voices want to see both Israelis and Palestinians living in two states, roughly along the 1967 lines with a shared Jerusalem and a just solution to the refugee issue.
This is where I assume today’s discussion is based and what I expected from the biggest gathering of pro-Israeli voices ever in the UK.
In to the opening plenary session, where I received my ‘We Believe’ goodybag including lunch, We Believe pens, paper, t-shirt and booklet etc, I settled in to hear renowned Conservative Friend of Israel and keynote speaker, Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox. In a room of more than 1,500 delegates, Fox gave unequivocal support for Israel.
Saying that Israel’s right to exist is unquestionable he went on to describe Israel as:
“…an outpost of democratic values in the Middle East.”
He also praised the country’s:
“…commitment to human rights.”
The crowd didn’t seem especially impressed. Some applauded, others didn’t. It was as if they were waiting for something. When he came to confront the politics of the occupation, it quickly became apparent what it was.
Upon reaffirming the internationally agreed position that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are “illegal and an obstacle to peace” at least half of the crowd turned; booing and hissing – in an almost pantomime fashion. Some applauded, but those clapping were decidedly in the minority.
As Fox pressed on, calling for Jerusalem to be “a shared capital for both Israelis and Palestinians”. a growing majority of the crowd were heckling. Many around me shouted “No!”
By the time the Secretary of State hinted at optimism in Palestinian unity between Hamas and Fatah the crowd were effectively united against him. Forcefully declaring that he was “proud to believe in Israel” the following applause seemed strained. The Chair of the session, Vivian Wineman, awkwardly thanked Fox “for his frankness” sending a titter around the room.
The day itself was enormous. In fairness, there were dozens of sessions but delegates were asked to choose only four, so I cannot give a full account of the conference. Thankfully, even in my narrow experience of the event there were islands of positive, forward-looking discussions.
In a session discussing ‘legitimate criticism’ of Israel, Michele Vogel, panel chair and UK president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (WIZO) began by admitting that critics of Israel, especially the Boycott, Divestment and Santions (BDS) movement “have succeeded in pervading all parts of our lives”.
Continuing this line of frankness Johnathan Freedland of the Guardian argued that “criticism of the occupation must be accepted”, going on to say “criticism of the occupation is not delegitimisation”.
Freedland – incidentally the first and only speaker to use the ‘o-word’ all day – even went as far to argue that the Israeli government itself is a force for delegitimising the state of Israel, citing the country’s introduction of loyalty oaths for non-Jews and Israeli film directors and artists. Martin Bright from the Jewish Chronicle echoed the sentiment that it is wrong to brand disagreement as delegitimsation.
Another interesting session discussed how Zionists throughout history have tackled the issue of the Arab presence in historic Palestine. Scott Copeland, director of Israel Travel Education at MAKOM, gave a fantastic presentation, describing how for decades before the founding of the State of Israel, Zionists were very aware of the Palestinian presence.
Copeland was open, engaging and scholarly, careful not to use one weighted term without the other – Eretz Yisrael / historic Palestine, Judea and Samaria / the West Bank etc. He offered evidence that the Zionist movement was very aware from the outset that their attempts to become the majority in Palestine would eventually be resisted by the local population. These examples of serious, positive engagement with the issues were sorely lacking elsewhere.
It was a session on how to deal with the awkward questions of war, settlements and international law, in which the darker side of the conference I had witnessed in the opening plenary came into its own.
Ambassador Robbie Sabel actively encouraged the audience to describe Israel’s separation barrier as a “border fence”, arguing that there is no ‘border’ between Israelis and Palestinians, only an “armistice line”. He went on to claim that settlements in the West Bank are not illegal and astoundingly that “not a single Palestinian has been displaced by Israel’s settlements”.
Sabel was joined on the panel by Israeli journalist Shimon Shiffer who argued that the West Bank is not “occupied” but “disputed” territory, going on to say that “two states won’t happen” and that this was a “good” thing.
The session fell further into the surreal when the panel was asked how pro-Israelis should deal with the upcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood in September. Apparently completely unaware of his own country’s history, Shiffer reassured the audience that:
“…the UN cannot create a state and it never has.”
The closing plenary session was a smorgasbord of intransigent rhetoric. Gideon Sa’ar, Likud’s education minister, received thunderous applause asserting that:
“…peace cannot come of more Israeli concessions.”
Colonel Richard Kemp berated the “bleating insistence” of human rights organisations and repeatedly called on the crowd to fight the “global conspiracy” against Israel.
Former Likud politician Natan Sharansky told the conference it was clear that multiculturalism in Europe had failed, and that freedom had to be rooted in identity. Only Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, understood how to achieve this, he said.
I did not attend the conference naively. As someone with different political views, I expected the day to be uncomfortable for me. But I did not expect the conference to seem so much like a backward step. I always assumed that most people with an interest in the Middle East – from either side – wanted to see two peoples with equal rights and self determination.
But as one thumbed through the “We Believe Toolkit” handed out at the closing session for activists to learn how to “influence”, “communicate” and “organise”, it seemed that the organisers of the conference had little interest in advancing the mainstream discourse around peace so much as enabling a defence of Israel in every instance.
In the end it was far clearer that the day was about shoring up and encouraging an embattled and beleaguered pro-Israeli community. To this end it was a major success.
One member of staff advised me not to take what I had seen to heart. The event had never been attempted on this scale before and the 1,500 delegates were largely self-selecting, he said. Even so, despite the broadly harder line of the audience, many of the speakers themselves made little effort to address the struggles for peace.