Reports from JfJfP signatories Deborah Maccoby and Naomi Wayne, plus one from Jewish News
Community Town-Hall Meeting: Israel: The Community’s Response
We are contacting you about an extremely important Jewish community town-hall meeting about the situation in Israel.
We would like as many of the Jewish public to attend as possible as you have a vital role in articulating yours and others’ concerns. It is on Wednesday 13th August at 7pm in North West London. Our Chief Executive Gillian Merron and President Vivian Wineman will both be on the six person panel. As a result of the difficult situation in the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly important for the Jewish community and its friends to do all we can to support the people of Israel. The meeting will focus on what we can do to promote Israel’s case, addressing the best way to tackle the crisis and its implications for British Jewry, including aspects of antisemitism, security and education. Please RSVP with your name, full address and contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday 11th August. Space is strictly limited – please reply early to secure your place.
Venue will be sent to people on the list on the day. It will be in North West London
Summary of panel speeches
By Deborah Maccoby
August 16, 2014
Followed by An evening with the Leadership
VIVIAN WINEMAN, President of the Board of Deputies
I am introducing this meeting with mixed feelings. I am chuffed that so many have come, but sad about the circumstances in which we meet. We all have relatives in Israel and we are all sad about the terror that they are experiencing there [Note: no mention from VW at all of Gaza]. And with the rise of antisemitism in Britain, we are moving into very difficult territory. All the communal organisations have worked well together to organise this meeting.
EPHRAIM MIRVIS, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (Orthodox, Askenazi).
I have to leave soon, as I am very busy; but I had to be here to accompany the meeting in expressing solidarity with Israel. Ever since the three Israeli teenagers were abducted and murdered, we have been going through anxiety on a daily basis. 3,500 missiles were fired to kill Israelis. I am saddened by the loss of Israeli soldiers and saddened by the loss of civilian life in both Israel and Gaza. [Note: this and a reference from Gillian Merron, CEO of the BoD, to “loss of life on both sides”, were the only references during the entire meeting to civilian deaths in Gaza, apart from a reference by the BICOM speaker to misleading images of dead children in Gaza and comments both from the BICOM speaker and at question time that the casualty figures can’t be believed]. What can we do? We can put up mezuzot, lay tefillin, and love God. We live with a dual existence, as individuals and as part of a people. We feel totally part of Am Yisrael. In July, there were over 200 antisemitic incidents in Britain. Tomorrow I am going to Israel, on my fifth visit since the start of the conflict. I hope the meeting will consider how we can all help for the sake of Israel’s future.
We want to know what your thoughts are. We want to hear the opinions of organisations. We are planning to lobby politicians and the media. We must up our game. The other side are doing it.
DERMOT KEHOE, CEO OF BICOM (Britain-Israel Communications and Research)
We all stand with Israel; we are not divided. We believe in the State of Israel. We are united in our support for democracy. There is a rise in antisemitic attacks and increasing fear within the Jewish community. Israel was forced to act against the rockets. BICOM exists to give pro-Israel voices a platform. I wish we had in Britain a fair and balanced media. I wish we had a media that expressed complex ideas in depth. But Dan Meridor, Uri Dromi etc [a long list of more names] have been interviewed in the British media. We have taken the argument to Israel’s fiercest critics; we have debated in public with Mira Bar-Hillel, Ben White and Mehdi Hasan. Not one opportunity to put the pro-Israel point of view has been turned down. We give briefings to the media. We try to shape the debate and find new angles. For instance, the effect of the rockets is that a third of children in Sderot are likely to grow up with long-term learning disabilities. BICOM has exposed the use on social media of misleading images of dead children in Gaza that were actually of children in Syria or Iraq. Hamas casualty figures cannot be taken at face value. The Gaza strip must be demilitarised. Whenever you see or hear anything wrong in the media, complain to the media and seek help from groups such as We Believe in Israel. Israel still has many friends in the UK.
MICHAEL WEGIER, UJIA (the United Jewish-Israel Appeal)
Every year, we send children on summer tours. When war broke out in July this year, we asked “can we keep them safe? Can we still give them an educational programme?” We decided to carry on, and right now approximately 1,225 children have completed their summer tours in Israel. A large number of parents from the US cancelled the summer tours; but – without wanting to sound anti-American – only 20 parents from Britain cancelled. UJIA has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for relief projects in the south of Israel, including projects for the Bedouin [no mention of relief for Gaza]. We are running a two-day programme in Israel for British Jews to go there to see these relief projects for themselves. This has been the busiest month in the UJIA’s history. Yes, there are critical views of Israel in the Jewish community [Note: this and remarks about Yachad and making peace with the Palestinians were the only references to critical views of Israel in the Jewish community in the whole meeting]; but instinctive, gut love for Israel has never been greater.
GILLIAN MERRON, CEO of Board of Deputies
This is a high-profile, complex and long drawn out conflict. We are all deeply saddened by the loss of life on both sides. But Israel’s safety and security are paramount. It has been attacked with rockets and terror tunnels. We understand the fear of Israelis and the brutality of Hamas. I am proud to stand with Israel. We want a swift settlement. We face a challenging environment in the UK. Graphic images are beamed into our TVs every night. There is effective campaigning from PSC and Stop the War. The British government has acted with integrity. I congratulate our government for pursuing the de-militarisation of Hamas; but it has also reached the decision to restrict the export of weapons that enable Israel to defend itself. It is unhelpful to politicise the conflict. We need a constructive resolution. We must use every tactic in this regard. We continue to challenge the Lib Dems over the comments made by David Ward. We have also challenged John Prescott for calling Gaza a “concentration camp”. We field media enquiries. In this hostile environment we must keep speaking. We want politicians to make our points their points.
DAVID DELEW, CST (Community Security Trust)
There were over 200 antisemitic incidents in July, This is over four times what could be expected. It is the second highest monthly total since CST started recording antisemitic incidents in 1984 – the first highest monthly total being in January 2009, under similar circumstances. The incidents were verbal abuse, criminal damage and graffiti. “Free Gaza” was painted on a synagogue in Brighton. A couple were targeted in Bradford. There were 374 antisemitic incidents in the first six months of this year. We have increased security at synagogues and Jewish events. CST is working closely with UJS (the Union of Jewish Students) and liaising with the police. If you are a victim of an antisemitic incident, please report it to CST. We provide seminars for school children. We ask that you participate in our work, report incidents and donate to CST.
SIMON JOHNSON of JLC (Jewish Leadership Council)
The CEOs of our groups have met every day.We are challenging BDS, which means the delegitimisation of Israel. The National Union of Students and the TUC Conference have passed boycott motions. Even Tesco might be in the process of boycotting certain products. There are protests outside Sainsburys. There is mounting pressure on Soda Stream. There are demonstrations outside the Kedem store in Manchester. Labour and the Lib Dems could have plans for boycott. [Note: the NUS motion included support for a two state solution; and the TUC motion was only against settlement goods; the Kedem demonstrations are against the Occupation, not Israel per se; Tesco, Labour and the Lib Dems would only support boycott of the Occupation]. BDS is opportunistic and trying to create pressure. What are we doing about it? Our mechanisms include:
* The Fair Play Campaign
* Rapid response to engage at senior level.
* Support for The TU Friends of Israel
* Arranging talks with CEOs of retailers
* Reorganisation of the way we coordinate responses to delegitimisation of Israel.
We are protesting against local councils that have taken the ludicrous decision to fly Palestinian flags. We are opposing the Tricycle Theatre’s discriminatory decision to force out the UK Jewish Film Festival. This is a totemic issue and there is a lot of media interest. [Note; the Tricycle asked the UKJFF to drop its funding from the Israel Embassy, in view of the situation in Gaza, so that it would not look as though the Tricycle was supporting the Israeli government, and offered to make up the shortfall itself; the UKJFF chose to keep its Israeli Embassy funding and leave the Tricycle]. Boycotts are discriminatory but objections must be expressed peacefully. We are better together.
LUKE AKEHURST, We believe in Israel, [some Orthodox Rabbis have criticised the name of this organisation as amounting to idolatry]
I am not Jewish but I am a Zionist and am proud to support Israel. We are mobilising Christians, Jews and the secular community to fight back against Israel’s critics. MPs have been getting thousands of anti-Israel letters. Anti-Israel groups have generated 58,000 letters to MPs. Our side has only sent 5,000. Even in Barnet and Harrow there have been more letters from critics. The government is threatening to suspend licences for the very weapons that Israel needs to defend itself. What you can do: complain about media bias; ask friends and family to write, Buy Israeli goods visit Israel; attend rallies. Tell people the truth. Sussex Friends of Israel are organising a big rally in Brighton this month. There will be another Israel Solidarity Rally in London next month.
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS INCLUDED:
Note: certain organisations contributed first: The UKJFF CEO, Mr Margolis; the UJS president; someone from Israelis in UK
1) We all know what “from the river to the sea/Palestine will be free” means.
2) Hamas has links with ISIS.
3) The Gaza casualty figures are all lies.
4) Tirade against Yachad, the UK equivalent of J-Street, for organising tours in which people from Britain are taken on Breaking the Silence tours of the West Bank.
5) Can we try to get Jon Snow off the air? Can we pursue regulatory action against him?
6) Why isn’t the Zionist Federation up on the platform?
7) Why are we not being led by the Board of Deputies? (loud applause and anger against the BoD).
8) A woman said she had gone with a delegation to Bradford to oppose George Galloway’s call to make Bradford an “Israel-free zone” and had brandished her Israeli passport there, but had got no support from the Board of Deputies. (Standing ovation from audience).
9) Question from JfJfP signatory: what perspectives do you have on ways to make peace with the Palestinians? No-one has mentioned this all evening. (Mixed reaction from audience; some sporadic applause but also some booing).
10) Comments from Chair of UK Jewish Film Festival denouncing the Tricycle.
11) Comments about the Hamas Charter
12) Comments about Yvonne Ridley speaking in Glasgow. What is the Board of Deputies doing in support of the Glasgow Jewish community?
Other issues raised:
Weapons in Unrwa schools.
Campaign on social media
Campaign with politicians. Hertsmere Labour PPC is very sympathetic.
Complaints that police do not take their complaints seriously enough
Antisemitism is hate crime
Demand that people be on the streets
More interfaith work
A few responses from the panel (who seemed overwhelmed by the antagonism and were in danger of losing control of the meeting and didn’t answer many of the questions).
a) Re Yachad: we caution everyone in this room against demonising any organisation in the Jewish community that reflects a basic commitment to the Jewish and democratic state.
b) re Jon Snow: BICOM rep said they were going to look into prosecuting him for contravening media standards.
c) In response to question 9 from the JfJfP signatory: we want to acknowledge the absolute legitimacy of this question., 76 per cent of Israeli Jews would like to see a two state solution, but the same percentage thinks it won’t happen in their lifetime. A majority of Israelis wants to see a peaceful outcome.
SINGING OF HATIKVA AND GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
An evening with the Leadership
By Naomi Wayne
August 16, 2014
Last week, on 13th August, six powerful and influential Jewish ‘establishment’ organisations held a much-trumpeted ‘Community Town Hall Meeting’ at the leading Jewish secondary school, JFS (Jews Free School) in north-west London.
The aim: to achieve a unified and unequivocally ‘pro-Israel’ message from British Jewry to go out loud and clear to politicians and the media during the current conflict in Gaza. The title: ‘What we can do to promote Israel’s case?’
Mostly, it appeared, to unleash fear and loathing towards anyone who wasn’t on-message. But in spite of the organisers’ best efforts to avoid all discussion of Israeli/Palestinian peace-building, and nurture instead an atmosphere of communal fright and fury, tiny green shoots of hope could be discerned. Two hours in the fantasy world of Israel’s totally uncritical supporters, demonstrated that, rather than rampant and victorious, hate was sounding distinctly tired and desperate.
The Chief Rabbi’s opening to the meeting was brief and relatively anodyne. Then came speeches from senior representatives of the Jewish communal establishment: the meeting’s convenor, the BoD, Board of Deputies of British Jews, the leading ‘political’ voice of British Jewry; BICOM, the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre, perhaps the closest body Britain has to the US’s AIPAC; the UJIA, United Jewish-Israel Appeal, Britain’s most prominent cheerleader for Israel; the CST, Community Security Trust which monitors antisemitism in Britain and provides advisory and training services; the JLC, Jewish Leadership Council, supporting Jewish charitable work and representing ‘Jewish views’; and ‘We Believe in Israel’, the newest cheerleader for Israel, set up in 2011. UJIA, CST and JLC are all charities under British law.
A conspicuous absentee was the Zionist Federation, which is noted for the fierceness of its views (Over 100 years old, ZF says it is ‘the UK’s leading Israel advocacy organisation countering false and unfair criticisms of Israel’) This gaping hole in the line-up was noted and criticised fiercely from the audience.
Nearly absent too, but definitely unlamented, were dissenting Jewish voices, and, of course, the Palestinans. If a signatory from Jews for Justice for Palestinians hadn’t managed to get a contribution in towards the end of the meeting, neither a single dissenting Jew, nor the very word ‘Palestinians’ would have been heard at all. An urgent meeting to discuss ‘the difficult situation in the Middle East’ was intended, after all, to mean difficult for Jews only. Palestinian interest in Gaza’s misery was otherwise only acknowledged indirectly – when the Chief Rabbi and the BoD Chief Executive regretted ‘the loss of civilian life’ on both sides and BICOM challenged the (widely accepted) casualty figures and the veracity of images of dead children in Gaza.
Instead, two themes dominated: the need to ‘up our game’ in support of Israel (Vivian Wineman, BoD) to counter the ‘highly effective lobbying of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and Stop the War’ (Gillian Merron, BoD); and the ‘rise in antisemitism’ (just about everybody).
We learned from BICOM’s spokesperson, former BBC journalist, Dermot Keogh, of the gargantuan effort expended to get the official Israeli story across. Whilst bemoaning the lack of ‘a fair and balanced media . . . that expressed complex ideas in depth’, he could still provide an immense list of Israeli spokespersons BICOM had successfully placed in the broadcast and written media. One, he told us, did 34 interviews back-to-back for local radio stations.
BICOM is clearly the go-to organisation for press and broadcasters seeking a pro-Israeli voice. Though most media requests come in ‘before 9 am and after 5 pm’, BICOM has never failed to deliver a cool perfect-English speaker, impeccably trained in ‘hasbara’ (Israel’s intensive propaganda strategy – the word itself means ‘explanation’) and ready to deal with even the toughest questions. Despite the audience having been told that PSC and Stop the War were ‘highly effective’, nothing like BICOM’s success can be claimed for those seeking coverage for the Palestinian point of view.
Simon Johnson of the JLC was equally gung ho, promoting its ‘Fair Play Campaign’ (fair play for Israel that is) plus its ‘Rapid Response’ strategy for getting straight to relevant senior executives whenever some major issue (e.g.boycotting supermarket goods) erupts. He too had a long list – this time of organisations the JLC deems vulnerable to ‘anti-Israel’ lobbying, and needing pressure to keep them on the pro-Israel straight and narrow. This list included local councils, the TUC and individual unions, Britain’s major retailers, and, with special emphasis, the Tricycle Theatre. Indeed, the Tricycle featured vividly among platform speakers and audience – with threats abounding of mass picketing and withdrawal of support by major funders.
It was notable that David Delew of the CST was careful to start with a caveat: as a charity established to tackle antisemitism in Britain, CST’s role did not extend to Israel or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. This looked like a row-back from its active intervention in Israel-related politics after recent critics had highlighted breaches of its charitable boundaries).
Delew’s CST figures, however, showing a substantial spike in antisemitic incidents across Britain in July, were worrying – that we still have many fewer and much less serious incidents than do many European countries is only a little comfort. Inferring a connection between this rise and events in Gaza is inevitable and understandable. However, the nature of this connection is not self-evident.
Not a single platform speaker at the Town Hall Meeting (nor any from the audience, except the lone JfJfP voice) admitted a hair’s breadth between British Jewry and the interests or conduct of Israel. When, as happens repeatedly, the major Jewish communal organisations and media (Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News) promote this conflation of British Jews and Israel to the outside world, unsurprisingly, some in that outside world struggle to find the difference for themselves.
This does not justify a single incident of antisemitic name-calling, much less anything worse. But it does beg the question, why such universal communal failure to emphasise the independence, diversity and sheer Britishness of British Jews? Do they think feeding the fear that, not only is Hamas out to get us, but our fellow countrymen are too, might be the best way of rallying British Jews solidly around Israel’s flag?
Finally, from the platform, came Luke Akehurst on behalf of *‘We Believe inIsrael’ (a group whose curious and idolatrous title suggests it is unfamiliar with the First Commandment – ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’).
Akehurst’s focus was Parliament, specifically MPs’ postbags and his information was gripping: while ‘anti-Israel’ groups had generated 58,000 letters to MPs, ‘our side’ had only managed 5,000. Even Barnet and Harrow, London Boroughs with very large Jewish populations, report that letters critical of Israel are in the majority. Akehurst’s recipe for defending Israel comprised the following:
complain about media bias; ask friends and family to write; buy Israeli goods; visit Israel; attend rallies; tell people ‘the truth’. And above all get those letters in to MPs, many of whom have been ‘terrified’ by the scale of ‘anti-Israel’ communication, and have been begging to receive correspondence backing Israel.
At least the platform was disciplined – speeches crafted to fit the time and no rants, just lots of ‘facts’, even if many of the ‘facts’ weren’t. The audience was something else – with its mixture of intolerance, panic and deep bitterness.
Mention of Yachad (‘Together for Israel, Together for Peace,’ a Jewish group carefully and moderately campaigning among ‘mainstream’ British Jews for a two-state solution), brought shouts of fury from all around. Jon Snow too was a red rag to a bull, and BICOM’s speaker delighted the hall when he said he was investigating whether Snow and Channel 4 could be reported to the regulators.
Most of all, the Board of Deputies was castigated by speaker after speaker for variants of ‘leadership failure’.
So where the reasons for hope? It’s in how you read this meeting, not in its blindingly obvious unpleasantness. Let’s start with the seven hundred** strong audience. Of this total, around one hundred were made to watch the platform speeches on a screen erected in an ‘overflow hall’ as the main space was ‘full’. This overflow audience included every known JfJfP signatory in attendance (though half of them had originally been allocated seats in the main hall and had been bumped out owing to ‘pressure of numbers’). When questions started, and the camera beaming pictures swung to reveal a swath of empty chairs, most overflow occupants stormed into the main hall where they were easily accommodated. It was clear the attendance in this strongly Jewish part of London had turned out far smaller than expected.
Next, the MPs’ postbag figures – nearly twelve to one criticising Israel, in spite of the best efforts of BICOM, UJIA etc – and, as we learned, the attempts of some MPs to influence their own letters statistics by drumming up pro-Israel correspondence.
Then there was the cautiously reproving comment from Michael Wegier, UJIA’s representative, who was deputed to deal with the fury about Yachad and whose words probably convey more than intended. He announced that Yachad, ‘though a minority’, represents a ‘significant strand’ in the Jewish community that must not be demonised.
Read all this against other background indicators. JfJfP has put on 130 signatories in six weeks while the larger, more mainstream, Yachad has grown by ‘upwards of 800’. A poll of 350 readers of the Jewish News (even more ‘hardline’ than the Jewish Chronicle) found 46% thought Israel’s response during the current conflict has been disproportionate. There is now, too, a new interest and questioning of established shibboleths among young Jewish people, with the most high profile example the impressive student speaker and JfJfP signatory Barnaby Raine at the recent ‘Support Gaza’ demonstration.
The Board of Deputies’ meeting was sad and disturbing but will have changed nothing. Very few mainstream worried-and-agonised Jewish Londoners had ventured out, in spite of the meeting’s location. It is also clear that the Jewish establishment and its Israel-can-do-no-wrong audience are right to be worried, and that much of their rage and fury can be attributed to ever-growing recognition of their own impotence. In spite of possessing resources and professional expertise beyond the Palestinians’ wildest dreams, Israel and its uncritical adherents in Britain are losing the media war, the approval of the general population – and the unconditional support of growing numbers of British Jews.
August 14, 2014
Community leaders have faced accusations of being too reactive and failing to show leadership during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writes Marc Shoffman.
A meeting to discuss ways the British Jewish community could put forward Israel’s case descended into shouting at times as Board President Vivian Wineman tried to control an edgy crowd of around 1,000 people at JFS in London.
A panel of Jewish leaders including Bicom’s Dermot Kehoe, Gillian Merron of the BoD, Simon Johnson of the Jewish Leadership Council, David Delew of the CST and Michael Wegier of UJIA, outlined how the community could promote Israel’s case to the media and politicians.
Ideas included writing to politicians especially in the run up to the General Election, as well as reporting anti-Semitism and reaching out to colleagues in the workplace or at universities to put forward Israel’s case.
But a question and answer session at the end of their talks put the leaders on the spot, querying how active they had been in supporting Israel during the conflict.
Audience member Mandy Blumenthal, who joined the delegation of protesters who went to Bradford last weekend to flout Respect MP George Galloway’s ban on Zionists, claimed she had phoned the BoD and been told by the switchboard that they were unhappy with people calling with issues and that they should just write letters.
Ms Merron said she would be happy to discuss any issues people have.
Another audience member asked why the BoD only arranged occasional rallies only when there was conflict, while Palestinian campaigners were “out on the streets” on a weekly basis.
However, the panel was backed by the audience when it mentioned more protests against the Tricycle Theatre to highlight its boycott of the UK Jewish Film Festival and Stephen Margolis, chairman of the UKJFF addressed the crowd to reveal a new location had been found for the UKJFF.
Mr Weiger tackled questions about working with other communal groups such as Yachad, saying no pro-Israel group should be “demonised“, and also agreed with calls for the need to recognise that Israelis and Palestinians want to live in peace.
POLL: What do you think?
Have our community leaders failed to stand up for British Jews over Gaza?
*We Believe in Israel:
We Believe ……in Israelism, 2011.
**Jewish Chronicle’s Report of meeting emphasising the failure of the leadership to lead the defence of Israel.