Guest Post: Despite all the odds, the London Jewish scene is alive and vibrant

Time for a change of pace for a while in honour of Pesach. This is another guest post by frequent contributor Brian Goldfarb who recently attended the one-day Limmud event (Limmud is a UK-founded worldwide volunteer-based charity promoting Jewish learning, knowledge and education ) held in Harrow, north-west London, and the “We believe in Israel” one-day conference a week later in central London.



Limmud UK 2015

The day was divided into 6 sessions, each 50 minutes long. My wife Ros went to Henry Grunwald”s (past president of the UK Board of Deputies of British Jews) talk on World Jewish Relief, and said it was very informative.

For the second session, my intentions of attending one session were derailed when I realised that Ismail Khaldi was giving a talk. This is the man, a Bedouin, who decided to leave his village to gain higher education, serve in the IDF (Israel is his country too) and then to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a diplomat. He wrote about the early stages of his life in “A Shepherd’s Story”, which I can highly recommend. His current position is that of Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs, which, he said, covers everything outside formal government. He entitled his talk “a diplomat in the lion’s den” which is the title of his next book – in progress), because his current position demands that he confronts, inter alia, anti-Zionist students.

Having served in the Border Police, these people hold no fear for him: they are pussycats compared with facing terrorists on the borders of Israel. However, he does, as he noted, have to take the advice of his security unit as to when to beat a retreat. Trade unions also come into his remit, and it pains him that many of them refuse to meet him as a diplomat “until Israel solves the problem of the Palestinians”, as though it is solely up to Israel to do this and the Palestinians have no hand in this. Khaldi suggested an extension to this: imagine others refusing to treat with the UK until they solve the “problem” of the Falkland Islands – as though Argentina has no hand in this.

He also gave us a brief resume of the role of the Bedouin in the development and continuation of Israel. He noted that Bedouin had served in the Haganah and Palmach from the beginning of their existence. Those who have seen the film “Cast a Giant Shadow” may recall the scene where a Bedouin chieftain shows Mickey Marcus where a Nabatean track goes around the Arab defences of Jerusalem. When asked why he is telling the Jews this, responds that he “has no love of the Hashemites!”

I intended to go next to Luke Akehurst (Executive Director of “We believe in Israel”), but by the time I got there, the room was full, as was the room for my alternate choice. However, Ros, my wife, did get in and said that Luke A. was interesting but she didn’t learn much. Given that Ros knows less (but only a little less) than me about BDS, that suggests that although I would have the session interesting, not too much was missed.

Learning from my mistakes, I made sure that I got into the the session by Lyn Julius (founder of Harif, the organization of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa) on “The Arabs and the Holocaust”, which wasn’t just about the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. She told us about the fate of the Jews of North Africa. Most survived, in part thanks to the decisive victory of the British and Commonwealth forces at El Alamein, which drove the Germans back, and by the fact that Rommel was an old-fashioned soldier, far less concerned with side-issues such as the Jews. The Jews were also aided by the fact that most Arabs were, at the time, indifferent to Jews and saw no1 reason to treat them badly; but nor were they inclined to necessarily protect them.

I’m going to skip over the al-Husseini episode, well-known to most of us, except to say that when I asked Lyn J. why the British didn’t prosecute him as a war criminal after 1945 and allowed him to resume his role as Grand Mufti, she put the blame on the French, who didn’t want “to antagonise the Arabs”, presumably in North Africa, still, then, part of their empire. She mentioned a book by Robert Satoff, “Among the Righteous”, which found only one possible Righteous “Gentile” among the Arabs of North Africa. Her explanation was that by 2008, few Arabs anywhere were prepared to acknowledge that they (or any member of their family) had been prepared to help Jews.

Alan Johnson (editor of the British Jewish magazine Fathom) was delayed and it didn’t seem he going to make it (although he did, and I managed a brief meeting with him: I made sure I got to his session the following Sunday – see below), so I went instead to a talk by Frank Dabba Smith, (author and liberal Rabbi), an American (and a Jew – it doesn’t follow, even at Limmud) and a member of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEMe). He had started his involvement through an inter-faith group in Brent, north-west London, and from there, he was drawn into FoEME. His main thrust was the various clean water/sewage projects FoEMe has “midwifed”. He stated that Israel now has a water surplus and, despite anything the media may report, is no longer dependent on rainfall, thanks to desalination projects. This means that Israel can act the honest broker in helping to solve the problem, e.g., of the depletion of the Jordan and Dead Sea.

When Frank returned to the topic of inter-faith, I left!

The last session I attended was by Jonathan Arkush, a Vice President of the Board of Deputies since 2009, and Chair of the Defence and Group Relations Division, and he gave close to the best presentation I attended that day. His title was “More tea Vicar with your antisemitism?” Are Christian attitudes to Jews regressing? In a word, to spare your angst, no. He spoke as though his script was written on his eyeballs and was excellent. He gave an account of the battles the Board has had with the various Christian churches, denominations and sects, along with its victories, defeats and stalemates. Some of these are off the record, however fascinating, but one most decidedly is not (even if the detail is private): the tale of the Rev Stephen Sizer. The name will be familiar to many who read any of a number of pro-Israel websites. Whatever his intent, Sizer comes across as an antisemite, not least because he links to antisemitic and virulently anti-Zionist websites. The Board has complained more than once and more than once Sizer has promised to try harder to be good…and failed.

Then he went too far and made one link too many. The Board, in effect, took him to a Church of England employment tribunal while Sizer made matters worse by linking to a 9/11 “truther” site. The upshot was that the new Bishop of Guildford threw the book at Sizer, who agreed to a 6 month “rest” from the pulpit and he has taken down his website. Whether he will resume his activities remains to be seen, but the lesson Arkush wishes us to take is that we are not without allies and we can fight back.

We believe in Israel

We believe in Israel

The following Sunday, we took ourselves off to a large hotel in the centre of London to attend the “We believe in Israel” day event. Having learned our lesson, we took sandwiches and didn’t miss a session we wished to attend. Further, taking Jonathan Arkush’s point on board, it was interesting to note the number of Gentile Zionists (as they termed themselves) present and speaking. For example, and just to my knowledge, the two MPs in the opening plenary and the ex-MP in the final one are not Jewish: Luke Akehurst, Director of “We believe…”; Mike Freer, MP for Golders Green and Finchley, and Professor Alan Johnson similarly are not Jewish. I’m sure there are others. We truly are not alone!

The whole event started with a plenary which was addressed by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and Michael Gove, MP (Government Chief Whip) and Michael Dugher MP, Chair of Labour Friends of Israel. Both of the latter are “Gentile Zionists”, and both gave very good, brief, speeches in support of Israel, from both sides of the House, Government and Opposition. Dugher, speaking first, said, among much else, that “Israel is more than a country. It is an idea”, by which he meant us to focus on the values of Judaism and Jewishness (without necessarily looking exclusively at the religious aspect), but the morality of Israel, the lesson it provides in organising a multi-cultural society.

Michael Gove, who was a journalist, and a remarkably pro-Israeli one at that, for The Times before he became a Minister in 2010, wished to stress the shared values between Israel and the UK. In his own way, he reinforced the point that Michael Dugher made. incidentally, among the other “Gentile Zionists” I identified there was Baroness Sarah Ludford, a Liberal-Democrat. I’m sure that there were others.

Thus energised, we headed off to our separate sessions. My first was to listen to Itamar Marcus, Chief Executive of Palestine Media Watch (PMW). Almost his first comment was to note that if they were starting now, they would probably name the organisation Palestinian Social Media Watch, as they have that they get into the Palestinian mind-set more closely by examining the attitudes and publications on social activities rather than by monitoring more formal media. PMW was founded in 1996 and monitors a range of media in both Arabic and English (and those wanting to follow them, there is a new website, now active, which provides a range of materials: PMW is the news site). Marcus showed how using sport and the way the Palestine Authority (PA) viewed it enabled PMW to monitor the real attitudes of the PA. Thus, when a football match was held between Israeli and Palestine youths, it was roundly condemned by the PA.

There were further examples throughout his talk, demonstrating that the PA is plainly against normalisation, whatever Abbas says in public, in English. His (and other PA officials) statements in Arabic tell a different story. This is even to the extent of denying the abundant archaeological evidence of the past 3000 years, and goes on to claim that “Israel” is occupied. And Marcus confirmed what Anne has noted more than once, the the heavily biased “education” that Palestinian children receive. Even the medieval blood libel is repeated.

After this cheery hour, it was almost a relief to go to hear Professor Alan Johnson (BICOM Research Fellow) speak on “Rebutting the Apartheid Smear”. Rather than repeat the talk, anyone interested in this area should go to BICOM’s site and look for the publication called The Apartheid Smear. All the information you need is there. It’s downloadable or they will post it out to you (at least in the UK). It’s thorough and it is well presented.

Then I went to hear Mike Whine, who is the Director of the Community Security Trust (CST), (the organization for the protection of British Jews) as well as now having a government position on international affairs (i.e., racism) in Europe. His topic was “The new antisemitism in Europe”. He divided Europe into east and west for these purposes. His take on the situation is that in western Europe, the major threat comes from Islamist/Jihadist antisemitism and from the far (and sadly, not so far) left. In eastern Europe, antisemitism is more often of ‘nationalist’ origin (i.e., neo-Nazi) and also comes from the church. What happens where may be dependent on what happens in the Middle East, even though this has nothing to do with the local Jewish population. Thus, in July and August of 2014, there was virtually no increase of antisemitism in the east, while there was a big rise in the west.

However, the far right in the west, while it hasn’t gone away, is weak at the moment (as we can see in the UK – the British National Party has fallen apart, and the English Defence League is leaderless at the moment). At the same time, their main focus appears to be anti-Muslim.

On the bright side, Whine noted that governments in Europe are determined to protect Jewish communities, as both the French and German governments have made abundantly clear, and so has the UK government, with David Cameron, outgoing PM – at least until 7 May, when the UK General Election occurs – has possibly gone even further, stressing also his support for Israel. Whine also noted that an increasing number of official bodies are adopting the European Union Draft Definition on Antisemitism, even though it has no formal standing and some trade unions and political parties (such as UCU and the Greens in the UK are dropping it) are adopting it. These include the UK Police. As a sign-off, Mike Whine noted that CST will not work with Muslim organisations that will not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

I have written about Einat Wilf, the former MK and now academic researcher, before, when I wrote about her article in Fathom on-line journal on UNWRA. Her subject was Israel as a Jewish state. She introduced herself as a Labor-Zionist and long a believer in the two-state solution. So, the point becomes, why defend this topic? She came at this from another angle. The Palestinians keep rejecting a state for themselves. The offers are not perfect, but still…

What did they want? If they wanted more than their state (and they do), then this is what changed her into “my Jewish state” person,without leaving Labor. What happened was that she met with younger, moderate Palestinians. Yes, they accepted that Israel and its Jews were here to stay, not least because they were powerful. But, and it’s a huge but, they wouldn’t recognise the Jews as a people, and thus entitled to self-determination. Her experience is summarised here: “An Israeli leftist finds a glimmer of hope”. This is what Netanyahu means when he says that he doesn’t see a Palestinian state in his lifetime: because the Palestinians refuse to see the Jews as a people, only as a religion. Although there was more, I felt this to be the nub of her talk.

My final session was to hear Jonathan Spyer, (a Fellow at the Middle East Forum – which also publishes an on-line journal) talk about “What’s happening in Syria and how does it affect Israel”. I refer you to this article from the Middle East Forum online journal “The Kobani Precedent”. It actually dates from just after his talk, but summarises how he sees what’s happening in Syria and what appears to be its cantonization.

The final plenary featured the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub – who is a former Brit, so we understood his inspiring talk perfectly, Gideon Sa’ar, a former Minister in the Israeli government, and, finally, a former MP, another Gentile Zionist, Lorna Fitzsimmons, former head of BICOM.


Anne adds: Brian, thank you for your very enlightening article. When we hear all the reports of the growing antisemitism around the world, and particularly in the UK, we tend to forget that, as you say, “Despite all the odds, at least the London Jewish scene is alive and vibrant”.

I’m quite jealous of the large number of seminars you attended, with that fantastic array of speakers. It all sounds most enlightening and educational, and gives heart to Jews everywhere that we are not alone, and that we have a very strong team on our side too.

Kol hakavod to all the speakers, and to you too Brian for attending and for recording the salient points.

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