Passover of 2009 was significantly different from those I had celebrated before. Three months earlier, the main square at Cambridge had been filled with vocal anti-Israel protesters condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza. The freezing January day did not prevent the 100-strong crowd from gathering, equipped with banners, megaphones and fashionable Keffiyas. I bumped into them cycling on my way home. There were atheists, Muslims, environmentalists, gays, socialists, women’s rights activists, some Jews, and other “concerned individuals.” I also spotted the self-proclaimed “politically indifferent” Belgian who studied physics and lived on my campus, who had joined, as he told me, to “support basic human rights.”
I asked a couple of them what they knew about the current situation in Gaza. The answers included different combinations of the words “death” “children” and “occupation” expressed with resolve. From a group of passionate activists, chanting to “end the occupation,” I learned that Jerusalem was a city in occupied Gaza, that the blockade on Ramallah must end, and that, in general, Palestine must be liberated from the Jewish colonization that started in 1948 because of European post-WWII guilt. Upon realizing that I was Israeli, they asked me to join them. After all, it wasn’t my fault I possessed an Israeli passport, and, as they reassured me, I could still act reasonably by joining their just cause.
Tremulous months followed. Demonstrations eased, but not the sentiment. Israel was brought up at almost every discussion concerning instability and unfairness. Often, vacuous assertions lacking basic facts of the Middle East conflict were expressed by fellow students and academics. Too often, they were accompanied by a patronizing tone. The toxic cocktail of ignorance and arrogance shifted into a higher gear. If I wanted to have a meaningful and honest discussion of reality it was away from the classroom and the academic clique, perhaps with the college caretakers, shopkeepers at Cambridge or a few friends instead. I wondered with dismay what it meant to be a student at Cambridge University in the UK of 2009.
At the Passover table, as we read the Haggada, the sentence “In every generation, a man must see himself as if he came out from Egypt” strikes a chord with me like no other passage. Have we really told our story and Israel’s story in the past decades clearly and loudly? Have we shared it with our families, friends, schoolmates and colleagues beyond the Passover table as much as we should have? Do we know the story ourselves and will our sons know it? Perhaps we have forgotten, between one visit to Israel and another, to remind and educate ourselves and others that Israel is the cradle of Jewish existence, about the history of Zionism, about the establishment of the Jewish State, and about Israel’s values and achievements despite the many threats to its existence.
When I was in Cambridge there was no StandWithUs, now a 10-year-old international organization, established to educate and counter the misinformation about Israel and the Middle East, and to empower young adults to make Israel’s case. In the short time we have been operating in the UK, we have held and supported dozens of events on university campuses, schools and community centres with top speakers. We have supported rallies and campaigns, have been active on social media forums and have held two major “Israel in Focus” conferences for student leaders and young professionals in central London. We have been embracing and empowering people and organizations of all faiths and walks of society, and have been bringing forward Muslim voices in support of Israel.
Recently, we launched a student fellowship program, joining similar programs that have been operating successfully in Israel and the US. We have a secret weapon: history, truth and facts, about the conflict and well beyond it, available in a variety of well-resourced information materials both in print and online format. We have been fighting an uphill battle, but the achievements and constant messages of support and appreciation are worth their weight in gold.
The anti-Israel and -Jewish sentiment we are experiencing nowadays is a result of seeds that were planted years ago. In a vacuum of ideas, lies have been able to flourish and reach the mainstream mindset of European society without remonstration. As we read the Haggada, we are reminded of the four sons. At present, it is not only the wicked sons whom we should worry about. It is the simple ones, those who truly believe Israel is an apartheid state and that comparisons between terror victims in Toulouse and casualties in Gaza are valid. We must rekindle the passion to make Israel’s case among the younger generation. For this aim, we must regain our own convictions, educate the simple ones, and more importantly, educate our sons and daughters.