As a British Jew, it’s impossible to go a week without picking up on some Israel controversy or other. Take last week’s edition of the BBC’s ‘Question Time’, broadcast from Finchley, north London – one of the most Jewishly populated areas in the country.
Despite opposition from some Jewish quarters, the topical debate programme included notorious anti-Israel MP George Galloway, who recently declared the northern city of Bradford an ‘Israel-free zone’ (although many younger viewers may know him best as the guy who embarrassed himself by acting as a cat on Celebrity Big Brother).
Virtually every sentence the panellist uttered was heckled by what he subsequently described on Twitter as the ‘lynch-mob’ audience. Personally, I’m not sure that the Jewish hecklers covered themselves or us with glory, regardless of whether Galloway is close to being antisemitic.
On the same day, though, I was part of a different conversation about Israel – one in a style that is not common enough among Jews. It took place in a building on the campus of the University of Leicester. In my role as Head of Israel Engagement at United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), I was asked to come to speak to their Jewish Society, organised by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
For non-British readers, Leicester is no Finchley: it was a small group – half a dozen students – but the conversation was rich and fascinating. Why? Because I deliberately didn’t frame the session as political, but instead as Jewish.
What does this mean? We began the session by making shakshuka together, using the many recipes and possible ingredient choices as a metaphor for the many different views, voices and visions Israelis themselves have about their society, and we, as participants in this Jewish conversation about Israel, were entitled to hold too.
As the spiced tomato sauce simmered away, we began by thinking about Zionism and Israel as a project of the Jewish people. The early Zionists, despite their wildly divergent aims, methods and motivations, shared a deep concern for Jewish peoplehood, and felt that the questions of modernity and Judaism required urgent answers.
Whether they moved to Palestine to redeem their Diaspora-corrupted Jewish souls through agricultural labour to become New (muscular) Jews, or saw Palestine as the Promised Land whose settlement would herald the coming of the messianic era, or thought of Palestine as a lifeboat to save the lives of the Jews of Europe, threatened with existential danger – whichever of these, or other views they believed, they believed them for deeply-held Jewish reasons.
Now don’t get me wrong, their projects were profoundly political. Their aim (in most cases, at least) was the creation of a modern nation-state. But they did not start with a political analysis. They started with a Jewish analysis.
And Judaism has never been univocal or monocultural. There have always been many Judaisms and many understandings of the Jewish situation. Back in Leicester, as we sat down with our freshly-cooked shakshuka (it was delicious, in case you wanted to know!), we shared our own thoughts on the big Jewish questions of today:
– Who is a Jew, and how does Israel understand this question?
– How has the Law of Return evolved, and why does it diverge from the halacha?
– Should we, as Diaspora Jews, have a voice (or a vote? Or a veto?) within the Israeli political system?
– What are the similarities and differences between “God Save the Queen” (words arguably objectionable to atheist and republican British citizens) and “HaTikvah” (words arguably objectionable to non-Jewish Israeli citizens)?
These were content-rich, meaningful and passionate conversations. Everybody at that table was able, even encouraged, to share their thoughts. We disagreed without judging each other, and expanded our understandings through dialogue rather than learning by teacher-led monologue. We touched on some of the most important questions for Israel-engaged Jews today (including political ones) without alienating anyone, without requiring unrealistically high levels of factual knowledge to participate and without setting up binary, oppositional “camps” that one has to situate oneself in. Jewish conversations about Israel are by definition educative – they prompt further conversations.
Political conversations about Israel (is a certain policy of the government right or wrong? Is a certain action of the army proportionate or disproportionate? Is a certain anti-Zionist an anti-Semite?) are important and necessary. There are many Jewish educational organisations seeking to equip young Jews to have them, particularly with non-Jews who are neutral or hostile to Israel. But they cannot be the totality of the Israel conversation. Israel was conceived of as a project, a dream, a vision. Our conversations about Israel should engage with Israel-as-it-was, Israel-as-it-is and Israel-as-it-should-be, not just Israel-as-others-portray-it.
Jewish conversations about Israel end with question marks, not exclamation marks. And having Jewish conversations about Israel is the right and duty of every Jew today. I hope we as educators are able to facilitate many more in the coming days, weeks, months and years – for the sake of heaven, and for the sake of Zion.