Editor’s note: This piece was adapted from a speech delivered by the author on Monday at a special session of the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, convened by MK Einat Wilf to discuss UK-Israel relations. Present were communal representatives and activists including UK-Jewish community heads as well as representatives of the British Embassy, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government bodies.
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In the summer of 2006, Israel was under attack. In the UK, our hearts went out to those living under the terror of Hezbollah Katyusha rockets exploding on their homes. As we witnessed these scenes play out on our TV screens in the UK, the British pro-Israel community wanted desperately to express their solidarity with Israel.
Eventually, a demonstration was convened, and supporters of Israel gathered together to rally for Israel. Although we gathered, united for Israel, the venue seemed odd. Whilst Israel’s enemies were taking to the streets of central London and other high-profile locations, this rally was held at JFS, the largest Jewish High school in Britain, indeed in Europe, where I worked at the time. The fences to the venue, the community’s most secure location, were given an additional covering to avoid people looking in.
My students, who were at that rally were bemused and asked me why it was as if the message was: “we strongly support Israel (but just don’t tell anyone about it)”.
Since then more public rallies have taken place in London, Manchester and other locations and clearly the security needs of the community are paramount, but to me it demonstrated an unease that existed then and has only grown amongst British Jews, as they take the temperature of the anti-Israel climate in British society.
We can argue that bilateral trade between Britain and Israel is flourishing, to the tune of 3.75 billion pounds, that Israeli technology is highly utilized by leading British companies, that tourism is booming with well over 170,000 visitors from the UK last year – but this is to ignore the worsening tone of public discourse in Britain about Israel.
The problem is serious.
At the National Union of Students conference last month, the Union of Jewish Students stall was vandalized, the Magen Davids defaced. When a Jew protested yet another anti-Israel event at the SOAS university, he was attacked with a bite to his cheek. At the university formerly attended by Prince William, two students racially intimidated a Jewish student, grabbing his Israeli flag, urinating in his sink and calling him a Nazi.
In the last month alone, the Co-Op supermarket chain boycotted four Israeli companies, and Moty Cristal, an expert on conflict resolution was banned from a National Health Service conference just because he is Israeli. Indeed, the tone of many media articles and discussions on Israel is not ‘Why boycott Israel’ but ‘Why not?’
These are just some of many recent incidents that should galvanise us to do more. Because lies are being told about Israel in the UK every day. And these lies rebound across public debate and particularly across university campuses and gain traction around the world because of the prominence of British media globally.
Indeed, the NUS Hate Crime Interim Report of 2011 cited that 31% of Jewish students surveyed reported being victimised for their religion on British university campuses.
We must fight back against the lies and misinformation of dedicated anti-Israel groups. Silence is not an option. We must not allow lies about Israel to exist in a vacuum and to go unchallenged.
Before speaking with you today, I turned to the outstanding pro-Israel student leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish that form the StandWithUs UK Fellowship, based on eleven campuses across Britain, including York, UCL, Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE and others. I asked them what they need to fight back against those promoting an anti-Israel, pro-boycott agenda. Their response was clear: more materials, more resources, more activism and empowerment to help them learn more so they can teach more.
Young Jews in Britain do feel a connection to Israel; they are proud of Israel and they support and visit Israel. Their support for Israel is not a left-right issue. They need us to empower them with education, to lead by example, and to take a public and proud stand for Israel in Britain.
Most British people are not anti-Israel. We need to reach out to them, demonstrate our shared values, and show them what Israel has to offer them, building a coalition of support for UK-Israel relations among the Christian community, minority communities and, yes, among brave, moderate Muslims.
Unfortunately, and for many years, there has been a strategic underinvestment in real pro-Israel grassroots action in the UK. In the meantime, as the Reut Institute study showed [PDF], there has been a rapid growth of anti-Israel organizations networking.
Tragically, there are also occasions when pro-Israel activity is hindered by our own side, as we found recently when we organized a nationwide UK tour of an amazing British pro-Israel Muslim speaker, Kasim Hafeez, entitled “The Day I Stopped Hating Israel.” His recent article in YNET has received over 15,000 Facebook “likes.” We were disappointed and ashamed that a small number of UK Jewish leaders attempted to block this tour, for fear of “inflaming the campus atmosphere.” How could a moderate, sane Muslim voice on Israel be seen as anything other than a positive and strengthening influence on the debate?
My organization, StandWithUs, via our office in London, and others, who are doing valuable grassroots pro-Israel work are committed to pushing back and forging a positive agenda via speaking tours, educational materials, campaigns, Buy Israeli Goods days, and online initiatives. We are vocally challenging lies while putting forward the positive agenda for Israeli-British relations.
Now more than any other time in history, ordinary people have more power and influence at their fingertips. The internet may allow lies to spread quicker, but our clever, sophisticated and strategic use of social media allows us to organize and engage more people with Israel than ever before. We must invest in and strengthen these grassroots efforts.
This weekend, when the Habima actors perform at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, having been targeted by anti-Israel boycott groups, we will be there to welcome them, both in the audience and outside the venue. This is an on-the-ground effort we are proud to be part of. And as we reach out to more and more people; every time we are called on to stand up for Israel, with our heads held high, more people will do so.