Is Jewish Book Week for Jews at all?

Now that it’s mid-January and Chanukah, Limmud and New Year’s Eve are but a memory, it is the moment when many of the UK’s Jews begin thinking about that annual, late February fixture, Jewish Book Week. It is time to pore over a glossy little brochure or browse online for programme details of a “local” literary festival that has burgeoned into one of the most prestigious cultural events in the UK. And thanks to its location at the glossy King’s Place – only a few hundred sensibly-shod paces from national terminals – Jewish Book Week is not just for Jews from the London area.

Indeed, given the presence of actor Juliet Stevenson on its 2023 programme – and the inclusion of the Corbyn apologist Michael Rosen in 2022 – I’m beginning to wonder if Jewish Book Week is for Jews at all.

Along with people such as Ken Loach and Maxine Peake, she always steps up when an Israel-hating organisation needs an endorsement from a celeb.  Her endeavours on behalf of organisations which vigorously support BDS include being a poster girl for Medical Aid for Palestine posing for a photo beside the slogan “I stand with Gaza”; she is a patron of the overtly anti-Israel Russell Tribunal; a key supporter of Make Apartheid History which libels Israel as well as demanding boycotts of every kind; and is a signatory to almost ever Israel-hating “open letter” including the infamous missive organised by Artists for Palestine in support of Caryll Churchill which refers to “Israel’s colonial violence” and “Israel’s system of apartheid.”

Despite her well-documented, prominent involvement in a campaign that demonises Israel, attempts to undermine its legitimacy and seeks to destroy its economy through boycotts and divestment, Ms Stevenson features on JBW’s 2023 programme..

While I fully appreciate that an actor of Ms Stevenson’s stature adds lustre to the Book Week programme, her prominent role in anti-Israel activism makes her a problematic figure for a majority of British Jews. This aversion is particularly acute as the campaign with which she is closely associated expresses opposition to the planet’s only Jewish state in terms clearly defined as “antisemitic” under the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s widely accepted definition of modern antisemitism.

It must have seemed like a godsend to Book Week organisers when this Olivier-award winning actor fresh from success on the West End stage  wished to participate in book week – even if her motivation was slightly nepotistic; she is reading from “Landscape of Silence” written by her husband, Hugh Brody.

(That West End stage  success, by the way, was in “The Doctor,” where in a curiously ironic piece of casting she played the lead in a drama about antisemitism).

I am aghast, frankly, that organisers believed her participation was acceptable given that she is a leading anti-Zionist and as recent history has shown –and as everyone opposed to anti-Jewish racism knows – anti-Zionism can mutate into antisemitism. And that – as the CST can show – leads to antisemitic abuse and violence against Jews.

Perhaps the organisers don’t care. Perhaps they believe a few protesting voices from UK Jews and a few negative comments on social media is an acceptable risk compared with the likely benefits (prestige, press coverage, etc) of an A-list celebrity on the Book Week programme. A similar cost-benefit analysis was, I imagine, used when an invitation was extended to Michael Rosen in 2022.

I wonder, however, the risks might ultimately outweigh the benefits if a significant slice  of the UK Jewish community declines to buy tickets for the festival.

Again, perhaps the organisers don’t care. Perhaps they believe there are enough “bien pensant” non-Jews or Jews who have absorbed the anti-Israel narrative and don’t care if the programme contains people who traduce and misunderstand Israel. In which case they need to be reminded that Book Week owes its success – at least in part – to the loyalty, nurture and support of UK Jews.

UK Jews took this festival to its heart from the event’s ramshackle, fledgling early years in that grim, Bloomsbury hostelry when tables pushed together were an ad hoc “bookstore;” when an audience of 50 was a “sell-out”; and when most authors and “chairs” were barely known outside the Jewish community.

This loyalty and support over many years helped to transform Book Week into one of the UK’s leading literary festivals and one of its foremost cultural events. Now it’s time for organisers to repay that loyalty by rejecting all who clamour for the destruction and delegitimisation of the world’s only Jewish state.

There are already quite enough organisations whose name does not contain the word “Jewish” who tolerate – or in some cases actively promote – modern antisemitism in the guise of “supporting” Palestinians. The UK Jewish community does not need Jewish Book Week – or any other Jewish organisation – to offer aid and comfort to its enemies and the enemies of the Jewish homeland.

About the Author
Jan Shure held senior editorial roles at the Jewish Chronicle for three decades. and previously served as deputy editor of the Jewish Observer. She is an author and freelance writer and wrote regularly for the Huffington Post until 2018. In 2012 she took a break from journalism to be a web entrepreneur.