In December, the Union of Jewish Students passed a motion, proposed by me, to commit to engaging with Israeli civil society organisations as a means of preserving and protecting Israeli democracy. These organisations are an essential part of a healthy democracy, yet are operating in an increasingly hostile environment, threatened by anti-democratic trends and subject to attempts at delegitimisation.
The motion was met with backlash, with some saying that aligning with these groups would be misrepresenting Jewish students, and there were various attempts by those on the right to stop it from even being debated. While this small group of people failed to stop this important motion, this is a typical reaction to any critical voice about Israel in Jewish communal spaces.
Last year was a tumultuous one for the British Jewish community in many ways. One of the key themes was an introspective look at our relationship with Israel, especially the vast differences in opinions between different generations. It is true that Israel plays a big role in the lives of young Jews passionate about the country.
Yet, being engaged and passionate does not mean blindly backing every decision of the Israeli Government. Love for Israel also means analysing the actions of the government and not necessarily agreeing with them.
Supporters of Israel take pride in the fact that the country is the only democracy in the Middle East, and rightly so. Democratic countries that follow enlightened principles of justice, liberty and protection of human rights are a source of pride.
But let us not forget that part and parcel of any democracy is the protection of dissenting voices. If we are to truly celebrate Israel’s democratic character, we must respect not only its elected government, but voices that are critical of it, too.
Breaking the Silence is such a voice. This non-governmental organisation has been giving former IDF soldiers a means to recant their experience in the Occupied Territories since 2004 but, in recent years, it has been on the end of countless governmental attacks, many of which are based on completely unsubstantiated claims.
While on the Yachad student trip, I was lucky enough to participate in a tour run by Breaking the Silence in 2017, and it is not an over-exaggeration to say that it was one of the most powerful tours I have been on.
I was shocked to see how the division of the city of Hebron had utterly destroyed the livelihoods of people who had lived there for generations. I learnt how the categorisation of streets in Hebron, some of them into roads where Palestinians are not even allowed to walk, now meant that people couldn’t even walk out of their own front door. The reality of the occupation was utterly human rather than political for the first time in my life.
Merphie, an ex-IDF soldier who took me around Hebron in 2017 is coming to the UK next week to speak about her work and experiences at university campuses and in Jewish communities across the country. I urge you, whatever your pre-existing opinions on Breaking the Silence, to come and listen and debate. In fractured times like this, it is incumbent on all of us to do just that.
For those of us who are passionate and engaged with Israel, it is vital that we hear and learn from the parts of Israeli society that we do not agree with, or that anger us.
If we celebrate the fact that Israel is a democracy, we must allow the conversation about it in our community to be open to those who vehemently oppose the actions of the Israeli Government.
- Noah is studying English at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is an active member of Noam Masorti Youth, and in 2017 took part in their gap year program in Israel. He is the treasurer of Goldsmiths Jewish Community, and sits on the Board of Deputies of British Jews as the under 35 representative for Yachad.