I’m not Jewish, but I’m immensely proud to have spent the last two months organising Britain’s biggest pro-Israel conference. I have been a passionate Zionist all my adult life for the simple but profound political reasons that I believe the UK should support the Middle East’s only democracy, and that the Jewish people have the exact same right to a national homeland as any other people.
Since our first ground-breaking conference in 2011, We Believe in Israel has grown from what was initially intended to be a one-off event into a 7,500 strong network of grass-roots activists. On Sunday 22nd March, we will be gathering 1500 pro-Israel activists to hold the second and largest conference of its kind that the UK has ever seen.
The idea behind the original conference was that in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, Jewish community leaders realised that community morale was low, and that supporters of Israel were on the back foot politically. Something needed to be done to catalyse a grass-roots fight back. Following that first conference, delegates also expressed a real need for advice, help and support about how to campaign for Israel.
We have tried to reflect that support for Israel can be unified, but not uniform. The UK has a whole range of pro-Israel opinions, and we’re proud that the upcoming conference will reflect that diversity. Zionism has always been a pluralistic movement. There are different views on the correct strategy and tactics, but there is a consensus around the fundamental principles of supporting Israel as a democratic Jewish state, which has a right to exist and defend itself, and has a right to a future of peace and security.
The conference this year will include over 70 different breakout sessions to choose from reflecting that diversity of opinion. The sessions will cover everything from learning campaigning and debating skills, to discussions about different aspects of policy on Israel and the Middle East. There will also be plenary sessions that bring the conference together to hear key note speakers including Members of the British Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and former Israeli cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar.
One of the most important things we’re trying to do is to recreate a campaigning culture that previously existed in the UK Jewish community, especially around the time of campaigning on the Soviet Jewry issue. There were huge demonstrations, petitions and letter writing, but somehow that tradition has atrophied. The Jewish community are still very politically conscious and aware. Rekindling that kind of activist base is a question of teaching people the skills and giving them the self-confidence and making them feel that they’re part of something big and that they’re not standing by themselves.
We Believe in Israel isn’t just about the Jewish community. I’m a secular, political person and I believe you should stand in solidarity with Israel, whether or not you’re Jewish yourself. The same goes for the We Believe network. Around 45% of the people on our mailing list are not Jewish. There are so many people that want to stand in solidarity with Israel, and the polling we have done shows that the potential pool of support and activism is far higher than that.
We have to reach out to those people, get them involved, organise, and mobilise them. We need to turn the 20% of British people who feel warm towards Israel into a powerful political voice that changes the nature of the debate in this country.
We Believe in Israel is committed to ensuring there is a fair debate about Israel. We don’t want to stop people from criticising Israel in an appropriate way, but when that criticism crosses red lines and becomes inappropriate and de-legitimising, we have to be able to stand up to that and show that we’re not just going to accept that this is an irreversible tide of anti-Israel opinion.
We believe that it’s important for there to be a gathering place, where all the different strands of pro-Israel opinion in the UK can come together and show their solidarity, but also have a genuine discussion about the things that they don’t necessarily agree on. That’s why the second We Believe in Israel conference is going to be so vital to growth and strength of the pro-Israel community in the UK.
Luke Akehurst is the Director of We Believe in Israel