Yahad and the British Jewish community

Borderline Views: London's Jewish Book Week has become one of the most important cultural events in the calendar of the British Jewish community.

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February 13, 2012 22:40
4 minute read.
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books_311. (photo credit: Morguefile)

Next week will herald the annual Jewish Book Week in London. Together with Limmud, this week has become one of the most important cultural events in the calendar of the British Jewish community, with hundreds of participants attending the crowded schedule. Different in nature to Limmud, the two events complement each other with lectures and discussions by Jewish authors, or writers on Jewish and Israeli related topics.

Tickets to all the main events have long been sold out and if you want to hear Simon Schama, Deborah Lipztadt, Howard Jacobson, Etgar Keret, or discussions of their books, you will have to rely on the podcast. While the total numbers of the Anglo Jewish community have declined in recent decades, the community has displayed a renewed enthusiasm and public non-apologetic assertiveness of its ethnic and religious identity.

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One of the more public events to take place at this year’s event will be an interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and Director of J Street in North America.

This has resulted in a negative reaction on the part of the mainstream Zionist Federation.

In an article in this week’s Jewish Chronicle, the Federation’s executive director was quoted as saying that: “We have always viewed J Street, who claim to be pro-Israel, with considerable caution and scepticism.”

The J Street event is sponsored by its much smaller sister movement and UK equivalent.

Yahad promotes an alternative pro-Israel, pro-peace message among the Anglo Jewish community.

Yahad and J Street have succeeded in attracting large numbers of young Jews who are sympathetic to and supportive of Israel but do not necessarily agree with the policies of the present and recent Israeli governments.

Unlike previous generations, the support of the younger, more global, generation of Diaspora Jews is no longer an automatic given. They have to be re-connected to Israel through messages with which they identify and which are meaningful in their daily lives.

Many young and committed Jews of today see Israel’s security and existence as a given, anti-Semitism as an evil which can (and must) be combatted, and the continued rule over another people as a blemish on the reputation of Israel. They love Israel, but wish it to take its proper role as a true equal among nations on the global scene. They do not, in the words of the Zionist Federation director, “claim to be pro-Israel” any more or less than all other pro-Israel organizations, nor should they be required to apologize for their credentials simply because they are not part of the age-old establishment community organizations, who rightly feel threatened by their popularity and freshness.

For its part, the Zionist Federation has, for almost a hundred years, undertaken important work on behalf of Israel among both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities and must be congratulated for such. Over he years it has been relegated to the role of the “events manager” for big events, such as Independence Day concerts and Balfour Day celebrations.

The marketplace of Jewish and Israeli ideas and organizations has become very crowded in recent years. If the ZF start to exclude organizations, such as J Street (or its Yahad counterpart) or cast aspersions concerning their “loyalty” to Israel or to the wider Jewish community, then they would appear to have lost their role as an umbrella organization which offers the widest possible inclusivity to all who share the basic belief in, and support of, Israel.

The privatization of the organizational support for Israel in the UK, as in other Diaspora communities, has brought about tough competition for the cheque books of donors. The British Jewish community is an exceptionally generous community, with an average of 150 million pounds being donated annually to Jewish and Israeli charities in a community which number no more than approximately 270,000 people, and within which the number of wealthy donors and patrons is limited.

The appearance of yet another competitor on the street obviously raises concerns for those organizations who traditionally had a monopoly over fund raising.

Many donors have, in recent years, preferred to switch away from the general organizations and give directly to causes with which they identify. Yahad and J Street, along with other political lobbies and educational organizations, are also out there competing for the minds and the hearts of this small nucleus of donors.

Rather than raise questions concerning their authenticity or validity, the ZF should be applauding J Street and Yahad for their success in having attracted thousands of young Jewish adults, future community leaders, back into the fold of pro-Jewish and pro-Israel activism. Instead of continuing to try and exclude them, organizations such as J Street and Yahad should be co-opted by the Jewish community organizations such as the ZF and recognized for the valuable work they are doing on behalf of Israel.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.


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