Borderline views: Britain, anti-Semitism and the Gaza war

There can be a serious debate about issues over which we disagree, even among ourselves.

Demonstrators join a march to support the people of Gaza, in central London August 9, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrators join a march to support the people of Gaza, in central London August 9, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The British Jewish community is in turmoil. Judging by the newspaper articles, and Twitter and Facebook discussions, during the past week, the community is feeling itself threatened by the rise of anti-Semitism in the wake of the Gaza War. Many community leaders who are normally careful to distinguish between criticism of Israel and raw anti-Semitism are feeling the heat as the two have become intertwined to an extent previously unknown.
Mark Gardner, the head of the Community Security Trust (CST) has noted the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in July 2014, aimed at individuals and institutions – notably synagogues – in a country which prides itself on its liberal and multi-cultural approach to inter-religious and inter-cultural relations.
A number of incidents during the past week have brought this to a new peak.
The Tricycle Theatre in the Kilburn neighborhood of North West London has canceled its annual involvement in the Jewish Film Festival because it receives financial support from the Israel embassy. The festival, which shows a diversity of films about Jewish culture and about Israel, including films which are often critical of Israel itself, is now subject to its own potential counter boycott from many of its patrons and donors, who have strongly protested the decision to effectively boycott a Jewish cultural event.
My own university, Ben-Gurion, has had to cancel the participation of a very talented student dance group in the fringe events of the Edinburgh festival over fears for their safety following threats of demonstrations and physical intervention.
A housing estate in the Tower Hamlets neighborhood of East London has raised Palestinian flags at its entrance, with residents of this working class, largely Muslim estate physically threatening a reporter they believed to be Jewish. This follows the decision by the Mayor of Tower Hamlets to raise the Palestinian flag on the Council building, following similar acts and sentiments in other towns throughout the UK, such as Preston, Bradford and Glasgow.
The anti-Israel member of Parliament for Bradford, George Galloway, has called for his city to ban all links with Israel and Israelis, be they businessmen, academics or even just tourists, and to make Bradford into an “Israel-free zone” (although why anyone in their right mind would want to waste their time visiting Bradford is beyond me).
Galloway, who has, in the past, prided himself on his links with such world figures such as Saddam Hussein, is well known for his anti-Israel sentiments, branding Zionism and Israel as a blasphemy against Judaism (he obviously reads the Neturei Karta literature).
The Tricycle Theatre decision is far more troubling than the ravings and rantings of a British politician who has built his career on being a maverick who appeals to the lowest common denominator of marginalized and fundamentalist groups (the only ones which will support him).
The president and many of the theaters’ patrons and donors are members of the Jewish community. Its spurious argument that a Jewish film festival, including films about Israel, can take place without the obvious support of the one government for which Jewish issues are part of its very raison d’etre, is an argument which, if followed through, would result in the banning of every film festival or other cultural event which focuses on a particular ethnic, religious or national community.
Anglo Jewish leaders have been quick to respond to UK criticism of Israel.
The British chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has published an article in The Daily Telegraph in which he argues that there can be no moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas, that while Israel seeks peace and security, Hamas is bent on violence and warfare.
In a letter published at the weekend in the London Times, a group of leading rabbis from the Reform and Masorti movements have published a letter in support of Israel’s right to self defense but equally arguing that, once this latest round of violence and warfare is over, it is time to return to peace negotiations and to address the core issues of Occupation and Israel’s long-term relationship with the Palestinians.
The two responses are different in their nuance, but are rooted in a common support and love for Israel, a concern for its safety and a deep worry over the way in which the debate in the UK is taking on increasingly anti-Semitic undertones. It cannot be lost on the readers that the spokesmen for Israel are the religious (the rabbis), rather than the communal leaders, thus making the link between Jews (as a religion) and Israel (as a political entity) clear and unapologetic.
Even The Guardian, a paper which is often criticized by the community as being unbalanced in its approach to Israel, has published a strongly worded editorial attacking those who have transformed the debate and criticism of Israel into acts of raw anti-Semitism.
We still have to be careful not to attribute all criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism. Too many community institutions find it more convenient to shout “anti-Semitism” at any criticism of Israel, rather than address some of the problematic and uncomfortable issues facing Israel and its policies. This debate still requires serious engagement with those knowledgeable enough about Israel, without resorting automatically to using the well-traded slogans of blind support which ignore the rights and wrongs on both sides of the conflict – even when we are convinced that “our side” has more of the right than the wrong.
But while it is not always the case that all criticism of Israel can automatically be put down to anti-Semitism, it is equally spurious and ridiculous to suggest that the two are unrelated. A recent survey of the Jewish community in the UK show that over 80 percent of the Anglo-Jewish community see Israel as an integral part of their own Jewish identity, regardless of whether they are religious or secular, right-wing or left-wing.
The growth of anti-Semitic sentiment in the UK, France, the USA and elsewhere in recent years is clearly linked to criticism of Israel. Anti-Semites within society (and there are plenty of them even among the so-called intellectual Left and not just among right-wing fascists) are exploiting an unbalanced and asymmetrical debate concerning Israel in the media and even on university campuses, to move in and use this as a “legitimate” platform to peddle their filth and racist messages.
British Jewry is a proud pro-Zionist community and can boast the fact that over 10% of its members have chosen to make aliya and live in Israel (the highest proportion of any Western Jewish community). They have come because of their desire to live in a country which, they believe, reflects their Jewish values and not because of a need to flee oppression or anti-Semitism.
The UK is a country where Jews can proudly display their identity, practice their religion and can expect the government, the police and the university administrations to stand up for their rights, as they would for any other religious or ethnic minority who were targeted by racist and fundamentalist groups or were subject to hate crimes by virtue of their religious affiliation.
Supporting Israel is not something to apologize for.
Neither does it justify the crude use of anti-Semitism by those who oppose Israel or its policies. If the Israel critics, particularly the more intelligent among them (such as the owners of the Tricycle Theatre and the pro-boycott academics, not the Galloways and Islamic fundamentalists of this world), do not wanted to be labeled as out-and-out anti-Semites, they should be the first to come out with public statements condemning the growth in anti-Semitism and should immediately and publicly dissociate themselves from such words and actions. Failure to do so makes them accomplices to the crudest of hate and racist crimes if only by association.
That does not mean that we will agree with the tone and nature of their often unbalanced criticism of Israel and its policies. But it does mean that there can be a serious debate about issues over which we disagree, even among ourselves (such as Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, proportionality and disproportionality in times of war, the right to self-defense, empathy for the civilian casualties on the other side, etc.), while we unite in our common opposition to, and deep disgust with crude anti-Semitic behavior disguised as criticism of Israel.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.