So much has been said by us, the Jewish community, in this past month, about the conflict that has raged between Israel and Gaza, not least in the past 24 hours. Last night, six of our communal organisations called a ‘town hall‘ meeting to discuss some of the community’s concerns that have grown out of the conflict. This morning the Radio 4 Today programme dedicated a significant time slot to cover the growing anti-Semitism that has bubbled up. The chief rabbi appeared as the studio guest, and the conversation turned quickly to the war between Israel and Gaza and where the lines are drawn between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-semitic rhetoric.
We are worried, and rightly so. We are concerned for the safety and security of family and friends in Israel, images of devastating loss of life in Gaza have permeated our TV screens and Twitter feeds, reports of anti-semitism in the UK and in Europe are on the rise, divisions and anxieties within the Jewish community are growing. But in our desire to present a robust defence of the Jewish community here in the UK, and the world’s only Jewish state, there are a great many silences, many things we do not say.
Last night in a two hour meeting, we heard about the work during the conflict, of six organisations that represent the Jewish community. Audience members aired their frustrations that more was not being done to counter BBC media bias, or call out anti-semites and their anti-Jewish rhetoric which is blurred with criticism of Israeli government policy, and how we could put more pressure on donors of the Tricycle Theatre to withdraw their funding after it cut its ties to the UK Jewish Film Festival. We heard on Radio 4 this morning that criticism of the Israeli government, whilst not necessarily anti-semitic, is anti-Zionist, and this creates a breeding ground for anti-semitism. And when we, the community, have been invited onto the national media – TV or radio – and asked whether the Jewish people in the UK support every action of the Israeli government (not just in this war, but in general), we say yes.
But what we do not say, at our town hall meetings, or on Radio 4, is that round many Friday night, Shabbat dinner tables, the place where families meet, eat and debate, many anxiety ridden conversations have been taking place for the past month about the loss of innocent life in Gaza and whether the current war is going to bring the moderation we all want to win out long term. We do not say that many of the community do not see the war as simply a zero sum game between Israel and a terror organisation that wishes to see Jews disappear from the face of the earth. We do not say that there is concern from many involved, active members of Anglo-Jewry, who are proud to call themselves Zionists, that the Israeli government has not done enough to forge a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, and that the moderate leadership we have seen from Mahmoud Abbas has been dismissed and marginalised as a result, leaving a dangerous power vacuum. We forget to say that most of the Jewish community in this country, when polled, do not, for example, support the Israeli government’s settlement building policy, or that in this current round of conflict, over a thousand British Jewish supporters of Israel, including many Rabbis, have campaigned for a cease-fire.
And because of what we choose not to say, the rest of the world understands policies of the Israeli government to be ‘Zionist’ policies that are always defended and supported by the Jewish community. The message we send the world is that criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Zionist, and as most Jews consider themselves to be Zionists, you, the rest of the world, are treading on dangerous ground. But we, the Jewish community know that is not true. We know the Jewish state contains many differences of opinions, and that Zionism is nothing other than the belief in the right of a Jewish state to exist. Through our silences, we do not mention that the Zionist underpinnings of Israel has always been a clash of socialist, religious, political and secular ideology. Never have the Jewish people spoken in one homogenous voice as to what the manifestation of a Jewish state and its government should look like. Just look at the Israeli parliament or press for proof of that. We, the Jewish community, are also guilty of blurring the lines and muddying the waters.
Those members of the Jewish community who feel unrepresented by what is not being said, do not show up to our communal town hall meeting because they do not want to feel disenfranchised. They too are concerned by growing anti-semitism, they too are worried when criticism of Israel slips into the rhetoric that makes gross, distorted, historical comparisons between the fate the Jewish people suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and the situation of the Palestinians today. But they also do not believe that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Zionist, or worse anti-semitic. They want to discuss the war, its rights and wrongs, not because they do not support Israel or do not believe it citizens should not be defended, but because they believe a global issue that impacts on them so greatly is worthy of a discussion and debate. They might vehemently disagree with the decision of the Tricycle Theatre, but they do not only want to talk about how to punish the Tricycle Theatre. They also want to work out how the community can get behind peace, they want to know, in the aftermath of this bloody conflict, how they can speak up and support the voices of moderation on all sides of this conflict. But they know this will not be the topic of conversation, so they do not come to the meeting and their voices are not heard. And so the cycle of silence continues.
In the society I believe the Jewish community and the majority of the wider British public is committed to trying to create- one that respects differences of opinion, religious freedom and peace – we all have a job to do. Those invested in the Israel -Palestine conflict, from whatever perspective they come, need to stand up, in partnership with Jewish communities and denounce anti-semitism, for which there is never an excuse. Our communal leaders are right to shine a light on this. But we, the Jewish community, need to own the silence in our communal discourse and take responsibility for saying what is not being said. The war we must fight is one that bridges divides, forges new paths to peace, speaks up in support of that which we believe will bring the security, self-determination and peace which Israelis and Palestinians deserve, and questions behaviour that will not.
That will require our community leaders to be brave: to say the things we don’t say.