The event, whose theme was “Winning the communications battle,” was organized by the “grassroots” wing of the pro-Israel lobby group BICOM.
According to The Jewish Chronicle, three Jewish activists were “escorted out” by security personel from the Community Security Trust (CST) for “handing out anti-Israel leaflets.” (The CST’s remit is to counter anti-Semitism but it has also been involved in pro-Israel campaigns.)
Annie Cohen, one of the activists who disrupted the conference, told The Electronic Intifada that she sang the Yiddish song “Oy Ir Narishe Tsienistn” (“Oh You Foolish Little Zionists”) while being removed.
Interestingly, she was later readmitted to the conference despite this, because the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) had invited her to speak on a panel — much to the ire of several other attendees. Cohen then told the room (in a personal capacity, not representing Jewdas) about how she was likely the only speaker that day who did not “believe in Israel.”
Zionist, not Jewish
The flyers she had handed out advertised a satirical game “Jingo” (“Jewish Nationalist Bingo”), and were produced by Jewdas, a group which rejects the centrality of Israel and Zionism to Jewish life in the UK, and believes Judaism should not be a nationalist or only a religious identity.
Speaking personally, rather than as a Jewdas representative, Cohen said: “When an increasing number of Jews are becoming critical of or isolated by Israeli actions, we need communal bodies like Union of Jewish Students and the Board of Deputies to stop dragging us into a Zionist stance by taking part in events like this.”
Her views were echoed by Rachel Diamond, student and activist coordinator for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who had also registered to attend the conference but was dis-invited at the last moment and told it was “full,” though she had booked early.
Diamond said: “This event was sponsored by the main Jewish institutions in the UK who are meant to represent all Jews. They should not be taking a political stance and they should certainly not be shunning and shutting out Jews simply because they do not toe the party line.
“It’s incredibly sad that standing up for human rights and international law is apparently seen as ‘not Jewish enough’ for these organisations. To me, Judaism is about social justice,” she said.
Waning support for Israel
Ironically, she was probably blocked from attending by Luke Akehurst, a staunch Zionist who is not Jewish, but heads up the “We Believe in Israel” arm of BICOM. He effectively admitted vetting potential attendees’ political views, telling The Jewish Chronicle “we tried to keep it a space for our side” and lamenting the fact that “we cannot get the credentials of everyone.”
The fact that his organization attempted to keep critics away but still failed is a sign that, with every massacre Israel commits in Gaza, public opinion is slowly but surely moving away from Israel.
This also appears to be happening in the Jewish community. In the US, Jewish Voice for Peace held its biggest conference yet earlier this month.
That event almost certainly involved a higher proportion of young people than London’s “We Believe in Israel” conference, which pictures suggest was dominated by an over-40s crowd. But it’s not just the younger generation who are turning away from Israel: it’s happening across the board.
The philosopher Sam Fleischacker recently declared that he could no longer call himself a Zionist and instead backed “one person, one vote” to give Palestinians the same rights as Israelis and create a genuine democracy.
It seems that the re-election of Netanyahu as prime minister — on the back of provocatively racist comments and a vow that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch — has crystallized the nature of the Israeli state for many who were still in any doubt.
Fear of BDS
Nonetheless, as the “We Believe” conference shows, the further entrenchment of Israel apartheid has not caused everyone to rethink their positions.
BICOM chairman Edward Misrahi in fact called for people to suspend their critical faculties in favor of mindless nationalism, writing in Jewish News that people should “show solidarity with Israel, regardless of your thoughts about its government’s policies.”
Pro-Israel strategists realized some years ago that “BDS draws a line in the sand” because of its potential to create real change. This bifurcating effect has seen J Street commit itself to working against BDS and StandWithUs host perhaps the first ever anti-BDS conference.
Luke Akehurst was no doubt also referring to BDS when he conceived of the conference as the start of a “fightback” and many of the sessions focused on countering the boycott. Those who were kept away and prevented from learning about what these counter-strategies are, will only have a strengthened resolve to advance the BDS movement in the UK.
Editors note: this article originally misstated that Jewdas believes Judaism “should not be a nationalist or religious identity.” This was corrected to clarify that the group believes Judaism “should not be a nationalist or only a religious identity.”