The Problem with Religion?

Ben Reiff

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
Like the air over industrial cities,
It’s hard to breathe.
– Yehuda Amichai, Ecology of Jerusalem

In November 2014, the Yad B’Yad (“Hand in Hand”) bilingual school in Jerusalem – one of six joint Jewish-Arab schools in Israel – was the victim of a religiously-motivated “price-tag” arson attack attributed to Jewish far-right organisation Lehava. Graffiti reading “there’s no coexistence with cancer” and “death to Arabs” was also found at the site. For many, this must have been proof that coexistence and interfaith efforts are futile in the Holy Land. The fact that only six such schools exist throughout Israel-Palestine attests to this further.

I recently visited this school as part of an interfaith trip with other students from my university – a trip that took us from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, and from the Galilee to Bethlehem. Having spent my gap year in Israel last year I’d already seen much of what we were shown in our short time there. I’d also seen enough of the damage done by religion in the region to make me overwhelmingly pessimistic about religion altogether.

The arson attack on the Yad B’Yad school is but another in a centuries-long line of religiously-motivated attacks in the Holy Land which Jews, Muslims and Christians have perpetrated in the name of God – and but another in recent history too. 25 members of the Jewish Underground were arrested in 1984 after being discovered plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, in order to liberate Temple Mount for the creation of a Third Temple. The activities today of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which is preparing items with which to decorate a future Third Temple (under the motto “may it be rebuilt speedily and in our day”) will do little to allay Muslim fears that this phenomenon is in the past. The Second Intifada (or “al-Aqsa Intifada”) saw over 100 Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in little over five years, which were fuelled at least in part by fears over the future of that same piece of holy land – sparked by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon entering Temple Mount/ al-Haram ash-Sharif with other Likud politicians and hundreds of Israeli police officers. And aside from the holy sites themselves, the violence of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge) was triggered largely by the kidnapping and murder by Palestinians of three religious Jewish teenagers in Gush Etzion.

One of the first people we met on the trip was a Palestinian-Israeli Christian woman from Haifa, named Soher. “In Haifa”, she tells us, “you can’t tell who’s Jewish and who’s Arab. You don’t see people walking around wearing black hats or hijabs.” It has always struck me that Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, is almost never mentioned in the news for incidents of religious violence. When asked why Haifa doesn’t see the violence Jerusalem sees on a daily basis, Soher replies “coexistence is so easy because everyone is secular.”

Secularism creates peace; religion creates war. With the region’s history of religious violence, it seems only logical.

And yet this exact logic, according to Holy Land Trust (a Palestinian Christian organisation in Bethlehem) director Sami Awad, was the reason for the failure of what he calls the “Oslo two-state framework”. “Oslo completely ignored the religious voice”, he explains. “It failed to address, for example, the fact that over 80% of Jewish historic religious sites are in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” And the story is similar for Palestinian Christians: “Jesus lived in Nazareth; what did he do in Bethlehem? He left when he was two years old. If you want to study Jesus’ life, it’s Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Galilee. Yet I cannot go there without a specific permit.” Clearly, when the secular elites of Tel Aviv and Ramallah come together to make secular peace, there is always something missing. “We have to have the religious voice involved in peacemaking”, he concludes. “They said religion was the problem, but look what happened when they took religion out.”

We also met members of a grassroots organisation called Roots, which is aiming to build bridges between religious settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank that will serve as the foundations on which a future peace can be based. Shaul, a Jewish Israeli living in a settlement in Gush Etzion, follows a similar line to Sami: “We need to talk about 1948 more [rather than 1967]. Jaffa was a part of Palestine as much as Hebron and Nablus were parts of Israel.” He too is critical of the current formulations of the two-state solution, suggesting that “if a peace agreement is signed tomorrow, there will be terror attacks and price tag attacks on both sides”, since there are too many people – many of them religious – to whom these solutions are unsatisfactory. As such, Roots has set itself the goal of creating trust between the two peoples on a grassroots level. “Negotiation is the so-called ‘short way’ which is actually very long, while grassroots trust-building is the so-called ‘long-way’ which is actually more short.” Another problem, Shaul explains, is the claiming of ownership over the land, which he and his counterparts have a different way of seeing: “The land doesn’t belong to anybody; we belong to the land. Both peoples deeply belong to this land.” The secular peace-makers would do well to bear this in mind.

The religious voice is not some tiny minority that might go away if left on the outside for long enough. In the vast majority of formal and informal peace efforts in recent decades, the religious voice has indeed been excluded, and naturally there is no peace to show for it. Too often it is labelled “extremist” in an attempt to silence it; the peaceful majority are lumped together with the violent minority and the whole lot are stigmatised. But it’s time we learnt to listen to what those voices have to say. Sami explained that “religious leaders here have a much bigger influence on their followers than secular and political leaders.” So regardless of whether or not you believe in God, it is both illogical and dangerous to neglect the religious voice – on either side.

During our tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we were told a story that took place in the 7th century C.E.. Caliph Omar, the Muslim ruler at the time, went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Upon arrival, he was invited to pray inside. But, knowing that if he did so his Muslim followers would order that the church be turned into a mosque, he declined. So instead he prayed outside the church, and on that location now stands the Mosque of Omar. It serves as a constant reminder of the need for religious understanding.

This understanding was on display everywhere we went. In Nazareth, we met the Imam of the White Mosque who is preaching passionately in favour of the two-state solution. In Bethlehem, Sami told us how the Holy Land Trust is raising money to send a handful of Palestinian leaders each year to Auschwitz in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish people’s trauma. In Gush Etzion, Shaul told us how Roots activists on both sides pay visits to the sites or families that have just experienced violence or loss, to show solidarity with them and to condemn the attacks. And finally in Jerusalem, at the Yad B’Yad school, we heard how they received messages of love, support and strength from Jews and Palestinians alike, encouraging them to stand up in the face of adversity and persevere with their interfaith mission.

It is critical that religion no longer be viewed only as something that is problematic to peace in the region. A two-state solution will simply not be possible unless the fears of the religious are addressed. But if indeed their concerns are taken into consideration, and their leaders are brought into the peace process, then religion has the ability to serve as the means to that very peace. Religion might just be peace’s best hope.

A week with family and friends in Israel

Anonymous

Jerusalem 11am

Glossy orange bags of expensive coffee line the shelf. Underneath, the dreadlocked cashier tongs shiny sufganyot into paper parcels for Chanukah-giddy customers. We’re still sitting with our empty mugs and croissant crumbs gazing keenly through the big windows onto the endless stream of hats, sticks, buggies, and shades. Every three minutes a silver tram glides past, dispatching the hats, sticks, buggies and shades to Mamila, the Old City, and Machane Yehuda. Inside, our excitable nattering competes with infant squeals and rapid-fire Ivrit from neighbouring tables. We’re revelling in old stories until one of us lowers her glasses and interrupts the familial niceties:

“You know… I hate driving there. The Arabs, if they don’t kill us with bombs they’ll get us on the road!”

‘There’ is a religious Jewish settlement located midway between Ramallah and Nablus. The drive is straightforward: an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on Route 60. ‘There’ is where her son lives with his wife and five children. Once I am over the delicious irony of an Israeli critiquing somebody else’s driving, a series of questions dart across my mind: is her fear of Arabs in cars extrapolated from recent ramming attacks? Is this an ill-judged quip or concerted racism? Can such an endearing woman be capable of concerted racism? Is there genuinely a paucity of quality driving instructors in the area? Did she think we’d laugh? Did she think we’d sympathise? Should we? Why does this son—my cousin—choose to live in a place too dangerous for the grandmother of his children to visit, a place presumably dangerous for his young family too? In a flash we’re onto somebody’s fiancée’s job and I swallow my questions.

Tel-Aviv 8.15pm

The English menu is an iPad and its black leather case is thick. Amid the standard options on the screen—Starters, Pizza, Fish, and Salads etc. — is Vegan. A finger’s punch transports you to a grid of guiltless dishes that make up in colour for what they might lack in calcium. It’s midweek and mid-winter but we’re wedged in, abreast the crowd, at a slender rectangular table. If this is the last supper I’ll pass on the vegan options. The Azrieli Towers glint above the restaurant. They loom behind me, two above my shoulders like good and bad consciences, the third skewering my head. With two big hands on the table one of us, an English-born Israeli, opines:

“Soon contemporary English will become Old English, and Arabic will be what’s known as contemporary English!”

This time somebody conjectures that this might be a bit racist; swiftly somebody else, perhaps averting confrontation, rules out the possibility. The comedian cum demo-linguist is an intelligent man with a big heart; his jest is all the more perturbing for these reasons. In the moment’s pause when I’m expected to laugh but unable to muster the faintest of chuckles, questions bubble: Does the joke reflect his fears about Israel’s demographic course? Is this even related to Israel: maybe he’s parroting xenophobic British relations living among large immigrant populations? What gives him the idea that Arab-directed prejudice suffices as comedy? Is Arab-directed prejudice his best means of finding common ground? The arrival of dessert diverts my attention to waffles.

Suburb near Jerusalem 5.30pm

Here we have the luxury of placing a Chanukia outside the front of the house, as well as on the windowsill. A spread of quiche, salads, cheeses and latkes endure small prods from the children cramming their paper plates. The antics of the various nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren are a welcome distraction. They mitigate the awkwardness of language barriers and meeting relations that you last saw before puberty. The oldest in the room, swelled by the coming together of his progeny, speaks from his armchair:

“The whole world is against us… Anything is better than Barack Obama ”

At last, I can stop teasing political prejudice and social conclusions from off-hand remarks! This is a bold critique of UN Resolution 2334, and a Trump-accepting disavowal of the USA’s 44th President. The statement reflects analysis I’ve heard all week, and matches multiple headlines and Facebook posts I’ve seen. Yet, it shines in its own light, framed by, and adding colour to, the fragments I have already picked out.

From coffee shop, to restaurant, to lounge; and from Jerusalem, to Tel-Aviv, to Suburbia: casual racism, and a sense of having one’s back against the wall, pervades innocuous social interactions. Each of the comments I have extracted, lie somewhere on a spectrum between caution and paranoia; battle-hardened know-how and exaggerated, even fantasised, victimhood.

I did not conduct any surveys nor did I organise any samples. The conversations I had do not represent the varied and complex pockets of Israeli society. But, I think there are two general points we can draw. Firstly, the oppositions we are used to: legal and illegal; tolerant and racist; good people and bad people, are not clear-cut (and I’m not talking about when these lines are intentionally blurred for political reasons). In Israel, tolerant people live in illegal places, and good people say racist things. The web of conflict is tortuous and sticky; it is hard to wriggle every limb free. This leads me to the second point: hostility and fear, whether substantiated or not, grip like pliers on the mind. It will take more than the UN Security Council to abate this, on both sides of the Green Line.

Building Peace at Givat Haviva

Rose Vennin
July 2015: As I am shown around the Givat Haviva campus in Northern Israel, I walk past a three-meter high wooden sculpture similar to a totem pole. Curious, I ask Lydia Aisenburg, educator at the center, whether it is indeed a totem pole. She swiftly corrects me: it is a peace tree, sculpted by a group of Israeli and Arab children in one of the day-long sessions organised by the kibbutz to bring the two cultures together and further dialogue. It has symbolically stood there for a decade, persisting throughout the innumerable acts of violence in the region.

A year and a half later, this visit has a special significance to me: that of a tiny light of hope at the end of an increasingly darker tunnel. In the past eighteen months, the prospects of both an international agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an improvement in the treatment of Arab Israelis by the state have furthered.

Months before my visit, Netanyahu had already sparked great upset among the country’s 1.7 million Arab citizens when he had asserted “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out” on March 2015’s Election Day. Following international condemnation and Netanyahu’s two apologies, I had hope that the Israeli right would seek to mend the situation, maybe even make a commitment towards treating all citizens equally. Instead, the divisive rhetoric has prevailed. Most recently, in December 2016, coalition chairman David Bitan’s statement that he would prefer that Israel’s Arab population didn’t vote was telling of the further deterioration of relations between the official Israeli right-wing establishment and the Arab citizens of the state.

What is more, there have been little signs of inclination towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Last month, the Knesset voted to approve the draft legislation of a bill which would retroactively legalize four thousand settler homes in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control. In the same month, the UN resolution condemning settlements as lacking legal validity led to outrage among the Israeli right, with Prime Minister calling out the Obama administration for “colluding” with a “gang-up” against Israel. Netanyahu, caught between his domestic competition with right-wing leaders and his supposed support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, appears to be focusing the former rather than the latter.

The Palestinian leadership is no model either. Its President, Mahmoud Abbas, is desperate to cling to power despite being in his eighties, suppressing any opposition to his rule. Abbas was once again elected head of Fatah at the party’s most recent conference, using undemocratic practices such as preventing dissenting members from attending the conference and disqualifying others. He is now in the 12th year of his rule, despite having been elected to serve only four years. In this quest for survival, Abbas has been leading a sort of double act: declaring that he is promoting a two state solution, while refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and implicitly inciting violence towards the latter. On multiple occasions, Abbas has failed to publicly condemn Palestinian terrorist attacks. Other Palestinian officials taken the rhetoric a step further, glorifying this type of violence: in October, chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat praised terrorists incarcerated in Israeli prisons “for their acts of heroism, and for their ongoing battle with the occupation”.

With such tensions mounting, discussing local efforts to foster harmony, such as the work of Givat Haviva, seems particularly relevant. When considering the matter, most think that peace building is a top-down affair, that authorities will be the ones bringing an end to conflict. Yet is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other? If there is both division in Israel between Jews and Arabs, and division between Israelis and Palestinians, how long would peace last? While mutual trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and permanent peace, it is a necessary one.

Hence, more than ever, long-term stability in the region needs to come from local communities, with Arab and Jewish civilians working hand in hand, starting with Israel where profound separations remain. This is where an organisation like Givat Haviva comes into play. Founded in 1949 as a national education center, it is a recipient of the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education for its longstanding work in promoting Jewish-Arab dialogue and reconciliation. During my visit, I met with Yaniv Sagee, the Executive Director, who detailed the center’s strategy: striving for a shared society, the programs created aim to enhance cooperation, equality and understanding between what are today divided groups in Israel. Although this may appear to be an impossible goal in a region with such tumultuous history, Givat Haviva’s record is quite convincing at showing that change on a societal scale begins with the socio-political unit closest to the people – the community level. Projects like the implementation of common educational programs and the establishment of Arab-Jewish municipal cooperation are small steps in the longer stride towards regional peace, developing interaction and understanding between the two groups.

Although it may sound idealistic and trivial given the current conflictual situation, it is these small steps that matter today. By instilling shared values at an early stage in Arab and Jewish children’s political maturation, concrete programs like these lessen the separation between the two. In 99 per cent of the encounters Givat Haviva organizes between students, it is the first time a Jewish child has met an Arab child, and vice-versa. As witnessed during my two-week trip to the region, hatred of the “other” is instilled from a very young age on both sides. Arab and Jewish communities can live 5 kilometers from one another, yet a world separates their views regarding the region, its history and the future they envision. The Racism Index, resulting from a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, is an embodiment of this gulf. Jewish and Arab children are asked if they would be willing to live in the same apartment building as an Arab or Jewish family: in the most recent poll, 68 per cent of Jewish kids and 52 per cent of Arab kids said no. However, when the same question was asked to participants of Givat Haviva’s programs, the percentage dropped to below 10. Through positive engagement, these programs humanize the other: by giving children the experience of human interaction, they can relate to their counterparts through Arabs or Jews they have personally met. Not only do these perennial educational processes build a basis for trust, but they also promote equality and integration when politics fails to do so.

Hence, as Arab-Jewish relations are put to a test and the peace process appears at a standstill, “the time to build a society of dialogue and understanding between all groups, has come, and not only at the governmental level, but even more importantly between local communities and civilians,” concludes Lydia Aisenburg. It is time to put the work of organisations like that of Givat Haviva further into the spotlight, promoting the notion of a shared and fruitful peace between two societies. And then only will the peace tree stand firm for centuries.

From Jerusalem to Damascus

Jonny Shamir

When four Islamic State militants were neutralised and Israeli rockets were fired at targets in Syria last month, Israeli state officials were typically laconic. The events in Syria have been used by various groups, both inside and outside Syria, to assert themselves on the geopolitical stage. The country has been divided into fiefdoms in a bloody conflict which has exposed differences between regional and international actors. Despite this all unfolding along part of her northern border, Israel has been clandestine in its military and humanitarian operations during the gruelling civil war.

Israel’s dealings are reflective of a wider geopolitical trend of increased covert cooperation with Arab states. The mutual distrust of Iran, catalysed by a bitter distaste for the nuclear deal, and the need for shared intelligence to combat ISIS have changed the topography in accordance with the mantra ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

But this distance shouldn’t prevent examination and accountability for Israel’s conduct in Syria.

Whilst Jordan and Lebanon have absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Israel has not taken in a single refugee from the Syrian conflict. This led leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog to criticise the government’s stance: “Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven.” The atrocities of the war, and particularly the chemical weapons employed, have poignantly rekindled the memory of the Holocaust for many Jews, and this has been reflected through vast charitable donations coming from the Israeli populus.

Nevertheless, a tokenistic gesture on behalf of the state, similar to Menachem Begin’s welcoming of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, is seen as too much of a risk. Israel’s humanitarian approach has been riddled with such ironies. Israel has treated around 2500 Syrians in its hospitals, whilst violating principles of non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country where they could be persecuted. This reveals a deep conflict at the core of Israel’s approach to refugees, which extends to the Palestinian refugee problem: the moral onus to support refugees often runs directly counter to security needs, but more crucially, the motivation to maintain a Jewish majority.

So has Israel done enough to navigate this internal tension?

Israel has instead been directing money to Jordanian refugee camps on top of its medical assistance, which should certainly be lauded. One Syrian, who founded a website thanking Israel for their medical assistance to Syrians, now lives in Turkey. His swift exit from the country reveals the stigma, and even danger, of accepting any potential asylum in Israel.

But there is power in gesture, and herein lies a gaping hole in Israel’s international policy. The idea has even been thrown around by The Forced Migration Review that re-opening the Golan Heights to displaced Syrians could be a means of improving and eventually normalising relations with a country that has boycotted Israel since its inception. However this move would never be proposed, let alone pass, by the current government, which is being pulled even further to the right.

As is often the case in Israel, humanitarian ideals are frequently subordinated to security needs. Israel has vested interests in combatting the expansive training and fighting experience of Hezbollah, which will survive the loss of 1500 fighters. There is also a fear that, once the situation has calmed in Syria, the northern border, recently Israel’s quietest, may turn into a battlefront as the Shia forces will threaten Israel’s newly constructed fence. The ten recorded deliberate shootings over the Israeli-Syrian border, incidentally, were all attributed to pro-Assad forces.

This explains why Israel is sitting tight and undertaking limited and precise military intervention, as the border control is kept wary by intermittent improvised explosive devices, shootings and mortar attacks.

Furthermore, Israel has furthered its strategic interests of weakening Iran and Hezbollah through small air sorties and selectively targeted aid in the battlefield, extending beyond civilians to Jabhat al-Nusra and other southern rebel groups. Strategic assistance and military supplies were offered in addition to medical assistance.

What about Syria’s impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Firstly, Israel’s security officials have had their attention diverted elsewhere. Guns, after all, are more potent than knives, and nuclear bombs are more powerful than mortar shells.

The bloodshed on Israel’s doorstep has also diverted hostile forces in the region, as well as international attention, away from Israel. This has coincided with a period of impasse with the Palestinians, frustrating the Obama administration and contributing to its decision to abstain, rather than veto, UN resolution 2234. It reveals the reality of Israeli decision-making: Israel does not act unless it is under political, military, or security-related pressure.

Hence rather than using this diversion as an opportunity to improve relations with the Palestinians, Israel has sat back and maintained the status quo. For the moment, the shifting sands of international politics mean the world’s attentions are elsewhere in the Middle East, and therefore progress towards a two-state solution is unlikely.

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The Centre-Left Candidate: A Response

Adam Schapira

In their analysis of this UJS election, Bz Gilinsky and Ella Taylor argue that there is no centre-left candidate. I am on the right, they argue, and progressive students must choose between centrist Joshua Holt and radical left-winger Eran Cohen. I have been attacked by all circles: the orthodox have accused me of coshing to the progressives; the progressives have accused me of being a ‘right winger’.

The truth is, as my policies should demonstrate, I am the centre-left candidate with the vision needed to take UJS in the right direction.

I am running to be UJS president to deliver real change for our student movement. I want to energise our student movement. I want to talk about and engage with the crucial issues of our time.

This UJS election is the most critical election in UJS history. It comes at a time of great concern for Jewish students around the country. Your vote is crucial.

We need a strong leader to counter the whirlwind of hate faced on so many university campuses. As UJS president, I will take a hard line against the voices of hate, but never waver in my commitment to two states for two peoples. Whilst I will resolutely oppose the BDS movement, I will be equally vocal in all efforts to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis can one day live side-by-side in peace, equality, and dignity.

But anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric should not define our university experience. UJS exists to enrich our Jewish experiences: from Friday night dinners, to drunken nights at booze for Jews, to lighting Chanukah candles in your university halls, it is the memories we share together that last a lifetime. UJS’ core mission should never change.

My campaign is about talking about issues previously unrepresented in our student movement.

It’s about building a dynamic, engaged, and ambitious UJS.

In short, it’s about Transforming the UJS that we love.

We will do this in four ways.

First, we need strong leadership to present our voice in the national media. As president, you can expect a much more vocal and proactive leader, defending our vital interests on campus.

Second, I want to think globally and act locally. The Syrian refugee crisis is the most pressing humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Millions have been displaced from their homes. Thousands have been tragically killed. As Jewish students, we have a unique responsibility to help those most vulnerable. Last Monday, working with World Jewish relief, I launched a campaign to raise £100,000 to support the humanitarian relief efforts surrounding the refugee crisis. I hope you will all join me in our fundraising efforts.

Third, I will mandate UJS to create a bespoke women in Jewish leadership programme. It’s time we end the systematic gender inequality that exists within our community. That starts with Jewish female students, who represent the future talent of our community.

Fourth, I will empower Jewish societies by giving them more responsibility and autonomy over their JSocs. A significant upfront annual grant will free UJS’ sabbatical officers and JSoc committee members from endless bureaucracy, and lead to better events at your JSoc.

This election is about ideas that will deliver real change.

So I urge you: go beyond the rhetoric and think about the candidate offering something genuinely different. Share my ideas, get involved and let’s begin a conversation that will transform the UJS that we love!

Read more about Adam’s campaign here.

Jewish students can vote in Presidential elections here. If you are not currently a member of UJS, register to vote here

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UJS Elections: Who should get the progressive vote?

Ella Taylor and Bz Gilinsky

2016 is the year of election drama, and if you are a Jewish student in the UK we are by no means done yet. The election for President of the Union of Jewish Students is underway and Adam Schapira, Josh Holt, and Eran Cohen are all vying for the top job. Schapira sits on the right, whilst Holt is best characterised as a centrist, with Cohen attracting the headlines as a candidate from the radical left. This has created an interesting but largely unnoticed dynamic: unlike in previous years, there is no clear centre-left candidate.

A large and growing constituency of Jewish students, progressively minded, liberation-focused and with anti-occupation politics, have no obvious choice. These Jewish students will break either for Cohen or Holt, and with last year’s centre-left candidate losing by just six votes, they could easily decide the election. There is an initial appeal to Cohen’s campaign too. His emphasis on fighting tuition fee rises and rising xenophobia has added substance to an otherwise largely vacuous affair. The abuse he has received is revolting, and his anti-establishment campaign resonates with many on the centre-left, as we, too, are swimming against the tide in many Jewish communal debates.

A vote for Cohen, however, would be a serious mistake. Disingenuous on Israel and dishonest about his own principles, a BDS-supporting president would not serve the campus politics left-wing Jewish students want to see. On anti-semitism his track record disproves his rhetoric, and on liberation and anti-racism too, Cohen’s pitch relies on a misrepresentation of the union he wants to lead. A false prophet of progressivism, Cohen is not the UJS President we are looking for.

It is Cohen’s stance on Israel that has drawn the attention of most. Realising the centre-left vote is up for grabs, Cohen has seemingly moderated his position. But Cohen is not of the politics that inspires us to campaign with Zionish, Yachad, and the New Israel Fund. His claim that he is “just anti-occupation” is disingenuous in the extreme given his support for Israel Apartheid Week and full BDS as campaigns officer at York’s Palestine society. He does not want a moderate, liberal, Zionism, but no Zionism at all. More often than not, pro-Palestine students in Cohen’s tradition want one-state of Palestine and no Israel at all.

Electing Cohen would be wrong not just on principle but tactically too. Progressive Jews who want to shift our community into a tougher stance in support of a two-state solution and Palestinian human rights are consistently undermined by the accusation our politics empowers BDS and those who want to see Israel removed from the map. Cohen will turn this previously baseless accusation into truth, undoing years of hard work the left has done to give anti-occupation politics credibility in the Jewish community.

But let’s put Israel aside. Cohen’s touts his credentials in the fight against anti-semitism, arguing that the most significant threat to British Jews is from the far-right. Regarding wider society he is correct; but this avoids the fact that on campus anti-semitism is almost solely a far-left issue. And on this issue, his is betrayed by his track record. In response to far-left anti-semitism on campus and elsewhere, York PalSoc, of which he is an exec member, advertised a lecture by Jonathan Rosenhead, who believes far-left anti-semitism is a series of fabricated smears, a “monstrous soufflé of moral panic”.

Other instances of Cohen’s hypocrisy on this issue are not hard to find. In a recent video, Cohen argues that blaming Jews for the crimes of the Israeli occupation is clear anti-semitism. And yet, Cohen acted in a production of Seven Jewish Children, a startlingly inflammatory play written in response to the 2009 Gaza War that makes no mention of Israel or Zionism, speaking only in reference to Jews. The jury is still out on whether the play should be categorised as openly anti-semitic. Needless to say, when Cohen starred in the play in March this year, he would have been well aware of its worrying reputation.

Where will Cohen stand when faced with these issues in office? Will he stand up to Oxford’s Israel Apartheid Week advocates who say Jewish experience of anti-semitism is the same as straight men feeling uncomfortable in LGBT clubs? What will he say to Malia Bouattia when she talks about the ‘Zionist-led media?’ Or when BDS campaigners claim that Hamas’ desire to kill Jews for being Jews is legitimate anti-colonialism? Going on precedent, we have no confidence he will be on our side.

There is also much that is disconcerting about Cohen’s approach to liberation in UJS. There is no doubting his commitment to the cause. But his approach to the issue has been to talk down UJS to enhance his own credentials. In a +972 magazine interview, Cohen says with thinly-veiled disdain that UJS has “slowly been changing recently with the attempts at inclusion of LGBT Jewish students and women”. It is a similar story regarding religious pluralism, where in Oxford’s egalitarian facebook group Cohen claimed that liberal and reform Jews are excluded from UJS by those who view them as not ‘properly’ religious.

This is an insult to an organisation that has been at the forefront of these struggles within the Jewish and student community. UJS liberation networks were established years ago, inclusivity training is run with Jewish LGBTQ group Keshet, UJS regularly hosts the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, a recent UJS Liberation Conference was a huge success, and UJS is the most enthusiastic proponent of cross-communalism in the whole of British Jewry. There is, of course, much more work to be done. But champions of liberation should not base their case on a wilful misrepresentation of those who preceded them. Dismissing hours of dedicated work on inclusivity undermines UJS’ liberation efforts, rather than strengthening them.

Cohen has run as a crusader for inclusion and reform, but left-wing Jewish students should see through his shtick. Not a progressive but a radical, his newfound moderation on Israel is a weak charade. On anti-semitism his judgement is poor and he is divorced from the reality of most students’ experience. His commitment to liberation is clear but his dismissal of the fantastic work UJS does is a cheap and cynical campaign trick, designed to push our student union down in order to portray himself as its moral saviour. And whilst there has been a lack of enthusiasm over Holt, left-wing Jewish students need not be downbeat: balanced on Israel, he wants to put inclusion officers on JSoc committees and use the nationwide UJS network to empower progressive campaigning.

The centre-left vote is up for grabs in this election, and many Jewish students will remain undecided. For us, however, the choice is clear.

Ella and Bz are history students at Oxford, madrichim of RSY and Noam respectively, Yachad campaigners, Labour students, and Zionish’s coordinators for 2016-17.

Jewish students can vote in Presidential elections here. If you are not currently a member of UJS, register to vote here

A new generation is stepping forward – help us build Partners to Peace

Jonty Leibowitz

Young Brits, Israelis and Palestinians are no longer willing to watch an older generation lead us down a path of violence, polarisation and a stalled peace process. The time for action has come.

The recent passing of Shimon Peres reminds us that we are further away from peace than we have been in any of our lifetimes. In the two decades since he last served as Prime Minister, it has become more difficult than ever before to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

A whole generation has grown up in a climate of mutual fear and suspicion, without any real concept of what a stable outcome could be. The politics of division have sown themselves deep; so much so that both sides in the conflict are no longer even encouraged to try to understand one another. Only last week, four Palestinians were arrested by the PA for attending a Jewish Sukkot celebration. In Israel, most Jewish children grow up knowing very few Arabs, if any. The result is a lack of trust and communication on both sides.

It is into this space that Yachad Youth are launching our Partners to Peace Campaign. Over thirty students from across the UK are coming together, raising money and awareness for the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian NGO based in Bethlehem. We have chosen the Trust because we saw their work firsthand in September, during the 2016 Yachad Student Trip to Israel & the West Bank.

On the trip, we saw time and time again the impact that generations of conflict has on young people across the region. They have grown up knowing only bombs, guns and a life of conflict – making ‘peace’ seem remote and alien. Whether it’s Israelis who only know Palestinians as terrorists, or young Palestinians who associate all Israelis with the IDF, the consequence is a culture of violence and fear.

The Holy Land Trust seeks to remedy this divide. Working in Bethlehem, the Trust empowers Palestinian young people and encourages them away from violence. We are seeking to raise £8000, which will help fund long-term educational programmes that teach Palestinian young people non-violent methods of change and build critical leadership skills.

The reason behind choosing such a programme is clear: it is by training a new generation of leaders to turn away from the violence of the last generation that we can find hope of a peaceful solution. As young British Jews, we want to see a thriving Israel and a stable, secure Palestine, and know that this yearning is deep in the heart of most in the region. Yet, too often, the debate in Britain about what we can do to help has been stale. We hope that, by launching this project, we can begin to change the conversation.

Partners to Peace stands in a proud lineage of young British Jews working energetically to refashion our community. Since 2011, Yachad Youth has been a tireless voice for young progressive Zionists in the Anglo-Jewish community. We draw on our experiences from across the Jewish community, from our synagogues and Youth Movements. From Youth Movement Workers and Israel Tour leaders to 17 year olds staffing summer camp for the first time, building a network of young people helps us to maximise influence. We seek to harness the fire and dedication of young British Jews, eager to forge new possibilities in the British conversation about Israel. Partners to Peace is the product of this passionate energy, fuelled by a team of volunteers who believe that the time to take action must be now.

Too many children are growing up with a polarised view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the schools and homes of Jerusalem, Ramallah and even Pinner the story is one of polarisation and blaming the ‘other side’. Yet now is the time to build bridges between our communities, rather than embellish the politics of division. Partners to Peace is based on the recognition that we all want a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and that this can only be achieved by cooperation and collaboration. The Holy Land Trust exemplifies the sort of Israel & Palestine we want to forge, and British Jews must reach out to this extended arm of friendship.

We are aiming to raise £8000, but more fundamentally we want to fire the starting gun for a new type of conversation; one which recognises that partnership is our best route to peace and stability. We need each and every one of you to take this message of nonviolence and solidarity back to your communities, schools, synagogues and campuses. Follow us on social media, donate via our webpage, share our articles. Email your shul or school, and get in touch with us to find out how you can play your part.

Our generation could be the ones to end this bloody conflict. We have the will, strength and resolve to reject the years of violence, and seek something better. Join us to help begin the peace process anew.

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Pride and Prejudice on Jerusalem Day March – But Mostly Prejudice

Ben Goldstein

Jerusalem has become my adopted home over the past few months. Its stones, its people, its diversity, its history and its raw energy combine to make it one of the most unique places on the planet. Weaving through its ancient streets and modern cafes listening to the cacophony of languages is an achingly beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

Yesterday afternoon, though, Jerusalem’s delicate splendour was fractured. I watched as a nationalist mob of thousands of juvenile testosterone-filled boys marched through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. They were having a great day out, some with families, most with their classmates. There was singing, shouting, screaming, chanting. Flags were waved, held aloft and worn as scarves. The police kept a watchful eye on proceedings.

It felt awfully like an English Defence League demo or maybe a Trump rally, albeit with more kippot, more niggunim and far fewer muscles.

I was there helping to document the event, which has a history of racist rhetoric and violence. The organisation Ir Amim station volunteers along the route. It seemed like the presence of our cameras – and those of other left-wing organisations – had some tangible effect.

“Eugh, there are tonnes of smolanim [lefties] here,” pouted one boy.

“Right, so be on your best behaviour,” barked his elder.

Two 14-year olds wearing Israel flags then started bashing on the shutters of an Arab shop. Noticing us filming, their guardian grabbed them and moved them on, telling our cameras that, on this happy day, it doesn’t matter that we are lefties, and that G-d loves us anyway. (Thanks!).

Meanwhile, a cute family were posing for a photograph. They smiled as they basked in the joy of the Jewish conquest of Jerusalem 49 years ago. Their backdrop? A shuttered Palestinian coffee shop. It was an almost comically perfect portrait of the dual realities that coexist in space and time in this city.

Racism is embedded in the march itself: could you imagine the Israeli police shutting down the Jewish Quarter for a Naqba Day march replete with Palestinian flags and Hamas propaganda? The state, while seeking to manage and minimise the damage, effectively supports a march which requires Palestinians to be cleared out of their neighbourhood and kept behind army barricades for their own security. There is no reason at all for the march not to happen in the Jewish area of the Old City (incidentally, where most of the seminary girls march). The only reason it happens here is as a muscular demonstration of Jewish power over Palestinians. It’s the very definition of state-endorsed racism.

At one point, an Arab woman in a wheelchair braved the crowd, pushed along by her elderly husband. We got our cameras out, expecting the worst. But the marching boys made space for her, shouting at each other to create a channel through which the pair could travel. This woman’s vulnerability seemed to wash out the drug of religious-infused ultra-nationalism, and, for a moment, the boys stopped being threatening marchers and became boys again. I don’t know whether that’s hopeful or just painfully sad.

The meshuganas continued for a couple of hours. I spotted the largely-French group from my MASA programme in the crowd with our madrich (leader) – despite his promise that they would not be marching through the Muslim Quarter. They shouted over to me, their euphoria clearly obscuring the fairly obvious fact that I was one of the spoil-sport smolanim ruining the fun.

After the march finished and the garbage-filled streets slowly returned to an eerie silence, what remained were the stickers. The day ended with the Muslim Quarter literally plastered with Jewish nationalist angst in the form of hateful slogans: “Transfer [Arabs] now!”; “The daughters of Israel for the nation of Israel!”; “Free the Temple Mount”.

We began to pick them off the walls, climbing on each other’s shoulders to reach the high ones, which earnt some chuckles from the Palestinians returning to their shops. The police helped out, as did the Essex-born Israeli cameraman from the Israeli news channel Arutz 2. We made to leave the Old City and we all agreed to exit via the Damascus Gate. Here we were – a group of Jews and Israelis, living in this place and deeply committed to its future – and we didn’t want to step foot in the Jewish Quarter. So much for United Jerusalem.

A version of this post first appeared on the All That’s Left Collective website.

Jewish Celebration Has Multiple Narratives, and Yom Haatzmaut Should Too

Amos Schonfield

At Jewish weddings, the groom stamps on and smashes a glass.

This custom has several meanings, and you may know the most familiar of them. The argument is that even on supposedly the happiest day of one’s life, it is important to reflect on moments of sadness and loss. The breaking of the glass serves to symbolise the destruction of the Temples, and more recently has been intertwined with Holocaust symbolism by way of Kristallnacht (‘The Night of Broken Glass’). It gives us pause during the festivities, a moment of dissonance.

The practice of having multi-layered narratives in play simultaneously is fairly common in Jewish practice. Sitting Shiva after the death of a relative allows people to publicly and privately fondly remember the deceased. The Passover Seder tells a story of death and desolation while we sit in luxury. Rosh Hashanah combines earnest repentance with tasting the first fruits and enjoying the company of loved ones. We have cultivated these practices over time, creating complex rituals that make them continuously compelling. This complexity reflects the layered way we construct group identities. We not only revel together, but we struggle and perhaps mourn as a community too.

However, this nuance and thoughtfulness is yet to make it into the Israeli Calendar, and in particular Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day). I have vivid memories of the binary opposite atmospheres on these sequential days. At my Jewish secondary school, Yom Hazikaron was naturally mournful, which then flips into unbridled joy on the anniversary of national independence. These national holidays were composed using Jewish holidays as a template – just as Israel’s other national symbols and structures borrow heavily from Jewish tradition – and yet seem to have summarily ignored one of their core tenets.

This singular focus is clearly designed to amplify the emotional energy of the day by uniting everyone around one emotional palette. With both remembrance of fallen soldiers and independence being such fresh topics to the conflict-ridden, relatively new country, it feels like a natural fit. I was taught about the shift as sun sets on Yom Hazikaron and the country shifts gear from sadness to joy. The pride in this tradition is considered a jewel in the Israeli Calendar, highlighting the intrinsic link between the country created and the soldiers that fell to establish and protect it.

What to make of this binary? As a committed Zionist with a complex relationship with the existing Zionist establishment, I’d say it is pretty deficient. But the question I’d rather ask is what are we missing here? In buying into the current calendar, I give myself time to mourn and then time to celebrate. However, I don’t let myself do both, or consider the ways the two are connected. The window for dissonance that we open up in our Jewish practices stays shut.

In a country seeking to welcome so many different identities, spaces for dissonant thinking is vital. People come from different religions, religious backgrounds, political persuasions, ethnic and national backgrounds; these salient divides apply to diaspora communities too. The way you behave on these national holidays becomes a litmus test for the quality of your Zionism or ‘Israeliness’. In order to be truly open, we need to confront divergent feelings and sometimes ask ourselves difficult questions.

What might this look like? Yom Hazikaron can be celebratory of soldiers’ courage and fearless in confronting issues of war and Israel’s militaristic society. Yom Haatzmaut can offer us a chance at a collective look at the ‘State of the Union’: in celebrating Israeli independence, we should ask ourselves just how successfully we are wielding the responsibility of statehood.

Sometimes this will be a chance – as with the Israel Prize – a cause for celebration. At other times, we should be having conversations on what more needs to be done. And we should also open our minds to the interconnectedness between Israel’s national holiday and the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba, which occurs the day after.

While I’m certain there are several groups and individuals doing something of this sort, I visited JCoSS for last Yom Haatzmaut, and they fully held this balance. The day was an opportunity to jump wholeheartedly into what it means to engage with Israel, inviting in expert educators while wearing blue and white and celebrating as a community. I hold this in contrast with my old school’s Yom Haatzmaut, which prepared for the day by plastering the walls with Hasbara-esque Israeli achievements – ‘did you know that Israel produces the Merkava tank, which is the best in the world’ and other such bizarre statements – and then had (single-sex) Israeli dancing wearing blue and white and waving enormous Israeli flags. Nuanced, it wasn’t.

The effect here is to lower Zionism to its lowest common denominator, to a simple form of nationalism rooted in shared myths and shakshuka pans. Zionism, for me at least, feels distinct form that. Understood perhaps more honestly, Zionism should be viewed as a refugee liberation movement in need of a facelift. Rather than speaking to the exceptionalism of the country (Israel), it rather serves as a memorial to persecution and pogroms. The way in which Yom Haatzmaut does little more than nod to that in lieu of bombastic concerts does the legacy of Chalutzim and visionaries a disservice.

Rather than expecting everyone to embody the feeling of the day, these national holidays can be opportunities to re-engage and deepen one’s engagement with Israel. This would not only help us to internalise a more realistic vision of Israel, but make these national holidays into a different kind of event. It becomes a continual conversation between the past and present, something that continues to morph as our understanding of Zionism means, and engages us in our own personal feelings in a deep way.

Over the past handful of centuries, the Jewish people have turned creating complex occasions into an art form. Just look at Purim: one part Halloween with institutionalised alcoholism, one part retelling of attempted genocide. If we are capable of that, why do we settle for rehashing the 4th of July on the back of a siddur and hoping that it will suffice?

For Liberal Zionists, Israel Apartheid Week is Exhausting

Natasha Spreadborough

Israel Apartheid Week strikes a significant chord with the Jewish community everywhere. As the cardboard, graffiti-covered walls and faux-checkpoints go up around university campuses, so do the leaflets, tweets and Facebook posts about Jewish-Arab coexistence, Palestinian terrorism, “the real Israel/apartheid/take your pick”. On both sides the dialogue is vicious, hateful, and uncompromising. On both sides it involves the wilful distortion of truth and consistent over-simplification in order to put forward one aggressive narrative. Liberal Zionists find themselves stuck in the middle.

Israel Apartheid Week whips up a storm of hatred against a place many of us hold dear, and an aggressive dehumanisation of a population we are often very familiar with. In the manic fervour surrounding IAW events, nuance is frequently lost in any discussion or event. I sat with several Jewish students in the SOAS (University of London) Student Union last year during a debate on the academic boycott of Israel listening to the entire room scream that Israel will be burned to the ground. This is not infrequent during IAW.

This year saw a mock Israeli checkpoint at Cambridge University, with students dressed up in khaki and wielding fake guns. A similar event was held at Leeds University, with one Jewish student reporting feeling threatened, particularly by the Israeli flag armbands the students bore. At SOAS, their yearly cardboard replica of the separation barrier was again erected outside the university, covered with phrases such as “illegal under international law” and “cutting people off from schools, hospitals, food, water”.

This kind of environment is not only painful for Jewish students, but tends to encourage instances of overt antisemitism. It is a week where we see kosher food removed from Student Union shop shelves and Jewish students evicted from student societies on account of their Zionist beliefs. Some Jewish students report feeling endangered, particularly on smaller or more hostile campuses, and are compelled to travel around in groups, or avoid their campus all together.

At the same time, liberal Zionists are forced to wrestle with the points and ideas being aired, and the response of the mainstream Jewish community. Many of us are very aware of the violence and injustice of the occupation, and are actively involved in battling it. As such, we can be uncomfortable with responses from the wider Jewish community which tend to whitewash Israel and deny the problems we know to be true.

Last November I was lucky enough to attend an incredible four-day trip around Israel and the West Bank with Yachad, a pro-Israel pro-peace organisation based in the UK. We were exposed to a wide variety of opinions and realities surrounding the occupation, meeting with Israeli NGOs, think tanks and human rights workers, Palestinian activists, Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and members of the Israeli government. What resounded for us was becoming aware of the depth of violence, injustice and inequality in the occupation. None of us were naive of this before, but many of these things we experienced we’d previously only heard about through the prism of anti-Israel discourse and activism. It’s hard to glean accurate information from organisations committed to one narrative, or to trust people who perpetuate such antisemitism. It is equally hard to deny what you experience as a reality.

Both our own experiences and what we heard first-hand from Palestinians and Israeli human rights workers forced us to wrestle with the label of apartheid. We all, obviously, had very different and passionate view points; but it was not important for us all to draw one coherent conclusion. That is the biggest failing of labelling Israel and/or the occupation as apartheid. The strength of the images and connotations it represents instantly shut down a nuanced and critical approach to the occupation, to the conflict, and to the interactions of Israelis and Palestinians. The situation here is not South Africa; it comes with its own context, history(ies), politics, nationalisms and narratives. That is not to say the occupation does not, in so many appalling ways, resemble apartheid South Africa. But it is something that should be interrogated in its own context, and the suffering of the Palestinians should stand on its own merit.

So what can liberal Zionists do around this time, stuck between the whirlwind of hatred and antisemitism, the injustices of occupation, and the battles of distorted narratives? Engage. Engage with the conflict and the occupation. Engage with each other. Engage with your own ideas and (mis)conceptions. Support those organisations that are striving to do the same thing, on either side of the Atlantic. The Forward wrote back in November about a brilliant guide to Israel/Palestine activism, which I am very enthusiastic about, having worked or currently working with many of the organisations listed. Many of them could greatly do with support – financial or otherwise – at a time when Israel’s left-wing NGOs are under attack. If you are able, participate in their work in the region, and learn more about the nuances of the conflict, and what you can do to help. After a taking part in a similar Yachad trip to mine and becoming aware of some of the injustices of the military court system in the West Bank, a group of British students were motivated to raise money for a lawyer to defend Palestinian children caught in the system, a useful and constructive contribution.

Equally importantly, support each other. Reach out to liberal Zionist friends. Become more involved with liberal Zionist organisations locally. Unite with a large and international community who share your values. For Jewish students on campus especially, IAW can be an emotional struggle. Find ways to consistently remind yourself, and be reminded, that you are not alone.

Israel Apartheid Week is an aggressive battle between two polarised narratives. Despite the elements of truth in both sides, neither achieve anything helpful. There are many more ways to raise awareness of the occupation, discuss the complexities of Israel and the conflict, help Palestinians on the ground, and battle antisemitism without resorting to the kind of hatred we see at this time of year. Liberal Zionists should look to each other and to the organisations and communities engaging helpfully with the conflict. There is great work being done.