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

Jonathan 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.


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


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.


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.

A Conversation with a Falafel Vendor

Aaron Simons

As I turned down towards Jerusalem’s Ben Hillel Street, a familiar scent floated through the air.

“What would you like my friend?”

Now I don’t often skip meals, but circumstances meant that I had missed lunch. It was early evening and I was gripped by a belligerent hunger, the sort of hunger that demands your attention and doesn’t let you walk past a falafel stall without putting up a fight. I’m a sucker for falafel after a three course meal, let alone in circumstances such as these.

“Go on then. Falafel in pitta please. With all the salads.”

This chickpea temptation was the produce of a kind-looking Mizrahi man, probably in his mid-50s, wrapped up in a scarf and hat against the sharp Jerusalem cold. He refused to serve me the lukewarm falafel sitting under his heat lamp, rolling some fresh mixture instead. Falafel, he insisted, was best served hot.

“So what brings you to Israel?”

“I’m doing some research” I explained. “I’m investigating how British Zionism reacted to the Holocaust.”

He raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the radio in the corner. My Hebrew wasn’t good enough to make out what was being said, but tone alone made clear that the radio host was delivering a harsh invective. I realised that it was international Holocaust Memorial Day.

“The right are complaining. He’s attacking the left. He says that the left keeps comparing the right to the Nazis, by saying that the new law is like forcing the left to wear a yellow star. He’s saying that this is an abuse of the memory of the Shoah.”

In Jerusalem, I imagined, this was a popular radio show. Jerusalem is not a city on the left.

“Do you agree?”

“The right are always complaining. They never admit their own faults. I’m not sure the new law is a good idea. But the left are always exaggerating and talking like the right is the world’s biggest evil.”

I thought about offering my own opinion, but I figured that his would be far more interesting. Caricatures of Israeli politics are so easy to find, but this was a rare opportunity to hear the unfiltered views of a native Jerusalemite.

“And what about you? Where are you, left or right?”

He shrugged sheepishly.

“If I am being honest, I am on the right.”

I put on my most convincing blank face, but he saw straight through it. He could see my disappointment.

“Not the right like that, not the right that is always in the news. Not like the guy on the radio. I’m on the centre-right. I believe in peace, I want peace. I was there with Rabin in the 90s. I was on the streets with him, I believed in him and in the end of the conflict.

But since then things have changed. The Arabs, they do not want peace. They see this as a religious war, this isn’t about land or politics to them. Look, if an Arab wants to stand outside my shop and talk or smoke, he can. But if a Jew were to go to Bethlehem or Hebron and stand outside without the IDF there, he would be dead within 10 minutes.

It is sad. Things are much worse now. I want to be on the left, but I look around today and I can’t be, so I am centre-right. Maybe one day there will be peace. But not today.”

Much has been made of the rise of the Israeli right. Academics, analysts and journalists debate the ideological influence of Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, the left’s historic racism towards Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, the secular-religious divide, and the impact of sustained exposure to terrorism on Israeli society. Anti-Zionist polemicists argue right-wing dominance reflects a society dedicated to West Bank settlements, violence, and racism.

But this was not a settler, a religious radical, or a member of Lehava. Nor did this Jerusalemite mention religious tensions or Ashkenazi condescension. The rise of the Israeli right is perhaps less complicated than it first appears. Would-be Israeli moderates and peaceniks are gripped by one single, powerful, narrative that took root in the early 2000s and continues to resonate strongly today. Many Israelis simply believe that the Palestinians do not want peace.

It is not a narrative that I think tells the whole story, nor is it one that I completely agree with. But I can see where it comes from. Even West Jerusalemites live in a world where the occupation feels distant but Palestinian violence feels immediate. Rightly or wrongly, Israelis read their recent history as one where offers of peace were returned with nothing but increased violence: Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposals resulted in the second intifada, the Gaza withdrawal lead to Hamas rockets and tunnels.

The dominance of the Israeli right may not be that complex at all. In a political spectrum that places security at one end and peace at the other, Israelis vote for hawkish parties because they simply believe they have no partner for peace.

My new friend was right on one thing though. Falafel is definitely best served hot.

The (Double) Standards Applied to Israel

Carter Vance

One of the most familiar tropes of the hasbara wing of Israel advocacy is the notion that Israel is being “singled-out” in the world for reasons which are implied, if not outright stated, to be anti-Semitic in nature. There is obviously some truth in this. But all too often, this observation is twisted into a dismissal of any critical focus on Israeli policy. It is important to distinguish what is and isn’t true about the standards, double or otherwise, Israeli conduct is held to.

There is no doubt that Israel receives a disproportionate amount of global attention relative to the scale of its human rights abuses. Yet, contrary to the hasbara line, anti-Semitism does not account for bulk of this discrepancy. There is the narrative, popular in leftist circles, of Israel as an essentially colonial project. There is also the fact that Israel, unlike North Korea or Sudan, has extensive economic, military and diplomatic ties with the West.

Perhaps most importantly, criticism of Israeli policy is based in the idea of holding Israel to the very standards its supporters espouse. We are constantly told that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that this should be applauded. However, democracies, and more specifically liberal democracies professing a devotion to human rights, are and ought to be held to a higher bar. Blindly following Israeli policy wherever it may lead and expecting absolutely no external consequences to flow from this is the definition of the very sort of double standard the people practising it so often decry. We expect human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but we are told not to expect them in Israel.

Thus the double standards of Israel’s critics reflects the double standards of her supporters. What this ultimately reveals is an essential difference between liberal and rightist forms of Zionism: conditionality. Liberal Zionists do believe in the essential case for a Jewish homeland, but their support for Israeli policy fluctuates on Israel’s alignment with other liberal values.

The idea that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ that ‘shares our values’ is important across the different Zionist camps. Liberal Zionism, however, does not accept these values as intrinsic to Israel but as a product of her conduct. This is why liberals oppose settlement expansion, gagging left-wing NGOs, racially discriminatory laws and language: because they are not policies living up to the agreed-upon standards for both liberal democracies in general and Israel in particular.

In other words, liberal Zionists agree entirely that Israel’s democratic character is a distinguishing feature we ought to support. The difference between left and right wing Zionism is that liberals do not sharply dismiss any criticisms and use the claim of Israeli democracy as a rhetorical shield. Rather, liberals see democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights as fragile concepts that must be fought for, whether in the United States, the European Union or, indeed, in the Holy Land.

From that liberal perspective, recent actions of the Israel government have been far from laudable. From easing rules on live ammunition fire during protests, to targeting peace-oriented NGOs, to allowing the jailing of 12 year-old Palestinians, these are not laws befitting a healthy democracy. One may rightly say that Israel would be “singled-out” amongst wrongdoing nations for paying some sort of penalty for these policies. But, consider not that many of these policies exist in unsavory regimes the world over, but if they were implemented today in Canada, in the United Kingdom, in France or Germany, criticism would be scathing.

When thought of in that light, the distinction becomes clearer between the liberal and the illiberal becomes ever clearer. Israel is not Sudan, not North Korea, not Gabon nor Saudi Arabia, and it should never be expected to live down to those standards. Rightful frustration with a general over-focus on Israel’s crimes, both at the UN and on campus, should never blind us to the essential values we want upheld. The Zionist camp should be proud, rather than angry, at the lofty standards we set for the Jewish state.