We Need to Talk About (Talking About) Israel

Jake Berger

Recent events at King’s Jewish Society have reignited the seemingly never-ending debate about the relationship between Jewish Societies and Israel on university campuses. On an issue so prone to polemic, I want to discuss the issue in a more nuanced way than has been done previously, and set out my vision for the big Israel question on campus.

It’s necessary to start by dispelling a myth: the notion that it is possible to surgically cleave a person’s Jewishness from their relationship with Israel. This myth is pervasive, both amongst anti-Zionists accused of anti-Semitism, and amongst Jews who personally do not identify with Israel.

Even if it is possible theoretically, the evidence demonstrates that, in practice, an overwhelming majority of British Jews’ association with Israel constitutes part of their identity as Jews. In a recent survey conducted by Yachad, 93% of British Jews took this position. For 93% of British Jews, it is impossible to separate their Jewishness and their identification with Israel. That’s a staggering proportion, rendering the claim that it’s possible to totally separate a person’s Jewishness and their identification with Israel simplistic, and, for the most part, wrong. The 7% should recognise this fact.

So where does this leave our JSocs?

On the one hand, this invalidates the idea that our JSocs should be ‘Israel free’. If we want JSocs to be collective expressions of our Jewish identities, then it makes no sense to exclude Israel from them. Whilst JSocs should aim to be as inclusive as possible of all Jews, including the 7% of Jews who do not identify with Israel, that 7% should not be able to dictate the terms of the JSoc for the remaining 93%.

Conversely, we often hear that given the strength of Jewish student identification with Israel, JSocs should be advocating for Israel and countering any anti-Israel sentiment on campus. However, this answer too has its problems. What is often overlooked is the multifaceted nature in which these 93% do identify with Israel.

Making JSocs ‘do’ Israel too often means, in practice, a narrow form of (usually) right-wing advocacy that doesn’t fit the way many Jewish students identify with Israel. Some Jewish students identify politically with Israel or Zionism, and it could be a part of their Jewishness that they want to challenge the delegitimisation of the Jewish state. For some Jewish students, their identification with Israel leads them to campaign for the two-state solution and against Israeli settlements. Others identify nationally and religiously with Israel, and it could be a part of their Jewishness that they feel a national connection to their homeland. Or one could identify culturally with Israel, and it could be a part of their Jewishness that they take pride in Israel’s cultural achievements. Or one could identify with a combination of these ideas, or none at all.

The point is that within the 93% who identify with Israel as a part of their Jewishness, identification with Israel is hugely varied. Identification with Israel doesn’t always entail support for policies of Israel, nor does it pertain to a desire to campaign politically for it. It may do for some people, but it also may not for others.

Jewish Societies must reflect the diversity of Jewish identification with Israel, both within and beyond the political arena. Accordingly, Jewish Societies are never going to be the paragon of Israel advocacy that some seem to desire. And I don’t think they should be. Jewishness, and by extension identification with Israel, is too complex and too multifaceted for that to be the case. Like it or not, the complexity of Jewish identity means that one person’s manifestation of their Zionism is not going to be the same as another’s.

It is important to note that this principle extends to other issues related to JSocs and Jewish identity. We would never expect our JSocs to only cater for one religious strand of Judaism, and the same principle should apply to how JSocs approach Israel.

I want to stress that this should not be seen as a negative thing. Rather, I think this diversity strengthens our collective Jewish identity. There are a lot of things we share, but also differences that should be engaged with and discussed. This is what makes us greater than the sum of our parts as a community. I don’t think these differences should be ignored or swept under the carpet – to do so would be both an injustice to the value of our Jewishness, and would result in a watered-down Jewish experience. Part of the beauty of being Jewish is that in a room of two Jews, there are three opinions.

This all links in to what the purpose of a Jewish Society on a university campus is. This is sometimes ignored or forgotten about. A Jewish Society should be there to serve all those on a campus who identify as Jewish, and provide an outlet for them to express their Jewishness. This is not an easy thing to do, and the ‘Israel issue’ demonstrates why it is so hard. But it upsets me to know that there are Jews on some campuses who want nothing to do with their Jewish Society, because the politicised nature of some of the society’s activities makes them feel alienated.

What does my vision look like in practice? I believe that the key to a successful JSoc, on Israel and on other issues, lies in an active and engaged pluralism. Inclusivity is achieved by embracing our issues of difference rather than by pretending they don’t exist. JSocs should not take a singular position on Israel, but cater for a multiplicity of views and identifications. This means JSocs should be able to hold cultural events like Israeli Friday Night Dinners, and support Israel charities such as Leket or Save A Child’s Heart. JSocs should host speakers from both StandWithUs and Breaking The Silence. But for narrower and more overt political advocacy, I would suggest Israel Societies take on that task.

Nor should the 7% of Jews who don’t identify with Israel be ignored – but given that Israel only encompasses a small amount of what JSocs do, there are plenty of other avenues for their Jewish identities to be expressed through JSocs.

The precise calibration of what a JSoc puts on each year is down to the individual JSoc. The people who know what works for their campus are those students who live on it every day during term time, and it would be wrong for some overbearing power to dictate how things should be done. Some JSocs may find that there is a remarkable consensus of opinion on Israel; others may not. But each JSoc should cater to the full range of identity and opinion within its Jewish community.

Therefore I don’t think that discussion of Israel at a Jewish Society should be censored. Israel clearly forms a part of a majority of British Jews’ Jewish identity, and this should be respected and explored. It is important, though, to recognise that differences of opinion exist, together with differences in Jewish identity, and our JSocs should serve this diversity. To ignore it would be against what the Jewish student experience should be about.

Jake is running for President of the Union of Jewish Students in the UK.