LONDON — This month an intense group of pro-Israel campaigners sat for hours in a stuffy room in Glasgow, home to Scotland’s largest Jewish community. Most of the campaigners, busy planning a conference to be held in the city on August 20, are enthusiastic non-Jews.
Led by Nigel Goodrich, a former lay preacher in the Free Church of Scotland, they have set up a network of Friends of Israel groups and Scotland, long written off as beyond the pale for the pro-Israel community, may at long last be undergoing a revival.
There are seven so far: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, North East Scotland, Grampian, the Highlands, and, with a delicious irony, Dumfries & Galloway — the latter placename also being the surname of Britain’s most infamous anti-Israel activist, George Galloway. At least two more groups are planned, one in the Forth Valley and another in the Borders.
When the first group in Edinburgh was formed in March, 220 people turned up; in May, in Glasgow, numbers were restricted to 120, but organizers say many more were interested. A Highland Friends of Israel conference is planned for September 19 and there will be pro-Israel stalls out on the streets in Inverness.
Goodrich, softly-spoken and humorous, said the appetite for the Friends’ of Israel groups is extraordinary.
“We’ve brought people together who care for Israel for a variety of different reasons.” said Goodrich. Many of them, he believes, are Christians who are frustrated by the attitudes of their church leadership. “For example, the Church of Scotland does not support Israel.”
That is putting it mildly. The Church of Scotland issued a controversial report in 2013 which questioned the divine right of Jews to the Land of Israel, and last year resolutions were again tabled asking for the Church to impose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions measures against Israel.
Now formed into a Confederation of Friends of Israel in Scotland, Goodrich’s troops are out on the streets week after week, challenging perceptions. And they are already getting some interesting feedback.
‘There are usually people telling us that they are sick of hearing about the Palestinians all the time’
“There are usually people telling us that they are sick of hearing about the Palestinians all the time,” said chair of the Edinburgh Friends, Dorothé Kaufmann. Whenever her group sets up a stall or hands out leaflets, she said people “can’t believe that Israel is an apartheid state, but they say they are not getting any other message — so they are quite pleased to read our material.”
Crucially, said Goodrich, the Friends do not set out to run specific counter-protests to demonstrations held by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Instead, the line is to put out pro-Israel material whenever they can — whether or not the PSC is around.
“We have four objectives,” said Goodrich. “We want to engage with the political process, locally and nationally; we are working on public advocacy, such as our street stalls, but we have also had conferences, film nights, and even tasting sessions where we offer Israeli food.
“We want to reach out, wherever possible, to Christians in churches and call for their support; and we also want to attract students and young people, and offer them support and training in how best to advocate for Israel,” said Goodrich.
The impact of the Friends groups can’t yet be measured fully but Goodrich is convinced that “very slowly, but definitely, we are changing the narrative here.”
“We tell people we are pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace. The PSC doesn’t have much of an answer to that,” he said.
There are other signs of change, too, not least in the annual Edinburgh Festival and Fringe program which attracts thousands of international visitors to Scotland every summer.
Edinburgh has become a by-word for hot politicization of the Israel-Palestine conflict, reaching its nadir last summer when the Underbelly Theatre elected to cancel performances by Israel’s Incubator Theatre because of PSC protests. It was estimated that the noise of the demonstrations affected at least 15 other venues around the Underbelly.
Much of the anger of the demonstrators, out on the streets as violence raged in Gaza, was directed at the Incubator which had received money from the Israeli government in order to bring the production to Edinburgh.
‘The Edinburgh Fringe is known for accepting everybody and as a place for free speech and free expression. I think the festival is losing ground to loud shouters’
The theater company’s director, Arik Eshet, told the Guardian in 2014 that the Israeli government “funds art for art. It can be against the government, we are not censored. Every group that comes to the Fringe from other countries is unable to come without government help.”
Eshet added, gloomily, “The Edinburgh Fringe is known for accepting everybody and as a place for free speech and free expression. I think the festival is losing ground to loud shouters.”
This year’s Festival and Fringe are very different and there appear to be very few Middle East-related events this year other than a performance by the American-Israeli pianist, Yefim Bronfman, and a stand-up comedy night entitled Free Gaza! by four well-known comedians on the UK circuit, including the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina.
And then there is the comic play “5 Kilo Sugar,” brought to Edinburgh by the London-based Tik-sho-ret Theatre Company. Written by Gur Koren, the play is set in Tel Aviv, but the company has not sought funding from official Israeli sources. Instead it is supported by two Jewish charities, the Andrew Balint Charitable Trust and the Shoresh Charitable Trust.
Ariella Eshed, the play’s director and translator, acknowledged that last summer’s furor had an effect on her decision against seeking government funding.
‘We’ve been helped tremendously by the Edinburgh Friends of Israel who got in touch with us when they heard we were coming and they have been really supportive’
“Demonstrators made that the ‘official’ reason [for disrupting the Incubator shows] so it will be interesting to see whether they stand by that,” said Eshed.
The Tik-sho-ret actors, two Israeli and two British-born, are all London-based. They were “excited and nervous” about their Edinburgh run, Eshed said.
“We’ve been helped tremendously by the Edinburgh Friends of Israel who got in touch with us when they heard we were coming and they have been really supportive, helping with publicity. Some of them have already bought tickets and just knowing that there are people there who are happy about what we are doing is really very nice,” said Eshed.
Meanwhile the Underbelly, somewhat bruised from its experience last summer, has decided on a different take. Under the banner of Walking the Tightrope, the venue will be hosting eight separate five-minute plays by some of Britain’s best-known playwrights, all exploring the theme of freedom of expression in the arts.
The plays were written in response to last year’s cancellation of cultural events — including the UK Jewish Film Festival at London’s Tricycle Theatre — and a controversial anti-slavery show at the capital’s Barbican, Exhibit B, which had to be canceled due to safety concerns. The attacks on France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine cast a long shadow, too.
“Throughout this process, I have genuinely felt as if I am walking a tightrope. Nerve-wracking questions have stayed unanswered: should I censor a play about art censorship if it is offensive? How can I make sure we get a balanced set of opinions? Is it possible to take a neutral position in presenting these explosive plays? How can I get a debate going, but avoid a backlash? How do I make sure I don’t get anyone in trouble, including myself?” said director of Walking the Tightrope, Cressida Brown.
“The fact that freedom of expression seems so complicated to negotiate at the moment is exactly why I think we should raise it,” said Brown.
‘The fact that freedom of expression seems so complicated to negotiate at the moment is exactly why I think we should raise it’
One of the contributors is the high-profile Caryl Churchill, a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, whose 2009 play, “Seven Jewish Children,” outraged many in the Jewish community and was called anti-Semitic by the Jewish Chronicle’s theater critic, John Nathan. Another critic described it as “straitjacketed political orthodoxy.”
This time Churchill has offered a short play called “Tickets Are Now On Sale,” which, she said, examines the relationship between politics and art by demonstrating the effect sponsorship has on artistic content.
After the performances of all eight plays — which run from August 5-31 at the Underbelly in Edinburgh — question and answer sessions are planned with invited panellists including journalists, academics, those working in the arts — and even diplomats.