LONDON — Simon Schama, one of Britain’s most prominent historians, has called on British Jewry to engage more forcefully with the non-Jewish world as a counter to rising anti-Semitism and hostility towards the State of Israel.
Speaking at the annual fundraising dinner for the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) on Monday evening at Grosvenor House in London, Schama warned “we live in dark times.” While stressing he understood that “the situation in this country could be worse – it could be France,” Schama said that “right now, we’re a little bit on the back foot.”
UJIA is the largest charitable organization in Britain focused on working with young people and focusing on strengthening Jewish identity and a connection to Israel through formal and informal educational programming.
“We’re faced not just with criticism of Israel. What is new and poisonous and dangerous is that we are faced not with criticism of what Israel does, but what Israel is,” said Schama at the dinner.
“We need to reclaim the word ‘Zionist’ as if it is word to be ashamed of – it is not a word to be ashamed of and it is not a word to run away from,” said Schama, whose five-part documentary series “The Story of the Jews” and the first of two written volumes on Jewish history were released last year.
He noted that in spite of the warm reception both received from Jews and non-Jews alike, Jews are “having to do the work of explaining to non-Jews all over again. And we have to do it. We have to support Israel but we have to do it outside of our own tent as well or we really are in trouble. We have to find ways of doing this. It is fallen to Jews over the centuries to do this.”
The success of “The Story of the Jews” – which when aired on the BBC last year reached a weekly peak audience of around 3 million people – showed that in Britain there is a “large audience prepared to listen and be educated about what it has meant to be a Jew over the last three millennia.”
Moreover, said Schama, it demonstrated that while a purpose of the project was “to refresh our own memories – and there can never be enough refreshing of memory of what it the great Jewish epic of endurance and achievement,” the Jewish story “can also to reach a non-Jewish audience” — and that it needs to.
‘What we have in the way of Holocaust education in the non-Jewish community is very often “drive-through Anne Frank”‘
“What we have in the way of Holocaust education in the non-Jewish community is very often ‘drive-through Anne Frank.’ It needs to be better than that. Non-Jews need to be part of the excitement and inspiration of what it is when you read the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi or [Chaim] Bialik. They need to read “Vindiciae Judaeorum,” they need to read a document which changed the world, Moses Mendelssohn’s “Jerusalem.” We need to understand what it is to educate others as well as replenish our own sources of knowledge and collective confidence,” he continued.
“When we leave this place, when we go to our workplaces, when we encourage our children in university when they are on the rough-end of the barracking of students unions, when our children in school attract hideously brutal attention for wearing a kippa or even just for being Jewish, we need not to run away from this.
“This is not a time for understatement. This is a time for eloquent courage and education in any way that we can bring it to the schools and the wider school or else the hatred will grow,” he said.
Schama calls on British Jewry to be staunch, loyal, loving Friends of Israel, saying, “This is a moment when we can make that emotional connection with each other, with that which we cherish, and promise our loyalty to each other and to our loved ones in Israel and our beloved state as well, and take that confidence and strength out of these doors in London, into the wider world.”
Monday’s evening fundraiser – held in the company of Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Daniel Taub and the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis – was the largest UJIA Annual Dinner held since 2002. It raised £3.8 million, half a million pounds more than the same event in 2013.
In an evening themed on the need to secure the next generation’s emotional commitment to Israel, UJIA Chairman Bill Benjamin while setting out the broad aims of the organization asked attendees to increase their donations by 20 percent.
“Transformation cannot be done on a shoestring. In fact, we have to double UJIA’s level of investment over the next four years,” he said.
Benjamin said that, in the UK, UJIA wanted to continue backing the various youth movements – which it supports financially in the background – while doubling its investment in Birthright.
‘A thousand members of our community came together to stand firm and look to the future’
In Israel, UJIA wishes to focus on rebuilding “the run down Darca Danciger High School” in the northernmost development town of Kiryat Shmona, creating a new educational facility at Kibbutz Eshbal for disadvantaged youth, and the introduction of funding for a science and technology initiative in schools across the Galilee.
Its work in Israel is focused on the Galilee, a region where 45% of people live below the poverty line. There, projects include the Merom HaGalil School and Early Childhood Centre, Shlomi High School, a new medical school in Tsfat, a business school at Western Galilee College, specialist science and technology education at Tel-Hai College; and Kibbutz Eshbal, which is rescuing teenagers from lives that are often heading for prison or worse.
More recently, during Operation Protective Edge, the UJIA launched an appeal called Children of the South to raise funds for young residents of the Negev afflicted by the conflict. On July 27, UJIA held a telethon and raised £140,000 ($236,000), earmarked towards the delivery of hot meals and day camps in shelters.
In the UK, meanwhile, UJIA works with the Union of Jewish Students, Jewish day schools, and helps the country’s various youth movements from Habonim Dror to Bnei Akiva. In addition to financial aid, they assist in the training of madrichim as to ensure that young people are able to run their own programs effectively.
The British backer and organizer of Birthright and Masa, 1,200 young people each year also go on one month tours of Israel through their Israel Tour program in coordination with the youth movements.
After the event, annual dinner chair Keith Black said, “The atmosphere last night was genuinely electric. A thousand members of our community came together to stand firm and look to the future… This is how our supporters can make their mark on the Jewish story and continue that story long into the future.”