LONDON — To the extent that there can be a British Jewish communal response to Operation Protective Edge – a community of 280,000 with multitudinous political opinions, allegiances, and concerns – a joint statement of different movements reflects an anxiety about the toll the war is taking on people on both sides.
The British Liberal, Reform, and Masorti movements along with the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation collectively undersigned the following statement in response to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip: “In these painful times we regret the loss of all innocent life. Our thoughts are with all those who grieve and we fervently pray that we soon see a just and lasting peace for all in the region.”
However, this alarm, at the same time, does not diminish collective support for and solidarity with Israel. As Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, said in her own statement:
We stand alongside our brothers and sisters in Israel at this frightening time, viewing this escalation of the conflict with great sadness and concern. Jewish tradition emphasizes that defense is a duty, not an option. In the words of our Siddur, we pray that God grants ‘safety to those who guard and those who watch, and skill to those who must take difficult decisions, so that they be always guided by the need to avoid harm to the innocent.’ We fervently pray that both sides will move towards a ceasefire as soon as possible.
Grassroots initiatives within the British Jewish community are a reflection of these dual concerns: a concern for Israel, and a concern for peace. The Zionist Federation organized a rally in support of Israel – estimates indicate around 5,000 supporters came out on Kensington High Street in London on July 20 – and smaller demonstrations have occurred in Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, Leeds, and Brighton. But when it comes to political initiatives, it is increasingly the work of Yachad that is drawing the most attention.
British Jews are #hungryforpeace
On the Seventeenth of Tammuz (July 15 in 2014), Yachad – a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization – coordinated the dedication of this fast day against violence and in favor of peace, using social media and the hashtag #hungryforpeace to disseminate its message.
The campaign was supported by hundreds of individuals, including dozens of community rabbis such as Margaret Jacobi of the Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, who explained why she participated in an op-ed for The Guardian:
As a Progressive Jew I do not normally keep the fast, but yesterday there was ample cause for mourning: the loss of life, the suffering and the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel and Palestine. In joining a fast with the message of “Hungry for Peace” with hundreds of Jews and Muslims in this country, and across the world, we hope we sent the message that we yearn for peace and we mourn the loss of the life of every human being – Jew or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian.
“The reason that campaign was so well received was because it was inspired by Israelis and Palestinians,” said Hannah Weisfeld, director and a founder of Yachad. Weisfeld said there was a feeling among participants that they have to do something to promote peace.
“At times like this, it often comes down to whose team are you on, but many within the community are beyond that. Instead of choosing a team, many people are choosing peace and that’s a very positive message,” said Weisfeld.
In terms of social and charitable responses to Operation Protective Edge, UJIA launched an appeal called Children of the South to raise funds for young residents of the Negev afflicted by the conflict. Indeed, studies conducted in Sderot have found that 45 percent of the town’s children suffer from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, often manifest as development regression.
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.
Rabbi Marc Levene of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue in north London, said during the telethon, “Since this conflict started, there’s been a real sense in the community of ‘what can we do?’ Today was a real opportunity to channel all that support and empathy and do something meaningful for Israel’s children.”
UJIA’s Director of Fundraising & Communications David Goldberg said after the telethon the community’s support for the people of Israel “really shone through today.”
“It’s a fantastic testament both to the volunteers themselves who have given up their weekend, and to the incredible work that is being done by our partners in Israel, taking care of children who need help,” said Goldberg.
Deflating intercommunal tensions
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the UK community’s umbrella organization, has among other things sought to coordinate the interfaith response to the violence in Israel and Gaza, in an attempt to avoid the sought of intercommunal tension that has blighted Europe and France in particular. While a synagogue in Belfast did indeed have its windows broken, Britain has not yet seen street clashes near synagogues and vandalism and looting of Jewish-owned businesses, as has occurred in Paris.
Some of this more moderate reaction may stem from the Muslim Council of Britain. Shuja Shafi its secretary general, made a point of releasing a statement July 14 which said, “Whilst we may hold strong views about the causes of the conflict and what needs to be done to bring the violence to an end, we are nevertheless resolved to ensure that the Israel-Palestine conflict does not affect the excellent relations held between Muslims and Jews in the United Kingdom. We urge all our communities to remember the importance of civility and courtesy between each other.”
The Board welcomed Shafi’s words, adding that the expansion and the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas “makes it even more important for Muslims and Jews to find the space and civility to communicate with each other and build on our good relations. The violence and anti-Semitism that has disfigured France in the past week must never be allowed to happen here.”
The Board also thanked the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby for his condemnation of anti-Semitism.
Future Jewish community initiatives
Future planned grassroots initiatives in the community will continue to reflect the desire both to support Israel and support peace. Yachad’s latest campaign is an open letter to the head of the UK delegation to the United Nations, Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, who on August 1 took up the presidency of the United Nations Security Council.
Imploring the ambassador to do everything in his power to “to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza to bring the hostilities to an end,” it reads in part:
We believe that Israel’s best hope for long-term security lies in a stable, enduring, comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the absence of a long-term peace agreement this war will be repeated again and again. We urge you to bring international actors together urgently to chart a way forward for long-term peace to be achieved.
People in the Jewish community in Britain are becoming “more desperate and more concerned” about the situation in Gaza as it progresses, Weisfeld said.
“This is the third version of this conflict in six years and it is no longer seen as illegitimate to say that this type of attempt to weaken Hamas’ hold on the Gaza Strip isn’t working and isn’t producing the results we want. The feedback we’ve been getting is thank God there’s another voice. People are desperate for a different voice,” said Weisfeld.