Left-wing Zionist group’s rejection ignites UK debate

Left-wing Zionist group’s rejection ignites UK debate

A popular backlash follows a decision by the Jewish establishment not to recognize a new organization with liberal views on Israel

Members of Yachad tour the West Bank hills near Hebron. Britian's Zionist Federation recently rejected the group's membership application. (Courtesy of Yachad)
Members of Yachad tour the West Bank hills near Hebron. Britian's Zionist Federation recently rejected the group's membership application. (Courtesy of Yachad)

LONDON — Hannah Weisfeld seems upbeat. Last week, the group she directs, Yachad, had its membership application turned down by the Zionist Federation, an umbrella group of more than 120 UK Zionist outfits. It was perceived as a significant snub to the group, which is often dubbed Britain’s J Street, the liberal Israel lobby in the US. But a backlash followed. Community leaders lined up to declare that the ZF had made a mistake, while an editorial supportive of Yachad in the Jewish Chronicle  received a record number of messages of agreement. “ZF scored a huge own-goal,” tweeted editor Stephen Pollard.

For Weisfeld, it was a defining moment.

“It’s forced people to come down on the side of the line that says, ‘I support the right of this organization to define itself as Zionist,’ ” she told The Times of Israel. “The ZF created a situation where we’re able to say we have the support of the community en masse.”

But how deep does that support actually run? Yachad was established less than two years ago, in May 2011, “to provide a voice for British Jews who believe that to be pro-Israel today means safeguarding a Jewish and democratic Israel within internationally recognized borders, through the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Is there a thirst in the UK for a new, more critical type of conversation about Israel (as Peter Beinart claims in America), or has Yachad’s importance been exaggerated by the current controversy?

"Our position is no different to Olmert, Livni and any of the army generals we bring to speak," says Yachad director Hannah Weisfeld. (Courtesy of Yachad)
“Our position is no different to Olmert, Livni and any of the army generals we bring to speak,” says Yachad director Hannah Weisfeld. (Courtesy of Yachad)

David Hirsh, the founder of Engage, a campaign against academic boycotts of Israel, and a sociology lecturer at Goldsmith College, University of London, says that the ZF is wrong to exclude Yachad from the Zionist mainstream, but that it is a relatively “fringe” group. There is no serious market for a group that positions itself as challenging a powerful right-wing establishment, he contends, because the leadership is largely in tune with the consensus positions of Britain’s Jewish community on the two key issues: fighting anti-Semitism and accepting a two-state solution.

Take Bicom, which provides information on Israel to the British media, and the Community Security Trust, which represents the community on matters of anti-Semitism and security. While the former “has very clearly embraced the notion of being pro-Israel and pro-peace,” he says, the latter “is also good at recognizing anti-Semitism, and is in no way antagonistic to a two-state position.”

While “it’s tempting to portray the community as right-wing, establishment, pro-Likud, screaming about anti-Semitism,” and to claim to offer a left-wing response, “a world in which it is really hard for pro-peace Jews to get a hearing is not one I recognize.”

Two of the strongest expressions of support for Yachad’s predicament last week came from Jeremy Newmark, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, and Vivian Wineman, the president of the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s representative organization.

But Jonathan Hoffman, a member of the ZF national council who voted against Yachad, claims that they are further to the left than the community they lead.

The 2010 Institute for Jewish Policy Research survey on the attitude of British Jews to Israel shows that more than 95 percent have visited, and 82 percent say it plays a central or important role in their Jewish identities. While the community was dovish on key issues such as giving up territory for peace (67 percent were in favor) and expanding settlements (74 percent were against), there was also strong backing for security measures such as the security barrier (72 percent), and support for the 2008-’09 Gaza war (72 percent).

"They say they are Zionists and pro-Palestinian, but we found a lack of examples when it came to being pro-Israel," says Zionist Federation chairman Paul Charney. (Courtesy of the Zionist Federation)
“They say they are Zionists and pro-Palestinian, but we found a lack of examples when it came to being pro-Israel,” says Zionist Federation chairman Paul Charney. (Courtesy of the Zionist Federation)

For Hoffman, the meaning is clear: “The rank and file are still pretty staunchly pro-Israel.”

The implication is that they would not be interested in Yachad, which Hoffman counts among groups such as Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice for Palestinians that loudly oppose the Jewish establishment on Israel, but attract minute followings.

Yachad, he claims, represents a few “vocal people and literate people” from the artistic and media world, and Weisfeld is “overegging her pudding” by claiming more.

Weisfeld counters that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the community. The political discourse, she says, is “shifting very quickly. The community is at a dramatically different place to where it was three years ago,” when, she claims, debate on Israel was more stifled.

Nowadays, there is “an understanding that debate is okay,” a change she credits to Yachad’s own work; to community leaders such as Jewish Leadership Council chair Mick Davis, who publicly supported “constructive criticism” of Israel; and to the Israeli government’s hawkish policies.

In 2012, the group ran 88 events attracting 3,480 people and raised £87,372 ($132,289) from 88 donors. Unexpected doors have opened: Weisfeld has been welcomed at several Orthodox shuls. Members come from across the age spectrum, and there are many young members seeking a more liberal conversation on Israel.

Yachad’s biggest challenge, says Weisfeld, is managing its rapid growth. Groups like the ZF feel threatened because, “in a quite short period of time, we’ve grown quite fast. It’s very obvious to lots of people that the next generation is in our camp, moving in this direction.”

One sympathizer, Keith Kahn-Harris,the  author of “Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today,” agrees that the organization has earned a following quickly, but says many followers worry that it is hampered by its desire to be accepted by the mainstream community. One symptom is its application to the ZF. Another is its decision not to campaign in the wider political sphere for a two-state solution, but to focus on changing the discourse in the Jewish community through educational sessions, media work and facilitating trips to the East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“You can argue that they will be more effective working in the Jewish community than being one small group lobbying the government, but it blunts their edge,” he says.

ZF national council member Jonathan Hoffman considers Yachad's membership application a "publicity stunt." (Courtesy of Jonathan Hoffman)
ZF national council member Jonathan Hoffman considers Yachad’s membership application a “publicity stunt.” (Courtesy of Jonathan Hoffman)

The inevitable comparison is to political lobby J Street.

Initially, says Kahn-Harris, “the association helped because it was a model to work on, but now it’s clear they are completely different organizations. They work in completely different ways.”

Weisfeld says that the two occupy the same political space, but Yachad chooses to focus on grassroots work because there is no culture of lobbying in the UK, and in order to give its supporters a communal platform. The two groups are also responding to different communities.

When it comes to Israel, there are large numbers of disaffected UK Jews, Weisfeld says, “but it’s not as extreme in the US.”

She credits Britain’s strong culture of Zionist youth movements, such as Habonim Dror, the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) and Hanoar Hatzioni, which “give kids a positive experience of Israel.” Britain’s relative proximity to Israel also means that most Jews have visited, so the community is relatively knowledgeable and attached.

The media environment, on the other hand, is harsher than America’s, as is the political scene, with no Christian Zionists to balance the general Israel debate. It is impossible to shield young British Jews from multiple perspectives on Israel, and once they have left the protective cocoon of the youth movements, the shock and disillusion may be greater, raising questions about how to educate teens on Israel.

Weisfeld has experienced the process herself. A graduate of Habonim, her three years at Sussex University, beginning in 2000, were marred by “nasty student politics,” in which her Zionism “made me unpalatable to many of the students.” When she later returned to her old youth group as the education director, she suddenly found herself perceived as “the polar opposite, on the liberal left of the spectrum.”

“When I finished, I said I never wanted anything to do with Israel or the conflict again,” she says.

Eventually, Weisfeld went to work for the Pears Foundation, where she conducted research into social justice and the Jewish community, and coordinated the UK community’s Darfur campaign.

“At a certain point, the world of Israeli activism and broader social justice collided for me, largely inspired by seeing what happened in America in J Street,” she says. “It captured a certain mood, and I’ve tried to do something similar here.”

In 2012, Yachad ran 88 events attracting 3,480 people and raised $132,289

Had Yachad not existed, she allows, a small number of members might have joined anti-Israel groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The crux of Yachad’s problems in the broader Jewish community, though, is that many regard Yachad itself as an anti-Israel group. A variant on this accusation caused its rejection from the ZF.

The 10-month application process included a commitment by Yachad to adhere to the Jerusalem Program, the World Zionist Organization’s platform, which makes a “secure” Israel a priority and calls the unity of the Jewish people a foundation of Zionism.

At the conclusion of the process, the ZF’s constitutional committee recommended against accepting the application. Nevertheless, says ZF chairman Paul Charney, the national committee took a vote.

According to Hoffman, perhaps 18 of about 20 people present voted against Yachad.

“Everything we’d been required to do seemed to be irrelevant,” says Weisfeld.

Charney maintains that the decision was fair because it was democratic. He emphasizes that Yachad is not the only organization recently turned down; so was Herut on the right. (It gained admission when it reapplied after six months, an option Charney encourages Yachad to pursue.) Nor does the ZF have a problem with left-wing members. Its affiliates already include groups such as Meretz and Pro-Zion, the UK Progressive movement’s Zionist organization.

The issue, says Charney, was that Yachad’s pro-Israel talk did not seem to match its actions.

“They say they are Zionists and pro-Palestinian, but we found a lack of examples when it came to being pro-Israel,” he says. “They were more critical than defensive of Israel. Pro-Palestinian work is fine, but you need both sides.”

Hoffman says that he voted against Yachad because he believes it does not adhere to the Jerusalem Program, although it signed up.

Specific allegations include that Yachad threatened Israel’s security by advocating for the “immediate creation” of a Palestinian state, and by supporting the recent UN upgrade to Palestinian status, opening up a path to cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Yachad’s tours of what he calls “Judea and Samaria” — the biblical term for the West Bank —  including Palestinian refugee camps, he says, are one-sided, and he alleges that Weisfeld is equivocal when it comes to boycotts of goods from Israeli settlements.

Had Yachad not existed, Weisfeld allows, a small number of members might have joined anti-Israel groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Citing an essay Weisfeld wrote for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion, in which she said that the rejection was “hardly a surprise,” Hoffman accuses her of applying to the ZF in bad faith.

“Was it purely a publicity stunt? It’s the only reason I can think of,” he says.

Weisfeld responds that anyone who thinks she does not speak up for Israel “has selective hearing. All they have to do is read the pieces I wrote about George Galloway or the BDS movement or to listen to me on a panel with [Israeli New Historian] Ilan Pappe. I’m not in his camp.”

She says that Hoffman is wrong on several of his facts, pointing out that Yachad does not take tours to refugee camps, nor does it call for the “immediate” creation of a Palestinian state.

“Our position is no different to Olmert, Livni, and any of the army generals we bring to speak,” she says, naming a former Israeli prime minister and foreign minister. “It doesn’t mean we want to dismantle Israel’s borders and leave Israel insecure.”

Similarly, many people within Israel agreed with the Palestinian UN upgrade, “not so that Israel could be sanctioned at the ICC, but because it might provide momentum to make something happen in the international community,” she says.

She stands by her position on BDS, which is that “if the BDS movement had chosen to boycott [only] over the Green Line [Israel’s pre-1967 border], it would be a different debate. Boycotting Israel in its entirety makes their motivations dubious.”

Given the discourse, can the two very different ends of the political spectrum be reconciled under one umbrella organization? In six months, if Yachad does reapply for ZF membership — a move Weisfeld says she will only consider if Yachad is guaranteed “an equal space at the table” — Anglo-Jewry may find out.

If Yachad builds on the wave of support it has seen this week, by then it may be harder to ignore.

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