Lesson British Jewry should learn [rom the le[t
ON HOLIDAY in Israel recently, I found myself deep in Gush Etzion, a settlement bloc south of Jerusalem, for the first time in 15 years. I’d been avoiding the Occupied Territories because it didn’t feel safe and I have no emotional or ideological attachment to draw me there. And I didn’t mean to go this time either — my satnav led me there as a shortcut. (Thanks, Waze.) Uncomfortable, I kept a careful watch for other cars with Israeli number plates and sped through as fast as legally possible.
But having survived the experience intact, we returned twice over the next few days — deliberately. We enjoyed a jeep tour of the Gush and then visited a distant relative on an isolated hilltop. Even the residents of the closest settlement, a collection of run-down caravans in the distance, seemed to regard his outpost as a bit extreme.
We spent the afternoon exploring a cave (“Where young King David hid from King Saul”, he told our awe-struck kids) and watching newborn lambs.
I loved the fresh air and the stunning views of the Dead Sea and momentarily understood the attraction of those hilltops. I was also pretty scared throughout, driving through Arab villages where we clearly did not belong, past large signs warning Israelis not to take certain turnings because they would endanger their lives. I won’t be back in a hurry.
Nevertheless, I’m glad we went, for one reason: it was a political education for my children.
Although as a family we have spent significant time in Israel, they were barely aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and certainly had no concept of what the disputed areas might look like. Why was the wall built, they wanted to know? What was life like behind it? Could Palestinians drive into Jerusalem? Is this really Israel? Why is there a conflict? And the bit which, unexpectedly, bothered them more than anything else: why can’t Jews go into the Palestinian areas? (“It’s not fair and it’s racist”.)
We discussed the issues at length and I hope that seeing this first-hand was the beginning of a political awakening — whichever side, left or right, they end up on.
I’ve been thinking about this experience these past weeks, as the community has grappled with the dilemma of how to treat Jews on the far-left when it comes to Israel, including members of Jewdas and those who said Kaddish for Hamas terrorists. There seems to be a dawning realisation on the centre-right that there are more of these people than they imagined; that many are affiliated, even active Jewishly; and that, given the current political realities, they are going to have a louder voice than many would like.
Our view of Israel is romantic and cartoonish
But why did the mainstream community’s reaction seem to verge on hysteria? Why did it feel like we were being wrong-footed?
It’s not just about left and right. The truth is that as a community, our view of Israel is not terribly politicised. We celebrate Israeli inventions, watch Israeli TV shows, enjoy Israeli food, do a spot of Israeli dancing (about 50 years out of date) at weddings and barmitzvahs. As tourists, we sit on the beach at Herzliya or hang out in the lobby of the Dan Pan, and believe that we’re “experiencing Israel”. Our view of Israel is affectionate, romantic, cartoonish and mostly detached from real life, just like Anglophiles who love Big Ben and crumpets don’t really understand modern Britain.
Yes, there are many people who defend Israel’s every military action, but that’s not true political awareness. We are, generally speaking, remarkably ignorant of the larger political conversation shaping the argument amongst Israel’s opponents — conversations about intersectionality, imperialism, oppression and social justice.
When Jewish secondary school graduates first encounter this discourse on campus they are baffled and thrown. Encountering this narrative and the accompanying activism is like discovering you’ve been playing cricket for 18 years whilst the rest of the world was playing football. Or maybe like being run over with a steamroller. We are not equipped to respond.
Compared to the mainstream community, the Jewish activists on the far left are more politically sophisticated. They have a more realistic grasp of where the argument about Israel is in political circles, and have the vocabulary to participate. They may offend and frighten many of us, but we can learn from their political consciousness and commitment.
The road to Gush Etzion from Jerusalem