For many British Jews, Christmas is a special and even surreal experience.
As Santa Claus tried to find his way amid gale-force winds and ice storms into the homes of England’s Christians (many without electricity), nearly one per cent of UK Jews met in the university town of Warwick for a week-long series of courses and dialogues called “Limmud.”
It is the time of year when Britain’s Jews openly discuss and display their Jewishness – taking over a university campus for a week-long conference that is also a family experience.
“This is very special for us,” says Rochelle Richards, a grandmother and travel service operator, who is lining up (excuse me: queuing up) for an English breakfast of rolls, cereal, beans, cheese-sticks, and porridge.
“We normally don’t show our Jewishness, and we keep our heads down. We tell our friends ‘don’t wear your coppel (kippa or yarmulke) in public,” says Rochelle, juggling a cell phone and a breakfast food tray.
Warwick, a town with one of the oldest and most beautiful castles and moats, has been conquered by the Jews – non-religious and religious – who frolick with an almost heady abandon between the meals and classrooms and big lecture halls.
“In America, Jews are used to people making reference on the telly (television) and elsewhere to Hannukah,” she says. Not here. There are few if any ceremonies of lighting candles. In England, Hannukah is under the radar, and that is where most British Jews feel safest.
“We need to learn more from our Muslim neighbors who are not shy about themselves,” she says, and as we walk around the Warwick University campus there is a big building set aside as “Islamic Prayer Hall.”
Here, on Christmas, British Jews celebrated being Jews in their own way – hearing lectures on Jewish musicology, Israeli politics, Jews in U.S. politics, Talmud, Jewish feminism ,and so forth.
Natan Sharansky and the British chief rabbi gave talks. The Jewish film society also showed the movie “the Gatekeepers,” for which I was a commentator. The film society also distributed 100 free copies of the film.
Some of the audience members were annoyed when I said that the movie showed many elements of being a propaganda film – combining real and actual materials with fabricated ones. After teaching a film class at the University of California, I am conscious of film methods, but it would take hours to cover all the falsehoods and half-truths within the 101-minute film.
“The Gatekeepers” stars six former heads of “the Shin Bet” -Israel’s domestic intelligence service. That much is true. Much of what they say is not true.
When they claim that they were always right and that Israeli politicians always get it wrong, then they are wrong, sometimes dead wrong. In a sense, I feel as if I am a Gatekeeper arguing against the six gatekeepers.
The simple truth is Israeli intelligence chiefs (of all branches) are not always intelligent. They unanimously argued against Menachem Begin’s decision to destroy Iraq’s nuclear option. They were wrong. Begin was right.
“Gatekeepers” could be a good launching point for discussing how democratic societies can fight terror in an ethical manner. Instead it is a broad-based attack on Israel, on Israeli leaders, and on settlers.
That is a good way to get a nomination for film awards or to get on a program at Limmud or Israel studies conferences at UCLA, Brandeis, and around the world. It has has become a regular practice at too many conferences that deal with Israel.
Speakers with loud opinions and few facts charge that Israel is a settler state, a colonialist exploiter, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.
The truth about “Gatekeepers” is also a personal truth. Several chiefs of intelligence who have personal grudges against people like Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu got a chance for pay-back.
Yes, elected leaders make errors, but some Israeli intelligence chiefs also failed dramatically. And some did not deserve their job in the first place.
Carmi Gillon, on the job when Rabin was assassinated, was unqualified, having little background in the Arab sector. Gillon’s master thesis (on Jewish extremism) at Haifa University shows all the skills of a teenage composition. Ami Ayalon (who succeeded Gillon), had no Arabic and virtually no intelligence background.
Ayalon was a heroic commando officer and commander of Israel’s navy. For his great service, he deserves all praise, but he later accepted every Palestinian fantasy such as “the Geneva Initiative,” and he is today something of a political activist.
One of the stars of The Gatekeepers is Avraham Shalom. On film, he is an old man wearing suspenders, making strange gestures with his hands. Using him in a movie reminds me of Michael Moore’s focus on an aged and somewhat disabled Charlton Heston in one of Moore’s propaganda flicks.
In real life, Avraham Shalom ordered the murder of captured Arab terrorists and then successfully pinned the blame (for many months) on a leading Israeli general (Yitzhak Mordechai). Shalom also suborned a judicial commission of inquiry, placing one of his top men (Yossi Ginosar) on it, manipulating evidence.
The film does not mention this. Like Shalom, it manipulates evidence. The Limmud audience deserved to know this. Shalom was lucky not to go to jail. Film star Shalom now pins the murder on Yitzhak Shamir.
Yaakov Peri, another Shin Bet leader, was also corrupt. A special inquiry found Peri guilty of several serious violations. Shamir took pity on him and the Shin Bet. Instead of firing Peri, Shamir allowed him to finish the few months remaining in his term.
When Shamir lost the election, Yitzhak Rabin kept Peri on the job and used him as a professional umbrella to claim that Yasser Arafat and the PLO would protect Israelis from terror and keep watch on Hamas.
Peri became one of the great defenders of the Oslo Accords, which have been a strategic disaster for Israel. The audience needed to hear about Peri’s role in this real life-and-death drama, but there was no time. Perhaps they also needed to hear about the charges of ethical violations and accusations of corruption that have dogged Peri’s post-Shin-Bet career.
Elsewhere at the conference, several lectures were offered by a member of an organization that claims to monitor the ethical transgressions of Israeli soldiers, while another South African-born Jew offered a talk that asked whether Israel was becoming an apartheid society.
Most British Jews here were oblivious to the freezing weather, and that is easy to understand. While England’s Christians, beset by tremendous ice and wind storms, waited for the power to be turned on or to be rescued from flooded cars and closed-in airports, the Jews enjoyed a week in the fortress they had built not far from Warwick Castle.
England is not a religious country, and references to God and faith in the public sphere are quite limited. The Queen of England gave a televised Christmas address where she spoke about learning about the need to reflect from a man who spent several weeks immobilized in a plaster cast.
Elsewhere in her speech, Queen Elizabeth II doted on the birth of her grandson – George, named after her father – and having her family’s picture taken in a variety of poses and settings.
The Queen’s Speech was much less inspiring than Colin Firth’s performance in The King’s Speech, a film about the current queen’s father’s struggle to give an inspiring speech as war threatened England.
England’s Jews – at least the one percent at the Limmud conference – are aware that they too face a kind of war for continued existence. A visiting Israeli or American may laugh at some of their customs or food choices, but at least they try to come together to study and talk about being Jews.
In too many parts of America and even Israel, such an open conversation would not take place.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar Ilan University, was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and is the Schusterman Visiting Professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14.