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December 29, 2013 9:53 am

Christmas With Britain’s Jews

avatar by Michael Widlanski

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Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: wiki commons.

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.

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  • Jerry Wikerson

    leftists should apologize for what they have wrought – Israel is now at war, so much for giving up land. How is that Oslo thing going for you all now? lol Gaza was given up and now it is a Hamas terrorist infested state. Good going. land for peace right on!

  • Solly Berger
  • Solly Berger

    History cannot lie, facts cannot lie. The brits are responsible for the deaths of many innocent lives. When Jews were trying to escape the ovens in Poland and Germany, they got on boat, like did my parents, and go to Cypress. Many of their friends were not so fortunate and were locked out, shipped back to Europe to perish. Anyone who denies this is a bloody liar.

  • Zed

    I am astonished that this site has allowed such an off-subject post as Ms Lurya’s last one, and one so littered with falsehoods. Do you moderate this site?

  • Sandy Brown

    I never bother to watch the Queen and her silly speech on Xmas Day. She has no clue. She knows nothing of the little person in the street. She and the rest of her family are out of date. They are defunct. They are past their sell by dates! Yes, the Muslims have taken over somewhat in our country. They must not be upset in any way. We must not upset them. But if Jesus gets slagged off or the Jews, nobody says anything really. Sad innit.

    • Solly Berger

      hip hip hoorey, thanks matey for your honesty

    • Sad Jewess

      the queen is a stooge, and going bk too. The Jews in England are sad -ass people, I know because I live there. Our lead rabbi Sachs was a liberal and he did not make thing any safer for us. Praise the day when we finally get a valiant leader here who will stand up for our rights, as equals. The Radical Muslims are taking over the streets and there is no one to stop them. It is a numbers game.

  • deborah lurya

    The Jewish Brits have lived with heads hung low for 1,000 years. It is ingrained in them to be “slavish” of mind. Of course, 10 some centuries of persecutions and even pogroms. Living under the dictates of kings is never a good thing, but for Jews, magnify it times 100.

    The British are directly responsible for the millions of jewish deaths during WW2. To add insult to injury, when they left Palestine, they gave the weapons to the arabs.

    Britain, a dreary and bleak place always, now it is even more so. What’s there to be jolly about, just listen to the hate mongering of Brits like MK Jack Straw!! Or Roger Waters, Pink Floyd, that has- been hippy.
    The British government today fully sponsors BDS and the war against the Jews It supports the Saudi aka Obama plan to ethnically cleanse hundreds of thousands of Jews to make way for the Arabs. Lets face it, The Brits have always favored the Arabs over the Jews.

    American Jews have our own set of problems. Shamefully we voted in Obama. Assimilation does this – it affects our instincts, turning them to mush. We are truly like dogs who think they’s people– We found the golden calf here, and life is….well its so damn convenient. The German Jews felt exactly the same way, remember?

    I must say that having to live with Obama as leader is tough. I feel as if sh** is being rubbed under my nose every day that he’s in office. Sometimes guilt and remorse crop up, and throw in some fear and loathing too.

    Sure, we have the Constitution which protects ethnic groups, like us Jews from state sponsored discrimination. But it cannot protect against the unseen and most threatening danger to us as Jews everywhere. Assimilation

    In its deception and cunning, assimilation kills us ever so softly. Next year in Jerusalem

    Shalom and Am Israel Chai
    Deborah L


    • Claudia

      Deborah, I´m chocked!I have no words to describe my feeling about jews in England.
      You are so right about assimilation. I married a christian and if remorse killed I would already be dead. Lucky my daughter who had the choise between the 2 religions chose to be jewish and even did Alliah.
      One thing conforts me is that we still exist after the Inquisition, the pogroms,and so many other horrors like the Shoa. We still exist !!!!! We have a country of our own that we have to PROTECT with all our soul. But we must not let things go on without reacting. Lets react! Let´s act !

    • Zed

      More ignorance you could have looked up on Wikipedia. Come on Deborah Lurya your poor knowledge is letting your obsession down.

      Jews came to live in the UK in what year? Subservient? Pogroms? Really? I have read much Jewish history but this is all news to me. Perhaps you have written a new text book. Jack Straw a hate monger?

      Whatever you’re on is not doing you any favours. I suppose you’ve been bombarding the British government over the removal of the Holocaust from the history curriculum – only that email is an old fake, look it up on Snopes. Nope it’s still there, and Judaism is part of the Religious Education curriculum – I know this because I wrote a county-wide curriculum which contains that, including the Holocaust.

      As for Israel and Holocaust victims – the USA took three years to enter the war, leaving Britain to face Hiltler on her own. Where was the active admission of Jews to the USA? What was the USA position on Jewish refugees after Evian?
      This year Britain is commemorating the admission of 10,000 kindertransport children 75 years ago. This is in contrast to the 1,400 admitted by the xenophobic and isolationist USA.
      You clearly know nothing of history.

      I am astounded at the allegation that Britain was solely responsible for millions of Jewish deaths. That is surely more true of the USA or the USSR which did so little to take Jews in. Or perhaps more fairly ascribed to the Nazis whom not even most Jews even in 1939 believed were capable of such mass murder.

      And all this mixed up with assimilation and the war of 1948. Well you clearly get your history all mashed up in style, and you certainly hate the British, although your reasons for doing so are sadly confused and plain wrong.

      • Lilith

        You are out of it, Zed. Your facts are wrong but what is really wrong is your thinking- it is half ass backwards. You have again decided to take the side of the leftists, those who align themselves with the destruction of the modern Israel. Shame on you for being in collusion with the enemy. You choose to live your life in oblivion, and that is okay by me, but don’t you care about the next generation. A little pride and courage would go along way. The leftist camp are enemies for the Jewish people. You said, ” Where was the active admission of Jews to the USA? This year Britain is commemorating the admission of 10,000 kindertransport children 75 years ago. This is in contrast to the 1,400 admitted by the xenophobic and isolationist USA”.
        No you tool, or is it fool, know nothing of history, Mr. Zed. You are a delusional revisionist.

      • Lilith
      • Sad Jewess

        Zed get your facts straight- you are completely wrong. I r ealize you belong to the Peace Now group, and that is why you would say such lies, but I want the public to know that people like you are nothing more than cowards. Our people suffer this disease, of cowardice, and that is why we have groups like BtSellum, Peace Now, Jewish Voice, Breakng the Silence, etc. They think they can hide behind the skirts of their enemy, but in the end, they too will be thrown into the ovens as the traitors they are

    • Solly Berger

      here friend, you dare to call us liars here- read this, and no it is not Snopes- I found the most well known well established media star I could find, but I am sure you will poo poo it you lousehttp://www.nbcnews.com/id/24457292/ns/world_news-europe/t/british-faced-post-war-jewish-refugee-dilemma/#.Uz17a9xH1SU

  • Zed

    This analysis is biased. There were many sessions presented by the right-of-centre and far right in Israel, and plenty of people arguing both sides of the political spectrum. The programme was reasonably balanced, and anyone who objects would be able to offer sessions next time – Limmud is “open source” and you don’t need an invitation to present.
    The bias of the review is displayed by the obsession if the writer on one film, the presence of Shovrim Shtikah (Breaking the Silence) etc to the exclusion of the arts programme, the music (Yair Dallal for example) and the innovative educational programme. Not to mention the Jewish origami or the practical Halacha of Whisky. The Israeli Ambassador was there, and this was the first time the Chief Rabbi of the UK has been (where did he mention that). Poor review, I give it a D.

    • deborah lurya

      Dialogue with those persons who propose to kill us is highly overrated.

      • Lilith

        You are out of it, Zed. Your facts and analysis are wrong but what is really wrong is your thinking- it is completely backwards. You have again decided to take the side of the leftists, those who align themselves with the destruction of the modern Israel. Shame on you for being in collusion with the enemy. You choose to live your life in oblivion, and that is okay by me, but don’t you care about the next generation. A little pride and courage would go along way. The leftist camp are enemies for the Jewish people. You said, “ Where was the active admission of Jews to the USA? This year Britain is commemorating the admission of 10,000 kindertransport children 75 years ago. This is in contrast to the 1,400 admitted by the xenophobic and isolationist USA”.
        No you tool, or is it fool, know nothing of history, Mr. Zed. You are a delusional revisionist.

      • Lilith
    • deborah lurya

      Not fair and balanced. I studied the programming, because I have a college aged child who is interested in learning more about politics Jewish thought and pursuing her education in general, meeting new people abroad. The Arab backed organizations like Breaking the Silence have a lavish budget with which to spread blood libels. Billions of EU and US dollars at their disposal to seek their hogwash- putrid lies, These people are mouthpieces for the PA. Limmud got caught with its pants down when it was found to have fired a couple of speakers, because of their outlandish positions on BDS. Can you imagine the shame of that? How embarrassing for limmud. My daughter will go to NEVE in Jerusalem instead. If I am going to invest in her Jewish development I do not want it to be dirtied by NGOS that are designed to delegitimize the Jewish state. Shalom and Am Yisrael Chai.

      • Zed

        Again that’s not true. Limmud:

        1 does not employ speakers (so how could they fire them)

        2 is open source so anyone can apply to present, although they are screened for cults (hence it was actually the Kabbalah Center which was disinvited)

        Also, to say that Breaking the Silence or any other NGO has billions of dollars from the EU or is Arab Backed is simple ignorance – they are a grass roots organization with some grant backing – rather like the Yesha (settlers) organization but less well funded. The right-wing funding is far more lavish than the NGO groups.

        I wonder at the insecurity of those who cannot accept criticism of some Israeli policies. Why should any human endeavour be beyond criticism? After all, those soldiers who founded breaking the silence document some very disturbing events. Surely people who truly love Israel would want the Government to address such problems. Unless they couldn’t care about the values practiced by our Jewish State. Is it better for us, who love Israel and want her to exist forever, to deny any flaw or imperfection, or is it wiser to admit where there are shortfalls in her morality and seek to keep to our high standards? Denying any flaws is not doing us any favours.

  • Grantman

    I watched Dr. Widlanski’s speech on Shalom TV. I would recommend it highly.

    • Lilith

      Zed or Zeb,

      You are an Arab apologist and a aging liberal Zed, get with the program. The British Jews cow tow because they are and always be second rate citizens. The Brits were responsible for many thousands of Jewish innocent lives. They soley locked them out of Palestine when they fled, and you are now trying to finagle your way out of what is common history. Sorry Zed, your wrong..need to take another look at history.

  • gladys

    Superb analysis. Hope it gets the widespread circulation it deserves.