Defending Israel to Diaspora Jews at Limmud
I spent the last days of 2015 meeting with British Jews in Birmingham. Along with many presenters from different countries and professional fields, I had been invited to participate in a Limmud conference, a multi-annual — and by now multi-continental — Jewish happening.
The topics on my agenda were ostensibly varied: the viability of a two-state solution; flaws in the Israeli political system; Israel-US relations in the wake of the Iran deal; the cause and effect of the knife intifada; and whether antisemitism is sufficient impetus for immigration to Israel. Still, they all came down to basically the same debate — the extent of Israeli culpability in local and global affairs.
The Paris attacks were still fresh in everyone’s mind, and the heightened security in other European capitals was so palpable that it made Israel’s pale in comparison — as reports on the cancellation of public New Year’s Eve celebrations indicated. Nevertheless, the atmosphere at Limmud was upbeat. Attendees spent good money to live in not-so-luxurious conditions at a hotel repurposed to house the dozens of simultaneous lectures, classes, singles’ events and entertainment for both adults and children. This was a crowd of some 2,500 Jews who could have spent the week after Christmas doing anything they chose. And they opted to spend it reinforcing their sense of community and dedication. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.
So far so good. Except for the sad specific reason that I and a handful of like-minded people from Israel and abroad were brought there by one of the members of the organizing committee: to serve as the only voice not singing in the predominantly left-wing choir.
British-Jewish intellectual Jonathan Neumann said so in plain English, and each of us rallied for the cause in his or her own way. My method was to hammer home the fact that Israel is neither to blame for the ills of the Middle East and beyond nor responsible for curing them.
As simple and straightforward as such a message should be, it was not received well by a majority of the Jews I addressed. The small minority who was relieved to have its grasp of this reality reinforced nodded when I spoke. And it was actually for them that I made the trip. Aware that my ability to persuade those with an opposing worldview has always been nil, my words — whether expressed verbally or in print — are aimed at people who need no convincing but feel lonely in their convictions. It is an unpleasant sensation with which I am utterly familiar.
Indeed, one need not live in the Diaspora to experience it. On the contrary, Israel is filled with Jews whose collective cries of mea culpa are not reserved for Yom Kippur. Nor does the fact that Israelis are on the military, political and spiritual front lines of the war against the West in general and the Jewish people in particular give us greater license to be critical.
Being a Jew outside of Israel today, especially in Europe, means being exposed to all the hatred and physical danger that radical Islamists and fellow travelers pose — without the safety that living in a Jewish state provides. This is not merely due to possessing an army, but to being surrounded by an entire population in the same boat. No wonder the French Jews who made aliyah during the 2014 war in Gaza said they felt more at peace running to bomb shelters in Tel Aviv during Hamas missile attacks than walking the streets of France.
The Jews of Britain are another story, however, and not only because many of them claim antisemitism is not on the rise in the UK. Though statistics say otherwise, individuals whose anecdotal evidence runs counter to the dry numbers should be heeded as well.
My own “anecdotal evidence” is that the attitude toward Israel among British Jews is that because they consider themselves to be held accountable in their society for “bad” Israeli behavior, they want Israel to stop engaging in practices that reflect negatively on them. And it is this ill ease above all that shapes their political views. It is thus that they are both affected by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and end up abetting it, albeit unwittingly in most cases.
So deeply rooted is this malaise on their part that a young man attending one of my lectures had the gall to suggest that perhaps Israeli Border Police should not shoot to kill Palestinians in the act of committing stabbing attacks, but rather aim for their limbs. You know, because dead Arab teenagers don’t look good on the BBC.
The most striking thing about such a shocking question is that it came from someone who was not taking issue with the Israeli soldiers — whose predicament he said he understood — but with how they are portrayed in the anti-Israel press. As though somehow the Jewish state would be given a pass if it adhered to the script of its enemies.
My ultra-emphatic reply to this person, which I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to keep at a reasonable decibel level, was drowned out by the applause in an adjacent room, where a member of Breaking the Silence was accusing his comrades in the IDF of war crimes.
Ruthie Blum is the web editor of The Algemeiner (algemeiner.com). This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.