Why the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations are important for British Jews like me
As reams of footage of demonstrations in Israel and in London against Right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms have been broadcast over the last few weeks it’s been upsetting to see the country in turmoil – but I have felt something else too, which I’ve been struggling to put my finger on. I have a personal connection with Israel: my grandparents moved there before I was born and I spent every summer of my childhood soaking up its Mediterranean warmth and chaos.
It’s played an integral part in my family’s history, too. When my maternal grandfather faced forced conversion or execution in Iran, then Persia, in the 1930s, it was Israel he fled to – a Jewish homeland, despite being a British colony at the time. My paternal grandfather survived Buchenwald concentration camp and found refuge in the UK, but of the few other family members who survived the Holocaust, most found their way to Israel, settled in Kibbutzim in the north and ended their days cocooned by the land and community around them.
I have idyllic memories of visiting them there, collecting eggs from the chicken coop and watching the cows being milked, not understanding then what solace that life must have brought them.
Fast forward to today and being Jewish in the UK means having a different sort of connection to Israel, one that perhaps feels more thrust upon me – a straight line between my identity and the Jewish state, drawn by those around me.
But it’s often an unrecognisably rigid view of the Israel I know, lacking in nuance and appreciation of the diversity of political opinion within it. Even among my own family, Israel is a melting pot of identities and viewpoints. You can have a connection with Israel, be a zionist and yet inhabit any part of the political spectrum. As with any democracy, believing in Israel’s right to exist does not inextricably link you to whatever government is in power, something that doesn’t need explaining with regards to any other country in the world, but somehow is often lost when it comes to Israel.
If you opposed the Iraq War when British troops went storming in, you may have ripped off your Tony Blair bumper sticker but you wouldn’t have renounced your British citizenship. When the government announced what’s now widely considered to have been the worst budget in history last September, you may have wanted numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street to be vacated by Liz Truss and her ex best buddy Kwasi Kwarteng, but you would not have wished to see those buildings bulldozed to the ground.
Living in a democracy means accepting and embracing diversity of opinion. But when Israel is in the news, it sometimes feels like there is blanket condemnation of the entire population, with little acknowledgement that the specific policies of a particular government may not be the will of an entire nation.
Even less so can one government represent every Jewish person who walks the planet. And although I can’t speak for every one of those Jewish people who walk the planet, speaking for this one, it does often feel that the Israeli government is representing me on the world stage. And it’s not just a feeling. What goes on in Israel has a direct effect on how safe Jewish people are on Britain’s streets.
During the escalation in violence in 2021, racist incidents towards Jews in Britain soared to a record high. The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that monitors anti-Semitism, recorded 628 anti-Semitic hate incidents from May 8 to June 7 2021, the highest number CST has ever recorded in a month-long period and four times the total of anti-Semitic incidents in the same period the previous year.
The ones I have heard about first-hand include the mother whose children were spat on in a soft play centre, and another whose car was rammed and chased through a red light when her four-year-old son was seen in his carseat wearing a kippah. And, yes, the thought has crossed my mind: if my grandfather were alive, at what point would he tell me that these are the warning signs?
If Israel was better understood as the complex diverse democracy that it is, perhaps that straight line between the actions of Israel’s government and the Jewish diaspora would fade, and perhaps that would impact anti-Semitism too. The spitting and ramming are easy to identify. But just as important are the opinions of people who would never spit or ram, but whose views of Jewish people as a whole are coloured by the one-dimensional view of Israel so often portrayed.
I will always treasure my connection with Israel but I don’t support Bibi Netanyahu’s Likkud party. Yet, I’m also mindful that it’s easy to be liberal on the other side of the Mediterranean. Despite my ties to Israel, I have never walked a mile in Israeli shoes. I don’t live in constant fear of rockets flying over the border and I don’t lie awake worrying about my children being in the army in a country whose borders pose an existential threat. And I can’t predict what government I would support if that were the case.
Of course, the goal is for peace in the Middle East. I want there to be a Palestinian state and peaceful coexistence. But, in reality, that currently involves making peace with Hammas, an organisation whose charter includes the annihilation of Jews.
There are sadly no simple roads. But I don’t think there’s ever been a clearer illustration than these anti-Netanyhau protests on the streets of London and the cities of Israel, that being zionistic and believing in Israel’s right to exist and also wanting a Palestinian state and not always agreeing with the Israeli government, can all coexist – as can any other combinations and permutations of opinions and viewpoints on Israel.
So I think that the other feeling I have had trouble pin-pointing is one of hope – hope that these demonstrations will cement a more nuanced picture of Israel and therefore an appreciation of the diversity of political opinion that exists within British Jewry and Israeli population.
Demonstrators against Netanyahu were after all waving Israeli flags, not burning them.