Learning From J Street, Across the Pond

The U.K. Jewish establishment 'understands there is a need for us,' says head of Yachad, Britain's 'pro-Israel, pro-peace' collective.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

One Friday morning two weeks ago, the great and good of Britain's Jewish establishment converged on a London hotel for the Israeli Embassy's annual Independence Day bash. Meanwhile, across town, Hannah Weisfeld - the director of the young "pro-Israel, pro-peace" Jewish organization Yachad – was sitting down with an executive from the New Israel Fund for breakfast.

The NIF's leaders had been left off the embassy's guest list for the first time, following a legislative quarrel last year between NGOs the organization funds and members of the Yisrael Beitenu party. Weisfeld hadn't been invited to the party either, but the 64th anniversary of Israeli independence was a festive moment for Yachad, which marked its first anniversary that day.

It was also a moment to assess the movement that is often, and not entirely justly, called "The British version of J Street."

Yachad and J Street share a dual commitment to Israel and peace. Both believe that Diaspora Jews can be Zionists without necessarily supporting the policies of the elected government in Jerusalem. Further, they both argue that encouraging the Israeli government's settlement policies in the West Bank is to do Israel no favors.

This is where similarities between the two organizations end.

Yachad and J Street differ greatly in their modus operandi and in the way they have been greeted by Jewish leaders in their respective countries.

J Street sees itself primarily as a political action committee, lobbying the American administration and Congress to more vigorously promote peace between Israel and its neighbors, including by pressing the Israeli government when needed. Yachad is mainly concerned with activism and education within the Jewish community.

While J Street has often found itself at loggerheads with the American Jewish establishment, Britain's Jewish leaders have embraced Yachad, taking part in its events and applauding the voice it gives to critical supporters of Israel.

Aiding the enemy?

Criticism of Yachad has been mostly limited to right-wing bloggers, such as Sam Westrop of the British Israel Coalition, who accused Yachad of "aiding the enemy." Even the Israeli Embassy in London, which cannot be pleased with many of the new movement's positions, has engaged its leaders. Daniel Taub, Israeli ambassador to Britain, received a group of Yachad officials shortly after moving into his London office last year. Meanwhile, the embassy in Washington blithely ignored J Street's existence for two years.

Yet the way the Israeli embassy in London truly feels toward Yachad may be best reflected by an off-record remark by one of its diplomats: "Yachad are like the boy scout who does a good deed by forcing an old lady to cross the road. They call themselves pro-Israel, but insist that what is best for Israel is the opposite of what a majority of Israelis have voted for. What right do they have to sit in London and tell Israelis what is best for them?"

But these feelings remain sub-surface, leaving Yachad with a relatively clear playing field. In its first year, Yachad hosted more than 3,000 people at 60 community events and, despite the recession, raised more than 125,000. It also organized various activities, including lectures by left-leaning former Israeli security officials in synagogues and private homes explaining Israel's need for a two-state solution and a Jewish student conference mobilizing pro-Israel advocacy on campus.

Pro-Israel advocacy on campus

Weisfeld also points to the pro-Israel advocacy she and other members of Yachad have done in debates on university campuses.

"Talking to non-Jewish audiences on campuses, we have significantly shifted the debate by saying you can be a supporter of Israel without supporting current Israeli policy," she said. "Our more nuanced position allows people to support Israel. The more people outside the Jewish community hear there is a multiplicity of voices, there will be less hostility in Britain towards Israel. As it is, those who are deeply hostile to Israel have enough ammunition."

Some criticize Weisfeld for appearing on panels with anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe. She rebuts that she was defending Israel. "When Pappe says in front of hundreds of students that Israel is a rogue state and criminal state, I am the person who says, 'no, that's not the case,'" she said.

Yachad speakers have also fended off attacks from the anti-Israel left, who call them "racists" for insisting on a two-state solution in which Israel retains a Jewish majority. But Weisfeld says that, on the whole, the Jewish community's leadership in Britain has been responsive to Yachad's message.

"Of course, there is a right-wing grassroots element that thinks the establishment is weak for not opposing us, but the established community understands that there is a need for an organization like us and that if we don't exist, they will start shedding people. Most British Jews are firmly committed to a two-state solution, and realize that even if you hear sometimes tough love, that does not mean we are anti-Israel," she says.

Paul Usiskin, the former chairman of Peace Now in Britain and an early Yachad supporter, is also encouraged by the way the British Jewish community responded to Yachad, especially in comparison to J Street's reception in the U.S.

"The British community leadership showed maturity in this case," he said. "Even those among them who didn't agree with Yachad and would have preferred that it did not exist realized that they had a voice and it was better to have them within the tent. So when certain right-wing elements began attacking them, they defended their right to be heard."

Day trips to the West Bank

Like Peace Now, Yachad does much core work in Israel, including arranging for British Jewish tourists to take day trips to the West Bank to see the other side of the conflict.

It is also in Israel that Yachad undertook its most politically sensitive project thus far, participating in an international campaign against the eviction of a Palestinian family from disputed property.

An Israeli court ordered the family to leave its home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem at the request of a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, an organization that has special significance for thousands of Jewish families who have been donating to it for generations.

"JNF is effectively funded by Diaspora Jewry," Weisfeld said. "It was pivotal in creation of the state, but many Jews didn't give it their money to evict from Palestinians from their homes in Silwan. Some of our supporters have already made it clear to the JNF that they don't want their money funding evictions."

Yachad encouraged JNF donors to contact the organization's office in London, and for the last five months, the eviction order has been frozen. Legal sources in Jerusalem say that the outcry by Jewish donors in Britain and the United States contributed to the JNF subsidiary's hesitancy to repetition the court for an eviction.

But the successful protest also created a backlash. Officials in Zionist organizations and the Israeli Embassy were especially incensed by a tweet Yachad sent to foreign journalists, including the Guardian's correspondent in Jerusalem, Harriet Sherwood,drawing their attention to the eviction notice. The organization was accused of "stoking anti-Israel feelings."

Weisfeld is unrepentant. "We simply highlighted that an eviction in east Jerusalem jeopardizes the situation and makes it harder to reach a two-state solution, which will mean also a compromise in Jerusalem," she said. "We reached out to a whole load of journalists on this. It's not unreasonable."

She is similarly dismissive of claims that living in Britain, she cannot be an Israel supporter while objecting to its policies.

"This is the country to which we have a huge commitment and obligation," she said. "We might think differently from the current government, but even Netanyahu said he is in favor of a two-state solution and we are simply saying that there is a different way to achieve that. So many people come up to me and say thank you for helping me to support Israel again, for giving me a voice and showing me there is another way of doing it in which I can believe."

Right-wing bloggers have accused Yachad, the British J Street, of 'aiding the enemy.'Credit: Yakir Tzur