I spent Tuesday evening with 50 people who had gathered together to break the fast of 17th Tammuz and watch a screening of “Two Sided Story,” a film made by the Bereaved Families Forum. The mood was somewhat reflective and somber. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact most people in the room had not eaten or drunk anything for the whole day. Or more likely that many had spent the day with their hearts in the East, looking toward Israel and Gaza and the terrible toll the last few weeks of conflict have taken on the peoples of the region.
This year on the fast of Tammuz, which also fell during Ramadan, Yachad, the British-Jewish pro-Israel pro-peace movement, heading calls from Israelis and Palestinians to dedicate the Jewish and Muslim fast days against violence and in support of peace, encouraged the community to get behind the initiative using the hashtag #hungryforpeace. The call was instantaneously picked up by hundreds of people, if not thousands, judging by the emails we are receiving informing us of local initiatives that took place inspired by the central campaign.
In moments of crisis in Israel, Diaspora communities have a desire to gather together as a show of solidarity, and, in that respect, this fast was no different.
Those who participated took comfort in the fact that throughout the day they could connect with others taking part through the media coverage, Twitter and other forms of social media. But unlike traditional displays of solidarity, the fast had one difference. It was not about getting out to back your “own team.” Rather, it was a display of solidarity with those around the world who hold onto the notion that even when times are tough and people we know and love are in immediate danger, we must not lose hope that a brighter and better future is possible.
As small a gesture as that might seem, hope is not an easy thing to hold onto when the rhetoric and actions surrounding you are filled with such extremes, with people retreating back to the deepest, darkest part of their tribal identities, expressing only the perspectives closest to their “side” of the conflict. On Tuesday evening, the discussion turned for some time to the unsightly social media “war” that many of those fasting have borne witness to over the past month. There was a level of shock at the total lack of compassion and empathy, or perhaps even worse, the total unchecked racism that this battleground seems to engender - on all sides.
For increasing numbers of Anglo-Jewry, who do not feel comfortable with the notion that in times of crisis it is a “tribal lines” mentality, who do not wish to fuel the unsightly debate, but do very much want, in public, to express their concern and support, and show their commitment to that which seems just so unattainable right now: peace, there is, frankly, not much out there.
The fast filled that void, and if the rabbinical support that came with it - from across the religious spectrum in the United Kingdom (a rare achievement in and of itself) - is anything to go by, it was clearly a much-needed initiative.
A small number of people have criticized the campaign, arguing that it is a cynical hijacking of a religious fast for self-promotion. Is it really cynical to fast side-by-side: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims around the world doing the same? Does it really matter that some people who wouldn’t normally fast on 17th Tammuz fasted this year? They observed a religious fast day, connected its historical roots with 21st century meaning and relevance, and through that process found a way to connect with many others whilst holding onto some hope.
Hope is not easy to come by in this day and age, not least at this particular moment. The #hungryforpeace campaign did not bring peace. We were never under the illusion it would. It would take who knows how many citizens of Israel, residents of Gaza and diaspora communities on both sides for it to have that level of impact. But it provided the participants with a vehicle to tell the world that members of Anglo-Jewry remain steadfast in their commitment to peace. As one supporter wrote to me after the fast, “Why curse the darkness when you can light a candle?”
Hannah Weisfeld is a founder and the director of Yachad, and the coordinator of the Hungry for Peace Campaign.