Left-wing U.K. Jewish Groups Thrive During Israel’s Gaza War

Jews are highlighting the plight of the Palestinian victims and supporting what one outfit calls its 'welcoming anti-Zionist presence.’

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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Protesters call for an end to Israel's military operation in Gaza, near the Israeli embassy in central London, August 1, 2014.
Protesters call for an end to Israel's military operation in Gaza, near the Israeli embassy in central London, August 1, 2014.Credit: AFP
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

British left-wing Jewish groups say they have experienced a “massive surge” of interest since Israel’s Gaza offensive began a month ago.

Jews For Justice For Palestinians, an advocacy group set up in 2003, says its social-media presence has overtaken established institutions such as The Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.’s largest community newspaper.

The group’s Facebook page, set up on July 9, had logged 27,500 visitors and 56,000 views by the end of the month and racked up more than 38,000 “engagements” – likes, comments and shares – compared with The Chronicle’s 167.

The group said it raised more than 2,500 pounds after adding a donate button to its redesigned website, and upgraded its hosting package twice to cope with the heightened traffic. On August 4, JFJFP held an event at Downing Street at which an Israeli citizen burned her passport, a gesture that further raised the group’s profile.

“Since the announcement of the passport-burning event we saw a much more extreme spike in traffic,” said Aaron Dover, who runs JFJFP's social-media strategy. “Our total page reach is now close to a million.”

Although many supporters of such groups on social media are not necessarily Jewish, Gaza solidarity protests in London have included a visible Jewish presence.

“There’s been a significant Jewish bloc on all the Gaza demos, which has been really nice,” added Ray Filar of Young Jewish Left, a loose grouping that has highlighted the plight of Palestinian victims during the war.

The group handed out a leaflet titled “How To Criticise Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic: A Primer,” noting anti-Jewish tropes while making clear that Jews “should not be expected to ‘prove’ themselves to be morally acceptable” by rejecting a connection with Israel.

Coordinating activities via Facebook, other direct action included reading out the names of the Gaza dead at pro-Israel meetings and a “die-in” outside the Board of Deputies, Anglo-Jewry’s main representative body, in response to the organization’s annual report on its Israel lobbying.

“There’s definitely been an increase in interest. We are a visible, open, welcoming anti-Zionist presence,” said Filar. “From my perspective, I have encountered a lot more vocally anti-Zionist Jews than in Cast Lead [the 2008/9 Gaza operation] and I meet a lot more Jews who are comfortable with an anti-Zionist or non-Zionist position.”

According to Annabel Cohen, a 28-year-old charity worker, “A lot of my non-Jewish friends at university were active Palestine campaigners, so I heard a lot about it, I agreed with a lot of what they said, but I still believed that Israel needed to defend itself.

“But when Cast Lead happened, I couldn’t understand Israel’s actions anymore, it made no sense to me how such terror could be used to counter terrorism, and it no longer looked like defense to me.”

The most recent violence, she said “had a similar effect on me — I couldn’t keep quiet. I was invited by someone to join the Jewish bloc, and now I am very active again, this time specifically within a Jewish group of activists.”

Kerry Lambeth, a 27-year-old information analyst, said that although she considered herself on the political left, “I haven’t been very involved in public activism until recently.” The Gaza war spurred her to action because “I don’t see any leftist Jewish voice in the way the ‘conflict’ is framed in the public perception.”

According to Lambeth, “For me it is important to be a visible voice that is pro-peace and Jewish; to remind both non-Jewish leftists and Jewish leaders across the world that not all Jews are uncritically pro-Israel.”

Yachad, a left-wing Zionist group set up in 2011, has also reported “a massive surge of support,” raising more than 22,000 pounds in a 10-day period, according to its director Hannah Weisfeld. British Jews were much more receptive to the group’s message than during the last round of Gaza violence in 2012.

“The 2012 war was much shorter and much less bloody,” said Weisfeld. “We have also been much bolder this time round and had a really brilliant response.”

Since the start of Operation Protective Edge, Yachad has run three campaigns – a joint Muslim-Jewish fast for peace, a statement of support for peace signed by more than 1,000 people, and a letter to Britain’s UN representative, currently president of the UN Security Council, imploring him to broker a cease-fire.

“The Zionist Federation and associated groups, with all their resources, only managed to get 1,500 people to the pro-Israel rally,” Weisfeld said, referring to the event held on July 20. “For Yachad, which is a tiny operation, to achieve this is really reflective of where the mood is right now in Anglo-Jewry.”

For its part, the Zionist Federation – which said 5,000 people had turned up to its rally – also reported increased interest in its work.

The number of calls to its north London office had doubled since the Gaza war started, and it was receiving up to 100 items of mail weekly, a spokesman said. The federation was now trying to capture the support of the political center, he added.

“We are getting a lot of interest from the ultra-Orthodox and the Reform — groups who previously haven’t had strong ties with us,” he said. “This shows that the ZF is a centrist Zionist organization rather than right-wing, which is what we were previously painted as.”

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