Earlier this week I attended the Yachad students’ conference in London. While initially sceptical about the merits of going, the experience in itself helped me elaborate on a few earlier thoughts.
For those of you unaware, Yachad is a non-governmental organisation based in London, describing itself as ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace.’ It advocates a two-state solution and an end to the occupation. As described to those at the conference, it aims to create a safe space for Anglo-Jewry to discuss Israel in an educated manner, assuring that it is still pro-Israel to be concerned about Palestine, ask questions and care about it. Yachad strives to play an active role on campuses and within Jewish student societies, organising educational sessions and campaigns on the occupation, as well as hosting youth trips to Israel and the West Bank. Its presence and influence has steadily grown of late, in particular during and in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.
I can appreciate Yachad’s role, especially in the wake of this conference, for several reasons. It is able to attract quality speakers, Jewish or not, who are candid and knowledgeable (bar the odd spokesperson from the Israeli embassy) about the realities of Israel and Palestine, alerting me to new and refreshing interpretations surrounding the occupation. It does on the whole create an atmosphere conducive to real debate, as well as one where I am not as likely to be harangued for my views (although a friend who asked a ‘controversial’ thing about Hamas may disagree). There was almost an oasis-like feel to meeting a hundred or so young British Jews critical of Israel to a considerable extent.
But there is something fundamentally difficult, and timid, about the starting premise of a pro-Israel position, no matter how understandable. It is impossible to see how one can truly begin to sympathise with the plight of Palestinians, or at least attain a genuinely impartial understanding of it all, if you cannot quite detach yourself from your unconditional, no matter how shaken, support for Israel. A quick read through some of Yachad’s recent press releases and campaigns is revealing.
Admittedly, it is far easier for me to be critical of Yachad than most. I have never been to Israel, nor sensed a strong affiliation with its society or ideals and strived to view it as objectively and dispassionately as I can, irrespective of my own family background. As someone who has never quite been a part of the British Jewish community, it might also be amiss of me to begin to judge and try and elaborate on the reasons for which most Jews here, young or not, are deeply connected with Israel. And while Yachad may want to guide the wider British community to a political position of seeming greater respectability, that is not my fight.
An educational solution is most definitely needed. Synagogues, schools, student societies and community institutions are by and large failing to teach young Jews how to adopt a mature attitude towards Israel. What we need is a wider young persons’ and campus movement, one which does not set its stall from the word go, providing a comfortable and informative space for people to learn, engage, as well as hopefully question and make up their minds. Our obsession with Israel is in itself part of the problem for which mainstream Jewish politics are so narrow-minded and static today; we must also re-examine and reinvent facets of our culture and history which may bear relevance to this political malaise. We need to encourage substantive dialogue between young Jews and Muslims in this country and beyond. Only then can we begin to be serious about challenging this generation’s entrenched political narratives.