By Steven Jaffe, co-Chair of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel and grassroots consultant to the Board of Deputies.
We’re a national movement. We’re diverse. And we’re growing.
At a meeting of grassroots activists hosted by the Board at the weekend I looked across a crowded room filled with representatives from 26 different Israel advocacy organisations. What made this meeting unprecedented is that the delegates came from every corner of the British Isles.
Amidst all the challenges we are facing at the moment, a growing army of local grassroots groups is taking the field in defence of Israel and of Jewish rights across the UK. And in my opinion, their efforts and achievements deserve to be in the news as much as the headline-grabbing negativity and tensions.
Put on your seat belts as I take you on a whirl-wind tour of the groups represented at the gathering.
As consultant to the Board of Deputies on grassroots advocacy for Israel (whose work is part-funded by the Jewish Leadership Council) I co hosted the event with Luke Akehurst of BICOM-based We Believe in Israel.
Present were representatives from Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, the Scottish Israel Forum, Leeds Lobby Network and Bournemouth Action for Israel. Excellent presentations were given by Sussex Friends of Israel, West Midlands Friends of Israel and the Wimbledon-based Pro Israel, pro Palestinian and pro Peace initiative.
Feeling dizzy? The leaders of synagogue groups such as the outward-facing Belmont and Kenton for Israel rubbed shoulders with Christian activists from Bath, Winchester, Portsmouth and South Wales.
Leaders of North West Friends of Israel, who have held the front line at the Kedem protests in Manchester city centre, sat alongside the newly-formed North East Friends of Israel which is confronting challenges in Newcastle. The North London Friends of Israel was joined by their neighbours , NWLFI (North West London Friends of Israel).
There was communal representation from Glasgow and Liverpool and interfaith activists from Kingston and Edgware.
Amazingly not one of the local pro-Israel initiatives is over four years old and the newest one was launched barely three weeks ago.
Offering practical support to these local groups were representatives from an array of national pro Israel organisations such as Stand With Us, the Zionist Federation, Christian Friends of Israel and the Union of Jewish Students – as well as the co-sponsors of the meeting, the Board of Deputies and We Believe in Israel. The Israeli embassy expressed its appreciation and also offered practical support.
It was not just the geographic spread of the delegates which impressed me, but also the diversity of their activities. The delegates heard presentations about promoting stalls in south London fairs; effective parliamentary lobbying in the West Midlands; and the year-long street campaigning outside the Ecostream store in Brighton.
Barry Williams, over from Cork, provided a tour de force session covering all aspects of on-line campaigning. His group, Irish 4 Israel, has over 10,000 likes on Facebook and thousands of followers on Twitter.
As can be imagined, with a room full of activists discussion was lively and at times heated, but the outcome was positive. The delegate over from Belfast went away feeling “a lot less isolated and inspired to try new initiatives”. The lady who came from Portsmouth described the opportunity to network with fellow activists as “invaluable” and is looking to set up a Hampshire Friends of Israel.
Yes, delegates listened to disturbing reports of anti-Israel excesses from across the country, particularly following the Hamas conflict in Gaza. The situation in Scotland, set out by the president of the Glasgow representative council, Paul Morron, caused particular concern. But the message from the meeting was loud and clear. All are determined not to take the bigotry, extremism and double standards against Israel lying down. Each organisation pledged to be pro-active in campaigning for Israel in their localities.
Times are extremely disturbing and tense – and the challenges faced by these pro Israel groups is huge. But there is a new mood in Anglo-Jewry and amongst its friends. Pro-Israel grassroots campaigning within the community is dynamic and growing.
Instead of a lunch-break, the delegates walked down from the Board’s offices to join the large demonstration against Anti-Semitism outside the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand – organised by another new activist group, the Campaign against Anti-Semitism UK .
So if on reading this you decide it is time to get involved please contact me and I will be delighted to introduce you to your local group.
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