By Jenni Frazer
Outside in the cold spring sunshine, lines of tourists snaked down a central London pavement. Inside the dark brown artificial gloom of a central London hotel, lines of delegates snaked around the morning coffee stall, muttering to each other at the price of an espresso (“£3!”) but buying it anyway.
The hotel was, for an astonishing 1,500 people, home base for an ambitious pro-Israel conference, We Believe in Israel. The first such conference took place in 2011: then the key names were starrier – Natan Sharansky, Colonel Richard Kemp, ambassadors Ron Prosor and Matthew Gould – and the hopes, perhaps, more naïve.
This time the ambitions were more realistic and the participation wider and more encompassing. Acknowledging that making the case for Israel is no longer possible for the Jewish community to do by itself, both the organisers and the delegates had a flatteringly high number of non-Jewish participants – from Luke Akehurst, the We Believe director, bravely hopping about on his not-quite-mended broken ankle – to the scores of devoted Christian Zionists who came to the conference.
If you timed it right moving around the workshops, you could frequently hear completely contradictory advice. Ditch Zionism, said one speaker. It’s a toxic brand. Next door another speaker was urging the audience to re-embrace Zionism, an ideology with more relevance than ever.
As expected, some of the sessions were brilliant and some dull and disappointing. As usual there was a marked lack of women presenters – “20 percent!” claimed one of the organisers, proudly, as though women comprise only 20 percent of society. Next time, try inviting the likes of Melanie Phillips or Louise Mensch to get the teacups rattling.
But in the hallways and the corridors the talk was bubbling and enthusiastic, even if some participants couldn’t quite get their heads around what they were being told. Little knots of people stood together consulting each other on what session to go to next, or asking about presentations they’d just attended. For some the day became a blur of talking heads, for others a cauldron of imaginative ideas.
One of the most surprisingly successful sessions was Rabbi Natan Levy’s – right at the end of the day. Entitled, “The Making of Christ the Palestinian: why are the Western Churches so responsive to Palestinian narratives, and so prone to call for boycotts?”, the session was based in a room that quickly became too small for the number of participants. People – many of whom were members of church groups – were standing, sitting on the floor, eager to hear Rabbi Levy. He quipped: “I’d like to thank people for coming and engaging all day. And you’re still standing at the end of it. Literally, in this case…”
The plenary sessions felt a little flat at times – apart from Ambassador Daniel Taub, worth twice the price of admission and then some. He caught the spirit of the conference exactly, unlike former Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar, wishing people a limp happy Pesach and as a slightly uncomfortable afterthought, happy Easter.
Saar, in fact, made the cardinal error of overtly political remarks and came a real cropper when he cited an Israeli party “which paid the price” in the March 17 elections because of its homophobic comments. A string of invisible light bulbs went on over the heads of the audience: what about Bibi’s remarks on Arabs, you could plainly hear people thinking.
What became clear throughout the day was that many people didn’t really want to talk about Mr Netanyahu; common refrains were “whatever you think of the election results” and “it shows Israel’s democratic nature”.
What most people wanted was a guide to putting Israel’s case intelligently and sympathetically, a way to challenge the boycotters and to bring the disengaged on side.
But it was the ambassador who set the conference alight, with warm, funny and empathetic remarks, appealing to young and old, Jew and non-Jew alike. What the ambassador “got” – and, to be fair, the Jewish leadership who convened the conference got too – was the desperate need of the community to be involved, to have its say, across the political and religious spectrum. Four years is too long to wait for British Jewry to re-engage vocally with Israel, particularly after the violence of last summer.
Now the challenge is devising the next event, which perhaps doesn’t need to be so huge. But it certainly needs to be next year.