By Jenni Frazer
Hundreds of people gave a rapturous reception to Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, as he sought support from delegates to the 2015 We Believe in Israel conference on Sunday.
More than 1,500 people, Jews and non-Jews, came to central London from all over the country for a full-day programme of workshops and how-to seminars in promoting Israel’s case.
For those graduates of Jewish youth movements, student conferences or December’s annual Limmud conference, the day had a familiar ring.
In keeping with the cross-denominational style of the We Believe organisation, the day kicked off with Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, MP Michael Dugher, a vice president of Labour Friends of Israel, and the Conservative Chief Whip Michael Gove, both declaring: “I am a Zionist.”
The opening plenary session was also addressed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who insisted: “We need to let the world know it is not a sin to support Israel.”
The conference – following the first such event in 2011 – then broke up into more than 70 separate workshop sessions.
The presentations spanned the political spectrum, from UKIP Friends of Israel to Yachad and the New Israel Fund, and the ages ranged from the very young – seven, and some teenagers – to the very old, but still extremely active.
Delegates included Peter Martin, the mayor of North Down in Northern Ireland, and a large number of Christian Zionists. Even a few Palestinian supporters attended, although it is debatable how much they appreciated some of the sessions.
For the first time, there was a designated Israeli presence in the form of Agiv, the umbrella alliance of Israelis in the UK. One of its founders, Haggit Inbar-Littas, said the intention was to bring together a number of existing Israeli organisations in Britain to co-ordinate activity in fighting anti-Semitism.
Gideon Smith, chairman of the board of the left-of-centre group Yachad, told Jewish News that he was happy to participate. “I am aware of calls for us and the New Israel Fund not to take part, not to give a ‘figleaf’ of respectability to the government,” he said, “but it is important for us to be here so all kinds of views can be heard.”
Among the participating groups were the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, StandWithUs, the Zionist Federation, UJIA, BICOM, Harif – the association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, NGO Monitor, Palestinian Media Watch, the Fair Play Campaign, UK Israel Business, the Union of Jewish Students, Trade Union Friends of Israel and Christian Friends of Israel.
There were political presentations from Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP Friends of Israel. BICOM chairman Edward Misrahi joked that so many organisations had wanted to take part that the type size in the printed programme had to be minimised to fit them all, ensuring the programme was studied and read very carefully.
There were two major themes to the day: the language used when discussing Israel, and the challenge of combating the boycott movement.
Many workshops examined inflammatory language used on social media and in the press, and the American pollster, Frank Luntz, gave a masterclass in how to use key phrases in debates to defuse anti-Israel arguments. The Board of Deputies launched a report entitled ‘A Better Way Than Boycotts’, originally devised to meet the arguments of the Methodist Church but now expanded to look at cultural, academic and settlement boycotts. The closing plenary was addressed by the former director of BICOM, Lorna Fitzsimons, and Israel’s former Education Minister, Gideon Sa’ar.
But it was Ambassador Taub’s trenchant speech that brought the audience to its feet. “We are the people we’ve been waiting for,” he told the delegates. “Raise your voice. Write the letters, send the emails, they can make a difference. You don’t need to be a defence attorney for the State of Israel, but please be a character witness for the State of Israel.”
Since his arrival in the UK nearly four years ago, the ambassador said, there had been more brutal deaths in Syria “than in more than a century of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Have we heard anything from the so-called human rights protesters against Israel about this? Not a word”. He denounced Southampton University’s forthcoming conference on Israel’s legitimacy. “They claim it is freedom of speech,” he said, “yet just months ago that same university prevented an Israeli academic from speaking simply because he is Israeli. Yes, it’s a problem for Israel but, far more so, it’s a betrayal of its own academic integrity.”
JLC chairman Mick Davis told Jewish News that there had been a “failure” on the part of Jewish leadership in the UK “to understand the need for people to stand up and express their support for Israel”, particularly over last summer’s Gaza conflict. “We should have had something at the height of the Gaza fighting,” he said, adding that the 2011 We Believe conference “wasn’t followed up properly”.
This conference, he said, would have a better response. He said: “It is ridiculous in 2015 that Israel’s right to exist should be up for debate, but this is the space we are in. It is a battle for Israel’s legitimacy: and it is one we must fight.” He added: “This conference has been about positive engagement. Zionism is not a ‘has-been’ term; it is as relevant today as it ever will be.”