To both Jews and non-Jews the idea of an anti-Zionist Jew can sound like a contradiction in terms – an abuse of Rabbi Hillel’s most famous ethical aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me”. But for Sam Weinstein, and for around 30 others, me included, tucked together in a small Jewish bloc at Saturday’s Gaza demo in London, standing against Israel is precisely what our background demands.
“I come from a Jewish tradition that has always fought for the underdog,” Sam told me as he unfurled a banner of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network in the sticky heat. “One that has fought for social justice because historically we were the ones getting killed by the state.”
On the 8th of July, Israel began Operation Protective Edge, a military offensive which used the kidnapping and murder of three boys in Kfar Etzion, a settlement in the occupied West Bank, as a pretext for the bombardment and invasion of the Gaza strip. Since then, over 80,000 Gazans have fled their homes and more than 500 have died, the majority of them civilians.
For British Jews and other diaspora communities that oppose this, the added tragedy is that it is done in our name, in the expectation of our full, unflinching support. Before the Second World War, there were many Jews that refused to accept political Zionism as an ideology. But since 1948, when the State of Israel was established, support for it has slowly become almost unanimous.
“The Israeli state identifies Israel with all Jews,” Naomi Winborne Idrissi, a co-founder of Jews for Boycotting Israel Goods said to me as we passed Downing Street. “It aims to speak for all of us. But we say Israel and Zionism does not represent us.” Refusing to be wrapped up in a cause that is blindly and destructively nationalistic is why we were demonstrating in our capacity as Jews – both expressing our solidarity with Palestine and reclaiming ownership of our Jewish identity.
That’s not an easy thing to do. For a long time when I was growing up I felt that Israel did represent me. In 2002, during the Second Intifada, I remember standing with 40,000 people in Trafalgar Square, swept up in a haze of blue and white flags, proud parents and slogans I only half understood. 2002 was also the year I was bar mitzvahed. Every Saturday morning for nearly 12 months I sat in my local synagogue in Essex to hear stale one-sided sermons from the man supposed to be teaching me about Jewish values, ethics and intellectual life. In my early teens I was a member of the Federation of Zionist Youth, one of thousands of emotionally charged and politically naive kids, sent on summer camps and tours across Israel to sample Israeli culture in the most santitised, ideologically curated way.
In Britain, the United Synagogue, the largest Jewish denomination, puts “the centrality of Israel in Jewish life” as one of its defining values. The British Board of Deputies, the primary representative body of British Jews, claims in its constitution that it seeks to advance “Israel’s security, welfare and standing”. Dwelling on these facts is the only way I can make sense of why otherwise decent people, family and friends, show their support for what seems so obviously and monumentally wrong.
“The direction in which Jewish and Israeli people are going in is terrifying,” said Dan Nemenyi, one of the younger demonstrators in the bloc. “The Jewish establishment in Britain remains as right wing as ever, and still holds power over schools, synagogues and the representation of the community. In Israel a solution needs to be found for the situation of the Palestinians. But the response is full military occupation and war whenever it’s needed.”
It’s a depressing state of affairs, as a 2000-strong pro-Israel rally, also held outside the Israeli embassy the following day demonstrated. On Sunday alone more than 100 Palestinians were killed and 500 injured. In Shuja’iyeh, a small neighbourhood in the East of Gaza City, 66 bodies were found by medical authorities, 17 of them children. Horrifying videos have appeared online of civilians fleeing by foot, charred, bloodied bodies lying strewn around them.
Not a single reference to this reality was captured in the recycled platitudes held up by the demonstrators – no trace of irony or shame in proclaiming Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
“British Jews have come out because although we do not live in Israel we want the Israelis to know we support them,” one man told me. “If we are not there in body we are there in spirit. Israel is our land. And as long as they continue to do the right thing, they will get our support.”
“I’m out today because this is a time of crisis for Israel,” another man said. “What Israel is going through with rockets coming in from Gaza is absolutely abhorrent. It’s important I come out as a British Jew to defend against this anti-Semitism.”
As the rally continued, a growing number of counter-demonstrators arrived through the crowd to a small area cordoned off by the police. Almost all of them were goaded, booed and harassed as they passed. One pro-Israel demonstrator ripped a Palestinian flag out of a man’s hand before throwing it onto the street to loud cheers. Another was held back by the police as he lurched at a man with two young children holding what looked like an umbrella with Palestinian colours. “I feared for my safety and my children,” the father told me after.
Another demonstrator, Douaa Elterk, was driving through the crowd to join the counter-protest when the car she was in was attacked by pro-Israel demonstrators. “We were assaulted as we passed by holding a Palestinian flag,” she said. “We were hit with sticks and one of our flags was snatched. Water was thrown and we were spat at. Somebody then blocked the road to stop us before the police moved them on. The Israelis are holding banners saying peace not war but are attacking everyone passing by. It’s such hypocrisy.”
As the rally came to a close a number of younger, masked counter-demonstrators turned up to face the large section of Israel supporters that had peeled off from the main area. At one stage the new arrivals broke the police line and kicked the window mirror of a car driving past waving an Israeli flag.
As I left, I received a text from a close family member who spotted me at the rally. “So Philip who were you supporting today???” she asked. Whatever optimism can be taken from a small group of people saying, “Not in our name”, for most diaspora communities around the world, Israel should never be publicly condemned.
Keep up to date with developments in Gaza with the VICE News dispatches, Rockets and Revenge