Board vice president : “We must ensure community’s voice is heard on Israel”

Board Vice President Marie van der Zyl delivered an impassioned speech at the launch of Local Government Friends of Israel, an initiative of We Believe in Israel’s Director Luke Akehurst, in Harrogate this Tuesday. Also in attendance were the Board’s International Affairs Officer David Walsh and the JLC’s Claudia Mendoza.

Speaking of the vulnerability felt by British Jews last summer when antisemitic incidents hit record levels during the war between Israel and Hamas, van der Zyl referred to the ultimatum issued to the UK Jewish Film Festival by the Tricycle Theatre over its funding from the Israeli Embassy. She also highlighted the Board’s work in Leicester and Nottingham as evidence of the Board’s move to focus relentlessly on the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement, a movement which effectively seeks to deny Jews of their right to self-determination.

Speaking following the event, which was attended by councillors and council chief executives from across the country and political spectrum, van der Zyl said: “Last summer was a real wake up call to the community establishment when it comes to the link between rising antisemitism and delegitimisation of Israel. I’m delighted to be part of the Board at a time when it’s repositioning itself as being as the forefront in the fight against BDS on a national and local level. With the best public affairs team in the community and our unique reach with our deputies, we are well placed to ensure that the Jewish community’s voice on these crucial issues does not go unheard.”

The Board is increasing its regional engagement through seminars for local councillors in regional cities, increased liaison with small communities on the issue of Israel through David Walsh and consultant Steven Jaffe and other events. The Board’s cross-communal and consistent approach to messaging is allowing it to strengthen its engagement with communities across the country.

Full text of speech:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, and like many conflicts abroad, ignites passionate debate in our country and within communities. However, one thing is clear to the British Jewish community: Only a two-state solution will come anywhere near to satisfying the just demands of both sides.

Polling shows that in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, both populations strongly support the two state solution. When the solution appears to be within reach, support strengthens further.

A two state solution will of course demand courageous and difficult steps from both sides. Here in the UK, the temptation of many is to side with one party or the other. However, there is a more constructive, positive approach that we as British citizens can take.

Some believe that supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, is a productive way of pressuring Israel to bring about a solution more quickly. However we firmly believe that not only is BDS counter-productive, unjustly placing sole responsibility on Israel at best, questioning its very right to exist at its worst, it is also divisive in the UK on a community relations level.

The very word ‘boycott’ reminds Jews of some of the saddest chapters in our history.

During the war between Israel and Hamas last summer, antisemitic incidents reached record levels and many UK Jews felt personally targeted by the boycott campaign. It was deeply worrying that the UK Jewish Film Festival, one of our community’s proud achievements and cultural institutions, was subjected to an ultimatum by the Tricycle Theatre in London. The Tricycle demanded that the UKJFF refuse modest Israeli Embassy funding or find another venue.

Unprecedented protests by a community which has generally felt secure in the past, and an intrinsic part of British society to this day, forced the theatre to make a U-turn, but the damage had been done.

Similarly local councils felt pressure to fly Palestinian flags and pass boycott resolutions as a response to the operation. For Jews in smaller communities especially, the idea that their council, responsible for providing local services and promoting community cohesion, would take sides in an international conflict was sobering.

Electoral pressures have come into play. In Leicester, a BDS motion was passed by the city council with next to no consultation with the local Jewish community. The Board, through its local deputy, was invited to meet with the two local synagogues there to hear their concerns. The message was clear: up until now we had felt secure and didn’t speak out on sensitive issues like Israel-Palestine. We kept our heads down. But now we feel the need to make representations because we feel vulnerable in our own city. Subsequently a meeting was held with the Mayor of Leicester, local community and Board representatives where the Mayor apologised for having not consulted with the Jewish community.

In Nottingham, local community representatives, supported by the Board, are in close contact with the Leader of the Council after a Palestine Solidarity Campaign-backed petition calling for BDS was debated by the local council. Now more than ever, the Board is engaging with local communities to ensure their voice is heard.

So how can we have a positive influence? There are so many stories of good community-relations and co-operation, both in Israel/Palestine and here in the UK. Instead of importing this conflict, we should be exporting peace. Local councils should support efforts by local communities to promote co-existence and grassroots peace building. The Board of Deputies has produced this document, a ‘Better Way Than Boycotts’, which highlights some of the valuable work of organisations based in the region, some of which have a presence in the UK. Individuals, civil society organisations need to focus on bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, as well as local Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of other faiths and no faith in our own communities.

With the Board’s uniquely national reach, we look forward to working with local communities and councillors on the issue of Israel as well as a whole host of Jewish issues and we look forward to working closely with Local Government Friends of Israel to make the positive difference that everyone deserves.

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