Menu JTA Search

British Jews find in Gaza war a compulsion to speak out

British Jews made their voices heard during the Gaza operation, like at this pro-Israel rally in January 2009. (Giora Hirsch)

British Jews made their voices heard during the Gaza operation, like at this pro-Israel rally in January 2009. (Giora Hirsch)

LONDON (JTA) — While Israel’s critics took to the streets of Europe during the course of Israel’s 22-day operation in the Gaza Strip, the Jews of Britain did not stay silent.

From the community’s establishment umbrella group to grass-roots organizations to left-wing activists, British Jews from across the political spectrum said they felt compelled to respond to the events in the Middle East.

Matt Freelander, a London Jew, organized a grass-roots demonstration in support of Israel using Facebook, the online social networking site.

"I decided to do something after watching too much television and seeing the huge coverage of the anti-Israel demonstrations,” Freelander told JTA.

Reflecting the diverse political nature of British Jewry, the response to Israel’s Gaza operation was hardly one-sided.

Jason Caplin and Yael Feinman raised money for casualties on both sides. Using mobile phones and text messages, they raised more than $15,000 in a week to divide between Red Cross assistance for Gaza and Laniado Hospital in Netanya, Israel.

For the most part, the three-week war did not change the overall balance of opinion among British Jews, according to Jonathan Hoffman, co-vice chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. He said about three-quarters of British Jews supported Israel and its military operation in Gaza, about a fifth backed Israel but believed the operation should have ended sooner than it did, and about 5 percent were against any Israeli operation in Gaza.

While activists on the left long have been publicly active, demonstrating against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian-populated territories and writing anti-occupation letters to British newspapers, Israel’s latest Gaza operation brought out some typically silent elements in the community.

Fervently Orthodox Britons who do not recognize the State of Israel spoke out in support of Israel’s operation in Gaza, while a fringe minority among them, the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, joined some anti-Israel demonstrations, including ones held on Shabbat.

While thousands turned out in Trafalgar Square for a pro-Israel rally with a message carefully crafted to be as inclusive as possible — calling for an end to Hamas terrorism and peace for the people of Israel and Gaza — groups on the left end of the Jewish spectrum such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians found themselves in a counterdemonstration across the street.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella body of the Jewish community, organized the Trafalgar Square rally.

“We are keenly aware of the pain and suffering that the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have endured and are now suffering once more,” said Harry Grunwald, the board’s president. “This is why we have been raising money for hospitals in Gaza and Israel.”

The British media, however, seemed to focus more on Jews protesting Israel’s military operation in Gaza than those who supported it. The media played up a petition by Reform rabbis calling for an end to Israel’s operation in Gaza, and heavy coverage was given to a petition by well-known Israel critics calling on Britain to recall its ambassador to Israel and impose an arms embargo on the Jewish state.

Paul Usiskin, chairman of Rabbis for Human Rights and co-chairman of Peace Now UK, was among those who signed the rabbis’ letter. He told JTA he was surprised to hear that at the Trafalgar Square rally, most speakers referred not just to Israeli victims but also to the "innocent victims in Gaza."

Usiskin said he supported Israel’s operation initially but that it should have stopped earlier.

NEXT STORY