When Jewish student leaders here decided it was important for the community to have a presence at an annual forum on global justice and workers’ rights, they knew they were likely to run into some confrontation. After all, the European Social Forum, a three-day summit focusing on U.S. imperialism, anti-globalization and progressive socialism, was not likely to be particularly Israel-friendly.
Still, the students from the Union of Jewish Students, the only mainstream Jewish group attending the conference, according to a UJS statement — were shocked when a prayer book and Israeli and Palestinian flags were stolen from their stall.
They also found that their booth had been covered with rubbish, leaflets from pro-Palestinian groups and booklets on Islam produced by a radical Muslim group. Other stalls were untouched.
The students said that they left the booth unattended over Shabbat, but had been told 24-hour security would ensure its safety.
Police are investigating the theft as a racially motivated incident, but the student union’s campaigns manager, Danny Stone, said he was “pretty upset” over the lack of attention and understanding that he felt from forum organizers.
“We thought it was very important a Jewish group represent the community here,” he added. “We’d set out to try and provide a balance in the debate around Israel and to promote a peaceful message.”
Jewish groups had expressed concerns in the run-up to last week’s gathering, which saw around 20,000 delegates from 65 countries descend on the capital.
Although opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq dominated proceedings — the forum culminated in a mass anti-war rally — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never far from the agenda.
A spokesman for the Board of Deputies, the representative body of U.K. Jewry, had warned that the group felt “very uncomfortable about the excessive emphasis on the Palestinian situation.”
The opening-day plenary — called “What future for Palestine?” — was packed far beyond capacity, with a speech by refusenik pilot Jonathan Shapiro calling for international sanctions against Israel and the boycott of Israeli goods. Shapiro was rewarded with a standing ovation.
At another event, a message of solidarity from Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu also was received enthusiastically.
For the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a Palestinian rights lobbying group, participation in the forum was the product of a year of hard work. Members were busy throughout the forum, attending sessions and handing out postcards demanding that England end any arms trade with Israel.
“As far as the PSC is concerned, we want to highlight the ‘wall’ and the European responsibility for putting pressure on Israel to abide by international human rights law,” said Jane Colman, a member of the campaign’s executive committee, referring to Israel’s West Bank security fence. “We think it’s an issue of human rights.”
The summit first sparked controversy when London mayor Ken Livingstone issued an invitation to radical cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an outspoken supporter of Palestinian suicide bombing, during a high-profile visit to London earlier this year that sparked outrage among the Jewish community.
Qaradawi cancelled his visit last month, citing a prior engagement, but that didn’t dampen suspicion of the mayor, long nicknamed “Red Ken” for his leftist views.
“Many of the extreme left-wing fringe groups are very anti-Israel, and anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are very closely linked,” warned Brian Coleman, conservative leader of Livingstone’s Greater London Authority and a steadfast opponent of the mayor.
Coleman has demanded an investigation into the use of some $900,000 in public funds for the gathering, which he described as “the European forum of the mad, the bad and the sad.”
But not all the Jewish activists present felt uneasy.
“It’s going extremely well,” said Dan Judelson of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, as he grabbed a quick snack ahead of a seminar called “Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians: Fighting Racism, Fighting the Occupation.”
“It’s really interesting to see how popular an issue this is,” he said.
“People are saying that Palestine and Israel are beginning to take the place of the anti-apartheid struggle, and activists are hoping to capitalize on that,” Judelson added.
The Jewish student group’s booth had attempted to provide alternative views of the conflict, with a selection of information from the Holocaust Education Trust, the Board of Deputies and Labor Friends of Israel, alongside leaflets with the Web sites of Israeli papers and peace initiatives.
Underlining their message of reconciliation, both Israeli and Palestinian flags were hung at the stall, as well as a picture of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat shaking hands.
That wasn’t enough to placate some. One particularly irate woman accosted Stone to ask angrily: “Why are you here?” adding that it was “awful” to display an Israeli flag.
“We tried to explain to people the difference between Zionism and being a supporter of the current Israeli government,” said Stone, adding that he felt “intimidated” on numerous occasions during the forum, even before the theft.
“People didn’t have a grasp of what Zionism means. That was particularly interesting because it was supposed to be a conference about peace,” he said. “Clearly people weren’t interested in that.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.