POLITICS

Hannah Weisfeld: 'Important For Non-Jews To Hear That Zionism Isn't Israeli Government Policy'

26/11/2014 15:14 GMT | Updated 26/11/2014 16:59 GMT

Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is featuring its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.

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It is difficult to believe that Hannah Weisfeld is an "employee of Hamas".

The 33-year old English literature graduate from Sussex University sitting opposite me sipping a latte, at a cafe near Euston station, describes herself as coming from "a very typical Jewish family... I grew up in Finchley, went through a Jewish youth group and spent my gap year in Israel."

These days, however, she happens to be the director - and founder of - Yachad, a grassroots NGO set up by British Jews in 2011 to be both "pro-Israel and pro-peace", which makes her rather unpopular with various sections of the UK Jewish community, who prefer to focus only on the "pro-Israel" part.

I meet Weisfeld, curly-haired and dressed in black from head to toe, just four days after a controversial motion to accept Yachad as a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews overwhelmingly passed by 135 votes to 61.

Yachad, now given the stamp of 'official' community approval by the Board, was set up three years ago out of "a desire from within the Jewish community to talk about Israel differently," says Weisfeld.

"The [Jewish] community has traditionally been very supportive of Israel," she tells me, but "at some point its... defence of the country has become a defence of the government and its policies. There's been a growing sense a lot of Jews inside this country feel really uncomfortable with a lot of the Israeli government policies."

For Weisfeld, there is an urgency to Yachad's campaigning in favour of a two-state solution and its call for an end to occupation and Israeli settlement-building: first, the recognition "that we don't have time on our side". When she was a teenager, she explains, as a result of the Oslo peace process "the idea that there wasn’t time to create this Palestinian state... didn’t even enter into the lexicon whereas now I think a lot of Jews worry that actually it might be too late and actually Israel is the loser in that". Second, she argues, Israel has the ability to tear apart the British Jewish community "if we don’t include more people in the conversation".

Yachad, which now has 4,000 supporters in the UK, is "trying to open up a new space, trying to basically redefine what it means to be a supporter of Israel". She wants to try and "move the [UK Jewish] community into a new space that says… there is a difference between a state and a government and you can support the right of a state to exist without having to support everything the government does".

So why then apply to join the Board of Deputies? Why retreat to the 'old space' if it's a 'new space' that Yachad is all about?

"We decided to apply to be members on the basis that this is the community’s representative body and there is a voice here that should be represented."

However, Weisfeld tells me, with more than a hint of frustration in her voice, "there was a concerted effort - not by the [Board] itself but by people within the community - to keep us out. There were so many rumours and so much vitriolic literature about who we are, about me as the director of the organisation, accusations that were sort of totally unfounded".

She was accused of being, literally, "an employee of Hamas" by one deputy involved in a "never-ending" behind-the-scenes campaign against Yachad; another referred to Weisfeld as the "spawn of Satan".

What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of such smears from fellow British Jews, despite having spent most of her adult life, and much of her youth, campaigning on behalf of Jewish issues?

She sighs. "It's actually quite sad that people cannot have a civil debate with people who have a different opinion from them. Israel brings out this visceral reaction in people, both Jews and non-Jews. But at same point you have to sit down with someone you disagree with and try and understand. And if you can’t do that in a pleasant and dignified fashion, then you basically do a massive disservice to your own community."

Does she ever feel like giving up? Quitting Yachad and opting for a quiet, non-Israel-related life?

She laughs. "Yeah occasionally. Very occasionally."

Her critics within the Jewish community might not want to raise their glasses just yet. Weisfeld isn't going anywhere. "I spent all of last week in the West Bank with a group of British Jewish lawyers, taking them to meet Palestinian lawyers, Israeli lawyers… to visit military courts, and the whole time I kept getting forwarded emails from [Yachad critics]... I felt like writing to those people: 'Come and sit on this bus with me and then let's have a conversation'."

Hannah Weisfeld's great-grandparents arrived in the UK from Russia, Poland and Germany more than a century ago; three of her four grandparents were born in the UK.

"We have copy of my great grandmother's alien card with her Whitechapel address in the East End of London where many Jews ended up at the turn of the [20th] century," she tells me.

Weisfeld's father was born in 1950, in Hendon, north London, and his view of Israel was defined by two events: the "trauma of the Holocaust" and, as a teenager in 1967, the Six-Day War and Israel "having nearly been wiped off the map, just 19 years after its creation".

These events "completely shaped his view of the country", she says. "My siblings and I just do not see the world like that. We grew up in a moderate and liberal Britain as proud Jews, where Israel for us has been a source of culture, history and heritage. I understand why it is much easier for us than our dad to accept the reality of what Israel is today, and to criticise it. But ultimately I think, he too knows the future of the country is doomed with a relentless occupation, and if for no other reason than Jewish self-interest he is much more in our camp today than he ever was."

The Jewish state was etched into her upbringing: the first time she ever travelled abroad was to Israel as a seven-year-old. Her father gave her the middle name "Ziona", a deliberate play on Zion, the ancient Hebrew word for the land of Israel.

"When people accuse me of being 'anti-Israel' I do sometimes wonder if maybe I should rebut the accusation by telling them my middle name is Israel," she jokes.

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Weisfeld on a recent visit to the Occupied Territories with a group of British Jews

Weisfeld, like many of her Jewish peers, became heavily involved in the Jewish youth movement - via the left-wing group Habonim Dror whose alumna includes comedians David Baddiel and Sasha Baron Cohen. She travelled to Israel several times in her teens which "indelibly cemented my relationship to the country".

"When I was 14, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and it was a defining moment for me... because he was a hero and and we all thought peace was coming. When I came back from my gap year in Israel, the Oslo peace process was still sort of alive. I didn’t have any sense that there was a problem or that Israel was problematic."

Her optimism, as well as her uncritical attitude towards the Jewish state, started to change while at university. She arrived in October 2000, as the Second Intifada kicked off, followed by the West's wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Weisfeld found herself in the odd position of interlocutor between the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student groups on campus, "passing messages between two groups of people who didn’t understand what the other one was saying. And that sent me on a completely different path."

It led her to value the importance of dialogue and of political and religious pluralism. She talks a great deal about her Jewishness, so I can't help but ask: does she consider herself to be a person of faith?

"Um.." She laughs. "It depends how you define faith."

Well, on whatever her particular definition is?

"Yes."

Does she believe in God?

"Probably not." She giggles, uncomfortably. "Maybe faith and not belief. Would I self-define as an observant Jew or a religious Jew? Not traditionally. But I feel very Jewish… I celebrate festivals."

So, it's an ethnic and cultural thing then?

"Yeah. And also a values thing."

Is she a regular synagogue-goer? The Yachad boss shrugs. "Synagogue is sort of a love-hate thing. I think if you’re not a believer or not sure you’re a believer, praying is quite a difficult thing to do. I think there are a lot of Jews who fall into that category: they’re very Jewish but yet they are very unsure [about God]."

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Sections of Gaza were reduced to rubble by the Israeli military in July and August 2014

During Israel's bombardment of Gaza over the summer - 'Operation Protective Edge' - Yachad experienced a "massive surge of support," Weisfeld told liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in August.

The group raised more than £22,000 over the course of 10 days of fighting and, as the paper reported, ran three campaigns: "[A] joint Muslim-Jewish fast for peace, a statement of support for peace signed by more than 1,000 people, and a letter to Britain’s UN representative, currently president of the UN Security Council, imploring him to broker a cease-fire."

But isn't Yachad the odd one out? Most of the UK's mainstream Jewish organisations threw their weight behind the Israeli military offensive, citing the threat posed from Hamas rockets and so-called 'terror tunnels'. Anecdotal evidence suggests there was very little division within the Jewish community on the Gaza conflict; most British Jews seemed to be "standing with Israel" over this past summer.

"I’m not sure I believe that anecdotal evidence," she responds. "I think the Jewish community, this summer particularly, was increasingly torn."

It didn't show though, did it?

"Fine, not publicly. But if you were talking to people on the ground.. people were incredibly uncomfortably with the whole [Gaza] thing.

"In the middle of the second intifada, when buses were being blown up in Israel all the time, about 40,000 Jews went out into the middle of Trafalgar Square and basically stood in a solidarity demonstration in support of Israel; around Cast Lead [in 2012]… my understanding is that 7,000 or 8000 [British] Jews came out and stood in support of Israel; and this time around, my understanding is about 1,500 [British Jews] came out and stood in front of the Israeli embassy.

"That’s not to say that therefore [British Jews] don’t feel concern for Israel but I think feel uncomfortable about how they express that concern."

Yet the big British Jewish community organisations, including the Board of Deputies, took a predictably pro-Israeli and pro-Israeli government stance, didn't they?

Her answer is instant: "I think that particularly in moments of crisis that’s what institutional organisations believe their role is."

She herself, however, struggles on the specific issue of Israeli military action. Various human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have suggested both Israel and Hamas may have committed in war crimes in Gaza during 'Operation Protective Edge'.

Yachad campaigned for a ceasefire - but did it condemn Israeli military actions against the civilians of Gaza in July and August? "Um" - there's a long pause - "we didn't condemn it."

Why not? Is she suggesting it's okay for the Israeli air force to drop bombs on schools, hospitals, ambulances and mosques?

"You sound like a BBC news anchor," she responds. There's a nervous laugh.

"My view is one that says if the aim is to bring stability and peace, it's not working, so why do it?"

That's a pragmatic objection. What about the morality of the operation? Is she morally okay with 2,000 Palestinian deaths, including 500 or so kids?

"Of course not. I don’t think anyone is morally comfortable… Do I think any of it is was moral? Do I think Hamas firing rockets was moral? No."

I point out that it is easy to condemn Hamas - they're the enemy. But what about her own side? The state she supports? Why won't she condemn Israel, given even the US government has said the shelling of a UN school by the Israeli military was "disgraceful"?

"You're asking me to say something which is going to cause.." Her voice trails off.

More problems for her with her community, I suggest?

"Yeah."

On the allegations of war crimes, Weisfeld will only say that "all of those things on all sides are the things that should be investigated. I don't have a problem in saying that.

Isn't that a cop-out? She bristles. "I criticize the Israeli military all the time… Do I think it's wrong to drop a bomb on a school? Of course, it's not okay to kill children. Do I think Israel intentionally killed those kids? I absolutely don’t buy the notion that Israel flies over Gaza and chooses to drop a bomb on a school."

So she's saying those bombings were all accidents? Weisfeld hesitates: "I don’t think accident is the right word either. Which is why I am reticent to say 'I condemn it.’ Did they do things in that war which resulted in that, which are very problematic and need to be investigated? Absolutely, 100%."

For Weisfeld, "just because you don't believe Israelis should live under the threat of rocket fire, and that Israel has a right to defend itself, doesn't mean you can't question a military strategy that causes so much destruction and ultimately tragedy. The question I think we have to ask ourselves is whether you can really bomb people into supporting peace. And there is not really much space within the community to really have that conversation."

reuven rivlin

President Reuven Rivlin has called Israel a sick society, in need of treatment

It is no longer controversial to point out that Israeli politics and society as a whole are shifting further and further to the right, both in terms of old-fashioned racism towards minorities, including black Africans, as well as the rise and rise of the settlers within Israel's political and military establishment. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin recently referred to Israel as "sick" and in need of "treatment".

How does a lefty, liberal Jew living in London explain or justify her supporting a state where that happens? "How do I support the country? I’ve got my family living there, in amongst the racism, xenophobia and settlers, are my cousins. And one of them is ‘those people’ but most of them are not 'those people'... What’s difficult for the [UK] Jewish community is that, in their heads, it’s their friends and their family and they don’t necessarily see beyond that.”

Weisfeld says her strategy is to "look for things that I can support and what’s so positive about Israel. Israel is still, despite its massive shift to the right, this amazing, amazing civil society full of amazing people… and to me that is where Israel came from originally."

Her passion for the Jewish state is self-evident. I wonder, would anything provoke her to abandon her support for the country she has been visiting and admiring since she was a young child?

She nods. "If tomorrow, Israel said, 'Okay we are going to annex the entirety of the West Bank'... if the government annexes the West Bank and does not give 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote, it's apartheid and I don’t think anybody can deny that."

She points to the recent Israeli Ministry of Defence decision to segregate buses in the West Bank: "The announcement last month... should have, in my opinion, elicited an outcry from those that count themselves true supporters of Israel.”

Liberal Zionists such as Weisfeld see their role as trying to defend Israel and the idea of Israel without defending its excesses, misdeeds and crimes; trying to reconcile their Zionism with their liberalism while, in Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland's words, "facing both ways, switching direction day-by-day, even hour-by-hour".

The high-profile US writer Peter Beinart, like Weisfeld a liberal Zionist who constantly criticises the occupation and the Netanyahu government, has called for a boycott of settler-produced goods. Does the Yachad boss support such a boycott, too?

"So the position of the organisation is that we think basically continuing to invest over the Green Line is really unhelpful... if this an area of territory you want to withdraw from then why do you continue to [invest]?"

It's not an answer to the question I posed. Forget Israeli government investment for a moment: does she support a boycott of settler-produced goods here in the UK, including by British Jews?

She laughs. Uncomfortably. "Let me finish my sentence.. the position of [Yachad] is this… our position has always been that boycott is unhelpful and it shuts down the debate. There is a very big case to be made that not supporting new investment over the Green Line is not a bad thing… That position.. was used as a sort of massive stick to beat us with inside the Jewish community. The point being that the word ‘boycott’ is so incendiary inside the Jewish community that I almost feel that’s it’s a conversation there is no point engaging in."

Another non-answer. So I rephrase the question: would she be comfortable going into Tesco or Asda and buying goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements?

There's a long pause. She shifts in her seat. Her face goes red. "No, I wouldn't," she whispers, aware of the brickbats that will now be thrown her way by some of her fellow British Jews.

On the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for a boycotting of all Israeli products and institutions, including universities, however, Weisfeld says "it is unacceptable to boycott an [Israeli] academic. Academia and culture carry a different sort of card when it comes to this debate."

She also thinks, BDS doesn't work and only makes Israel more defiant; settlement-building, she points out, has increased on the West Bank despite the rise of the BDS movement.

So, in her view, it won't work - but is BDS also anti-Semitic, as some on the pro-Israeli side have suggested?

"No.. in a democratic society, thank God, you have the ability to make free choices about what you do and don’t buy, where you do and don’t spend your money. I think it is fundamentally wrong to look at all the people who support the BDS movement and say, 'You’re all anti-Semites.' I know people who support BDS they’re not anti-Semites; there are Jews that support it."

However, she is quick to then add, "there are elements within it which are really problematic and individuals within it who are definitely anti-Semitic" which makes the whole thing "uncomfortable for a lot of Jews".

She also says she has "a little bit of sympathy" with the argument "which says, 'Where is the call for the boycott of China, etc?'" before conceding, in yet another illustration of her ability to see both sides of the debate: "The problem I have with that argument is that inside the Jewish community what we like to do is compare ourselves to everybody else and come up with a hundred reasons why we’re ok and everyone else isn’t.”

The thorny and heated arguments surrounding a boycott of Israel proper go to the heart of a much wider debate about the extent to which criticism of Israel and, especially, anti-Zionism, is now seen by many Jews as a 'new' form of anti-Semitism.

In her view, is anti-Zionism just anti-Semitism in disguise?

Thankfully, Weisfeld, again, pushes back against a popular narrative within her community. "People are entitled to not agree with the concept of ethnic national self-determination. That is a perfectly legitimate position to hold in the world. I get why it’s an affront to a lot of Jews because 95% of Jews in this country believe Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. [But] I don’t think if you’re an anti-Zionist you are, therefore, de facto an anti-Semite."

She does, though, believe that "certainly there are times when criticism of Israel morphs straight into anti-Semitism".

As Weisfeld rightly points out: "Criticising the Israeli government’s policy, or being outraged by what Israel did in Gaza this summer, does not mean that its okay to say: 'Hitler was right'."

Isn't anti-Semitism also, however, used by some supporters of the Israeli government to shut down debate?

"Yeah.. we do a disservice to the debate by doing that. If we, as Jews, want the rest of the world to be more nuanced in its understanding of the conflict, we have to also be more willing to be nuanced ourselves."

The Yachad director goes further, urging British Jews to draw a line between campaigns against anti-Semitism and in favour of Israel. "The Jewish community is also responsible for shaping the public discourse. The British public should be out fighting with the Jewish community against anti-Semitism in Britain. But when Israel advocacy organisations, who see their role to be defending all actions of any given Israeli government, organise demonstrations against anti-Semitism in the UK, we make the public terrain much harder for ourselves. The message we send to the British public is that if you want to support the Jewish community in this country you must be a supporter of the current government of Israel. That is not even a benchmark we hold the Jewish community to!"

I remind Weisfeld of a BBC TV debate that she and I participated in over the summer, alongside pro-Palestine campaigner Ismail Patel and Board of Deputies vice-chair Jonathan Arkush. The latter berated the former for trying to drive a wedge between Judaism and Zionism and claimed the vast majority of British Jews were proud Zionists.

Doesn't such an approach risk muddying the water in the eyes of those who want to criticize a political ideology, without targeting the religion of Judaism?

"I think Zionism has become a complete red herring in the conversation," replies Weisfeld. "Because no one really knows what they’re talking about when they say it. People are having two totally different conversations. For a lot of non-Jews, Zionist ideology is colonial-settler-Benjamin Netanayhu and 'we’re against that'. And Jews hear the word 'Zionism' and they hear 'nation state of the Jewish people' and [think]: 'You are against a nation state for the Jewish people in any shape or form'. “

Weisfeld says that some fellow Jews "criticize me, in the context of being the director of Yachad, 'How dare you go on television and not come out fully supporting everything the Israeli government does?' The point is this: I actually think that it’s really important for non-Jews to hear that Zionism is not Israeli government policy."

Does she have her own definition of Zionism?

"The belief in the right of the Jewish people to have a nation state."

So it's not based on religion for her?

"No."

How then, without an Old Testament or Biblical justification, does she morally or even legally justify British-born Jews emigrating to Israel and buying apartments in Jerusalem while Palestinian refugees who lived on that patch of land for generations are denied the right to return or buy property there?

"I," she starts, "I, I have sympathy with that perspective. I think it is a legitimate criticism to have. When Israel was created in 1948 there were things that happened in Israel’s creation... that are really hard for the Jewish community to deal with. I think fundamentally what we have got to live with is the reality that there is a different version of history that doesn’t match ours. The Jewish version of 1948 and the Palestinian version of 1948 are never going to add up to a pretty picture."

One of the strongest critiques of liberal Zionists is that they want to have their cake and eat it; they want to defend their Zionist credentials without acknowledging the way in which Zionism, by privileging one ethnic group over another, clashes with key liberal values such as equality. The academic Rebecca Steinfeld, for example, makes this argument in her 2012 essay: "Liberal Zionism: A Contradiction in Terms?"

Weisfeld, unsurprisingly, doesn't agree. "Does a Jewish state have to be [based on] ethnic privilege? Not necessarily."

Well, why call it a "Jewish state" then?

"Why is Britain a Christian state? It has a Christian underpinning."

Christians in the UK, however, aren't privileged by the law of the land or offered special treatment in terms of citizenship and property ownership, are they?

She evades my point and makes her own: "There has been no debate inside... the global Jewish community, about what that Jewish state looks like. Israel has been on the defensive [since 1948].., let's assume that Israel is in a completely different neighbourhood.. I think the biggest challenge facing the Jewish people is actually what a Jewish state then looks like. I think there are certain things which in maybe 1947, 1948, in the creation of statehood were maybe legitimate then but are not legitimate today.

She continues: "For a lot of Jews, actually what they basically want is [to] live is a country where the national holidays are Jewish holidays."

This seems like another cop-out to me, given how many Jewish politicians and commentators refer to the "demographic threat" posed by Palestinian citizens of Israel towards (the majority of) Jewish citizens. Just three days after our interview, the Israeli cabinet approved a controversial bill that officially defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Weisfeld doesn't budge. "The thing about support for Israel, the thing that gets lost in the conversation is that for a lot of Jews it’s about culture. Things like the revival of the Hebrew language [are] massive for Jews outside of Israel."

So it's not about preserving a Jewish majority inside the Green Line?

"For some people it is."

Is she one of them?

"No."

With the Palestinian birth rate inside of Israel rising much faster than the Jewish birth rate, could she envision a Jewish state without a Jewish majority?

"I think it’s very dangerous rhetoric that your non-Jewish citizens are a 'threat'."

I raise the issue of the so-called 'one state solution'. Given Israel is already a binational state, with one in five members of the population Palestinian and not Jewish, why not push for a single, secular, binational and democratic state in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Especially given the repeated failure to secure a two-state solution and an end to the occupation and the settlement project?

"I think it is the most impractical thing in the world," replies Weisfeld.

"[If] you put a proposal on the table to me that says there can be Jewish self-determination and a state that has Jewish underpinnings.. then it’s a slightly different conversation. But that isn’t the reality today. There has got to be a way to give people self-determination."

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Netanyahu has referred to Israel's Palestinian citizens as a 'demographic threat'

For many in the pro-Palestinian camp, Weisfeld doesn't go far enough: they can point to her lack of public support for a boycotts of settlement goods or her failure to fully condemn Israeli military action against civilians in Gaza.

Yet her audience isn't the pro-Palestinian community, it's the pro-Israeli community and, specifically, younger, liberal, pro-Israeli Jews who have been unable to find a language to criticise or dissent on the Jewish state without being made to feel like outsiders at best, sell-outs and traitors at worst.

In a community which feels besieged, which is suffering from growing anti-Semitism and which has, historically, been instinctively and uncritically 'pro-Israel' - for good reasons and bad! - Weisfeld is a brave and significant voice. She speaks from within the community, but is willing to challenge her community and endure smears and attacks as a result.

She is proudly Jewish, culturally and ethnically, without being defensive or tribal. She has gone from passing messages between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups at university to trying to build alliances and conversations between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups nationally and, crucially, within the British Jewish community itself. For this, she is to be commended and admired, regardless of where you stand on Israel, Palestine, boycotts or settlements.

I can't finish the interview without raising the issue of anti-Semitism in the UK. A recent report from the monitoring group, the Community Security Trust (CST), found anti-Semitic attacks had rise around 500% in this country since the start of Israel's war in Gaza. In one high-profile case, London's Tricycle Theatre was accused of anti-Semitism after it asked the Jewish Film Festival to cut its financial ties with the Israeli Embassy in the UK as a result of the (then) ongoing Gaza military operations.

Once again, Weisfeld offers a more nuanced view, contrary even. The Yachad director says she doesn't think it was anti-Semitic. "I think it was a misguided decision. I think it was unhelpful because it diverted attention from the real issue, which was what was going on in Gaza. The accusation that the theatre that’s hosted the Jewish Film Festival for six years is suddenly anti-Semitic doesn’t carry any basis."

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Weisfeld defends the Tricycle Theatre from the charge of anti-Semitism

Given the rise in reported incidents, however, does she, as a Jew, feel uncomfortable living in the UK?

She shrugs. "I haven’t experienced any anti-Semitism ever in my life, apart from once in a café in Hastings about six years ago. That’s not to say there hasn’t been a rise, because there has; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned and vigilant, I think we should."

Compared to Europe, she continues, "I think we are lucky that we live in Britain and it’s pretty tolerant. We saw a massive hike in anti-Semitism [after Operation] Cast Lead [in 2010].. and it dropped again. And we’ve seen a massive one now and we have to remember that there are waves and they disappear. I just think that the fear mongering that often ends up happening around the concept of anti-Semitism is dangerous: it’s dangerous for the community and dangerous for British society and I think we need to have the conversation but we want to do it in measured terms.

"But I certainly don't feel the need to pack my bags and go."

As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.

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