We are British Jews…

We are British Jews…

For the Times of Israel posted September 2 2018

We Are British Jews for the Times of Israel by Jenni Frazer August 29 2018

Eight British Jews went to Israel with the BBC in February. One has already made aliyah, and a second is making plans to do the same.

The eight men and women form the focus of two unprecedented BBC TV programs, due to be shown in prime-time slots in the UK next Tuesday and Wednesday, September 4 and 5.

The programs were produced and directed by a British Jewish woman, Lucie Kon, against the background of a rising tide in antisemitism in Britain and “fierce debate within the Jewish community about how it should best relate to Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians”.

Kon, recognizing the massive differences of opinion among British Jews, says she “felt passionately about making a series that would demonstrate that diversity and division”.

The group is perhaps not as diverse as the producers would have liked: four are in their 20s, one in his 30s, one is late 50s and two are in their 70s. There are no hard-line anti-Zionists in the group — Kon says casting was really difficult. She says: “Perhaps the hardest to cast were the most religious and the most politically active.

“Many Orthodox Jews don’t watch television and a lot of those we spoke to were worried they might be taken out of context in the finished programs. At the other end, people who had spoken out against the government of Israel were equally sceptical”.

So the sole critical voice in the group belongs to Lilly, 22, a Cambridge University social sciences graduate, who has volunteered in Palestinian refugee camps and who spends much of the second program saying how “uncomfortable” she is around depictions of the IDF — in the dining room at Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk — and with soldiers and settlers.

Most of the other participants have a radically different response to Israel, the most dramatic of whom is Damon, 58, from Plymouth, who had never been to Israel before taking part in the programs, but is now making plans to make aliyah.

Ella, 28, who has made aliyah since the filming, shares fairly right-wing attitudes towards Israel with Damon. In one scene in the second program, she and Damon walk out of a conversation filmed outside Hebron with a Palestinian activist called Issa, who has the distinction of having been arrested by both Israel and Palestinian forces.

Damon has told the Times of Israel that this scene was heavily edited and that he asked numerous times “for the scene to be expanded to reflect what he [Issa] said. He told us that all Jews should be expelled from Hebron and that those who stayed should be tried as war criminals. I didn’t feel safe. We were in the middle of a Palestinian stronghold and the guy’s friends were all around, behind our camera crew. I didn’t feel it was the place to argue.” He said he had received no response to his requests.

Damon, who works in recruitment in the marine engineering industry, has forceful opinions which he is not shy of expressing. He wanted to take part because “I wanted to represent a huge section of the British Jewish population that aren’t that religious – that go to football on a Saturday afternoon and aren’t that worried about eating non-kosher food, but at the same time feel proud of their Judaism as cultural Jews and, of course, proud to support the state of Israel. I also felt that I was searching for something else in my life and that this journey might allow me to find it”.

Hebron features strongly in the second program, where the group meet settler leader Noam and speak to a Jewish activist, Tsipi, who speaks emotionally about her father having been killed by a terrorist. This meeting had a strong effect on Ella, who said later that she had been “surprised” by the small number of Jews living in Hebron and that Tsipi had impressed her as “an amazing woman who, despite her father having been killed in his sleep by a Palestinian, was still so willing for peace and she showed no hate”.

To lay the groundwork for the narrative, the group spends several days in Manchester, the biggest Jewish community outside London. They introduce themselves to viewers and each other — “I’m Alan, I’m 77, I am secular, and fond of a bacon sandwich” — though it isn’t clarified until much later that Alan did in fact live in Israel between 1979 and 1986. He applied to take part, he says, because he “wanted to go on this ‘adventure’ to enable me to see first-hand, the changes made in Israel over the last 30 years since I left”.

More pertinently, one suspects, it was the chance to interact with other Jews, since where Alan lives in West Yorkshire he and his family are isolated and are the only Jews for miles.

Sylvia, a semi-retired London kosher caterer, is the de facto “grandmother” of the group. She is observant and has been the target of antisemitism — an egg was once thrown at her while she was out walking with other identifiably Jewish people .So she has a very personal viewpoint when the group is briefed in a snow-covered Manchester by local police, Community Security Trust leaders, and the owner of a local kosher restaurant which has been attacked on several occasions by arsonists.

Sylvia, who says she is “proud to be British”, has been to Israel many times but never as “a spectator” — but sadly her sister died in the UK within hours of the group arriving in Israel, so she does not appear in the crucial second episode.

Emma is 20 and a journalism student in Leeds, northern England. She says she is “the first Jew that many of my friends at university had met. Hopefully this programme will show that British Jews aren’t ‘other’ or different”. Through her contacts, the group meet Manchester University Jewish students, who speak of their difficulty in organising on-campus events. The meeting takes place during the annual Israel Apartheid Week and one of the group mourns: “They’re scared to be Jews in my Britain”.

An attempt by the BBC team to film a meeting with BDS activists and the group fails as the boycott supporters refuse to go on camera.

Emma is an out and proud Reform Jew, and is not terribly happy to have to sit separately from the men when the group joins an Orthodox synagogue for the reading of the Purim megillah.

Later in the Israel section of the program, Emma puts on a kippah and a tallit in order to pray at the Kotel — but she is immediately shouted at by an American Orthodox woman who tells her she should not be wearing men’s ritual garments.

She says: “I have had experience of this negative reaction before. While living in Israel last year, I would go for Rosh Chodesh prayers with the Women of the Wall whenever I could. Most months we were pushed, spat at, kicked, kettled [pushed into a corner and surrounded by security] and had Torah scrolls confiscated.

“But”, adds Emma, “the Kotel is not an Orthodox synagogue — it’s a site for all Jews. It’s 2018, women should not stop other women from praying how they want to if it’s done respectfully and doesn’t harm anyone else”. 

Perhaps the most reticent member of the group is Simon, who appears to have no strong feelings about anything — though things may well be different off-camera.

He is 26 and from Manchester, where he works as a creativity consultant. He says he has “mixed feelings about being Jewish, and alongside that mixed feelings about Israel”.

Simon attended a Jewish school and most of his friends are Jewish. He thinks of himself as having, involuntarily, become “stuck in an echo chamber … I prefer to have an open mind  so the series gave me a chance to experience more of that and also, hopefully show others that it’s possible to have a more open mind to these subjects”.

He confesses that “the most surprising thing to me was how seriously people see the issue of antisemitism in the UK. I hear about it a lot, see it on the news a lot,  but I’ve never really experienced the ‘fear’ like I did the day we were at the Hate Crime Meeting with the police. It still surprises me. I’ve never really experienced antisemitism myself — or at least I don’t think I have. This series did make me start to wonder whether or not I have and I’ve just not been sensitive to it”.

Things wake up considerably in the second program, when the group go to Israel and spend time on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, and walking around the mixed Jewish and Arab city of Akko.

They meet a Palestinian called Fadi, who tries to explain what it means to live on the other side of Israel’s security wall, but several member of the group are unreceptive, citing only the drop in terrorist attacks on Israeli Jews since the barrier was built. “If you don’t know someone”, says Fadi, “how can you open your heart to them?”

With this message ringing in their ears, the group go to the flashpoint city of Hebron, meeting Jews and Arabs. It seems to provide the most powerful impact for most of the group.

It’s towards the concluding moments of the film that Lucie Kon springs a surprise — at the request of Lilly, the participant who has volunteered in Palestinian refugee camps, the group meet Rami and Bassam, two members of the Bereaved Parents Circle, each of whom has lost his teenage daughter.

It’s clear that the genuine friendship between the two men, and their lack of rancor, has a profound effect on the British Jews.

Simon, the most taciturn of the group, says: “Rami and Bassam, the two fathers we met in Jerusalem, to see those two having lost so much to the other side, and still have an open heart and ability to forgive, was immense”.
Emma is in tears. She says: “[The fathers] broke my heart. When people talk about the conflict, I think they sometimes forget it’s not a trendy topic to put on placards, and that real lives are at stake”.

Lilly, whose idea the meeting was, says: “Bassam and Rami showed us all how, without respect and an open heart, and a willingness to make sacrifices, the battle towards peace is lost before it’s even begun. The cycle of violence cannot be overcome through more violence. Everyone has the right to live in dignity, and to be heard.” 

For London-based pro-Israel advocate Joseph, meeting the two men was overwhelming. He says: “I cannot find the words to explain how much their stories moved me. Afterwards, [Bassam and I] hugged and as we stood gazing over the Temple Mount, we spoke of how one day, God willing, we’d be able to pray atop of the Temple Mount side-by-side, a Muslim and a Jew. Politics had divided us, but hope united us”.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, concludes Joseph, is “inevitable, we cannot fight forever. Bassam and Rami helped me to see that I can either be a catalyst for peace or a barrier to it”.

Helping the production company plan the itinerary were a raft of Jewish consultants in the UK, together with advisers in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Lucie Kon says: “We wanted [the group] to engage with people some of them might see as their fiercest opponents, and hoped that by meeting each other, there would be insight that everyone could gain. We wondered if this insight might make some of the group start to think differently about being British and Jewish and about how they relate to Israel”.

Certainly there has never been anything quite like this on British television before. Now the crew await the critical verdict, from Jews and non-Jews alike.

  • 3 September, 2018