As Palestinians commemorate Nakba, liberal UK Jewish groups debate the occupation

Condemnation of the occupation has become more pronounced, even if it is a struggle to acknowledge the day

A guard walks past paint-daubed walls after a Palestine Action protest at the Foreign Office in London. Reuters
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As Britain’s Palestinians commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, liberal British Jewish diaspora organisations note shifting attitudes on the Palestinian issue among their communities.

Each year, on May 15, Palestinians remember the events leading up to the creation of Israel in 1948 that would claim hundreds of lives and affect many generations in the years that followed. But until recently for Britain's Jewish communities, the day went unmentioned.

Yet there are signs that this may be changing, as condemnation of Israel becomes more pronounced.

“There used to be a gap in our community on how to talk about [the occupation], and a fear of being ostracised,” said Em Hilton, a co-founder of Na’amod, an organisation founded in 2019 to get British Jewish support to end the occupation. “Now we've shifted the conversation.”

On Monday, members of Na’amod are attending a talk by Francesca Albanese, the UN's Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, as part of the university’s Nakba commemorations.

“Young people are asking more questions, there are more discussions on anti-racism in the UK and you can’t separate that from what’s happening in Israel,” said Danielle Bett, director of communications at Yachad, a UK-based organisation founded in 2012.

Yachad advocates for a political resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict among UK politicians and young people. It regularly organises events in the UK and trips to Israel to raise awareness about the impacts of the occupation and illegal settlements.

“When we started we were on the sidelines, now we’re not considered as controversial,” said Bett.

The debate in the UK sees young people who identify as pro-Israeli or Zionist openly speak out against inequalities for Palestinians, Israel's human rights abuses, occupation and illegal settlements.

Palestinian Intisar Muhana, 97, who was forced to flee her village in 1948 and whose house was destroyed by an Israeli strike in recent fighting in Gaza City. Reuters

“A more progressive voice within the Jewish community has become louder and bigger in the past decade,” said Leonie Fleischmann, a political scientist at London’s City University and author of The Israeli Peace Movement (2021).

“It’s more common to hear younger Jewish spaces talk about ending the occupation and even using the word apartheid.”

These changes may be reflected in a recent survey by Jewish Policy Research, an institute researching attitudes among Jewish communities in the UK, which found that more than a third of British Jews, 33 per cent, disagreed with the Israeli military's handling of the 2021 conflict in Gaza.

“Respondents who felt more weakly attached to Israel, or who were younger or more secular, or politically leftist, or university educated, were more likely to hold a more critical stance than those who were older, or more religious, or politically rightist, or non-university educated”, said the report.

Even mainstream organisations are changing, experts say.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, a representative body, refused to meet Israeli Minister Bezazel Smotrich during his trip to the UK, and then publicly denounced his comments about a Palestinian village that had been attacked by Israeli settlers.

“We utterly condemn Bezazel Smotrich’s comments calling for the State of Israel to ‘erase’ a village which days ago was attacked by Israeli settlers. We hope that this and similar comments will be publicly repudiated by responsible voices in the governing coalition.”

The Union of Jewish Students, which is critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, condemned the UK government’s proposal to outlaw it, adding that the proposed regulation was “a risk to British Jewish communities and a setback to Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

One catalyst for this shift may be the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Israel, which Israeli expats have also organised in London.

“Seeing the Israeli community protest in London has been a challenge for the British Jewish community,” said Bett.

She hopes that the protests in Israel — which include a bloc that opposes the occupation — will have a trickle-down effect in Britain's Jewish diaspora.

“People are understanding that the far-right doesn’t just affect Israeli politics, it’s also about the occupation,” she said. “People see the damage it has done to the two-state solution, or to any political resolution.”

“People at the centre of politics in the British Jewish community see how they’re going to be affected. They can see that the far-right is no longer sidelined,” Bett said.

The decline in the peace process, as defined by the Oslo Accords in 1995, may have triggered the debate.

“Since the end of the Second Intifada, the narrative shifted from peace process to anti-occupation,” said Fleischmann, “Reports that were coming out from Israeli human rights organisations meant that [British Jews] were much more aware of what was going on.”

“A much larger chunk of young Jews know about Sheikh Jarrah, and what’s going on in the West Bank. Their level of knowledge of the Palestinian predicament and history is much greater than 20 years ago,” she said.

The Jewish debate on the Palestinian issue has been politically pronounced in the US, where the pro-Israeli organisation J-Street rose to challenge the dominance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group, and influenced a range of issues including the Iran nuclear deal.

Yachad works with MPs across all parties and advocates on Israeli-Palestine issues to the British parliament.

“We want British governments to be more critical of Israel, and show they are committed to a two-state solution,” said Bett, “We also make sure that the really strong criticism does not fall into anti-Semitism.”

Yet Jeremy Pollard, an editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described Yachad’s politics as “dangerously wrong” — a sign that the debate could become divisive.

Despite these changes, commemorating the Nakba remains on the fringes — according to those interviewed.

“The Nakba is the next challenge,” said Hilton, “You can’t full understand the reality of what is happening in Gaza without talking about what happened in 1948. For many Jewish people Israel was a miracle.”

The organisation Combatants for Peace will host its fourth joint commemoration of the Nakba — in the UK, US and Israel — on Monday.

An online video promoting the event shows Israelis reading a statement alongside Palestinians, in Hebrew and Arabic: “To recognise the Nakba is to look at the past with open eyes and an open heart — to see the demolished villages, the shattered dreams. We bear witness to the pain,” they said.

Joint commemorations may also be met with resistance from Palestinians.

“However well intentioned, this is a Palestinian event,” said Dr. Ghada Karmi, author of One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine and Israel. “It is our day of mourning.”

Updated: May 17, 2023, 10:52 AM

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