When I arrived at the JLC in October, on my first day, I was shown the file containing the report on how the community should coordinate its response if an Israel related crisis were to impact upon the UK Jewish community. I read it, put it back in the cupboard and hoped not to have to dust it off again.
We had, sadly, to swing into action and apply it, in the last month. On June 30th, my El-Al flight was returning to Luton from Jerusalem where I had been attending an MFA briefing for European Jewish Leaders on a wide range of issues. As the plane arrived at the terminal, I found numerous missed calls and a text from my colleague Dermot at BICOM. “Please call. Urgent”. It was the news that we all had been dreading- that the bodies of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel had been found. There was an audible groan of despair from those around me on the plane as I became the first to impart this dreadful news to my fellow passengers and it spread quickly through the plane.
It was immediately clear that there was a major Israeli issue underway and we therefore had to move into our pre-agreed crisis mode.
Dermot and I quickly decided that on this occasion, we had to collaborate closely with all the JLC member organisations most likely to be impacted by events in Israel in what was to become Operation Protective Edge. I decided to institute a daily morning conference call of the CEO’s of JLC, Board of Deputies, BICOM, UJIA and CST, which have carried on every day since, often more than once as we kept abreast of rapidly changing developments.
Our first decision was to organise a dignified, reflective and mournful vigil outside the Israel Embassy in memory of Eyal, Gilad & Naftali. It was organised as though it were a “shiva visit” and was a good example of how the community can be brought together when organisations work closely without attempting to assert any ownership or primacy.
Each day, the agenda for our calls has reviewed the situation in Israel, the latest available intelligence and information on what was happening in the campaign. As well as this they have monitored the political reaction both domestically and internationally, and we have agreed how best and through whom the community should react, and whether publicly or privately. BICOM has coordinated the media response. When the focus of the media’s coverage began to include the impact on the Jewish community in the UK, leaders of all organisations were made available to speak to a wide range of media to fulfil the large number of requests. Monitoring the media has been a full time task in itself. We receive updates from the CST on the regrettable increase in anti-Semitic incidents and on the increase in demonstrations from those opposed to Israel. In recent weeks, we have begun to respond aggressively to the lamentable and opportunistic increase in discriminatory boycott activity that has emerged.
Crucially UJIA reported every day on the comprehensive steps being taken to ensure that the near 1300 young people on Israel tour enjoyed a safe, enjoyable and memorable Israel Experience. I pay huge tribute to Michael Wegier and all his dedicated team at UJIA for their care towards the young people and their parents and family and their flat out dedication to the success of the tours.
In the period from the last week in July, we have tried to become more visible and on the front foot in response to the issues as they developed. More public statements, a greater media presence and effective political engagement have been our emphasis.
We all supported the ZF rally in support of Israel on 20th July.
In the week of the 3rd August, we collaborated in making a community call to action to help people in the community with what they might do if they wish to visibly help Israel.
As I write this, but perhaps not when you read it, we are on the third day of an Egyptian brokered truce in Gaza which appears to have held.
But, even now, we know that a whole new set of challenges have arisen which will still be there when Operation Protective Edge has permanently finished. The decision by the NUS to approve a boycott motion, the awareness of boycott motions at other union conferences, the decision by the Tricycle Theatre* to impose a condition on the Jewish Film Festival to ditch their association with the Israel Embassy or find another home for the Jewish Film Festival, and the shifting political debate in which the Israel and Gaza situation is being used to create political points of difference. These all represent ongoing challenges which we will need to address.
The good thing is that we have established robust collaboration between communal organisations to ensure that we have appropriate communal response and engagement to the wide range of Israel related issues which are now impacting the UK Jewish Community.
*Please note since writing this article there have been new developments regarding the boycott by the Tricycle Theatre. For more information please see this statement.