Inside the “We believe in Israel” conference

Seph Brown, the UK Director of Prosper Palestine, reports from the "We believe in Israel" conference, held at a location in central London yesterday.

On Sunday, Left Foot Forward’s Seph Brown attended the “We believe in Israel” conference in West London; hosted by a coalition of Jewish and pro-Israel groups, the conference was the first of its kind in the UK and the largest gathering of Zionist activists, thinkers and politicians the UK has ever seen

As a pro-Palestinian activist and UK director of a campaign to support the construction of a Palestinian state, I knew the conference was likely to be a challenging experience. I attended with an open mind, in the spirit of engagement and understanding. On the surface, the event was quite exciting.

Of the 50 or so panel discussions, lectures and training sessions on offer, there were many insightful questions posed. It looked in many ways like a community in self-reflection, challenging itself to answer difficult issues around supporting the state of Israel.

Over the years I have developed three assumptions about pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli positions. No matter how much you disagree on the details, most reasonable, moderate voices want to see both Israelis and Palestinians living in two states, roughly along the 1967 lines with a shared Jerusalem and a just solution to the refugee issue.

This is where I assume today’s discussion is based and what I expected from the biggest gathering of pro-Israeli voices ever in the UK.

In to the opening plenary session, where I received my ‘We Believe’ goodybag including lunch, We Believe pens, paper, t-shirt and booklet etc, I settled in to hear renowned Conservative Friend of Israel and keynote speaker, Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox. In a room of more than 1,500 delegates, Fox gave unequivocal support for Israel.

Saying that Israel’s right to exist is unquestionable he went on to describe Israel as:

“…an outpost of democratic values in the Middle East.”

He also praised the country’s:

“…commitment to human rights.”

The crowd didn’t seem especially impressed. Some applauded, others didn’t. It was as if they were waiting for something. When he came to confront the politics of the occupation, it quickly became apparent what it was.

Upon reaffirming the internationally agreed position that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are “illegal and an obstacle to peace” at least half of the crowd turned; booing and hissing – in an almost pantomime fashion. Some applauded, but those clapping were decidedly in the minority.

As Fox pressed on, calling for Jerusalem to be “a shared capital for both Israelis and Palestinians”. a growing majority of the crowd were heckling. Many around me shouted “No!”

By the time the Secretary of State hinted at optimism in Palestinian unity between Hamas and Fatah the crowd were effectively united against him. Forcefully declaring that he was “proud to believe in Israel” the following applause seemed strained. The Chair of the session, Vivian Wineman, awkwardly thanked Fox “for his frankness” sending a titter around the room.

The day itself was enormous. In fairness, there were dozens of sessions but delegates were asked to choose only four, so I cannot give a full account of the conference. Thankfully, even in my narrow experience of the event there were islands of positive, forward-looking discussions.

In a session discussing ‘legitimate criticism’ of Israel, Michele Vogel, panel chair and UK president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (WIZO) began by admitting that critics of Israel, especially the Boycott, Divestment and Santions (BDS) movement “have succeeded in pervading all parts of our lives”.

Continuing this line of frankness Johnathan Freedland of the Guardian argued that “criticism of the occupation must be accepted”, going on to say “criticism of the occupation is not delegitimisation”.

Freedland – incidentally the first and only speaker to use the ‘o-word’ all day – even went as far to argue that the Israeli government itself is a force for delegitimising the state of Israel, citing the country’s introduction of loyalty oaths for non-Jews and Israeli film directors and artists. Martin Bright from the Jewish Chronicle echoed the sentiment that it is wrong to brand disagreement as delegitimsation.

Another interesting session discussed how Zionists throughout history have tackled the issue of the Arab presence in historic Palestine. Scott Copeland, director of Israel Travel Education at MAKOM, gave a fantastic presentation, describing how for decades before the founding of the State of Israel, Zionists were very aware of the Palestinian presence.

Copeland was open, engaging and scholarly, careful not to use one weighted term without the other – Eretz Yisrael / historic Palestine, Judea and Samaria / the West Bank etc. He offered evidence that the Zionist movement was very aware from the outset that their attempts to become the majority in Palestine would eventually be resisted by the local population. These examples of serious, positive engagement with the issues were sorely lacking elsewhere.

It was a session on how to deal with the awkward questions of war, settlements and international law, in which the darker side of the conference I had witnessed in the opening plenary came into its own.

Ambassador Robbie Sabel actively encouraged the audience to describe Israel’s separation barrier as a “border fence”, arguing that there is no ‘border’ between Israelis and Palestinians, only an “armistice line”. He went on to claim that settlements in the West Bank are not illegal and astoundingly that “not a single Palestinian has been displaced by Israel’s settlements”.

Sabel was joined on the panel by Israeli journalist Shimon Shiffer who argued that the West Bank is not “occupied” but “disputed” territory, going on to say that “two states won’t happen” and that this was a “good” thing.

The session fell further into the surreal when the panel was asked how pro-Israelis should deal with the upcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood in September. Apparently completely unaware of his own country’s history, Shiffer reassured the audience that:

“…the UN cannot create a state and it never has.”

The closing plenary session was a smorgasbord of intransigent rhetoric. Gideon Sa’ar, Likud’s education minister, received thunderous applause asserting that:

“…peace cannot come of more Israeli concessions.”

Colonel Richard Kemp berated the “bleating insistence” of human rights organisations and repeatedly called on the crowd to fight the “global conspiracy” against Israel.

Former Likud politician Natan Sharansky told the conference it was clear that multiculturalism in Europe had failed, and that freedom had to be rooted in identity. Only Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, understood how to achieve this, he said.

I did not attend the conference naively. As someone with different political views, I expected the day to be uncomfortable for me. But I did not expect the conference to seem so much like a backward step. I always assumed that most people with an interest in the Middle East – from either side – wanted to see two peoples with equal rights and self determination.

But as one thumbed through the “We Believe Toolkit” handed out at the closing session for activists to learn how to “influence”, “communicate” and “organise”, it seemed that the organisers of the conference had little interest in advancing the mainstream discourse around peace so much as enabling a defence of Israel in every instance.

In the end it was far clearer that the day was about shoring up and encouraging an embattled and beleaguered pro-Israeli community. To this end it was a major success.

One member of staff advised me not to take what I had seen to heart. The event had never been attempted on this scale before and the 1,500 delegates were largely self-selecting, he said. Even so, despite the broadly harder line of the audience, many of the speakers themselves made little effort to address the struggles for peace.

42 Responses to “Inside the “We believe in Israel” conference”

  1. Seph Brown

    RT @shamikdas: Article of the day: RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the "We believe in Israel" conf: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b – by @SephRBrown #WeBelieve

  2. Seph Brown

    I was shocked that even Liam Fox was heckled at Sunday's #WeBelieve in #Israel conference http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  3. IslingtonRed

    RT @SephRBrown: I was shocked that even Liam Fox was heckled at Sunday's #WeBelieve in #Israel conference http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  4. Jonathan Ridge

    RT @SephRBrown: I was shocked that even Liam Fox was heckled at Sunday's #WeBelieve in #Israel conference http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  5. House Of Twits

    RT @SephRBrown I was shocked that even Liam Fox was heckled at Sunday's #WeBelieve in #Israel conference http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  6. Alex Snowdon

    RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the We believe in Israel conference http://bit.ly/mbi0MG <<< delegates were well to the right of Liam Fox

  7. Hitchin England

    RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the "We believe in Israel" conference: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b – special report by @SephRBrown #WeBelieve

  8. Seph Brown

    @Anthillel There were a couple of positive aspects, but over all disappointing. Read my report for @Leftfootfwd: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  9. Anthony Parker

    @Anthillel There were a couple of positive aspects, but over all disappointing. Read my report for @Leftfootfwd: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  10. Pucci Dellanno

    RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the "We believe in Israel" conference: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b – special report by @SephRBrown #WeBelieve

  11. SlashedUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the "We believe in Israel" conference: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b – special report by @SephRBrown #WeBelieve

  12. Phil Taylor

    RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the "We believe in Israel" conference: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b – special report by @SephRBrown #WeBelieve

  13. Arieh Kovler

    at least half of the crowd turned; booing and hissing – in an almost pantomime fashion. Some applauded, but those clapping were decidedly in the minority.

    I have to disagree with that. I was standing at the back of the room in the centre and in a good position to judge.

    There was a small number of people – maybe 50 – who made some sort of disapproving noise at that point, while another slightly larger group – maybe 75 – clapped in reaction. The vast majority of the 1500 people in the room did neither of those two things.

    Bottom line is you went to a conference on Israel and found left-wing speakers and right-wing speakers. You seem to be annoyed that only some of the speakers agreed with you rather than all of them.

  14. mr. Sensible

    My own view is that the only sollution to this situation has to be a 2-state sollution.

  15. Seph Brown

    @Arieh Kovler

    I was also at the back of the room. I am only reporting what I saw.

    But you are right that there were both right and left wing speakers. As I said, I did not get the chance to go to most of the sessions. However, you cannot disagree that at both the opening and closing sessions, with all the 1,500 delegates, there was not a single left-wing speaker. Far from it, both sessions took a very pro-Likud line.

  16. Joy Wolfe

    Isn’t it rather naive to attend a conference entitled We believe in Israel and expect to find debate and discussion to suit the agenda of someone who is active in pro Palestinian activity.
    If I attended one called We believe in Palestine I would venture to suggest that not only would it present a ‘balanced’ picture, but that it would present an actively positive anti Israel agenda with much criticism and inciting rhetoric, something that certainly could not be siad about the We Believe in Israel conference where not one speaker I heard said a word of attack about the Palestinian people

  17. Joy Wolfe

    Urgent Correction to my piece just submitted

    Not only would it NOT present

    Isn’t it rather naive to attend a conference entitled We believe in Israel and expect to find debate and discussion to suit the agenda of someone who is active in pro Palestinian activity.
    If I attended one called We believe in Palestine I would venture to suggest that not only would it not present a ‘balanced’ picture, but that it would present an actively positive anti Israel agenda with much criticism and inciting rhetoric, something that certainly could not be said about the We Believe in Israel conference where not one speaker I heard said a word of attack about the Palestinian people

    Comment by Joy Wolfe on May 17, 2011 at 2:56 am

  18. Hens4Freedom

    RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the "We believe in Israel" conference: http://bit.ly/kZQ82b – special report by @SephRBrown #WeBelieve

  19. Ben White

    RT @SephRBrown: I was shocked that even Liam Fox was heckled at Sunday's #WeBelieve in #Israel conference http://bit.ly/kZQ82b

  20. Ben White

    Account by @SephRBrown on @leftfootfwd of UK Israel lobby conference http://bit.ly/kZQ82b #webelieve

  21. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – For goodness sake man you don’t need to comment everywhere just for the sake of it.

    Get a grip.

  22. Optim

    The session you had issue with was run twice. Panellists answered questions from the floor. Professor Robbie Sabel, being a professor of international law, had most of the questions targeted to him with questions about international law with people asking Israel’s justifications or how they could give a different side to those who said Israel was acting illegally. He answered these accurately with some but not many moral judgements. He said that when he was part of negotiations in the past borders were redrawn, settlements demolished and that this will happen again. He said that illegal outposts should be removed and Israelis who vandalise Palestinian land must be prosecuted. He certainly wasn’t a left wing critic of Israel but was more scholarly than political.
    Shimon Shiffer hardly spoke in the second session and you’ve quoted him very selectively. In the first session he spoke extensively on his wish for peace, how he felt settlements would be removed and how important the role of the media is on criticising the Israeli government.
    Both spoke candidly on how pessimistic they were about the prospects of peace, how they didn’t believe Jerusalem could easily be divided and other controversial issues. Their pessimistic opinions don’t mean they don’t hope for better!
    If you’re not a pessimist you shouldn’t follow the Middle East!

  23. Eric

    Arieh Kovler is a major organiser of the conference, so maybe not the most reliable source……

  24. yvonneridley

    Seph Brown gets inside the 'We Believe in #Israel' conference in West London and this is what he found: http://t.co/s9bjX0a @leftfootfwd

  25. Philip Painter

    Seph Brown gets inside the 'We Believe in #Israel' conference in West London and this is what he found: http://t.co/s9bjX0a @leftfootfwd

  26. LabourPalestine

    Seph Brown gets inside the 'We Believe in #Israel' conference in West London and this is what he found: http://t.co/s9bjX0a @leftfootfwd

  27. maya

    Seph Brown gets inside the 'We Believe in #Israel' conference in West London and this is what he found: http://t.co/s9bjX0a @leftfootfwd

  28. Asa Winstanley

    Liam Fox not pro-Israel enuf for "We Believe in Israel " conf: 1/2 "the crowd turned; booing and hissing" http://bit.ly/mbi0MG v @PalFreedom

  29. Andrew Gilbert

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Seph at this conference. As a Labour party member and Zionist, I am not sure I would have felt comfortable in an equivalent arena. In general politicians decide by omission or by explicity how their views will be heard. Liam Fox’s speech was a strange one and less tuned to his audience than one might have expected. This was not an outreach conference but really a widening of internal communal discussiom. So much has changed in the last year in the middle east and in British politics and the Jewish community like others needs to reflect on this. There is a very wide spread of voices inside the Jewish community on how we believe in Israel – and this conference was a time to re-engage and get people thinking and increase their activity. As well as the right wing that were there, there were many there from the centre and left of the community from the New Israel Fund (www.newisraelfund.org.uk) and from the newly formed Yachad (www.countdowntoyachad.org.uk) … most of our community really looks to see a peaceful solution and looks for opportunities for dialogue – I hope that was what Seph was looking for and to an extent from what I read he cant hide that that was there.

  30. Asa Winstanley

    British imperialists for Zionism: Colonel Richard Kemp wants YOU to fight the “global conspiracy” against Israel http://bit.ly/mbi0MG

  31. 3antar

    British imperialists for Zionism: Colonel Richard Kemp wants YOU to fight the “global conspiracy” against Israel http://bit.ly/mbi0MG

  32. Maamoun, PhD

    As if someone trying to convince himself (I believe in UFOs)…Inside the “We believe in Israel” conference http://ow.ly/4WrMf #Palestine

  33. Optim

    Maybe what he wrote would be more reliable if he’d stayed anonymous?!
    I think the boos and cheers varied depending on where you were sitting. Where I was at the back left about 4 people in the row in front of me booed a 2 or 3 clapped, the other 50 did nothing. From the noise coming in the middle the clapping sounded louder! I think overall people were interested to listen and learn and didn’t want to interrupt the speaker. The majority of people were polite, well behaved and rather “British” about the whole thing 🙂

  34. RepStones

    British imperialists for Zionism: Colonel Richard Kemp wants YOU to fight the “global conspiracy” against Israel http://bit.ly/mbi0MG

  35. Maxy

    I am no supporter of Liam Fox but this heckling at the conference proves that the Zionist Lobby in this country and elsewhere is trapped in a time warp of unconditional support for Israel no matter what it does. European nations trapped by holocaust guilt are too afraid to criticise Israel lest the oft repeated mantra of anti Semitism rears its ugly head. The truth is that the Arab spring has moved the world on and the problem with the supporters of Israel is that they believe they are above criticism. The new rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah is a reflection of this change. Ignore, denounce and demonise the rapprochement all you want, but it is hear to stay. If the Israelis are truly interested in peace then why continue building settlements on the West Bank for the past thirty years. That a right wing conservative like Liam Fox can acknowledge this new momentum, then so too should the doubters in the Zionist camp. The Palestinians are going nowhere and it is high time that the real friends of Israel acknowledged this. What we should be doing in this country is pushing both the Labour and Conservative Party to support the self declaration goal set by Fatah at the UN in September. In a sense the appointment of Tony Blair as emissary to the Quartet was the best thing that ever happened to the Palestinians; in the sense that it helped bring Hamas and Fatah together, though I am sure this was an unintended consequence. Let us not forget that the Labour Party was in power for fourteen years and did nothing to assist the Palestinians. Indeed it is precisely because of the inaction of the Quartet that the rapprochement took place. Now is the perfect opportunity to go beyond conventional thinking and for the Labour Party to take an active lead in supporting the self declaration by the Palestinians. I for one am waiting for the Israeli Spring. If the Israeli state is truly democratic and progressive then surely the Israeli masses will rise up to reflect this sentiment. We are waiting!!!!

  36. riazbhatti

    Seph Brown gets inside the 'We Believe in #Israel' conference in West London and this is what he found: http://t.co/s9bjX0a @leftfootfwd

  37. Steve Nimmons

    I disagree with most of the analysis, but this is quite a good read from Seph Brown http://j.mp/mINZBd #webelieve #israel

  38. Steve Nimmons

    I was also in the room, I think the 50% estimate in response to Dr. Fox’s comments is rather over stated. You say “I was also at the back of the room. I am only reporting what I saw”, actually I think you are reporting what you heard (observing a 1500 strong audience booing from behind them is quite an observational feat). I agree with Arieh Kovler, the vast majority of the audience made no reaction.

  39. mostly harmless

    It seems Maxy that based on some of the comments and views at this event you are in for a long wait.

  40. Mark2

    I think you have ignored the context of the conference – i.e. the BDS/deligitimising movements to which a good number of the sessions were devoted. These ideas are simply an attempt to exclude Israel as such from a place at the table – period, as is the “one state” idea. I think that is probably why the confernece tended to concentrate on matters that Seph criticises.

    Which only goes to prove the point that I have made for so many years – if you want Israel and its supporters to engage for peace deligitimisation, boycott, terrorism and sym/empathy for it are not going to do the trick – QED.

  41. JC Willis

    Interesting, but sadly not suprising #israel #hasbara RT @leftfootfwd: Inside the We believe in Israel conference http://t.co/3kxBG7S

  42. FG

    I was unsurprisingly not there living a good 1800 km from the venue (I won’t say where exactly). But one thing is perfectly clear. As a bedrock supporter of Israel, I’d say the pretended astonishment of the author at the fairly natural observations by the so-called center right or even centrist figures (“disputed” instead of “occupied” rooted in INT’L LAW instead of the cheaply politicized version of it peddled by the likes of Britain out of entirely different motivations other than scholarly documented correct interpretations of it; just one example: UNSC Res. 242), “armistice line of 1949, clearly the truth etc.) is itself a bit disappointing because it assumes that he was never in sufficient awareness of these things…
    In fact, why on earth should we freak out by the “Conservative Friends of Israel” Liam Fox (indeed his whole gov’t with the nefarious W. Hague leading the pack on the foreign front in European standing up to Israel only next to the French) comparaed with the absolutely principled and admirable stance of – real conservative, not the mickey mouse version – Canadian PM Stephan Harper? Something to ponder for traditionally anti-Israel if not worse Britain?

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