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Any (Jewish) Questions?

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2007-06-18

Israel

Israel

The ‘Any (Jewish) Questions’ panel discussion at the LJCC on June 14th was clearly designed to provoke an interesting debate but sadly the atmosphere was at points distinctly frosty.

The panel was chaired by the affable Edward Stourton, one of the presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme. He continually tried to lighten the mood by gently mocking the battling panellists; “children, children, come now!” and (to the audience) “lets leave them to talk among themselves” – when they wouldn’t stop squabbling and move onto the next question.

Also sitting on the panel was The Independent’s editor-in-chief Simon Kelner, who early on advised the crowd not to dwell that evening on his employment of journalist Robert Fisk. “We could spend the next hour me with defending Robert Fisk and you attacking him. I think he’s one of the most informed reporters of the Middle East region and I’m proud we have him in the paper,” Kelner said. “As a Jew I wouldn’t allow anything anti-semitic in the paper, and I think our coverage of Israel is fair,” he added.

The fourth panellist Lorna Fitzsimons added something interesting to the mix. Fitzsimons is a non-Jewish Zionist and heads BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre - an independent organisation devoted to creating a better understanding of Israel in the UK.

During the LJCC’s session Fitzsimons frequently spoke in praise of Israel, her non-Jewish background enabling her to give an objective view of the country and England’s Jewish community. At one point she told the crowd in a fond rather than accusatory tone: “As someone who’s not Jewish, working with the Jewish community can feel alienating – you should remember that you need to engage with the wider UK community.”

The majority of the evening was spent discussing Israel, and the panel were invited to respond to questions submitted by members of the audience before the night. As chair Stourton didn't contribute his own opinions to the debate. He started the proceedings off with a warning to the crowd that he wasn’t going to answer any questions about the BBC as he didn’t “want to lose my job”.

One audience member asked whether Israel’s treatment of Palestinians could be compared to South Africa under the apartheid. Fitzsimons was passionate: “There’s not one perfect democracy in the world but it’s a disgrace to compare Israel with the black experience in South Africa.”

The discussion looked closely at Israel’s human rights record, with special reference to the 77MPs who are supporting a move to break Israel’s ties with the EU because of the country’s failure to comply with human rights regulations.

Karmi held Israel to account: “Israel has committed gross human rights abuses, these are well documented. You may all love Israel and think it’s marvellous but you have to accept it isn’t.”

Fitzsimons preferred to defend the country: “There has been a disproportionate judgement on Israel on this matter. I’m not saying Israel shouldn’t be kept to high standards but there’s a danger we are ignoring the record of other places that don’t have a robust judiciary and free press, which Israel does.”

The direction the conversation was going clearly frustrated Julius. Responding to the crowd expressing their loyalties loudly with boos or cheers, he said: “This is getting silly, fifty per cent of the audience supports one side of the argument and 50 per cent support the other, and we
could spend the whole evening arguing. The point is the two sides have to find a way of living together as what is happening now in the region is intolerable.”

The conversation reached a hairy point once again when Karmi disagreed with other panel members over the existence of the state of Israel. Julius told the crowd: “If there was no longer a Jewish state it would be a loss to the world and humanity.” Karmi responded: “In order for Jews to operate as a collective with a group identity you don’t need a nation state.”

Someone asked the panel whether the two sides gaining a better understanding of each other’s culture and religion would lead to peace. Karmi didn’t think this would be the way forward. “The problem isn’t due to the differences in culture, it’s due to Israel taking over Palestine and expelling the indigenous population,” she said.

Fitzsimons took a different approach, commenting that educating both sides about the other’s culture would be a worthwhile move. “When I first started going to Israel it struck me that Israelis and Palestinians had more in common that they realise. Education can help and must help in bringing the two sides together,” she said.

One audience member pondered whether Jews in the UK were becoming more interested in politics. Kelner said how embarrassing he found it that the British don’t take as much interest in politics as the French; giving the  example: “My 18-year-old daughter is completely disengaged from politics.”
 
He added: “That’s the terrific thing about gatherings like this evening; we are engaging a discussion on something real. Recently there has been an upsurge of Jewish politics and this is for the good.”

One controversial subject was the recent University and College Union decision to promote a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Karmi suggested the Jewish community see the boycott in a different way: “Why not just ignore this? It maybe most of the universities do not debate the boycott,"  - (meaning they’ll carry on as normal).

Julius called the boycott “moronic,” adding that it shows no understanding of the complexities of the dispute and how to resolve them. Kelner backed him up: “The boycott is pointless and it’ll alienate the very section of Israeli society we need to engage with, the reasonable academics.”

Fitzsimons was on the same wavelength: “This is the antithesis of everything that academia is about, education builds bridges and understanding. This move says British academia is not the kind of place for open discussion.” The last question was: "Does the panel agree that there should be more discussions like this? Fitzsimons expressed the sensible conclusion: “We have to be prepared to consider other people’s points of view.”

For more information about events at the London Jewish Cultural Centre,
visit www.ljcc.org.uk or call 020 8457 5000.