Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Flaming Liberties!

INDEPENDENT Jewish Voices(IJV) is the name taken by signatories to a statement in the British press saying that established Jewish bodies which support Israeli breaches of human rights do not speak for their community, and that they do a disservice to it when they blur distinctions between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. *

The platform at the IJV meeting I attended last week was distinguished (Lady Dahrendorf and professors Jacqueline Rose, Donald Sassoon and Lyn Segal), and some friends of mine made useful points in the discussion. But by far the best and most interesting part came in contributions by some young people in the audience.

Emma Clyne, a student from the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS) described her experiences with the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). Having tried to explain to its Zionist apparatchniks that the Jewish Society at SOAS wanted to look at Jewish history, traditions and culture, she did not see a UJS "information" pack about Israel as suitable for this purpose. Apparently the UJS officials took a dim view of such departure from duty.

To compound their felony, the SOAS students had decided to invite speakers from Independent Jewish Voices. UJS officialdom was not happy that students might be exposed to different viewpoints and ideas. Of course, some of the students at places like SOAS have this notion that that is why they are there.

Incidentally, I see that UJS campaigns director Mitch Simmons was particularly busy last month trying to persuade the SOAS Jewish Society not to host speakers from IJV (Students in censorship row over IJV debate, Jewish Chronicle, April 27). This is the same guy who in February was exhorting dissenters like IJV to stop complaining that they were suppressed, be prepared for debate, and "engage productively with the democratic structures within the Jewish community", among which he naturally included the UJS. This young man will go far!
(Reinventing Dissent, Guardian Comment is Free, February 9, 2007)

A lad from the Jewish Free School who spoke after Emma Clyne said he had been accepted for the Ambassadors' Programme, which trains Sixth-formers for Israel advocacy, so they can contend with anti-Israel views on campus or in the media; but he was starting to have his doubts and was worried about going on with this.

It was heartening to see that despite the investment that has been put into calling up students for the "campus war" and wider battles, some are thinking for themselves and questioning authority. They deserve help and encouragement. It was a pity the chair at the meeting did not call Jewish Socialist editor Julia Bard, who'd raised her hand at the beginning of the discussion and was particularly keen to come in after the JFS student, as she wanted to talk about what is happening in Jewish schools, as an issue on which independent Jewish voices should be raised.

A number of parents with children at JFS have been expressing concern at the way an Orthodox religious group called Aish HaTorah, or Aish for short, is being given access to the schools. This well-funded US-based organisation uses modern media methods to spread its message, and organises subsidised holidays and high-powered seminars. It has had full-page colour advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle offering Summer programmes in Israel, Africa and the USA - "Every year we take young Jewish people to fantastic destinations across the globe and ignite their pride in Judaism".

Some say it is like a cult, separating impressionable young people from parents whose ordinary Judaism is seen as not good enough. They also point to similarities with the Christian creationists. Although Aish claims to be "apolitical", and originated from a religious rather than Zionist movement, it lines up with the conservative right in America, and the Zionist settler lobby.

Clifford Singer wrote a well-researched expose of Aish in Jewish Socialist magazine last year. Here are some extracts:-

"The breezy prose on Aish's website, with its tales of personal growth and acts of kindness, suggests an organisation that is liberal and broadminded, with a dash of Californian self-help therapy. But the values that guide Aish are not those of Liberal, Reform, or even Modern Orthodox Judaism. Its credo is that of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi movement. Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah) insists on the inerrant truth of the Bible, which it believes was dictated by God to Moses.

"... it has hitched its social conservatism to an aggressively neoconservative stance on the Middle East. Its donors and well-wishers may include liberals and conservatives, but the political voices on its website extend from the right to the far right: Benjamin Netanyahu, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz, Dore Gold, Natan Sharansky, Melanie Phillips and Charles Krauthammer.

"In 2001 Aish set up two pro-Israel lobbying groups. Hasbara Fellowships, launched jointly with Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trains university students to be 'effective pro-Israel activists on their campuses', and supplies them with speakers and resources. But it has stepped beyond mere 'advocacy' to defend Israel's expansion of West Bank settlements, ..."

So there you have it, in the guise of a purely religious revival these bearers of the flame have been given resources and the run of some schools to capture the hearts and minds of youngsters for a reactionary political agenda. But I don't suppose they will be included on the official list of "extremist" religious outfits against which colleges are supposed to be alert.

Fortunately, in a timely move, the Jewish Socialists' Group have now put a revised version of Clifford Singer's article about Aish on their website, so you can find this at http://www.jewishsocialist.org.uk/aish.html

* For more on Independent Jewish Voices, their founding statement and signatories, etc, visit them at:


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