At a March meeting in London of activists opposed to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, attendees could buy fair-trade, organic Palestinian olive oil soap, with revenues going to widows in Ramallah.
But this was not a meeting directed at London's large Muslim population. It featured a panel of Israeli protesters who have come to view their nation's treatment of the Palestinians as incompatible with a democratic, racially equitable society. And it was organized primarily by liberal-left British Jewish groups critical of Israel, such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
About 200 mostly middle-aged Jews crowded into the room, the kind of rumpled, intellectual audience one might expect at a talk at New York's famous 92nd Street Y. Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad El-Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, described on a live phone line how Israel's blockade had left Gazans so short of bottled water and water filters that they were forced to drink salty, polluted tap water.
"Imagine living in a prison that you're not allowed to leave, and the prison is bombed," he told the hushed room. As for the violence, he said, "I cry for the children killed in Gaza," but also "I cry when my people celebrated in the streets" over the killing of children in Jerusalem.
Parallels to apartheid South Africa were frequently drawn by the speakers as photos flashed across a screen of impoverished Palestinians confronting armed soldiers at checkpoints and standing dwarfed by Israel's security wall dividing it from Palestinian villages. The overwhelmingly sympathetic crowd applauded calls for a boycott of Israeli academics and of companies that benefit from the occupation of Palestinian territories.
Michael Kustow, a British writer and organizer of the event, anticipated criticism from the British Jewish community. "Those of us who criticize Israel do not think we're disloyal or self-hating," he maintained. "We're trying to return Israel to . . . its own values."
Harsh criticism of Israel is common on campuses in Great Britain, which often comes as a shock to visiting American Jewish students. "I've been very surprised at the amount of anti-Israel programming at the institutional level," says Naomi Berlin, a student at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., spending her junior year at Oxford. "When you say Israel, you get words like 'occupation,' 'apartheid,' 'racist.' "
Berlin cited two highly controversial debates organized this academic year by the eminent Oxford Union Debating Society. One, a November forum on free speech featuring Holocaust denier David Irving, was picketed by Jewish students. Another, a debate on whether Israel should exist, invited two prominent critics of Israel to argue in favor of Israel's existence. One of them actually switched sides during the debate and argued against Israel's right to exist.
Adam Parker, a first-year student from Manchester who co-founded the Israeli Cultural Society at Oxford this year, helped organize a protest against the Irving event. "I think it was a disgrace," he says.
Yair Zivan, campaigns director for the Union of Jewish Students, claims anti-Zionism on campus "often spills over into anti-Semitism." According to Zivan, three anti-Semitic incidents were reported at Manchester University when Jewish students protested a resolution to "twin" their student union with Palestinian An-Najah University, where some students have become suicide bombers, Zivan says.
The harshest critics of Israel at places like Oxford are Jewish professors, notably Israeli Professor of International Relations Avi Shlaim, who charges that Israel's aim in its current blockade of Gaza is "to starve the people of Gaza into submission."
Demonstrators outside England's famed Oxford Union Debating Society protest the presence of British writer David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier, at a debate on freedom of speech. (Max Nash/Press Association via AP Images)
Seth Anziska, an American Oxford graduate student in Middle Eastern studies, says, "Europeans — and the British in particular — have a much more pessimistic outlook" about the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians than Americans. But he adds, "In some ways, it's more realistic."
Yet some prominent British Jews aren't buying it. Shalom Lappin, a professor of computational linguistics at King's College, London, who has written on the history of British Jews, dismisses groups like Jews for Justice for Palestinians. He sees them as part of a long tradition of what he calls "a survival strategy" among British Jews to gain acceptance from the British establishment by not provoking anger.
"I don't doubt their sincerity," he says, "but they're celebrated with open access to The Guardian and the London Review of Books and paraded across campuses as 'the good Jews,' not the 'tribal and bad Jews.' "
"I'm proud to be Jewish," responds the organization's chair, Dan Judelson, who said he became active after his daughter was born. "That sense of Jewish injustice and treating people equitably was something I wanted to pass on to my daughter."