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Israeli Expats Living in the U.K. Get Political

New efforts to mobilize a scattered community gain traction

Eylon Aslan-Levy
October 15, 2014
Israeli Forum Task Force Anat Koren addresses rally outside Qatari Embassy in London in September. (Yakir Zur)
Israeli Forum Task Force Anat Koren addresses rally outside Qatari Embassy in London in September. (Yakir Zur)

In September, dozens of people gathered outside the Qatari Embassy in London to protest Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup on the grounds of its sponsorship of Hamas. Organized by the new Israeli Forum Task Force, in collaboration with the existing Sussex Friends of Israel, the protest represented the first effort in recent years by Israeli expatriates in the U.K. to become politically involved as a community.

The organizers reasoned that the only way to challenge British public perceptions of Israel was to seize the agenda. They did so by capitalizing on existing controversy around Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, calling to ‘Kick Terrorism out of Football’ as A means of drawing attention to the threat facing Israel of state-sponsored terrorism. Protestors wore bright orange boiler suits, resembling the jumpsuits worn by journalists just before their filmed beheadings at the hands of ISIS. Qatar is a member of the U.S.-led alliance bombing ISIS, but the event’s organizers felt this would have maximum visual impact given Qatar’s support for other Islamist groups. (Qatar also stands accused of permitting funds to be transferred from its territory to ISIS, so the choice of attire was not entirely misleading.)

The stunt worked, and the protest received coverage in the British national press and even the Qatar Daily Star. Another eye-catching protest, outside the Qatar-owned luxury department store Harrods, received mention in the Telegraph broadsheet.

The IFTF was founded by Anat Koren, editor-in-chief of the Alondon magazine, at the height of Operation Protective Edge, as a way to establish a grassroots activist network of Israeli expatriates in the U.K. (a community which, according to Koren’s estimate, could number as many as 80,000 people). The hostility towards Israel from the British public and media during the previous Israeli operation had been the final straw for many, galvanizing previously politically uninvolved Israelis to want to change British discourse. For Nurit Karol, an Israeli resident of the U.K. for the last 20 years, the IFTF’s purpose is to facilitate communication and coordination between like-minded Israelis.

Israeli expatriates in the U.K. as a community have never been politically organized. For Shany Mor, a former foreign policy director of Israel’s National Security Council, now completing a doctorate in Oxford, “there are so many different kinds of Israelis in the U.K. [that] it’s hard to speak of a community” at all. The group includes everyone from dual British-Israeli citizens to students and partners of locals. Koren sits on the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry, as the only delegate of an Israeli organization. To her mind, there are no other Israeli communal organizations that might even be eligible to join. Nor have Israeli expatriates integrated seamlessly with the British Jewish community: the synagogue is central to Jewish communal life in the U.K., whereas Israeli expatriates are predominantly secular, often reluctant to become involved in the religious frameworks the encounter in the U.K.

Consequently, there has never been any organized political effort in the U.K. by Israeli expatriates: Hasbara has remained the reserve of the Israeli Embassy, the Board of Deputies, and various NGOs (such as the Zionist Federation). Koren attributes this lack of activism to the fact that many Israelis arrived in the U.K. intending to stay temporarily, only recently beginning to conceive of a “permanent… Israeli life” here, a mindset necessary for broader social involvement.

For Raine Marcus, the IFTF’s spokeswoman, Israelis’ political inactivity stems from a lack of confidence in expressing themselves in English, or remaining cultural barriers. But according to one U.K.-based Israeli academic, such willingness to speak up for Israel cannot simply be assumed: many expatriates “may have been politically apathetic in Israel,” a tendency reflected in their “almost total lack of interest in U.K. politics”.

Shany Mor argues that in any case, that sort of hasbara is the responsibility of the Israeli Embassy, and required by the British Jewish community insofar as it becomes necessary to combat thinly disguised anti-Semitism. “It’s exhausting enough being Israeli in Israel,” Mor says. “It needn’t be a full-time job abroad too.”

Nurit Karol sees this expatriate initiative as addressing the perceived deficiencies of the British Jewish community in terms of hasbara, for whom she reserves harsh words: “Diaspora Jews themselves are timid and want to be part of the upper class and are reluctant to cause waves and draw too much attention to themselves.” Certainly, the anti-Zionist timbre of British public discourse means that vocal support for Israel can bear risks of creating tensions with friends and colleagues—a scenario many newcomers may wish to avoid.

Nir Cohen, however, emissary of the World Zionist Organization, takes a more favorable view of the “incredible efforts” of British Jews, believing that “Israeli creativity can [still] contribute massively.”

He may well be right. With the Israeli Forum Task Force’s public, highly visible, a rowdy new actor has arrived on the British hasbara scene, full of chutzpah and equipped with some very sharp Israeli elbows. It’s still small, and it’s hard to predict whether it will grow beyond its present core of committed activists, but British Jewish life may be about to become more colorful.

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.