ZF rejection gave Yachad boost, says Hannah

By Doreen Wachmann

THERE is no bigger boost to an organisation's popularity than for it to be banned by the communal establishment.

Several months ago few people had heard of the relatively-new left-wing Zionist organisation Yachad.

But once its application to join the Zionist Federation had been rejected among screaming headlines, Yachad became a household name.

"We received a huge amount of support," its forthright director Hannah Weisfeld said. "It certainly boosted our public profile. We got a huge flurry of donations from our supporters and gained new supporters."

I interviewed Hannah to find out what led her to become this enfant terrible of established Zionism in this country.

Hannah's early life was deeply embedded in Zionism.

"My childhood, teens and early 20s were heavily invested in Habonim, which took up all my summers and winters," she said.

"When I left university I worked for Habonim for two years. I spent a huge amount of time in Israel, where I have lots of family and friends with a wide variety of opinions. I spent a year in Israel in between school and university."

That year was between 1999-2000, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon during the Oslo Peace Process.

She said: "Everybody thought peace was going to come, that there was going to be a peace agreement and that there would be a Palestinian state, that you would be able to travel in and out of the West Bank very easily, very freely and very safely."

Then in October, 2000, Hannah read English literature at Sussex University, which she described as a "very political university, very left-wing".

She said: "During the three years I was in Sussex, the second Intifada broke out, there was 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and student fees were introduced. It was a really tumultuous three years of student activism."

She said: "Sussex University was quite a tough place to be for someone who came from a background of being supportive of the State of Israel.

"There was a lot of criticism of the Israeli government and of its behaviour in the second Intifada.

"I became the interlocutor between the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Jewish Society, who didn't really have very good working relationships because there was so much friction.

"I tried to create a dialogue between them and tried to move the debate away from being pro-Israel or pro-'Palestine'.

"It was relatively successful, but we had very little support and it was a very difficult moment."

She added: "For a lot of people it's about supporting the right cause without knowing much about the context. It's a very superficial debate, but it can be quite angry and vicious.

"When I left university it was largely not relevant. Everybody did their own thing. Everybody forgot about the screaming and shouting. The amount of time invested in it was disproportionate to the impact it had."

Then Hannah spent two years working for Habonim, travelling back and forth to Israel.

She said: "After six years, living in Israel, being at university and Habonim, I didn't want to have anything to do with it, to be personally invested in Israeli politics. It had been a tumultuous time."

So Hannah took time out to go back to university for a master's degree in global politics.

She said: "I wanted to pursue a career in international development. I was interested in the developing world.

"I spent some time working in Malawi in East Africa with a small community-based organisation in the north of Malawi which at the time primarily comprised of a school and a couple of other projects.

"I worked with the management to help build their infrastructure. I'm still involved in that charity, Masambiro, which is now much bigger."

Back in London, Hannah worked for the Pears Foundation in charge of social action projects at the Jewish Cultural Centre.

She said: "My role was to get the Jewish community more involved in social action, like campaigning against the genocide in Darfur and fair trade issues."

It was then, two years ago, that Hannah felt she needed to take action on behalf of Israel.

With a group of friends she set up Yachad because she felt that there was "a very serious lack of debate inside the community about what was going on in Israel, a real lack of knowledge of the issues and often quite a closed-minded attitude towards reality on the ground".

The group wanted to move the community away from "a position that the only way to support Israel is to support what the government does. If you don't do that, then you're not a supporter of Israel," she claimed was the communal position.

She said: "Many people still feel they can't really say what they think. If you are critical you are told you are not within the fold of the community.

"We try to show that there are different ways to be supportive of Israel, that you can express concerns and still be pro-Israel."

Yet, in our discussion, Hannah seemed much more dogmatic in her own stance on Israel than the British Zionist establishment of which she is so critical.

She insisted: "The Jewish community needs to get behind the steps required for a two-state solution.

"Jewish people around the world have to support the fact that settlers have to be withdrawn out of the West Bank, that Jerusalem has to be shared with the Palestinian people and that we will cede territory in order to create a Palestinian state."

When I queried the practicality of a two-state solution at a time when the Arab world was becoming more explosive and divided amongst itself, she refused to discuss the issue with me.

She maintained dogmatically: "At the moment the only possible solution that can guarantee Israel's position as a Jewish and democratic state is to create a Palestinian state."

She insisted: "I'm not being dogmatic. It's the basis of every single peace negotiation. It's what the majority of both populations want and it's the only option at this point in time.

"Until there is another option on the table which allows all of us those things, this is the only solution.

"The general international consensus is that it is Benjamin Netanyahu who is making it difficult for the negotiations."

Although the Zionist Federation's failure to allow Yachad to join its ranks may have boosted the left-wing organisation's popularity, one wonders whether Hannah's criticism of the British Zionist establishment as being "close-minded" and stifling debate is not a question of the pot calling the kettle black.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph