OPINION: Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall

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OPINION: Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall

Protesting outside a cinema in a Jewish area that is showing a film about the massacre of young Jews can have no other intention other than to hurt Jewish people who are still in pain.

JW3 CEO Raymond Simonson, outside the Phoenix cinema, Thursday 23rd May 2024. Pic: Adam Lawrence
JW3 CEO Raymond Simonson, outside the Phoenix cinema, Thursday 23rd May 2024. Pic: Adam Lawrence

Earlier this week I stood on the stage at JW3 in front an auditorium full of Jewish community leaders – professional, lay, rabbis, charity CEOs, trustees, rabbis, machers and colleagues – and non-Jewish journalists and reporters from the national TV, radio and print media. My role was to say a few words of welcome and introduction before handing over to Secretary of State Michael Gove MP, who was there to deliver a keynote speech on antisemitism that would be seen, heard or read by millions over the course of the day.

In my opening speech, I informed the 15 or so members of the press, from the Guardian to the Times, from BBC to GB News, that we Jews had just counted the 28th day of the Omer.  I explained how the Omer is a unique period in the Jewish calendar, where we count each day, and each of the seven weeks between the recent festival of Pesach, and the forthcoming festival of Shavuot.

We count, and we count, and we count.

This is why, as I told them, I have been thinking a lot about Jews and counting in recent weeks, and I gave them various examples of what I meant, ranging from  – David Baddiel’s book “Jews Don’t Count”, to the daily count most of us do of the number of days since the brutal Hamas terrorist attacks and the kidnapping of over 230 hostages, of which 128 are still unaccounted for.

I ended by saying how I’ve also been reflecting a lot on who we as a community can count on. In particular, who we can count on inside the community to represent us, and who we can count on outside of our community for support, for friendship, to stand alongside us and to stand up for us.

Pic: JN Reader Henry Jacobs

Often when I think about this in recent months it can be hard not to feel quite low, and I struggle to keep hold of a sense of hope and positivity. However, right now, as I sit and write this, I feel energised, and my sense I hopefulness has been reinvigorated.

I have just returned from an unexpectedly uplifting experience where all around me were Jews of all types who individually and collectively decided to take a stand. To stand together and be counted.

I was there with around a thousand other Jews (by my approximate count at least!) and non-Jewish friends gathered outside The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley – one of the oldest continuously running cinemas in the UK – to stand up against bullies whose desire to intimidate the community triggered something in us all.

I tend to have a fairly lenient view of (non-violent) protest even when I disagree with the views espoused. It’s part of living in a free society, and I will defend others’ right to peaceful protest. Perhaps controversially given my role as a community leader, I don’t believe that the majority of those who attend all marches are motivated by antisemitism, or that “Free Palestine” as a slogan is automatically antisemitic.

Yes, there’s no question that there are real Jew haters among the protestors, and I agree that more needs to be done to deal with that. However, I am, in general more tolerant about demonstrations and protestors than you might think. Even when it has come to the small handful of times when those demonstrations have taken place outside of JW3 over the years, led by people with whose views I strongly disagree.

But there’s a line. Even for someone as patient and open-hearted as me.

On Thursday evening, at my local cinema, The Phoenix, a documentary about the heinous atrocities committed at the Nova Festival on October 7 was screened as part of the Seret Israeli Film festival. And for reasons beyond the comprehension of right-minded person, a number of groups claiming to be pro-Palestinian – but seeming to most of us to really just be anti-Israel (at best) – organised a protest.

These same groups have been campaigning for all cinemas and venues to boycott the Seret Festival. They succeeded in putting pressure on two well known cinema chains to pull out, yet failed to get the Phoenix, the Everyman, or indeed JW3 (where the majority of screenings are taking place, as in each of the precious ten years of the festival) to follow suit.

This evening, buoyed no doubt by the resignations of film makers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh (surprise, surprise) from their roles as patrons of The Phoenix, the demonstrators turned up in Finchley ready to shout and scream at those arriving to attend the screening.

Protesting outside a cinema in a heavily Jewish populated area, that is showing a documentary about the massacre of young Jewish partygoers at a music festival, can have no other intention behind it other than to cause hurt to Jewish people who are still in pain.

Standing up for your beliefs in a two-state solution, for freedom for Palestinians, for an end to war, the protection of innocent civilians etc are all things I get, and in fact that I more than sympathise with. That was not this. This was not a demonstration of being “pro” anything. This could only have been about causing pain and upset to British Jews still grieving over the murders, the rapes and the kidnappings.

And so, for hundreds of local Jews, of which I‘m sure a vast majority do not usually go to the demonstrations or counter-demos in town, this was a case of “Enough is Enough!”.  I turned up over an hour before the film was due to begin, expecting to find 30-50 Jewish people, and perhaps, who knows, even a handful of non-Jewish allies. Within 15 minutes of arriving I was  astonished to find myself in the middle of a throng of around 1,000 people drowning out the protests from a couple of dozen anti-Israel demonstrators. What’s more, these weren’t just your usual suspects, the people within our community that we’ve come to expect always stand up to support Israel or to counter antisemitism.

Yes, they were there too, but looking around at so many people I know, I saw mums, dads and grandparents, teenagers and students, rabbis and cantors from across the denominations, accountants and comedians, photographers and fundraisers, simcha DJs school PTA Chairs, synagogue committee members and solicitors, young and old, left and right, Israeli, South African, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Mizrachi. The vast majority were local Jews who live within walking distance (or who know a good place to park for the quick escape!).

So many people I spoke to said variations of the same things – “Not in our neighbourhood” and “enough is enough”.

I never imagined when I left the house today that I would end up dancing a wild hora with a bunch of Israeli women in the middle of the road in East Finchley High Street while police held back the buses, but there I was!

Aside from a small handful of more hardcore people who seemed to be there to agitate for a fight, the vast majority were there in good spirits, and conducted themselves peacefully (if loudly).

It didn’t take long for the atmosphere to feel more like and outdoor Bar Mitzvah party, with the simcha staples of “Tel Aviv” and “Moshiach!” Moshiach! Moshiach” and others being blasted out on loudspeakers accompanied by hundreds of voices of Finchleyites singing at the top of our lungs to the bemusement of passers by.

I never imagined when I left the house that I would end up dancing a wild hora with a bunch of Israeli women in the middle of the road in East Finchley High Street while police held back the buses, but there I was! At that surreal moment I half expected a bunch of 13-year-olds to take the mic and start a Best Friends’ Speech!

In the face of ignorance and what I can only assume is anti-Jewish hatred by the couple of dozen protestors across the street, hundreds of Jews expressed their Jewish identity with pride, humour and utter joyfulness. And whether it was that, or the police’s efforts, the “anti” brigade left with their tails between their legs.

We had turned the volume right up both figuratively and literally as loud, proud Jews, and it felt great! It was a reminder of the words of the late former Chief Rabbi Sacks: “Let all the world see we are never ashamed to stand tall as Jews”.

Tomorrow I will continue to do what I am most committed to, working hard to create more opportunities for more people to engage in positive Jewish experiences – Jewish arts, culture, learning and social action. To strengthen Jewish identities and deepen people’s connection to Jewish life and Jewish community. And to nurture a culture of encounter between different people, both more and less like themselves.

Tonight though I will sleep better than I have in a while, having been reminded how powerful it is when we stand up to be counted.

  • Raymond Simonson, chief executive, JW3
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