The UJS President Joel Rosen was invited by Israelis marking Yom Haatzmaut in London to address their Pro-Democracy Protest on 31st April 2023
Shavua Tov, thank you for inviting me to address you.
My name is Joel Rosen and I am the President of the Union of Jewish Students. It’s my job to try and represent the UK and Ireland’s 9,000 Jewish students and our seventy university Jewish societies. I spend my days travelling across the country from university to university, hearing from the next generation of our community. It is impossible in the next few minutes to give voice to all of their anxieties and aspirations that relate to the 75-year-old old-new state of Israel. Jewish students are varied as the Jewish people are varied but one thing has become clear to me over the course of this year.
Our community has changed. The change is unmistakable and irrevocable. The tectonic plates have shifted, and across the diaspora, a new generation is standing up and speaking out. Last November, we were the first mainstream communal organisation to condemn this far-right Government. As early as November we released what I think and what I hope is the strongest condemnation of any cross-communal Jewish organisation in the diaspora.
We did so not in spite of our commitment to Israel and its people but because of it. We did so because we believe in a Jewish state worth believing in. We did so because we hold true to the Jewish values that have sustained our people through centuries of hardship and struggle.
Heinrich Heine, the 19th-century German poet said that “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.” Ours is a people whose formative journey is away from subjection and toward freedom.
We stand here united in defence of hard-won freedoms and against the subjugation of another people.
Today we’ve heard about what this Government is planning.
About a government antagonistic towards the diaspora.
A government hostile to democratic norms.
A government racist towards Palestinians and contemptuous of the LGBT community.
We know what this government is doing and how they are doing it. I want us to ask why?
When governments amass power they do not readily relinquish that power.
When extreme governments amass power they do not do so without intent to use that power.
To attempt an answer this question, allow me to rescue from relative obscurity a forgotten Zionist thinker - Ytizchak Epstein - who made Aliyah in 1886 and before the Seventh Congress of the World Zionist Congress in 1905 posed in his words ‘a question that outweighs all the others, namely the question of our attitude toward the Arabs’
According to Epstein “At a time when we are feeling the love of the homeland with all our might, the land of our forefathers, we are forgetting that the people who live there now also have a sensitive heart and a loving soul.”
The fundamentalists keenest on this reform, and I mean Ben Gvir, Smotrich and the like - as opposed to their enablers - have an answer to this question, that which Epstein identified as outweighing all others. It is there in black and white if we know where to look.
In 2017, Smotrich outlined his "subjugation plan", offering Palestinians on either side of the green line three options:
- or surrender with second-class status
There is theology in this madness. A year earlier in a speech, Smotrich said “There is one absolute and correct truth… This is the basis for the approach of Joshua when he entered the Land, which I seek to adopt even today. The foundation of our absolute truths is faith in the Torah”
A fundamentalist misreading, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of Jewish history.
This supremacism lives on. As recently as 2021 he turned to Arab members of the Knesset and said “You’re only here by mistake, because Ben Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.”
Amidst all of this despair, at a time when hope seems naive and our dreams turn to nightmares, think back to Yitzchak Epstein sitting in Palestine at the turn of the twentieth century, daring to conceive of another way. Think of our ancestors who, across 18 centuries of homelessness in the Diaspora, never lost sight of home and think of our comrades on street corners in every city and town, a part of this great Jewish and democratic awakening. We have in the rich treasure of our tradition, the tools with which we can conceive of another reality based on equality and justice for all Israelis and Palestinians. ‘Seek peace and pursue it!’, instructs the Psalmist. ‘Love the stranger for you were once strangers in a strange land’ in Exodus. ‘Do not do unto others that which is hateful to yourself’ said Hillel. We have always been dreamers; now we must fight to keep alive our dreams and those of our ancestors, for the sake of generations not yet born.