A few days ago, there was a debate between Dan Sheldon of the Union of Jewish Students, and Jonathan Hoffman. The subject under discussion was the best way to advocate for Israel on campus.
In that debate, I tend towards the Dan Sheldon position. I am a supporter of the UJS, and its campaigning strategy. The UJS has been a supporter of two states for two people for as long as I can remember. This position gives the mainstream of Israeli supporters a moral high ground, which contrasts starkly with the annihilationist aims of the main pro-Palestinian (and often, pro-Hamas) opposition. It is high time that we claimed that moral high ground, and stressed the fact that it is we, not they, who support self determination and the preservation of fundamental rights. My hope is that the UJS will be effective in achieving that aim.
I am not a supporter of demonstrations, per se. When I think of demonstrations, I think of the disgusting boycott of Ahava, of the Al Quds Day horrors, of the parades of totalitarians and fascists that are marshalled by the so-called Stop the War Coalition. I also ask myself: what is the point of a demonstration? When I see the EDL, the BNP or the PSC marching through the streets of London, I’m revolted, and I think that most other people are, too.
Counter demonstrations have their place: although it is worth remembering that the reaction of most ordinary people, who are not deeply involved in the debate, will usually be: a plague on both your houses. Shouting, chanting mobs never come across well, whatever the cause. Most of us are turned off by confrontation.
There is, of course, some value in demonstrating. Demonstrations are opportunities for coalitions to come together, for people do “do something”. It helps to build a degree of solidarity. However, it is important first to build that coalition, build that consensus. For example, the attempt to boycott the Max Brenner chocolate shop in Australia was met by cross party opposition from Australia’s most senior politicians. Frankly, that’s the level and nature of solidarity that we ought to expect, here. Unfortunately, a small counter protest will not create that solidarity when none exists. That’s where the work needs to be done.
Jonathan Hoffman disagrees. He repeatedly enters the lions den: putting himself directly in the line of fire of some of the most horrific antisemites in this country. I admire his courage, even though I don’t believe that his efforts are likely to meet with much success. In particular, he spent weeks standing outside Ahava, opposing the boycott which finally shut the shop down.
During the course of those demonstrations, on a few occasions, various supporters of the English Defence League turned up. Jonathan Hoffman asked the police for a separate pen, so that non-EDL opponents of the boycott could be distinguished from them. The police refused.
I asked Jonathan Hoffman why the police had refused. He sent me this email:
Subject: RE: Demonstrations outside Ahava: next one November 7th
Thank you for your email.
Whilst I understand your personal concerns about being photographed, you will recall that we discussed this when you met with us at Kentish Town Police Station. I have reviewed our policing of the protests and PC Shrotri is correct in informing you that we will continue to provide 2 pens for protestors, namely one for anti-Ahava and one for pro-Ahava.
Martin Edwards | CT Operations Inspector | Camden Borough
Met Phone | xxxxx| Telephone 020 xxxxxx | Mobile | Email Martin.Edwardsxxxxx
Address | Kentish Town Police Station, 12A Holmes Road, Kentish Town NW5 3AE
There were also other emails in a similar vein. It is clear that Jonathan Hoffman took this concern seriously.
As you will probably know, Tony Greenstein a Rabbi’s son who has become a revolutionary socialist and something of a “personality” managed to get hold of a picture of Jonathan Hoffman, at the counter-demonstration, in the same frame as a Brazilian Wiccan of Jewish extraction called Roberta Moore. For a while, Roberta Moore was the sole representative of the English Defence League’s so-called “Jewish Division”. This, claims Greenstein, is evidence of an alliance between Jonathan Hoffman and the EDL. Jonathan Hoffman, by contrast, initially believed that the photo had been doctored and emphatically denied any alliance with, or affection for the EDL.
Unfortunately for Tony Greenstein, Jonathan Hoffman has been active in anti-racist politics and is a clear opponent of the EDL. Here, for example, is Jonathan Hoffman writing in his blog on The JC:
[Stephen Bates of The Guardian] asked me if it was a matter of concern that EDL were there on Saturday. I said it would be if it had been planned/coordinated — but that it was entirely beyond our control. I emphasised that my record of fighting the far Right is impeccable, witness my activism against Irving and Griffin when they were invited to the Oxford Union Society in 2007. I told SB that there was some crossover between the BNP and the EDL and that the EDL sometimes intimidated Muslims and that both these are reprehensible.
It goes without saying that nothing that Jonathan Hoffman can say would stop Tony Greenstein insisting on a Hoffman-EDL alliance.
Now we come to the debate between Dan Sheldon of UJS and Jonathan Hoffman.
During the course of that event, Dan Sheldon attacked Jonathan Hoffman’s campaigning strategy. Some of the criticisms, frankly, I agreed with. However, this was also said [from 1:50]:
“He is happy to demonstrate, side by side, with members of the EDL’s Jewish Division”
It is very clear that this is not true. Jonathan Hoffman has made his opposition to the far Right and the EDL clear. It is also true that he asked for his demonstration to be separated from those EDL supporters, but had been rebuffed by the police. It is therefore untrue to describe him as “happy” with the situation that arose, on the occasions that EDL supporters turned up to counter-demonstrate. I suppose one might argue that, the moment a suspected EDL supporter turned up, he and the rest of the counter-demonstrators should have gone home. But frankly, why should they allow the EDL this veto on their activism? After all, many far Left demonstrators participated in the anti-Nick Griffin demonstration alongside Jonathan Hoffman. Would they refuse to oppose the BNP, merely because Jonathan Hoffman does as well?
Taking a step back: there’s a world of difference between the occasional arrival of a Brazilian Wiccan EDL supporter at an ad hoc anti-anti-Ahava demonstration, and the sort of coordinated political campaigning with the most senior British representatives of genocidal antisemitic terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, which are a feature of most so-called pro-Palestinian campaigning. Compare the embrace of these groups by the Stop the War Coalition and the various other Left-Islamist coalitions, with Jonathan Hoffman’s request for a separate pen, and his words of condemnation for the actions of the EDL.
I’d add, also, that Jonathan Hoffman is an all-round opponent of extremism, including that emanating from elements of the Settler movement in Israel. Here is an article he wrote about “the sub-humans who torched the mosque at Kfar Yasuf” which he described as a “despicable crime”.
Why did Dan Sheldon suggest that Jonathan Hoffman was “happy to demonstrate, side by side, with members of the EDL’s Jewish Division”? It may be that he came to believe Tony Greenstein’s repeated allegation that Jonathan Hoffman and Roberta Moore were, in some sense, an “item”. It also sounds like the sort of thing that one says, in the heat of debate, against an opponent whose tactics he regards as foolish and counterproductive. If so, knowing the truth of the situation, the proper thing to do is to retract and apologise. I know from personal experience that is an easy thing to get matters wrong; and that when you do, it is important to say so.
It is tempting to attack Jonathan Hoffman. He is a man who has been driven to near-despair, because of the rise of genocidal antisemitic movement and because of the relative lack of support that Jews receive, in the face of a politics which is, quite frankly, terrifying. He is not phlegmatic in the face of what he sees, and reacts in a manner which allows his opponents to lampoon and ridicule him.
I don’t find Jonathan Hoffman’s despair amusing. I think it is tragic that somebody should end up feeling like that.