2012-09 (Sept 2012)
Greenbelt - The intensity that occurs in tents
The best way to take the pulse of a community is to visit them in festival mode.  

And in the final long weekend of summer, both the Jewish and Christian communities separately set up shop in grassy fields, let their hair and payot down and revealed some insights into just what drives these faith groups into modernity.   The Jewish Festival,  Limmudfest, was an exquisite mix of glam-tents, barrels of food,  imported bands from Israel and the US (whither the Anglo-Jewish musical scene?) and eclectic learning,  where an Orthodox rabbi would attend a  new-Jewish poetry session that included such Jewish classics as ‘F%*k the Shabbat Queen.”  

That moment just about encapsulates how uniquely wide the spectrum of Jewish identity can run.  It also had its conceptual drawbacks.  One invited speaker, a Christian with a serious portfolio of environmental campaigns, commented that his Fest session on Abrahamic faiths and ecology was lots of talk, but not much commitment to action.    

And the absence of the ‘call to action’ is, in some way, what separates Limmudfest from the strangely parallel universe of the Christian  Greenbelt festival, where upward of 20,000 Christian campers took over the Cheltenham race course for an ecumenical weekend, self-billed as the place where ‘faith, arts and justice meet’.  

Gentle reader, believe it or not there is much more to Greenbelt than the shrill call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, and in general treat Israel like apartheid South Africa;  there are craft shows and amazing Christian rock bands, and bible workshops, and psalmsters,  and much more.  However, there are, to put things rather bluntly, an awful a lot of sessions and presenters portraying an awful image of Israel.  At last count there were 70 talks or films or presenters with a specific focus on Israel and Palestine in the last 10 years of Greenbelt. This compares to one on Syria (and that was on the journeys of  Lady Hester Stanhope from Constantinople to Syria in the early 1800’s), none on Iran, and only two related to the bloody war in the Congo.  

The sessions on Israel are overwhelmingly critical and geared toward direct action (read boycotts) towards this ‘pariah’ state.  They include such talks as ‘If I Am Only For Myself, Who Am I? The passage of a Jewish boat to Gaza’,  ‘Israel’s invisible occupation-The Matrix of Control’,  how to ‘Lobby parliament on Israel/Palestine against suffering and injustice being inflicted on the Palestinian people’, and my personal ‘favourite’,  a children’s program entitled, ‘Messy Warriors-Help us to transform the people of Israel from wild warriors to wise worshippers. With time for crafts and celebration!” 

These sessions are influential in creating a particularly circular logic of anti-Israel sentiment amongst the Greenbelt Christians.  Because the festival organizers are transfixed with justice for Palestine (as fully realized in the official Greenbelt call  for a boycott of  West Bank settlement goods at the culmination of this year’s event), they invite speakers who favour that particular narrative such as Ilan Pappe and returnees from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme to Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  Because the festival goers only hear from these blinkered  viewpoints, the blogs and tweets that emerge from Greenbelt are filled with ‘helpful’ ways to treat Israel as the ‘new South Africa’,  urging the Church of England to ‘follow Greenbelt’s wise decision on boycotts’.  And thus, because the ‘problem of Israel’ trends so highly on Greenbelt related social media, the organizers see this as a public demand  to  invite the same type of speakers back for the next year, and on and on. 

These sessions, and this intensity of focus, represent a serious problem.   

Not for Israel per se - I doubt my family in Tel Aviv are all that miffed about the efforts to transform them into ‘wise worshippers’ - but here, at home for the British Jewish community.  Because,  just  as Limmudfest reveals some real truths about the current state of  British Jewry, so too Greenbelt  offers a unique listening post to the current trends in  English Christendom.  

From the tone and sheer number of sessions to the blogs, tweets and official statements, if Greenbelt is our litmus test,  than the ‘land once called Holy’ to quote the oft-used slur of Greenbelt director Paul Northup,  is perceived by the  average Christians as just about the worst government on earth since apartheid was banished from South Africa.  

When a festival of 20,000 Christians dreams of boycotts and contemplates apartheid-esque sanctions against Israel, than perhaps it’s time for both Jews and Christians to stop the festivities and start a hard conversation.