Paul Charney: forever waving Israel's flag

By Marcus Dysch, July 7, 2014
ZF Chairman Paul Charney

ZF Chairman Paul Charney

Paul Charney has never been one to shy away from a fight.

As a former tank commander for the Israel Defence Forces and current chairman of the Zionist Federation, he says he has always had to stand strong in his ongoing battle against anti-Israel activists — both on and off the field.

Charney, 42, confidently says: “I’ve got thick skin and broad shoulders.

“Sometimes I’m on Al-Jazeera getting my arse kicked, but I don’t mind being criticised.

“If you do what you believe, stand up for your ideals, and they are strong and they are right, then you shouldn’t worry about anything else.

“If your job is to support Israel, then do that. I have no problems standing in front of demonstrators.”

His Zionism has made him a polarising figure, from both within and outside the community.

But since his ZF appointment in 2012, he claims that he has been trying to build ties with more left-wing Israel advocacy groups. While the ZF was once perceived by some as extreme and non-progressive, he says he is changing that.

His claim comes after a bid by grassroots group Yachad — to become members of his umbrella organisation, which is made up of more than 120 groups — was rejected by a ZF vote last year.

The backlash split supporters of Israel in the UK, but he is relaxed at the mention.

The Mill Hill United Synagogue member says: “It was a purely administrative issue. We are a democratic body. There was a vote and the individuals, both left and right, voted a majority ‘no’.

“I offered to work with Yachad for six months to fix whatever the issues were. I never had a response from them.”

However, in a move that has alienated more right-wing supporters of the ZF, Charney has pushed for the rights of Israel’s Arab community.

Last month, he oversaw the ZF’s progressive decision to partner with the UK Task Force, an organisation which works to promote the interests of Israeli Arabs.

He says: “It’s very important to me that Israel’s minorities are part of the democracy and part of Israel.

“For us to make a statement about working harder to bring the Arab minorities into Israeli society, I think says a lot for the ZF. If we say it then it’ll certainly have an impact.”

His role at the ZF is unpaid but “it could easily be a full-time job,” he says.

The father-of-three balances his communal responsibilities with running his company: Landhold Capital. He buys agricultural land that has development potential on the edge of towns, pushes them through the planning process and then sells the sites on to property developers.

“Thank God for technology, email and iPhones,” laughs Charney, who read law at Leeds University.

“I deal with ZF issues throughout the day, usually by email and working with Alan [Aziz, executive director] and the staff.

“There are always trips to Israel and fundraising dinners but I try to stay away from a lot of that. It’s very time consuming.

“I’m in my office most of the day, but often I go to visit sites and I fly to South Africa every two or three months.”

His dedication to Israel stems from his family background.

Charney, who was born in Johannesburg, says: “The South African community as a whole is very Zionistic. You support Israel strongly and there have always been South Africans making aliyah.”

For him, the statement could not be more true — his family made aliyah when he was 15. He settled into their home in Ra’anana, central Israel, and pursued a military career.

He quickly rose through the ranks and attended Israel’s equivalent of Sandhurst.

Between training sessions he was posted to on-the-ground operations in the West Bank.

He was serving in Hebron in 1994 when Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 30 Palestinians in a mosque.

“Hebron became very hot, very quickly,” he recalls. “We were sent in for two weeks to try to control it. It was keeping the peace, that’s all we did.”

He received a commendation from then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, bringing him into contact with leading figures such as Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres.

Charney, who was once offered a role in Israel’s secret services, has not ruled out a career in Israeli politics.

In a conversation with Naftali Bennett, he made a bid for a ministerial role. He suggested that Israel’s right-wing Economy Minister appoint him “diaspora minister, based outside Israel”.

Until then, the chairman of Israel’s leading advocacy group in the UK will “publicly or privately sit here defending Israel, until my last breath.

“Just as I love my children, so I love the Jewish community and Israel.

“Just as I see flaws in my own children, I see them in Israel, but I don’t want Israel to come to any harm.”

Last updated: 5:52pm, July 11 2014