It’s vital that the community throws off this rigid, single-issue harness

By David Brown, January 24, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

The recent debate surrounding our community's engagement with those who criticise Israel failed to address whether our community's support of Israel must be the single issue that dictates our approach in other areas of Jewish life.

For the record, I'm a proud supporter of Israel. I spent my gap year there, led numerous youth and student trips and trained close to 500 Israel Tour leaders who've taken nearly 5,000 young people on trips, cementing their love for Israel.

Nevertheless, I find it odd that supporting Israel is our community's dominant priority. Whatever the merits of the views expressed about Grow/Tatzmiach, the focus of the debate was whether or not it was in Israel's interest.

Judaism articulates our obligation to pursue justice and act for a fairer and more sustainable world. Why should these values be trumped by values expressing commitment to Israel?

We need to appreciate our relations with Israel are complex

An "Israel first and foremost" approach can become poisonously polarising. Peers elsewhere in the diaspora relate experiences of having people call for their sacking over their stance on Israeli policy. Readers may remember the strong criticism of Rabbi Wittenberg following encounters with London Citizens or of Mick Davis over his frank discussion with Peter Beinart. Opponents of working with those who don't agree with some of us on Israel effectively suggest we boycott the boycotters - without any acknowledgement of the irony, or that there may be people within our community who choose not to purchase products from the West Bank.

I am often struck by growing apathy, or worse antipathy, towards Israel from otherwise involved Jews. Continuing to make Israel the lens through which we view all our communal activity could alienate many more members of our community and damage our efforts to forge a vibrant, diverse and active UK Jewry.

Among those contributing to building this is the Jewish Social Action Forum. Covering more than 20 organisations, including four religious denominations, JSAF brings together those inspired by Judaism to act on local and global issues. It doesn't see social action work being in opposition to Israel engagement. Indeed, it is the European partner on Siach - a global Jewish social justice and environment network.

Working with Americans and Israelis, JSAF is at the heart of bridging sometimes divided groups - those committed to Israel and those passionate about social justice. Our most recent global conference in Israel also highlighted the many ways Israelis contribute to repairing the world.

Supporting Israel shouldn't interfere with other important work that is broadening and deepening Jewish engagement. So how do we unify our community? A start would be acknowledging the nuances in relation to Israel. The following example highlights how as individuals, let alone as communities, we don't fit neatly into boxes when it comes to our stance on Israel.

Daniel Birnbaum, SodaStream chief executive, is a hugely successful Israeli entrepreneur, employs hundreds of Palestinians and maintains products from the West Bank are "made in Israel". Nevertheless, when accepting an award for his company from Shimon Peres, he was outraged at the different treatment he and his Palestinian workers received at the ceremony.

Directly to the president of Israel, Daniel suggested that sometimes his country's treatment of Palestinians causes him to question "how we relate to each other as human beings".

Birnbaum doesn't ally himself with groups that vocally call for a two-state solution. Those opposed to Israeli policy in the West Bank probably don't see a kindred spirit in this businessman, who has a large factory there. That's the point. In order to be more united as a community, we need greater appreciation that a relationship with Israel is complex.

Beyond this, our community needs to value equally the many endeavours contributing to a vibrant British Jewry. We need to recognise that, despite our different priorities, we share a deep commitment to our future and draw inspiration from our common heritage.

We shouldn't allow supporting Israel to be the issue that dominates community life. It certainly shouldn't dictate how we work to realise the world envisaged by Isaiah and other prophets: "to loosen the chains of injustice… set the oppressed free… share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter".

David Brown is the JSAF campaigns manager

Last updated: 4:45pm, January 24 2013