Conquest of our despair over Israel is now vital

By Adam Ognall, May 26, 2011
Follow The JC on Twitter

Three weeks after Israel's 63rd birthday celebrations, it is becoming clear that this year is likely to be as significant as any in the country's history.

The challenges and uncertainties thrown up by the upheavals across the region, on its borders and within Israel itself, present a complex, frustrating picture.

For Jews in Britain - even those of us with a strong attachment to Israel - it is too easy, on the one hand, to become complacent about Israel's independence and its achievements or, on the other, to despair of any chance of peace ever being achieved with the Palestinians.

Both of these attitudes are increasingly reflected in the media and, I have found, in private conversations within the community. Either way, the sense of Israel's importance to our Jewish life in the UK seems to be taken for granted, our formerly active engagement with Israel increasingly feels passive. A distance is opening up.

I look around at my peer group that grew up in the Zionist youth movements and in UJS and find that very few of those who remain in Britain are actively involved with Israel. Many have chosen to "switch off", from Israel by never visiting it at all or just treating it as simply an occasional holiday (and wedding) destination.

If you are tempted to take this course, do take a closer look at the work that so many people are doing on the ground in Israel.

The sense of Israel's importance in UK Jewish life seems to be taken for granted

You will be inspired by their enthusiasm; by their commitment to the country and the values on which Israel was founded - and through the upholding of which it will prosper. These are Israelis carving out ways to make a difference, refusing to remain passive, convinced that they cannot afford to give up on their society or their future.

Seeing these people in action can transform even diehard sceptics into believers. Young, smart and creative, they are constantly busy trying to influence everything from community relations to national politics. They are not avoiding the challenges and difficulties that Israel faces, many of which were inconceivable to the country's founders.

Groups offering support to foreign workers in Israel, for example, succeeded in sparking a public outcry that has prevented the wholesale expulsion of migrant children. They did this by putting into practice the lessons of their Jewish past as well as being prepared to embrace universal values. And now, Israel is beginning to formulate, for the first time in its history, a reasoned and equitable immigration policy.

Israel today is cleaner, healthier and greener than ever before, in no small measure due to the work of a multiplicity of environmental movements supported by the Green Environmental Fund which is backed by UK and US Foundations including the New Israel Fund.

Football stadiums - the locus of untold bigotry and violence - are home to a countrywide movement to eliminate racism on the playing fields.

Indeed, the often maligned civil rights and human rights organisations keep alive the belief in a fair and decent Israel. Thousands throughout the nation are taking actions aimed at improving their own lives and those of their fellow citizens. They have not capitulated to despair and despondency and they will not forgive us if we do. If you learn their stories, you will find it impossible not to draw strength from them.

It is important for both Israel and for our identity as Jews in the UK to connect to this positive activity. Not only does Israel's case need arguing but the mounting need to negotiate a lasting peace agreement is vital.

I do not underestimate the challenge of this. It requires us to look again at some of the ways in which we educate and communicate about Israel. We have to move away from the idea that there is a "right" or "wrong" way to support Israel - and from presenting Israel in a naive, simplistic
manner.

People need to be connecting to "their" Israel - one that relates to their lives and priorities, whether they be 20-something modern Orthodox women being linked to their peers in Israel to discover how they navigate the dilemmas of their lives, or those many British Jews passionately concerned with the welfare of minorities, hooking up with civil-rights activists in Israel.

I am lucky to have a role that enables me to connect to "my" Israel on a daily basis but we British Jews have a collective responsibility to re-ignite hope where cynicism and passivity cast a long shadow.

Adam Ognall is chief executive officer, New Israel Fund

    Last updated: 11:11am, May 26 2011