Israel: remove barriers to free debate

The JC Essay


When I look at the way my son and his generation are engaging with Israel, I sense a lot of new energy.

They are finding different ways to express their love of Israel and it is a new energy that excites me and gives me hope.

While I was growing up, Anglo-Jewry, somewhat justifiably, considered that it played a major role in the creation and development of the young state of Israel. After all, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour was really the founding father. Moses Montefiore, Baron Rothschild, Baron Sieff and many others led an outpouring of philanthropy to fund the building of universities, schools and museums, support the arts and help the alleviation of poverty. British Jews had their names carved above the door of many of the major capital projects. Virtually every Jewish household in this country had a blue box and planted trees.

At the same time, the growing Jewish middle-class moved on and up through society. This was the time when some of the most successful British schools eagerly sought the best Jewish students in order to raise academic standards.

Perhaps we kvelled in the wondrous stories told by those Jews who came back from working in the kibbutzim

Lawyers, doctors and politicians, as well as academics, poured out from our small community, while business success fuelled a period of incredible philanthropy. Communal well-being and self-confidence underpinned Anglo-Jewry. Perhaps it is too simplistic to relate this period of increasing outward self-assurance to the miracle that was Israel - the underdog that had made it against all odds; the fledgling state that had survived and overcome a ring of enemies who sought its destruction; a country that embodied the finest of western cultural and moral values; a society that made us proud to be British and Jewish. We were totally supportive of everything that Israel had achieved and for what it stood.

Some 50 years later, we might question whether Anglo-Jewry has lost much of this self-confidence. Today, more often than not, it finds itself apparently irreconcilably torn between a critical love of Israel and the hasbara, or Israel advocacy, demanded of it by representatives of the current Israeli government.

Our community finds it difficult to tolerate open and civil debate, even within its mainstream, let alone among its share of extremists and fundamentalists on both wings of the debate about Israel, religion, education and Jewish continuity.

Increasingly, we have concerned ourselves with an inward-looking approach - educating and caring for our own community. From the successful establishment of an ever-increasing number of Jewish schools to the enormously successful development of facilities for the old, infirm, disabled and disadvantaged, Anglo-Jewry has deliberately refocused its communal energy.

At the same time, on matters relating to Israel, reasonable members of the community often divide. It is as if they feel the choice has to be either to circle the wagons or remain outside the laager. Even the mainstream finds itself fearful of discussing issues of possible contention at the risk of dividing families or losing friends.

What has made intelligent and often liberally minded, charitable people see every contentious discussion as an issue of fundamental principle that can only be resolved with violent argument or silent disengagement?

Why have the reasonable calls for openness in our relationship with Israel, made by community leaders such as Mick Davis, become so contentious as to be seen by some as almost shameful? Why has the young Yachad organisation's attempts at opening the discussion within the community divided so many between seeing it either as today's enlightened engagement in sensible debate or the instrument of the devil incarnate? Why has the Louis Jacobs affair of the 1960s festered and our differences on matters religious become so deep that the Chief Rabbi considers his presence at Limmud to be beyond the pale, an invitation to Progressive Judaism to crack open the omniscience of the Beth Din?

Perhaps the era after the establishment of the state of Israel was a unique period in our history, when most of us lost our differences in our overwhelming love and gratitude for those Jews who had strived so unselfishly, and with such determination, against the odds.

Perhaps, even if we had not toiled, we basked in the glory of those who did. Perhaps we kvelled in the wondrous stories told by those young Jews and non-Jews who came back from working in the kibbutzim, exuding the belief that they had witnessed the embodiment of world society as it might one day become. Perhaps reality had to come back and hit us, whether Israel had changed or not.

Finally, perhaps we were simply naive to believe that our community would give up centuries of internecine argument and controversy because we could conceal our differences with our love for Israel.

Some of the explanation may be hidden - not so deeply - in a play by the Israeli writer, A B Yehoshua that he gave to the New Israel Fund for a reading in London earlier this year as a way to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. It portrays a partly imagined account of a set of meetings between David Ben Gurion and Ze'ev Jabotinsky in the London of 1934. One a socialist, the other a revisionist, they found it an uphill battle to bury their differences for the good of the creation of the state.

Their successors, both Ben Gurion's and those who kept the Jabotinsky banner flying, including Menachim Begin, struggled with their differences as they sought to develop a vibrant and diverse Israel supported by a diaspora that was in love with the realisation of the dream.

Today there is a real risk that this fragile and often elusive balance between passion and tolerance is being lost; that it is being forfeited because of the sense that Israel, and even diaspora Jewry, is so uncertain that it cannot tolerate charity of thought and action, freedom of discussion, or allow time and space to argue andunderstand each others' views.

Many people believe that the forces against Israel and even Jewish continuity are so great that we have to face outward together, knowing our backs are protected. The view is that anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. But many are also prepared to take the risk, to embrace the outside and engage with the other, strong in the belief that we have the strength and ultimate high ground.

To do so inevitably means taking a few knocks, or occasionally being labelled a naive fool. But perhaps this courage is demanded of us if we are to move forward as part of the world. We have done it before, during the Golden Age of Moorish Spain, during the European enlightenment and the delivery of the American dream. Of course, there are those who will point out that the Golden Age ended with suffering and expulsion, with the Inquisition finishing off those who stayed. The European enlightenment ended with the Shoah.

Certainly, many in the Charedi world would argue that Jewish continuity has depended on the faithful who looked inward and upward, ignoring the outside world. Yet history shows that this was not so. We have survived despite and perhaps because of our diversity and exceptional togetherness for three millennia. We have bounced back from adversity each and every time, committed and engaged in a single belief and with determination to live to our religious and moral code. The question that each of us across the generations must answer is: Where do we stand?

The reality of Israel and the instability of today's Middle East means that it is unlikely that there will be a Rabin-style liberal breakthrough in the peace process any time soon. Ariel Sharon was the strong modern leader to lead the peace movement from the right, but Gaza would have defeated him, even if health had not.

Growing numbers of the strictly Orthodox and the nationalist settler movement believe that they have the battalions of heaven on their side and they will tolerate no backsliding.

Even if this were not so, peace would require the availability of a partner with whom to tango. Perhaps we just have to accept that Israel's struggles are too difficult for us to expect it to provide the salve to mend the divisions within wider Jewish society? Perhaps we are wrong to have ever dumped the healing of our divisions on the Israel's shoulders?

Yet we cannot walk away. Israel is bound up in our very existence and identity as modern Jews and to
pretend that the diaspora is a parallel universe is to fail in our
responsibility. There are increasingly important calls for the diaspora to enter an open and serious period of reflection, one that can engage the whole community. This is not the time for more of the hectoring from both sides that drives members of our community to make extreme choices or remain uncomfortably silent.

Our children deserve to be positively encouraged in a love of our religion, culture and history. They deserve to be given sufficient confidence to explore the outside world with heads held high in their understanding of who we are. But this requires an understanding of where they stand in their relationship with Israel as well as the outside world.

We have to give them space and information to be able to discuss the issues without fear of the other. We need to give them the confidence to recognise and confront real antisemitism wrapped up in the debate about the delegitimisation of Israel, while rigorously engaging with genuine and honest criticism.

There are many in our society committed to moving the debate forward. They are to be supported, not least as this approach is something leading the younger generation back to a love of Israel. It is no small feat that the main Jewish organisations engaged in Israel have come together to found the Task Force, aiming to gain a better understanding and better support the rights of the Israeli Arab minority. There are many trusts and foundations, including Pears, Sebba and others, who are funding and promoting discussion and action to engage British Jewry in support of Israel's civil society.

At the New Israel Fund UK, our position on Israel is unambiguous. Over three decades, the organisation has raised some £200 million to help build Israel's very successful and vibrant civil society. We have striven for an Israel true to its declaration of Independence - a Jewish and democratic state determined to deliver equality and social justice for all of its citizens.

We are firm in our position about the need for a two-state solution and we stand against those who seek to delegitimise the state of Israel in any way. We are at one with the many Israelis with whom we share a sense of values and dreams. Fortunately, there are many such Israelis who do.

I am heartened that there are more and more young Israelis returning to and actively working for a socially just and equal society. They are realists who hold out their hands in peace to other Israeli citizens of varying races, colours or creeds. They are demonstrating in the streets for social justice and actively working together in hundreds of vibrant organisations, including non-governmental organisations and charities, for a better society.

They are standing against the activities of the so-called Price Tag vandals, fighting a growing racism, striving for a moral and vibrant democracy. Their work is to be celebrated and supported by all who seek a tolerant and successful Israel.

These are the Israelis who our younger generation need to know and with whom they need to join hands in pride for the Israel that they represent.

Nicholas Saphir is the UK chairman of the New Israel Fund

    Last updated: 3:32pm, July 19 2012