Our leadership's failing - it's time to act

By Samuel Hayek, March 13, 2014

The residents of southern Israel have braved wave after wave of deadly missile fire, the courageous men and women of the Israeli Defence Forces put their lives on the line every single day to secure a Jewish future in the land of Israel. There are warnings emanating from the US administration of a potential threat of a third Intifada and a boycott which will affect all of the residents of Israel. The US administration, fresh from embarrassing foreign and domestic policy failures elsewhere, rushes headlong into a conflict that has lasted for at least 100 years and demands a solution within nine months.

Yet attacks on Israel’s democratically-elected government continue with alarming vehemence from the chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, Mick Davis, who, I believe, should reserve his efforts to support the Jewish state.

It was less than four years ago that Mr Davis bemoaned the impact that the policies of the Israeli government had upon him as a Jew living in the UK, saying: “the impact on me is as significant as it is on Jews living in Israel… I want them [the Israeli government] to recognise that.”

Those words were condemned by some, including myself, at the time for their astonishing lack of perspective and exaggerated sense of self-importance. My condemnation was action as well as words, and I removed the JNF from the JLC as a result.

The irony of an individual living in comfortable surroundings in north London, comparing himself with those living for example, in southern Israel, where over 50 per cent of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and where kindergartens, schools and hospitals need to be missile-proofed, is particularly jarring.

Fast-forward to November 2013. Writing for Ha’aretz, Mr Davis criticises the Israeli government’s vision for engagement with the Palestinians. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, just as any other commentator on the politics of the Middle East, but not to do so in his capacity as a leader of the JLC. Instead of presenting an informed ideological or strategic argument, his position calling for Israeli concessions is once again centred entirely around the notion that as a leader of diaspora Jewry he has a right — even a duty — to weigh in on the decisions of Israel’s democratically-elected government.

This sense of entitlement, that seems to come with leadership of a venerable communal leadership body, is offensive. As also is the attempt to suggest that Jews who have chosen not to participate in Israel’s democratic process by moving to Israel would nevertheless be allowed to dictate that process from the daspora.
What, therefore, is the “impact” of which Mr Davis and others speak? There is no question that events in Israel can cause a spike in antisemitic activity and that we are of course frequently placed in the position of having to defend its government’s actions. But let us make no mistake that when compared to missile attacks on homes and communities, terrorist attacks or the threat of being “wiped off the map” by a foreign power, we, in the UK are not suffering too badly.

Yet it is this impact which is cited as the excuse for this community’s failure to stem the tide of young Jews who no longer understand why they should support Israel.
Mr Davis points towards “the growing constituencies of young, passionate and actively engaged diaspora Jews” who, instead of supporting the Jewish state, are “redirecting their energies to broader causes or worse, drifting, wittingly or unwittingly, into the fringes of the BDS space,” as evidence of a failure by the state of Israel to make their lives comfortable.

He blames “the lack of progress towards peace” for having “disenchanted” them. And who is to blame for that lack of progress? The Palestinian Authority, perhaps, which has rejected every compromise solution to date – including two previous offers which gave them practically everything they claim to demand, first in 2000 at Camp David and again eight years later courtesy of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?

I would suggest that in fact, we should look much closer to home to explain that failure. Not once does this “leader of British Jewry” even entertain the possibility of taking responsibility for a scenario where large portions of those he is supposed to be leading should be above partisan politics? Why are so many young Jews “unwitting”? Instead, he blames “the lack of progress towards peace”.

Having failed to convince the Israeli government of the error of its ways, Mr Davis has once again written in the media, berating the Israeli government’s “lack of effort” in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s determined diplomatic efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran are all very well, he claims, but “the tragedy for us in the diaspora is that the same effort is not being made by Israeli leaders for the peace process.”

Israeli leaders including Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, who comes in for particular criticism from Mr Davis, have fought in real-life battlefields. They both are currently shouldering the burden of defending Israel’s populace from deadly terrorism and the nuclear threat from Iran. So to point out that they have not stood on the frontline against delegitimisation, against placard-waving lunatics who refuse to buy Israeli fruit or fizzy drinks, is a little ridiculous, to put it gently.

As galling as the lack of perspective, sense of entitlement and failure to lead and take responsibility for doing what his council purports to do, is the insinuation throughout both articles that the Israeli government is somehow ignoring diaspora Jewry and that they have to consider their security decisions based on outspoken views and threats from Mr Davis.

Only recently, the Jerusalem Post and the JC revealed details of an ambitious government plan to invest billions of dollars in programmes reaching out to diaspora Jews. That news came not long after Naftali Bennett, speaking as Minister for Diaspora Affairs, urged a new, more equal relationship between the state of Israel and Jewish communities abroad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office told the Jerusalem Post that “Israel needs Jewish communities around the world” and that the government feels a “moral responsibility for the continuation of Judaism and continuation of Jewish communities” outside Israel.

Of course, there is no real comparison to be made between a family who struggles to make a living and lives in fear under the shadow of missile fire and those families living in a safe and secure environment in London.
Most Jews who live outside Israel recognise that as passionately Zionist as we may be, we simply do not run the same risks as those who live there, based on the political choices our leaders make.

To date, few have publicly taken issue with this wretched armchair Zionist leadership approach. But I believe that this silence, particularly on the part of the grassroots of our community, comes more from a place of contempt or disinterest in the opinions of self-appointed, outspoken leaders rather than out of a sense of agreement with them.

I am fortunate to have witnessed first-hand how Jews of all stripes – secular and religious, old and young, right-wing, left-wing and everything in between — have opened their pockets and their hearts to the JNF, without preconditions, to help their less fortunate brothers and sisters in Israel.

We are all responsible for the Jewish state, because it guarantees our right to exist as a Jewish nation. But it is time that we all, from the most prominent leaders of our community to the average Zionist on the street, focused a little less on our rights as Zionists and a little more on our responsibilities.

Samuel Hayek is chairman of JNF UK

Last updated: 4:45pm, March 13 2014