Lieberman visit triggers bitter community clash

The Reform Movement has stood by its attack on visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman after coming under fire at the Board of Deputies.

Reform’s rabbinic spokesman Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said last week that it had been “surprised and dismayed” that he had been asked to address the Jewish community, declaring that he held “fundamentalist right-wing views from outside the consensus of mainstream Israeli society”.

At Sunday’s Board meeting Jonathan Hoffman, deputy for Woodside Park Synagogue, deplored her statement, while Malvyn Benjamin (Hendon Synagogue) said that such criticism did “immense damage”.

But Reform chairman Jenny Pizer told the Board: “We cannot condone the views that he expresses publicly both inside and outside Israel about the minority groups in that country.”

Asked to comment by Mr Benjamin, outgoing Board vice-president Paul Edlin would say only: “We support the democratically elected government and people of Israel without question.”

An online petition launched by Habonim-Dror protesting at Mr Lieberman and the JNF, attracted more than 300 signatures.

Signatories included chairman of Liberal Judaism’s rabbinic conference Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, Ilana Fenster, who jointly chairs the Zionist Youth Council, Anthony Tricot, who is a board member of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, and prominent Orthodox educator Maureen Kendler.

Mrs Kendler said: “Mr Lieberman’s agenda is far from the vision of equality and fairness that I think Israel should stand for”.

The petition accused JNF of being involved in “activities which jeopardise the possibility of peace and Israel’s ability to maintain a strong democracy”.

It gave as examples the eviction of Palestinians from homes in Silwan, east Jerusalem and the displacement of Bedouins living in the Negev town of Al-Araqib to make way for trees.

Yachad director Hannah Weisfeld said: “A significant number of our supporters have expressed concern over the JNF’s ongoing involvement in activities in east Jerusalem and the Negev. In this context, the JNF’s invitation to Mr Lieberman is a cause for concern to many of our supporters, not least because of his party’s track record of bringing anti-democratic legislation in front of the Knesset.”

But Samuel Hayek, chairman of JNF UK — which hosted the meeting with Mr Lieberman on Tuesday night — said that the “libellous” claims had “no foundation. JNF UK is not involved in any of the disputes with sections of Israel’s Bedouin citizens”.

JNF UK is a separate charity from KKL-JNF in Israel, although it does send funds to the Israeli body.

Mr Hayek said that the petition had “provided a great deal of ammunition and encouragement to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel groups. The JNF, as the flag bearer of Israel in the United Kingdom, stands firmly against the demonisation of Israel.”

But Habonim fieldworker Jem Stein countered: “As a Zionist youth movement, we are committed to living out our values of justice and equality as enshrined within Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The petition raises the concern that certain actions of the JNF run contrary to these values — a concern the JNF has yet to answer.”

Mr Lieberman met Board president Vivian Wineman and representatives of other community organisations on Tuesday morning.

Last updated: 2:00pm, May 24 2012