NIF boss sees 'progressive surge' in Jews around world

Wake-up call: Professor Chazan

Wake-up call: Professor Chazan

There is a "progressive awakening" among diaspora Jews in their attitude towards Israel, according to one of its best-known left-wing activists.

Professor Naomi Chazan sees evidence of a growing trend in the formation of the doveish lobby group, J Street, in the USA and the recent J Call petition in Europe, which urged a settlement freeze.

The former Knesset member for the socialist Meretz party, now president of the New Israel Fund, was in London this week on behalf of the NIF. She also had a meeting at the Board of Deputies.

"World Jewry is undergoing a progressive surge - I see it very strongly in the US and I feel it in Europe," she said.

"The established Jewish leadership is far to the right of its constituency and parts of that constituency, at least, do not want to be embarrassed or silenced. They do not feel it absolutely necessary all the time to agree with Israel right or wrong, when they don't see that as the Israel they want or believe in.

"Jews are coming out and saying, we love Israel, and for that reason we are not going to promote the kind of Israel that is at odds with our Jewish and democratic values. We will speak out because we care.

"This progressive awakening essentially says we will not accept people who question the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel, but at the same time we want an Israel that does things we believe are right and just."

Professor Chazan believes the emerging trend to be a response to concern over Israel's growing isolation in the world and over the dissociation of younger Jews from the Jewish state. "This is a clarion call for people to come out and say, look, don't be embarrassed, get involved."

Many Jews abroad were beginning to understand that "what Israel does affects their lives more than they can imagine, and sometimes adversely", she said.

"Slowly we are finding that Jews abroad, like Jews in Israel, are divided on key issues - and they are saying it is perfectly ok to be that way. This may be the democratisation of Jewish life outside Israel."

Although recognising that Israel does come under "unfair" attack in the outside world, she contended: "You cannot just constantly deflect criticism without making it clear what you stand for. These notions of equality and justice and combating bigotry and prejudice are at the root of the state. If Israel is not performing according to these values, it is our business to make sure that it does. That is what will enable Israel to survive, that is what we are for."

The political left may have "contracted drastically" in Israel in recent years - a reflection, she believes, both of the fact that its call for a two-state solution has passed into the political mainstream, and of a more general distrust of politicians.

But progressive activists are instead putting their energy into civil rights organisations such as NIF rather than party politics. "That's where the action is," she said. "Safeguarding Israel's democracy is probably the most important thing that Israelis and Jews can do for Israel, for the Jewish community and for themselves personally."

    Last updated: 3:02pm, June 17 2010