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Why I had to walk out of the Zionist Federation's dinner

With no opportunity to voice my opposition to the guest speaker's comments on asylum-seekers in Israel, I was left with no choice

    Sometimes enough is enough.

    I am a deeply committed Zionist and I believe that British Jewry must take a keen interest in Israel and support the Jewish State.

    I also strongly believe in supporting the democratic will of Israel’s citizens when they elect a government. But that does not mean that I have to embrace every decision of that government. Just as I publicly voice criticism of certain decisions of the UK government, I consider it part of my Zionist responsibilities to voice my opposition to certain policies of the government of Israel.

    I left Sunday’s Zionist Federation Gala Dinner in protest not because I disagreed with the speaker, the former Israeli government minister Gideon Sa'ar, but because his views were not challenged and there was no forum provided to call him out on his highly selective presentation of the facts.

    To claim that Israel does not deport asylum seekers simply ignores the fact. Why else would over 20,000 Israelis demonstrate against the deportations just two weeks ago in Tel Aviv? Why else would the Israeli Supreme Court rule on March 12 that the state must suspend its deportation proceedings until they present further arguments in the current hearing on a petition against the expulsions?

    What else should we call the choice given to 37,000 mostly Sudanese and Eritrean individuals: indefinite detention in Israel or a one-way ticket to an unnamed third country — most likely Rwanda or Uganda?

    Why else would 750 rabbis and cantors (including 60 from the UK) urge Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abort planned deportations? Why else would the Jewish Agency for Israel pass a resolution at its February board meeting, which called upon the Israeli government to review its asylum process?

    When you cannot speak out (I tried but it was made clear that I would not be allowed to speak), the only thing you can do in order not to become complicit is to leave. And so I left.

    But that does not mean that I think we should leave the Zionist Federation. Quite the opposite, we must take our seats at the table and express our views. As I explained to some young activists, we do not need to convince others that they are wrong and we are right. But we must work hard to democratically out-vote them and make our voices heard.

    The Zionist Federation does a lot of good work for Israel, which should be celebrated. But its current shortcomings are that while its chair Paul Charney claims to head a “broad synagogue”, this is rarely reflected in practice as we saw at Sunday’s dinner.

    If a “broad synagogue” chooses to invite a well-known right-wing politician as the keynote speaker, shouldn’t there have been an opportunity for someone to respond and present an alternative view?

    In the constitutional framework of the World Zionist Organization, local federations are supposed to be the umbrella body, which welcomes Zionists from all sides of the political spectrum. It should be a place for open and honest political debate and disagreement. Especially when it comes to Israel this is a conversation that the British Jewish community desperately needs to have. And so, whether you agree with my political view or Mr Sa'ar’s, I hope that you will consider joining the conversation around the ZF table.

    Rabbi Lea Mühlstein is the international chair of Arzenu – the Federation of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists. She is a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a member of the expanded executive of the World Zionist Organization