Gaza Kaddish is a challenge to the status quo

British Jews are becoming more discriminating in their support for Israel, writes Simon Rocker

July 12, 2018 12:51

A small news item appeared in last week’s JC, the significance of which should not be overlooked.

For a second year in succession, the UK branch of the New Israel Fund (NIF) raised a record sum.

In 2016, the charity was only a few thousand short of reaching £2 million of annual donations and legacies for the first time. Last year, it sailed past the marker, collecting just over £2.75m.

NIF is much younger than the veteran Israel fundraising organisations such as JNF UK, UJIA and Wizo UK. But since it was set up here in 1992, it has progressed from a salon circle to becoming a major player on the Israel charity scene.

Its rise shows that British Jews are becoming more discriminating in their support for Israel. NIF invests in groups which promote human rights, equality, religious pluralism and social justice in Israel, appealing to those at the more liberal — rather than nationalist — end of the Zionist spectrum.

It is more concerned about Israel’s commitment to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants”, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, than laying claim to biblical sites on the West Bank.

This targeted approach towards Israel is not novel, however. The Charedi community, for example, has long tended to focus active interest in Israel on causes dearest to its heart such as Torah study or Shabbat observance. So it should hardly come as a surprise that liberally-minded Jews would want to concentrate on the causes they feel closest to.

NIF’s liberalism at times has put it at odds with the Israeli government. When earlier this year Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to blame the organisation for the collapse of a deal to return asylum-seekers to Africa, NIF’s international chief executive Daniel Sokatch accused him of “lashing out to deflect attention from his morally bankrupt choices”.

But the willingness of diaspora groups to speak out against Israeli policy challenges the traditional status quo maintained by an umbrella body such as the Board of Deputies, which in trying to preserve communal consensus, by and large refrains from public criticism of Israel.

For supporters of NIF, the values which underlie their connection with Israel may be embodied more by Israel’s NGOs and civil society groups than its ruling politicians. The gulf between the Israeli government and many British Jews was even more starkly apparent in an open letter released at the end of last week by around 90 leaders and graduates of left-wing Zionist movements.

The letter’s immediate cause was to protest at the treatment of some members in the aftermath of the controversial ‘Kaddish for Gaza’ event in May. But more broadly, it proclaims its “rejection of the entrenchment of Israel’s occupation alongside our concern about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.

Quoting the Labour Zionist Youth Movement in North America, it states “ending the occupation and creating a just, peaceful society is more than a position. It is a principle of our Zionism”. For them, Jewish self-determination cannot be realised by the suppression of the national rights of another people, the Palestinians.

Its signatories can hardly be dismissed as a radical fringe. They come predominantly from four Zionist movements, Noam (Masorti), RSY-Netzer (Reform), LJY-Netzer (Liberal) and the socialist Habonim, which collectively make up a sizeable chunk of Zionist youth overall. At least one of the signatories is a recent head boy of JFS, Amitai Landau-Pope.

Does their defiant pledge that their members will “not bow to intimidation” signal a readiness to be more assertive in pursuit of their ideals? If so, their activism will be buttressed by the warnings of those who believe that simply managing the conflict with the Palestinians is not, in the long run, a sustainable option for Israel.

Only a few weeks ago, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, visiting Britain to launch his memoir, argued that if Israel retains control of the Palestinian territories, it “will become inevitably either non-Jewish or non-democratic”.

A prospect that, increasingly, is filling many diaspora Jews with alarm.


July 12, 2018 12:51

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