Paul Charney

The Zionist Federation strives to accommodate a range of views

ZF chairman Paul Charney gives his own view on Sunday's divisive dinner

March 14, 2018 12:16

You might well have come away with the impression our gala dinner on Sunday was something of a right-wing echo-chamber.

Media articles focused on the controversy surrounding one of our speakers and the controversy surrounding one of our audience members. We’ve also come under fire because the event was apparently far too left-wing. So perhaps a little bit more context is required.

The ZF strives to be a broad church (well, synagogue) and accommodate as wide a range of views as possible, both in terms of politics, religion and elsewhere. Inevitably though, that means there will be disagreements between different members who often have wildly varying views.

Sunday night is a case in point. While much of the attention has been on our main guest speaker, Gideon Saar, and how he was treated, almost none of the coverage reflects that he wasn’t the only guest.

We also had a group of Druze speakers from Beit Shaan in Israel, who wanted to talk about their experiences as a minority group within a Jewish state.

One, Afif Satawi, recently lost his son, Hail, in a Palestinian terror attack. The other serves in the army. We brought them to the UK to discuss their experiences, as non-Jews who believe in defending the Jewish state they are citizens of.

But that doesn’t mean Israel is perfect, by any means. Ashraf Halabi spoke at length about the difficulties and, yes, discrimination his community still faces. I know that some on the left praised us for giving him the opportunity to raise awareness of this issue, while others on the right were very uncomfortable by his frank opinions.

Whether or not I or the ZF agree with everything said is irrelevant; we gave them that platform and they were entitled to it.

It should go without saying, however, that I personally believe that Ashraf Halabi and Afif Sitawi and Hail Sitawi are Israeli heroes.

Gideon Saar is also entitled to have his views heard. He is a former senior politician, and a potential future Prime Minister, and so his views also carry weight.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the ZF necessarily agrees with everything he says, or everything he ever has said.

That would be impossible given the differing views both within the ZF, and also of the many, many different speakers that we have invited over to the UK.

Our guest speaker in 2014, for example was then leader of the Israeli Labour party, Isaac Herzog. In 2015, we also hosted Shimon Peres — a pretty well-known proponent of the peace camp.

Were those invitations ringing endorsements of their every belief and statement? As senior Israeli figures, their views were worth hearing, whether or not you agreed with them.

There is one major difference between now and then though — we now prefer a format of a direct interview, rather than simply a planned keynote speech. This is partly so that we’re not seen to be necessarily endorsing any one politician but also because it’s simply much more engaging for the audience.

It’s therefore not only obviously disrespectful to Mr Sa’ar for a tiny handful of individuals to actively disrupt him, but also very disrespectful to the interviewer, Sandy Rashty.

She was there to challenge him when she felt necessary — while also recognising that she couldn’t go full Jeremy Paxman on someone who had agreed to be there as our guest, as opposed to a minister being accountable to defend a policy in front of a foreign audience.

While I have received some complaints about the decision to allow our Druze guests to voice their views — views which actually were left unchallenged — I would have a pretty poor opinion of anyone who had decided to lambast them, disrupt them and then storm out of the room.

It would rightly have been seen as intolerant and just plain rude.

We provided interesting, honest and challenging speakers so that everyone came away with a better insight into the reality of Israel — and we have received more divergent and provoking views than ever before.

We want to keep it that way — even if that means we are never going to be able to please all of the audience all of the time.

Paul Charney is chairman of the Zionist Federation

March 14, 2018 12:16

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