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Israel and the Diaspora: We have to talk

The Israeli government's failure to move toward peace is creating a dangerous crisis for young Diaspora Zionists
An Israeli flag at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 24, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
An Israeli flag at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 24, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Back in 2010, I voiced some criticism of the already apparent direction of travel of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu. My remarks, in a panel discussion at a London Jewish community centre, were appropriate for the conversation taking place. The Jewish Chronicle, regarded by many as having a somewhat tabloid sensibility, reported them as a scandal resulting in no shortage of kvetching, broigus and gnashing of teeth.

I had merely articulated a statement of the obvious, expressed by numerous centrist Israeli leaders before and since and accepted by large swathes of Diaspora Jewry: that if Israel abandoned a two-state solution for a one-state solution, it could either be Jewish or democratic but it couldn’t be both. I’d raised concerns about the impact the occupation was having on Israeli society. I’d stated that the policies and actions of the Israeli government can also affect Jews in the Diaspora both positively and negatively and impact on the Jewish identity and connection to Israel of young Diaspora Jews. I feared then as I do now, that the occupation, and more specifically the apparent lack of will or vision to end it, was harming Jewish and Zionist identity. Then as now, many Diaspora Jewish leaders share those concerns, as do many Israelis. But as I was assailed from the right not many of those leaders spoke up with any conviction, even if they agreed with what I’d said. Abe Foxman accused me of “arrogant nonsense.”

I was pleasantly surprised therefore to see Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, voice similar concerns in a recent New York Times article. It would be tempting to ask what kept him, but his article should be welcomed by anyone who both cherishes the unbreakable connection between Israel and the Jewish People and has a grasp on reality. But the fact that Mr Lauder, an avowed conservative, Republican and Likud supporter, is writing such a piece at all is emblematic of just how strained the Israel-Diaspora relationship has become during the last nine years of Netanyahu’s leadership.

Lauder wrote: “The crisis is especially pronounced among the younger generation, which is predominantly secular. An increasing number of Jewish millennials — particularly in the United States — are distancing themselves from Israel because its policies contradict their values.” Although the British Jewish community differs from the American in some respects – it is arguably more strongly connected to Israel with some 90% of British Jews seeing Israel as central to their identity – that analysis stands here too. And if Ronald Lauder is feeling the discomfort, imagine what our kids on campuses are going through.

When Israel comes under attack, physically and reputationally, they need the tools to defend it. Recent events on the Gaza border have been a reminder of the complex challenges Israel faces. Every innocent life lost is a tragedy but so too is the cynicism of Hamas, manipulating its civilian population to provide cover for terrorist operations. We have seen once again the agonising decisions facing the IDF when facing a foe that seeks not to protect civilian lives but hide behind them. While I can’t help but wonder if Hamas’s sickening abuse of its people would continue to have so much traction if a more positive vision was on the table, we must never lose site of the terrible dilemmas facing Israel’s young men and women in uniform who defend the Jewish state.

In the Diaspora, our younger generation faces a two-pronged attack on their connection to Israel. On the one hand, the extreme anti-Zionist fringe has hijacked the mainstream left, injecting anti-Semitism into the bloodstream of polite society and seeking to drive a wedge between Jews and Israel. We must continue to fight resolutely against left-wing antisemitism and give our young people the pride, skills and confidence to stand up for who they are and what they believe.

Simultaneously, however, they see their pride in Israel dented by actions taken by the Israeli authorities that undermine their Jewish values. Whether through the constant trickle of ugly legislation like last year’s Nation-State Bill, the racism of Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, a callous approach to African asylum seekers, discrimination against progressive Judaism or ongoing settlement expansion, young Diaspora Jews are too often being asked to make their attachment to Israel the exception to their values rather than the embodiment of them.

Not only are our youth attacked by a left that vilifies Israel and their attachment to it. Increasingly they have cause to be perplexed by those who express support for the Jewish state. The UK Zionist Federation’s recent dinner was attended by Katie Hopkins, a grotesque attention seeker who has called asylum seekers “cockroaches” and called for a “final solution” after a terror attack. She wasn’t invited by the ZF but by an individual guest. But we cannot win the real battles we face against Islamist extremists or leftist anti-Semites if we embrace her ilk as friends, even if they choose to embrace us. Our fight against bigotry cannot be fought alongside bigots.

Our struggle against those who hate Israel would also be more effective if in its search for peace, Israel sought to make the situation incrementally better, rather than incrementally worse. A sincere commitment to a two-state solution – not to say that it is easy, possible in the short-term or within Israel’s sole ability to deliver – was the most persuasive tool in our advocacy tool kit. There are no better or more authentic advocates for Israel around the world than the Jewish People. But in 2018 we’re still relying on a speech Israel’s prime minister gave in 2009 and our tools are getting rusty.

We need to re-energise the conversation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Israel and the Diaspora need to listen more to each other. The future of Zionism – the very movement that has given the Jewish People our greatest period of liberation in modern times – is at stake. Diaspora leaders must state our concerns. When we fail to do so we leave a vacuum to be filled by less thoughtful voices of left and right, polarising debate and alienating future generations of young Diaspora Jews. Yet in Israel too, more needs to be done to strengthen the understanding of Zionism among young Israelis, giving them a greater understanding of their state’s connectedness and centrality to the entire Jewish people.

While Diaspora leaders can talk, however, it is Israel that has the ability to act, and take responsibility for building a new momentum. For future generations of Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, to remain inspired by the journey of our shared peoplehood, we look to Israel to find a new way forward, irrespective of the obstacles of weak Palestinian leadership and regional upheaval. And as the shared threat of Iran and its proxies leads to regional realignments, bringing Israel and the Arab states closer together, this should be harnessed as an opportunity for progress rather than an excuse to do nothing. If we complacently tolerate the status quo, if we watch as another decade is lost, younger Jews will become detached from Zionism putting at long-term risk the Jewish People’s greatest project since biblical times.

And when Diaspora leaders voice concerns, as Ronald Lauder recently did, we should not be dismissed. They may be the four worst words in the English language according to Jerry Seinfeld, but for the sake of the unity, strength and sustainability of our people – we have to talk.

About the Author
Mick Davis is a former chief executive of the Conservative Party, a former chairman of the UK Jewish Leadership Council and UJIA, and an international businessman.
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