Protecting Israel’s values keeps us connected to it

Blue and White part supporters cheer at the party's campaign headquarters after polls for Israel's general elections closed, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner via Jewish News)
Blue and White part supporters cheer at the party's campaign headquarters after polls for Israel's general elections closed, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner via Jewish News)

For the first time in Israel’s history, its citizens are returning to the polls for the second time in a year. It might be tempting – especially considering Britain’s own febrile politics – to dismiss the elections as simply a re-run, but next week’s deserves our attention. It matters for Israel’s future trajectory. And for those concerned about the centrality of Israel to UK Jewish life, they may have consequences too.

Between the two election campaigns, there have been several developments that will affect the results and government formed. The political parties have restructured, building alliances. While neither the parties on the right nor the left have fully united, the unions forged likely ensure safety for the bigger ones, while small parties risk failing below the electoral threshold.

The period has also been marked by heightened tensions over religion and state, characterised by far-right politicians calling for a ‘Halachic state’ and Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to accept ultra-Orthodox demands on military exemptions for yeshiva students – the issue that scuttled the formation of a government in April.

Other issues of religion and state have come to prominence, from whether the Afula municipality can force gender segregation at a music event in a public park, to comments towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community from senior religious political figures and parties, to accusations of antisemitism over Yair Lapid’s depicting the ultra-Orthodox squeezing money from the state in an election ad.

A third trend sadly outliving the last election is the unprecedented level of racist and vitriolic campaign rhetoric, whether against Israel’s Arab citizens or directed at non-governmental organisations working with asylum seekers or others.

Through the lens of Israel-diaspora relations these debates really matter. In light of the 2018 Nation State Law, they point to a fundamental debate as to Israel’s direction, especially over issues of equality and democracy. We see this play out with Israel’s Supreme Court, which is now a political ‘hot potato’, not only becoming a battleground for controversial matters such as the occupation, the rights of asylum seekers or freedom of religion, but also its own standing and legitimacy becoming a political dividing line.

It is incumbent on us to watch closely and consider the implications. Could the results affect British Jewish attitudes and attachment to Israel? Will our younger community members go the way of their US peers and show increasing indifference to, or detachment from, Israel? In June, the American Jewish Committee found only 44 percent of 18-29-year-olds agree ‘caring about Israel is an important part of my being a Jew’, compared to 77 percent of the 50-64-year-olds.

The decline in support for Israel is attributed by many commentators to the divergence in politics, religion and identity between Israeli and US Jews.

This should be understood in the current global context: fault lines over democracy and the rise of populism. In the US/Israel case, we can see this in attitudes towards US President Donald Trump, where his favourability ratings among Israelis is a reverse mirror of US Jewish disapproval.

We are not immune to these trends in the UK. Our involvement and support for Israel must include concern for safeguarding Israel’s democratic institutions and its values of protecting minority rights and the rule of law.

Done well, this not only furthers our community’s proud record in strengthening Israel, but presents a values-based way forward to ensure younger generations do not drift from Israel or dismiss its relevance to their Jewish life.


About the Author
Adam Ognall is Chief Executive of the New Israel Fund.
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