Joe Roberts

The shocking anti-Zionism of Jewish institutions

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Today, streets and railroad stations across Israel are filled with righteous anger. Brave Zionists face arrest, police water cannons, and the scorching sun of the Middle East in a final act of desperate determination to save their fledgling democracy from unraveling before their eyes. The die has been cast, and it is now clear as day: to stand against the protestors, or worse, to stand in silence is anti-Zionism in action. 

In the diaspora, pleas to Canadian legacy Jewish organizations to stand for democracy have fallen on deaf ears. Why? Well, perhaps it’s out of fear that the he golden calf of the sacred annual campaign won’t raise sufficient funds if they speak up. Worse, perhaps it’s out of ideological support for the gutting of Israel’s judiciary. But the result is the same, most of the organizations that our communities look to for leadership in times of crisis have inexplicably lost their ability to differentiate between that which is just from that which is unjust and that which is Zionist from that which is, at its core, anti-Zionist.

Make no mistake — silence, their abandonment of Israelis begging for their help — is anti-Zionism.

The Zionist movement, from its inception was by its very nature, democratic. There’s a reason Theodore Herzl called the First Zionist Congress and not the First Zionist Junta — Zionism and democracy are inextricable. Indeed, Israel’s founders knew this, creating a vibrant state rooted in the freedoms that democracy provides. To try to diminish it is to assault Zionism itself. 

It is unfathomable that organizations that have spent the last seven-plus decades extolling the virtues of a democratic Israel would cower while quietly allowing its destruction in a matter of months. What started as mealy mouthed ‘wait and see’, turned to ‘it won’t happen’, turned to full on gaslighting and ‘look the other way.’ The promise of Zionism is a democratic, Jewish state. By turning away, organizations spit in the face of Zionism.

This claim isn’t conjecture or hyperbole. The Jewish Federation of Vancouver, Canada’s third largest Jewish Federation told UnXeptable leaders via email that Israeli flags were not permitted inside the Jewish Community Centre for a meeting to be held this evening. UnXeptable is a group of Israeli ex-pats living in the Diaspora and protesting alongside their families in Israel. 

The Jewish Federation system (where I spent ten years of my career in leadership) claims to be Zionist at its core, yet I’m not sure how an organization can be committed to the ideals of Zionism yet bar the physical representation of all that the Zionist movement has achieved from its premises?

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), who touts itself as the political representative of Canada’s Jewish community, has just one post on their Twitter account over the last seven days referencing the greatest existential threat to the Jewish self determination since the destruction of the Second Temple. 

And the tweet itself is anodyne, an appalling, bubble-gum, ‘both sides’ justification for their unwillingness to take a stand. Meanwhile, a member of their senior staff enjoys a Senior Fellowship at the Kohelet Policy Forum, the extreme right wing think tank who are architects of the ‘judicial reform’. This Senior CIJA staff member has written extensively in Israeli newspapers to make the argument that “judicial reform is reasonable and right,” that “Israel’s Supreme Court needs democratic checks on its power,” and that the government should “strike while the iron is hot“.

The great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but times of challenge and controversy.” A Federation CEO told me recently that “there’s really nothing we can do without upsetting some of our major donors”. That says it all. Rather than taking their place in history as defenders of the future of the Zionist dream, these organizations would watch it self destruct out of fear for a loss in donations and the relative comfort of their positions.

There is some good news — all is not lost. Not in Israel and not in the diaspora. The protests will continue. The protesters will turn up the heat. And they need our support now more than ever. 

Organizations like JSpaceCanada, the New Israel Fund of Canada, UnXeptable, Canadian Friends of Peace Now, and others saw what was coming and have been standing on the side of Zionist patriots from the first moment they filled Kaplan Street more than six months ago. We will continue to stand with them, leading the nearly 75% of Jewish Canadians who oppose what Netanyahu and his extremists are doing to undermine the Jewish State.

And the legacy organizations that proud Zionists have dedicated their lifetimes to building in diaspora? It is time for the many good people around their leadership tables and boards of directors to stand up and put their money where their mouth is. They claim to care deeply about democracy’s  centrality to Jewish self-determination. Now is the time to act. They are the only ones who can compel the organizations they help steer to reject the anti-Zionist, anti-democratic, anti-Israel silence that they have thus far allowed.

It won’t be easy. The (in)famous political organizer Saul Ailinsky said that the “first rule of change is controversy. You can’t get away from it for the simple reason all issues are controversial. Change means movement, and movement means friction, and friction means heat, and heat means controversy.” But heat is the only thing that will bring change. To all the lay leaders of legacy Jewish organizations — now is the time to bring the heat. 

About the Author
Joe Roberts is a foreign policy analyst with a focus on MENA, a veteran political strategist in both the US and Canada, Board Chair of JSpaceCanada—the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy voice of Canadian Jewry, and Chair of Meretz Canada. Roberts spent 10 years in executive positions in the Jewish Federation system across North America. He has completed studies at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Harvard Kennedy School.
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