UK Jews must reclaim Israel identity

These have been turbulent weeks for the Zionist and Israel engaged community in the UK. Whatever our political views, a large majority of British Jews feel connected to Israel, often very deeply. We express this through our blood ties to family in Israel and our friendship with those of us who have made Aliya. We visit Israel frequently and some of us have holiday homes.

We give incredibly generously to Israel charities and read newspapers, and blogs (sadly, mostly in English because Hebrew is not a strong point). Many of us were active in Zionist Youth Movements and made Aliya. Some have stayed in Israel and built wonderful lives there and others came for a few years and then returned to the UK, almost always enriched. For large numbers of our community, Israel is not “over there”, it is here as a living and vital aspect of our identity as British Jews. I know there is a minority of Jews who do not identify this way with Israel but the numbers produced by independent research show clearly that the majority do so.

I understand how many Israelis, especially on Yom Ha’atzmaut, will read the above with gentle (I hope) cynicism. “If Israel is so important to you… go and live there”. This reading would be unkind and an unhelpful contribution to the conversation. The extraordinary achievements of Israel over 68 years and the size of the challenges it faces are deeply embedded into British Jewish sensibilities and we see our fate and Israel’s as deeply intertwined.

Certainly, we deeply respect the truism that living in Israel gives Israelis far greater authority to determine and influence policy. We may be consulted, we may even give our opinions without being asked, but it’s Israel’s right to ignore our views. The consequences are mostly not ours.

Our commitment to Israel often has religious roots but many secular Jews share the passion equally. This is the critical point so poorly understood by the critics of Israel in the UK. When Judaism is understood as a “religion”, there is no problem among the anti-Israel brigade. They will proudly claim to accept (and love!) Jews but hate Israel and Israelis.

This reduction of Judaism to a ‘Protestant style’ religious categorisation shows a complete misreading (malicious or ignorant) of how most Jews understand our identity. Jews largely self-define using the language of community, ethnicity and Peoplehood as well as religion. We feel connected to Israel because we are they and they are us.

Equally problematic is the fact that many British people, including Jews, limit discussion of Israel to issues around the conflict with the Palestinians. We often find it hard to see Israel through any other lens. Of course, the peace process and conflict are major issues we cannot ignore. They dominate the current landscape, but our challenge and responsibility this Yom Ha’atzmaut is to reject this approach. Israel is so much more than the conflict. Its society, languages, multi-cultures and economy are rich wellsprings that nurture Israeli life and can also inspire the Diaspora.

Let us in the UK, and everywhere, rise up and reclaim Israel as a major feature of our Jewish life that affirms our commitment to the Jewish people and our shared future.

About the Author
Michael Wegier is Chief Executive of United Jewish Israel Appeal. He has been in this position since September 2012, having moved back from Israel to take the role. Michael grew up in London and originally made Aliyah in 1990 and has spent much of the last 25 years living in Israel. Michael is a graduate of the Mandel Jerusalem Fellows programme, where his research focused on public policy. He holds a Masters degree in Contemporary Jewry from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Michael has worked in Jewish education and fundraising in the UK, Israel and the USA.
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