I have recently attended a debate entitled ‘Where are the Zionists?’ It took place in London and – like all such events these days – its location was kept secret until the last moment, to prevent it being disrupted (and potentially the participants attacked) by ‘pro-Palestinian’ activists.
Moderated by Paul Charney, Chairman of the Zionist Federation, the debate was led by a panel of four:
- James Sorene, CEO of Britain-Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM, a pro-Israel advocacy organisation);
- Gillian Merron, CEO of the Board of Deputies (the elected representatives of British Jewry);
- Joshua Pomerance, Executive Director of Mizrachi (a representative of the Religious Zionist Movement); and
- Clive Sheldon, Chair of New Israel Fund UK (NIF, which acts as a funding channel to a number of organisations in Israel).
The panel was first asked to define Zionism. Unsurprisingly, each of the four tried to put their own slant on the definition: the Mizrachi representative, for instance, declared Zionism an integral part of his Judaism (just like observing Shabbat and eating kosher), while the NIF panelist talked about ‘progressive’ causes, such as social justice. Interestingly from my point of view, they all agreed that Zionism is a belief in the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, i.e. to a homeland of its own. I say ‘interestingly’ because, while such definition is often cited, it is not quite that obvious – certainly not from a historical perspective.
The First Zionist Congress (Basel, August 1897) stated:
“Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.”
Theodor Herzl (who acted as Chairman of the Congress and was elected by the latter President of the Zionist Organization) noted in his diary:
“At Basel I founded the Jewish State.”
Note the pro-active verbs (‘to establish’ and ‘to found’). Zionism was not about passive ‘belief’ or ‘acceptance’, but about passionate action.
That’s not being pedantic: I happen to believe that the Kurdish people have the right of national self-determination; that, however, does not make me Kurdish; and, since I do very little to help that right be exercised, it doesn’t make me a Kurdistan liberation activist, either.
The ‘modern’ definition promoted by the four panelists is both reductionist and ‘expansionist’. It is reductionist because it decreases the required ‘threshold’ for being considered ‘a Zionist’: it makes it sufficient merely to ‘believe’ (or even reluctantly ‘accept’) the Jewish right to national self-determination, even if one does nothing about it. The new definition is ‘expansionist’ because it seeks to encompass more people than would be considered ‘Zionists’ under the historical one. But before we surmise that ‘the larger – the better’, let us remember that it is on that kind of ‘expansionism’ (albeit historically twisted and taken to an idiotic extreme) that Ken Livingston based his recent claim that Hitler was a Zionist.
The new definition may be said to be ‘inclusive’ – a positive world, particularly in the context of Diaspora Jewry; on the other hand, it may seem enregimenting: it leaves no room for ‘non-Zionists’ or even ‘sympathisers’ – one is either a Zionist or an anti-Zionist. By this definition, people who spend their time bashing Israel and never-ever defend or praise her are Zionists, provided they nominally accept that it represents the embodiment of Jewish self-determination. Is this ‘inclusive’, ‘diluting’ or ‘drifting’? Just asking…
The panel did not discuss all this, however. Instead, it moved to the next issue: can one be a Zionist and critical of Israel? The short answer, to which the entire panel subscribed, was ‘yes’. They also appeared to agree that ‘delegitimising’ Israel was the red line dividing acceptable criticism from antisemitism. Beyond that, views differed widely: the Mizrachi panelist opined that the role of Diaspora Jews is to be ‘positive ambassadors’ for Israel; conversely, for the NIF representative criticism of ‘Israel’s right-wing government’ was the very essence of Zionism. Zionists, he declared, must criticise Israel’s bad behaviour out of love for the Jewish state.
I decided to throw in my tuppence worth on that issue – and attempted to do so by means of a metaphor:
“I have a son”, I said, “and I love him dearly. Sometimes, however, he disappoints me – mostly, I guess, because my expectations are so unrealistically high. I try to give him praise whenever he remotely deserves it – and constructive criticism when I feel it’s warranted. But if I were to only criticise him at every turn, focusing only on his shortcomings and ignoring his achievements; if I were to go around his friends, telling everybody what a complete jerk he is, how badly he behaves, asking them to shun him unless he mends his ways – would that be ‘love’ or abuse? Love should not hurt: were I to do all that, my son would surely tell me at some point: ‘You know what, father? Leave me alone, love me a little less!’”
I must look much younger than my age – or maybe it was just the poorly lit room. Because when NIF’s representative Clive Sheldon responded, he substituted ‘child’ for ‘son’:
“What if”, he replied, “your child is a drug addict? Wouldn’t you see it your duty to bring about his cure? Wouldn’t criticism of his wicked ways, done out of love, be part of the treatment?”
My son happens to be in his mid-20s and would object to being demoted to the status of ‘child’. So would, I suspect, most adult Israelis. But, jokes aside, it seems to me that there is a clear Freudian component to Mr. Sheldon’s mistake. As his answer unwittingly revealed, subconsciously he views Israelis as children or as junkies; i.e. as people who cannot be relied upon to behave in a responsible manner. This is key: one can attempt to persuade, but ultimately one has to respect the freely-expressed will of responsible adults – however much one disagrees with it; not so with children, drunkards or drug addicts, who – when it comes to the crunch – can be coerced into ‘proper behaviour’.
The strident problem with Mr. Sheldon’s view is that collectively Israelis are not children. And what exactly qualifies him to diagnose ‘mass drug addiction’ – the societal equivalent of some sort of mental disease? Why does he think that such disease mysteriously affects Jews in Israel, while ‘passing over’ the rest of the Jewish people? Whether he personally agrees with them or not, what entitles Mr. Sheldon to disparage the democratically expressed choices of adult, sober Israelis as acts of children or irresponsible junkies? Mr. Sheldon’s criticism is not a respectful difference of opinion among adults; it’s an attempt at tutelage.
Some might say that such views betray a subliminal elitist outlook quite at odds with NIF’s egalitarian pretences. Whatever; it is those views that enable him and his organisation to style themselves as ‘the good guys’, even while behaving in an arrogant and (more importantly) anti-democratic manner.
‘Why anti-democratic?’, you might ask. Well, imagine for a moment that Israel (or Israeli organisations, or ‘the Jewish lobby’) would fund fringe far left organisations in the UK – say the likes of the Spartacist League of Britain. Imagine that Israel/Israeli organisations would pay that League to ‘research’, compile and publicise ‘reports’ highly critical of the United Kingdom and of the British society as a whole. Imagine that the funding would also cover presentation and promotion of those reports abroad as ‘the grim face of Britain’. Imagine that this would be used to urge foreigners to put pressure on the British government, or to cause the British public to elect a different government. Such Israeli intervention might be legal in democratic Britain, just as it is legal in Israel; but would it be ethical? Would it be compatible with the spirit of democracy – a regime that places political choice in the hands of those who vote, pay taxes and (in the case of Israel) serve in the army and bear direct (and possibly existential) consequences?
The fact is that, as I have explained elsewhere, it is this type of fringe organisations that are funded in Israel with foreign money channelled through – among others – the New Israel Fund. And we are not talking about small change here: in 2014 (the latest year reported), NIF received circa $30 million in donations, among others from the European Union. In its 35 years of existence, the organisation has distributed grants worth a staggering quarter of a billion US dollars.
There are those who point out that not just fringe far-left organisations benefit from foreign donations. NIF activists are quick to emphasise, for instance, that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, which generally supports the policies of Israel’s ‘right wing government’) is also funded with foreign money. But the two are hardly the same: from a democratic point of view, it is one thing to ‘get behind’ a country’s government – when that government is the result of free and fair elections; it is quite a different thing to financially promote fringe ‘causes’ that are clearly rejected by that country’s electorate. The former supports people’s democratically-expressed will; the latter attempts to subvert it.
Some of NIF’s donors (those who adhere to the ‘inclusive’ definition), might believe that not just NIF activists but its grantees are Zionists. After all, NIF’s Funding Guidelines state (paragraph 7 of a total of 8) that an organisation
“will not be eligible for NIF grants or support [if it]
7. Works to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel or to deny the rights of Palestinian or other non-Jewish citizens to full equality within a democratic Israel.”
But beyond the low priority level awarded to this item, the wording is in itself rather revealing. NIF’s grantees are not required to ‘believe’ or even ‘accept’ the Jews’ right of sovereign self-determination, they are only required not to ‘work to deny it’.
Even that is only in theory. In practice, among the ranks of NIF grantees one finds, for instance, Adalah – an organisation claiming to militate for ‘Arab Minority Rights in Israel’. NIF has funded Adalah to the tune of $1.3 million between 2010 and 2014 alone.
Adalah accuses Israel of practicing systematic, state-sponsored, racially or religiously-motivated discrimination against its ethnic Arab citizens. To substantiate that accusation, its website (built and maintained with NIF funding?) includes a database of (Israeli) ‘Discriminatory Laws’. Among the more than 50 laws accused of discriminating against Arab Israelis is the Flag and Emblem Law (adopted in 1949). According to the description posted by Adalah, this law is discriminatory because it:
“Adopts the flag of the First Zionist Congress and the Zionist Movement, a combination of a prayer shawl and the Shield of David, as the official flag of Israel. The emblem of the State of Israel is a candelabrum, one of the symbols of the Temple era in Jewish history.”
How is this ‘discriminatory’? Well, one of Adalah’s (NIF funded?) reports explains that
“the flag and official state emblem are Zionist-Jewish symbols. Therefore, they exclude Palestinian citizens, as non-Jews, who lack recognized national symbols with which they can identify.”
I would have thought that this would cause British Jews like Clive Sheldon to scratch their heads in wonder. After all, both the Union Jack and the flag of England (just like the flags of many European countries) include the cross, a rather obvious Christian symbol. As non-Christians, do Mr. Sheldon and his colleagues at NIF UK feel excluded and discriminated against by this “lack [of] recognized national symbols with which they can identify”?
Seriously, isn’t claiming that Jewish symbols of the state constitute ‘discrimination’ an attempt to “deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination”, which should preclude funding Adalah – as per NIF’s own rules and regulations?
An additional ‘discriminatory law’ listed by Adalah is the Knesset Law (adopted in 1994). Why? Adalah explains that this discriminatory law
“Provides that in the opening session of the Knesset, excerpts from The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel will be read out that emphasize the exclusive connection of the state to the Jewish people.”
I have taken the liberty to read the text of that ‘discriminatory’ law. It includes (in its Appendix) the prescribed portion from the Declaration of Independence. Here is that portion, in its entirety:
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
The State of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.
We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.”
Adalah sees the above as discriminatory. Does NIF? If affirmative, they need to make that fair disclosure to their donors. If negative, why does NIF fund Adalah, in breach of NIF’s own official positions and guidelines?
An additional law considered ‘discriminatory’ is the one establishing Jewish Regional Religious Councils – the Israeli equivalent of Church of England parishes.
And so Adalah’s list of ‘Discriminatory Laws’ continues. The organisation objects to each and every law that somehow refers to the Jewish character of the State of Israel. In fact, in a (NIF funded?) report addressed to the European Union, Adalah implies that Israel’s definition as ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ constitutes a contradiction in terms.
Clearly, in Adalah’s view ‘Arab Minority Rights in Israel’ can only be realised at the expense of the Jewish majority’s right to national self-determination. This does not prevent NIF from funding it; nor, apparently, is Adalah bothered by that ‘Zionist’ funding channel. Pecunia non olet!
Which brings me to the subject of money. While gazing at the panel of four during that recent debate, I reminded myself that NIF (the ‘lightest’ of the four in terms of Zionism, even going by the ‘inclusive’ definition) was by far the richest. Run on a shoestring, the other three could only dream of NIF’s $30 million annual budget; or of the over 100 activists that NIF’s operational arm employs in Israel alone.
So ‘Where are the Zionists’? Well, folks, they are busy. They work – you know. As teachers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, manual workers… Not, unfortunately, as Zionist activists. They’ve got families, with whom they (outrageously!) like to spend time after work. When they retire, they volunteer some of their time to attend ‘Where are the Zionists’ debates.
It all costs money, you see. Money to employ talented individuals as organisers and activists. Money to fund meetings, conferences, research, reports, promotion, education, youth events, public relations, networking and lobbying… Zionism is not lacking passion, it lacks money. It is being outspent by NIF’s type of ‘Zionism-light’, let alone by ‘not-antisemitic’ anti-Zionists. And that’s even before we consider Saudi and Qatari petrodollars, which fund not just extremist madrassahs in Pakistan, but also numerous academic chairs in the West.
Zionism cannot hope to outspend such adversaries, of course. It can and should spend not necessarily more than the opposition, but better. The likes of AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League are proof that it can be done. But it cannot be done with next-to-nothing.
It is no secret that Israeli governments (here’s some well-deserved criticism – uttered out of love!) are both ultra-parsimonious and exceedingly clumsy when it comes to hasbara. Recently, this has been highlighted (as if additional highlighting was needed) in a State Comptroller report. Amazingly, in 2015 Israel’s Foreign Ministry spent a total of $423 million, i.e. 0.5% of the state budget. This pays for everything: the cost of Israel’s embassies and consulates across the world, ad-hoc diplomatic delegations and protocol, international development aid, a new stapler for Israel’s Embassy to Micronesia… everything. The Jewish state’s Foreign Ministry spends less on hasbara than NIF does on ‘tough-love’ criticism!
But blaming Israel cannot exonerate the Diaspora. Large Jewish communities (like the ones in France and the UK) may not be as rich as antisemites think; but they are comfortable – financially at least. Socially, they face increasingly overt, increasingly brazen antisemitism, frequently in the form of unfair, discriminatory and often berserk ‘criticism’ of the Jewish state. The likes of NIF believe that the solution lies in more criticism. They are entitled to their opinion, even if common sense bridles against such monumental stupidity.
One cannot expect French or British Jews to leave their day jobs and stage noisy weekly protests, like Palestine Solidarity Campaign bums. But they can and should provide the funds needed to properly uphold the dignity of the Jewish state – and that of their own communities. Lest the question ‘Where are the Zionists?’ (or even ‘Where are the Jews?’) acquire a more sinister meaning in their children’s time.