Wherefore Israel Engagement?

It has been six months since I took over as chairman of UJIA and the landscape has not become any easier. I took on this role because I passionately believe that our children and our grandchildren should have a deep and profound connection to Israel that is right at the heart of their Jewish identity. Being Jewish is not only defined in religious terms or as a route to social justice but being part of the Jewish people must also include a national dimension that is sometimes called “Peoplehood”. The link to the State of Israel and Zionism is paramount to this broader notion of being a Jew, and it is this issue that is all too easy to say, but somewhat more difficult to deliver. Today, Israel has moved on from being a romantic notion, an incredible liberating dream, and we need to understand how the new reality resonates with the next generation.

Many of our young people have a challenging relationship with Israel and we as community need to be honest about that, respect it and not be afraid to talk about it. It is so important that my generation does not dictate its own thinking and narrative. Our role is to educate, inspire and inform so as to ensure that they have the tools that they need to engage in an honest and balanced way. We need to provide them with experiences that work within their parameters, whilst being mindful of all the other pressures that they are grappling with today.

At UJIA we are aware of these issues, we know some of our programming from the past is no longer relevant, we are therefore constantly thinking about how to engage and connect the next generation and, as we approach our 100th anniversary, now is the time to ensure we remain innovative; as an example our social impact programme in Israel has started to deliver results, not only by having an impact on peripheral communities in Israel, but by inspiring the next generation through the experience of venture philanthropy.

I encourage the UJIA professional team not be afraid to try new initiatives and see which of them work; for the first time in many years we are thinking beyond Gap Year and developing a two-month experience during University holidays that will enable young people to go to Israel on an internship and educational programme.

In the short term I cannot see the issue of Israel engagement getting any easier. Young people here in the UK are going to find that their relationship with Israel continues to be challenged and we will see many different ways in which they are going to express their concern and their angst and in some cases these actions will go beyond what we, the more traditional community, feel is comfortable.

At UJIA we support 12 different youth movements and organisations, all of whom have their own ideology and we have donors and trustees all with their own stance on Israel; these are not easy constituents to balance. UJIA has successfully been a unifying organisation within the community, where all the different ideologies have been able to sit respectfully round the table together and express their views without fear of recrimination, and we have happily encouraged such dialogue and debate.

However, like so many other people, I have been horrified when reading and hearing about both some of the activities, and also much of the language, used recently around Israel. In my view, if this continues, it will only drive a wedge between these different constituents. UJIA and others will no longer be able to play this unifying role, but more importantly our young people will become further disenfranchised from the community and with Israel. The one thing we wanted to achieve in terms of engaging them, we will have failed to do — not because of the actions of Israel, but because of actions within our own community. If this becomes reality, all the good work and all the great initiatives of UJIA and other similar organisations will be in vain. We cannot let this happen.

As a community, we need to work together to solve this problem. Israel engagement is vitally important to us as a diaspora community and without it our young people are losing a critical element of their Jewish identity. As an issue it should be so important that it transcends political ideology. As a community we need to be nurturing those that want to engage with Israel and accept that views may differ. Of course there will always be those whose behaviour is not acceptable and in such circumstances as a community we need to respond appropriately. UJIA are leading this conversation. We intend to work with the community to define parameters and will hold public meetings and closed education seminars. We have to reach communally acceptable conclusions as the risks of failure are too great. We need to be enabling this debate not stifling it.

Louise Jacobs is the chairman of UJIA.

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Louise Jacobs is Chairman, UJIA
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