Criticism in Context

February 13, 2011 by

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At Sinai, the Torah was handed down with its moral code, system of social justice and protections for minorities, and expressing the value of peace. A people was forged into a nation with the promise of a land. Israel was the heart of Jewish identity when the Children of Israel stood at Sinai.

It was at the heart of Jewish identity at the First Zionist Conference and remains at the heart of Jewish identity today. That is why I tolerate no denials of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. I attack the suggestion that Zionism is racist or that a Jewish state merits that malicious canard.

I advocate for Israel publicly and privately without fear. It is “my state” and advocacy is just one of the many ways in which I contribute to its well-being.

My mother lives in Israel, as do my brothers, with their families, and countless cousins. I have a home there. I invest in the rejuvenation of the Galil. I give thanks that I am blessed with the capacity to make these contributions.

I am bound existentially with Israel’s actions because they affect me existentially as a Jew. No one has asked me to halt these activities, both political and philanthropic, in support of Israel, either because I am a “leader” or because I do not live in Israel.

Everyone in Israel recognises the obligation as a Jew to do these things according to one’s capacity. That obligation arises from Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Surely diaspora Jews who accept these obligations also have a right to engage, to be heard and, if so moved, to criticise.

I recognise limitations to this approach; for example, diaspora Jews, no matter how engaged, cannot and should not vote for Israel’s political leaders or take responsibility for the physical security of Israel’s citizens. But if Israel were something that only Israelis can comment on, then it would not be the nation-state of the Jewish people. It would simply be a state for its registered citizens and nothing more.

In Israel’s formative years, there was real dialogue with the diaspora. This is no longer the case. Tzipi Livni is right to press consistently for a new global Jewish conversation. Many diaspora Jews have valid experiences and perspectives to bring to the table. They are highly relevant to the future of Israel and the fight against the assault upon Israel’s very legitimacy.

When we crudely brand lovers of Israel as traitors or fools if they articulate a concern, or when we deny people the right to contribute if they have criticisms of policy, we narrow Israel’s support base.

Rather than shrinking the pool of people who will fight Israel’s corner, we should be filling it by providing the capacity to advocate and defend – in tandem with the ability to question its direction.

As American Jewish leaders acknowledged at this week’s Herzliya conference, this is the most complex, most challenging time that both Jews and Israel have ever known. I agree with Malcolm Hoenlein, who said that we have a coming generation that sees the world differently and that “we need radical solutions, not just band-aids” if we are to engage them.

The need to engage and retain the commitment of all Jews, particularly young Jews, takes precedence over misplaced fears that debate weakens us and provides ammunition to our enemies.

Ironically, precisely the same argument is sometimes made about “loud, proud, Israel Advocacy”; that it is abused by antisemites and anti-Zionists who go on to attack the “Jewish Lobby”. In both cases, my response is the same: we must not allow our enemies to stop us doing what is right, whether that is public support or honest criticism.

Let me be clear about my comments at the LJCC event last year that have created such interest.

My statement that when Israel does good things it is good for me had nothing to do with any concern I might have for how I appear to others as a result of Israel’s actions. I could not care less.

Nor does it indicate that I am a cowering diaspora Jew nervous of reaction in London. I am not. Nor did it refer to any actions Israel has ever taken, or may take, to protect its citizens.

I was making the more profound point that Israel lies at the heart of my identity as a Jew. As a Zionist, I believe Israel is a fundamental element in my connection to the Jewish people. I am bound existentially with Israel’s actions because they affect me existentially as a Jew.

When Israel does good, it nurtures my and our community’s identity: by its achievements as a nation when it was filled with refugees; its contribution to science, medicine and the humanities; its willingness to subject all to scrutiny, no matter how high their office; and its manifest generosity to nations in crisis or need.

But when I see examples of discrimination against minorities, rabbis who issue racist edicts, the divisions between secular and religious Jews – these all undermine our identity because they fly in the face of the value system of the Jewish people; and run counter to the ideals set out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

When faced with these manifestations, I speak out, as all Jews should speak out. And when we do, we use our language as Jews and not that of our enemies – for it is the call of an ancient people for justice and fairness. We should never flinch from doing so. It strengthens us.

In connection with the two-state solution, the demographic time-bomb is ticking. It is not just those on the left of Israeli politics that assert this. In “Greater Israel”, it will not be long before Jews are the minority.

The concept of a Palestinian state alongside Israel was accepted in 1937 and 1947 on far worse terms than is the reality today.

Post-1948 Arab leaders were intent upon the destruction of Israel and the Palestinian state was never actioned. The power and onus lay with them until 1967. Now it lies with Israel, Israel controls the land, Israel holds the people.

It is up to us. We need to accept that burden. It may be a forlorn hope because we have no guarantee that the current Palestinian leadership is capable of delivering peace and security. It may be unattainable because the current political stress and upheaval of our neighbours militates against practical progress.

But, as several of Israel’s leaders said from the platform at the Herzliya conference – in terms far more strident than mine – we need to drive an agenda with a clear plan and a coherently articulated endgame that will secure Israel’s legitimate interests and result in a just peace for all.

Jews, Zionists and Israel have lived under the threat of a boycott for some years. Trade unions are breaking links with the Histadrut and resolutions to boycott Israel are enshrined in their agenda.

If that happens, the lens through which Israel is viewed will distort further. A tipping point may come: Israel could become a pariah in civil society. Then the democracies of the world could turn their faces away resulting in a downward spiral of exclusion. In my experience, resilience is then lost and decline is inevitable.

We in the diaspora must do all we can to fight any such attempts to brand Israel a pariah state. And authentic progress on peace would blunt our enemies’ attacks and serve Israel’s interests.

At the LJCC, I said clearly that Israel was not an apartheid state. I reject any comparisons between Israel today and apartheid, an analogy which is often used as a stick to beat Israel. I did say that if the world came to believe that a two-state solution was not possible and that a single unitary state (“a one-state solution”) was seen to be the only way forward, then that unitary state may be characterised as an apartheid state as you would have a minority ruling over the majority – or at least a majority of Palestinian non-citizens in the West Bank and Gaza. The international pressure for full civic rights for all, including the right to vote, would be enormous and would mean the end of Israel. This is not a new or controversial point. Prime Minister Olmert said as much in 2007 as did Defence Minister Barak last year.

I spoke honestly and personally to a group of fellow Jews at the LJCC thirsty for debate. My words became a cause célèbre. Yet Jewish conversations like this are critical. We must rekindle a true and powerful Zionist spirit in the emerging generations; engaging them fully as stakeholders in Israel’s future and empowering them to advocate for Israel and fight for her rights.

Let us create the framework that allows a global Jewish conversation to take place. We may find ourselves on different sides of the debate but let us agree that it is essential to have that dialogue.

Now is the time.

Mick Davis is chairman of Britain’s UJIA and Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council

This piece first appeared in

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