BEING A British Zionist is difficult these days. The news coming out of Israel on an almost daily basis is depressing, what with the knife attacks on the streets of Jerusalem, the shootings in the West Bank, and the rockets that continue to be fired from Gaza. It is not difficult to feel despair about Israel’s future. To make matters more difficult, in Britain an outspoken critic of the state of Israel has been elected leader of the Labour Party; academics are proclaiming they will boycott Israeli educational institutions; and many of our youth and young adults want nothing to do with Israel.
And yet, there is still hope. Last week, I had the honour of delivering the appeal speech to record numbers at the New Israel Fund’s Annual Dinner. The Connaught Rooms venue in Central London was overflowing. More than 400 people, with almost 100 young adults, had gathered to hear the gentle words of Yuval Rabin, proudly exclaiming the legacy of his father, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was gunned down 20 years ago after giving a speech calling for peace, and to honour three Israeli activists who dedicate their lives to advancing shared society in their country.
The diners heard from Gadi Gvaryahu, chair of the Tag Meir Forum, a coalition of organisations that fights racism in Israel, and clears up after attacks on mosques and Arab homes; Samah Salaime Egbariya, an Arab citizen of Israel who works to rid her community of honour killing and domestic violence and advance the status of Arab women; and Eli Bareket, Director of Mimizrach Shemesh (“the sun from the East”), who seeks to educate Mizrachi (Sephardi) youth about social justice, tolerance and pluralism through traditional Jewish texts.
There was real excitement in the room as each of the Israeli activ- United: A rally outside the Royal Courts against those who criticise Jews and Israel ists received their Human Rights award, and implored us to help them build an Israel to be proud of. An Israel which lives up to the fine words of the Declaration of Independence; an Israel whose pluralism, tolerance and justice mirrors the kind of world that we take for granted here in Britain.
They wanted us to know that their voices should not, and would not, be drowned out by those opposed to human-rights organisations – to working together across the communities — who sew fear (on both sides) rather than hope. Those messages resonated with the hundreds of guests at the dinner.
It seems to me that those voices ought to find a positive reception beyond the NIF dinner. That the aspirations and ideals of these inspiring Israelis match the values of large parts, perhaps the majority, of the British Jewish community.
That is certainly the message of the City University research into attitudes towards Israel in our community, published last week by Yachad. The research showed that the vast majority of respondents (71 per cent as against 16 per cent) agree that “the two-state solution is the only way Israel will achieve peace with its neighbours in the Middle East; with 62 per cent saying that “Israel should give up territory in exchange for guarantees of peace”.
The research also showed that those with more hawkish attitudes in relation to Israel tended to overestimate how many other Jews agree with them; they believe that their own opinions are roughly twice as common as the research suggests they are. People with more doveish views have a slight tendency to underestimate the pervasiveness of their views. Those with more hawkish attitudes also tend to shout the loudest, which may explain why their views tend to be disproportionately represented in Jewish media, influencing British society’s impression of what it means to be a Zionist.
Actually, however, that Zionism comes in many shapes and colours. This is the case in the diaspora and in Israel itself. I think that it is time for those of us who campaign for social justice for all of Israel’s inhab- itants, who are pushing hard for an end to settlement-building and are trying to encourage both sides to move towards a two-state solution, to reclaim the term “Zionist”. Rather than sink into despair, or wash our hands of Israel, we should build stronger connections with those like Gadi, Samah and Eli, and the thousands of others, who work tirelessly to make Israel a better place.
Out of the darkness of the past few weeks, scores of grassroots initiatives have sprung up in Israel with the goal of reaching out across the communities. Many are being supported by a new emergency fund established by the New Israel Fund in response to the crisis. There is even an organisation called “Peace of Cake” that is providing pastries to Arab construction workers who are helping to build a better Jerusalem. As British Zionists, we should do all that we can to support these individuals and organisations and promote their message of hope for Israel’s future. Clive Sheldon QC is Chairman of the New Israel Fund UK