Big beast who stood out in the communal jungle
WHEN I was Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Mick Davis, who soon hands over the reins of the Jewish Leadership Council, was many things: chairman of UJIA, chairman of the JLC, a friend, an ally and, at times, a sparring partner.
A South African émigré, Mick brought to Anglo-Jewry the spirit of the Big Five of the African bush.
Like a lion, courage in defending his pride — the Jewish community.
Stubborn or principled depending on your perspective, like the leopard, he doesn’t easily change his spots.
Like a buffalo, when Mick is determined to get from A to B, you don’t want to be the one standing in his way, and like the rhino, leaders like Mick are in short supply and must be cherished.
Above all, however, like an elephant, whatever the scale of his achievements, he never forgets: who he is, who he represents and his responsibilities to the community and society around him.
Like Mick, I speak my mind. As a result, we have had our disagreements, not least when he made critical comments about the Israeli government at a communal event in 2010, the tone of which I fundamentally disagreed with. Indeed, the last time I wrote about Mick in this newspaper was to criticise those remarks. As Israel’s ambassador I was dutybound to challenge comments that I felt had overstepped the mark, even if they came from a friend.
We have disagreed since; we will disagree, I am sure, again, but at no point have I ever doubted Mick’s dedication as a friend and supporter of Israel. His record speaks for itself.
Among his first decisions as a British Jewish leader was his insistence, in the summer of 2006 as Hizbollah rained rockets on the north of Israel, that Israel tours would go ahead.
As chairman of UJIA he saw it as vital that British Jewish teenagers are connected with Israel. They would not run from the challenge, but adapt to it.
He was the driving force behind the UK’s first “Salute to Israel” parade for Israel’s 60th anniversary.
Months later, the community was back in Trafalgar Square under less festive circumstances, as Israel defended itself against Hamas terror during Operation Cast Lead. Some in the community were more cautious and felt the rally was the wrong approach. My own protection team didn’t want me to speak there — they felt the security risks were too great.
But Mick and I were in total agreement: Israel was under attack and the community had to show solidarity. I spoke that day in a bulletproof vest, despite the struggle of finding one that fitted.
There were times, I will admit, when the traditional softly, softly approach of Anglo-Jewry could be frustrating. Mick, however, bucked the trend helping to give a more direct and forceful voice in defence of the unbreakable bonds between the Jewish community and the State of Israel.
At UJIA, he revolutionised the diaspora’s approach to Israel philanthropy. Across the north of Israel, state of the art educational facilities tell a story of the strategic decision to partner with the Galil and deliver infrastructure and opportunity to its people.
But despite the scale of his contribution to Israeli schools, hospitals and institutions you will not find a “Sir Mick Davis Wing” or “Davis Lecture Theatre”. Some donors insist their name is above the door — Mick insists it isn’t.
In the UK too, he has led the JLC by example, and very few aspects of Jewish life, from synagogues, to schools, to the security that protects them are untouched by his efforts. And in wider society, Mick has made important contributions to the arts, sciences and public life embracing the country he has adopted whole-heartedly. His knighthood last year for his commitment to Holocaust education was thoroughly deserved.
Big Mick became Sir Mick. Neither of us are as big physically as we used to be. But like the African elephant, the biggest of the big five, I will never forget his immense contribution to the Jewish people.