The Zionist Federation (ZF) of the United Kingdom is, as its name suggests, a federation of all the major Zionist organizations in that country. It has, over the years, promoted Israel within the wider community and, at times of crisis or war, become actively involved in raising funds, sending volunteers, supporting the various Zionist youth movements, organizing public lectures about Israel and arranging major events such as Independence Day celebrations.
The Zionist federation is not, nor should it be, an organization which takes its cue from any single Zionist movement or, for that matter, from any particular Israeli government, be it left- or right-wing. The very nature of its federal structure is to be as inclusive as possible of each and every organization which works on behalf of Israel, regardless of the political positions of those organizations. It is a federation whose very existence is based on the commonality of those issues which unite various Jewish groups in their support of Israel, rather than the issues which divide.
The nature of the many organizations, religious and secular, left wing and right wing, which work on behalf of Israel has expanded and diversified during the 60 years of the existence of the State of Israel.
For too long the ZF excluded right-wing and Revisionist Zionist groups, reflecting the ideological hegemony of the early state period. Issues which were not on the agenda 50 years ago, such as human rights, civil society and the environment, are now the staple agenda for many of the groups which make up the Zionist federations throughout the world.
Religious pluralism in particular, as promoted by the Reform and Conservative movements have also become part of that agenda, alongside the interests of the Orthodox supporters of Israel. That is precisely what a federation is all about – uniting around the common cause without encroaching on the autonomy of the diverse interests which make up the federation.
Precisely a year ago in this column, I wrote about the emergence of yet another pro-Israel organization in the UK, Yachad.
The organization has a left-of-center agenda.
It believes Israel’s best hope for safety and security lies in a comprehensive peace with its neighbors. That means a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine, and an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Certainly nothing radical, given the fact that all six former living heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) believe a two-state solution is the only answer, President Shimon Peres strongly supports a two-state solution to the conflict, and even former right-wing prime minister Ariel Sharon eventually came round to supporting the idea – a fairly broad consensus given the divisive nature of Israeli politics. At least half of the Israeli population consistently vote in favor of this solution to the conflict.
During the short period of its existence thus far, Yachad has succeeded in attracting many, especially a younger generation, of potential supporters and activists for Israel who have become turned off by the older establishment groups, and has also brought many of them on alternative fact-finding trips to Israel.
By all accounts, Yachad has supporters from across the UK Jewish community – members of synagogues, current and former youth movement members and many others active in the heart of Anglo-Jewry.
But it would appear that this is not good enough for the ZF and its affiliate organizations sitting in London.
Last week, the ZF rejected the request by Yachad to become part of the federation.
This rejection follows a year during which they were subject to a “trial” period and were not found to be wanting in any respect. It was simply, as the chairman of the ZF, Paul Charney, wrote in his letter of explanation to the director of Yahad, Hannah Weisfeld, that the vote of the existing members of the ZF went against them.
The ZF decision cannot be understood without the context of the major winds of change which have been sweeping the world of Zionism and Israel during the past two decades. Yachad is part of a more global lobby on behalf of Israel, including such respectable organizations as the New Israel Fund (NIF) and J Street, which have inserted a new agenda but have also had to exert much of their time and energy on becoming “accepted” into the club.
The New Israel Fund has become a major fund raiser for numerous important causes within Israel, and is seen as a threat by the mainstream organizations such as the United Jewish Appeal (the UJIA) which, in the past, enjoyed a virtual monopoly over fund raising for Israel. The NIF, like religious organizations, identifies its projects up front and are increasingly preferred by donors and supporters who want to know precisely who their generous philanthropy is benefitting – a policy which is also now being adopted by the UJIA itself in an attempt to retain its donor base. But the NIF remain under constant attack by the “establishment” who continue in their attempts to discredit and delegitimize its work on behalf of Israel.
Similarly, J Street in North America has faced a struggle to be accepted as an alternative lobby on behalf of Israel, focusing on a different message to that of AIPAC.
While the latter lobbies on behalf of Israel, regardless of the policies of its governments, J Street is more critical of the challenges ahead and more in tune with the concerns of the global community, especially the US administration, for Israel’s long-term future in a changing and volatile world.
All of these organizations, NIF, J Street and the smaller Yachad, speak to a growing percentage of world Jewry. The very idea that some should be excluded is a total antithesis to the diversity of opinions, ideas and differences of opinion which is so characteristic of Israel itself, and which is such a positive and vibrant aspect of Israeli culture and life. In many senses, the world of Diaspora Zionism is still stuck in a time warp where it seeks to differentiate between “legitimate” and less legitimate opinions, rather than come together in support of a plural and diverse Israel.
While the ZF claims to be an umbrella organization for the Zionist movement in the United Kingdom, representing more than 120 organizations, and over 50,000 affiliated members, its rejection of Yachad’s membership would indicate otherwise. It does important work on behalf of the State of Israel precisely because it is a broad church, and has not, until now, represented certain sectors within Israeli politics and society.
Judging by the universal condemnation of the decision by many community organizations (of which there are far too many), the ZF may now be in danger of disintegration from within. This will be to the detriment of those who would support Israel in an era of growing criticism and attempts at delegitimization.
It would behoove the ZF, as too other sections of the Jewish establishment, to spend less time deciding who to accept into the club and who to exclude. At the end of the day, Israel’s policies will be determined by the citizens of Israel, not by the Diaspora communities. But if the latter want their voice to be heard as well, they must become inclusive, rather than exclusive, and should focus on those issues of common concern. Otherwise they will find that no one wants to be a member of the club anymore because it has become irrelevant.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University, the views expressed are his alone.