Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting London this week at a time when his government has unleashed unprecedented tensions within Israel that reverberate throughout the Jewish world. It is important to avoid hyperbole but it is no exaggeration to say that the actions of his coalition are fundamentally dividing Israeli society. A divided Israel cannot sustain or defend itself. And that is an existential threat.
That is why, as was the case in Rome and Berlin, Netanyahu could well be met in the UK with pro-Israel demonstrators comprising London-based Israelis, and pro-Israel British Jews.
The way this radical legislation is being rammed through the Knesset is reckless and irresponsible. Recent polling unambiguously shows that the proposed changes are anathema to the wishes and values of the majority of Israeli citizens across traditional political divides. They are not “reforms,” even if you believe reform of the Supreme Court is necessary, but an assault on Israel’s constitutional foundations. This must not stand.
“You, Bibi, know exactly what you’re doing and you’re leading us all into the abyss.”Michal Shir
Netanyahu is leading Israel into the abyss
“You, Bibi, know exactly what you’re doing and you’re leading us all into the abyss,” boomed former Likud and now opposition member Michal Shir from the Knesset podium last month. Israel, friends of Israel and Jews around the world need to heed this blunt but accurate warning and our response must be simple and straightforward.
We must challenge the destructive agenda of the Netanyahu government in the media, around dinner tables and at symposiums and conferences. We must challenge it in the streets of Israel’s towns and cities and across the length and breadth of Diaspora Jewry. It cannot stand.
The Israeli public is leading by example; hundreds of thousands of patriotic citizens week in week out, from every corner of society. I was on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv recently, taking part in a Saturday night demonstration alongside Israelis from every demographic who understand what is at stake. Not a legislative clause here or a judicial appointment there; but the democratic essence that underpins freedom itself.
Israel will either remain a liberal democratic state – admittedly flawed but fundamentally free – or be transformed into an illiberal democracy as a first stop on an autocratic journey with unpredictable, potentially terrifying destinations.
Israelis protesting en masse are using the democratic rights they are determined never to surrender to prevent the emasculation of Israel’s unwritten constitution. These are not political partisans – but proud citizens on the left, right and center of the political map. Nor are they “anarchists,” “terrorists” or “foreign agents.” They are people who, to quote Hatikvah, have fulfilled the dream “to be a free nation in our land” and they are not prepared to relinquish that freedom.
THE JEWISH DIASPORA, meanwhile, should take inspiration from Israelis demanding that the democracy we all cherish remains intact. Now is not the time to be cowed into silence or paralyzed into inaction, but to speak and act in solidarity with the Israel we love, donate to and advocate for.
If Israelis who seek to defend the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people demand to hear our voice, we have not only a right to use it but a responsibility.
A recent Israeli-led demonstration in Westminster was attended by around 1500 people, with local Jews boosting the numbers. They were not the hard-Left figment of a right-wing columnist’s febrile imagination, but staunch members of London’s Zionist Jewish communities.
Even the Right’s usual allies are wavering. Miri Adelson, the publisher of the Israel Hayom newspaper, established by her husband Sheldon to provide a friendly free-sheet for the current prime minister, took to its pages, urging the government to slow down. Jewish leaders and organizations who have not yet spoken up should consider the following advice: if you find yourself in a situation where you are, in effect, to the right of Miri Adelson then take a look in the mirror and get a grip.
When I held communal leadership positions, Israelis would often complain that British Jews were too timid, too afraid to speak up in bold, full-throated terms to defend Israel, to articulate their connection to it and to be clear that attacks on Israel or “Zionism” are attacks on all of us.
But when faced with the prospect of a hard-Left, Israel-hating, Hamas-befriending Corbyn government, the voice of British Jews was loud and it was heard. We spoke our truth and emerged stronger for it as a community.
If the complaint about British Jews being too timid to speak truth to power still applies, however, it is not in how we engage with British audiences about Israel. It is in how meekly we voice our concerns about the dangerous and malevolent legislative program of this Israeli government.
If it succeeds, the detrimental impact it will have on Israel’s democracy will be toxic to our own communities, our relationship with Israel and the cohesion of the Jewish people. We cannot allow this to stand.
The external threats that Israel faces, meanwhile, haven’t gone away. Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain. To the north lurks a malignant force ready to launch missiles and terror, and in the West Bank the next intifada is a clear and present danger.
Israel’s social cohesion has always been central to its success and security. It is therefore unconscionable to see a government persist in dangerous games of fragmentation and polarization, ignoring President Herzog’s brave call for moderation and dialogue.
This is a perilous moment for Israel and those that love it; at stake is no less than Israel’s democratic soul. Gritting our teeth and saying nothing is not an option and Diaspora Jews and Israel’s allies around the world must take inspiration from the Israelis who are defending Israel’s democracy and with it its resilience, security and sustainability.
The Israel that built and sustains the Jewish and democratic state has woken up. Its friends must wake up with it. We must speak up with them and say in one clear voice: This will not stand.
The writer was the CEO of the British Conservative Party, 2017-2019 and is a former chairman of the UK Jewish Leadership Council. He was knighted in 2015 for services to Holocaust Commemoration and Education.