Arriving in the United Kingdom some 10 days before the onset of Passover enabled me to enjoy my London-based family, visit the theater and meet with friends. It was an opportunity to touch the life of the Jewish community and be given an insight into its priorities.
Without doubt, the most impressive event I attended was the Community Security Trust fundraising dinner. It normally takes place on an annual basis, but because of COVID, this year’s dinner was the first following a hiatus of four years.
The CST, founded in 1994, is one of the earliest associations securing the safety of the UK’s Jewish community. It provides training for those who guard Jewish centers of education, synagogues and manifold Jewish events. It monitors antisemitism within the UK, as well as offering assistance to numerous other countries’ Jewish communities, including that of the United States.
The dinner attracted some 1,000 participants, with guests expected to contribute a meaningful donation to the trust. The speakers included UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition and leader of the Labour Party. Both are married to Jewish partners, who figured prominently in their respective speeches.
It was the home secretary’s address that I found the most impressive and moving. Beginning on a light note by sharing how she and the family looked forward to their Friday night traditional dinner – hosted by her mother-in-law – she continued in a serious mode. Braverman focused on the frightening increase in antisemitism within Britain. She was appalled that 25% of all racist acts are committed against the Jewish community, which represents a mere 0.8% of the total UK population.
Braverman announced that the Home Office (which she heads) would be increasing its annual contribution to the CST by £1 million, making a total £15 million. Of particular significance is the formation of a new task force, specifically to combat antisemitism, consisting of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the CST and Home Office officials.
In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Braverman stated that the police treat antisemitism as if it’s “racism lite.” She went on to express her horror at how, in 2021, an anti-Israel and blatantly antisemitic convoy drove through a north London suburb (home to many Jews) waving the Palestinian flag and threatening to “f*** the Jews and rape their children.” What Braverman refused to accept was that these thugs – as she called the perpetrators – who blasted antisemitic filth were not brought to justice.
There can be little doubt that the numbers attracted to a fundraising dinner in aid of the CST reflect a major priority for UK Jewry. Today it is doubtful whether a dinner focused on Israel would attract anywhere near the same numbers.
How important is Israel to Diaspora Jewry?
For sure, it is a place to holiday; some have homes here (often they are the ones that have children who have made aliyah). However, Israel’s hotels are among the most expensive in the world, making other countries more attractive for a family holiday.
The reality is that Diaspora Jewry is diminishing (aside from the ultra-Orthodox communities). Membership of synagogues is on the decline. Recently it was announced that the UK’s Reform and Liberal movements are to join forces into one unit, a reflection of their respective decreasing membership figures. In addition – in common with other Diaspora communities – intermarriage has greatly increased.
WHAT OF Israel’s priorities?
The country is marked by division and fear. Division is showing itself through the hundreds of thousands of citizens who demonstrate week after week, alarmed at the government’s plans to radically change the judicial system. Fear because of those in government whose personal agenda could change the democratic nature of an Israel which, hitherto, we proudly declared as being the single democracy in the Middle East. It isn’t only that the proposed judicial change is drastic, but that it requires a simple majority of 61 votes to pass in the Knesset – a concept of a dictatorial rather than a democratic regime.
Israel’s priority today necessitates coming together as a people. Surrounded as we are by enemies; witnessing new partnerships evolving, with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cozying up to an Iran – currently intensifying its relationship with Syria – should be reason enough to recognize the need for unity. This reality, coupled with the intensive rise of worldwide antisemitism, requires a strong and vibrant Israel.
Unity has to begin here in Israel but should extend to our brothers and sisters wherever they may live. Yet, by our actions – wanting to change the Law of Return; not fulfilling a pledge made in 2015 to provide a place at the Western Wall for those who are not considered Orthodox Jews – we seem bent on driving a wedge between us and Diaspora Jewry.
Analyzing the above will bring us to the conclusion that the current priorities for Jews in the Diaspora are different from those of Jews in Israel. Are our respective priorities relevant to ensuring a better future for Jews in both places? Are they interlinked? Are we, in Israel, concerned about the increasing rate of intermarriage in the Diaspora, which, surveys have shown, results in declining Jewish communities? Are we perturbed that Jewish students on campuses become vulnerable to the Palestinian narrative simply because of ignorance? Has Diaspora Jewry failed in its ability to keep young Jews Jewish? If the answer to the last question is yes, then should Israel take on the responsibility of a massive increase in its outreach to world Jewry? For while the Jewish Agency’s and the World Zionist Organization’s prime role is to reach out to Jewish communities, in regard to today’s reality it is simply not enough.
To conclude, I can do no better than to follow the example of the late Chaim Herzog, sixth president of the State of Israel. I was privileged to hear him speak on a number of occasions. While he never hesitated to note the challenges that Israel faced, he always finished on a positive note.
On this year’s Independence Day, back home in Israel, as I drove to friends to celebrate this special anniversary, how great it was to see numerous families gathered to watch the spectacular flyby of the Israel Air Force. And then to pass by the many who took to the parks and beaches – preparing to enjoy their traditional Independence Day barbecues – served as a reminder of what it means to be a free people in our land.
Yes, in spite of the weighty predicaments with which we are confronted today, we celebrate the privilege of being in a world that has an Israel.
The writer is chairwoman of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association.