Leading a representative Jewish organization like the Board of Deputies of British Jews is not simple. But it is a privilege. And with that privilege comes a responsibility to speak truth. Speak truth to our communities, to wider British society, and to the global Jewish community including Israel. And as you may well realize, at the moment speaking truth becomes the most fraught with regard to Israel.
Positions taken by organizations representative of Diaspora communities regarding Israel are often criticized. For left-wingers, it is too right-wing. For right-wingers, it is too left-wing. If we stay “centrist,” we are attacked by both sides, and if we say nothing we are accused of cowardice.
So, what can we do in light of the current tumultuous events in Israel, and the plea by so many mainstream Israelis to respond?
Israel is extremely important to the British Jewish community. The Board of Deputies’ own constitution states that one of our core aims and purposes is to take such appropriate action as lies within our power to advance Israel’s security, welfare, and standing. To that end, our efforts are focused on four foundational principles as follows:
- Israel’s security is non-negotiable
- Peace in the country and region is an existential need
- Equality and fairness are necessary for Israel’s citizens
- The economic prosperity of Israel is essential for its well-being
WHILE PEOPLE have legitimate arguments about how to achieve all of the above, we take comfort from the view that broadly, these are consensus-rich positions.
What is happening to Israel?
Looking at Israel in the late summer of 2023, how do we view what is happening through the perspective outlined by these principles?
First, Israel is facing enormous challenges regardless of the judicial overhaul process. The threats from Iran and Hezbollah, an increase in terror, violence within Arab society, and huge demographic shifts within Israeli Jewish society are all phenomena that were impacting greatly upon Israel even before the judicial reforms were announced.
Secondly, whatever one’s position on this controversial matter, it is clear that the last nine months of turmoil have negatively affected all of the principles outlined above.
Israel’s security is weakened as many reservists, mortified by the government’s approach, refuse, or threaten to refuse to serve as a protest against the judicial overhaul. The social solidarity that is so central to the army’s unique role is at risk of breaking down. Top security officials are expressing concern in public.
The peace process is unable to get any attention from either Israelis or Palestinians. Other Arab nations are looking on with great concern. While the Abraham Accords continue to be a success story, the Americans are now pouring cold water on the possibility of a deal with Saudi Arabia in the near future.
In a display unparalleled anywhere in the world, vast numbers of Israelis are demonstrating weekly, expressing genuine fear that equality and democracy are being irreparably damaged, and a culture of demagoguery is spreading.
Many parts of the economy are being severely disrupted and damaged by the situation, causing great concern which itself fuels the economic stress. This is a dangerous cycle for all Israelis.
Israel is in a dangerous cycle
This is not business as usual. Diaspora Jews who love Israel deeply along with the thousands of ex-pat Israelis in our communities are profoundly concerned. The Board of Deputies and many other global Jewish communal organizations strongly supported the initiative of President Herzog to find a compromise, and we are deeply distressed that, for now, there is no progress. We still hope a breakthrough can be found. We also note reports of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to President Joe Biden that the “reasonableness” law would be the only legislation passed without reaching a consensus.
Finding a way through the current crisis is a matter of existential urgency which affects the very fabric of Israel and Jewish life. For the sake of all 9.7 million Israelis and the millions of Diaspora Jews for whom Israel is a fundamental component of their identities, it is incumbent upon all people in leadership positions to ensure that Israel emerges with a strengthened democratic infrastructure that respects the aspirations of all its citizens.
Jews across the world need to engage more about what is happening in Israel. We need to talk sincerely and deeply with leaders and grassroots activists to learn about their opinions and share our own fears and hopes. We need to engage with the Israeli communities in our midst, and encourage them to become fuller partners in all our frameworks.
We should not only be inspired by the extraordinary display of grassroots democratic activism emanating from Israel, we should also seek to ensure that our own communal organizations are imbued with the same passion for Israel and communal life.
But first and foremost, for the future of the Jewish-Democratic Israel that has inspired our people for 75 years, we urge Israel’s leaders to take the practical and essential steps to advance security, peace, fairness, and prosperity. Your future and ours depend on it.
Marie van der Zyl OBE and Michael Wegier are the president and chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.