Jewish solidarity in a time of global peril

Visiting Israel as part of what is often dubbed a "solidarity mission" always involves multiple agendas.

arab protest 88 (photo credit: AP)
arab protest 88
(photo credit: AP)
Visiting Israel as part of what is often dubbed a "solidarity mission" always involves multiple agendas. A key aim is to show support: to demonstrate physically that the fate of Israel and the Diaspora are inextricably entwined and that our welfare is linked to that of the Jewish state. The Board of Deputies of British Jews began planning its visit just as Hizbullah's missiles attacks on Haifa and other cities were stilled by a fragile cease-fire. It was this new and frightening escalation of hostilities that made the trip an absolute necessity. For geographical and strategic reasons, we also knew that the time had come to break away from the usual Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor and to travel north, having first visited the border with Gaza. From the outset we sought to get behind the headlines. Given what varies from low-level to overt hostility to Israel in parts of the British media, this would be a welcome contrast and a necessary antidote to the anti-Israel vituperation experienced during the summer. We didn't come to find easy answers or seamless explanations. Most of us - some 20 deputies from a representative swathe of the UK - have spent too much time or have too many family or other connections here to think that we can come away with neat and tidy understandings; only one of our number had never been to Israel before. We went to immerse ourselves in the three-dimensional and at times paradoxical quality of life - to hear the multiplicity of views and to have our preconceptions challenged and hopefully to come away better informed and better equipped to advocate Israel's position in the face of hostile criticism. Sometimes the resultant impact takes the form of having new realities driven home in a tactile way, like witnessing at close range the diabolical ingeniousness of Hizbullah's deeply embedded mobile missile bunkers, or an ominous outline of Hizbullah flags just across the Lebanon border - poignant reminders that the conflict, while downgraded and temporarily off the front pages of The Times or the Guardian, continues daily to challenge people's lives, like the two children wounded by Kassam rocket attacks just hours before we arrived in Sderot. We heard the desperation in the voice of Mayor Eli Moyal at the constant attacks on the residents of Sderot, and yet were impressed by his determination that the life of the town should go on. In Haifa, which took the brunt of missile attacks on its civilian centers, we experienced a city whose living, breathing and day-to-day multicultural coexistence between Arabs, Jews and Christians rarely makes it above the radar of the British media. And yet life here is integral to understanding Israel's complexity as a country that exhibits a deeply pragmatic and successful coexistence within much of its borders, surrounded by enemies who seek to negate its very existence. IT IS against such a backdrop that even "routine" events on the itinerary take on a deeply personal, and even existential significance. Whether it was planting trees in the new JNF forest in Modi'in, hearing of Tel Aviv's plans to celebrate that city's 100th birthday in 2009, or visiting Rambam Hospital, still coping with the trauma of the war against Hizbullah, many of us came to face-to-face, yet again, with our people's spirit of perseverance and determination to wrest hope from the future. For our group in particular there was the aspect of re-energizing a long-term relationship with Merom Hagalil, where the UK's United Jewish Israel Appeal has been actively engaged with providing financial, communal and infrastructure support for more than 40 years. Perhaps the most significant aspect of our trip was the recognition, made clear from almost every briefing we attended, that this latest phase of what scholar Martin Kramer calls Israel's "War against Islamism" is not going to go away. If we heard it once we heard it a dozen times: Hizbullah continues to be rearmed; the next military conflict with Hizbullah is not a matter of "if," but "when." And when that happens, every Diaspora community needs to be prepared to ensure that Israel's situation is understood. This recognition lent poignancy to our conversations with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who recently announced that the Foreign Ministry had allocated some $4.6 million in the area of "public diplomacy" or "strategic communications." She impressed us with her clear understanding of the issues facing Israel at the present, including the importance of maintaining its security, but at the same time declaring to us that "Israel will not and cannot use its forces against its values." Her officials were at pains to impress on us the practical steps they were taking to put their new public diplomacy strategy into effect. It is to her credit that the ministry seems to have taken on board Ambassador Gideon Meir's maxim, that "public diplomacy is not a luxury, but a necessity" - particularly when addressing the pernicious myth that Israel's conflict with the Palestinians lies at the heart of every conflict in the Middle East. Yet while I applaud such initiatives and wish them well, what concerns me is "the fire next time." Will public advocacy remain a political football kicked between the Israel Government Press Office, the Foreign Ministry and the IDF, or will the Knesset's current budgetary hearings come to grips with the fundamental truth that different communications need to be crafted for different audiences? And, most importantly, will Diaspora communities be given the help they need in crafting coherent and strategic communications in time for the next barrage of Kassam rockets or Hizbullah's next assault? If the Foreign Ministry is truly serious about its efforts to take the hasbara lead, it should be prepared to do so in consultation and partnership with the Diaspora communities who will need it the most. Only then will we be able to fight together in what has become a global Jewish struggle. The writer is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Board is the representative body of British Jewry, elected by the community to protect its rights and freedoms.