Naomi Chazan is a class act. Professor emerita, former Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, former Member of the Knesset for the Meretz civil rights party, feminist, President of the New Israel Fund – I doubt whether anyone can better articulate the argument for a liberal Zionism that genuinely seeks justice and liberty for all Israel’s citizens, which will only come about when the Palestinians have a state of their own. She set out her case for an Israel that fulfils its international obligations and rigorously adheres to human rights values at home and in the occupied Palestinian territories in a long question and answer session with Jonathan Freedland organized by the UK New Israel Fund and hosted by the New North London Synagogue in its magnificent new building. And along the way she had much of interest and importance to say to the full hall about the Arab spring, the late conversions to Palestinian self-determination of three former Israeli prime ministers, the need for Diaspora Jews to speak out on Israel’s mistakes and the baseless allegations made against NIF that it funds organizations devoted to the delegitimization of Israel. Her voice is mellifluous, her manner engagingly polite and, possessed of great timing, she deploys humour with natural talent and great skill. But she’s steadfast in sticking to her principles. The gentle treatment she applies to friend and foe alike is inevitably followed by the delivery of a steely, uncompromising message.
Curiously, the NIF organizers decided they needed to ‘balance’ Naomi Chazan’s views with the responses of three leaders of the Jewish and pro-Israel establishments. This seemed an odd idea to say the least, given that Jonathan Freedland acted very effectively as devil’s advocate in his questioning, despite the fact that he freely admitted that his sympathies lay with Chazan and her views. Hers is a hard act to follow and Lorna Fitzsimons, Chief Executive of BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), Doug Krikler, Chief Executive of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) and Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews were simply unable to say anything of any substance, depth or relevance. Fitzsimons virtually ranted scarily about fear, Krikler was engaging but wishy-washy and Wineman was rambling and confused. I don’t think this was just because they wilted in the glare of Naomi Chazan’s intellect and articulacy. It seemed to me that they had nothing to offer either in terms of an alternative to Chazan’s relentless emphasis on liberty, freedom and human rights for all – although they all appeared to want to dissent somewhat from her position – or in terms of a translation of the principles Chazan enunciated with which they did agree into a way forward for British Jews confronting the fallout from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Chazan was crystal clear on one of the key arguments that so many in the pro-Israel lobby utterly reject: Every Diaspora Jew I know, she said, is affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict and therefore every Jew is perfectly entitled to tell Israel what it thinks about what Israel is doing (I paraphrase). Mick Davis, the Chairman of the UJIA, has said almost the same thing and was splattered with ordure for his pains, although some significant senior Jewish establishment leaders did not dissent from his views when given the chance.
Naomi Chazan and people like her – and there are many in Israel – are Israel’s last best hope for guiding the country to the end of occupation and a just peace. But there aren’t enough like her, their message is largely falling on deaf ears and they’re fatally distanced from the levers of power. Nonetheless, they speak truth to power. They don’t come to Diaspora Jews armed with buckets of whitewash. When Chazan was asked by a member of the audience how Diaspora Jews could help move Israel in the direction she advocated, she replied: ‘Jews should be pushing and pressing Israel’ to change its policies. You can’t get much clearer than that.
Which makes it altogether puzzling why NIF is supporting and participating in the ‘We believe in Israel’ conference organized by BICOM and taking place ‘somewhere’ in London on Sunday 15 May. This event is straight out of the modern hasbara (propaganda) handbook. Its fundamental premise is that there’s hardly anything wrong with Israel except the way it’s presented. Marshal your arguments, use the right means of communication and get the branding right and Israel’s image in the UK can be transformed. This approach is so far removed from the message Naomi Chazan delivered at the New North London Synagogue that it raises serious doubts about the judgement of the UK NIF leadership. Jews should be spending their time pushing and pressing Israel not devising ways of presenting its repressive and undemocratic policies in more palatable forms to the British public. There may be a few sessions in which the odd word of criticism and dissent can be expressed, but look at the list of speakers and you’ll see they’re almost all of one stripe.
But worse even than the programming is the very concept of the event (as I noted in an earlier post). By framing it in terms of ‘belief in Israel’ the organizers and supporters are shooting themselves in the foot, or possibly worse: pointing a gun at their own heads. An underlying theme running through the whole conference is the fear of delegitimisation, the casting of doubt on Israel’s legitimacy by the country’s perceived enemies, which leads to the questioning of its very existence. What could be more calculated to reinforce these fears, to give credence to delegitimisation, than to attempt to encapsulate collective feeling for Israel’s permanence in words that imply that there is indeed doubt about its existence. The phrase ‘belief in’ is often used when the entity is not real or its existence is in doubt. It’s as if the pro-Israel sector is so lacking in confidence about Israel that rather than simply take it for granted that Israel exists and firmly establish that engaging in the discourse of delegitimization is counterproductive, it’s reduced to shoring up support for Israel using language more commonly associated with those who are convinced of the existence of fairies and UFOs. If this approach weren’t so tragic, it could almost seem Pythonesque.
Belief also brings to mind religious belief and it’s no accident that it has this echo too. As I wrote on 25 April:
What other country needs to ground support for itself in a quasi-religious formulation? If it all comes down to ‘believing’ in Israel as one ‘believes’ in Judaism, something has gone terribly wrong. It only confirms the fact that the confused, misplaced but widespread equation of Israel with Judaism – as if the former is by definition synonymous or interchangeable with the latter – has taken deep and dangerous hold on the psyche of those who make it their business to come to Israel’s defence no matter what it does. It seems to me that these people do not have have Israel’s true interests at heart.
There’s no disguising the fact that Naomi Chazan certainly implied, and possibly even clearly said, that if delegitimisation is occurring, Israel is responsible for it. (Others have already said this.) Its propensity to make enemies out of friends, its refusal to engage with the Arab Peace Plan, its refusal to enter into dialogue with the Goldstone mission, its growing disdain for freedom of speech and democratic procedures, its lamentable response to the Arab Spring, its condoning of racist orthodox rabbis – these developments, and many more like them, exemplify how Israel is undermining itself.
Naomi Chazan issued a wake-up call at the NIF event on 10 May at the New North London Synagogue. The only way to peace, justice and liberty for all, she said, is through a 2-state solution. And I would add that the only alternative is a repressive, undemocratic, exclusivist, single state: an Israel that has given up on the fundamental human rights that Chazan told us so passionately are enshrined in the country’s Declaration of Independence.
Brilliant article. Unfortunately the Anglo-Jewry establishment has merged with the right wing of the community and dissenting voices have all but disappeared. In time this will be seen as a tragic error. I may be wrong but have Masorti Judaism deliberately not signed up to this event, unlike the Orthodox, Reform and Liberal Movements?
Why does the auothor assume that Krikler and Wineman were looking for ways to balance or challenge Chazan? As he notes, UJIA’s president talks of being critical of Israel, so why would his Director be any different, and Wineman has a pretty dovish background and has welcomed Chazan to the Board of Deputies within the last 12 months. Perhaps they are not the right wing bogeymen that Mr Lerman likes to imagine they are.
Thanks for your comment Edward.
It was my impression that the 3 respondents were there to either challenge or balance, and from speaking to some NIF people afterwards, my impression was confirmed. They also told me that simply having the three respond helps NIF by showing that it’s in the Jewish mainstream and not some fringe organization. Frankly, I would not have thought that they had anything to prove in that regard.
But the main point I want to make in response to your comment is that I certainly do not regard Doug Krikler or Vivian Wineman as ‘right wing bogeymen’. I’m fully aware of Wineman’s Peace Now background and while I don’t know precisely what Krikler’s views are, I have always seen him as fundamentally a centrist, decent, professional Jewish civil servant. What I wrote about what they said was simply my impression on the night–an impression that was shared by a number of other people I spoke to afterwards. Personally, I think they were placed in an unnecessarily invidious position by having been asked to speak in the first place. They were on a hiding to nothing. The event would have been just fine with Jonathan Freedland questioning and more time for questions from the audience.