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More than a shocking discourtesy
Britain's Jewish leaders are helping destroy essential Jewish unity
Last week, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Rishi Sunak in Downing Street. The visit was important. Netanyahu sought the UK’s support to prevent an increasingly dangerous Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability.
The Board of Deputies made little mention of his visit. On its website, the visit was almost airbrushed out of last week’s events altogether.
You don’t have to agree with Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, nor with anything that he does, to be appalled by the Board’s behaviour.
Giving him the cold shoulder was not only a shocking discourtesy. It not only diminished his aim to gain urgent backing against Iran. It not only ignored a mission of deep importance to the defence of Israel against an unconscionable threat.
By treating Israel’s democratic prime minister as a pariah — as if he were a tyrant or dictator — it also revealed that the Board has all the acumen of a left-wing agitprop placard.
By contrast, Gary Mond, chairman of the National Jewish Assembly, behaved like the grown-up in the room.
The Assembly, he said, was “delighted” to welcome Netanyahu. The talks were of paramount importance to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power and to promote UK-Israel trade.
The judicial reforms and the Israeli demonstrations against them were “issues for the Israeli government and Israeli citizens to resolve” and it wasn’t the UK’s place to interfere.
The Board’s behaviour also makes a mockery of the Jewish leadership’s professed concern that certain Israeli politicians promote hatred and division. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, wrote pointedly in the JC on the eve of Netanyahu’s visit that Jewish unity was a “sacred responsibility — for politicians, leaders, activists” and everyone else. For the Board, however, Jewish unity somehow excludes Netanyahu.
The spectre of community disunity rightly makes Jews shudder. History tells us that when we turn on each other, we open the way for our enemies to destroy us.
In Israel, profound divisions have been on distressing display in three months of mass protests.
Fuelling the hysteria has been secular Israelis’ deep fear of a government-run by Orthodox Jews.
A secular demonstrator contemptuously threw a wad of shekel notes at a group of dancing Charedim. Elsewhere, protesters with faces convulsed in hatred screamed abuse at Orthodox Jews leaving a synagogue.
Demonstrators marched through ultra-orthodox Bnei Brak in what looked like a deliberate provocation — only to be met with cakes and drinks. One protester was so moved by the residents singing “shalom aleichem” (welcome) that he removed his motorcycle helmet and wept.
Israelis are distraught at the cultural chasm that has opened up. Families and friends have fallen out badly in a collision of two diametrically opposed world views.
One side, fixated on the ultras in the coalition, blames Netanyahu for apparently opening the way to dictatorship and an Iran-style theocracy. They point as proof to Israel’s “heroes”, the elite military pilots who said they would refuse to serve an “undemocratic” government if the reforms passed.
The other side perceives a mob using disruption, violence and intimidation to hold the country hostage to force the democratically-elected government to do what the mob demands. This side views Netanyahu’s pausing the reforms as a surrender to that mob, and the pilots who threatened not to serve are seen as having crossed the ultimate red line and unthinkably undermined Israel in the existential struggle against its mortal foes.
I hold the latter view. However, fears about extremists in the government and the absence of political checks and balances are valid ones.
The essence of the problem is Israel’s dysfunctional political system. Instead of unity, it promotes division. Prime ministers are held to ransom by tiny parties in the coalition.
The Knesset is a rubber stamp for the government. Members of Knesset have no British-style constituencies to pressure them to hold the government’s feet to the fire. There is no second parliamentary chamber to act as a brake.
This is why the protesters see the Supreme Court as the only check on government overreach. They refuse to accept that this is itself profoundly anti-democratic, having replaced the rule of law with rule by politicised lawyers.
Israel’s dysfunctional system has released the demon of “post-democracy” that has escaped throughout the west. This holds that parliamentary representation has failed and street protest is a more legitimate form of democracy. It’s not; it’s a revolutionary doctrine that relies on force and empowers the strong against the weak.
Social cohesion is essential for Israel’s survival. For the past three months, Israel’s enemies have gleefully watched it tear itself apart. They have gloated as Israel’s elite forces turned mutinous. They have rejoiced as the prime minister once famed for his political skills has been laid low by a mob.
Israel has been weakened when it urgently needs to be strong. And all those who have been telling the world that Israel is about to stop being a democracy, and that its prime minister is a putative dictator who should become a political pariah, have unforgivably helped empower the enemies of the Jewish people.
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