When it comes to the standing up for Israel, Vladimir Sloutsker has often done things the hard way. As a senator in Russia in the 2000s, the businessman-turned-politician publicly clashed with the then foreign minister over the refusal to proscribe Hamas as a terrorist group.
“Mine was not a rare voice,” the former Russian Jewish Congress chief recalls “It was probably the only voice in the Senate. But it would have been strange for me not to speak up for Israel. I always felt very Jewish in Soviet times. There was no shortage of reminders of who I was including the fact only some universities would accept me.”
But for the 61-year-old – who holds a PhD in engineering and economics – and his fellow Russian Jews, watching Israel’s growth from afar was a source of pride in trying times. The country’s triumph in the 1967 War “changed everything. It generated respect and I remember clearly the pride we felt for our state and our nation”. Still, moving to Israel was a step too far. “My father was very well known nationally in civil engineering and my mum worked in a tax office,” he told the Jewish News. “If I would have emigrated they would suffer. So I developed myself inside the system.”
It was only in 2011 that he chose to make aliyah and almost immediately set up the Israeli-Jewish Congress along with leading figures including former Mossad chief Danny Yotam. Its primary aim is to be an “bridge” between Jewish communities in Europe and Israeli government ministries and officials – something which Sloutsker sees as more urgent than ever in an age of rising anti-Semitism and delegitimisation of the Jewish state.
“It was a strange situation when Israel was a member of many non-governmental organisations – including sports federations – but there was no dedicated interface between European Jewish communities and Israeli bodies,” he said. “We sought to be their address in Israel.” In 2013, IJC organised a ground breaking trilateral dialogue bringing together American and European Jewish leaders and Israeli officials and has also organised for young Israelis to support their European counterparts as part of its young ambassadors’ programme. Underpinning everything is Sloutsker’s passionate belief that far more needs to bring about unity: both between Jews worldwide and between the diaspora and Israel.
He is clear that any vision of all Jews living in Israel is “impractical” but equally that Jews would start to hide their identity if Israel didn’t exist. There is therefore a mutual responsibility to build a partnership or as he puts it: “One Israel for all the Jews and all Jews for one Israel.”
To back up the theory with practical steps, he has even campaigned for a change in Israel’s citizenship laws to enable anyone who can prove Jewish ancestry to become citizens. “Israel is central to Jewish identity. Anyone who can show a close relationship to someone with British nationality is granted British citizenship,” he points out. “If Jews want to become Israeli citizens, regardless of where they are living, they should to be granted citizenship. Whoever carries the passport, as I do, will feel pride.” He describes statistics showing young people feeling less connected to Israel than their parents and grandparents as a source of “great upset” – a trend he blames on a lack of communication between Israel and the diaspora.
More joined up thinking among Jewish communities, he says, would also help in the fight against anti-Semitism including from Muslims. “Not only should local communities and governments react to attacks but if something happens in the UK, European and world communities must react. Speak out, organise a rally.”
Groups of Jewish lawyers and journalists should also work together more on a global level, the Moscow-born leader adds, repeating his mantra: “One for all, all for one.”
You don’t have to spend time with Sloutsker to understand that not much trumps defending Israel in his list of priorities – but his family is one. His daughter’s schooling has recently brought him to live in the UK. But he’s quick to point out its business as usual for the IJC where he remains president.
While British Jewry was more autonomous than other European communities, he had been “impressed” by what he has seen first-hand. “It’s one of the best organised communities in the world. I like the spirit. The community is strong and integrated in every part of life”.
Sloutsker recently addressed the Balfour Centenary Conference, organised by the Jewish News and BICOM in Parliament, where he expressed hopes that Brexit would provide an opportunity for ever stronger trade and intelligence ties to fight terror. He also attended this month’s annual CST dinner to hear Home Secretary Amber Rudd. It was, he said, one of the strongest messages of support he had heard from any government minister anywhere. “I would be very happy if all governments in the world took a similar position,” he said. But describing rising Jew-hatred as “one of the greatest threats both to Jewish life and the very future of the EU enterprise”, he warned that no community is immune. “We must therefore be vigorous and unrelenting in the fight against anti-Semitism in all its forms, including modern-day manifestations.”
Asked about calls to ban Hezbollah in its entirety – so far resisted by the UK – he doesn’t mince his words: “That’s the simplest question you’ve asked all hour,” he says. “It’s a crystal clear terror organisation and every consequence of this definition must follow. There’s no separation between the political and military. Militaries are the hands and politicians are the head.” He also makes no secret of his concerns about Her Majesty’s Opposition. Jeremy Corbyn’s history positions, he insists, are “clear. His contacts and speeches are worrying many of my friends, Jewish and not”.
Back to Israel and he describes the decision to recognise Jerusalem as her capital as “a simple recognition of reality” and highlights the fact the state is “powerful, respected, a member of the international community equal to all others” as a source of greatest pride.
And the most pressing issue for the country to address ahead of her 70th birthday? “The division of society,” he says without hesitation. “This is the biggest threat. In America there is a very clear information policy directed to overcome racial, national and religious conflict. Turn on any police movie and who are the main heroes? Representatives of every race and religion cooperating with each other. Without such a wise policy we’d probably see an even more divided society. It’s already gone through serious racial stresses and come out better.
“Israel has to follow this way and formulate new steps across entertainment, education, communications to explain existing policy.” He remains confident that Israel will continue to thrive as a “strong, proud Jewish State”.