By Vivian Wineman, President, Board of Deputies
Over recent months, the British Jewish community has watched the twists and turns of the latest round of peace talks with a mixture of hope and frustration.
While it might be premature to pronounce the peace process dead, it is certainly not in rude health. As such, this seems the right moment to consider how we as British Jews best express our hopes for a better future in the Middle East.
In recent years, pro-Israel organisations have increasingly poured resources into fighting the campaign to delegitimise Israel and boycott its products and citizens, and we must continue to do so.
The movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) poses a serious threat to Israel and its people. We must make the point that boycotts never assist in bringing parties together. Moreover, a denial of the right of a state even to exist is hardly a basis to make a peace with her.
However, there are clear problems with a posture that defines our relationship with Israel in terms of our opponents’ worst criticisms. As it stands, those who wish to delegitimise Israel are only a small part of the critical voice, and have limited influence on the mainstream. The growing trade relationship between the UK and Israel – and the principled opposition of all the main political parties to BDS – shows that the boycotters are failing.
Over-focusing resources here, and making the primary focus of our activity on Israel reactive, means that we are always on the defensive – rather than setting a positive agenda. But a negative agenda is also bad for our identity as Jews and Zionists. We are informed by our enemies rather than by our values.
This is particularly difficult in the context of an issue which is divisive in UK society and even in the British Jewish community itself. This poses a serious challenge to the community: How can we advance an effective and positive agenda on Israel, while holding the consensus of the community?
For us, the answer is that we must put more emphasis on the things we believe in, rather than those we oppose. We believe that the pursuit of the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence – peace, security, prosperity and equality – can be both a unifying force within the UK Jewish community and within wider UK society. What does this mean in practical terms?
Being a champion for peace could mean promoting reconciliation and conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians. In the UK, this could involve highlighting projects that model the peace to which British Jews, Israelis and Palestinians aspire.
We should also continue to give support to the political leadership in Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make the difficult concessions necessary for a lasting solution. Promoting regional security means exposing the threats that Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas pose not just to Israel but also to the UK, the Middle East and the entire international community.
Now Hamas is joining the Palestinian Authority, this task only becomes more urgent as we consider whether an organisation that promotes terrorism, denies Israel’s right to exist, and has an antisemitic diatribe for a charter, can be a partner for peace.
Building a future of prosperity for all means promoting closer trade and cultural links between the UK and Israel, including ties with the Palestinians that help to promote peace. We should look to support trade deals at a UK and EU level, from hi-tec to pharmaceuticals to the arts which will benefit all.
Advancing equality means promoting fairness and good relations within Israeli society itself, between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, men and women, rich and poor. In this regard, the Board of Deputies is proud to be one of the founder members of the UK Task Forces on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel.
In the coming months, we will be starting a conversation inside the Jewish community, working with our communal partners, wider UK civil society and government stakeholders, to see how we can best effect the changes we believe in: peace, security, prosperity and equality for Israelis, Palestinians and the wider Middle East.
We look forward to hearing your views.