Leading figures in progressive Zionism in the UK have warned of “grave challenges” in putting a left-of-centre case for Israel while there are so few Labour members of Knesset and the government was increasingly right-wing.
But, in discussion at the JLM conference on Sunday, Hannah Weisfeld, director of Yachad. Rabbi Lea Muhlstein, chair of Arzeinu, the Reform Zionist caucus at the World Zionist Organisation, and Adrian Cohen, chair of the London Jewish Forum and lay chair of Labour Friends of Israel, agreed that participation in movements such as the WZO gave progressive groups a voice which they needed to deploy.
Hannah Weisfeld told the 130 plus viewers that “the real challenge is the state of the state of Israel”, in which “a very right-wing government could ride roughshod” over progressive ideas “in favour of a narrow brand of right-wing politics”.
Because there were only three left-of-centre Knesset members, two of whom had joined the coalition government, she said it was often the only recourse for people to go through the courts or campaign in civil society.
Rabbi Muhlstein, who also leads Northwood Liberal Synagogue, confessed that there were times when, “looking at the Israeli political landscape, I want to weep”. But, she said, Britain was still much more connected to Israel than other diaspora countries, such as America, and she felt it was important for progressive movements to seek representation in global bodies such as the World Zionist Organisation “and make sure our voice is as strong as possible”.
There were differences of opinion about how Zionist viewpoints should be represented within Anglo-Jewish organisations, particularly the Board of Deputies.
Adrian Cohen spoke of “profound demographic changes” within the British Jewish community and suggested that it was “a huge error” on the part of both the Israeli left and the progressive left in the UK not to be reaching out to speak to the religious right, particularly the Charedi community. And he laid some of the blame for the split in left and right support at the door of Jeremy Corbyn, who, he said, “had sucked the oxygen out of progressive politics in the UK”.
Rabbi Muhlstein, alluding to a recent debate in the Board of Deputies about proposed Israeli annexation of the West Bank (support for which was defeated), said she would have no problem with the Board issuing a statement that reflected both a majority and a minority viewpoint. But Hannah Weisfeld warned that from Yachad’s experience of working with youth movements, there was “a divide between the religiously progressive, and the Orthodox youth movements — a divide which is growing and getting worse”.
The panel was moderated by Harrison Engler of Habonim-Dror, a co-sponsor of the day’s conference together with JLM and Labour Friends of Israel.
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