The Jewish Community and Beyond – The New Israel Fund

Jewish culture By Clive Sheldon 22nd Sep 2015

How often does your Masorti community run activities about Israel? Not that often, I suspect. Talking about Israel in Masorti communities has become harder and harder. Views are increasingly polarised amongst those who care and think deeply about Israel, and it is often thought to be better to leave the subject alone than to engage with the issues. For many others, particularly younger members of our congregations, the connection with Israel just isn’t there. Many see Israel as a wealthy country, capable of taking care of itself, whose political leaders seem to speak a different language to them on issues of importance to them: liberalism, democracy and pluralism. At the same time, Jewish life in England is strong and healthy, and the ‘need’ for Israel to fill some gap in their Jewish identity, or as some kind of safe haven, is simply not felt. We can build ‘Jerusalem’ here in Finchley, or Stoke Newington. Why bother with a country hundreds of miles away?

For me, the removal of Israel from our regular discourse is more than just a shame. We have so much to learn from Israel, but also so much to contribute. I don’t think that we should disengage from debate just because the issues are hard, and that there are differences of opinion. We need to learn to tolerate one another, and respect the fact that others will have different experiences and viewpoints. Isn’t that the Masorti way?

I also think that there are many ways to get the younger generation to engage with Israel. One way is to educate them about, and connect them with, the large numbers of like-minded individuals and groups working to build a liberal, democratic and pluralistic future in Israel. The organisation of which I am now Chair – the New Israel Fund (NIF) – raises funds to support hundreds of such groups (large and small). NIF grantees are dedicated to building a strong civil society in Israel; an Israel which is committed to the founding principles of the State, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

That Declaration, announced by David Ben Gurion as the British Mandate was about to expire in May 1948, was a clarion call for the building of a just society. Who can disagree with the simple but powerful statement that the State of Israel will ‘foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will ensure equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.’

The NIF supports grantees working in each of the spaces reflected in the Declaration. It provides them with financing, as well as leadership training and advice. It seems invidious to highlight just a few of the NIF’s grantees, but it is not possible to describe them all in this piece.

Probably the most high profile grantee is the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). ACRI fights for justice for all of Israel’s communities, and takes precedent setting cases to Israel’s Supreme Court. ACRI’s work is not confined, as some might think, to the valuable work of advancing the civil rights of Israel’s Arab communities. Last month, ACRI sought to protect the rights of Jerusalem’s Ultra-Orthodox community. There had been reports of profiling against Haredi residents attending a public demonstration. ACRI contacted the Jerusalem police commander, arguing that the use of profiling encourages a negative social stigma against the Haredim and places them in a humiliating and insulting position that ignores their right to dignity and equality.

NIF has plenty of grantees that seek to advance the cause of pluralism. It funds a project established by Israel’s growing Masorti movement — Al Mishmar HaKnesset-Jewish Pluralism Watch – which aims to hold Israeli politicians to account on their record of dealing with issues related to religious freedom. NIF supports Memizrach Shemesh, a Beit Midrash and Centre for Jewish Social Activism and Leadership. This group aims to cultivate leaders and train activists who are dedicated to Jewish values, especially those rooted in the Sephardi and Mizrachi traditions.

On a very topical note, grantees of the NIF work with refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking within Israel. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants monitors conditions in Israel’s detention centres, meets with detainees and provides them with legal support. As Europe struggles to work out the appropriate response to the huge influx of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries, we mustn’t forget how important it is for Israel to address similar issues of its own with dignity and compassion, faithful to the biblical message that ‘we were strangers in a strange land’.

The work that NIF does is rooted in Jewish values. It is also work that could, I believe, help to energise a new generation of British Jews and inspire them to build links with Israel, and like-minded Israelis. Showcasing some of the NIF’s grantees in your Masorti community could also be a non-controversial way of putting Israel activities back on your synagogue’s agenda. The work of the NIF is deeply Zionist. What, I ask, rhetorically could be more Zionist than trying to live up to the fine words of the Declaration of Independence?

Clive Sheldon is a member of NNLS, and a former Co-Chair of Masorti Judaism. He is currently Chair of the New Israel Fund. In his spare time he is a Queen’s Counsel, specialising in employment and public law.

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