Time for the Diaspora to Step Up Its Involvement in Israel

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Pro-Israel Diaspora Jews at a demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in London, November 2012. Blind allegiance isn't going to help Israel.Credit: AP

I am moving back to London next month with my Israeli husband and two young children, after 13 years in Israel. I made aliyah in 2002 and have worked since then in Israel’s progressive social-change sector. I’m fairly ensconced in various worlds here: local, professional, ideological and personal.

So why am I leaving? Since last month’s election, my Facebook feed and media sources have been full of angst-ridden rhetoric for and against grabbing passports and calling it quits. Offline, almost everyone I know has shot me comments along the lines of, “You picked the right time to leave.” And so, with our departure imminent, I realize I’m caught in the cross fire of a debate that cuts to the heart of fundamental questions about Zionism, democracy and individual responsibility for the State of Israel’s fate.

I am not leaving because I despair over the state of things here, although I most certainly am in despair at the state of things in Israel. But I am stubbornly optimistic: as an ideologically driven liberal Zionist, I cannot give up on my vision for this country, or my place within it.

I am leaving because I was offered a wonderful work opportunity by the New Israel Fund’s London office – to build bridges between the world I come from in the United Kingdom and the world I have dedicated my professional and ideological life to in Israel.

But also, as my husband and I deliberated over the option of relocation, I began to realize that if I want to keep giving to the vision of Israel that I hold dear, I could benefit from some space, perspective and new energy. If I’m to be confident that I am contributing toward Israel’s future, it would be helpful to open my own kids’ eyes to some other ways of living; to equip them to challenge the dominant narratives and prejudices that they have already – at the tender ages of 2 and 5 – begun to be fed. And, especially since the election, working to engage more groups in Britain with Israeli forces for positive change is in itself an important contribution.

I know the U.K. Jewish community has other things on its mind as well as Israel, including a legitimate concern about the rise in anti-Semitism. And I know that research over the past few years has indicated that engagement with Israel is slipping as a priority for younger generations. There may be many reasons for this, but I am pretty sure that one of them is liberal-minded Jews’ sense of alienation from Israel’s rightward shift.

The result of this election, the tactics employed to achieve it (racism, isolationism, fearmongering) and the promises pledged since (to curb the power of the Supreme Court, for example), have created a state of emergency for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. However, it is broadly accepted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-ditch campaign tricks are not what cost the left the election; they merely enabled Likud to bleed over voters from parties to their right. The real reason for the left’s loss is the fact that it failed to articulate a positive vision strong enough to counter the politics of fear, or inclusive enough to diffuse the politics of identity.

The shock waves reverberating around Israel’s left have led many to a realization: we have to engage with communities that vote right, and with the concerns that guide them. Enough stewing in our comfort bubble – we have to roll up our sleeves, extend a hand and start talking with people who think “left” is a dirty word.

Israel’s bruised left camp is currently soul-searching. Several commentators have honed in on its neglect of Jewish identity as being one of the main reasons for the left’s inability to engage traditional and Mizrahi [Jews of Middle Eastern descent] voters. There is clearly an urgent need to break down the ferocious dichotomies of Israeli society and discourse, and for the left to engage with various communities’ legitimate concerns and aspirations in spheres other than just economic. This is perhaps the most important lesson of the election, and one of the most important aspects of the work to be done in its aftermath – on the ground, in communities, in the media and at senior levels.

I won’t be here over the next few years to help with that work, and I definitely feel sadness about that. But I will be somewhere where thousands of people who care deeply about the State of Israel and feel they have a stake in its future are watching developments closely, with dismay. And I believe that now, more than ever, the Diaspora has a key role to play.

Wonder-MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) spoke at the recent J Street conference about why U.S. Jews must not despair at this time, but, rather, must redouble their engagement with the progressive camp in Israel. It goes without saying that the call made so passionately by Shaffir goes out to all of us, everywhere. Firstly, because the task is so great and the situation one of such deep crisis. Secondly, because the field in Israel has become so zero-sum, positions so entrenched, that forging a way forward may not be so easily achievable without some fresh perspectives and different angles to help break the dichotomies.

“Things that you see from here, you don’t see from there,” goes the famous Israeli expression. And so, inevitably, the reverse must also be true. Things that you see from there – in the Diaspora – we don’t see from here in Israel. For our beloved homeland to move forward from this crisis point toward the potential we all hope for, it is going to need the active involvement of here, there and everywhere.

Kalela Lancaster is moving to the United Kingdom to take up the position of director of strategic engagement at the New Israel Fund’s London office. She formerly worked as a consultant to social-change organizations in Tel Aviv through Shatil.

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