British Gatekeepers of Zionism Have Shut the Door on Liberal Zionists

Why did the UK umbrella Zionist organization decide to exclude Yachad, a pro-Israel pro-peace movement, and how does that cultivate open, public debate in the Diaspora regarding what defines Zionism in the 21st century?

Hannah Weisfeld
Hannah Weisfeld
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Hannah Weisfeld
Hannah Weisfeld

Who are the gatekeepers of Zionist discourse within the UK Jewish community? The dust is only now beginning to settle on a major division that has emerged within Anglo Jewry over just this issue. Two weeks ago, the Zionist Federation, which describes itself as the "umbrella organization for the Zionist movement in the United Kingdom", and has over 120 member organizations and over 50,000 affiliated members, rejected the application of Yachad, the British Jewish community’s pro-Israel pro-peace movement, to become an affiliated member.

Haaretz as well as the front pages of the Jewish press in the UK reported the story, with the leading community newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, claiming that "Zionist turns on Zionist in 'anti-Israel' attack". But headlines and front pages aside, the ZF's decision highlighted the very real need for Jewish communities worldwide to cultivate a much more open and public conversation regarding who is entitled to define Zionism and its aspirations in 2013 and onwards.

The Zionist Federation originally stated that there were ‘no grounds’ for its rejection of Yachad. Later it suggested that the organization had not shown itself to be supportive enough of Israel, citing Yachad's support for the upgrade of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, and arranging visits to East Jerusalem and Hebron as proof of this.

When the Zionist Federation was founded in 1899, its role was to campaign for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people. Over a hundred years later, and statehood achieved, that role has clearly changed. Today, how does the ZF decide which Zionist groups should enjoy affiliation and a place under its umbrella? According to the ZF's constitution, the requirement is that affiliated organisations adhere to the World Zionist Organisation’s Jerusalem Program, which sets out a six-point platform defining Zionist activity.

It would be no surprise if the average reader was not familiar with this 2004 document, which can be read online here. It's importance, though, punches far above its fame, as it constitutes the backbone of the World Zionist Organisation, of which the Zionist Federation is a member.

Two out of the program's six points - those that refer to aliyah and settling the land of Israel – are put into action just as much by Yachad as by any of the individual members of the ZF council as well as members of affiliated groups. That is to say, all have chosen to make our lives in the UK, and few affiliated groups actively encourage their members to relocate to Israel.

So that leaves the remaining four points which, broadly speaking, fall under the categories of:

"Believing in the importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish people;
Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state;
Ensuring the future of the Jewish people through education;
Representing the national interests of the Jewish people."

Yachad has in fact endorsed the Jerusalem Program but was told - through the pages of the UK Jewish press - that the organization did not in actual fact "comply with it."

But what is it exactly about supporting an upgrade of Palestine’s status at the United Nations to a non-member observer status, and organizing trips to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that annuls Yachad's compliance with the Jerusalem Program?

Yachad believes that Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state is now at significant risk. It is precisely because Yachad’s supporters are Jews who care desperately about the future of Israel that they are unashamedly vocal about the urgent necessity to end the occupation and to create a Palestinian state, as the only means of ensuring the longevity of the Jewish homeland.

On any reading, this is exactly what the Jerusalem program asks: To safeguard Israel’s future, and to protect its character as both Jewish and democratic. So when Yachad supports the UN vote that upgraded Palestine to non-member state status, on the basis that it could create a "renewed sense of urgency within the international community to resolve the conflict", why does that stance signal a lack of adherence to the Jerusalem Program?

Or when Yachad conducts tours of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to give British Jews a broader understanding of the conflict, hoping that this will in turn ignite a desire to be more vocal about the urgency of a political resolution, this is fully within the letter and spirit of the Jerusalem program: Ensuring the future of the Jewish people and Israel through education.

Accusations have been levelled at the motivations of the people ‘behind’ Yachad. But 'behind', or rather, involved, in Yachad, as board members and staff, are former IDF veteranss, major communal philanthropists, active members of synagogues, former staff of the UK's pro-Israel media relations organization BICOM, and graduates of Zionist youth movements. It would take a significant effort to accuse this assembly of having anything other than having the best interests of the Jewish people and the State of Israel at heart.

The real issue at the heart of this debate is not really compliance with the Jerusalem program, which is clearly open to different interpretations. Rather, the question is: What defines the work of Zionism and its supporters in the 21st century? At Yachad's core is the notion that as previous generations were tasked with the establishment of the State of Israel, it is the task of this generation to consolidate the State by ending the occupation. Only through ending the occupation can the Jewish people truly ‘strengthen…Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character’ as the Jerusalem program itself asks of us.

That means that supporters of Yachad are, at times, critical of Israeli government policies. But this is only part of a spectrum of activities we are involved in, alongside debating nefarious critics of Israel in public settings, organizing Israel Independence Day events, and calling out anti-Semitism when it rears its ugly head in the context of Israel.

If, because of our specifically targeted criticism, Yachad is precluded from affiliating to the Zionist Federation, the "umbrella organisation for the Zionist movement in the United Kingdom" seems to be a slogan no longer in fair use.

Hannah Weisfeld is a founder and the director of Yachad, the pro-Israel pro-peace movement in the UK. She previously managed a wide range of international social justice campaigns.

An Israeli flag.Credit: AP

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