Our right to have a say

RABBI JAMES KENNARD

Two Jews, three opinions. We talk, we discuss and we debate. If it’s to do with Jewish life, we argue about it.

But today, Jews with any sense of connection to Israel are likely to argue with a passion about the policies of the Israeli government. There is no shortage of suitable topics; should Israel welcome refugees from Africa or is that someone else’s responsibility? To whom, precisely, does the Law of Return apply? Should the Israeli army disengage from the territories, and, if so, when? We work out at our dinner tables and coffee mornings what Netanyahu should do.  We argue the relative merits of Meretz and Labour in incessant blog posts.

The very fact that we have such questions is one aspect of the blessing that is the rebirth the State of Israel. For centuries, arguments about Jewish life extended only to those aspects of life over which the community had authority and in modern times that would have not have covered much more than schools, synagogues and restaurants. Now, with the re-creation of a country and a society which, although not run according to Jewish law, is intensely influenced by Jewish values and teaching, we can once again ask Jewish questions about war and peace, foreign and social policy, and search for Jewish answers.

But for an increasing section of Diaspora Jewry, having conversations with each other has ceased to be sufficient. They want their voice to be heard in the Israeli cabinet room and Prime Minister’s office. Being a Zionist, they say, should generate more than just a good feeling when we fly the flag. Affiliation with Israel should be rewarded with influence; overseas supporters should have a right to lobby for their beliefs.

There has even been a serious proposal for the Diaspora to be represented with a Knesset seat or two. Although the practicalities render such an idea absurd (just consider trying to agree as to who is qualified to vote!), the suggestion is a response to the demand from Jews outside Israel for avenues of involvement with the Israel political system.

After all, if we are called upon to give donations to Israeli causes, does not taxation deserve representation? And Diaspora Jews can claim to have a personal interest in Israeli policies. As Mick Davies, the Chairman of the UK equivalent of the UIA recently stated when defending his right to temper his support for Israel with criticism: “When they (in Israel) do good things it is good for me, when they do bad things, it’s bad for me”. Do we therefore not have a right to be heard from afar?

The short answer is “no”. Neither our donations nor our support gives us a claim to be considered as Israeli citizens, even in lower capacity. A donation is an act of charity, and not a transaction offering funds in exchange for influence. And, although it may be painful to admit, the contributions that we make to the UIA and to individual Israeli charities, whilst welcome and greatly appreciated, are a tiny fraction of what every resident of Israel contributes to the state through their taxes and their economic output. There can be no comparison between those who make a donation, and who build the state through their daily toil.

Davies is, in a sense, right to claim that we are affected by the actions of the Israeli government. It is true that after each barrage of invective from the chattering classes hurled whenever Israel exercises its right to defend itself, water cooler conversations with our non-Jewish colleagues may become a little more awkward. Dinner parties may become slightly more strained.

But those in Israel are affected in a somewhat different way. For them, the result of government decisions can cause not just discomfort, but the difference between life and death.

I hold strong views on Israel and the peace process, some “leftist” and some right-leaning. But I have a personal practice of not offering my opinions in the presence of Israeli residents, including my own family, unless invited to do so.

If, say, I were to argue for withdrawal from the territories, it would not be me who may have to suffer from the loss of security that might ensue. Conversely, even though I may wish for more roadblocks in the territories to prevent the movement of terrorists, I am secure in the knowledge that I would never be called upon to man them myself. What is theory in Melbourne is very real in Jerusalem.

Those who do not have to live with the consequences of their views have no right to demand a hearing from those who do.

Of course there is one way in which the Jews of the Dispora could acquire not just the right to be heard in Israel, but to vote, to lobby and even run for office – and it’s called Aliya.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College .