Living Zionism – the next chapter (The Jerusalem Post)

With the final flight of Ethiopian olim, a chapter has closed; the question is now, how to engage Diaspora Jews without an identifiable example of Zionism in action.

Last Ethiopian aliya flight lands in Israel, August 28, 2013

After three hours of aimlessly wandering around Ben Gurion airport on a vain hunt for a blanket to stave off the icy air conditioning, having eaten the paltry sandwich offered by EasyJet as compensation for the lengthy delay, and having exhausted all of that day’s newspapers, I was reduced to gazing at the announcement screen in the hope that my flight might suddenly be ready to take off.

The list of destinations I saw – the obvious, like London and New York, and the more obscure, Yerevan, Bucharest, Antalya, Amman, Seoul – reflect to an extent the Jewish and the Israeli story. They tell of where we have come from, where we remain, and where we still wish to explore. Not least the inclusion of Addis Ababa, which recalls one of the most notorious journeys in Israeli history.

Almost 30 years have passed since Operation Moses, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews were brought to the Jewish state in a daring mission. Operation Solomon continued the journey of the Beta Israel, and subsequently, after much wrangling and controversy, the government authorized the emigration of the Falash Mura, on the proviso that they would convert to Judaism once in Israel.

The Jewish Agency has now declared that second mission to have concluded, greeting planes landing last week as the “end of the journey.” It is a decision many argue is premature, given that there are still those in Ethiopia who claim a right to Israeli citizenship. Whether or not the termination of the program is justified, it brings to an end a story that has captured the imagination of Jews around the world and connected them with the earliest concept of Zionism, the positing of Israel as the realization of a dream.

Growing up in the Diaspora and involved in a Jewish youth movement, we learned about Israel in terms of its politics and its wars, but also in the context of stories of its creation against the odds and of brave pioneers seeking a new start. The story of the Ethiopian Jews was one of the most resonant realities to connect us to the lofty words of Herzl and his counterparts. In the miraculous emigration of a whole community, happening in our lifetime, we saw Israel’s journey.

For those too young to have campaigned for the Refuseniks, and for whom the kibbutz seemed like a historical anachronism rather than a socialist paradigm, supporting initiatives like the Ethiopian bar mitzva fund or volunteering in absorption centers offered a tangible and powerful way to engage with the country’s past and present.

With the final flight, a chapter has closed. The Ethiopian community still faces serious and well-documented challenges, but it is nowadays as established as any other in the melting pot, achieving in every walk of life, from politics to the arts, sport and science (and latterly, Miss Israel). The most recent arrivals will, it is to be hoped, follow suit.

So what now? For though there remain tiny outposts of Jews around the world who look to Israel as the Ethiopians did, or survive in inhospitable environs, it is hard to conceive of another comparable aliyah operation occurring in the future. Indeed, as positive as those operations were, we should hardly crave further cases of communities fleeing to Israel. The question is now, how to engage Diaspora Jews without an identifiable example of Zionism in action. After all, for the next generation, the miraculous airlift of the Beta Israel and the more complex journey of the Falash Mura will be as distant as any of Israel’s early struggles.

Some make the case that Israel can no longer offer such inspirational examples, comporting itself shamefully towards African asylum seekers and its minority citizens, or with the aggression shown by some haredim towards women. And indeed from a Diaspora vantage point, the intolerant rhetoric that characterizes too much debate in Israel is almost impossible to comprehend – yet Israelis are hardly homogenous in their views and there are countless individuals fighting to make a difference and live up to what the architects of independence promised.

Certainly, there is no call for a crass PR exercise that glosses over any unsavory realities to inspire Diaspora Jews; that Israel has acted heroically in one area should never be used to overlook the occasions when it falls short. Yet that should not negate the fact that there are still breakthroughs, still moments when you realize how young the country is and how far it has come. The UEFA U21 tournament in Israel; a small event in international sporting perhaps, but it would once have been unthinkable. On gay rights Israel remains a beacon in the Middle East; likewise in academia, science, technology, there are many heroes (as the Nobel Prize balance sheet proves repeatedly), even if they are not airlifting a population. Israel’s speed at offering aid after humanitarian crisis should not be forgotten; neither should the resilience of its people. And there are still miracles to hope for; most importantly the carving of a peace with the Palestinians that too often seems as improbable as the early visions of a Jewish homeland.

Diaspora Jews may have no dearth of issues to engage with, such is the strength of the BDS campaign, and they can and do engage with countless standalone campaigns, from publicizing Gilad Schalit’s plight to petitioning the IOC on a commemorative silence for the Munich victims. But for Jews outside Israel to care about the country – not as knee-jerk advocates who reject all criticism as antisemitism, but as supporters with an investment in a future that makes good on its lofty origins – there needs to be a connection with Israel’s wider story, a way to understand Zionism as more than a political slur.

As we move to a new year – Israel’s 65th Rosh Hashana – the challenge is for Israel to continue producing inspiring stories and for those of us in the Diaspora to continue telling them.

This piece originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post. Read the original here.


When politics doesn’t need poster children (Guardian)

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our era, has backed a boycott in protest over the policy of the present Israeli government towards the Palestinians. Hawking’s decision not to attend a conference hosted by Shimon Peres has been greeted with delight by supporters of the boycott campaign. What better way to bolster their argument than a lauded intellectual refusing to stand by in the face of injustice?

The efforts of those who want Israel to be shunned – whether in culture, sport, academia or politics – garner plenty of interest, but never so much as when a celebrity gets on board.

When Hebrew-speaking thespians were invited to the Globe theatre, a chorus including Emma Thompson publicly professed indignation. The debate about Israel hosting next month’s European under-21 football championship went far beyond the blogs following the intervention of Frédéric Kanouté.

Conversely, when Rihanna or Justin Bieber perform in Tel Aviv, they suddenly attract the unlikeliest of fans. Indeed, those against the boycott jumped for joy when it briefly – and incorrectly – seemed that Hawking had cancelled for health, rather than political, reasons.

It’s natural, if you support a cause strongly, to crow when a prominent individual who is listened to far more than the average openly backs your cause. For some – Roger Waters comes to mind – preoccupation with the Israeli-Palestinian situation goes further than a signature, but for many, I’d hazard, wading in one way or the other comes not after years of study of the Middle East.

The famous have as much right as anyone to talk politics and if a prominent individual wishes to back a boycott, or rage against it, he is free to do so. The problem is the activists who seize on them as poster children.

It’s disingenuous, investing one signature with the weight of an entire political approach, and implying that because of a person’s notoriety, their pronouncements are gospel instead of what they are – the views of someone no more or less informed.

Many causes need glitter to get a hearing. The Rohingya Muslims, for example: their plight rarely makes the front page. George Clooney brought Darfur to the world’s attention. You can say plenty about Gaza, but you cannot claim it is ignored by the mainstream media.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extraordinarily complex. It requires activists with a vested interest to focus on the facts, to aim for more than point-scoring, and consider the real questions – how to end the cycle of violence, for one, and how to educate people on both sides as to why two states is the answer – not which celebrity agrees with them.

What the Middle East desperately needs is dialogue, which is why I believe a boycott cannot offer a constructive approach. The discussion could well benefit from meaningful interventions from intellectuals like Hawking, but these must go beyond headline-grabbing.

This article originally appeared on the Guardian website. Read the original here

Yair Lapid is the kind of pro-peace politician the Middle East is crying out for (Independent)

I joked earlier that Yair Lapid is, essentially, the main character of Aaron Sorkin’s as-yet unwritten series about Israeli politics. By which I did not mean that he would inevitably find the key to the stalemate in the Middle East – as President Bartlet so memorably managed in The West Wing – but that he is attractive, charming, media savvy and media friendly (he is, of course, a former journalist), and that above all, he comes across as largely sincere in his beliefs.

As West Wing fans will know, Sorkin’s politicians tend to be the heroes, championing the right and good. If Lapid comes anywhere close to this, that surely is good news for Israel and for all those who want to see it thrive and build a peaceful, stable future with its neighbours.

On Tuesday Lapid’s Yesh Atid party claimed 19 seats, more than expected and enough to make it the second biggest player. In the run-up to the Israeli election, when Lapid’s chances of winning a substantial number of seats seemed dim, especially against the trajectory of the right-wing, uncompromisingly pro-settlement Naftali Bennet and his Jewish Home party, one of the questions was whether this untested politician could walk the walk quite as well as he could talk the talk.

Lapid is a smooth, modern politician in the Obama mould, able to make rousing speeches and engage with the everyday voter and their concerns. He is corruption-free, comes across as affable, and is well-known to voters by way of a regularly broadcast slot. And like Barack Obama, his perspective has been shaped by his personal story; he too published a memoir, Memories After My Death, telling the tale of his Hungarian immigrant father’s journey.

Israel, in common with most electorates that invest disproportionate faith in the abilities of one individual to transform the political landscape, has been disappointed before. It is not entirely surprising that after various well-intentioned dreamers ultimately failed to bring about real change, many Israelis turned instead to more pragmatic, expedient politicians like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet Lapid, with his commitment to working with both the most staunchly religious and the most ardently secular, and his desire to work not just for a two-state solution but for domestic progress, belongs in that first category. His victory speech – “I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month” – could have been written by Sorkin, or spoken by Obama.

He is an idealist – a clever, politically attuned one for sure, but he is not a career politician (although in true Israeli style, he is the son of one). Enjoying success and stability as a journalist, he did not have to enter the muddy waters of Israeli politics.

He has not been particularly vocal in terms of foreign policy – although he vowed last year not to join any government opposed to diplomatic negotiations on the peace process – but the consensus is that he is pro-peace, and the suggestion is that he is at least aware of international opinion and how Israel can damage itself with settlements or stubbornness.

That is not to say he is only a naïve dreamer; he is aware there is no perfect solution – “we’re not looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but for a divorce agreement we can live with” – but appears at least to believe an imperfect one is possible.

Perhaps Lapid is no different from the scores of other ambitious and self-serving politicians who have gone before him, flying in on an “outsider” tagline only to become as “insider” as the rest. Perhaps – and as yet it is unclear whether he will enter the coalition or become the main opposition player – all the hopes and aspirations shared on the campaign trail, from drafting the strictly Orthodox into army service to building a fairer economy, will disintegrate once the messy business of governing gets in the way.

Only time will tell. But, after months of scaremongering about a sharp rightward turn for Israel, it can only be positive that a moderate centrist who still believes in all that “hopey changey” stuff has emerged as kingmaker. For a country founded on the dreams of figures like Theodor Herzl, Rav Kook and David Ben Gurion, Lapid’s rise can only be a good thing for Israel and for the wider region.

To see the original and read the comments, click here.

My two weeks in writing

I started last week with an interview with up-and-coming band Haim, just named the BBC’s Sound of 2013 and set for stardom. The singers – three sisters – revealed their love of Streisand and told of how reporters often mispronounced their surname.

In more serious news, I did a special report on the efforts to stem sex trafficking in Israel, which have been a resounding success. Labour MP Frank Field and former Conservative MP Anthony Stee urged Britain to adopt many of the strategies that have been used so effectively there. This week I also commissioned a follow-up comment piece on what still needs to be done to challenge other forms of trafficking in Israel.

I reported on Labour pinpointing its key battleground constitencies for 2015, wrote about a controversial ban on non-Jewish names on the grave of an Orthodox man in Leeds, and spoke to Holocaust survivors ahead of the airing of a documentary by filmmaker Daisy Asquith. And, taking a look at the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I heard about a woman who has been donating free sheitels – wigs for Orthodox women used for modesty purposes – to those who lost almost everything.

This week I also reported on a fabulously gothic Victorian drama – the story of the only policeman ever to have been killed in his office, bludegoned to death by a suspect being questioned for stealing a roll of carpet – and the move to honour him with a plaque. I also recorded ElAl’s decision to add a large number of flights out of Luton, and wrote about a push to encourage more Jewish teachers to engage with unions.

My three weeks in writing

What with Christmas and new year, I’ve been very lax at updating this. But the past few weeks haven’t been entirely quiet, and the stories that I’ve worked on have included the PCC’s ruling on the Guardian cartoon about Gaza, and the death of the man believed to be the last surviving Briton to have fought Franco. I also delved into the fascinating world of medieval astrology and found out about astrolabes – devices use to study the cosmos – and the work being done to learn more about them.

I contributed a feature on a programme bringing teenagers from around Europe together to learn leadership skills, after meeting the group for an event at the House of Commons, and, staying with parliament, investigated how many Early Day Motions were instigated on the subject of Israel in the last year. The result: 21, at a cost of £6,000 to the taxpayer.

I indulged my inner West Wing fan by writing about Josh Malina’s unusual fundraising method, and covered the news that Francesca Segal’s novel The Innocents – which I reviewed last year, as you can read here – had won its category for the Costa Prize.

With the new year came the Honours List, which we trawled through in order to speak to as many recipients as we could find. Without fail, each one said something along the lines of not deserving it, but being delighted – humility that perhaps shows why they have reached the list in the first place. I also covered the remarkable project carried out by an artistic teenager, who sketched a drawing a day based on current events for the whole of 2012.

Meanwhile in comment, I wrote on how we must not lose sight of what Israel represents and what it should be striving for, and was delighted to feature academic Tony Klug on the essay page with a piece on the two-state solutions and intransigence among leaders.

Having interviewed him last year, my piece on stage and film legend Jack Garfein went in. He was a fascinating subject to interview and I thoroughly enjoyed my times speaking to him.

My two weeks in writing

Last week’s newspaper was mainly taken up by coverage of the fighting between Israel and Hamas, and each day was spent posting up-to-date reports and news on our website. In the paper, I reported on Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s response to the escalating fighting in the region, which many criticised for drawing on long-established antisemitic tropes.

In more light-hearted news, I rounded-up the annual Jewish Film Festival, which it’s director said had been the best year yet, and spoke to a man whose long-lost great-uncle had been a Hollywood filmmaker in the era of the silent picture.

In Comment, I was delighted to commission Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, to look at how other countries than Israel have responded to similar threats on their doorsteps. And I wrote a piece sharing my thoughts and opinions on the situation in Israel, arguing that while there are strong emotions on either side, balance is important.

“Mothers on both sides are seeing their children caught up in a war they did not seek. Recognising that does not draw a moral equivalence between the two sides, or absolve Hamas of responsibility for actions that triggered another devastating battle.

We can highlight where the media has fallen short and we can question a paper for printing a cartoon reproducing established antisemitic tropes, without rejecting every uncomfortable report. We can stand up for Israel and make the case for its right to protect its people – and still acknowledge the tragedy of war. For Israel’s sake, we must.”

As the week turned into the next, I reported on a Lords debate about religion, in which the Chief Rabbi suggested that faith could “act as a counter voice to the siren song of a culture that sometimes seems to value self over others”.JC-Nov30

I also interviewed advertising star Nicola Mendelsohn, about her recent appointment as chair of the Creative Industries Council and found out why she believes the arts are so important to this country.

Continuing on the theme of culture, I reported on the plans to open an indoor Jacobean theatre beside Shakespeare’s Globe, and followed up on Beth Alexander’s ongoing campaign for custody of her two young sons in Vienna. And in what I hope is the last installment of my coverage of Batsheva’s UK tour, I spoke to Dance Consortium about why it has been one of their most successful tours yet.

My two weeks in writing

I’ve been abroad for a week, despite the best efforts of a superstorm to stop my flight from reaching the other side of the Atlantic. While I was in New York, I briefly covered the view on the street ahead of the presidential election, finding mainly that voters were somewhat disillusioned with Obama but not wildly keen on Romney either. In keeping with the spirit of the election, I also wrote a piece for Optima ahead of the vote, assessing the position of First Ladies in US political culture.

Elsewhere, I wrote about a shoe designer who truly is deserving of the label “fabulous” for his creations that resemble just about anything – anything, that is, except for shoes themselves. My personal favourite? The coffee cup stilettos; surely worth getting up and out for.

I reported on the protests against the Batsheva ensemble as the Israeli dancers began their national tour, and covered laughable comments from Lib Dem MP Sir Bob Russell, who professed his desire to see Israeli medicines labelled. But, he explained, he had no problem using them to make himself better, if need be. A coherent approach, that one.

And in an enjoyable interview with Dr Giles Fraser, the reverend told me about his agonising efforts to learn the Hebrew language; a skill I have not yet mastered to a level beyond very basic.