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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Israeli democracy in danger, NIF panel hears

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The panel, from left, Janice Stein, Talia Sasson, moderator Shira Herzog and Peter Beinart [Kuba Rekret photo]

TORONTO — Canada’s Jewish community must speak out to ensure Israel continues to be a Jewish democratic country, said Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism.

 “The miracle of Israel’s creation is today imperilled by Israel’s control of the West Bank,” he said at the New Israel Fund of Canada’s second annual symposium on Oct 21. 

 “This is not to say that Jews should not be able to live in the West Bank… The problem is that today, contrary to the vision of Israel’s founders, citizenship is ethnically based,” added Beinart, a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.

The symposium, titled Engaging with Israel Today: Conversations We Need to Have, led by interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, was designed to have an open discussion about Israel’s policies, “even if those conversations are difficult,” said NIF Canada executive director Orit Sarfaty. “You can talk critically about Israel in support of Israel.”

Established 30 years ago, NIF Canada supports grassroots projects in Israel that strengthen human and civil rights, promote religious pluralism, reduce economic inequality and integrate immigrants and Arabs into Israeli society. Since its establishment, it has funded more than 800 projects.

The sold-out event hosted some 500 people in Toronto to hear talks from author Peter Beinart; NIF board member Talia Sasson, who worked for 25 years in Israel’s State Attorney’s office, and Janice Gross Stein, professor of conflict management and director of the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, followed be a panel discussion with all three speakers. 

Sarfaty, who joined NIFC at the beginning of October, was born in Israel but said that after living for many years as a Toronto Jew, she understands that sometimes criticism of Israel is not always accepted.

“This is a culture that hasn’t traditionally embraced difficult conversations, but in the overwhelming support and demand [for the symposium], we had a 100-person waiting list. People are desperately wanting to have these conversations,” she said.

She wasn’t the only one who recognized that the local Jewish community could be touchy about criticism of Israel.

“One thing that struck me is that it’s actually easier to have this conversation in Israel than on Bathurst Street,” Rae said.

And if the Jewish community does not allow these conversations to happen, some Jews will become isolated from the community, Beinart argues.

“Israel’s next crisis may come not with the Palestinians or Iran but with young American Jews,” says the front page of Beinart’s website. “The refusal of many Jewish organizations to defend democracy in the Jewish state is alienating many young liberal Jews from Zionism itself.”

While Beinart said that Palestinians bear significant blame for the failure to achieve a two-state solution, he said Israel’s policies – its occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians who live there – are only “pushing Palestinians in the direction we don’t want them to go.”

And North American Jewish leaders can no longer afford to be silent, he said.

“The real reason for the silence goes deeper – the only kind of threat that our leaders feel comfortable discussing are threats from the outside, like Iran and Hezbollah,” Beinart told the crowd. “There’s an unwillingness to recognize that today, some of our challenges come not from our weaknesses but from our power.”

Israel suffers from other internal threats as well, Stein argued. “Unemployed young men who see no future for themselves is the biggest security threat in the Middle East,” she said.

While the symposium drew a large, mostly older crowd, not all Jewish organizations support the New Israel Fund and NIF Canada, which is vocal in its opposition to Israeli settlements and inequalities between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The NIF has been criticized by other groups that claim it funds organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

But Sarfaty clarified that her group has “firm guidelines, and will not fund projects with organizations that have explicit anti-Zionist policies, including BDS.”

She added: “We’re staunchly against BDS, and we have withdrawn funding because of the difference in opinion there.”

Beinart said he’s concerned for the future if current trends he sees aren’t reversed.

“The conversations I worry about are the ones I may have one day with my six-year-old son and my four-year-old daughter if we let the dream of a democratic Jewish state die on our watch,” Beinart said. “I want them to put up, one day, a flag of a democratic Jewish state in their own children’s room.”

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