Leading Israeli academic, peace activist and president of the New Israel Fund (NIF), Naomi Chazan, was in the UK earlier this month, talking to the Jewish community about her hopes and fears for Israel’s democracy. We’ve all heard the statement that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It may not be perfect (where is?), but it is true. The citizens of Egypt, Jordan, Gaza, Syria, Iran and elsewhere would all benefit from a good dose of democracy – particularly women, Christians, gay men and women, journalists and political dissidents.
Speaking earlier this month to a capacity crowd at Moishe House, a post-denominational Jewish community in west London, Chazan outlined the challenges to Israel’s democracy and what her organisation is doing about it. These reached a peak earlier this year with a well-funded smear campaign against NIF by right-wing pressure group, Im Tirtzu, which attempted to vilify Chazan and NIF as enemies of the state.
“Is there a problem [with Israel’s democracy]? Absolutely yes. Is there a hope? Equally so,” she said.
For Chazan, democracy is fundamental to the existence and success of Israel as a Jewish state:
“Israel’s democracy is Israel’s soul. Without Israel’s democracy, there will be no Israel. That is because Israel’s raison d’etre, as embodied in its Declaration of Independence, will no longer exist. The source of Israel’s strength is its democracy.”
Chazan explained how the NIF has been “thrust to the centre” of guarding Israel’s democracy, a role which she sees as crucial to upholding the Zionist dream embodied by the state’s founding fathers: “Jews have the right to self-determination in two senses,” she said. “Collective self-determination, in terms of the right to create a state for the Jews; and individual self-determination, through creating a society which grants individual liberties and social justice to all of its citizens regardless of race, religion or gender.”
She also took a swipe at anti-Zionists and boycotters, many of whom she regularly meets in academic circles, who want to see Israel relegated to the dustbin of history:“I have nothing in common with people who tell me that I have no right to exist. We need to distinguish between the deniers and deligitimisers – and dissenters.”
At a time when Israel is more politically isolated and vilified than ever before and the Islamist extremists of Hamas and Hezbollah continue to stockpile weapons to use against Israeli civilians, the work of peace and civil rights movements like NIF is more vital than ever. Israelis who want to walk the path of moderation have never had it so tough. In Chazan’s words, they are “stuck between those who don’t want to hear it and those who don’t want them to exist.” If, like me, you feel confused and frustrated about how to respond to recent events in the Middle East, then supporting the New Israel Fund is a good place to start.