New Israel Fund panel confronts divisions within Israel and within Canada’s Jewish community

Divisions within the Canadian Jewish community are the worst Jonathan Kay has seen in his career. The current editor of The Walrus and former columnist for the National Post spoke at the 2015 Shira Herzog symposium, hosted annually by the New Israel Fund of Canada.

Along with Kay, the NIFC brought together a panel including Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Ha’aretz, the largest circulation liberal newspaper in Israel and Ronit Heyd, Executive Director of Shatil, the NIFC-sponsored Initiative for Social Change that promotes democracy, pluralism and social justice in Israel.

They spoke before a full house at the Capitol Event Theatre in Toronto on September 8.

Under the theme of “The Backstory: Behind What You Know About Israel”, the panel addressed the issues of racism, inequality, religious pluralism and women’s rights in Israel and how these issues have an impact on the economic, social and political life of Israelis.

Ronit Heyd analyzed many examples of legal and institutional discrimination and widely-held racist views about Israeli Arabs and Ethiopian and North Africa Jews that result in various degrees of inequality among these groups.

Aluf Benn said that the efforts of some orthodox women to address women’s issues within the Orthodox community would eventually have profound effects for the entire country. But he noted that Women of the Wall, a feminist initiative to secure women the right to pray at the Western Wall, is an issue more interesting to the Diaspora than in Israel. The issue is considered marginal within the Orthodox community and does not resonate with secular Israelis who are more interested in freedom “from” religion than freedom “to” practice religion.

Kay bemoaned the lack of civility within the Canadian Jewish community on how best to express support for Israel. Some members of the Canadian Jewish community insist that the only way to support Israel is by supporting the Conservative party in the federal election. Supporting any other party, they maintain, is anti-Israel. This position introduces political divisions among Israel’s supporters despite the fact that support for Israel has never been stronger in all three federal parties.

In response to questions from the audience, Hedt emphasized that Canadian Jews, as friends and supporters of Israel, not only have the right but the responsibility to support Israelis and Israeli organizations who question actions that are not in Israel’s best long-term interest.

JSpaceCanada supports that perspective unreservedly. In our view, it is legitimate to criticize Israel when it strays from its original Zionist ideals, just as it is fair to criticize any other country in the world. Israel should be held to the same standard as any other nation and fair criticism of Israel involves commenting on specific actions of the Israeli government. Fair criticism of Israel in no way implies that Israel does not have a right to exist or defend itself.

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