Israel and diaspora woes

Israel and diaspora woes

By Jenni Frazer for Jewish News March 6 2019

The former Labour MP, Joan Ryan, has described the possibility of Lord Falconer taking a role in combatting antisemitism in the Labour Party as “fool’s gold — I don’t think the problem can be resolved in the way it’s been approached”.

Ms Ryan was making her first public appearance in front of the Jewish community since stepping down from Labour two weeks ago to become a member of the new Independent Group in Parliament. Though her role on Tuesday night was to moderate a conversation between the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, and the chief executive of the Conservative Party, Sir Mick Davis, it was Ms Ryan who first received rapturous applause and appreciation from the audience at JW3, as she was praised for her principle in standing up against antisemitism.

The MP, who remains chair of Labour Friends of Israel, described Lord Falconer as “a good man, who will try his best.” But, she said, “If [antisemitism] is such a little problem, why has it taken three and a half years to resolve it? Why is it, that every day, we are presented with a new way in which this problem is going to be resolved, is going to be dealt with — and within hours of the announcement, it all unravels?”

Institutional racism, she suggested, was “within the very structures, and the ideology. With all the good will in the world that Charlie Falconer can bring to this, I don’t think he can resolve it because the problem is at the top. Either they [the leadership of Labour] would have to go, and they’re not going to, or they would have to change, and they’re not going to”. She “hoped against hope”, she said, “that we do not see Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10”.

Both Mr Herzog and Sir Mick paid tribute to Ms Ryan — the three are old friends — before taking part in a wide-ranging conversation about the often fraught relationship between Israel and the diaspora. Sir Mick has been a trenchant critic of some Israeli attitudes in the past and observed that historically “Israel did not understand [the concept of] the diaspora. It was viewed as a a temporary phenomenon which would disappear”.

He expressed regret that Hebrew was not universally “the language of the Jewish people”, and said that a better example was the Greek and Cypriot communities outside Greece and Cyprus, bound to the mother communities by their common language, Greek. So it was with some relish that Mr Herzog — who said he believed Israel had due respect for the diaspora — announced that the Jewish Agency had recently signed agreements “with the governments of Cyprus and Greece — they want to learn from us how to deal with their diasporas”.

Sir Mick acknowledged that much of the criticism against him for expressing his ideas related to him not being an Israeli citizen or taxpayer. But Mr Herzog said he was happy with “legitimate criticism and advice” from the diaspora, citing a Hebrew expression, “the wounds of a lover”. He added: “You are entitled to say what you want, and we are obliged to hear it”.

Later Sir Mick would describe his and the diaspora’s relationship with Israel as one of “hugging and wrestling”, while Mr Herzog, though expressing concern at some of the extremist voices being vented in Israeli society, said he believed that even the indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were evidence of the “strength of the system”. Speaking about the rise of extreme right faction Otzma Yehudit, Mr Herzog said he thought there were many voices inside Likud, Mr Netanyahu’s own party, “who think they will pay a very heavy price” for the prime minister’s brokering of a far-right grouping.

Asked by a member of the audience of the implications of a possible annexation of the West Bank, Sir Mick said it would be “fundamental” for the diaspora community if it happened. It would take away the ability of the diaspora to fight and advocate for Israel, he believed, and would be “a tremendous trauma for the diaspora”. But Mr Herzog said quietly: “If a politician says stupid things, it doesn’t mean all of Israel thinks that way”.

  • 11 March, 2019