Looking at Zion

A Jewish Perspective on Israel-Diaspora relationship: 235 members of Jewish communities around the globe answered a questionnaire, which asked them to articulate their thoughts and feelings towards Israel

Jonathan Arkush

Jonathan Arkush, President Board of Deputies of British Jews

“It is a privilege both to celebrate and to defend Jewish life outside Israel, as it is inside the country.”

The Interviewee – Jonathan Arkush (Born 1954), President Board of Deputies of British Jews. Born in London. I live in a large Jewish community in Hertfordshire, on the edge of London. It is a great privilege to have been elected in 2015 to the lay leadership of the British Jewish community, and to be President of its representative body, the Board of Deputies, which has led our community in an unbroken line since it was established in 1760 (yes 1760 !).

In your opinion, what importance, if any, does the existence of a Jewish state have to you personally and to Jewish people in general?

“Israel is central to my very existence and sense of identity as a Jew. The re-establishment of Jewish statehood after 2000 years is a miracle which has no historical parallel. For me, attachment to Israel and, I hope, living there in the near future, is part of the destiny of the Jewish people. I know that many Jews share this perception.”

Do you feel committed in some way to defend the future existence of Israel?

“Totally committed.”

Being a proud British citizen on the one hand and being so involved with Israel on the other hand, how do you deal when the interests of two countries collide?

“We are all a product of many identities and backgrounds which we have to balance, never more so in our modern world of social mobility and freedom of movement. The UK itself is home to millions of British citizens whose origins lie in the Indian sub-continent, and that’s just one example. Since the UK and Israel are western liberal democracies and close allies, it is hard to imagine a genuine clash of fundamental interests and I have not encountered one in my lifetime. Of course there may be a divergence of policies or views on Middle East politics, when my opinion might lean either way. In real life the issue is most likely to arise if a British soccer team met one from Israel – and I would support both!”

Do you affiliate yourself with a specific denomination in Judaism? What is your view regarding the dominance of the Orthodox denomination in Israel religious establishment?

“I associate myself with what might be called modern orthodoxy. While I wish to see the role of Jewish tradition and practice respected and indeed observed in Israel, I equally respect the wishes of others to express their Judaism in different ways, or indeed not at all. I support the views of tolerance of personalities such as Rabbi David Stav.

Do you feel morally responsible for Israel’s actions (such as its management of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict)?

“Morally responsible – no. Do Israel’s achievements affect me – yes of course, and I feel immense pride in them. And if Israel makes mistakes on occasions, then she is no different from any other state and any individual. We are but human.

In your opinion, what is the main thing Israelis fail to understand about the reality of being Jewish outside of Israel?

“I think Israelis do not always see the reality of living a Jewish life (not necessarily an observant Jewish life) in the diaspora, and they find it hard to understand how you can live as a minority, especially when antisemitism exists around you. But I say to them, we both live in a dangerous neighborhood. It is a privilege both to celebrate and to defend Jewish life outside Israel, as it is inside the country.”

How would you describe Israel’s policy (formally and in practice) regarding its relationship with the Diaspora?

“It has doubtless become more understanding and this is an important improvement. I have generally encountered nothing but respect and appreciation for the role that diaspora communities play.

In your opinion, does Israel have an obligation to defend and help Jewish communities in need?

“Yes, and history shows that Israel has fully lived up to that responsibility. How inexpressibly tragic that the State did not exist before the Shoah, or history would surely have been very different.”

Have you ever been to Israel? if you have, can you summarize your impressions from Israel?

“Yes, too many times to count. All 3 of my children and grandchildren live there, and two have made aliyah. I feel energised and at home when I am there, and I aspire to join my children before long.

Can you tell us a bit about the Jewish community in your hometown?

“The UK has one of the largest and most significant communities in the world. It is a community of enormous strength in its institutions and Jewish life. The large majority live in London, as I do, where every Jewish person will find something to appreciate and be part of. London is a great place to be Jewish!”

If you could ask the Israeli readers of this project a question, what would it be?

“Will you take a little time to read some Jewish history, and ponder on the miracle of Jewish survival, and what lessons we can draw for our present day lives?”

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