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Israel can’t let debate drown out the red alert sirens | Opinion by William Daroff (Jerusalem Post)

We believe in the resilience of Israeli democracy and know that it will be able to deal with the tremendous challenges it faces.

Last week, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations held its 48th annual National Leadership Mission to Israel.

The Conference of Presidents brings the heads of more than 50 of the largest Jewish organizations in the US together with Israel’s political, social, economic and security leadership. Our mission is now an essential component of the relationship between Israel and its best and greatest friend, the US, as well as between Israelis and American Jewry.

We were here during the debate surrounding the Oslo Accords and after Rabin’s heinous murder. We were here during the Second Intifada, the Gaza disengagement and the Second Lebanon War. We were interrupted for only one year of COVID and we were the first to return immediately after travel restrictions were lifted. As representatives of the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, we are here to engage, listen but also be heard.

There is no denying the highly divisive reality that Israel is facing today. The current public debate is arguably more polarized than ever before. This is, of course, not a phenomenon unique to Israel. In the US, Europe and elsewhere, such a public division is sadly all too common, but as Jews and proud supporters of Israel, to see such turmoil in the world’s only Jewish state is even more painful.

We are concerned by the debate’s tone and lack of respect. We are extremely anxious by the way in which Israel’s enemies are crowing, arming themselves with every criticism and rejoicing in our public disagreements.

However, regardless of one’s view of the proposed policies, our message is clear: Israel’s political leaders must insist on a more respectful tone and debate. Democracy is not just majority rule, it is also about tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect.

In terms of its political opinions, the Conference of Presidents is as diverse as Israel. It includes Right and Left, all the religious streams, non-political civil society organizations and more. We have significant discourses on the issues of the day while striving to form a consensus respected by all. 

Last week, as on every mission to Israel, we met representatives of nearly the full spectrum of Israeli politics. We enjoyed addresses from senior government and opposition figures. We attended committee meetings in the Knesset with an array of parties and we were honored to be welcomed by President Isaac Herzog at the President’s Residence.

In all these meetings, we made but one request as non-citizens, as Israel’s brothers and sisters abroad: let our disagreements strengthen us, not divide us. Debate – respectful debate – has always been our strength, from the days of the Talmud onward. But division and disunity has always been our downfall, from time immemorial.

Today, external challenges remain. Iran continues its march toward nuclear weapons while continuing its malevolent activities across the region and globe. We are proud of the role we play as an organization and as a community, in keeping the Iranian threat high on the agenda in the US. The Biden administration made welcome assurances of its opposition to Iran’s oppressive regime acquiring nuclear weapons – particularly as it supplies arms to Russia.

A further threat is the increase in Palestinian terror on Israel’s streets. I visited some of the victims of the recent wave of attacks treated at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. I spoke with their families and expressed the wishes of all of the American Jewish community for their speedy recovery. But the scars of terror can never truly be healed.

Another, increasingly deadly threat, is the danger of antisemitism. The global rise of Jewish-hatred is increasingly prevalent in the US, Europe and elsewhere, on the street, on campus and online. As the preeminent former Canadian justice minister and human rights activist Irwin Cotler noted at a session during our mission: “Antisemitism is an assault on our common humanity.”

These threats should not only bind us together but also remind us of the reason why Israel is so important as a safe haven for all Jews. Indeed, as the clamor and cries of the internal debate in Israel continued to rage as we wrapped up this year’s mission, we were all issued a timely reminder of the threats we face, as the red alert sounded and more rockets from Gaza targeted Israeli civilians in the South.

We believe in the resilience of Israeli democracy and know that it will be able to deal with the tremendous challenges it faces.

But however deep the divides and however fervent the debate, we cannot afford to be distracted from the threat we all face. We cannot allow the debate to drown out the perpetual red alert.

William Daroff is Chief Executive Officer of the Conference of Presidents.

This piece was published in the Jerusalem Post on March 1, 2023. To view the original or listen to it online, click here.

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