Last week, I had the privilege of traveling to the UAE and Israel with a delegation from the CIJA Board, along with other leadership – both lay and professional – representing Jewish communities from across Canada. The trip was planned in November, before the recent election in Israel that brought a Likud-led coalition to power. Our objective, at that time, was to understand the changing dynamic of the Abraham Accords and its potential impact on the complicated issues facing Israeli society.
Arriving as we did, during an ongoing discussion over proposed judicial reform, provided us with the unique opportunity to hear both sides of an increasingly acrimonious debate and to share our concerns about a government whose policies, in the view of many, threaten the very fabric of Israeli society and of the Israel-diaspora community relationship.
We heard from politicians, government ministers and opposition MKs, learned professors and Israeli thought leaders, as well as UN Ambassador Tor Wennesland and the Ambassadors from Bahrain, Morocco, and Canada. We heard perspectives from the left and the right. We spoke with Mansour Abbas, Palestinian NGOs, and were led on a tour of Eastern Jerusalem by Dr. David Koren, to gain a fuller understanding of the dynamics at play in the region. The issues are complicated, and the answers remain unclear.
There were many takeaways from the trip, but one was that, despite grave concern expressed by so many, democracy is indeed alive and well in Israel! The reforms under debate have been discussed in the public square and think tanks alike for more than ten years (well before Netanyahu’s current legal issues arose), as Israel contemplated the balance of power between the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive branches of government. The optimal solution is not obvious, and the positions staked are quite polarized. However, most seem to accept the need for some judicial reform. The ongoing debate and the volume and scope of the continued protests are evidence of a vibrant democracy and reflect continued political opposition to Netanyahu, his coalition, and their positions on a range of issues well beyond the debate regarding judicial reform. Although no perfect solution, there are degrees of compromise, which many – including Israeli President Isaac Herzog – are trying to advance, that will, we hope, ultimately lower the temperature of the controversy.
Even with the controversy so top-of-mind, it became clear that our concerns were heard and our opinions welcome. We were also cautioned that this discord may be exploited by our adversaries – an advisory none of us can ignore. As in any extended family, Jews represent a spectrum of views and beliefs, and we are each entitled to express our perspective. But we must do so respectfully, ensuring those who object to the very existence of a Jewish state cannot leverage our criticism to distort the reality of Israel’s thriving democracy or of our united stance against all seeking Israel’s destruction.
In the Emirates we found a people who are confident, proud, and unapologetic, demonstrating no hint of political protest or unrest. They are devoted to their monarchy and express unqualified confidence in its principled leadership. They envision a world where the children of Abraham – all faiths – live together harmoniously. We met with representatives of several NGOs, the Canadian and Israeli Ambassadors, and with the Minister of State for Tolerance and Coexistence, Sheikh Nahyan. We were honoured to be the first Jewish group to offer prayer in the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue. This is part of the recently inaugurated Abrahamic Family House, a complex comprising a mosque, church, and synagogue – the first built in the gulf states in more than 100 years, which heralds the promise of a new era in Muslim-Jewish relations.
We witnessed firsthand what respectful dialogue can accomplish for Jews, for Israel, and for the region. The Abraham Accords represent a paradigm shift in the region. They recognize that we have a collective responsibility to create a world of mutual understanding, coexistence, and respect for human dignity and freedom – including religious freedom. And that change is possible. They help to build conditions under which coexistence and peace with Palestinians is possible, and they debunk the view that Israel should be criminalized, marginalized, and stigmatized until Palestinian aspirations are satisfied.
Unity. Not uniformity. It is representative of our work at CIJA and informs our advocacy agenda. Israel is where our history and our heritage are rooted. A state for Jews, and of Jews. It represents our collective identity, values, and aspirations as a people. It is the cornerstone of a thriving diaspora, and its existence ensures that our children and grandchildren will also be confident, proud, and unapologetic. We must do all that we can to ensure its survival by combating any antisemitic forces that threaten its very existence. The visit reminded us that we have the capacity to deliver on that promise.