Fifty years ago, in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, I went to synagogue with my parents. It was my first experience of a fundraising appeal for Israel and I naively asked them if my pocket money could make a difference.
Israel was fighting for its survival and thousands of miles away, we gathered to watch a VHS recording from the News at Ten. The range of channels through which we can now access this news in real-time may have radically transformed our exposure, but the fear, anxiety and concern for Israel’s future is the same. And like that child of eleven, we all want to know what we can do to make a difference.
My passion for the Jewish world ever since stems from seeing Israel prevail in the face of incredible adversity. At university, during the Lebanon War, I was active in the Jewish and Israel societies, as well as the campaign for Soviet Jews. Indeed, it was the fight for their freedom that catalysed my generation’s engagement in Jewish life.
After, I worked for UJS and EUJS, where I supported students who were regularly at the forefront of defending Jewish rights. In Sunderland, where the infamous UN Resolution 3379 (‘Zionism is racism’) was used to ban the Jewish society and was then overturned. When President Reagan chose to visit the graves of former SS officers in Bitburg, thousands of Jewish students came from all over Europe to protest their disgust. We joined the worldwide campaign to drive the newly-elected President of Austria, former SS officer, Kurt Waldheim out of office. ‘Never again’ was always in our thoughts.
In some ways, I’m pleased that our children have not had to be involved in such campaigning – though perhaps the Jewish pride and confidence of this generation is a little lacking as a result. Yes, I know life on campus is dire right now, which is why one of my first responses after 7 October was to connect mental health experts with UJS to create a new support mechanism for its members.
I also know it’s not just the students who are traumatised by the growth in antisemitism, but if our community is to do its best for Israel, some perspective needs to be retained. Social media certainly makes things a lot harder. We have to accept it’s a battle we can’t win and so if it upsets you, avoid it. The demographics are obviously more challenging – our demonstrations are never going to be anything like as big, but they will remain dignified.
However, we cannot let our fears about life here stop us from doing more for Israel. And we need to do it with a sharper focus, more energy and the leadership that galvanised our community – young and old – into delivering the best for her in previous conflicts.
Staging thirty fundraising appeals makes no sense. Those who can donate will be confused and become quickly fed up with all the different asks. We need to follow the model of the Disasters Emergency Committee. When DEC responds to disasters all over the world, it does so as a single appeal, incorporating a group of charities. All the needs are intelligently addressed under one campaign target.
We have to implement the same model because the scale of the need in Israel is that of a disaster – 250,000 Israelis are now internally displaced persons. The psychological needs are huge, as is the need for emergency financial support. This is no time for our organisations or their leaders to be territorial. Everyone needs to come together under one brand for the next 12 months.
Bigger and louder campaigning for the release of the 238 hostages is also vital. Yet here again the impact is being reduced by several initiatives running in parallel. All are well-intentioned, but more investment in a single campaign will ensure that this fundamental issue is kept in front of those who can make a difference, until every single hostage is home and safe. Otherwise those in Government, who have been so strong on this, will move on to the next issue as soon as it demands their attention. Sustaining share of mind costs money, but I know it works. I was co-founder of REFUSENIK, a campaign which used professional advertising in national newspapers to counteract the slick PR machine of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Lastly, the morale of our community needs to be sustained. Five weeks in and everyone is understandably exhausted by the relentless coverage. No one really needs another briefing on where it’s at. In fact, they need a little respite from all of this, the space to laugh, to sing, to do whatever will give them time-out, so that they can return refreshed and uplifted for the next stage of what we know is a going to be a long haul. A range of activities to deliver these breaks needs to be organised as soon as possible.
We have the capacity to do far more good for Israel – there are significant financial and human resources that can be called upon. I’ve seen and experienced just how great we can be for Israel and the future of our community here. We need to find that spirit again and fast.
- Lionel Salama is co-founder of HOPE, an agency which helps organisations with a social purpose tell their story and raise money
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