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UK Jewish leaders hold ‘frank, not always comfortable’ talks with diaspora minister

UK communal leaders have taken part in meeting with controversial Israeli diaspora minister Amichai Chikli in London, described by some who attended as “frank, and not always comfortable.”

Representatives from the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) and the Community Security Trust, (CST) were joined by other leaders – including those from the Union of Jewish Students, Reform, Liberal and Masorti Judaism – for talks with the Likud government minister at the UK Israeli embassy headquarters in west London.

Protesters from the Defend Israeli Democracy UK movement, and from Jewish youth groups including Noam Masorti Youth, RSY Netzer and Habonim were present throughout the day, openly expressing their opposition both to the Netanyahu government, and to Chikli’s lengthy record of inflammatory rhetoric.

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Board President Marie van der Zyl and chief executive Michael Wegier were among those to “stress how the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul had sparked significant concern amongst many in the community in this country.”

Van der Zyl said that at the meeting:”We made it clear that British Jews have a deep love of Israel, which is why it is so painful to see the deep internal divisions which have risen to the surface there.”

It is understood their conversation with Chikli also focussed on the pressures faced by the Israeli LGBT community, the rights of Reform Jews in Israel and the severe challenges facing Arab citizens of Israel.

The two Board representatives urged the minister to share these concerns with his colleagues in government.

Another communal source, who had been present at the meeting, said Van der Zyl and UJS president Edward Isaacs had both been “robust, direct, but fair”, as they engaged with Chikli, and made the frustrations felt by many Jews in this country “crystal clear.”

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon confirmed to Jewish News there had been pressure from “significant voices” within his Masorti movement and elsewhere within progressive Jewish circles for a boycott of the meeting with Chikli,

But the rabbi said that he opted to express concerns and anger over the hard-right Israeli government directly to the minister at the meeting, and revealed that at the talks he shared a Devar Torah, framing “opposition to many of the policies of the current (Israeli) government as grounded in our faith and specifically the texts of our faith.”

Protests at Amichai Chikli’s London visit

Rabbis Josh Levy and Charley Baginsky, chief executives of the Movement for Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism, said:“We met this morning with Amichai Chikli.

“As leaders of Progressive Judaism in this country, representing 83 communities across the UK, we are committed Zionists and cherish our movements’ relationship with Israel.

“We took the opportunity to express to him the impact that the actions and rhetoric of the current Israeli government are having on this relationship and the fracture that is being created between Israel and the Jewish community in this country.

“We raised concerns about a number of issues, including judicial overhaul, the rhetoric used by members of the Israeli government, threats to the rights of minority and vulnerable groups in Israel, attacks on Palestinian villages, and the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

“The meeting was frank, and not always comfortable. We hope that the Minister will take heed of our concerns and bring them into his thinking and that of the government moving forward.”

Youth movement protest against Israeli diaspora minister Amichai Chikli in London

Rabbi Jeremy confirmed:”Before the meeting, we were aware of significant voices within and beyond our movements who wished us not to take the meeting with the minister.

“We are well aware of many, including our members, and particularly our Youth Movements, who are protesting the minister’s presence and we are supportive of those protesting voices being heard clearly.

“In consultation with colleagues and the leadership of our movements, we accepted the invitation of the embassy as an offer for a full and frank conversation. And indeed, that took place.”

The New London Synagogue rabbi added:”I shared a Devar Torah, framing our opposition to many of the policies of the current government as grounded in our faith and specifically the texts of our faith.

“Several verses and their rabbinic commentary in this week’s Parasha speak of the importance of often excluded sectors of society in the creation of a State of Israel and Parasha also has a stark warning for those who confuse having power and acting on that power with acting with decency.”

"Shikli, you're not wellcome here"!

— Ben Caspit בן כספית (@BenCaspit) September 5, 2023

UJS president Isaacs also tweeted that he had participated in discussions with Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, but added he had “challenged the minister with Jewish student concerns regarding his prior statements and the future of Israel’s democracy.”

In a statement, the JLC’s co-chief executive Claudia Mendoza said of the talks:”We held a productive meeting with minister Chikli.

“We thanked him for the education projects in the UK his department supports and we raised the serious concerns shared across the community about the turmoil in Israel.”

Invitations to Tuesday’s meeting had been sent out by the embassy in advance.

Only Yachad opted to decline an invitation to an embassy reception event on Wednesday, citing Chikli’s record of “promoting vitriol against pro-democracy protesters, supporting the spreading of George Soros related conspiracy theories, speaking out against LGBTQ equality, and promoted anti-Palestinian rhetoric.”

Tuesday’s meeting took place ahead of the decision by JW3 to cancel a scheduled visit by Chikli to the Finchley Road community centre.

Jewish News understands that Chikli is expected to visit parliament on Wednesday, where he will be welcomed in the guest area by some supportive MPs and peers.

A Rosh Hashanah reception at the embassy is also taking place later tomorrow, before the minister flies back to Israel.