Avigdor Lieberman - image from wikimedia

In the UK, the Jewish National Fund and more than 280 ‘concerned’ Jews, including the religious head of the Reform Movement, clashed this week over the charity’s invitation to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, the Head of the far right Yisrael Beiteinu Party, is due in the UK next week to give a talk to JNF members and meet Foreign Secretary William Hague.However, in a petition aimed at JNF chair Samuel Hayek, the signatories, many of them members of Habonim Dror Zionist youth movement and pro-Israel peace group Yachad, said: ‘We are concerned about the JNF’s involvement in activities which jeopardise the possibility of peace and Israel’s ability to maintain a strong democracy.’

‘Evictions of Palestinians from their homes in Silwan, East Jerusalem and the displacement of Bedouin living in the Negev town of al-Araqib to make way for a forestation project, both of which the JNF have been involved in, are harmful to Israel’s future.’

‘Your announcement that you will be hosting Avigdor Lieberman in London does nothing to allay our concerns. Lieberman is the leader of a far-right party, and alongside instigating anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, has also advocated the transfer of many of Israel’s Arab citizens to the West Bank. The JNF claims to be ‘Israel’s leading humanitarian charity’ but we question what you are doing to support peace and equality in Israel, as outlined in the declaration of independence.’

Reform Movement Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner added her organisation’s voice to the protest, saying: ‘The Movement for Reform Judaism was surprised and dismayed to see that Avigdor Lieberman has been invited to address the Jewish community in London.

‘Israel advocacy is most effective when its case is made rationally and compassionately. JNF is right in seeking to create opportunities for people to hear from Israeli advocates. Its decision, however, to invite someone with fundamentalist right-wing views from outside the consensus of mainstream Israeli society, suggests it is concerned with something other than effective advocacy.’

‘It is often argued that to criticise Israel in any way is to lend succour to Israel’s opponents; equally therefore actively to promote extremist right wing policies in any way is to lend succour to those that advocate them.’

But Hayek dismissed the claims as ‘libellous’ and ‘without foundation’. He added: ‘JNF UK is not involved in any of the disputes with sections of Israel’s Bedouin citizens, as claimed by these organisations. I wonder if those who have signed this petition have spoken to the Bedouin farmers whose livelihoods are under threat from the squatters at al-Araqib. Or have they spoken to the Bedouin inhabitants of Arad, who benefit from the JNF UK-funded medical centre?

‘Habonim Dror and Yachad seem to be more than happy to side blindly with the squatters and repeat the lies propagated by those who work to delegitimise Israel. It is a pity for these organisations that truth and fashionable causes appear to be mutually exclusive.’

On the issue of Lieberman, Hayek said he was a ‘democratically-elected politician and the Foreign Minister of Israel. We are proud to have him speak exclusively at a JNF UK event, following his meeting with Foreign Secretary William Hague. Our event offers a fascinating opportunity for people to listen and debate the issues that concern our community’.