Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Time to cross the line - A letter to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

A letter to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the UK Movement for Reform Judaism

Dear Rabbi Laura

I listened to the Gaza conflict debate on BBC Radio 4's ‘Today’ programme on Tuesday 22 July. I was grateful that you were willing to take part in a discussion, alongside journalist Mira Bar-Hillel, that demonstrated to listeners that there are a variety of views within the UK Jewish community when it comes to Israel, and in particular what’s happening right now.

It was good to hear you stay well clear of the Israeli government lines that are being used to justify the killing of so many civilians, including at least 132 children (so far).

Most of the UK pro-Israel comments I have read in the last two weeks have avoided any attempt at historical context  - the decades of occupation, the seven year siege of Gaza, and the economic and social collapse this has led to. They certainly avoid referring to the immediate timeline that led to the renewed violence - Israeli missile attacks on Gaza following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the arrest of  hundreds of Hamas supporters on the West Bank.

Instead this is what we get:

“What country could tolerate rockets rained down on its people?”
“They use their children as human shields.”
“We are acting in self-defence.”
“We value human life…they celebrate death.”
“What would any other country do?”
“We warn them to move out before we strike.”
“We only target known Hamas operatives.”

“They choose the telegenic dead to gain world sympathy.”

In contrast, Rabbi Laura, you showed common humanity and reflected how emotionally torn many in the Jewish UK community must be feeling right now. These were your comments that I noted down from the radio discussion yesterday:

“People feel absolutely frightened by what’s happening...There is empathy for people on both sides...I have seen people in front of me weeping for civilians on both sides...They understand how complicated it is...We are Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian.”

Having grown-up in the UK Reform movement, I recognise your more nuanced understanding of the situation and the desire to uphold Jewish ethical values. Unlike many Jewish/Israeli voices I hear, you are not attempting to dehumanise the Palestinian people nor claim that they all hate Jews and only want the “destruction of the State of Israel”.

I very much welcome your stand because it is so much better than most of what I am hearing. 

But at the end of the day it fails to address the real situation that Judaism and the Jewish Diaspora community is facing. Our treatment of the Palestinians is the greatest challenge to us today. Right now we are failing that challenge with horrific consequences.

There is clearly a line that you, and your fellow Reform and Liberal rabbis, are unwilling to cross – at least in public. It is a line that, in crossing, would put you in direct opposition to the current government of the State of Israel.

Prayers for both Israelis and Palestinians, and acknowledgement of the deaths and suffering happening on both sides of the conflict, may look like good morality and feel like ethical responsibility.

But it's not.

In the end it's a moral cop-out.

At the end of the day you have to make a stand. You have to cross the line.

You have to decide, which side has the real the power? Which side has the real weaponry?

You have to decide, who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors?

We are taught to seek justice and speak truth unto power. As the Hebrew prophets discovered, this can quickly put you at odds with your own community and its leadership. But what else should Judaism stand for? The Reform and Liberal movements have upheld the tradition of prophetic Judaism for more than two centuries. But that tradition needs to be acted upon to be truly honoured.

If Israel is to survive as a liberal, democratic nation, then it will have to sit down and talk to Hamas. It will have to end its blockade of Gaza and allow its people to rebuild their economy.

If Israel really wants ‘peace’ rather than merely ‘quiet’, it will have to acknowledge Hamas as legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, along with Fatah. It will have to negotiate with a Palestinian Unity government, rather than attempt to destroy it.

If you, and your rabbinical colleagues, want to make a real difference in the name of Jewish values then this is what you need to be talking about, very clearly and very loudly.

It will take great courage and conviction and you will need to draw deep into the well of Jewish ethics.

The time is over when expressing sorrow for both sides and insisting on the ‘complexity’ of the situation is enough...if it ever was.

At the end of the day, you have to make a stand. You have to cross the line. I hope you will feel able to do this before it is too late for the Palestinians and for Israel.

With all best wishes and encouragement for your work.

Robert Cohen, author Micah's Paradigm Shift