Sunday, 24 July 2011

Lost Jewish Voices (part one of two posts):

The war of words in the Middle East has been even noisier than usual during 2011.

It’s still too soon to tell if the political tectonic plates may be shifting as we try to fathom the meaning of the Arab Spring, Obama’s call for a settlement based on 1967 borders, the prospect of a United Nation’s Assembly vote on a Palestinian State in September, and the alarming shift to the right by the Israeli Knesset and much of Israeli public opinion.

Meanwhile, diaspora Jewry’s (and certainly the UK’s) community leadership maintains its steadfast commitment to defending Israel against the slightest criticism (although thankfully there was some discomfort over last week’s anti-boycott law passed by the Knesset).

Recently I have been thinking about the ‘lost Jewish voices’ of our history and wondering if the only way to go forward is to revisit those voices and reclaim them to help us find our way to a better Jewish future.

In the first half of the 20th century, there was a vibrant, robust debate as to the best answer to the ‘Jewish Question’ in Europe. There were those from firmly within the Jewish community (Orthodox and Reform) and from those on its edges (typically the radical and revolutionary left), who saw Jewish history, Jewish theology and Jewish politics in a different way to today’s mainstream. They were the voices who looked to promote the universal truths of Jewish wisdom and spiritual understanding, rather than a narrow and often chauvinistic nationalism. It was a time before the Zionist paradigm of Jewish history had so convincingly won the day for both Jews and non-Jews alike.

Today, the State of Israel has become central to Jewish communal, religious and political life. It is the new paradigm of Jewish affiliation and Jewish personal identity. So much so, that the regular accusation by Jewish leaders that anti-Zionism equates to anti-Semitism starts to make perfect sense. It’s hard to be considered Jewish and not be a defender of the State of Israel. An attack on one has become an attack on the other.

But there are so many who spoke with authority, conviction and passion against chasing the Zionist dream. They saw the dangers of a narrow Judaism that turned a community of faith into a ‘people’ that needed land and power to define and protect it.

Many of the Zionist critics refused to accept the Zionist analysis that European anti-Semitism was forever fixed and unchanging, as if it were part of the very structure of the universe. They worried that the Jewish communities living outside of a future Jewish state would have their loyalties and their acceptance questioned even more.

Looking back, the voices that now sound the most far sighted and prophetic (‘prophetic’ in the Jewish tradition of champions of justice and challengers of the power elite) were those that recognised that the reality of Palestine was far from the popular Zionist slogan of: ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land’. They understood all too well, that the land was inhabited by an Arab Muslim majority who had been cultivating the land for centuries, a people with their own history, culture and identity.

Before 1948 there were many who called themselves ‘Zionist’ but did not want a Jewish State. They believed in a Jewish homeland in Palestine but could see the violent clash that would be the inevitable outcome of political state building.

It was the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Germany, Eastern Europe and the territories occupied in the West that changed everything and quickly closed down the debate. The lesson learnt was that Jews could never expect total acceptance, that they would always be a ‘people apart’ and at the mercy of even the most civilized of nations. Never mind what the Jewish experience had already become in France, Britain and most notably the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Never mind that where democracy and pluralism were given a decent chance then Jews were safe and could thrive and prosper on their own terms with equal rights to their fellow citizens. No, only a Jewish State could ‘normalise the Jewish condition’ and bring safety, security and an ‘authentic’ Jewish existence.

In my next post I will re-visit those lost Jewish voices who were desperate to challenge a version of Jewish history that has now become all but impossible to counter, and those who battled for a view of Judaism that was not ‘retro-fitted’ to support a political agenda. Many of them were well-known names in their time and I hope they will give the readers of this blog a chance to see how paradigms have been created and how they might be shifted.

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