Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Letter to the Council of Christians and Jews

To those of you marking the Jewish New Year...Shona Tova!

As followers of this blog will know, I try not to trouble my readers more than once a month. But, thanks to comments made by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), I'm breaking my normal blogging regime.

My previous post on the launch of Kairos Britain in which I asked: 'When will there be a Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine?' Has attracted more than the usual amount of traffic which indicates I must have hit some nerves (painfully or otherwise) around the blogosphere.

At the same time as I was publishing, the CCJ came out with some particularly misjudged criticisms of Kairos Britain as well as the Greenbelt festival where it was launched, and one of the keynote speakers at the event, the Jewish Israel/Palestine activist Mark Braverman. Some of you may have read Braverman's book Fatal Embrace. If you haven't it comes highly recommended, not just by me but from Walter Brueggemann who is widely recognised as an one of the most important Old Testament scholar and theologians of the last 50 years. 

Below is the letter I emailed to Revd David Gifford, Chief Executive of CCJ, earlier this week. You can read the two articles by the CCJ here and here. I address various points they raise in the letter below.

Letter to David Gifford, Chief Executive of the CCJ, Wednesday 4 September 2013

Dear Revd Gifford

Having your read your website's two statements regarding Kairos Britain, Greenbelt and Mark Braverman, I wanted to share some observations from a Jewish perspective that you maybe less familiar with but one that is just as valid as those you present as mainstream in your statements. I should also point out that I attended the launch of Kairos Britain at Greenbelt and had the opportunity to meet Mark Braverman and others closely involved in the production of the document.

On a general note, let me first acknowledge that the CCJ has done outstanding work over the decades to promote Jewish-Christian understanding following the nadir of Jewish suffering during the Second World War. The CCJ has played a vital role in leading Christian repentance and rapprochement between the two communities in the UK and its regional and local activities are a welcome expression of tolerance and respect for the multi-faith and ethnic make-up of our country.

My concern though, having read your critical reaction to Kairos Britain's call for the rights and human dignity of Palestinians to be recognised, is that your position is doing a great disservice to the central values of both Christianity and Judaism. 

'Balance' works both ways

I find it odd that you are critical of the Greenbelt organisers for not inviting a speaker to counter-balance Mark Braverman's appearance at the festival.

Let me ask you this.

Does the CCJ invite Palestinian or pro BDS Jewish speakers to its events when discussing Israel/Palestine in order to achieve 'balance'? I suspect not. 

Greenbelt has taken a stand after many years of listening, consulting, debating and praying about how it should respond to the well-documented injustices taking place everyday in the Occupied Territories. Just as the CCJ has the right to decide how to run its events and who to invite to does Greenbelt. If you want continuous 'balance' then it must work both ways. I'm sure Kairos Britain and Greenbelt could suggest future speakers for CCJ events which, they might consider, would otherwise present one-sided views of the politics and history of the Holy Land during the last 100 years or so. 

Zionism and Judaism

I find it even more surprising that the CCJ, despite all it surely knows about Judaism and Jewish history, manages to confuse Zionism with traditional Jewish teaching.

Zionism is a heady mix of European 19th century 'blood and soil' nationalism combined with a genuine religious, spiritual and cultural connection to the Land of Israel. There are many ways to understand the attraction of Zionism to Jews, particularly to Eastern European Jews at the turn of the 20th century, but Zionism is very far from being the 'traditional Jewish teaching' that you accuse Mark Braverman of dismissing. The traditional understanding of 'exile' and 'return' involved a spiritual rather than a political route to Jewish salvation. It's Zionism that bucks Jewish tradition, not Mark Braverman. But I'm sure you must know this.

Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

You quote the following from one of Braverman's talks at the festival in which he refers to the Separation Wall that cuts deep into Palestinian land in the name of 'Israeli security': " people behind that wall – and I include Jews outside of Israel as well, because the wall is psychological and it is spiritual – have learned to hate". You appear to present this quote as evidence of Braverman's anti-Semitism or perhaps some kind of Jewish self-hatred. 

For an organisation so familiar with Jewish thinking and attitudes towards Israel you are displaying considerable ignorance on this point. You will know that Israel has always regarded itself as the State belonging to all Jews throughout the world and not just those who are its Jewish citizens. You will also know that successive Israeli Prime Ministers have liked to talk as if they are representing the views of the Jewish people worldwide. That's one reason why I, as a Jew, feel personally responsible and have sorrow and anger for what goes on in the name of the Jewish State, even though, living in Cumbria, I can hardly be thought of as responsible for it. I understand exactly the point Mark Braverman is making about the 'psychological wall' in modern Jewish self-identity about Israel and how this has led to Palestinians being perceived as the perennial 'other' always to be distrusted and often despised. Your accusation is a cheap and badly aimed shot.

Nazi boycotts?

As for the CCJ comparing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in 1930s, this is just an attempt to scare off Christians from taking non-violent direct action against discriminatory policies carried out by the State of Israel against the Palestinian people. 

After 20 years and more of a failed peace process, BDS is a peaceful, legitimate protest against violations of international law (accepted as such by the UK and US governments). 

Attempting to smear this approach by association with Nazi Germany shows a wilful misunderstanding of history and a deliberate misrepresentation of the motives of those showing solidarity with Christian Palestinians and also with Israeli Jews who believe the Occupation is the single biggest threat to the future of their country.

Jewish-Christian dialogue is undoubtedly a good thing until it stops being an honest dialogue and becomes a mutual appreciation society. I'm not sure you are doing the Jewish community, or Judaism itself, any long-term favours by failing to remind the Jewish partners in the dialogue that they should reconnect with the Jewish prophetic tradition. Good friends tell each other when they have made a mistake or are failing to see their errors. 

The CCJ believes it is not for Christians to 'tell Jews what to do' after centuries of anti-Jewish Church teaching. However, it's one thing wanting to see the world through Jewish eyes as part of a process of Jewish-Christian reconciliation but what room does that leave for Christians (and Muslims) in the Holy Land who have a very different experience and perception of the State of Israel? At some point the debate has to move beyond 'understanding' the 'Jewish point of view' (and by the way, there is no such thing anyway - 2 Jews, 3 opinions etc).

Refuting the statistics

You cast doubt on the statistics and reports quoted in Kairos Britain which document the oppressive and discriminatory nature of the Israeli Occupation and you suggest that these could be challenged. I look forward to you, or others, attempting to do this. You will find it an impossible task. No doubt the context can be challenged, based on the endless appeal to the Israeli 'security' paradigm. In the end though, you just have to count how many Palestinian children have been killed in the last 20 years compared to how many Israelis children have been killed to get a sense of which side should be the most fearful of the continuing situation. 

Finally, I would urge the CCJ to reflect on the fact that it is possible to support a Jewish homeland in Israel/Palestine without having to defend (or turn a blind eye) to what has happened to the Palestinians over the last 65 years. A more critical stance on Israel is to the long-term benefit of both Christian and Jewish communities here and in Israel/Palestine. Personally, I have no doubt that the Jewish future, and the future of Judaism itself, will be defined by our relationship with the Palestinian people. This is the single most important issue we face as a community.

You may like to read my considered response to the launch of Kairos Britain at my blog: Micah's Paradigm Shift: 'When will there be a Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine?' Here's the link.

With kind regards

Robert Cohen
Kendal, Cumbria, UK


  1. As a christian journeying with my own response to the Israel/Palestine issue I find Roberts blog and commitment one of the most heartening things around and he is the sort of peacemaking Jew I want to relate to as we all seek a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians in the land which we all consider `holy`.

  2. You can, however, see why the Christians in CCJ would be frightened of doing anything which their Jewish partners oppose and call anti-semitic.

    A more appropriate parallel for the BDS campaign (which is, of course, not boycotting all Jews on an ethnic basis as the Nazis did) would be the way the pre-state Yishuv boycotted Arab shops, goods and labour. Jewish enterprises which employed the cheaper Arab labour were pressurised into replacing them with Jews. Some of this hitsory can be found in teh wikipedia article at thought it seems to be a contested and much edited page.

    For a zionist confirmation of the main point, in the interests of balance, you could check out

  3. We as Jews need to take every opportunity to reassure Christians that not all Jews think it's antisemitic to speak out against the Occupation, nor to take nonviolent action with others to put pressure on Israel to end it.

    I'd be interested to hear whether Robert gets any response.