Monday, 12 December 2011

Maccabees, Miracles and Zionists...and how to get the balance right.

What the early Zionists conveniently forgot when they began to promote the hero-worship of the Maccabees and their Jewish nationalist uprising against the Assyrian Greeks in 169 BCE, was why the rabbis had been so keen to down-play the rebels' story in the first place. Why did second century CE rabbinic Judaism want to ignore the muscular Maccabees and shift our focus to the miracle of the Temple oil instead? Why was lighting candles in menorahs better than recalling battles of old and Jewish warriors clad in armour?

Their reasoning turns out to be just as valid today as it was two thousand years ago and their more cautious approach to the Maccabees and their Hasmonean Priestly/Kingship dynasty is worth reflecting on when we look at the modern State of Israel.

A turning point in history

From a purely historical perspective, there can be no more important a festival than Hanukkah. After all, if Mattathias and his sons had not started their guerrilla uprising against the Assyrian Greek empire then Judaism may have disappeared, reduced to a footnote in the history of the Ancient World. And without the melting pot of competing traditional and renewal responses to first century Temple Judaism, what would have become of the radical preacher from Nazareth, whose birth the world will celebrate in a few days time?

There's no doubt that the Maccabee revolt against imperial Greek culture and religion changed the course of history. No Judaism, no Christianity. No Western Civilisation as we know it.

The down-playing of Hanukkah

But despite its significance as a turning point in history, Hanukkah has, for most of its history, been a very minor Jewish festival. The books recounting the story of the Maccabee revolt were not even included in the official canon of the Hebrew Bible. Ironically, it's only because they were translated into Greek and then adopted into the Christian Apocrypha that the traditional accounts survive.

In the Talmud, the rabbis devote just a few paragraphs to discussing the festival as part of a digression on the lighting of Sabbath candles. They also inserted the story of the miracle of the small cruse of holy Temple oil discovered by the Jewish rebels as they cleansed the Temple after its Greek desecration. Although only enough to last for one day, the oil allows the Holy Temple light to burn for eight days. The symbolic importance of this modest miracle should not be underestimated.

A Zionist revival

 For Zionists, the story of the Maccabee revolt was the perfect foundation for their re-invention of Jewish nationalism and their critique of Diaspora Jews. Here was a story of Jews battling successfully to protect their identity by taking their fate into their own hands. No waiting around for the Messiah to bring their redemption and defeat to their enemies. Through single-minded dedication, the Maccabees were able to restore Jewish independence against overwhelming odds. And rather than the pale, meek, Talmud scholars of Eastern Europe, here were muscular, uninhibited Jews from the Promised Land with the strength to succeed.

As Herzl wrote in 'The Jewish State' in 1896:
"And what glory awaits the selfless fighters for the cause! Therefore I believe that a wondrous breed of Jews will spring up from the earth. The Maccabees will rise again."
It's hardly surprising that the rebels were recruited to Zionism and their story began to grow in significance as part of Hanukkah celebrations.

But there's much more to the story of the Maccabees which should temper our enthusiasm for their model for achieving political salvation.

Having won their victory, the Maccabees established their own dominant priestly and monarchic dynasty with little room for political or religious dissent. They favoured the Temple cult of sacrifices led by the priestly elite of Sadducees who violently opposed the more scripture based learning and study of the Pharisees who were the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism. What's more, they negotiated a series of increasingly one-sided treaties with Rome which shored up the dynasty in the short-term but ultimately led to an exchange of Greek for Roman imperial serfdom.

By the second century CE the rabbis had learnt that the secret of long-term Jewish survival was not might or power or physical territory. Numerous failed attempts to overthrow Roman domination had taught them that desiring power through land in the age of great empires was a dead end and could risk the Jewish people losing everything. Better to buckle down for the long game.

What worked better was to develop a Judaism that was truly portable and applicable everywhere and not just in the Holy Land. Let individual and communal prayer, study and ethical action take the place of Temple sacrifice. The rabbis taught us how to make time and actions holy, rather than space and place. And, they argued, exile from the Land was not the fault of the Romans but caused by our own failure to live by the high standard of social justice and honour of God's creation that had been set for the descendants of Abraham. Return to Zion was indefinitely postponed and atonement through ethical acts and spiritual piety in the world at large was our new mission. This was the rabbinic genius which kept the Jewish people intact and relevant into the modern age. This was also the message the Zionist preferred to relegate in favour of a renewed territorial emphasis as the answer to all Jewish problems.

Some Hanukkah lessons

The rabbis preferred, not the guerrilla uprising, but the modest and homely image of the Hanukkah menorah with its small, fragile, short-burning candles to be our guiding spiritual metaphor. The candles remind us how even the smallest flicker of light can be enough to guide our way. The tiny cruse of holiness, that may appear so insufficient for the spiritual journey, is in truth enough fuel to sustain us. The first century Rabbi Hillel, gave us the good advice to start with one candle on the first night of the festival and build up to lighting all eight only on the last night. In this way we increase rather than diminish the message of holiness and grow the promise and hope for a better world.

The story of the Maccabees certainly has a role to play in the festival too, but not the very literal understanding that early and modern Zionism promotes.

The lesson we should draw from the rebels is the importance of pride in our history and identity. The Maccabees should also remind us that human action is required, just as much as prayer and piety, if the world is to be made whole. As Abraham Joshua Heschel would say, God is in search of man.

The issue today is that the festival of Hanukkah has become unbalanced in its observance. The creative tension between the warrior Maccabees and the rabbis' fragile but eternal flames of hope has been lost. Instead, we have become seduced by the image of the warrior Jew defending the nation state. We find ourselves, in 2008-9, naming military operations to crush the people of Gaza after a line in a children's song about Hanukkah dreidels (Operation 'Cast Lead'). Where has this left us as a people? Are we safer? Have we banished anti-Semitism? Have we normalised the condition of the Jews?

Hanukkah reminds us that our values and our heritage are important to us and worth preserving. It also reminds us that this can only be achieved if we maintain the right balance between Maccabean self-reliance and rabbinical holiness.

A Hanukkah prayer

As we approach the first night of the festival of lights, I offer the following prayer to add to the traditional liturgy.

Blessed are the flickering lights of the Hanukkah menorah. May they remind us that the world can be made different and better, that differences can be respected and honoured and that the work of humankind should go hand in hand with the work of Creation. Amen.

Happy Hanukkah!

Post script and Thank you!
As we reach the end of 2011, I'd like to say a big thank you to all of you who have subscribed to this blog since it launched in the summer. Thanks also to Micah's Twitter followers and to Tikkun Daily, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, It's Kosher to Boycott, and Nayler websites for cross-posting and re-publishing the articles.

Until we meet again in 2012...Act justly, love kindness, walk humbly.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Is it kosher to boycott? (After the UN some FAQs on BDS)

The story so far...

So, the Palestinians have failed in their attempt to gain full statehood recognition through the UN Security Council. Even if they had achieved the nine votes required, we know that the United States would have used its veto to turn the win into only a moral victory. The General Assembly can now have its say but can only vote on a lesser status than full statehood for the Palestinians.

Of course, even if the statehood bid had been successful it would have done little to change the reality on the ground for Palestinians. In fact, it could have made things worse, depending on how punitive Israel wished to be. A General Assembly vote to enhance Palestinian status at the UN could yet cause more problems. Look at Israel's reaction to the UNESCO admittance vote last month. Palestinian funds withheld, settlement building speeded up in the West Bank, and further expansion of the 'eternal' and 'unified' Jerusalem announced. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu administration seems determined to undermine Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, despite him being the most moderate Palestinian leader currently on the stage. No wonder Obama and Sarkozy were caught on mic swapping frustrations about the intransigence of Bibi Netanyahu.

However, the UN vote strategy has not been without its critics among Palestinians. For a start, it puts to one side other critical issues such as the status of Palestinian refugees living outside of the Israeli Occupied Territories and the condition of Palestinians living within the State of Israel. Overall though, the strategy has been a useful one. Israel and the United States have found themselves on the back foot and out of step with the majority of governments around the world. For the first time in years, the Palestinians have taken the initiative with a bold, peaceful move to secure international acceptance for their cause.

Prompted by the failure to win acceptance within the Security Council, there now appear to be fresh moves to negotiate a workable Fatah/Hamas unity administration across the West Bank and Gaza with elections next spring.

So where does all of this leave those of us who wish to see a resolution to the century old conflict between Jews and Palestinians? What will put us on the path to justice, reconciliation and the peace that comes from mutual respect and understanding? As individuals, what can we do to bring this about?

Up to now, Micah's Paradigm Shift has stepped back from any support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, (BDS) movement launched by a broad alliance of Palestinian civil society in 2005. For a start, I doubted the general public was ready to understand the complexity of the conflict. Could it be explained and understood in the same way that the Anti-Apartheid campaign was in the 1980s? And if it could be explained, would it make any difference to the lives of Palestinians? Finally, would support for BDS be an act of treachery for any Jew wanting to profess solidarity with the Jewish people?

In short: Can it be kosher to boycott?

Below are some Frequently Asked Questions about the BDS strategy and some answers from Micah's Paradigm Shift.

Here's what I'm going to tackle.
  • Why now?
  • Why BDS?
  • Is Israel really like South Africa under Apartheid?
  • Isn't it anti-Semitic?
  • Why will it be so hard for it to succeed?
  • Doesn't BDS lead to the destruction of Israel?

I hope by the end to convince readers of this blog that the time has come to support the BDS call, as well as a campaign of non-violent resistance to the occupation. Because doing so will be good for both Palestinians and for Jews. Your responses, as ever, are most welcome.

Why now?

In 2009, President Obama in his Cairo speech, believed that increased Jewish settlement building on the West Bank and East Jerusalem was a barrier to peace and called for it to end. Since then the reality of US domestic politics and the enormous pressure that can be brought to bear on members of the US Congress by Jewish pro-Israel lobby groups, Christian Zionists and military manufacturing interests have removed Obama's chance of giving his Cairo principles any teeth or chance of success. From this side of the ‘Pond’, it all looks like a terrible indictment of the US political system.

And the truth is that even with an enlightened President like Barack Obama, the United States will never be the impartial honest broker in the Middle-East that it likes to make itself out to be. Obama's priorities must now focus on the domestic economy and his re-election. One thing is for sure, Obama won't be sacrificing four more years in office for the sake of the Palestinians. As for his Republican rivals, they compete with each other on who can be the most compliant to the pro-Israel lobby and the most friendly to the wishes of the government in Jerusalem. As for the European Union, although historically more favourable to the Palestinians, the EU is too closely tied to US foreign policy to shift the impasse. In Britain, our government prefers to abstain in crucial votes, walking away from the mess it first created back in 1917 through the Balfour Declaration. In Israel itself, the Knesset becomes ever more right-wing and is doing a thoroughly good job of 'delegitimising' the state without any help from outsiders.

So, relying on the politicians to 'sort something out' is not going to happen anytime soon, unless it's the current status quo that you want. And the current political dynamics will not change unless there is a clear shift in the attitude of electorates around the world. In other words, it's down to us as individuals to work collectively to change the situation. As Gandhi liked to say: "be the change you want to see in the world".

Why BDS?

Well, right now it looks a whole lot more appealing than the present and past alternatives. What would you prefer to BDS? A return to the international terrorism of the 1970s? The stone throwing of the late 80s? Suicide bombings? Or perhaps the never ending (or in truth never really beginning) 'peace process'. The Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment campaign has the advantage of being led by a broad, representative, cross-section of Palestinian society. It is not the strategy of a narrow, unelected elite. It is peaceful and it is pro-active, putting Palestinians, and the international solidarity movement, on the front foot while raising awareness and education in the process.

BDS does not in itself advocate any particular political solution to the conflict. It is not a call for one state or two states or any other formulation based only on borders. It is about civil rights, those that have them and those that don't. It embraces the totality of the dispute – discrimination, refugees, the West Bank occupation and the Gaza siege. BDS takes us to the heart of the conflict, not simply an argument about real estate, but a campaign for human rights.

The campaign allows individuals and organisations around the world to become involved at whatever level they feel comfortable. It raises awareness of a situation that is greatly misunderstood and badly reported in the West. Some will prefer to target only the West Bank settlements, their products and services. Others will see the occupation, the settlement building and the condition of Palestinians, inside and outside of Israel, as integral to the constitution and outlook of the State of Israel under successive governments since 1948. In which case the boycott should be total and comprehensive. Personally, I prefer this stance as it reflects a realistic understanding of the conflict and how it touches every aspect of Israeli and Palestinian life. The issue for BDS is not just a few extremist Jewish nationalists wanting to live in historic Judea and Samaria. Taking the occupation as just one aspect of the conflict, its consequences spread into every aspect of Israeli life, academic, commercial, cultural and sporting.

Is Israel really like South Africa under Apartheid?

Israel is not like South Africa. In the same way that South Africa was not like segregated Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s. And neither South Africa nor Alabama were like Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The story of the Zionist pioneers is not the same of as the Dutch Boers or Hitler's Brown Shirts. The comparisons don't stack up and history becomes meaningless if you attempt to force an exact match.

However, there is another sense in which all these places and people are exactly the same.

The details are always unique but the story does not change. One people are favoured over another by ethnicity, religion, culture, or all three of these things, and political and institutional discrimination is justified through a national story or founding myth of superiority. The fact that Palestinians living in Israel can vote in elections and sit on the same park benches and use the same toilets as Jewish Israelis does not mean that everything is okay.

Palestinian Israelis living inside the 1967 borders, already internally dispossessed of their land in 1948, continue to face cultural and institutional discrimination in education, jobs and housing. How else could it be when the state has been set up with the guiding principle that it is the State of the Jewish People.

In the West Bank you do not need to consult statistics to discover the discrimination. The whole place has been carved up to favour Jews over Palestinians. Land, water and roads are controlled for the benefit of Jewish settlers who have no intention of leaving what the rest of the world considers to be occupied Palestinian territory.

The situation in Israel needs to be studied on its own terms. Comparisons with other places and other times leads to fruitless arguments that distract from the discrimination of the here and now. No, it's not Johannesburg. Or Birmingham, Alabama. Or Nuremberg, Germany. It's Israel, and tragically, after suffering two thousand years of discrimination and persecution, we have invented our very own version of hell.

Isn't BDS anti-Semitic?

It's easy to see where this idea comes from. Didn't the Nazis start by boycotting Jews too? Isn't BDS a modern version of daubing graffiti on store fronts and burning books by Jewish authors and academics? These are the accusations that go to the heart of the debate over whether anti-Zionism is just the latest manifestation of anti-Semitism. You may like to read my criticism of comments made by the Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, few months ago on this particular debate.

It's true that anti-Zionism can easily morph into anti-Semitism, mainly because of Zionism's success in making Judaism and Zionism interchangeable words in most people's minds. But thinking that Arab anti-Zionism is exactly the same as European anti-Semitism is lazy thinking in the extreme. Rather than getting to grips with the real history and politics of modern Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, this approach drops everything into the box labelled 'anti-Semitism' as if this were the cosmic order of things and nothing can be done about it. It's an attitude that prevents a proper debate and forces into exile all voices of Jewish dissent.

Protesting against Israel is not by definition anti-Semitic. Unless of course you have decided that Jewish nationalism, as it evolved from the end of the 19th century, is now part of the defining characteristic of being Jewish. If support for the current way in which the State of Israel is configured is part of your definition of Jewish identity then you will have to disassociate yourself from some of the towering figures of Jewish life in the 20th century: Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Albert Einstein for a start. You may like to look back at another earlier post 'Lost Jewish Voices pt 2'.

Support for BDS is not support for an anti-Semitic campaign against the Jews as a whole or Israeli Jews in particular. It is a campaign in favour of equal rights and equal recognition for two communities. Inevitably, to address past injustice, it is the Jewish side of the warring parties that must relinquish power. But remember, this is in no way a conflict of equals.

Why will it be harder than South Africa?

Many of my past reservations about the BDS campaign have been around the lack of understanding of the issues among ordinary consumers, membership organisations, and businesses. Unlike the boycott against South Africa in the 1980s, there is no consensus around what is happening in Israel and the Occupied Territories and how Palestinians are being treated day in and day out.

Unlike the white South Africans, the Israelis still have enormous support in the West from governments and individuals. This is hardly surprising. The Holocaust has become iconic as a period of diabolical cruelty and murder. The creation of the State of Israel has always appeared in the West as a just recompense for a crime that in reality could never be compensated for. The creation of Israel has had the effect of absolving European guilt for the murder of six million Jews and wiping the slate clean on the previous two thousand years of discrimination and persecution. Naturally, the West is predisposed towards Israel.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are perceived as forever terrorists, or would-be terrorists, unwilling to share a land or be friendly to the new neighbours who have escaped such horror elsewhere.

Nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, all of this plays powerfully into the collective European and American psyche. How can the Jews be the bad guys after all that has happened to them? How can we deny them their Promised Land and the heritage of biblical stories connected to that land that also run so deeply through Western culture?

To counter this narrative will need a radical shift in the understanding of the Jewish story. But this is unlikely to happen until Jews themselves begin to question in greater numbers the Zionist paradigm of Jewish history that slots our self-understanding into a narrow nationalism that owes more to 19th century mid-European romanticism than it does to the Torah. Christian Zionism, particularly in the US, is the other huge challenge.

In short, this is not going to be easy. But remember, the boycott movement against South Africa began in the 1950s and by the 1980s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were still defending Apartheid. This will not be a quick fix solution.

Doesn't BDS lead to the destruction of Israel?

The BDS movement does not call for the destruction of Israel. Is does call for the legitimate rights of Palestinians in Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the refugee camps to be recognised and addressed. The BDS leadership does not advocate any specific political solution to the conflict. It does not call for a one state or a two state solution. The aim is to shift the debate away from borders and onto human rights.

That said, there is no way that the demands at the heart of the BDS campaign can be addressed without a fundamental change in the nature of the State of Israel.

Israel's Declaration of Independence from 1948 is full of high moral ambition. The State of Israel will, it promises, develop the country:
'...for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.'
But at the heart of this founding document is a fundamental contradiction. How can a state that defines itself as 'Jewish' and sets in place Basic Laws that significantly disadvantage non-Jews, ever hope to create a genuinely democratic state of all its citizens on the British, French or American model. Israel has to become the State of Israelis and not the State of the Jews. That does not mean that it cannot continue to be a centre of Jewish culture and learning but it must also be a truly pluralistic society that honours and protects all of its people, just as its founding document promised. Any neighbouring Palestinian State must, of course, be established on the same basis.

So BDS does not have to 'delegitimise' Israel or Israelis. It does, however, need to delegitimise the present concept of a Jewish state. That, of course, calls into question the entire Zionist project since Theodor Herzl and will demand a monumental change in mainstream Jewish thinking.

Some final thoughts

The key message of BDS must be that this is a peaceful, international act of solidarity with the Palestinian people who are asking only for the same rights enjoyed by Jews. In Israel\Palestine itself, a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience and resistance to the occupation by Palestinians, and their Jewish Israeli supporters, will begin to win over the hearts and minds of Western electorates that could change the international political dynamic over Israel. The attempt by Palestinian activists to echo the 'freedom riders' of the American civil rights movement by boarding 'Jewish only' public Israeli buses that link the West Bank settlements to Israel could be an important step in this strategy.

In the long run, I believe a post-Zionist Israel will be to the distinct advantage of both Palestinians and Jews. If the Zionist aim was to 'normalise' the condition of the Jews in the modern world then it has it been a spectacular failure. Israel, as it is currently constituted, has become the problem and not the solution. In the 21st century, growing beyond Zionism must be the way forward. We must aim for and nurture not a Judaism of narrow nationalism but a Judaism that embraces the justice envisaged by the biblical prophets of ancient Israel (Micah included!). We must promote a Judaism that learns the right lessons from its own painful history. Championing the rights of Palestinians is not only a moral imperative but the Jewish route to healing a fractured world.

Whether all of this is achieved through two states or one, or two states that eventually become one, I do not know. What I do know is that we should not fear such possible futures but embrace opportunities to build a beacon of trust and mutual respect in the Middle-East. Let Israel become a 'Light unto the Nations' rather than a darkness at the heart of Judaism.

Palestinian Freedom Riders November 2011

Thursday, 13 October 2011

On being a naïve, self-hating, single-issue sympathy tourist (or some notes on the Jewish civil war)

Meet the Sists!

Thank goodness for Norman Lebrecht!

If it wasn’t for people like Norman and his commentary on Jewish affairs, I could close down this blog today.

Here’s a taste of what he’s been saying of late, published on 8 September 2011:

“The Jews who view Israel as the acme of evil are, on the whole, not the brightest beans in the basket. They tend to be single-issue sympathy tourists (Sists) whose naiveté is manipulated by Palestine spinners in the course of a short trip to the most deprived parts of the West Bank.”
Wait, there’s more…

“… [Jewish] self-haters blame Israel and world Jewry for the unending misery of millions of Palestinians, oblivious to the peace deals ditched by Palestinian obduracy and the relief efforts made by many Israelis and Jews. Trapped in their tunnel vision, the Sists spout slogans and substitute emotion when logic fails.”
Norman’s spleen was provoked by the boycott activists who disrupted a Proms concert performance by the Israeli Philharmonic last month. But I’m sure he would happily let his ‘Sists’ description apply to Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights in general.

So why was I reading about ‘Sists’ anyway, which I suspect Norman would like to see lanced like some nasty infection on the Jewish communal skin.

Ending a boycott

A couple of weeks ago, and despite the general trend from my fellow travellers in favour of economic sanctions, I decided to end a personal two-year boycott I have been waging on one of the great bastions of UK Jewish culture: The Jewish Chronicle.

I doubt anybody noticed me either start or finish this act of cultural rebellion – but it meant something to me. And if I hadn’t ended it when I did I would have missed out on discovering my ‘Sist’ status courtesy of Mr. Lebrecht, a regular contributor to the newspaper.

So let me share with you how someone becomes a naïve, self-hating, single-issue sympathy tourist and how this particular ‘Sist’ ended up feeling compelled to start a blog like Micah’s Paradigm Shift.

Operation Cast Lead

After subscribing for many years, I finally fell out with the JC over its coverage of Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ during the winter of 2008-09.

The Israeli ‘incursion’ into the Gaza Strip was my personal tipping point. It marked the end of a long process of study, personal encounters, discussion and reflection about the meaning of the State of Israel to Jews and to Judaism.

As the bombing and artillery barrage went on, every news source I was looking at was reporting Israel’s massively disproportionate response to Hamas rocket attacks into southern Israel. But the JC was staunchly defending the right of Israel to protect itself against ‘unprovoked’ terror in what ever way it saw fit. This was reflected in the newspaper’s news reporting, editorials, readers’ letters and columnists.

The Richard Goldstone report, commissioned by the UN in 2009, later bore out just how brutal and indiscriminate Israel’s operation had been. 1,400 Palestinians had been killed including 300 children, while industry, hospitals, schools and homes had been destroyed. Goldstone’s caveats earlier this year in no way changed the primary findings of his report.

An end to liberal Zionism

The attack on Gaza was the moment when I finally broke ranks with Jewish-Israel solidarity. I ended my subscription to the Jewish Chronicle. But there was another subscription, more profound and more emotional, that I was also ending. My long-standing but increasingly tenuous position as a ‘liberal Zionist’ was finished too.

As a nineteen year old I’d spent several months living in Israel enhancing my Jewish education and hearing the standard Zionist history and interpretation of the Jewish Diaspora. Later, I developed a more critical view of Zionism through reading Israeli authors Amos Oz and David Grossman. As a student in Manchester in 1987 I remember afternoons sitting in the John Rylands library (when I should have been revising) trying to understand the origins of the first Palestinian Intifada through the pages of Foreign Affairs and lengthy commentaries in the New York Review of Books. If only we could deal with those pesky Jewish Settlers on the West Bank and give the Palestinians their own state then everything would be all right. Wouldn’t it?

But by the time Cast Lead came along I had already begun to question the entire Zionist project.

Reading the new generation of Israeli historians, I came to realise that the problem was not 1967 and the start of the occupation but 1948 and the very manner in which the Jewish State had been born and how the Palestinian refugees were created. From there the whole Zionist story began to unravel for me. I had begun to ask whether Zionism and the creation of Israel had been ‘good for the Jews’, or indeed anyone else?

Operation Cast Lead was the moment when all of the new dots in my head began to join up.

Back to the future

At the end of the 19th century the early Zionists had embarked on an adventure to go ‘back to the future’. They believed the anti-Semitism and alienation they suffered in Europe could be resolved through a version of mid-European ‘blood and soil’ nationalism transplanted to the Middle-East. With a deeply affecting and intoxicating mixture of religious tradition, theories of ethnic people-hood and a claimed unbroken genetic link back to the Holy Land, the myth of ‘A Land without a People for a People without a Land’ was born. I could now see what a disaster this project was turning out to be for Jews and Judaism. This is not an opinion widely shared by my fellow Jews! It is of course a much bigger disaster for the Palestinians, and they know this all too well.

In 2008 it felt to me as if too many of us were becoming ethically detached from reality. What I read in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle was not just a blinkered attitude but a blind loyalty to the State of Israel that was sending our traditional Jewish moral compass into a complete spasm. Collectively, we could no longer tell right from wrong, good from bad, justice from injustice. Zionism was destroying the very Jewish values I had been taught both in the UK and in Israel.

The Jewish disconnect

As we approached the spring of 2009, I had to finally acknowledge the painful disconnect between the celebration of the Jewish Passover with its story of freedom and liberation and what the creation of the State of Israel had meant for the Palestinian people. If Passover was only about celebrating our survival as God’s favourite tribe then it wasn’t worth the bitter herbs or the salt water. Our celebration of freedom from slavery had to speak to the whole of the Jewish story including all that had happened during the 20th century. It had wrestle with the meaning of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. But the message of Exodus story has always spoken to the rest of the world too and that world includes the Palestinians. Could we really celebrate a Seder meal without mentioning them?

Creating this blog has been one response to my desire to bring a Jewish but non-Zionist voice to the Israel-Palestine debate in the UK. Starting to buy the Jewish Chronicle again was another. I had to hear the voice of those I disagreed with if I was to write about the subject.

And so I discovered Norman Lebrecht’s article as I turned over the front page of the JC once again.

Micah the ‘Sist’?

Have I become a single-issue sympathy tourist? And a naïve, self-hating Jew into the bargain?

The answer has to be a firm ‘yes’, but only if Norman Lebrecht accepts my definition of his terminology.

Single-issue? Certainly. In fact for Jews in the 21st century our relationship with the Palestinians is the single most important issue of our time. How we now deal with it will determine the whole future of Judaism. Are we to aspire to be a ‘light unto the nations’, and a prophetic voice that calls power to account in the name of God and the equality of His creation? Or do we still think of ourselves as just the descendents of a desert tribe who must crave a false sense of security and power through narrow nationalism?

Sympathy? Absolutely! But passive sympathy is nowhere near enough. As Jews we must open our eyes, our ears and most of all our hearts to the Palestinians whose land we have dispossessed them of and whose culture and identity we have tried to deny. Sympathy is just the beginning.

Tourist? Isn’t tourism to Israel a good idea? Don’t we send our teenagers there in droves each summer to immerse them in the Zionist dream in the hope that this will foster their love of Israel and Judaism? What’s wrong with travelling to Israel and the West Bank and taking the time to listen and learn from Palestinians as well as Israelis? Or are we too frightened of what we may hear and how it might affect us?

If it is naïve to want to break free from the Zionist narrative paradigm that denies all challenge, then I must be naïve.

If it is naïve to want to understand the real history of Israel-Palestine, to read some books and hear alternative views, then I must be naïve.

If it is naïve to think that 44 years of Settlement building does not point to a country desperate to make a two state solution work, then I must be naïve.

If it is naïve to think that describing Jerusalem as ‘the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish State does’ does not sound like a nation looking to compromise, then I must be naïve.

And ‘self-hating Jew’? Well, yes, if ‘self’ has become all that we stand for. A hatred of selfishness is no bad thing. But Judaism and the Jewish people have always been better than that. If being Jewish is only about protecting ‘the tribe’ then what’s the point? As Rabbi Hillel said two thousand years ago: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

In the book of Deuteronomy (16:20) we are commanded: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” But did two thousand years without a state not teach us how to become a religion without borders? Hasn't our mission grown beyond such narrow confines? Today, do we not pursue justice in order to bring Tikkun Olam – to make a broken world whole? Or would we rather exploit our heritage to oppress another people for the sake of one narrow strip of land?

There is a civil war raging within the Jewish community. As befits the ‘People of the Book’, it is a civil war of words and it is being fought most passionately online. It is a war over the meaning of Jewish identity, Jewish ethics and the very future of a distinctly Jewish contribution to humanity. The battleground is Zionism and the State of Israel.

So where do we go from here? How do we begin a sensible conversation that gets beyond name calling and recognises the true plurality of Jewish voices and Jewish concerns?

Let me know what you think. All comments on this post gratefully received in the spirit of true dialogue.

The Jewish Chronicle front page from January 1896

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Israel and the crisis of Jewish-Christian dialogue in the UK

As we move towards a United Nations Assembly vote on the recognition of a Palestinian State later this month, Micah’s Paradigm Shift looks at the effect Israel is having on interfaith relations between Jews and Christians in the United Kingdom. Could the UN vote push Jews and Christians further apart or could it be the spark that kindles a radical reassessment of the Judeo-Christian mission?


Something precious

As a child growing up in a Jewish community in South East London in the 1970s and early 80s, there must have been something precious seeping through into my bones.

Perhaps that ‘something’ came from our Rabbi’s passionate, intelligent and challenging sermons especially on his favourite of the Hebrew Prophets, Jeremiah. Or perhaps it came from our shul President’s annual reading and commentary on the Book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. It was through Jonah and the redemption of people of Nineveh that I understood the Jewish God’s love for all of His creation. Or perhaps that ‘something’ came later, when as a teenager I first heard the words of Rabbi Hillel, the 1st century sage and scholar:
“If I am not for myself

Who will be for me?

If I am only for myself

What am I?

And if not now

Something was seeping into my growing bones and when I reached adulthood I would recognise it as the precious gift of Jewish ethics.

Ever since meeting as university students in Manchester 25 years ago, my wife Anne and I have been involved in our very own interfaith dialogue. For both of us this has been an endlessly challenging, inspiring, and mutually nurturing conversation. Our interfaith relationship, now shared with our four children, has been part of the journey that has led Anne into Anglican Church ministry. Without my marriage to Anne, I doubt very much that my own Jewish faith would have grown and matured as it has or that it would continue to be such an influence on my outlook.

All of this is by way of context and background which I feel is needed before I say anything further.

It is painful to criticise your own community and your own tradition and it is not a subject I approach with any great enthusiasm. It’s only fair to my readers, and to those I wish to criticise, to understand where I am coming from. I may be writing from the margins of the Jewish community but my heart lives firmly within the Jewish tradition.

I hope that what follows will be read as a challenge to mainstream Jewish thinking but also as a contribution to creating a renewed dynamic of Jewish self-understanding as well as of Jewish-Christian dialogue.


It’s becoming increasing clear to me that after decades of unwavering support for the State of Israel, the Jewish community in the UK is ill-equipped to deal creatively, and more importantly Judaically, with the groundswell of solidarity for the Palestinian cause. The forthcoming vote at the UN could well mark a tipping-point, particularly for UK Christian Churches already predisposed to supporting humanitarian causes around the world.

Over the last sixty years interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians has been critical to the healing and repair of a world left broken by the Holocaust. Jews have struggled to come to terms with the mass murder of a third of our people. Christians have had to confront the Church’s complicity in sowing the seeds of anti-Semitism. For Christians this has often meant supporting the State of Israel as an act of solidarity with Jews and recognition of a shared biblical narrative in the Holy Land. But the reality of the Jewish State, and the UK Jewish community’s defence of its actions, has been gnawing away at positive relationship building both in the UK and elsewhere.
With calls for limited boycotts of Israel already passed by the Methodists and Quakers, and on-going debates continuing within the Church of England, interfaith dialogue looks like being increasingly strained by the merger of Judaism and Zionism that has dominated the Jewish story since the end of the Second World War.

Competing narratives

The publication of the Palestinian Christian Kairos document in 2009 was a key moment in the on-going engagement of Christian communities around the world with the Palestinian cause.

Kairos catalogues the oppression of the Palestinians in Israel, in the Occupied Territories, and in refugee camps across the region. It points to institutional discrimination in Israel proper. In the West Bank it highlights land dispossession, water resource appropriation, arbitrary house demolitions, Jewish settlement expansion, military checkpoints, and daily violence and humiliations suffered by Palestinians. Kairos makes a powerful, faith based call for economic sanctions against the State of Israel and roots its appeal to the conscience of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the shared belief that every human being is created in God’s image and has been given equal right to dignity.

So what has been the UK Jewish leadership’s response to Kairos? What does it say about how the Jewish community sees itself and its future? And does it leave enough room for Jewish-Christian dialogue to continue?

One indication of where the Jewish mainstream stands is given in a document published in December 2010 aimed at UK Christian communities and intended as a direct response to Kairos.

‘Zionism: A Jewish Communal Response from the UK’ brings together rabbinic thinking from across the Jewish denominations as well as comment from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The rabbinic contributions come from Jonathan Wittenberg, Tony Bayfield and Danny Rich, all of whom have made highly significant contributions to interfaith relations in the UK which deserve considerable recognition and praise.

The main criticism of Kairos put forward in ‘A Jewish Communal Response’ by the Board’s President Vivian Wineman is that: “there is no acknowledgement of Jewish national aspirations or the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.” This position, further elaborated upon throughout the document, shows starkly how Judaism and Zionism have now merged making any criticism of the State of Israel impossible for fear of creating unacceptable offence to Jewish religious sensibilities or being accused of attacking Jews as Jews. Israel’s insistence that it is the State of all Jews worldwide and speaks on their behalf further exacerbates the problem and narrows the space in which Jews and Christians can speak about the Palestinians.

But when it comes to a selective telling of events, Zionist historiography has a poor track record. Although the founding myths of the State of Israel (including the causes that created the Palestinian refugees) have been thoroughly challenged and discredited by a new generation of Jewish Israeli historians, little of this learning has reached the Jewish mainstream.

What continues to be missing from the Jewish side of the Israel-Palestine debate is an adequate acknowledgement that there even exists an alternative to the Jewish narrative of the conflict. Thankfully, the three rabbinic contributions to ‘A Communal Response’ do go some way to addressing this omission and certainly take a more traditionally Jewish ethical stance on Palestinian suffering. Perhaps that is why the Board selected them to write for a concerned Christian audience. But their views are on the liberal wing of Zionism and their more enlightened attitudes are not those I read more regularly in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. That the alternative story from the Palestinian’s has the slightest merit or should even claim a compassionate response is rarely heard from the majority of the Jewish leadership (certainly not from the Board of Deputies) or in the Sabbath morning sermons some of my close relatives hear each week.

The altar of Jewish nationalism

Long ago the Board of Deputies decided that it was in the best interests of UK Jewry to uphold a strong defence of the State of Israel. This is not so surprising given the success of the Zionist movement in creating a new paradigm of Jewish self-understanding around the world. But in the process (and to borrow from Ahad Ha’am) the Board has sacrificed Jewish ethics on the altar of a narrow Jewish nationalism.

The Board is regularly ‘shocked’ and ‘appalled’ by attacks on Jews in Israel (see its recent statement on the Southern Israel bus attack) but it remains silent on Settlement expansion in the West Bank, Israel’s consistently indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on Palestinians or by the routine and violent attacks on Palestinians by West Bank Settlers. This one-sided approach to Jewish compassion and its adoption of Israel’s language of ‘security v. terrorism’ leaves me feeling that the Board’s pronouncements are ethically disingenuous and politically motivated. More seriously, it promotes a perception that Jews are only concerned with their own suffering, which is always guiltless, while any Palestinian suffering is the result of their own intransigence. In the long run this approach will harm Jewish community relations in the UK and push Jews and Christians further apart.

Theological sleight of hand

Throughout ‘A Communal Response’, the writers, both laity and rabbinic, constantly stress the strong Jewish ties with the Land of Israel and this becomes the cornerstone of their argument with Kairos. But is any of this being challenged by Palestinians?

The Jewish connection to the Land is not in question. The centrality of the Land to Hebrew scripture is not in question. The references to the Land in Jewish prayer and liturgy are not in question. What is being questioned, and challenged, by Kairos specifically, is the nature of the modern Jewish State of Israel, its superior claim to that Land and the need for it to have exclusive rights for Jews and an exclusive Jewish national character. This is where the debate needs to be focused.

The position set out by the UK Jewish leadership slides effortlessly from a description of the Jewish religious connection to the Land of Israel to a defence of the existence and actions of a political state as if it is all part of one seamless narrative that will break apart if the political state is challenged.

This feels like a theological sleight of hand. But is one that most Jews long ago accepted as the Zionist paradigm of Jewish history gained hold of the Jewish imagination. The 19th century Zionists put forward theories of an ethnic Jewish peoplehood and the narrative of the wandering, homeless and exiled nation to justify their project but they did so with little understanding of either Jewish history or Jewish theology. Their ideas, though, are now accepted by Jews, and many non-Jews, as cosmic truths when once they were hotly contested by the Jewish community itself.

But will Christians in the UK, as they become more aware of the Palestinians’ narrative, go along with this intellectual leap that claims Zionism is the natural and just outcome of two thousand years of Jewish history and religious development? To my mind this seems increasingly doubtful.

So where does this leave us?

Can dialogue continue in the face of growing hostility to Israel and its increasing isolation by the international community? Will Christians be dismissive of arguments that appear to still use (or misuse) religion and history to justify oppression? Can Judaism de-couple itself from Zionism and create a normal rather than metaphysical relationship to Israel?

Whatever happens at the UN in New York this month and whatever reaction there is from Palestinians, The U.S. and Israeli governments, I believe we will see the beginnings of a dramatic increase in the understanding of the Palestinians and solidarity with their call for justice.

Human rights and human wrongs

The crucial change that I see taking place, particularly through the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, is that the conflict is no longer being viewed as one between competing nationalist or religious claims. After 100 years of conflict it has now come down to something far simpler – human rights. It is this that will dramatically change the dynamics of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The story of Israel-Palestine has arrived at a place where all that really matters is who has rights and who is being denied them? You can tell me all you want about historic Jewish oppression and Jewish connections to the Land but all I really want to know is: why are you taking someone else’s land, someone else’s water, someone else’s home, and why do you treat one group of people in your country differently from another group? These questions should be part of the Jewish Prophetic call for justice in the 21st century, a loyalty to the ethical tradition, rooted in Hebrew scripture, of speaking truth unto power. Aside from the tragedy Zionism has brought to the Palestinians, the other profound consequence of its success has been the corruption of traditional Jewish ethical sensibility that has been contorted and distorted to defend a mistaken return to Jewish nationalism.

Beyond the Holocaust, beyond Zionism

I believe there is sacred language and biblical scripture that should continue to form the framework of Jewish-Christian dialogue based on monotheism, the sacredness of God’s creation and the dignity of every human being.

But for Jews and Christians to continue to develop creative dialogue both sides need to move beyond the Holocaust and beyond Zionism.

It should be noted that the purpose of interfaith relationship building is not to reconcile all disagreements or deny important theological differences. However, it is about sharing common concerns and an ethical, God-centred outlook on the world. Interfaith work between Jews and Christians is at its best when each side recognises that together they have a shared mission in the world. Jews may express this mission as ‘Tikkun Olam’, repairing and healing a fractured world in partnership with God, while Christians call the same endeavour ‘building the Kingdom of God on earth’.

To move forward, Jews and Christians must find a common response to the centuries of Jewish oppression in Europe that culminated in the murder of six million Jews. This response must take us beyond the current paradigms of Christian guilt and Jewish victimhood. The dialogue must move beyond a Jewish belief that political state empowerment will bring us safety and security. It must move beyond a Christian belief that the State of Israel must be supported as atonement for the sins of the Church.

The post-Holocaust response of Christian and Jews must be ‘Never again’. But that cannot apply only to Jews. ‘Never again’ must mean to anyone, anywhere, Jew, Muslim or Christian, Israeli or Palestinian. That means being constantly vigil against racism and discrimination wherever it shows itself. This principle of human rights based on an understanding of the dignity of all life must demand a higher claim to the focus of our faith than narrow chauvinism whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim.

This month’s vote at the UN could mark a further parting of the ways between Jews and Christians or it could be the moment to begin a radical reassessment of Jewish values that could lead to a flourishing of the Judeo-Christian mission.

For Jews it would mean a painful process of retreat from the Zionist narrative that has dominated our thinking for the last 100 years and the rediscovery of the universal and Prophetic voice of our Jewish heritage. To get there we will need to continue our dialogue with UK Christians and begin one with Palestinian Christians. In the end their voices will prove vital in the Jewish attempt to reclaim Judaism from narrow nationalism and create a shared mission to repair our fractured world.

If there is to be a starting point for the Jewish community to embark on this journey of rediscovery let it be a return to Rabbi Hillel and his first century articulation of the ‘Golden Rule’:
“That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Occupied with justice – A visit to the Holy Land

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Greenbelt Trust festival programme in August 2011. Grateful thanks to all at Amos Trust for organising the visit.

 Zoughbi Zoughbi, a Palestinian Christian and the Founder and Director of the ‘Wi’am’ Conflict Resolution Centre, offers us all sweet tea in small glasses and, thankfully, fills us with some much needed hope. “Having hope”, he says, “is a form of non-violent struggle. And it keeps us sane!” Zoughbi is a big man with an over-sized heart to match his over-sized frame. “I am against the system, not against the Israelis. All are created in the image of God.”

Wi’am’s modest offices are in Bethlehem, our base for most of the week, and are overlooked by a stretch of the Separation Wall several metres high. The Wall is a constant reminder of a conflict that not only needs peace but justice and reconciliation too. Zoughbi believes the times are changing though. He has little expectation that the traditional power elites will ever achieve much. He puts greater faith in the energy of ordinary people and ‘civil society’. “We used to ask each other ‘what faction do you belong to?’” says Zoughbi, “PLO, Popular Front, Hamas?’ Now we just ask, ‘are you on Facebook?’”

This was certainly not a traditional pilgrimage to see the Holy sites or walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We were here on a different kind of pilgrimage, to hear from the living witnesses and to see for ourselves the reality of the ‘facts on the ground’ in year 44 of the Israeli Occupation.

After just a few days, a clear and very disheartening picture was emerging. This is the ‘Holy Land’ in name only. In practice, it is the land of checkpoints, of house demolitions, of segregated roads, of ever-expanding Jewish Settlements, of water expropriation, of harassment.

One morning we leave our beds at 4.30am to join hundreds of Palestinian workers queuing to pass a checkpoint to get into Jerusalem. They line up along a narrow, barred passageway and then have to push and shove their way through a full-length turnstile that opens and closes at arbitrary intervals creating unnecessary rush and panic. It seems to have little to do with maintaining security and much to do with creating a daily grind of indignity and humiliation.

Like the Western (‘Wailing’) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem where prayers are stuffed into the crevices of the stones, the newer Wall is also the place for heavenly supplications. But rather than on tiny pieces of paper, these prayers are written with cans of spray paint for all to see.

“You stole our land but we are the criminals”

“Build bridges not walls”

“Where ever there is injustice, there is my home”

“Once a human rights teacher was born here”

“Jesus wept”

“Free Palestine!”

Some prayers work best as pictures. The graffiti artist Banksy has been to Bethlehem too and stencilled his peace dove wearing a bullet proof vest.

The construction of the Wall, often cutting deep across the 1967 border line, divides villages, cuts farmers off from their land, children from their schools, businesses from their customers and labourers from their jobs.

In West Jerusalem we meet Mia from ICAHD (The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). Mia, a secular Jew, leads us on a tour to explain what passes for planning and house building regulations in the occupied territories.

We see a poster that neatly sums up this bureaucratic aspect of oppression: ‘Kafka is alive and well and working for the Israeli Civil Administration.’ For me, as the only Jew in our Group, Mia and her ICAHD colleagues are not just working as secular humanitarians, they are upholding all that is best in Jewish ethics and the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets.

During our week we meet many inspiring individuals, who are passionately committed to a non-violent, democratic and faith based approach to healing Israel-Palestine. As Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust tells us, “It’s not about good Palestinians and bad Israelis. It’s about standing up for human rights.” In Hebron, a real flashpoint between Jewish settlers and local Palestinians, we meet Kathy Kern of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Kathy takes us onto her rooftop to survey the streets and homes that have been abandoned by Palestinian families driven out by the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist Jews. Kathy appears worn down but determined to stand by, witness to, and record the ongoing dispossession of her neighbours.

We end our visit on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, if not walking, then certainly paddling in the footsteps of Jesus. We are reminded that this is the spot where he blessed the peacemakers and, following the crucifixion, where he appeared to his despondent disciples to give them renewed hope. It’s a timely moment of inspiration for us all as we end our pilgrimage and reflect on what small part we can play to bring a just peace to the Holy Land.

Banksy strikes in Bethlehem 2007

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Dorothy in Oz – Micah on the West Bank

Below is an account of a meeting with an Israeli West Bank settler which took place earlier this year. Names have been changed but the facts are sacred and the quotes are faithful.

Isaac set the parameters for the meeting knowing full well that we have spent the last few days in the company of Palestinians who view his home as an illegal settlement on occupied land, a barrier to peace and a piece of theft.

Except Isaac doesn’t like the word ‘settlement’.

“It’s a ‘town’, you know, T-O-W-N. It’s just a town.”

He’s right, it is a town. In fact it may even look a little like the suburban America where Isaac grew up. The town has nearly 10,000 inhabitants many of whom are professionals commuting to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to work. The commute doesn’t take too long. The roads are built specifically for the exclusive use of Israelis. It’s a rather easier journey from the territories than the one we had witnessed for Palestinian workers who must line up from 5 a.m. to pass through long and humiliating security checks to get through the Separation Wall.

Isaac led us through tree-lined paths, past modest houses with tiled, pitched roofs. Palestinian homes have flat roofs with water butts to collect rainfall. Water here appears to be less of an issue.

A young boy walked past us wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan ‘We need to talk.’ He was right, we did. But as it turned out we were to do most of the listening.

Sitting in pews in a beautiful modern synagogue with beautiful, blue stained glass windows, Isaac put us in our proper place: “You are here to listen and learn and I am here to talk and to teach.” Isaac stood on the ‘bimah’, the raised dais in the centre of the house of prayer, and started to preach.

“You come from the UK with your values and you try to apply them here in a place that does not work in the same way. This is a Middle-East culture and your way of looking at things does not fit neatly here and that is why you are disturbed by it. I have some news for you all – you’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Well, we could all agree on that. They certainly do things differently here.

My mind raced ahead to see how far I could push Isaac’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ analogy. If I and my friends were the naïve and confused Dorothy, was Isaac the Tin Man with no heart and the Palestinians the straw men with no brains?

Or maybe it was Isaac who was the real Dorothy, looking to find his way back to a place called ‘home’.

Isaac had re-invented himself. He had been born in Pittsburgh to a Jewish family who were not religiously observant. But in coming to Israel for the first time he had found a sense of identity, of belonging, of rootedness that he felt the United States could never provide for him.

For an hour we put our polite but pointed questions to Isaac. Every question had been heard before and every answer felt well-rehearsed.

Isaac’s story felt like the story of Zionism in miniature - the powerful desire to escape the past and claim a new future. As the early Zionist pioneers would have put it: ‘To build and to be built’. Isaac said his wife had a similar story to tell - a shallow Jewish upbringing in America and the realisation that Israel offered a route to personal authenticity through a renewed and revitalised, Orthodox Judaism.

“We are here because God promised this land to us. Just as He sent us into exile 2,000 years ago, now He has enabled us to return.”

This was the traditional Jewish God who intervenes in history, just as He did throughout the Hebrew Bible. For Isaac, this was the very same God who had intervened when the West Bank was captured by the Israelis from the Jordanians in the ‘miraculous’ Six Day War of 1967.

“You need to understand that there never was a Palestinian State with Palestinian citizens. There were Arabs here and Jordan took the land in 1948 when they, and the other Arab nations, attacked the baby Jewish State.”

Isaac was lobbing theological grenades into my head. So, if I had understood him correctly, God was here in 1967 for the Jews. And in 1948 He was here for the Jews too – protecting His ‘baby’. This must have been the same God who averted His eyes as three quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to flee their homes? Even more disturbing, was this ‘interventionist’ God a God who had stood idle at the gates of Auschwitz but then had ‘redeemed his people’ through the birth of the State of Israel? Was Israel cosmic compensation?

Isaac and I must have been praying to different Gods. This was not the God who in my prayers I try to turn my face towards. Nor was it the God who grieves at the destruction of His creation, or the God of the Hebrew Prophets who exists in the very agony of those who suffer injustice. This God of Isaac’s was the grand re-invention of iron-age tribalism. This God was an intoxicating and unholy fusion of misconstrued Biblical myths with 19th century European ‘blood and soil’ nationalism.

Isaac had stolen my Bible. I wanted to steal it back again and I could feel the adrenalin flooding through my hands.

Hadn’t Jeremiah taught that God was no longer tied to the Land? That He was a God for everyone in all places? Hadn’t Jews over the last 2,000 years evolved their understanding of Hebrew scripture from a culture based on Land, Temple and a tribal god into a ‘portable’ faith that made all of God’s creation sacred through prayer, study and practical action? I tried to put this point to Isaac.

“The rabbis developed a holding pattern, a default position while we were exiled.”

Are Jews living outside of Israel less authentically Jewish than those living within Israel?

“I would say we were more ‘complete’ as Jews.”

So even the non-religious Jews living in Tel-Aviv are more ‘complete’?

“Yes, even the Jews in Tel-Aviv (I call it ‘Sin City’). But in the Land of Israel any place is more Jewish even if it is full of secular Jews. More Jewish even than Brooklyn!”

What if you could continue to live on this land, in this town, but it was part of a Palestinian State. Would you be comfortable with that?

“Comfortable? No. But we would stay here.”

What if all of the land, including the West Bank, was one State with everyone a citizen of Israel, would that work for you?

“No. One State like that would not be acceptable. What is important is that it is a Jewish State. That’s what is important to me. A place where Jews can be Jews.”

By now Isaac’s ‘Jewish radar’ must have been alerted by my line of questioning and my talk of ‘the genius of rabbinic Judaism’ but he continued to speak on the assumption that his audience were all Christians from the UK motherland.

“When you go home to Britain you want to live in a British State don’t you? Or at least it was British.”

That last throw-away comment took a moment to register properly and then I realised what had just been said to us.

I thought about my train journey into work each day and my fellow commuters to Manchester. Black British faces, White British faces, Muslim British faces and my own Jewish British face. What kind of face did Isaac think Britain should have? What does a ‘Jewish State’ mean in practice for Isaac? What face does it have?

If this town, T-O-W-N, town, and the hundreds of others like it across the West Bank, was needed for Jews to feel ‘complete’ as Jews then it was already high time to head straight back to ‘Kansas’. Isaac was right, I, and my friends were Dorothy.

By now my pen was shaking and I had stopped taking notes. I was eager to get out of that synagogue, to find my ruby slippers click my heels three times.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Lost Jewish Voices (part two)

This post follows on directly from 'Lost Jewish Voices (part one)'. It contains pre-1948 quotes from political writers, theologians, community leaders and historians who challenged the paradigm of Jewish nationalism and recognised its dangers to Judaism.

The views expressed are now considered, by the mainstream Jewish community, to be radical, dissident thinking. I hope they will inspire some to reconsider today’s unyielding paradigm that presents Zionism as central to the Jewish future. They also demonstrate how there was once a truely vibrant debate about Zionism within the Jewish community.

Arthur Hertzberg, a scholar of Zionism in all of its manifestations, set the scene well he wrote: “…the issue at stake…is not merely the correct understanding of Zionism…It involves the fundamental question of the total meaning of Jewish history.” Hertzberg was right, for Zionism is indeed a battleground and the battle began as soon as modern political Zionism emerged under the leadership of Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century.

We begin in the UK with Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in England at the end of the 19th century. He was firmly opposed to Zionist thinking seeing it as a threat to the development of Judaism, a threat to the security of Jews in the lands in which they lived and, as many others would later comment, the mirror image of the very anti-Semitism which Zionism claimed to be countering.

And so he observed:
“Is it not, to begin with, a suspicious fact that those who have no love for the Jews, and those who are pronounced anti-Semites, all seem to welcome the Zionist proposals and aspirations.”
Both Zionists and anti-Semites saw no future for Jews in Europe and Herzl himself had hoped to enlist the financial support of wealthy anti-Semites to help fund his organisation. But it was the promotion of nationalism over religion that most disturbed Montefiore:

“Liberal Judaism holds that a national religion is an absurdity, or, at any events, an anachronism. Just as Buddhism, Christianity, Mohommedanism have adherents of many races, and by this very fact have shown their universality, so must it be ultimately with Judaism.”
“Zionism and Zionistic activities not only depress Judaism by putting nationality first and religion second, but they injure Judaism by combining religion and nationality.”
Some of the very earliest Zionists from Eastern Europe, having visited Palestine for themselves, realised the nature of the project they were undertaking. Here is Yitzhak Epstein in his report to the Zionist Congress in 1905:

“Can it be that the disposed will keep silent and calmly accept what is being done to them? Will they not ultimately arise to regain with physical force, that which they are deprived of through the power of gold. Will they not seek justice from the strangers that placed themselves over their land?”
With the Balfour Declaration of 1917 supporting the creation of a ‘Jewish homeland’ the Zionist leadership under Chaim Weizmann were playing politics with a major imperial power and believed they were making significant headway with their state building project. Considering their position today, it’s hard to believe that the Jewish establishment in Britain in the form of the Board of Deputies of British Jews were firmly set against all that Zionism stood for. The Board sent the following letter to the Times newspaper in May 1917 six months before ‘Balfour’:

“Zionist theory regards all the Jewish communities of the world as constituting one homeless nationality incapable of complete social and political identification with the nations among whom they dwell and it is argued that for this homeless nationality a political centre and an always available homeland in Palestine are necessary. Against this theory [we] strongly and earnestly protest.”
The letter goes on to recognise (with in hindsight painful prescience) the Zionist proposal to give Jewish settlers in Palestine: “special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population…” For the Board of Deputies in May 1917 the danger was clear: “Any such action would prove a veritable calamity for the whole Jewish people. In all the countries in which they live the principle of equal rights for all religious denominations is vital for them.”

Much later, Arthur Koestler, author of ‘Darkness at Noon’ would describe the Balfour Declaration as:
“A document in which one nation solemnly promises to a second nation the country of a third nation.”

Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’ Am – ‘One of the People’) was to become the leader of a movement known as ‘Cultural Zionism’ which was critical of the ‘political Zionism’ of Chaim Weizmann. Living in Palestine in 1922 he wrote these words after hearing that a group of Zionists had killed an Arab as a reprisal for anti-Jewish riots:
“…their inclination grows to sacrifice their prophets on the altar of their renaissance…”

Judah Magnes was the first President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the leading proponent in the 1930s and 40s of a bi-nationalist approach to Zionism, with Arabs and Jews sharing political power as equals in one state. Sadly, he found little sympathy or support for his views in either the Jewish or Arab communities. He wasn’t wrong though. But he was a man who ideas are still ahead of his time (and ours?). Here he is writing to Chaim Weizmann in 1929, and like others, watching as two thousand years of Jewish religious development is jettisoned:
“The question is, do we want to conquer Palestine now as Joshua did in his day – with fire and sword? Or do we want to take cognizance of Jewish religious development since Joshua – our Prophets, Psalmists and rabbis, and repeat the words: ‘Not by might, and not by violence, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.’ The question is, can any country be entered, colonized, and built up pacifistically, and can the Jews do that in the Holy Land? If we can not (and I do not say that we can rise to these heights), I for my part have lost half my interest in the enterprise. If we cannot even attempt this, I should much rather see this eternal people without such a ‘National Home,’ with the wanderer’s staff in hand and forming new ghettos among the people’s of the world.”
If anyone managed in a few sentences to encapsulate the dangers of Zionism to Judaism it was Albert Einstein writing in the 1940s.

“I should much rather see reasonable agreement with Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish State. Apart from practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish State, with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain - especially from the development of narrow nationalism within our ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish State. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabean period. A return to a nation in the political sense of the word would be equivalent to turning away from the spiritualization of our community which we owe to the genius of our prophets.”

Hannah Arendt wrote widely on the roots of totalitarianism in the 20th century but is best known today as the author of ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’. She grew up in Germany before the Nazis came to power and had been an enthusiastic ‘homeland’ Zionist in her youth. Later she was profoundly critical of Zionist thinking on the historical relationship of the Jews to Europe, the political ambitions of the Zionist leadership, and the dangers of a Jewish State tied to either Britain or America. Writing in a 1944 essay, ‘Zionism Reconsidered’, she ridicules the nonsensical thinking that Jews could ever separate themselves from the world around them:

“In the official Zionist conception, it seems, the Jewish people is uprooted from its European background and left somehow in the air, while Palestine is a place on the moon where such footless aloofness may be realised."

In the same essay, Arendt points to the origins of Zionism not in the Hebrew Bible but in 19th century German romantic nationalism:

“It is nothing less than the uncritical acceptance of German inspired nationalism. This holds a nation to be an eternal organic body, the product of inevitable natural growth of inherent qualities; and it explains peoples, not in terms of political organisations, but in terms of biological superhuman personalities.”

Another profound and inspiring critic of the mainstream state building project of Zionism was the philosopher Martin Buber, author of ‘I and Thou’ and many works popularising the Jewish Hasidic traditions of spirituality. Buber had emigrated to Palestine from Germany in 1938. In his essay ‘Hebrew Humanism’ written in 1942 Buber, like Asher Ginsberg before him, fears what Zionism will do to Judaism without extreme care. For Buber, Judaism’s project must be greater than mere nationalism.

“By opposing Hebrew Humanism to a nationalism which is nothing but empty self-assertion, I wish to indicate that, at this juncture, the Zionist movement must decide either for national egoism or national humanism. If it decides in favour of national egoism, it too will suffer the fate which will soon befall all shallow nationalism, ie, nationalism which does not set the nation, a true supernational task. If it decides in favour of Hebrew humanism, it will be strong and effective long after shallow nationalism has lost all meaning and justification, for it will have something to say and to bring to mankind.”

Let me end this survey of Lost Jewish Voices with Elmer Berger, a Liberal Rabbi, writer and activist in the United States before and after the Second World War. Towards the end of his book ‘The Jewish Dilemma’ written in 1945, Berger returns to where modern political Zionism began - the arrest for treason on fabricated charges of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. It was while covering the Dreyfus trial for the Vienna based newspaper, The Neue Freie Presse,  that Theodor Herzl underwent his conversion to Zionism believing that the Dreyfus ca  se was evidence that Jews would never be accepted even within emancipated states such as France.

Berger has a different take on this critical moment in Jewish history:

“Where, in the world, a century before, would more than half the nation have come to the defence of a Jew? Had Herzl possessed a knowledge of history he would have seen in the Dreyfus case a brilliant, heartening proof of the success of emancipation. A world that had treated all Jews as Pariahs for 1,500 years, had, within the space of a century, come to see half of a nation concerned to redress an injustice to one Jew. The Dreyfus case is history’s ‘Exhibit A’ to prove that Jews are stronger as integrated Frenchmen or Americans or Englishmen of Jewish faith, than if they stand segregated and apart.”

Congratulations if you have read this far!

There are many Jews today who are starting to question the version of Jewish history and religion presented to us by mainstream Jewish educators, leaders and communal institutions. By rediscovering these voices from our past I hope we can find new ways to see the Israel-Palestine conflict and recognise that a paradigm exists that must be challenged. To borrow from Asher Ginsberg's words: our collective narrative must shift if we are to avoid sacrificing our Prophets on the altar of nationalism.

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.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Why Britain's Chief Rabbi got it wrong

How Jonathan Sacks fails to see the ethical logic of his own analysis

Israel's liberal daily newspaper, Haaretz, this week reported comments by  Britain's Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, in which he urged Israel's policy makers to improve their public diplomacy by better understanding the mindset of Israel's deepest enemies.
“First seek to understand and only then seek to be understood. Israel is convinced of the rightness of its cause because it thinks in terms of its own modes of thinking. Almost nobody has worked out what is the point of view of the people we’re opposed to. How do they think? It’s not just a question of how Palestinians or Iranians think. How do perfectly decent human right activists think?”
Sir Jonathan goes on to criticize Israel's government officials and pro-Israel advocates for failing to put Israel's case effectively to the world and relying on ill-thought out 'hasbara', which Sacks describes as 'marketing' and others call simply propaganda. Haaretz reports him as saying:
Entering one’s enemies mindset requires enormous power of empathy and humility, Sacks added. To help Israeli leaders achieve that goal, he advocates the creation of an institute of advance studies that would engage in in-depth analysis of these issues.
Now, let me be the first to say that Jonathan Sacks is one of Britain's greatest and most highly respected religious teachers. He is an effective communicator on radio and television and a passionate and persuasive writer on Judaism. In fact, over the years, his books have been a great influence on my own appreciation of Judaism. If I'm recommending an insight in to Judaism to non-Jewish friends I'll often point them in the direction of 'Radical Then, Radical Now', 'The Dignity of Difference', or 'To Heal a Fractured World'. So I hesitate to tackle the Chief Rabbi on questions of ethics when I think of him as one of my own teachers.

However, such 'chutzpah' has a long tradition in Jewish in life. Genesis has hardly got going before Abraham argues with God. Jacob wrestles with the angel  just a few chapters later. And even Moses fails to reach the Promised Land for picking too many fights with the Almighty. So forgive me Jonathan but I feel like I'm in good Jewish company.

Like so many figures in the British Jewish establishment, the State of Israel has become a magnet that cannot be resisted and which sends the Jewish moral compass into spasm. I fear that the Chief Rabbi fails to see the ethical implications of his own recommendations.

Sacks calls for a deeper analysis of why certain groups of people, including 'Palestinians and human rights activists' fail to appreciate the justice of the Jewish narrative on Israel. In other words they fail to accept the mainstream Zionist version of Jewish history and its relationship to Judaism and anti-Semitism. In Sacks' understanding, anti-Semitism has 'mutated into anti-Zionism' and what's required is an investigation into its new genetic make-up which is to be found somewhere in the hearts and souls of 'our enemies'. Like so many Zionists before him, Sacks sees anti-Semitism as an eternal element in the fabric of the cosmos that can never truly be overcome.

Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are certainly linked but not in the way Sacks thinks. If we take the Chief Rabbi's advice and delve more deeply into the mindset of Israel's 'enemies' we will quickly discover that the hostility that can slide into hatred of a People is founded not on some cosmic mutation but on personal experience, family history and the harsh reality of what Israel calls 'facts on the ground'.

And this is why the logic of Sacks' approach may take him, and most Jews, to an unexpected place.

What happens when you bring to bear 'enormous empathy and humility' to the story of Israel-Palestine?

It is not just better arguments to present to the world in Israel's defense.

In 'Radical Then, Radical Now', Jonathan Sacks tells his readers that the greatest moral principle in the Torah is that "You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger - you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt". This commandment, Sacks tells us appears 36 times in the Torah.

In truly understanding the mind of 'the other', 'the stranger' in your midst (and let's leave aside for the moment that the Palestinians see the Israelis as the real strangers in the land) you are forced to confront not just them but yourself as well.

As a result of these efforts, if they are undertaken with true empathy and humility, perceptions shift, paradigms shatter, and national narratives must be re-written.

So let's follow Lord Sacks' advice and attempt to enter the mindset of the 'enemy'. But not for the purpose of providing better 'hasbara'. Let's do it because that's what Judaism and justice really look like.