Saturday, 18 June 2011

Writing from the edge

There is something to be said for writing from the edge. And 'Jewish edginess' is what I have to offer readers of Micah's Paradigm Shift.

I am a Jew living in the United Kingdom, a country with a Jewish population of less than 0.5% of the total. I am a Jew living in Cumbria, possibly the least Jewish county in England. I am a Jew who married not beneath a sacred canopy in a synagogue but in the plain surroundings of a Quaker Meeting House in the Lake District. My partner will shortly become an ordained Anglican Minister. Our children have a love of Christianity and Judaism but will find their spiritual home in church.

I appear to have forfeited my rights to comment on matters of concern to the Jewish community. From Judaism's perspective I am most definitely living on the very margins.

Or is there another way of looking at this?

The great benefit given by distance is improved perspective. From where I stand I can take in wider views and appreciate a grander landscape of religious and political thought. That's especially true when it comes to Israel-Palestine and interfaith relations - the two main themes of this blog.

Writing from the edge leaves me free from tribal affiliations but without abandoning tribal affections. My Jewish edginess allows me to walk away from religious or theological rivalries. instead I am free to concentrate on commonality - the shared ground the overlaps between communities and faiths where open minds can meet.

This is not to advocate some kind of religious 'mush' devoid of distinct traditions, liturgies, prayers, celebrations and festivals. Religious particularism helps to forge personal identity, rootedness, community pride, a vital sense of connectedness. These things only go wrong when a particular route to a universal understanding of faith and humanity slips into exclusivity and chauvinism. The attitude and world outlook that says: Only my path is the right path. My truth is the whole truth. Only my light shows the way to redeeming the world.

On Israel-Palestine, my Jewish edginess allows me to understand the collective Jewish narrative that sees Israel not as a normal country but as a just answer, a messianic redemption, for a people who have suffered thousands of years of discrimination, oppression and genocide. My edginess allows me to step outside of this narrative, to question its understanding of history, theology and politics. It allows me to enter the narrative of the Palestinian people and be changed by that experience and understanding.

So what of Micah? And what is the paradigm shift he calls for? Why is he my edgy companion on this blog?

The Hebrew Prophet Micah, like the best of the Hebrew Prophets, was a critic of the religious and political power elites of his day. In starting this blog I was looking for a manifesto, a clear set of words, a vision to be aspired to and strive for. The paradigm shift I hope for, call for and pray for is summed up in these verses from the 6th chapter of the book of Micah :

 6 With what shall I come before the LORD
   and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
   with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
   And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
   and to walk humbly with your God.

The words appear so reasonable but in reality they are as radical and counter-cultural today as they were in Judea in the 8th century BCE. We worship the wrong things, we fail to do justice, we do not show  kindness and we walk upon the earth with a haughty arrogance.

Micah is writing from the edge. I hope that one day we will both find ourselves in the middle.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

On my way home from Israel

On my way home from Israel earlier this month I picked up a copy of the Jerusalem Post for 3 June 2011 at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. The main editorial concerned the planned 'Naska' (setback) demonstrations due to take place on June 6 to mark the anniversary of the start of the 1967 Six Day War. The article reflected on the Nakba (Catastrophe) demonstrations that had been held on Israel's Independence Day in May when Palestinians had attempted to cross Israel's borders in an act of 'return' to their 'lost homeland'. A number of Palestinians had been shot and killed and many others injured as Israel repelled the incursion. The Israeli government had blamed Syria and Iran for orchestrating the demonstrations. This is a claim now hotly contested by Palestinian groups and with no evidence for it given by the Israelis. Now the IDF was gearing up to deal with the repeat performance and promising not to be caught off guard again.

It was not until I was back in London and on the Heathrow Express to Paddington that I read the following paragraph in the Jerusalem Post editorial:

Few if any of these people can reasonably be defined as refugees since they have never set foot in Israel, let alone been expelled. They are instead the descendants of the several hundreds of thousand who left Israel after the Palestinians failed to snuff out the Jewish State at its birth and who paid the price of their leadership's disastrous mistakes and foolish intransigence.

Unfortunately, few, if any, Palestinian leaders have been willing to face the verdict of their failures, nor have they had the courage to tell these 'refugees' that they will never recover the homes and orchards of their imagination. Palestinian refugee descendants have instead been living on a vague idea of restoration and return, carrying with them, either figuratively or literally, the old keys to their families' former homes in Acre, Jaffa and Haifa.
As I sat on the train I reflected on what made this passage so astonishing to me and what a perfect illustration it was of the catastrophic failure to recognise our own features in the faces of our cousins, the Palestinians.

For a moment let's leave aside the disingenuous way in which the editorial writer has described the events of 1947-1948 and the true manner in which the refugees 'left' their homes. I can recommend plenty of Jewish Israeli historians who have been putting the record straight on this for the last 25 years. Let's also leave aside the writer's argument that might is right: 'we won, you lost - now deal with it!'

What really strikes me here is that the mistake the Palestinians are making is not that they have left it far too long to make such claims to the land of their ancestors - but rather that they have not waited long enough!

From my own experience of growing up in a Jewish family that marked and celebrated our history and festivals each year, the Palestinians need to cherish their memories for a lot longer than 63 years. They need to keep their memories and their 'keys' for a further 2,000 years and integrate those memories into their prayers and liturgies and continue to mark their historic loss of homeland. They must long for their return from Exile for many more generations before we can take them seriously! Then perhaps they can return to the Land and demand that they have a superior claim to settle there than whoever may be living on the land in the year 4,011! That approach seems to work so much better.

I am of course being a little flippant here.

The point I really want to make is that if we have any hope of arriving at even a partially just  peace settlement our first step must be to recognise each others' humanity and the strong parallels in our respective national and individual narratives. In doing so each side will have to adapt its own sense of itself and its story. That will be a painful but ultimately creative and rejuvenating process. We need each other to acheive this. Certainly, Jews need the help of our Palestinian cousins (also the off spring of Abraham) to reclaim the ethical heart of Judaism.

I will continue to read The Jerusalem Post - if only for a regular fix of aggravation!