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.  

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Micah meets...Sami Awad

Meeting good people who are busy doing good things enriches the soul and provides much needed inspiration and hope. Micah’s Paradigm Shift would like to introduce its readers to Sami Awad, a man acting justly, loving kindness and walking humbly. 

Sami Awad

Sami is a Palestinian Christian and Executive Director of the Holy Land Trust (HLT). I had the good fortune to meet him on a recent trip to Israel-Palestine organised by the HLT’s UK partner the Amos Trust.

The HLT is a Palestinian nonprofit organisation which Sami founded in 1998 in Bethlehem. The Trust works with the Palestinian community at both the grassroots and leadership levels in developing nonviolent approaches that aim to end the Israeli occupation and build a future founded on the principles of nonviolence, equality, justice, and peaceful coexistence.

Along with my fellow Amos Trust friends, we sat beneath the shade of tree in the village of Walajah near Bethlehem where the HLT, along with volunteers from Amos, have been re-building a home deemed illegal by the Israeli authorities and demolished.

Here’s some of what Sami Awad had to say to us. Below you can see a video of Sami speaking on the Globaloneness project website.

On the work at Walajah:
In a way we are trying to implement UN resolution 194 as best we can, one family at a time. We want to take families out of despair. This is about using non-violent resistance to meet basic needs.
Human Rights:
This is not about good Palestinians and bad Israelis. This is about standing up for human rights
Dialogue with ordinary Israelis:
So many of the opportunities have been lost. We have many physical restrictions on our movement, far more than before the Oslo peace process began. Before we had more contact with Israelis. Now it is difficult for each of us to learn to understand the other. The [Separation] Wall is not only a physical barrier, it is a barrier between minds as well. When I was a child I often visited Jerusalem. The only Jews my 9 year old knows are soldiers and settlers.
Remembering Auschwitz:
I have travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau twice. I have been on retreat there because I wanted to get some sense of what it meant to be in the death camps for the Jewish people. But what shocked me more than the camp itself were the young Israelis who visited the camp and how their group leaders spoke to them. The youth leaders would say to these teenagers, and I saw this time and time again: “Look what happened to us here, look at this tragedy. We must never let this happen to us again. Given the opportunity, the Arabs will do this to us again.” For these kids, about to enter the IDF, Auschwitz was not just their history, it was being presented as their present and their future too. This is about perpetuating a psychological trauma. This is an abuse of the Holocaust.
On Hamas:
Yes, Hamas say they want to destroy Israel. But they mean Israel as a political entity – not destroy the Jewish people. The Jewish people can live on the land. The Israelis, the US, and Europe demand a form of words that says: we recognise the right of a Jewish State to exist. It was the same demand made of Yasser Arafat and Fatah in 1993. But Israel will not recognise the right of a truly viable Palestinian state to exist with clear borders. The words have to be part of the negotiations not the up front payment for dialogue.
What the future holds:
We are in a pivotal time now. We must develop a non-violent strategy. We must connect with like-minded Israeli organisations. For my generation it has been a political struggle about Palestinian recognition, about two states and so on. For my children’s generation it will be about having equal rights to the Israelis in this land. Without equal rights there will not be any peace or justice. Declaring a Palestinian State in September will make little practical difference to the people living here. A civil resistance movement is what is needed and the Palestinian leadership need to understand this.

Watch Sami Awad on the Globaloneness project speaking on how religion can play its part in peacemaking.