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.”