Friday, 7 December 2012


Hanukkah contains so many ideas and is open to so many interpretations and modern re-imaginings that it's difficult to know where to start.

Is it about muscular Maccabean Judaism with heroic battles fought with God on our side? Or is about miracles in the Temple that prove that God never abandons His people? Has it become the Jewish answer to (secular) Christmas celebrations, a way to make sure the children don't feel left out of the present buying frenzy? Perhaps the real miracle (as the Rugrats Hanukkah special told us) is that we have spent more than two thousand years eating grated fried potatoes and donuts - and yet we have survived!

This year, I'm thinking about Hanukkah just in terms of light and darkness.

Each night, for eight days, we kindle one more tiny, fragile candle that burns gently for no more than twenty minutes.  And each night a little more darkness becomes illuminated. Slowly we light the way ahead and rededicate not an ancient temple but ourselves.

When it comes to Israel/Palestine we need all the light we can find and all of the rededication we can muster in our pursuit of peace with justice.   

For those readers not onboard for my first Hanukkah as a blogger, here's last year's reflections -

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

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Now is the time! - A prophetic call to action

To the Assembly of Reform Rabbis in the United Kingdom,

I believe we are reaching a defining moment in the history of the State of Israel and your collective voice might just make a difference.

I call on you because it was from within the Reform Movement that my Judaism was nurtured and encouraged and from where I continue to take inspiration.

I call on you because I see an ethical hesitancy born of political expediency that brings you no merit and that must be challenged.  

I call on you because you taught me to honour the Hebrew prophets

I call on you because now is the time.

Last week we witnessed the almost total isolation of the Jewish State in the United Nations General Assembly. The United States was the only country of significance to back Israel. Even Germany chose to abstain. 

Government after government rejected the idea that a make believe peace process would somehow be jeopardised by giving the Palestinians upgraded observer status in the General Assembly. 

The very next day, the Israeli government carried out its threat to punish the Palestinians for their audacity in appealing to the international community for the most modest of support. A West Bank zone, known as E1, is to have 3,000 homes built for Jewish settlers. 

Rabbis of the Reform Assembly, you know that these new homes will have Jewish only roads connecting them and Jewish only buses and cars driving to and from them. You know that these homes, when joined to the existing settlement blocs, will cut the West Bank in two and prevent East Jerusalem from ever becoming the capital of a Palestinian State. You know these homes will be built on land that is, at the very least, disputed territory, land that the international community believes belongs to the Palestinian people. 

Now is the time for you to take courage and to speak out. 

Not only is Israel on the brink of ending all possibility of a just resolution to a 100 year old conflict, it is also committing itself to Jewish hegemony in preference to Jewish democracy. 

Now is the time for you to take action.

There can be little doubt that we are looking at the first moves towards the unilateral annexation of Area C of the West Bank - approximately 60% of the territory that the Oslo Accords earmarked for a Palestinian State. 

If Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu party wins the Israeli election on January 22nd with a secure majority (and that’s looking by far the most likely outcome) this is the course they will set for themselves.   

Now is the time for you to move beyond calls for mutual understanding and respect and beyond a theology that elevates ‘balance’ to a religious virtue.  

On Tuesday 20 November 2012, as the death toll in Gaza continued to rise, you issued a statement on the Reform Judaism’s website. This is what you said:

“Torah commands us 'do not stand idly by while the blood of your neighbour is being shed' and two verses later 'love your neighbour as yourself'. These verses apply to everyone in this fearful situation, both Israelis and Gazans, however hard this is to recognise in a time of war.” 

Empathy for ‘the other’ is vital and much welcome - especially when it is in such short supply elsewhere in the Jewish community. 

But if the religious thought process stops there, it fails the test of the Jewish prophetic. It ignores where the real power lies and where the real oppression falls.

Undoubtedly, there is pain and suffering to be found on both sides. But let us be honest with ourselves, and others. 

There is no balance. 

Acknowledging this is the next important step that takes us beyond empathy and towards the moral and redemptive power of the Hebrew prophets. 

Now is the time to make an unequivocal statement that draws on our ethical heritage and says to the State of Israel, in a word borrowed from our annual liturgy of freedom: ‘DAYENU!’ Enough! 

May these words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who put righteousness, not tribal solidarity, at the heart of Judaism, ring in your ears: “In a democracy some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Now is the time to be brave and to be bold.

Now is the time to speak truth unto power. 

Now is the time.



Sunday, 18 November 2012

Swords, ploughshares and letters to the Israeli ambassador

Gaza is burning and my my inbox is full of noise.

Every blogger, every tweeter, every facebooker is sounding off at maximum volume and at increased frequency. Emergency updates are pouring in, irregular newsletters are arriving daily, donations are being requested.

It was all started by Hamas of course. Or was it all deliberately provoked by Israel? I am sent competing timelines for who did what and when.

Israel holds its breath in fear. Gaza life goes on hold.

I've been invited to attend demonstrations in solidarity with Israel at this grave hour. I've been invited to attend demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians, also at this grave hour. Usually they are in the same place and at the same time. However, none of them are being held in Kendal, Cumbria.

I later receive reports about said demonstrations. On one side of the road they shout: "Long live Israel" and sing the British and Israeli national anthems. And on the other side of the road it's: "No Justice, no Peace, Israel out of the Middle East."

I'm hearing firsthand accounts from air-raid shelters in Gaza City and from Tel Aviv.

I'm being told by the professional polemicists that Israel is facing Jew hatred on a genocidal scale with Jihadists armed to the teeth by Iran. I'm also being told that Palestinians are facing another massacre at the hands of the Zionist army, for this is Operation Cast Lead "part 2".

Plenty are saying that this is Netanyahu's re-election campaign. Stoke up fear, side line economic and social issues, put the threat of terror centre stage, the country always rallies around the government at such moments of crisis.

But is such cynical behaviour really credible? I suppose plenty have done just this throughout history.

Others point at how patient the Israelis have been to tolerate missile attacks from Gaza week after week. What country could stand back and let its citizens be attacked like this?

Gaza is burning and my inbox is full of noise.

And what of the assassinated Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' military wing? Either he was a militant, a leader of terror and the mastermind behind Gilad Shalit's hostage taking, or he was a pragmatist willing to broker cease fires at the very moment he was killed...the victim of Netanyahu's political expediency.

And then there's more...there's always more!

Actually, I am assured, it's all about stopping the Palestinians in their tracks from their bid to win upgraded observer status at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of the month. Or is it just about telling President Obama that his re-election victory (despite being supported by 70% of US Jews) will change nothing when it comes to trying to push Israel into genuine talks on a two state solution.

I have decided that it is possible to be 'over informed'.

In fact I am tempted to switch off the war of words being played out across the screen of my ipad, as I travel back and forth by train from Kendal to Manchester each day. I fear my ethical sensibility is in danger of being caught in the electronic cross-fire.

Gaza is burning and my inbox is full of noise.

But then I touched one more hyper-link and the moral mist began to clear.

A letter of 'support' and 'solidarity' to His Excellency, Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador to the Court of St James, signed jointly by everyone who is anyone in the UK Jewish establishment. You can read the whole thing here and view all of the signatories on the Jewish Leadership Council website. Here's an extract though:

Over the past decade we have rallied together in support of Israel under the banner of ‘Yes to Peace, No to Terror and No to Hamas’. The current Operation Pillar of Defence is an entirely understandable response to the intolerable assault upon the citizens of Southern Israel and the continued provocations of Hamas – an antisemitic terrorist organisation.
We take pride in the commitment of Israel’s political and military leadership to leave no stone unturned in seeking to avoid civilian casualties and remain true to the Jewish ethical ethos that underpins the doctrine of the IDF.

No nuance. No subtlety. No history. No context.

One side (ours) is totally innocent. The other side (theirs) are nothing more than anti-Semitic terrorists whose only motivation is pathological hatred. Our response is 'entirelly understanable' while their behaviour is totally incomprehensible.

Nothing conflicted in their inbox, that's for sure.

So where exactly is the reconciliation strategy? Where is the pursuit of justice? Where are the negotiation skills? Where is the greater vision?

And where, dear God, are the universal Jewish ethics I was taught by these very same Jewish institutions?

Why is there such a catastrophic mismatch between Jewish teaching and Jewish behaviour when it comes to actions by the State of Israel?

This is the same IDF that allowed 318 children to be killed in three weeks of bombardment of Gaza in 2008/9. This is the same Israel that has blockaded air, land and sea around Gaza since 2005 destroying any chance of a normal economy developing and undermining any remaining social cohesion. This is the same Israel that condemns 'unilateral action' by Palestinians at the United Nations while unilaterally announcing expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the same month.

Gaza is in conflict with a powerful neighbour which is armed with the most sophisticated military hardware on the planet and a highly trained army and airforce. However, the slightest use of force against the Israelis plays into their hands allowing the narrative of illegitimate terror verses legitimate defence to continue to be played out. But I cannot accept that Gaza's force is always immoral while Israel's is always just.

The UK Jewish establishment is once again failing itself, the Jews it claims to represent and indeed the best interests of Israelis. They have once again climbed to a giddy height of denial about the role Israel has played, and is playing, in the decades long oppression of the Palestinian people.

By 'circling the wagons' and refusing to express the slightest independence from Jerusalem's hard line, our 'leadership' is ripping to shreds three thousand years of Jewish ethical tradition because all that matters is to demonstrate 'solidarity' and 'support'.

As I've said many times on this blog, if there had been less 'solidarity' and less 'support' coming from the Jewish diaspora over the last forty years, I doubt Israel would be the pariah state it has become in the eyes of most of the world.

So, rather than writing letters such as this to the Israeli Ambassador, I would recommend that our leadership learns to become more conflicted and more confused. It's a much healthier state of mind. And I strongly suspect it would reflect the thinking of far more UK Jews than they would ever care to admit.

Gaza is burning and my inbox is full of noise. And thank God for that noise.

In the meantime, can we all remember that narrow Jewish nationalism is not the core message from  Judaism's heritage. The prophetic vision we should be hanging onto is this:

"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Isaiah 2:4

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Does a Christian arts festival have the right to criticise Israel? - A Jewish defence of Greenbelt

An open letter to Rabbi Natan Levy

Dear Rabbi Levy

Last month I stumbled across your guest blog post on the Board of Deputies of British Jews web site. You were comparing the Jewish Limmudfest with the Christian Greenbelt festival, both of which take place over the August Bank holiday weekend. You noted, with some dismay, the amount of time Greenbelt has given to the issue of Israel in recent years and the critical stand it has taken on Israel's actions and treatment of the Palestinian people. You asked your readers if it was: "time for both Jews and Christians to stop the festivities and start a hard conversation".

Your suggestion that a dialogue is required was prompted after looking through past Greenbelt festival programmes:

"... there are, to put things rather bluntly, an awful a lot of sessions and presenters portraying an awful image of Israel. At last count there were 70 talks or films or presenters with a specific focus on Israel and Palestine in the last 10 years of Greenbelt."

By my reckoning, that works out at seven sessions a year, out of many hundreds, for a Christian festival to discuss the current situation in the Holy Land. That doesn't seem so unreasonable to me considering the central role that the land plays in the Gospel story, the ethical heritage that Christianity acknowledges that it draws from Biblical Judaism and the natural interest and concern for the current well-being of a country that is the birthplace of Christian faith and practice. As Jews we should not think that Israel is somehow 'out of bounds' for Christian debate and prayer.

You identify "blinkered viewpoints" that call for boycotts and accuse Israel of being "a new South Africa". You state, correctly, that Greenbelt officially supports the boycott of goods from Israeli Settlements on the West Bank and you fear that Greenbelt: "...offers a unique listening post to the current trends in English Christendom". By the way, that's a quaintly Victorian way to describe today's exceptionally diverse Church communities and the wide variety of viewpoints you'll find within them. I hope most Christians see the Jewish community as monotheistic in its religious beliefs but certainly not monolithic in its opinions.

Now, before I go any further, I must declare my interests and say that I approach this subject from what I consider to be a privileged position. 

I have been going to Greenbelt festivals for the last 6 years with my wife Anne and our four children. Anne is a Church of England curate, while I would describe myself on the religiously progressive and politically radical end of the UK Jewish community. Readers of my blog, Micah's Paradigm Shift, will be familiar with my modest attempts to rescue the Hebrew covenant from an oblivion created by uncontested and unrestrained Jewish nationalism. So, my comments on Greenbelt are as a Jew, but a Jew who sees very clearly how profoundly many Christians are moved to engage with the Israel/Palestine situation and how torn they feel between sympathy for the Palestinians and an acute understanding of the place of Christianity in the history of the Jews and Jewish suffering.

Before turning to the Christian festival goers who choose to hear talks about Israel/Palestine, let me tell you a little about my own experience of these talks and where they have taken me.

Odd as it may seem to you, it has been at Greenbelt (often in two muddy marquees named 'Galilee' and 'Hebron') where I have found my Jewish faith strengthened and energised and where a renewed commitment to fulfil the Biblical imperative to 'pursue justice' has been nurtured. 

Having spent more than twenty-five years wrestling with my relationship to Israel, it has been the Jewish and Palestinian speakers at Greenbelt that finally helped me to understand my own conflicted loyalties and chart a way through them that has led me back to Judaism rather than away from it.

Let me focus on some of the Jewish speakers who have come to speak at this Christian festival. There was the theologian Marc H. Ellis, who sees himself as a 'Jew of conscience' forced into exile from a Jewish community which has now aligned itself with 'empire and power'. Ellis sees a people that has abandoned Judaism's prophetic call for justice in favour of a narrow, chauvinistic nationalism. Then there was Jeff Halper whose Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has documented the steady erosion of Palestinian rights in the West Bank. Halper is now of the opinion, shared by a great many others, that we have reached the point where the Settlement programme, and the half million Israeli Jews it has brought to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has wrecked the chance of any meaningful two state solution ever being agreed. Then there was Glyn Secker, from the UK's Jews for Justice for Palestinians, who in attempting to break Israel's sea blockade of the Gaza strip believed he was acting not just out of Palestinian solidarity but from a solidarity with his own Jewish heritage. Then there was the former Israeli airforce captain, Yonatan Shapiro, who established Combatants for Peace after becoming desperately disenchanted with the actions he and his colleagues were being asked to carry out in the name of Israeli security. Commenting on Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, he told us: "It was against every Jewish principle I had ever learnt at school or at home". 

What to make of such testimonies? What to make of so many committed Jews apparently on the 'wrong side'?

As you mention, the Jewish Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappe has been to Greenbelt too. It amazes me that thirty years after a new wave of Jewish historians began examining the Israeli archives and deconstructing the myths of Israel's foundation, their impact on mainstream Jewish thinking has been, to nothing. We have refused to re-examine the paradigms that give us comfort: Jewish victimhood versus Arab duplicity and intransigence. The story turns out to be so much more complicated but why do we remain so unwilling to listen?

This year at Greenbelt I heard from the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, who has spent years reporting from Gaza and the West Bank, determined that the collective punishment of the Palestinians by Israel should not be left unreported to Israeli citizens (who have become just as reluctant as diaspora Jews to confront reality). Levy's prophetic thunder was not to be silenced, even by the real thunder and rain he had to compete with outside of the tent. This comment, towards the end of his talk, summed up much of what he had to say to us: "If you have a friend who is a drug addict do you supply him with more drugs or do you try to force him to the rehabilitation centre? Israel is addicted to the occupation...and it is the only occupation where the occupier claims to be the victim...and the only victim."

From my point of view, these speakers have been an essential corrective to the mainstream Jewish narrative on Israel that I grew up with and continue to hear from Jewish leaders and read in the community's newspapers. I wonder whether, if our Jewish community leaders had taken a more self-confident and independent line from Israel and had been willing to adopt a critical stance, would the chances of a genuine two state solution now look quite so remote? 

All of these speakers, along with the many Palestinians I have met at Greenbelt, have led me to read around the subject voraciously. With each new book I have discovered how ignorant I have been about the State that speaks in my name, justifies its actions for the sake of my protection, and awards me rights to live and work there which it denies to Palestinians born and bred in the land. 

A visit to Israel and the Occupied territories with Anne, organised by Greenbelt and Amos Trust in 2011, led to more painful and emotional encounters with both Jews and Palestinians, including West Bank Settlers.

Like you, I would prefer it if comparisons with apartheid South Africa were not being made about Israel. In fact, I would welcome your help in finding an alternative vocabulary that captures the reality. Apartheid is not a nice word. But find me a better one to describe what is happening in the 60% of the West Bank which Israel has total control of. 

But let's return to Cheltenham and to Greenbelt. What about the Christian listeners to these talks, for they are your main concern.

Many of the Christian Greenbelters who have stood alongside me in 'Galilee' and 'Hebron' are extremely knowledgeable about the situation. In my experience, many of them are rather better informed about Israel's history and the reality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than most members of the Jewish community in the UK. And how have we allowed that to happen? They also understand the history of Jewish persecution over two thousand years and the responsibility of Church teaching that made European soil such fertile ground for anti-Semitism. What they are not is naive or ill-informed.

However, I can understand you thinking that they will learn very little at Greenbelt about the central position that the land of Israel (as distinct from the modern State) has in Jewish history, religion and culture. Nor perhaps will they appreciate the position that the modern State of Israel holds in 21st century Jewish identity. They will not appreciate how Zionism has become a kind of secular Judaism for many Jews, the chief way in which they identify with their heritage. They may even find it strange how our prayer book liturgy now seamlessly weaves the creation of Israel in 1948 into our 5,000 year history as a moment of messianic redemption following the Shoah.

My Christian friends often find it hard to understand how it appears that as a Jew you may commit any number of religious transgressions - strident atheism, eating bacon, even marrying 'out' - but stepping outside of Zionism is now the point where a Jew steps beyond the pale and must expect to find themselves cast out from the fold. How have we allowed ourselves to reach such a state of affairs?

So is it balance that you are after? I recognise that this is the usual call that is made by the mainstream Jewish critics of debates and talks like those held at Greenbelt. Calling for balance always sounds eminently reasonable. It also gives the false impression that the conflict itself is balanced between two sides with equal weapons, resources and influence, suffering in equal ways. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Perhaps Greenbelters should have extracts from the Hamas charter read to them or be constantly reminded about suicide bombings, Qassam rockets and the threats made by President Ahmadinejad? These are certainly relevant factors and help to explain a mainstream Jewish understanding of the situation. Again though, this agenda allows us to maintain our paradigm of defencelessness and victimhood which drives so much of the debate and distracts from the fundamental issues of human rights and human wrongs.

So where do we go from here? How can the festival goers of Limmudfest understand the concerns of Greenbelters and vice versa? How do we get a dialogue going with some real honesty that gets my Christian friends beyond feelings of collective guilt and my Jewish friends and relatives beyond tribal loyalties and distorting paradigms? What can take us both back to our common ethical heritage that should bring God's concern for every human being to the centre of the debate?

I believe that our relationship to the Palestinians is the defining issue for Jews in this century. It has already had the power to radically transform Jewish sensibility and is certainly distorting Judaism's ethical legacy. I don't know how many speakers you will have at next summer's Limmudfest that will consider this question, but to my mind, you can't have too many.

Meanwhile, I will suggest to the organisers of Greenbelt some kind of 'exchange' visit between the two festivals so that the "hard conversations" I have sketched out here can begin to take place.

Yours in peace and in dialogue,

Robert Cohen
Micah's Paradigm Shift


Friday, 14 September 2012

Jonah on the couch - inside the mind of the reluctant prophet

The Days of Awe were approaching and I was thinking about Jonah.

I've always had a soft spot for the story of the reluctant Hebrew Prophet who shirks his mission, runs away to sea and is famously swallowed by a giant fish.

We read his story in the synagogue every Yom Kippur afternoon as a parable of forgiveness and God's love for all of his creation. When Jonah finally makes it to that great city of Nineveh he still doesn't care much for the job he has been tasked with - telling the sinful Ninevites to repent. He can't get his head around the idea that God should care a jot for this people who "do not know their right hand from their left."

I can never quite decide if the story is a comedy or a tragedy. Here he is, centre stage, the man who tries to run away from God. As if God only looks down on Israel and to get out of God's sight all one has to do his hop on board a boat from Joppa and travel west to Tarshish. Jonah, with his Israel-centric view of the universe, is comic and absurd even before the business with the fish.

One thing is for sure, he remains unimpressed by God's mercy even after he is spewed onto dry land by the fish for a shot at redemption.

The Book of Jonah is certainly prophetic but the prophet himself is something of a ethical disappointment. He has little in common with his next door neighbour in the Hebrew bible, my good friend Micah.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, much appreciated!"

I looked up from the notebook in which I scribble ideas for this blog - and there in my living room was the fishy man himself.

Jonah had occupied my couch. With threads of seaweed still in his hair, he was reclining across the full length of the sofa, his legs sticking over the armrest. In his hand he was holding my TV remote control and flicking through the news channels on mute.

"So you think I'm just some Hebrew comedian do you? I don't buy this interpretation of yours. And I don't see any theology degree hanging on the wall either."

What are you doing in my home?

"You believe in a universal God, a God for all, and for all time. Why should you be so surprised when scripture turns up in your front room? By the way, what year is this?"

What year do you think it is?

"I can't decide. I'm thinking 1938, or perhaps 1942. No, maybe 1948, or 1967. I always liked 1967. When we put an end to those Auschwitz borders."

It's September 2012. It's Yom Kippur soon. Is that why you're here?

"How do I know? I expect you need some sense knocking into you. That's usually why I seem to turn up in strange places. By the way, it must be 40 years since the Munich Olympics, I hope you said a few prayers and stood silent for the murdered Israeli athletes?"

The campaign was all a little too politicised for my liking. It felt like an excuse to remind the world about Palestinian terrorism and Jewish victimhood. Emotional blackmail at an international level. It left a nasty taste. The athletes deserved to be remembered but not at the expense of any kind of honest acknowledgement of what has driven the conflict for 100 years.

"Your kind are so soft. Your compassion is out of all control. Palestinians, Bedouins, African immigrants, Iranians! You put everyone ahead of us in the line. You'd prefer we were squashed to a pulp before raising a figure to protect your own people."

I always thought the point of your story was the importance of a universal ethic of compassion.

"What's the point of compassion for your greatest enemies?. Nineveh was the Third Reich of its day. How much compassion do you have for the Nazis (not to mention their cattle)?"

You're right, it's a pretty tall ask. But at least we could make a start on climbing the ladder.

"You're crazy! Who wants to be the most ethical people in civilisation's graveyard?"

So where does that leave us? What's the point of being Jewish?

"Survival is the imperative. After the Holocaust, it's the 614th commandment. I read that somewhere."

And how does that play itself out today?

"We sideline the Palestinians. We keep the Americans wrapped around our little finger. We build what the hell we like in Judea and Samaria. We keep Gaza under lock and key. We make sure Iran knows who is boss in the Middle East."

And how long do you think we can keep this up before too many people start to ask about human rights as well as Jewish rights?

"As long as we can play the eternal victim, we'll be just fine."

In the big fish, when you thought all was lost, you sounded very different. You called out to God and said: 'They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.'

"A later insertion by the rabbis. Not a true reflection of my point of view. That whole prayer, in the belly of the fish, was the kind of defeatist attitude that suited us in our exile. Weak diaspora mentality designed for keeping in with the locals."

You know, I'm beginning to feel attracted to that whole running away thing you did back then.

"Fine by me. We could do with fewer Jews like you with your naive questions and hypersensitivity. But now who's trying to run away from God?"

Not from God, definitely not from God. Away from reckless power, away from a tribal self-obsession, away from a mad perversion of Judaism that's turned nationalism into a Golden Calf. We are the ones who no longer know our right hand from our left. In fact, our whole moral compass has been sent into spasm at the very moment we think we have found our collective redemption.

"Nice little speech. You and your friends can go back into exile. See if anyone notices."

I'm not planning to hide like you or wait for the storm to blow over. It's not a passive exile I have in mind. I'm grabbing the Hebrew covenant and rescuing it from oblivion - one blog post at a time! If I can open a few Jewish eyes to what's being done in the name of Judaism and the Jewish people then that will be a start.

"I see those murderous terrorist friends of yours in Gaza are still firing rockets into southern Israel. Anything to say?"

Are we really so very innocent? Do we really have not a single thing to answer for? Have you noticed how many more of their children than ours have died across the years? Yet we are the ones who are told to be fearful and feel eternally threatened? Can we never afford to express just a moment of self-reflection or, God forbid, some self-criticism?

"I'll see you on Yom Kippur then?"

Well, we certainly both have much to atone for in our own ways. You've done too much. I've not done enough.

"I've no idea what you mean. I have a clear conscience."

I thought you might say that. You know that's the biggest problem! We can't even see what we are doing. Delusion and denial on a grand scale! And you know, you are right, I was wrong about you being a comic character. Without doubt, your story is tragic. And now, you can get off my couch and hand over the TV remote, I would like my living room back!

"You can have your living room and the remote. I have bigger fish to fry."

And with that the man with the seaweed hair was gone.

Happy New Year/Shonah Tovah! And may we all be written in the Book of Life.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

A radical rabbi’s call for prophetic justice

Below is an edited version of my interview with Rabbi David J. Goldberg commissioned by the UK's Church Times. It was published on 10th August under the headline 'An insider on the outside' and the full version can be found here but you'll need to take out a subscription to access it.

Goldberg's new book 'This is Not the Way - Jews, Judaism and Israel' sums up a lifetime of theological and political thought reminding readers why he’s been such a radical voice in Jewish Britain for nearly forty years. However, in this extract, I'm focusing on his comments regarding Israel/Palestine and Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Readers of this blog will know that I don't share Goldberg's dislike for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) strategy nor his belief that a two state state solution is still the best answer to the conflict. He is though way ahead of most of his rabbinic peers in Britain and an important and fearless voice. In particular, I welcome his assessment that rabbinic criticism of Israel has been sorely missing and his concern that Christian-Jewish dialogue often avoids an honest debate about what goes on in the name of the 'Jewish and Democratic' state of Israel.

[Extract from Church Times feature]

'An Insider on the Outside'

It is his views on Israel that have attracted the most controversy throughout his career. It’s an indication of the centrality that Israel now has in modern Jewish identity that Goldberg has been accused of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ for his outspokenness on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian land. In fact he was tempted to call his book ‘Reflections of a self-hating Jew’ before his friend, the journalist and historian, Max Hastings pointed out: ‘David, the Public doesn’t do irony’.

His criticism of Israel stems from his understanding of justice as being at the heart of Jewish ethics. “I am a staunch advocate of the right of Israel to exist within secure, internationally recognised borders. But as a Jew I can’t be unaware of ethical responsibilities”. Goldberg believes the Jewish lay leadership has abdicated those responsibilities through their automatic defence of Israel’s actions. But it’s the religious Jewish leadership, in all branches of Judaism, but especially within his own progressive movement both in Britain and America, that he reserves his harshest criticism. “They have been timorous, willing to wax indignant about so many subjects, but maintaining a lamentable silence on Israel.”

On the day we met, the General Synod was about to debate its motion on Israel-Palestine with pressure from the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks (a second cousin of Goldberg’s), and the Board of Deputies of British Jews to moderate the motion by removing reference to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme which they described as ‘anti-Israel’. Reviewing the coverage of the debate at the end of the week in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, Goldberg sent through to me the following assessment “Obviously, I was not there to hear the debate, but I thought that the JC’s front page headline charging the Church with endorsing an ‘Israel hate agenda’ was an irresponsible incitement of Jewish paranoia; and its editorial accusing the Archbishop of Canterbury of ‘an explicit comparison’ between the Holocaust and the deprivations of the Palestinians at checkpoints was a scurrilous distortion of his carefully chosen words.”

David Goldberg has always been a champion of interfaith dialogue but now sees how the Israel question has contaminated Jewish-Christian relationships that have been built up over decades. He recognises that centuries of anti-Semitism, with its origins in Christian teaching, have left Christians in an ethical bind. Who are they to lecture Jews on morality? On the other hand, how can Christians stand by when they see an injustice being committed against the Palestinians?

“Israel as a State has become politicised. When it comes to interfaith dialogue, it’s become the elephant in the room because those Christian organisations that have dared to voice criticism of what goes on in the occupied territories suffer the full force of the Jewish community bearing down on them and risk the ultimate sanction, and ultimate deterrent, of being accused of anti-Semitism.”

So can the situation be unlocked? “Well I’m not optimistic because it requires honesty on both sides and I have to say that organisations like the Council for Christians and Jews are too timid to grasp the nettle. They always look for the anodyne consensus that will please nobody. Ultimately, they can’t confront the situation because there is a lack of real openness.”

A two state solution is Goldberg’s preferred resolution to the conflict. He sees one state and bi-national options as inflicting just another injustice. “I believe the Palestinians deserve a state of their own. They have earned it through their struggle.” One problem has been that there has never been a coincidence of strong leadership on both sides willing to pursue peace and steer their people away from the abyss. Solving the conflict, he believes, should be through argument and dialogue and he would not support boycotts against Israeli products or individuals. “I’m a John Stuart Mill libertarian and I always believe in the ultimate power of free speech. I would prefer to persuade the Israeli government by reason, pragmatism and political argument that it’s in their own best interests to end the occupation and curtail the settlements. Boycotts will make the Israeli government more extreme in their reactions and make the Jewish community outside of Israel more strident. The tragedy is that the more hopeless the situation can appear the more extreme can become the actions and reactions. So a terrorist atrocity is followed by an excessive Israeli response with disproportionate civilian casualties. And then the more mired in gloom become the voices you would look for to find a way out.”

As our conversation draws to a close, he returns to ecumenical challenges. “Christianity says: ‘love’, Islam says: ‘Peace’ and Judaism says: ‘Justice’. But how often do you see these religions showing any of these things? If these religious teachings are to mean anything they must be truly applied and not just yearned for.”

So how hopeful is he about the Jewish future? “I believe the justification for remaining Jewish is to be a moral beacon. Every year at Passover we recall the Exodus story and its demand for freedom and justice. We are commanded to act on that cultural memory of the Exodus and that means we should be passionately involved in justice issues.”

Goldberg is not by nature a pessimist. Perhaps surprisingly, he chooses a quote from the diaries of the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl to back up his innate hopefulness. “Things never work out as well as we hope or as badly as we fear.”

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Searching for a Just Zionism

This month’s blog post is something of a ‘re-boot of the franchise’, as they say in the film business.

It’s a year since I started Micah’s Paradigm Shift with its simple manifesto of ‘Act justly, love kindness, walk humbly’. Having dared to borrow words from the Hebrew Prophets, I’ve since adopted the strap-line: ‘Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time’. In defence of such liberties, let me quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who once said that the times call for: "moral grandeur and spiritual audacity".

All this Biblical borrowing has been chosen to make clear to the followers of this blog that I place myself, and my observations on Israel/Palestine, firmly within a Jewish tradition. I say ‘a’ Jewish tradition since there are clearly multiple Jewish traditions that can be drawn upon. All of them have validity, but I find myself aligned to the strong core of Jewish thinking that places justice and a universal ethic at its heart and gives priority to this over all other considerations.

The tribal, nationalist and exclusivist elements that have always been a part of Judaism, are the ones we have to handle with utmost care and careful interpretation. In many respects they are the elements within our tradition that have been our great saving over the millennia, allowing us to survive in an often hostile and violent Diaspora. But they are the same elements that now threaten to undo us when acted upon within the confines a Jewish State where Jewish privilege and Jewish power are dominant.

Micah's Paradigm Shift has been an account of coming to grips with a non-Zionist or post-Zionist reading of Jewish history and Judaism. Or, to put it another way, my aim has been to search for a Zionism that is not at odds with justice, a Zionism that does not compromise or undermine the very Jewish tradition it sets out to protect. I’m searching for a Zionism that reactivates and reinterprets its mission to be a movement for Jewish renewal.

While many will point to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip as the great stains on Israel’s reputation, my own view is that it is inside the 1967 borders that the origins of Zionism’s innate injustice are to be found.

I'm not going to re-play the account of the Nakba in 1948 or detail the systematic, institutional discrimination that has existed ever since against Palestinian Israelis. What I want to challenge here is the liberal Zionist belief that these injustices can be redressed without a fundamental re-structuring and a thorough re-think of what Zionism should mean. I also want to contest the notion that the Jewish demand for national self-determination can only be achieved within a majority Jewish State.

Will the real ‘stranger’ please stand up

Liberal Zionism has often drawn on the strong Jewish tradition of consideration for the ‘stranger' to argue for fair and just treatment for the Palestinians on both sides of the 1967 borders. There are countless commandments in the Torah reminding us that we too were once strangers in a foreign land. These commandments are central to the development of our ethical tradition:
"The strangers who resides with you, shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Leviticus 19:34

But which of us is truly the ‘stranger’ in this land? The Palestinian who can trace his direct ancestors back for hundreds of years or the British born Jew, like me, whose ancestors wandered across the Mediterranean, through the Spanish peninsula, across central Europe and then eventually to Poland, Russia and Lithuania and then back west to Ireland, Wales and England over a two thousand year sojourn?

A better guide to our understanding of just relationships between Jews and Palestinians within the Land of Israel would come from looking at the opening line of Psalm 24:

“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”

That’s deals with all forms of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism with short shrift. We are merely the temporary custodians charged with leaving the world a little better than we found it.

To think of the Palestinians as the ‘strangers’ and the ‘returning’ Jews as the true ‘owners’ of the land is both morally arrogant and historically ridiculous. We are all strangers, we are all neighbours, we are all guardians of the land.

What has happened to the Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied territories is the inevitable result of the way the State of Israel was founded and constituted. It is the reality of the ethno/religious nationalism adopted by mainstream Zionism that insisted that the only solution to ‘normalising the Jewish condition’ was the creation of a Jewish majority State.

Only a very few, marginalised, Zionists, like the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber and the first Hebrew University President Judah Magnes, were far sighted enough to recognise the inherent dangers of this approach. In the 30s and 40s they could see that a full-blown Jewish State would never bring a lasting peace. The Arab opposition to Zionism and the later refusal to accept a Jewish State made absolute sense to a people who could see their land being taken from them, their own national aspirations under threat.

Marx and Joshua

There is a painful and tragic continuity throughout the Zionist story. The secular pioneers who dominated the pre and post State period championed Jewish exclusivity to achieve their ends but expressed it in a socialist/collectivist enterprise. The religious nationalist zealots that have now become the Zionist vanguard have just carried on that tradition exchanging Karl Marx for the book of Joshua, Jewish only Kibbutzim for Jewish only Settlements and a territorially Greater Israel.

Israel will always find tolerating the 'other' an existential challenge to its very identity. Exclusivism, that can quickly degenerate into racism, is written in to this version of Zionism's DNA - whatever the Declaration of Independence might say.

We have seen this played out in the treatment of Israeli Palestinians for more than sixty years, in the public acceptance and government support for the Settlements, in the attempts to make East Jerusalem Arab free, in the pushing of the Bedouin off their land, in the vigilante attacks on mosques, and most recently in the hysterically racist comments from members of the Israeli Knesset about the 'cancer' of Sudanese immigrants living in Tel Aviv.

However, none of this is meant to deny the genuine connection to the land for Jews - historically, religiously and culturally. Nor does it deny the reality of the six million Jews who have no other home but Israel and whose families have now been born and raised there for several generations. A different kind of Zionism could embrace all of this without wishing, as Theodor Herzl did, that the Arabs could somehow be 'spirited over the border' to guarantee a Jewish majority.

A Jewish renewal project

So what would a justice based version of Zionism look like?

Well it would certainly look very different to the Zionism we have grown accustomed to. It would owe a great deal more to the cultural and spiritual renewal calls of Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha'am 1856-1927) and to the writings of Buber and Magnes than it would to Theodor Herzl or David Ben Gurion.

Here's a very brief summary, which I fully appreciate is much easier to write down than to put into practice. But then again, the Hebrew Prophets suffered from the same problem.

This will not be easy to achieve. In fact it will be very hard. But very hard is not the same as impossible. The first task is to get people to accept it as a solution that will bring true security and true peace for all concerned.

Micah’s Zionism

We have a one state solution right now to the Israel/Palestine conflict but it
doesn't look very pretty.

So let’s unify Eretz Yisrael and historic Palestine in the very same space.

It will have a united capital city in Jerusalem with international jurisdiction for the Holy sites of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

This new unified Israel/Palestine will be the state of all its citizens, protecting and respecting all national groups, as well as all other ethnic or religious communities.

It will be a religious and cultural homeland for the Jewish people guaranteeing them national
self-determination but not exclusive rights or dominant power.

It will be a religious and cultural homeland for Palestinians too (Muslims and Christians).

A national truth and reconciliation programme will acknowledge the atrocities committed by both sides.

There will be the right of return for Palestinians and Jews, or reparations in kind from a
global fund.

For Jews, the country will remain the world's most important centre of Jewish learning and heritage complimenting a strong and self-confident Jewish diaspora.

Christianity and Islam will be equally honoured within a country that clearly separates the governance of the State from any religious authority.

We'll need a competition to find a new name too!

For both sides this will mean great sacrifice and great compromise. The parallel and conflicting national narratives for each side must finally change track and converge to reach a peace that is sustainable and just.

This is a Zionism worth championing, worth defending. A Zionism that would restore Jewish commitment to a vast generation of disaffected Jews. A Zionism that would end nationalism and restore justice as the centrepiece of Jewish thought.

It may sound outlandishly romantic and unobtainable but so did the idea of a Jewish State in the year 1912.

All of the points I have made here demand greater elaboration and that's what they will get over the coming months.

Welcome to Micah's Paradigm Shift!

[Please sign up for email updates once a month and pass this on to anyone who may find these thoughts of interest.]

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

45 years on...The poverty of the arguments

[“Irony is an insult conveyed in the form of a compliment.”
Edwin P. Whipple 1819-1886, American essayist and critic]

To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the liberation of Judea and Samaria (June 1967), I’d like to congratulate all those who have been working tirelessly to counter the ever-growing brigade of anti-Israel campaigners and their noxious calls for boycotts, sanctions and divestments that aim to demonise the only democracy in the Middle East.

Thankfully, we have some top minds on the case able to articulate just how misguided and dangerous are these shameful theatre ‘luvvies’ Co-op members, Methodists, Quakers, obsessive food labellers, concert disrupters, left-wing trade unionists, etc. etc.

Without these excellent arguments from the leading lights of the Jewish community we would all be drowning in a sea of lies and distortions, not to mention failing to win over the, quite frankly naïve and rather gullible, general public who seem to think we have become not the victim but the bully.

I thought it would help others having to defend the just policies of the Jewish and Democratic State of Israel from outlandish attacks if I set out the ‘Top Ten’ anti-boycott lines our community luminaries have been using of late.

I’ve highlighted what makes these arguments so strong and given a few top tips to avoid falling into any traps laid by the anti-Jewish mob out there. A simple 1-10 rating may also help you arrange these points in the best way.

And remember, there’s no such thing as ‘Pro-Palestinian’ or ‘Pro-human rights’ just ‘Anti-Israel hate campaigners’.

#1 ‘It’s awfully complicated for you to understand’

I love this line and most of you are making good use of it already. It’s massively patronising but it definitely scares people off - so stick with it. The more history, religion and culture we can drag into this the better. Muddy the waters as much as possible. Nobody has time to read up on all the history or can remember who said what and when. So, you can just bulldoze them with accusations of ignorance. Anything that avoids the debate degenerating into simple human rights and human responsibilities has got to be a good thing. 9/10

#2 Judaism =Jewish peoplehood = Jewish nationalism = Zionism = anything that Israel says is in the name of security

I noticed Melanie Phillips making good use of this the other day: “Zionism is no more nor less than the self-determination of the Jewish people.” Anyone who attempts to contradict this shiny piece of iron logic that takes us smoothly from being Jewish to the right to defend all things Israel will come a cropper when we throw back the accusations of anti-Semitism. But watch out, as some people are getting wise to this and the self-hating Jewish lot are starting to undermine it (see#10). 7/10

#3 Since when did ‘consensus’ = truth?

This is one for those muddle-headed dupes that leap on all that ‘international consensus’ nonsense and seem to think that just because everyone says the Settlements are ‘illegal’ means it must be true. By the way, can we just call them ‘Jewish communities’ please.

Thanks to Noru Tsalic writing on the pages of the Board of Deputies website for pointing out this “argumentum ad populum” bunkum. As Noru points out: “At some point in the history of mankind, there was ‘broad consensus’ that the Earth is flat”. Great thinking Noru, and it draws attention away from all those United Nations reports bashing on endlessly about Israeli discrimination against Palestinians. Just watch out for anyone advocating boycotts who’s actually been to see what’s going on or mugged up on all those reports. But remember, I’m sure they had lots of reports proving the Earth was flat too. 6/10

#4 Guilt by association

So who else likes the idea of boycotting Israel? Hamas and Hezbollah of course! And what do they want? Israel’s complete annihilation. So, QED, if you support boycotts then you’re supporting terrorism. Rubbish the argument by associating it with political pariahs. This avoids all real debate about anything that may or may not being happening in Judea and Samaria and takes it straight back to terror threats, security concerns and existential threats to the Jewish people. Brilliant!! 9/10

#5 Don’t look here (look there)

This has been working well for years now. Luckily, there’ll always be some dictator somewhere doing terrible stuff to his people. Just point in that general direction (Syria anyone?) and suggest to your do-gooder detractor that they put their efforts there. The way things are going at the moment, the Palestinians should be off the international radar for years to come. This is another great way to close down the debate without having to actually talk about what’s going on in our neck of the woods. 8/10

#6 How dare you use the word ‘Apartheid’

Come down really hard on anyone who tries to use the word ‘Apartheid’ about Israel. It’s a toxic tactic and needs to be closed down immediately. Just because the Settlements are effectively Jewish only communities, the roads around them are Jewish only roads, the building regulations apply only to Jews, and Palestinians live under a different legal jurisdiction and don’t have the same access to schools, electricity, water or jobs doesn’t mean we’re not operating in a democratic way. 6/10

#7 It’s all the Palestinian Authority’s fault

It’s crucial to keep reminding everyone that it’s the Palestinians who are the real blockers to peace with their unreasonable claims over history, culture, religion, land, Jerusalem and their own version of the ‘right of return’. You don’t see our side obsessing like this. They seem to think it’s not worth talking while we insist on building new Jewish communities and expanding the existing ones. For heaven’s sake, our children have to live somewhere! The Palestinian Authority is obviously not serious about peace. President Obama seemed to think that the Settlements were the fundamental block to peace talks too, but we saw him off without too much trouble. So, a few boycotters shouldn’t be much of an issue.

The Palestinian Authority also wants half of Jerusalem as its capital. We must keep saying that the city has to remain undivided and eternally Jewish. Remember how King Solomon proved who was the baby’s real mother by threatening to cut it in half? Well, it’s the same thing with cities.

As long as you don’t get bogged down in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious history of Jerusalem or get drawn into territorial statistics this argument works nicely. Of course, the Israeli definition of East Jerusalem’s boundaries has expanded slightly since 1967 (45 square miles into Judea and Samaria to be precise) but most people won’t know that so you’ll be okay. And as Melanie Phillips likes to point out, the Settlements (I mean Jewish communities) outside of (expanded) Jerusalem only amount to 3% of Judea and Samaria. Just don’t mention the surrounding security zones, checkpoints, military zones and nature reserves which bump the figure up to more like 42%. And there’s no way we’re giving any of that lot up. 7/10

#8 Surely, we must keep talking?

I love this one. It feels so warm and reasonable and democratic. It makes the boycotters look radical and unreasonable and very anti-democratic. Just keep talking about the ‘peace process’ and people will believe such a thing actually exists. Also, mention how much better it is for sides in a dispute to keep in contact. Boycotts just create barriers and divisions and stop any meeting of minds. The only problem with this is that most of you don’t have many Palestinian contacts to start with. All the friendships and meeting of minds seem to be between the lefties and radicals. So start making some ‘friends’ or you may get caught out on this one. Maybe we should send some of those Birthright youth tours to Ramallah. 7/10

#9 Academic and cultural boycotts are unethical

The important point to remember here is that most people are happy to believe that actors, musicians, athletes and university professors should have their rights to freedom of expression and movement defended long before ordinary Palestinians are entitled to the same things. It’s a strange hierarchy of ethics but it works in our favour so let’s use it. It took ages for people to change their minds about this when it was South Africa in the frame (but don’t mention South Africa!). Also, don’t mention cultural boycotts against Soviet Russia in the 1970s and 80s when we were protesting on behalf on Soviet Jewry. That was of course completely different and perfectly justified.

By the way, the novelist Howard Jacobson has been doing some great work on this. Howard has been using some nice literary illusions that you could try out too. Kafka, that great Jewish observer of bureaucratic absurdity, can be used to ridicule boycotting a theatre company from Israel performing The Merchant of Venice just because they are willing to perform the same play to the Jews of Judea and Samaria (I doubt any Palestinians got to see those performances but that’s their choice). Kafka analogies work well as long as you don’t draw attention to how we regulate the lives of Palestinians in the territories. Franz really would have a field day if he saw what goes on in the offices of the Israeli Civil Administration! Oh, and avoid mentioning Kafka if anyone starts talking about ‘administrative detention’ of Palestinian prisoners without charge. I’m sure Kafka wrote a book about that kind of thing once. On second thoughts let’s forget Kafka. 6/10

#10 We hate ourselves better than anyone else (Jewish trouble makers)

Now this is where we sometimes get into a bit of a fix. There are increasing numbers of Jews who seem to think there’s something a little wrong with how things have turned out in Israel, especially when it comes to the Palestinians. This of course provides ethical cover for the anti-Israel haters who can joyfully point to their Jewish friends as proof that they cannot possibly be anti-Semitic. It’s best to dismiss these Jewish trouble makers out of hand as suffering from a ‘self-loathing psychosis’ that seems to afflict a few Jews in every generation. Or you can make that gag, as Howard Jacobson likes to, that we Jews are good at most things, we’re even better at hating ourselves than other people! That should do the trick. 9/10

However, a few pitfalls to look out for in case you come across such 5th columnists.

Avoid at all costs talking about religion or Hebrew scripture or Jewish ethics. Also, avoid getting into debate about the development of political Zionism from the 19th century onward and don’t let them tell you that this is any different from our connection to the land of Israel over thousands of years. Most important of all don’t engage in any actual debate about the condition of Palestinians on either side of the Green Line. Avoid discussing the route of the Security Fence, restrictions of movement, freedom of worship, home demolitions and so on. Also don’t get drawn into discussing the work of Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem, Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence, The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and other groups of Israeli self-haters. Keep the conversation to terrorism and nuclear threats and eventually they’ll get bored of you and walk away.

So, now you have the tools to do the job and deal with those pesky BDS’ers

Get out there and deploy these lines of argument to devastating effect.

Good luck!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

For Israel and Nakba at 64...Micah meets David Ben-Gurion

[A poke, a tweet and a click-through and @DavidBenGurion, Israel's first Prime Minister and diminutive giant of pre and post Jewish Statehood arrives at Micah's Paradigm Shift. Nakba Day approaches, the Palestinians are commemorating the 64th year of the 'catastrophe' and the 'Old Man' of Israeli politics is in the mood for a robust chat. In his hand he holds a small scroll, it is Israel's Declaration of Independence signed 14th May 1948. The conversation goes like this.]

Micah's Paradigm Shift (MPS): Welcome Prime Minister!

David Ben-Gurion: (DBG): You call this place welcoming!

MPS: Well, I have some helpful navigation tabs to previous posts and you can sign up for email updates.

DBG: I've been here 20 minutes and I can see exactly what you're up to.

MPS: You're not the first to take offence. Nobody has ever turned up in person though.

DBG: You should be defending your own people not undermining one of the great triumphs of Jewish history. You're a disgrace.

MPS: To be a disgrace I'd need more followers. Until then, I'm just an inconvenience.

DBG: The story is simple but your writing makes it all so complicated.

MPS: I like complicated.

DBG: We returned to our homeland, we built a sovereign state, we brought back pride and self-respect to a persecuted people. The Arabs hated us for it. There was a war. We won, they lost. That's how it goes.

MPS: That's not how I see it. That's the paradigm I want to challenge. I'm trying to rescue the Hebrew blog post at a time.

DBG: I was never a great one for religion. Socialism and Jewish nationalism were my thing.

MPS: But in the end it was your Jewish nationalism that won out. And nationalism will always drag you to the right. It was socialism, but socialism for Jews only.
DBG: And I don't see much of that anymore!

MPS: Quite. But I'm still not sure what brings you here? I subscribe to a few bloggers who you'd feel much more at home with. I can give you their addresses or you can tweet them direct.

DBG: Don't worry, I've checked them out too. I thought I could be high-handed and arrogant but clearly I still have much to learn.

MPS: I still don't understand why you're bothering with the blogosphere. This site is clearly not for you. You made it happen. Herzl, Weizmann and you...the three giants in the story. You are, without doubt, not my target audience.

DBG: I won't contradict you.

MPS: Don't get me wrong though, I can certainly appreciate your thinking. From the perspective of 19th Century Eastern European Jewry, the whole thing looked like a brilliant idea, the perfect solution.

DBG: Back to the future!

MPS: A grand return!

DBG: Start anew. To build and to be built!

MPS: Livnot L'hibanot!

DBG: Exactly!

MPS: Not very Jewish though.

DBG: Don't be ridiculous! How much more Jewish does it get? A return to our ancient homeland.

MPS: I have serious problems with the whole project.

DBG: I know. That's why I'm here dummy. I don't need a 'yes man'.

MPS: What do you need?

DBG: I've been thinking things over. I've looked around some other spider net things.

MPS: Websites, Prime Minister.

DBG: Palestinian ones.

MPS: Really?

DBG: I'm not entirely comfortable with how things turned out.

MPS: You mean the forced expulsions and denial of return for Palestinian refugees? The land theft, water appropriation, house demolitions, political assassinations, blockades, separation walls, imprisonment without trial, second class citizenship, disregard for international law and now stealing Bedouin land in the Negev. Stuff like that?

DBG: Don't get carried away! Remember who you are speaking to.

MPS: One of the big three, Prime Minister.

DBG: I'm thinking, maybe it's time for Zionism to move on a little. We could be a little more magnanimous in our victory, perhaps.

MPS: I'd love to know who you've been reading!

DBG: I have a few old friends working on this with me. Pioneers from the old days. We've been scouting around looking at where to start, working our way down blogrolls.

MPS: And what do you think I can I do?

DBG: Well to start with, we need a fresh look at the Declaration of Independence.

MPS: I'm surprised you think there's a problem with it. It's a brilliant summary of the whole Zionist mindset.

DBG: Thank you.

MPS: Liberal Zionists love it. It brings a warm glow to the mainstream Jewish heart. Democratic ideals, the protection of civil rights, and our national story over three millennia told in a nutshell.

DBG: I know, I've always liked it too.

MPS: I didn't say I liked it!

DBG: I suspected as much. Anyway, looking back I think maybe it was written in haste, we were a little too close to events in Europe to get a good perspective on things, maybe we did not tell the story right.

MPS: I can't believe you're saying this.

DBG: We got to the third draft and went with that in time for the lifting of the British Mandate.

MPS: You want to re-write the Israeli Declaration of Independence?

DBG: No, I want you to. What would a Micah's Paradigm Shift version look like?

MPS: Well, if you're quite sure...I'd be happy to have a go.

DBG: The beginning is fine of course. I was always pleased with the beginning. It has that grand sweep of history about it and sets out our irrefutable claim to the land.

MPS: It's certainly a tidy telling of the story.

DBG: [Reading from the scroll] "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books." Now how can you better that?

MPS: A bit partial. A bit distorted. But we can work on it.

DBG: What's to work on?

MPS: Well, if we really want to honour our founding national mythology and recognise what actually happened through our history how about mentioning some other points too. For a start, according to our own tradition, it was in the wilderness, outside the borders of the 'Promised Land', that we first became a nation with a mission to build a just society. It was on a desert mountaintop (Sinai) that we received that mission, our covenant.

DBG: I prefer my version.

MPS: Wait, I'm not finished. We ought to reflect that our understanding of Judaism has as much to do with our time in exile as it does with our time in the land. It was after 70 CE and the destruction of the second Temple that we developed a faith of action and spirituality located in time and independent of place.

DGB: Can't we keep it simple?

MPS: No, simple is the whole problem. It was in Babylonia that the Talmud was written. It was in Spain and north Africa that we wrote much of our great rabbinic commentary. It was in eastern Europe that we deepened our understanding of the mystery of the universe and created a rich culture of joyful prayer, a literature that touched the soul, and music that reached to heaven. Yes we came from the land of Israel, but we are who we are today because of what happened far beyond Israel's borders.

DBG: Okay, I'm hardly going to argue that our exile was not important but in all that time we kept faith with Israel, and, I quote, the Jews "never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom."

MPS: For most of our two thousand years in exile that's not quite how we understood things.

DBG: More history?

MPS: And theology. We were taught that our exile was a punishment from God and that our return was conditional on fulfilling God's commandments. Exile was exile from God. It was spiritual as much as physical. Our task in exile was to rebuild the covenant not organise for a political return.

DBG: We never forgot our attachment to Zion.

MPS: But we had to lead a righteous existence that would make us worthy of redemption and so worthy of returning. Seeking 'Political freedom' through a nationalist project was a new, and highly controversial, development that only began to take hold at the end of the19th century. Cue Herzl etc. etc. Redemption was about the Jewish people first, not the Jewish land. Speaking Jewishly, Zionism is a little presumptuous in its dealing with God. We seem to have conveniently forgotten all of this though.

DBG: Spare me the lectures, you think I haven't heard all of this before? I said at the time we should leave God out of it. The whole thing will run to pages and pages the way you're going.

MPS: I just want to reclaim the story of the dispersion and exile as not entirely negative and remind us that the criteria for a 'return' was a little more complex.

DBG: I know where my home should be.

MPS: You make it sound like two thousand years was just an aberration. Like we just popped out for some bagels but now we're back.

DBG: [Reading again] "And we made the deserts bloom bringing the blessings of progress to all of the country's inhabitants."

MPS: You mean buying land from absentee Arab landlords and then allowing only Jewish labour to work it or use it. That wasn't really a blessing for all. Arab Palestinian farmers had been making the desert bloom for one and a half thousand years. Some of them will be descended from the Jews that remained in the land after 70 CE. In fact, you probably share the same ancient Israelite DNA.

DBG: There's no need to bring the Arabs into this.

MPS: There's every need to bring the Arabs into this. It's their story too.

DBG: Alright, alright! But we still have the Balfour declaration of 1917. That was Weizmann good work. And later there was the League of Nations backing up the British Empire's commitment to a national home for the Jewish people.

MPS: One nation promises to another nation the land belonging to a third nation. Not much to admire there. British imperialism at its most inept. Promising everything to everyone but with only it's own interests at heart.

DBG: The Holocaust justified the whole project. You can't argue with that. [Reading from the scroll] "The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations."

MPS: Are you telling me that being a nation state is what protects a people from discrimination and victimisation?

DBG: Having power is what protects you. We had to make Jews like everyone else.

MPS: Ah, yes. Zionism as the ultimate move to Jewish assimilation.

DBG: You are being absurd!

MPS: No, just trying to re-focus the paradigm.

DBG: It's the Jewish State that protects us from another Holocaust.

MPS: But we have a Jewish State and anti-Semitism remains. And now Netanyahu says the 'Jewish life-boat' is itself the target of a second Holocaust thanks to those new Nazis in Iran. That doesn't sound like a successful normalising of the Jewish condition. If the Holocaust teaches us anything, it must be that something more fundamental was at stake than creating a new nation state. Something concerning the rights and responsibilities of all people towards all other people, at all times.

DBG: You are a hopeless idealist. I deal in reality.

MPS: No, I am a hopeful idealist. I deal in truth and justice.

DBG: I'm not sure this is going very well.

MPS: When it comes to the Holocaust, we learnt the wrong lessons.

DBG: Can we move on? I take it you don't have an issue with the name we chose?

MPS: 'Israel', was a great choice of name.

DBG: At last, something we agree on!

MPS: If I remember right, the name means: 'To wrestle with God', as Jacob did in the wilderness. Jews wrestling with God sums up the whole history of the state building project. I'm not sure who's winning though.

DBG: Can you please stop, just for a moment, finding fault in everything we did. It takes two to tango you know. The Palestinians are not a tribe of saints just as we are not all sinners.

MPS: This is true. Both sides have been violent and stupid plenty of times. But you know as well as anyone that this was never a battle between equals. You must have put yourself in their shoes at some point in 1947-9? The Palestinians were 70% of the population of Mandate Palestine and the Jews owned only 6% of the land. Yet the UN offered the Jews a State made up of 55% of Palestine. In fact, if the plan had gone ahead, the new Jewish State would have had more Arabs than Jews in it. And we expected the Palestinians to accept it as a generous offer and wish us 'mazoltov!'

DBG: After 64 years we are still the only democracy in the Middle East. And we promised as much back in '48. You can't argue with this: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of 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."

MPS: It sounds great but it's full of contradictions. A bit like the Balfour declaration. How do you create a Jewish State with a built-in bias towards one ethnic/religious national group and claim this will not harm the rights of any other ethnic/religious national group? That's not how British democracy works, or French or American. The reality on the ground does not match the high ideals and it never could. A Jewish State will never be fair or just until we come to terms honestly with the meaning of its founding principles. We offer Arabs rights as individuals but no rights as a people.

DBG: I think this is what these days they call 'delegitimising' the Jewish state.

MPS: Israel has been doing a very job of delegitimising itself for decades without the slightest help from me. It could have all been different of course. A homeland did not have to be a Jewish State.

DBG: Buber? Magnes? Even more crazy than you!

MPS: No. Just way ahead of the curve. One day we may catch up with them.

DBG: I suppose at the end we did place our trust in "The Rock of Israel".

MPS: What exactly was that meant to mean?

DBG: It was a compromise, a sop to the religious. God, without actually saying God.

MPS: Well, I agree there are pros and cons with bringing God into the Middle East mix.

DBG: Amen to that!

MPS: When we leave him out we lose all humility. But when we bring him in, it's like a license for eternal arrogance.

DBG: So can you help with the re-write or not?

MPS: I sense we may struggle to reach agreement.

DBG: Look, I can live with two states if that's what you are getting at.

MPS: Well that's certainly a start. Be honest, you must have been delighted when they refused to accept the partition plan in 1947?

DBG: I would have been foolish not to take advantage of their intransigence. We needed a viable state to survive. The UN did not give us that.

MPS: A viable state is exactly what we're denying the Palestinians today. It's good that you know what it feels like to be offered an unworkable solution.

DBG: Like I said before, there was a war. Wars are not nice. We planned well. We were organised and united. We won, they lost.

MPS: And let's all wave a fond farewell to three thousand years of Jewish ethics. You've given me nationalism instead, and boy do I feel short changed!

DBG: Are you taking on the job or not?

MPS: If you are serious about a re-write then we need to start by accepting that this document has to be about two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, whose stories are now irreversibly entwined.

DBG: It won't even sound like a Declaration of Independence by the time you are finished with it!

MPS: It will be independence from the old, worn-out paradigm. Past, present and future, the Palestinians and the Jews are now forever bound together. Like it or not, everything about both peoples now intersects through that small strip of land. Our future and theirs, it's all the same story.

DBG: I should have chosen one of those liberal Zionists, they're less challenging than you.

MPS: You tried to write them out of existence in 1948 and Israel has been trying to make them disappear for good ever since. The Palestinians are the inconvenient truth. It's time to tell ourselves the truth.

DBG: I'm going to have to speak to my colleagues. This is all far more than we had discussed. You push too far and too fast for an old man like me.

MPS: Israel is still young but it's time to start growing up. To build and to be built was a terrific slogan but now let's apply it to everyone in the land.

DBG: We'll see! I'm off. Sweet dreams young man.

MPS: Remember what Theodor Herzl said.

DBG: Remind me.

MPS: If you will it, it is no dream.

[And with that @DavidBenGurion hits the share button and tweets the link to the conversation with his 13 million Jewish followers.]

Monday, 16 April 2012

Yom Ha Shoah, Ahmadinejad and why we need to break the Holocaust narrative

After publishing Letter to Anne Frank in January, I hadn't planned to say anymore about the Holocaust this year. But I feel compelled to return to the subject now as we reach the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance, Yom Ha' Shoah, on April 19th.

So why come back to the Holocaust so soon?

In a word: Iran

Listening in March to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to AIPAC (America's mighty pro-Israel lobby) and then reading the commentators who have supported his position since (try Melanie Phillips from the UK's Daily Mail), has demonstrated to me, once again, just how easily the Holocaust is recruited into the propaganda campaign to justify Israeli actions, in this case, airstrikes on Iran.

For Netanyahu, Iran is the new Nazi Germany, Ahmadinejad the new Hitler, and his nuclear programme is an underground Auschwitz in the making. This analogy displays not only a wilfully ignorant presentation of Middle East politics but a poor grasp of European history too. No matter though. For what it does do, is allow Netanyahu to accuse the world (and in particular Barack Obama) of abandoning the Jews to a terrible fate once again. No doubt this week will provide more such opportunities.

Netanyahu builds up his stockpile of radioactive moral blackmail hoping to ensure America will back Israeli airstrikes. And if you still feel uncomfortable about Ahmadinejad's calls to 'wipe Israel off the map' you may like to read this piece from the Washington Post's 'Fact Checker' which puts the whole thing into a less hysterical perspective. All of this beating of war drums, as I've said before, keeps the Palestinians well off the international radar while maintaining the fiction of Israel facing an existential threat that trumps all other moral issues.

For a rounded assessment of the human and environmental impact of dropping bunker bombs (containing depleted uranium) on Iran's nuclear facilities, take a look at Marsha B. Cohen's article at Lobelog. Thanks to Jerry Haber at the Magnes Zionist for drawing my attention to this piece.

History should certainly inform our understanding of contemporary events but Netanyahu's (and others) misuse of the memory of the Holocaust for political advantage has become so acceptable that most people don't even realise it's going on.

So what has happened to our understanding of the Holocaust and how can we counter what has become such a narrow and partial understanding of its meaning in Jewish and world history?

Catastrophe and Redemption

The truth is, the rhetoric of Israeli politics has become so entangled in the Nazi genocide that it's become all but impossible to untie the knots of ethical misappropriation. We have become locked in a narrative of catastrophe and redemption that is now being used to justify immoral actions.

Rather than a profound lesson on the values and behaviour of Western civilisation in the mid 20th century, the Holocaust has become an exclusively Jewish piece of property, an emblem of unique Jewish suffering, our symbol of eternal victimhood. The State of Israel is presented as our justified salvation and the necessary state apparatus to prevent a second Holocaust occurring.

This paradigm of Holocaust understanding is closely guarded by the Jewish establishment and any attempt to break through it is quickly repelled with accusations of anti-Semitism or even Holocaust denial.

After the Holocaust, many Jews in the diaspora see Israel as an essential personal and collective 'insurance policy'. It needs to exist in case 'things turn bad again'. Israel is the Jewish life-raft. But Netanyahu's Iranian rhetoric turns this idea on its head. The life-raft itself is now presented as the target of a new Holocaust. If you accept this thinking then, for a Jew, the most dangerous place on earth to live is now Tel Aviv. If this is the case, then one of the great dreams of Zionism - to normalise the condition of the Jews - has become a nightmare.

Alternative voices

Marek Edelman, Warsaw Ghetto fighter

One of the most-read posts on Micah's Paradigm Shift in the last year has been Lost Jewish Voices (part two) in which I gathered together some pre-1948 Jewish thinkers whose views on Zionism are now considered far beyond the Jewish pale. My aim was to demonstrate the plurality of Jewish opinion that flourished in the first half of the 20th century, in the hope that these views (rooted in Jewish ethical thinking) could be rediscovered by a new generation.

In this blog-post I'd like to do something similar with the Holocaust. Below I've brought together opinions that go against the mainstream Jewish/Zionist narrative on the meaning of the Holocaust, the lessons that should be learnt and how it should guide our understanding of current events.

The life and actions of Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, challenges several commonly held views about the nature and meaning of the Holocaust.

Rather inconveniently for the Zionist reading of history, Edelman was a Bundist, a Jewish socialist who refused to accept the notion that the Jewish people had no future in Europe. To the Bundists, the Zionist were prepared to abandon the battlefield of racism to the enemy instead of staying and working for a society of respect and tolerance for minorities.

Edelman did not see the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a step on the road to necessary Jewish empowerment. After the war in stayed in Poland, became a well-respected heart specialist, campaigned against the Soviet backed communist government and in the 1980s became an activist in Solidarity, the independent trade union opposition. You can read more about Edelman in this obituary from the UK's Daily Telegraph in 2009.

Here's what Edelman said about the meaning of the uprising and the accusation that Jews went passively to their deaths. Behaviour, argued the Zionists, that would never be repeated by the Jewish State:

"We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning," Edelman recalled. "We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka." Edelman believed that far from going passively, those who went to Treblinka had shown the ultimate courage. "Their death was far more heroic. We didn't know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head. It is an awesome thing, when one is going so quietly to one's death. It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber."
Another familiar accusation that Israeli leaders, Binyamin Netanyahu in particular, like to present is that the world stood idly by while the Jewish people were systematically destroyed. It all adds to the myth of an eternally persecuted people who are now owed special privileges by those who 'abandoned' them. The Israeli novelist and commentator Shulamith Hareven counters this view in her 1986 essay 'Identity: Victim':

"During the Second World War, not only did the world not remain silent, it lost more than sixty million men fighting Hitler. True they were not fighting because of us, and certainly they would not have offered aid for our sake only. They were fighting against fascism in general...but the loss of more than sixty million men in war does not exactly mean that the world sat by with it's arms crossed...sixty million families suffered losses, and those of us who survived, including the small number of us then inhabiting Israel, survived because of them."
Another important observation from Hareven is how children, Jewish and non-Jewish, grow up today knowing only one thing about the the history of the Jews in Europe - and that's the Holocaust. It's as if two thousand years of Jewish history count for nothing apart from an endless catalogue of persecution culminating in genocide. The development of rabbinic Judaism, the rich cultural achievements of European Jewry in literature and science, the massive contribution to Western civilisation, it all gets forgotten. It's as if the story of the Jews in Europe is nothing but an unfortunate aberration, a deviation, an interruption, from the story of Jewish statehood. In fact, we are what we are today because of the experience of living outside of the Land of Israel. Harevan sees the moral danger of this partial view of Jewish history:

"If I and only I occupy the throne of the victim, then no stranger can occupy it....under no circumstances are we to forget our tragedies. But whoever bases our identity on them and them alone, distorts the greatness of this people."
Poet, feminist and political activist, Irena Klepfisz' father fought alongside Marek Edelman in Warsaw, but was killed on the first day of the uprising. In an essay written in 1989, she asks if the horror inflicted on the Jews has numbed our ability to measure right and wrong:

"As long as hundreds of Palestinians are not being lined up and shot, but are killed by Israelis only one a day, are we Jews free from worrying about morality, justice? Has Nazism become the sole norm by which Jews judge evil, so that anything that is not it's exact duplicate is considered by us morally acceptable? Is that what the Holocaust has done to Jewish moral sensibility?"

Avraham Burg is a former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset and now an out-spoken critic of Israel. His 2008 book 'The Holocaust is over. We must rise from its ashes' was in part an examination of the Israeli national psyche. Like Hareven and Klepfisz, he identifies how Holocaust understanding has limited our ability to relate to the pain of other genocides and shrunken our moral imagination:

"Never again? We have made 'never again' possible for ourselves. What about never again for others? Never again? On the contrary, it happens again and again, because of indifference. This apathy to their fate was made possible primarily by the operating system that was installed in me at birth: The Holocaust is ours,and all other killings in the world are common evils, not holocausts. Well, if it is not a holocaust then it is none of my business. Therefore I am not responsible. Therefore I do not have to cry out in protest. The lives of many thousands, perhaps millions, could be saved if the State of Israel, and the Jewish people, myself included, had stood at the head of the international struggle against hatred and the annihilation of any people anywhere, regardless of colour gender, creed origins, or residence. We did not stand at the head of this struggle. And the swords are still drawn."
David Grossman has been described by Jacqueline Rose as almost a 'non-Zionist Zionist', he's certainly one of Israel's outstanding 'critical friends' and an internationally respected novelist. Here, writing in 2003, he wants to emphasise the universal aspects of the Nazi years:

"I don't belong to those who believe, that the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish event. As I see it, all civilised, fair minded persons must ask themselves serious questions about the Holocaust. These are not Jewish questions. They are universal questions."
I hope these quotes illustrate how the dominant Holocaust narrative should be radically challenged to create an outward looking, inclusive response to the horrors we have experienced.

In the meantime, we face the prospect of thousands of Iranians being killed, generations to come affected by a uranium polluted atmosphere, a destabilised Middle East, a stalled Arab Spring, a world economic recovery reversed, and an upsurge in militant Islamist terrorism. And all this in the name of an unsubstantiated threat that relies for its moral underpinning on the misuse of Holocaust memory.

Let me conclude with words from the UK's Reform Judaism prayer for Yom Ha Shoah. This prayer recalls not only the six million who perished but also the many non-Jews who had the courage to stand outside the mob and suffer with us. These words sum up for me what ought to be the lessons of the Holocaust for all humanity:

"May such times never come again, and may their sacrifice not be in vain. In our daily fight against cruelty and prejudice, against tyranny and persecution, their memory gives us strength and leads us on."

P.S. Please note the new descriptor for Micah's Paradigm Shift: Israel-Palestine from a UK Jewish perspective. Rescuing the Hebrew covenant one blog post at a time.