Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Colonel and the Rabbis

A quick Google of Colonel Richard Kemp reveals that he is a busy man whose views are in great demand with Jewish organisations and synagogue communities both in the UK and internationally.

I'm not surprised though.

Having the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan defending the actions of the IDF during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-9) is certainly powerful and compelling stuff. A military expert and a non Jew, what could be more appealing to those that want to defend Israel at any cost.

The Google search shows that Col. Kemp has been all over the media and attended numerous Jewish conferences, including AIPAC in the United States, at which he keeps repeating his line that the IDF acted with restraint and care, and that the UN investigation, chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone, should be dismissed as a falsehood against one of, if not the, most moral army in the world.

Here's what Kemp told the BBC during the Gaza operation in 2009.

"I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza."

With these views, it's no wonder that he is now in great demand on the Jewish lecture circuit.

The only problem with the Colonel's view of the world is that it is entirely reliant on IDF sources. Not only is his version of events at odds with Goldstone's report (even taking into account Goldstone's limited retractions of last year), it also contradicts dozens of other NGO reports as well as investigations carried out the Jewish Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Let's also remember that this is not a conflict between equals, as it can often appear when reported in the news. The Hamas fighters may fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel (a war crime too, as Goldstone clearly stated) but they have no army, no airforce, no helicopter gunships.

Below are a few questions that should be, but I doubt are, put to the Colonel during his speaking engagements. The figures I quote are from B'Tselem.

1. If it had been the British army in Gaza and 318 children had been killed in just three weeks, would you have expected the British Government to set up an independent investigation into why that happened?

2. Why do you think the Israeli government has refused to do this if it is so confident of its actions?

3. Leaving 20,000 civilians homeless does not sound like using great care and strategic precision during the mission, or is that just how you would have done it?

4. Is the use of white phosphorus in a built up civilian area a legitimate military tactic?

5. In one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world, where do you think Gazans should have fled to when warned of bombing raids?

6. As an expert on 'asymmetric' military conflicts, what for you would 'disproportionate' action by the IDF have looked like in Gaza if it did not look like this?

7. How many Palestinians in Gaza have you spoken to in reaching your views?

8. Why are the IDF accounts of Cast Lead utterly reliable while the Palestinian version of events is intrinsically biased?

Richard Kemp has wholeheartedly adopted the narrative of Israel as permanently under existential threat (Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, the Palestinian Authority etc). He is a military man and sees the world in military terms. All threats to the status quo are enemies and Israel is surrounded by enemies looking to 'wipe it off the map'.

The truth is that Israel is one of the most militarily powerful nations on earth and its closest ally is the the United States which shows no signs of wanting to end its 'special relationship'. Israel is not the Warsaw ghetto and the Arab nations and the Palestinians are not the Nazis. To point all of this out though is seen, in some quarters, as treachery or anti-Semitism.

As for Richard Kemp's insistence on the purity of Israeli forces, he may like to take a closer look at the IDF's role in the expulsion of Palestinians from their villages during 1948, or their complicity with the UK and France during the Suez crisis in 1956, or perhaps their role in allowing the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, or maybe the broken bones policy during the first Palestinian Intifada. Alternatively, he could speak to former IDF soldiers who have served in Gaza and the West Bank and were so dismayed and angered at the role they had to play that they have set up 'Breaking the Silence' to campaign against the occupation and educate fellow Israelis on its true nature.

Meanwhile, Kemp also believes the western media is pre-disposed to see everything Israel does as wrong. Try telling that to CNN, Fox News, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, the US network channels etc, etc. And then see what the Palestinians make of that assessment of the western media. I suspect he is really thinking of the Guardian newspaper in the UK and the BBC, both of which attempt a slightly more nuanced reporting of Israel and then watch as the sky falls in on them.

To be honest though, I am far less bothered by Col. Kemp than by the Jewish communities that choose to invite him to speak. Does an invitation to Richard Kemp broaden our understanding of the conflict or just reinforce the prejudice that sees only Jewish innocence and victimhood and only Palestinian hostility and obstinacy?

By maintaining the paradigm of permanent existential threat and by invoking the spectre of a second Jewish genocide, the debate remains forever mired in 'security' concerns rather than what a just resolution ought to look like.

What should a Jewish State be? Must it, by definition, negate the rights of an indigenous people in favour of a 'returning' people? Can democracy and human rights be truly reconciled with the Jewish State when I, born and bred in the UK, have more right to live in East Jerusalem than a Palestinian does, born and bred in that city, who then marries his sweetheart from Bethlehem on the West Bank a couple of miles down the road?

It suits supporters of Israel to maintain the sense of overwhelming threat as the first and only issue because is throws all other considerations into the long grass. What are the limits of Jewish authority in the land of Israel in the 21st century? What are the ethics of settlement building, land appropriation, water resource control? What is the morality of occupation in the West Bank and military blockade in Gaza?

Rather than circling the wagons, the Jewish diaspora should be shouting from the synagogue rooftops for Israel to stop doing such a thorough job of delegitimising itself. Instead, we watch while Israel drifts towards apartheid and an ethno-democracy (if it has not already reached that terrible destination).

Once the Colonel has answered his questions, these are the ones I would put to our Rabbis and community leaders.

1. Should Jewish communities in the UK support the actions of the State of Israel without reservation?

2. If there should be limits to that support what might they be?

3. If a member of your congregation thought Israel was behaving in ways that were bringing Judaism and the Jewish people into disrepute, what would you tell them to do? Speak out or stay quiet?

4. Does the shift to the right in Israeli political life and the growing influence of ultra orthodox nationalism and far-right, Settler backed political parties in the Knesset give you any cause for concern?

5. If so what are you doing about it, and if not have you decided that a Jewish State is more important than a democratic one?

5. Do the Palestinian people deserve Jewish respect and justice? If they do, how should we express this? If they don't how should we interpret Rabbi Hillel's famous dictum: If I am only for myself, what am I? And what are we to do with all those commandments regarding the treatment of 'strangers' in the land?

Israel and its relationship with the Palestinians has become the defining issue for Jews and for Judaism since 1948. It has the potential to shatter our religion, destroying our values as we fall prey to the greatest act of assimilation - strident, arrogant, nationalism.

We need to wake up to the fact that it is the Jews who, after 2,000 years of oppression, finally find ourselves with the upper hand. We have the power and we have the influence. We seem to have learnt very little about how to use it wisely. Voices like those of Col. Richard Kemp will only prolong the slumber and delay the moment when the recovery of our senses can begin.