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.”