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, well...next 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