Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Letter to the Council of Christians and Jews

To those of you marking the Jewish New Year...Shona Tova!

As followers of this blog will know, I try not to trouble my readers more than once a month. But, thanks to comments made by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), I'm breaking my normal blogging regime.

My previous post on the launch of Kairos Britain in which I asked: 'When will there be a Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine?' Has attracted more than the usual amount of traffic which indicates I must have hit some nerves (painfully or otherwise) around the blogosphere.

At the same time as I was publishing, the CCJ came out with some particularly misjudged criticisms of Kairos Britain as well as the Greenbelt festival where it was launched, and one of the keynote speakers at the event, the Jewish Israel/Palestine activist Mark Braverman. Some of you may have read Braverman's book Fatal Embrace. If you haven't it comes highly recommended, not just by me but from Walter Brueggemann who is widely recognised as an one of the most important Old Testament scholar and theologians of the last 50 years. 

Below is the letter I emailed to Revd David Gifford, Chief Executive of CCJ, earlier this week. You can read the two articles by the CCJ here and here. I address various points they raise in the letter below.

Letter to David Gifford, Chief Executive of the CCJ, Wednesday 4 September 2013

Dear Revd Gifford

Having your read your website's two statements regarding Kairos Britain, Greenbelt and Mark Braverman, I wanted to share some observations from a Jewish perspective that you maybe less familiar with but one that is just as valid as those you present as mainstream in your statements. I should also point out that I attended the launch of Kairos Britain at Greenbelt and had the opportunity to meet Mark Braverman and others closely involved in the production of the document.

On a general note, let me first acknowledge that the CCJ has done outstanding work over the decades to promote Jewish-Christian understanding following the nadir of Jewish suffering during the Second World War. The CCJ has played a vital role in leading Christian repentance and rapprochement between the two communities in the UK and its regional and local activities are a welcome expression of tolerance and respect for the multi-faith and ethnic make-up of our country.

My concern though, having read your critical reaction to Kairos Britain's call for the rights and human dignity of Palestinians to be recognised, is that your position is doing a great disservice to the central values of both Christianity and Judaism. 

'Balance' works both ways

I find it odd that you are critical of the Greenbelt organisers for not inviting a speaker to counter-balance Mark Braverman's appearance at the festival.

Let me ask you this.

Does the CCJ invite Palestinian or pro BDS Jewish speakers to its events when discussing Israel/Palestine in order to achieve 'balance'? I suspect not. 

Greenbelt has taken a stand after many years of listening, consulting, debating and praying about how it should respond to the well-documented injustices taking place everyday in the Occupied Territories. Just as the CCJ has the right to decide how to run its events and who to invite to does Greenbelt. If you want continuous 'balance' then it must work both ways. I'm sure Kairos Britain and Greenbelt could suggest future speakers for CCJ events which, they might consider, would otherwise present one-sided views of the politics and history of the Holy Land during the last 100 years or so. 

Zionism and Judaism

I find it even more surprising that the CCJ, despite all it surely knows about Judaism and Jewish history, manages to confuse Zionism with traditional Jewish teaching.

Zionism is a heady mix of European 19th century 'blood and soil' nationalism combined with a genuine religious, spiritual and cultural connection to the Land of Israel. There are many ways to understand the attraction of Zionism to Jews, particularly to Eastern European Jews at the turn of the 20th century, but Zionism is very far from being the 'traditional Jewish teaching' that you accuse Mark Braverman of dismissing. The traditional understanding of 'exile' and 'return' involved a spiritual rather than a political route to Jewish salvation. It's Zionism that bucks Jewish tradition, not Mark Braverman. But I'm sure you must know this.

Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

You quote the following from one of Braverman's talks at the festival in which he refers to the Separation Wall that cuts deep into Palestinian land in the name of 'Israeli security': " people behind that wall – and I include Jews outside of Israel as well, because the wall is psychological and it is spiritual – have learned to hate". You appear to present this quote as evidence of Braverman's anti-Semitism or perhaps some kind of Jewish self-hatred. 

For an organisation so familiar with Jewish thinking and attitudes towards Israel you are displaying considerable ignorance on this point. You will know that Israel has always regarded itself as the State belonging to all Jews throughout the world and not just those who are its Jewish citizens. You will also know that successive Israeli Prime Ministers have liked to talk as if they are representing the views of the Jewish people worldwide. That's one reason why I, as a Jew, feel personally responsible and have sorrow and anger for what goes on in the name of the Jewish State, even though, living in Cumbria, I can hardly be thought of as responsible for it. I understand exactly the point Mark Braverman is making about the 'psychological wall' in modern Jewish self-identity about Israel and how this has led to Palestinians being perceived as the perennial 'other' always to be distrusted and often despised. Your accusation is a cheap and badly aimed shot.

Nazi boycotts?

As for the CCJ comparing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish shops in 1930s, this is just an attempt to scare off Christians from taking non-violent direct action against discriminatory policies carried out by the State of Israel against the Palestinian people. 

After 20 years and more of a failed peace process, BDS is a peaceful, legitimate protest against violations of international law (accepted as such by the UK and US governments). 

Attempting to smear this approach by association with Nazi Germany shows a wilful misunderstanding of history and a deliberate misrepresentation of the motives of those showing solidarity with Christian Palestinians and also with Israeli Jews who believe the Occupation is the single biggest threat to the future of their country.

Jewish-Christian dialogue is undoubtedly a good thing until it stops being an honest dialogue and becomes a mutual appreciation society. I'm not sure you are doing the Jewish community, or Judaism itself, any long-term favours by failing to remind the Jewish partners in the dialogue that they should reconnect with the Jewish prophetic tradition. Good friends tell each other when they have made a mistake or are failing to see their errors. 

The CCJ believes it is not for Christians to 'tell Jews what to do' after centuries of anti-Jewish Church teaching. However, it's one thing wanting to see the world through Jewish eyes as part of a process of Jewish-Christian reconciliation but what room does that leave for Christians (and Muslims) in the Holy Land who have a very different experience and perception of the State of Israel? At some point the debate has to move beyond 'understanding' the 'Jewish point of view' (and by the way, there is no such thing anyway - 2 Jews, 3 opinions etc).

Refuting the statistics

You cast doubt on the statistics and reports quoted in Kairos Britain which document the oppressive and discriminatory nature of the Israeli Occupation and you suggest that these could be challenged. I look forward to you, or others, attempting to do this. You will find it an impossible task. No doubt the context can be challenged, based on the endless appeal to the Israeli 'security' paradigm. In the end though, you just have to count how many Palestinian children have been killed in the last 20 years compared to how many Israelis children have been killed to get a sense of which side should be the most fearful of the continuing situation. 

Finally, I would urge the CCJ to reflect on the fact that it is possible to support a Jewish homeland in Israel/Palestine without having to defend (or turn a blind eye) to what has happened to the Palestinians over the last 65 years. A more critical stance on Israel is to the long-term benefit of both Christian and Jewish communities here and in Israel/Palestine. Personally, I have no doubt that the Jewish future, and the future of Judaism itself, will be defined by our relationship with the Palestinian people. This is the single most important issue we face as a community.

You may like to read my considered response to the launch of Kairos Britain at my blog: Micah's Paradigm Shift: 'When will there be a Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine?' Here's the link.

With kind regards

Robert Cohen
Kendal, Cumbria, UK

Sunday, 1 September 2013

When will there be a Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine?

'Kairos Britain' has been published and I believe this could be the game changing intervention that pushes the Israel/Palestine debate into a significant new phase in the United Kingdom.

It also has the potential, as the Kairos Britain authors are well aware, of causing division and argument not only between Christian grass roots communities and the Christian hierarchy, but between local churches and their neighbouring synagogue communities.

The 35 page document is a direct response, from a Christian British perspective, to the 'call from the heart of Palestinian suffering' made by Palestinian Christians in their 2009 Kairos. The word 'Kairos' is Greek and refers to a critical moment in time when urgent action is required. The Palestinian Church denominations that came together unanimously to endorse the 2009 document, firmly rooted their call to the world in faith, hope, love and non-violence. The British Kairos does the same.

In short, carefully researched chapters, Kairos Britain sets out the the condition of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip. It summarises Britain's specific involvement in the history of Palestine between 1917 and 1948, examines interfaith issues, sets out a theological position, based on human dignity, and finally makes the case for action.

But what form should that action take?

The writers of Kairos Britain say it is up to individuals and communities to decide exactly how to respond. But they believe we must take seriously those Palestinians and Israelis who call for the boycott of, divestment from, and economic sanctions against everything produced by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

This is the point at which Kairos Britain parts company with moderate, liberal opinion on Israel. The implication of supporting the BDS campaign is that you have no confidence in the long running 'peace process' or the political dynamics that govern its parameters. It means you do not believe the United States can be an 'honest broker' or that Israel is at all serious about allowing the creation of a viable, contiguous, independent Palestinian state. Not until politicians believe that their constituents no longer find the status quo of daily oppression of Palestinians acceptable will things change. BDS aims to builds things up from the grass roots until the political weather begins to change. Remember, Thatcher and Reagan were the last, not the first, to change their minds on South Africa.

Such an approach will set Kairos Britain on a collision course with the current Church leadership in the UK and most certainly with the mainstream Jewish community.

But is that really such a bad thing?

Has the moment come when we put an end to compromising on justice for the sake of ecumenical peace? Is this the moment when interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews is forced to confront current injustices as well as past iniquities? Within the UK, could we be edging, slowly, towards the tipping-point in the Israel/Palestine debate? Is this the moment of truth when Christians learn of the depth of injustice in the occupied Palestinian territories and recognise that campaigning against it has nothing to do with being anti-Semitic and everything to do with being faithful to the values of Christianity - and for that matter Judaism as well.

A Jewish sensibility

At this point, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should declare an interest. I was approached in the spring (along with many others from Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions) to read and comment on advanced drafts of the Kairos Britain document. I was happy to bring a Jewish sensibility when reading the text and suggested some small revisions that I thought would bring even more emphasis to an understanding of Jewish attitudes to the Land of Israel - historically, religiously and culturally. What was gratifying to discover was that the Kairos Britain writers were already immensely mindful of the likely criticism the document would attract and wanted a final text that fully acknowledged Jewish suffering, Christian responsibility for it, and the central position that Israel has in post Holocaust Jewish identity.

At this year's Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham (24-27 Aug) I had the opportunity to meet some of the leading figures behind the Kairos Britain initiative at the launch event for the document. I can tell their Christian and Jewish critics (and there are many) that the writers of Kairos Britain are not bleeding heart liberals, nor misguided dupes and they are certainly not anti-Semites. They do care about discrimination, oppression and institutionalised injustice and want to bring peace and security to all those who call the Holy Land their home.

They have learnt their history and their politics and developed a coherent and compassionate theology based on the equality of God's creation. In short, they know their stuff and have chosen to make a stand.

A Jewish Kairos?

All of this makes me wonder how long it will be before we reach a Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine?

What is abundantly clear is that a Kairos moment will never come from the Jewish establishment. In the last 70 years, Zionism has become the dominant ideology within the Jewish community. Indeed it has become the new Jewish theology as well, which is what allows accusations of anti-Semitism to be made against anyone who calls into question the behaviour of the State of Israel.

A Jewish Kairos moment will begin on the margins of the Jewish community as more and more Jews begin to recognise that our relationship with the Palestinians will define our present and determine our future as much as it will theirs. It will come from Jews who begin to understand that the Occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, and the institutional discrimination of Israeli Palestinians is doing untold damage to the Jewish soul and to Judaism itself. The Jewish Kairos moment will come when we rediscover our Hebrew prophetic theology of justice and choose to take it seriously. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah were talking to us...and they still are.

The Jewish Kairos will only come when we see the Zionist understanding of Jewish history and the nationalist solution to Jewish salvation as an aberration rather than a continuum of Jewish values. It will be a painful moment and require a new construction of the Jewish narrative, one that can incorporate the Palestinian narrative too.

Palestinians will need to understand our pain and our trauma, as well as their own, if open hearted dialogue is to be possible. But this is not a conflict of equals. We hold the power. We have the superpower backing. The onus is on us.

I see little sign of a tipping-point being reached on Israel/Palestine anytime soon within the Jewish community. But the seeds are being sown and I like to think that this blog is one of those seeds.

Like minded 'Micah Jews', like those that support the actions of Jews for Justice for Palestinians or follow news feeds from Mondoweiss and +972, and support Jewish Israeli groups like B'Tselem and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, are creating the movement that will eventually shift the ground and shake our diaspora leadership from their belief that the status quo is both moral and sustainable.

I look forward the day when the first synagogue council in Britain passes a motion condemning the Occupation and the expansion of Settlement building. That will be a moment when Judaism begins a 21st century renaissance.

In the meantime, Jews who wish to stand in the Jewish tradition of universal justice will find their friends outside of the Jewish community. Our opportunity to influence events will be through our support of projects such as Kairos Britain. If nothing else, it will demonstrate to local church communities that Jews may be monotheistic but they are not monolithic when it comes to Israel. There is a Jewish diversity of opinion that makes a nonsense of anti-Semitic accusations.

So I would urge my Christian and Jewish readers to look closely at Kairos Britain and the original Palestine Kairos. These are important documents with the power to move people to action.

This week (4 September) sees us welcome in the Jewish New Year of 5774. It is the beginning of a 10-day period of atonement that reaches its liturgical and emotional heights on Yom Kippur. The issues raised in Kairos Britain will certainly be at the forefront of my thoughts and prayers in the coming days.

“Leshanah tovah tikateiv v’teichateim" - May you be inscribed for a good year!