Friday, 5 December 2014

A Jewish Advent reflection

There's something utterly essential about Advent. And I say that as Jew who looks on in admiration at this season of the Christian calendar.

The journey towards Christmas, with all its expectant waiting, is heavily pregnant with hope for the future. It is an annual renewal of faith in the coming of a better time. It may be dark now but times can change. Tomorrow can be better, if we let it happen. 

For Christianity, the birth of the Messiah signifies that there is a different way of looking at the world. In that journey towards a lowly cattle shed in Bethlehem, we learn anew that the weak can be made strong, the down trodden can be pulled up high and that real power comes through the spirit and not the sword.

For me, there's a lot to be learnt from a tradition that forsakes despair and travels hopefully towards a better vision for the world. It's certainly a much needed spiritual resource for anyone involved in the issues of Israel/Palestine, especially in a year like 2014 when things just seem to go from bad to worse.

For some time now I've been on my own spiritual and political journey. It's a journey looking to rediscover a Judaism of prophetic hopefulness and justice. I'm looking for a Judaism able to critique the narrow nationalism of Zionism and reconnect itself to the best of our long learning and experience.

So for my Jewish take on Advent, I'd like to share with you one key moment on my journey. It's a moment from the summer of 2011 that's come back to me in recent days as Israeli Knesset members have been discussing the various permutations of the Jewish State bill that would clearly put non-Jewish citizens of Israel in an inferior constitutional position.

I am a religiously and politically liberal Jew, born and raised in the London suburbs and in the summer of 2011 I was just ending my last trip to Israel and the West Bank. I already had my fixed views on the Settlements. I knew they were the real obstacles to peace and the creation of a viable Palestinian State. I had seen first hand the daily oppression that the Occupation had created. 

But it turned out that there was a further stage in my thinking that had yet to take place. I still hadn't fully understood what had happened to the Palestinian people as a result of Zionism. And I was going to need help to get there. It was meeting Palestinian Christian Israelis that allowed this particular Jew to take the next step in his journey.

Our group tour had reached Nazareth, the largest majority Palestinian town in Israel, where we met Samuel and Susan Barhoum. Samuel was the Vicar of Christ Church Nazareth and Holy Family Church Reineh. Susan and Samuel are Palestinian Christians, Israeli citizens, whose families had lived in Israel/Palestine for generations.

The Barhoum’s, without the slightest rancour or anger in their voices, told us what it meant to them, and their young children, to be Palestinian citizens of Israel. Citizens who earn their living in Israel and pay their taxes to the Jewish State. And remember, Palestinians are 20% of Israel’s population within the country’s pre-1967 borders. They are the remnant of Palestinians who were mostly expelled or driven out by fear during 1947-8. Most ended up in refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Those that remained were treated as ‘present absentees’ often having their land and their homes confiscated and were subject to military jurisdiction up until the 1960s.

I was familiar with the promises made in the Israeli Declaration of independence that said that the new Jewish Sate would:

"…ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…"

Well, it was clear from Susan and Samuel that the Palestinians were still waiting.

Despite the stated intentions of 1948, every aspect of Israeli Palestinian life is disadvantaged compared to their Jewish neighbours. Susan and Samuel had plenty of first hand experience to prove it.

Education resources are consistently lower for Arab schools compared to Jewish schools. The school curriculum disadvantages Palestinian students who want to take exams to enter Israeli Universities. Their exemption from joining the Israeli army (IDF) as most Jewish students must do automatically, then leaves them disadvantaged in the jobs market, including public services, where not having an army number has become a legitimate way to discriminate against Arabs.

Meanwhile, central government funding to develop and improve Palestinian neighbourhoods is vastly disproportionate compared to Jewish towns and neighbourhoods. And then there are the marriage laws that stop an Israeli Palestinian living with their partner if they are from the West Bank. Of course as a Jew living all my life in Britain (just like my parents and grandparents) I have every right to settle in Israel tomorrow if I wanted to.

In spite of all this, indeed because of it, Susan and Samuel were working hard to build bridges between Christians, Muslims and Jews with interfaith projects particularly aimed at children and teenagers.

Getting Jews involved though was particularly challenging as Susan described to our group: "Arabs and Jews are not friends. They don’t want to connect with us."

From talking to Susan it was clear that from the Jewish Israeli perspective, making friends and socialising with Arabs is not a priority. Why bother? What’s the need? For the vast majority of Israeli Jews maintaining a separation is the preferred stand point.

And alongside the institutional and legislative discrimination, was the casual racism that pervades Israeli society and culture. Palestinian Arabs are the perennial ‘other’ in Israel. They are at best tolerated and at worst seen as a 5th column, the enemy within.

Standing outside of Susan and Samuel's church in Nazareth was the moment I took the next step in my journey. This was the moment when I knew I had finally had it with the whole Zionist project as it had played itself out over more than 120 years.

The problem was not 1967 and the Occupied Territories, it wasn't even 1947-8 and the circumstances of the creation of the Israeli State. Something in my head clicked into place and the last rags of my ultra liberal Zionism fell to the ground.

I felt a little like Charlton Heston at the end of the original Planet of the Apes film. Remember when he sees the battered and broken Statue of Liberty washed up on the beach and realises that he is not on some alien planet but his own planet Earth and it is humankind's stupidly has led to his current predicament. "You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

For me, in trying to find our Jewish salvation through a misguided return to an exclusive nationalism, we had blown up our own heritage and squandered what was important to us throughout our history.

My meeting with the Barhoums came back to me as I followed the coverage of the proposed Jewish State bill that will enshrine into the constitution the primacy of Israel being a Jewish state (rather than the state of all its citizens). There are many liberal Zionist in Israel and Jews worldwide who oppose this move. They have always wanted to champion the idea that Israel could be Jewish AND Democratic. But if Susan and Samuel's experience is to be taken seriously, Zionism has never succeeded in this balancing act. Perhaps a new Jewish State law would at least formalise what in reality has always been the case. Palestinians are, and always have been, second class citizens.

What is so troubling is that such a piece of legislation is being debated by the descendants of people who knew better than any other group what it meant to be a minority - distrusted, resented and unwanted by the majority.

At our tour's last night together in Nazareth I realised that I was ready to take my own small stand, and start shouting (at least in a quiet, introverted sort of way) about the perversion of Jewish values brought about by a narrow Jewish nationalist agenda. An agenda that had sent the usually reliable Jewish ethical compass into spasm.

So from my encounter with Susan and Samuel grew this blog - Micah's Paradigm Shift. It has a sub-title that attempts to capture the theme of my writing: rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time.

Writing the blog has brought me into contact with like-minded Jews all over the world and with Christians and Muslims who have also become my guides as I seek to find a way back out from the Jewish moral cul-de-sac that the State of Israel has become.

With Netanyahu's coalition collapsing and new elections next spring that threaten an even more intransigent Israeli government, I and many others are much in need of this season of promise. Advent may be a Christian time of expectant longing but it has plenty to say to me too as I travel a hopeful road towards a better future.

This blog post was originally commissioned as part of an Advent series of reflections being published by From Palestine with Love

Sunday, 16 November 2014

How to start that difficult conversation

I want to talk about difficult conversations. Conversations that could put decades of valuable Christian/Jewish interfaith dialogue in jeopardy. It's risky I know, but I think the stakes have become too high to shy away from it any longer.

Jewish communities receive lessons in Israel advocacy from our leadership, who seem to think the solution to Israel's growing isolation can be resolved with nothing more than better presentation skills. Meanwhile, Christian communities are morally paralysed by fear of causing offence to a people they spent so many centuries persecuting.

But it's time to stop the Jewish moral denial and the Christian moral paralysis. With so much ethical common ground, why not both stand on it for a change and see what happens.

And who knows, through challenging the current no-go-area consensus on Israel, it could take us all to somewhere more dynamic, truthful and powerful in interfaith relations.

But with all that Israel advocacy training taking place in our synagogues, I feel like my Christian friends need some insider guidance on how to get this conversation going.

So what follows is the Micah's Paradigm Shift Online Guide to Starting that Difficult Conversation on Israel with your Jewish neighbours, friends, colleagues, and local communities.

Feel free to adapt the following to your local circumstances and understanding.

Stage one: Bridge building

This is where you begin, setting out all that you can agree on. You should create some good will and calm nerves before getting to the more tricky part of the conversation.
The Jewish connection to The Holy Land through its scripture, history and religious traditions is strong and without question.
The foundation that Judaism has given to the development of Christianity and the sacredness of Jewish scripture in Christian teaching cannot and should not be denied.
Christian culpability in Jewish suffering over many centuries has had catastrophic consequences and in recent decades has led to a fundamental reassessment of Christian teaching and theology.
This turnaround in Christian understanding explains why we are so hesitant and reluctant to criticise the actions of Israel.
We can see how important the modern State of a Israel has become in Jewish self-understanding and communal identity.
We understand the very real Jewish fears around the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The vandalism of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and the physical attacks are real and frightening.
We must work together to challenge racism and discrimination wherever it appears....that must be the lasting lesson of the Holocaust.
In Israel and Palestine both sides also deserve to live in peace and security.
Terrorism is not the answer although its causes must be understood without being condoned.
There is a long and complicated history to the conflict that stretches back more than 100 years. The narratives of both sides need to be learnt and understood and integrated into an agreed understanding of history.
After such a tragic relationship over thousands of years, Christians cannot allow new divisions to arise to push Christianity and Judaism apart.
But the situation in Israel/Palestine must be discussed openly and without inhibitions on either side. A mature dialogue is called for. We have a shared ethical tradition to uphold. This is a moment of truth for both sides.
At this point you should feel like things are going pretty swimmingly. Lots of nodding of heads and relief among the Jewish contingent that you are not out to convert them. Time to pour out the tea and break open the digestives.

But what comes next will be a lot more difficult.

Stage two: The objections

Now you need to be ready for some strong objections and challenges. And this is where some robustness and resilience will come in very handy.

Expect a version of the following to be thrown at you. This is where the bridge you have just constructed is in danger of getting demolished.
We thank you for all of the points you have made and agree entirely.
Thank you for recognising our 5,000 year unbroken connection to the land of Israel.
After so many decades of understanding and reconciliation we do not want to see that good work undermined. We want to share with you and explain our religious customs and practices. As people of faith we have much in common.
You must understand though that Israel's safety and security is central to our concerns. Many of us have relatives there, many of us visit often. Some in our community have relatives who found Israel their only safe haven after the Holocaust.
In our weekly Sabbath service we pray both for Her Majesty the Queen, and her government, and also for the well-being of the State of Israel. When we hear of atrocities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we mourn for the victims, they are our brothers and sisters.
Believe us, we want peace as much as you do. But if you don't live there it is hard for you to understand. We all see on the news what a difficult neighbourhood the Middle East can be.
And we must ask you, 'Why are you picking on Israel?' Why not criticise countries like Syria or North Korea where they treat their people with contempt and barbarity. Why aren't you criticising Hamas who want to wipe Israel off the map and murder all of its Jews - haven't you read their charter! Why aren't you condemning Islamic State and Boko Haram? Surely they deserve your wrath more than Israel does.
Israel treats women with respect and complete equality, and you can live an openly gay life without fear. How many Middle East countries can say that?
Why are you attempting to delegitimise the existence of the only Jewish state in the world? There are 20 Arab States by the way. We only have the one place that we can truly call home.
You are forgetting that it takes 'two to tango' and there is no partner for peace on their side. Until they renounce terrorism how can we trust them? You must have seen the stabbings and car driver murders of the last few weeks? This is what Israel is up against every day.
And we are utterly dismayed that you think to boycott Jews. Have you really forgotten the Holocaust so quickly? The Nazis started with boycotts too. And we all know where it ended.
You may mean well but you really don't understand and your naivety fills us with horror.
You may be not be anti-Semitic but your views have plenty of supporters who clearly are. By talking about Israel in the way that you do, you allow others the space to promote their anti-Semitism.
Your great teacher once said: 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone' .That would seem like very wise words for the Church to heed, especially when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people.
 By all means, have another biscuit! You're looking slightly pale.

You may have to pick yourself up off the floor at this point. We have reached the low point in the difficult conversation. However, if you've made good use of these notes you will be more than ready with a response.

Stage three: The rebuttal

This is where you remember why you became enraged and passionate about the situation in Israel/Palestine in the first place. It's also the moment when you risk all of that interfaith work that's gone on in the recent past. But don't worry, just be determined to take things onto a whole new level of relationship.

Off you go with something like the following.
We hear what you are saying and we understand your concerns. We are grateful for your frankness in expressing your position. It's important for us to hear you say it, face to face.
And now we must ask that you listen to us too, so that we can begin an honest dialogue.
We have questions to put to you as well.
You are right, you need to go there to understand what is happening. You need to travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories as some of us have done. You need to see what an occupation looks like close up, each day of the week, for men, women and children. What does it mean to have your land confiscated, building permits denied, water supplies restricted, access to your farm land taken away, your crops burnt, your olive trees destroyed.
These things have nothing to do with Israeli security and safety.
They are the reality of occupation and colonisation of somebody else's land. And this has been happening for more than 50 years in a place that both Christians and Jews consider Holy and where we too have brothers and sisters suffering and dying because of this conflict.
As Christians how could we possibly not be concerned? As British/American Christians, with our country's long political involvement in the region, we feel doubly responsible and have even greater reason to care about the land and all of its people.
Yes, there is an unbroken connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel stretching back across millennia. But are you really using your scripture, history and festival celebrations to justify a Jewish domination of the land that places Jewish rights above all others that have lived peacefully there for many centuries? Isn't that the kind of religious fundamentalism that all of us want to guard against?
You know that Israel has complete jurisdiction over 60% of the West Bank and operates a different legal apparatus for Palestinians than it does for Jews. At the very least, there is a serious democratic deficit which many people have described as a form of Apartheid. You may not like that word, with all of its past associations. By all means, help us to find a more accurate description.
In Israel itself we see legislative and institutional discrimination against Palestinians on issues of marriage, land purchase, municipal development, educational and employment opportunities. This hardly lives up to the high ideals of Israel's Declaration of Independence and it is certainly in breach of the letter and spirit of Britain's Balfour Declaration.
But what is really surprising, to us, is why you are not shouting about these things too?
This is happening in your name. It is justified as for the good of the Jewish State and the Jewish people. What shocks us is your acquiescence, your lack of protest. Please help us to understand why you have not done more to stop this happening?
If you really support a two-state solution, explain to us why your leadership never speaks out on Settlement expansion? Tell us why your rabbis are not preparing the community outside of Israel for Jerusalem to be a shared capital city?
You are right too that there are other states and other regimes that behave in far worse ways. But they do not claim to be democracies. They do not wish to be perceived as aligned politically, economically and culturally with Europe and North America. The world imposes sanctions and boycotts against North Korea. Our airforce is currently bombing Islamic State. When Russia backs Ukrainian separatists attempting to take over the Crimea, there is an international crisis.
We are not comparing Israel with Islamic State or North Korea. Neither do we think Israel is to blame for all the problems that beset the Middle-East today. However, the Palestinians' long call for their rights to be recognised is clearly a powerful recruiting tool for Islamic State. And should we really make Boko Haram or President Assad the only benchmark for unacceptable behaviour?
We are not picking on Israel unfairly. What is unfair is how much Israel is allowed to get away with.We hear plenty of stern words of rebuke from America, Britain and the EU but never see any real political or economic pressure. We would love to see Israelis and Palestinians sitting down to negotiate. You are right 'it takes two to tango' but we would ask you to consider which side is refusing to dance.
This is a very unequal conflict. One side has a powerful economy, superpower support, and one of the strongest armies in the world. The other side has none of these things.
Any student of history knows that those with power and territory very rarely relinquish it without considerable pressure being brought to bear. And those that suffer oppression will always resist.
We can understand your concern about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. We see this very differently though.
The Palestinians have tried to draw world attention to their situation for nearly seventy years. They have tried hi-jackings, assassinations, kidnappings, suicide bombings and stone throwing. We do not condone any of this. But BDS is a peaceful and legal tactic to create international pressure for change. How can we deny them this protest? This has nothing to do with the Nazis or the Holocaust. BDS is a protest in support of human rights. It is a legitimate tactic that is appropriate for this situation. BDS is not a campaign in opposition to peaceful negotiation it is designed to make a just settlement more likely.
Tell us what signs you see of government led progress on this issue? We believe you can have a positive influence in shifting the impasse. We believe that we can as well.
Finally, can Israel afford to be so choosy about who it will talk to? Hamas, in disregard of its wretched charter, has long accepted the 1967 Israeli borders. And if it is so extreme and fundamentalist why is it happy to form a coalition with the secular Fatah party which long ago recognised the State of Israel. To us Israel looks like the partner refusing to dance.
None of this makes the Palestinians all angels. But for us the question must be who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors?   
We want to work with our Jewish neighbours and our Muslim neighbours to bring a just and peaceful solution to all the people of Israel and Palestine. They deserve nothing less. Together we should be emboldening the leadership of each of our communities to speak out against injustice in the name of the traditions that we each claim to honour.
Please tell us how you think we can work together. But if we cannot work together, we will work alone. We believe this is too important to allow local sensitivities to cloud our judgement of what needs to be done.
In the past, too many Christians have turned their heads and crossed over the road rather than confront injustice when it was in plain view. For our faith to remain true to its best traditions and at all relevant in the world, we cannot behave like that again today or in the future. We are not casting the first stones but we are trying to walk in the footsteps of ‘our teacher’.
Thank you allowing us to set out our position. Now let's begin to talk about the future. As you say, we are a people of faith and we have much in common.
And there you can pause for breath and gulp down some tea. I'm hoping your Jewish partners in the dialogue will also want to take a moment to re-group.

I'm probably making this sound easier than it will be in reality. In the short-term it may feel like you are damaging important local relationships for little gain. In the long-term though it could be that you are building the foundations of a future Jewish-Christian dialogue that is richer and stronger than anything that has gone before.

So, the moment of truth starts here.

Good luck with starting your difficult conversations!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

How the UK's Jewish leadership killed off the two-state solution

In the last month it's become clear that the UK's Jewish leadership, despite its constant mantra, has no interest in promoting a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. At least not in a way that has the slightest practical significance.

We may hear the consistent rhetoric that claims to support compromise and bilateral negotiation but in reality our public representatives now look as thoroughly intransigent as Israel's right-wing coalition government.

And if that's the case we have a serious problem on our hands. It's a problem that leads directly to the increase in anti-Semitic attacks on our streets and it's undermining local community dialogue with our Christian and Muslim neighbours.

The lack of credible independence from the Israeli government and the abdication of the role of critical Jewish friend to Israel is not doing the Jewish community in UK, or the State of Israel, or its standing among the family of nations, any good whatsoever.

The latest evidence for the abandonment of honest support for two-states is the behaviour shown during the run-up and aftermath of the House of Commons vote to recognise the Palestinian state earlier this month (13 October).

Before looking at what happened at Westminster, it's worth revisiting the best research we have on the attitude of UK Jews to the conflict.

According to the most recent polling data (2010) carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, UK Jews hold the following views about Israel.
  • Two-thirds (67%) favour giving up territory for peace with the Palestinians
  • Almost three-quarters (74%) are opposed to the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank
  • A large majority (78%) favours a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians
  • A clear majority (55% against 36%) consider Israel to be ‘an occupying power in the West Bank
So UK Jews are thoroughly dovish on the key issues.

And remember, this survey was carried out just a year after Operation Cast Lead, which was the last time Israel carried out a major assault on Gaza comparable to what took place this summer. The 2010 poll found that 72% agreed or strongly agreed that the military action that Israel carried out in Gaza was a legitimate act of self-defence. However, despite that perception of the where blame lay, just over half (52%) thought that Israel should still negotiate with Hamas.

Now I don't expect Israel's official lobbyists in the UK, such as BICOM, the Zionist Federation, We Believe in Israel and the Friends of Israel party political bodies to do anything other than Jerusalem's bidding. They long ago chose to position themselves as Israel's defenders right or wrong, so why should they take account of UK Jewish public opinion. They are entitled to do their political work.

But what of The Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the religious denominations, in particular the United Synagogue (which employs Britain's Chief Rabbi) and Reform Judaism. If they really believe in achieving the two-state solution they are going about it in a way guaranteed to frustrate its already very slim prospect of ever happening.

Rather than use their influence as representatives of world Jewry, our religious and communal leaders have thrown their lot in with the Israel hard-liners and are disregarding the more conciliatory position of much of the Jewish community.

On current form, it would be easier to openly slip a prayer for Gaza's dead children into a crevice of the Wailing Wall than to find an Israel policy gap between the UK Zionist lobby and our religious and communal leadership.

So how did we see this Israeli take-over of UK Jewish communal affairs played out this month?

In the two weeks leading up to vote in the House of Commons my email inbox become full of requests from Israel lobby groups, as well as from the Board, JLC, United Synagogue and Reform Judaism, to write to my MP, urging them to oppose any motion that did not tie recognition to the successful completion of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In other words, Israel, and only Israel, gets to decide when the Palestinians deserve their right to self-determination and who should be their representatives in those negotiations.

Judging by the frantic efforts to mobilise Jewish constituents, you would have thought MPs were voting on a motion to de-recognise the State of Israel rather than supporting a purely symbolic act that would place the Palestinians on a (slightly) more level playing field in any future talks.

In the end, the amended motion favoured by our Jewish leadership did not get Commons support. However, an additional clause, put forward by the former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was accepted by the motion's sponsors. So on the night here's what our MPs, who chose to turn up, overwhelmingly voted to support:
This House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.
But even this non-binding statement of evenhandedness turned out to be totally unacceptable to our communal leadership.

The Board's President Vivian Wineman wrote the following day:
"This resolution and amendment, however well-intentioned it may be, is a most unfortunate and misguided development...This is bad news as it gives fuel to Palestinian rejectionism. This would only contribute to the delegitimisation campaign against Israel, with the Palestinians using international courts, pushing for boycotts and other activities which the vast majority of British politicians oppose."
Is it just me, or does that sound like a massive over reaction?

I suspect John Kerry will have a different view on where the rejectionist behaviour is coming from and would be delighted to find out from Mr. Wineman where exactly the "negotiations" are taking place.

And did you notice the sudden leap to "boycotts" and "international courts", the two Palestinian tactics that put such horror into the hearts of the Jewish establishment. So the warning to our legislators from our Jewish leadership is: give the Palestinians an inch and they will take a mile. The Board's position does not strike me as one predisposed to the kind of political compromise that will underpin a two-state solution.

And Mr. Wineman had more to say:
"The only way forward is negotiation, and not being derailed by those who seek to block a meaningful peace process...After all unilateral moves have not contributed to the peace process".
Was there anything in the Commons motion that called for anything other than negotiations?

And while the Board of Deputies is condemning "unilateral moves" did it have anything to say about the announcement in August of Israel's unilateral appropriation of 1,000 acres of land belonging to five Palestinian villages on the West Bank? Or did I miss that press release?

Meanwhile, the Jewish Leadership Council chose to issue a joint statement with the Zionist Federation and BICOM along almost identical lines to the Board of Deputies. It makes you wonder if we really need all of these organisations when there is so little to distinguish their positions on such a central issue of Jewish concern.

So what should a commitment to a two-state solution look like from our communal and religious leadership, especially if they were genuinely concerned about the ever-growing democratic deficit on both sides of the 1967 Green Line?

Well, if they were serious about promoting two states, I would expect to hear from Vivian Wineman regular calls for an end to the illegal occupation of the West Bank. I would look forward to Simon Johnson of the Jewish Leadership Council criticising the expansion of the Settlements as undermining political confidence in a peace process. I would welcome the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, preparing the Jewish community for the idea of a shared Jerusalem. And Reform Judaism would be asking how Jewish ethics aligns with discrimination on house building and water access in the 60% of the West Bank which Israel controls completely.

If our leadership were truly committed to justice and reconciliation through two states, we would be seeing other activity too. There would be important community based educational work to co-ordinate and support. Decades of denial that Israel has the slightest culpability in the Israel/Palestine impasse would be confronted and discussed. A little less Israel advocacy training and a whole lot more unbiased history teaching would encourage a communal environment ready to press Israel to get serious about negotiations.

In truth though, I suspect it is all far too late in the day.

And if the chances of a two-state solution really have died, then our Jewish leadership can share some of the blame for killing it off. For years they could have spoken out and influenced governments of every shade in Jerusalem, raising the legitimate concerns of the Jewish diaspora. But they chose not to. Instead they opted to mimic the same belligerency that is taking us to a political and moral dead end.

In the meantime, land will continue to be stolen. Israeli soldiers will continue to arrest and shoot dead Palestinian children with impunity and Israelis will be outraged when all of this prompts a counter reaction.

And closer to home, interfaith relations with Christians and Muslims will falter and stumble and anti-Israel motivated attacks against Jews and Jewish property will rise because we have done nothing to counter the perception that 21st century Zionism, Judaism and the views of the UK Jewish community are all one and the same thing.

Next year we have a general election in the UK. The Board of Deputies has already published its 'manifesto' aimed at influencing candidates' attitudes on issues of Jewish concern. Once again it declares a UK Jewish commitment to a two-state solution. If I were a would-be MP for the next UK parliament, I would be asking the Jewish religious and communal leadership to spell out exactly what they have done to encourage the two-state outcome they claim to be so wedded to.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Jonah and the Elephant

I hadn't seen my old friend Jonah for two years. The last time he had turned up he occupied my sitting room couch, seaweed still in his hair, and flicked through the TV news channels while throwing verbal darts into my bleeding Jewish heart. We had not seen eye to eye on much. Now, with his annual afternoon outing on Yom Kippur approaching, Jonah was back.

This time he was looking in my fridge and flipping a coin in one hand.

Hamas [Flip] ISIS [Flip] Hamas [Flip] ISIS [Flip] Hamas [Flip] ISIS.

Your back!

You've nothing in the fridge.

You're my favourite Prophetic book and my least favourite Prophet. Still, it's good to see you again.

I'm looking for Israeli celery, or Israeli dates, or Israeli anything. You don't have any.

You won't find any. I'm boycotting.

You're a crazy, self-hating Jew who deserves utter contempt and ostracising.

Now don't hold back, will you.

I say it how it is.

It's better than suicides, hijackings, kidnappings, rockets and stones. And without doubt more effective than John Kerry.

Your BDS friends are Nazis dressed in T-shirts and trainers. Jew hatred for the chattering classes. It's 1938 all over again.

I didn't expect to convince you.

Your fridge has nothing worth eating. It's as empty as your head.

So why the honour of another visit?

I'm a soft touch for a lost cause. I thought the Ninevites were bad but I was proved wrong. Perhaps you are salvageable too.

Of course, your prophetic calling draws you to people who don't know 'their right hand from their left'.

Well that would certainly describe you.

I think I know Hamas from ISIS though.

They're all the same. Child killers the lot of them. Networks of Death.

That's far too easy and it helpfully avoids the root problems.

At least we found the terrorists who murdered the three teenage boys. Some justice at last.

A trial would have been nice.

Not necessary now. And a huge saving to the Israeli tax payer.

All very convenient.

You're an apologist for terror.

I thought that was you.

I read your blog posts over the summer. The usual lefty claptrap. "We're not innocent, we can't play the eternal victims, the IDF are responsible for the killing". I grow bored of your self-righteous carping. I'm amazed anyone is reading your stuff.

If we are all so innocent, why did God give us Yom Kippur?

Don't be clever. It doesn't suit you.

I was in shul on Rosh Hashanah.

Me too. Shona Tovah!

So you've left behind that whole running away from God routine?

Don't try to be funny. That doesn't suit you either.

I can't help it. Your story is funny. The running away, the giant fish, the whole thing is comic.

I'm a serious man. The world is a serious place.

I thinking, may be this year you could switch the giant fish for an elephant. We had one in the shul for Rosh Hashonah. It would work even better at Yom Kippur.

Now you really have lost me.

Well, I was sitting there listening to the rabbi's sermon wrapped in my black and white tallis, and there, right beside her as she started to speak, was an elephant wrapped in a giant black and white kaffiyeh.

A women rabbi!

Don't get me wrong, I liked the sermon. She had ISIS on her mind and reminded us how religion can be radical and revolutionary in good ways and bad.

They let women give sermons?

And the elephant listened silently.

Rabbis should stay clear of politics.

She even mentioned that Judaism can display some negative traits. A bit edgy, I thought, but she brought it off and nobody walked out. But the elephant was there for all to see. If only they had eyes.

Who needs more ignorant pundits. It's an abuse of the bimah!

I suppose taking a stand on Gaza is too risky. Guaranteed to upset someone. If not everyone.

Exactly. Morality is too important to be left to the clerics.

We can agree there. They are fatally compromised. I can't believe they don't see the elephant.

So you really want to swap my fish for your elephant. Then what?

Who knows.

What are you expecting from Yom Kippur? You want to start a Jewish intifada or something? A Jewish Kairos moment for Palestine? And you thought I was funny!

I suppose I'm hoping that the sound of the shofar might just be enough to blow down that great big Separation Wall we have in our heads. The wall that stops us seeing the truth.

Do you think a man could be swallowed by an elephant?

If we can fit a huge wall in our heads, why can't an elephant swallow a man?

You really have lost the plot haven't you? And I'm looking in this fridge and I'm thinking you really do need to go shopping.

If the elephant could start talking that would be even better. Something about the real meaning of 'returning' could be fitting.

Hamas [Flip] ISIS [Flip] Hamas [Flip] ISIS

And then when he spews you out you could swap scarfs as a sign of mutual solidarity. The elephant gets the tallis and you get the kaffiyeh. It could be a lovely moment.

Hamas [Flip] ISIS [Flip] Hamas [Flip] ISIS

And then the coin dropped to the floor and Jonah was gone.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The things I learnt this summer (about Hamas, Terror Tunnels, Charters, Rabbis, Boycotts and Tapestry)

Like children returning to school, I thought I'd write some short reflections about the things I learnt during the holidays.

1. Tapestry

I was never much good at arts and crafts. I only do words. But this summer I learnt something about cross stitch tapestry.

Around 260 women, were killed in Gaza during July and August, mostly as a result of Israeli aerial bombing and ground artillery. I know some people like to blame Hamas for all the deaths during the Gaza assault ('they started it' etc) but I don't subscribe to that twisted piece of moral sophistry. If you fire the weapons the deaths are your responsibility. The same goes for Hamas rockets.

In amongst the daily death count of the summer, one loss spoke to me and brought me close to tears on my train journey home one evening.

On July 20th Samar Al-Hallaq was killed in Gaza when an Israeli shell blew-up the residential building she and her family had fled to for shelter in the suburbs of Gaza City. Samar was 29 years old and part of the Palestinian History Tapestry Project. The Project is a charity that has set out to record Palestinian history through the creation of embroidered panels. Each panel is sewn with traditional Palestinian cross stitch and illustrates the life and times of the Palestinian people.

Samar, who had been taught to embroider as a child by the older women in her family, became interested and began to contribute.

Something about Samar's death broke through to me that evening and made all of the other deaths I was reading about meaningful. Samar's two sons, 6-year-old Kenan, and 4-year-old Saji, and five other members of her family were also killed. Samar was eight months pregnant. Her husband, Hussan, who recently completed a Master degree of Science in eBusiness, survived.

I wondered what the rest of Hussan's life would be like.

2. Mosques

I didn't think I would be so moved by the destruction of buildings. But the photographs of whole neighbourhoods reduced to rubble showed how disingenuous was the claim that the IDF was only targeting terrorists. It was an impossible aim to begin with and the Israeli government would have known that from the start. When I looked at the pictures from, just for example, Rafah, near the Egyptian border, I thought these are family homes, children were raised there, memories were created in those ruins. Israel (like any other state) has the right to defend itself. But how could that defence possibly look like this when Israeli civilian casualties, after 50 days, were just half a dozen people.

And then there are Mosques. Seventy-three were destroyed in Gaza over the summer. In an article in the New Statesman magazine by Donald Macintyre, I read about the Mahkamah Mosque which had stood since 1455 in a side road off a main street in the Gaza City district of Shejaiya. It was considered a jewel of Malmuk architecture and was testament to an Islamic culture and civilisation just as indigenous to the Holy Land as Judaism and Christianity. It had been in continuous use for three centuries. Three centuries of prayers and learning. Three centuries of a community gathering together to worship God. In the early morning of July 24th it was flattened by an Israeli bomb. It wasn't necessary to imagine this being a synagogue or a church to understand what this must have meant to that community. You can imagine the outcry in the West though if 73 synagogues or churches had been destroyed.

So I learnt that buildings are casualties too.

3. Soldiers

Sixty-four Israeli soldiers were killed by the time the truce was agreed at the end of August. Investigations are underway, by Israel itself, to establish if any were killed by their own side in an attempt to avoid hostages being taken by Palestinian fighters. But let's assume for the moment that they were all killed by Palestinians. These soldiers' deaths made me angry and upset too.

What was the point of their sacrifice? Was 'Protective Edge' really a necessary and unavoidable operation? Could Israel have chosen to start talking to the fledgling Fatah led Unity government, as the American's urged it to, earlier in the summer? The case for yet another assault on Gaza was never convincingly made. And after it's all over, Hamas remain a political and military force, with far greater support today, in both Gaza and in the West Bank, than they had in June. Just like the 2,100 plus Palestinian deaths, these Israeli conscripts should not have lost their lives just to make the whole situation even worse than it was before.

4. Rabbis

Some Rabbis are better than others.

I wrote a post called 'Standing on one leg for Israel-Palestine' and received strong criticism from a liberal Rabbi on Facebook for failing to mention the three murdered Israeli teenagers abducted on the West Bank in June. I pointed out that I had written about the boys in my previous post 'The true meaning of Brother's Keeper' which the new piece linked back to. In a private message via Facebook I invited the Rabbi to meet with me to talk about our different points of view since we work in the same city. I've had no reply so far. The offer is still open.

I wrote an open letter in July to Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK, asking that she take a bolder position than just offering prayer and empathy for the Palestinians under fire in Gaza. The letter was published on the Jews for Justice for Palestinians website where it received more than seven hundred Facebook 'Likes'. So I must have been saying something that resonated with a great many other British Jews. Rabbi Laura wrote back to me the same day that I sent her my letter and we had a respectful and warm exchange of emails. Like I said, some Rabbis are better than others.

5. Vitriol

People who don't know me from Adam are more than happy to be hateful about me personally.

Here's one email I had to my blog over the summer:

"Ho hum, another so-called Jew more moral than all the rest of us Jews that support Israel. In fact, your kind are so moral, you have to boycott Jews. You think the Jihadists care what kind of self-proclaimed good Jew you are? As an a Israeli, I piss on ghetto Jews like you. We will survive and thrive long after shit like you is maggot food."

I've learnt to be resilient about this kind of correspondence. I hope it is not typical of Israeli attitudes towards Jews critical of Israel.

In contrast, some people are very generous. In the same week as the above message I was sent this from a retired Anglican Bishop:

"I read your Micah's Paradigm Shift with great interest every time it arrives in my Inbox. Thank you for all you write. I see myself as a true friend of Israel, as indeed you are."
Should the Jewish Israeli's view or the Bishop's carry more weight? You decide.

6. Charters

Over the summer I read the Hamas charter written in 1988. It's shot full of extreme religious nationalism, blatant anti-Semitism and crack-pot history. It's a textbook exercise in how NOT to write an inspiring, uplifting tract calling for the liberation of your land and its people. The quality of the English translation probably doesn't help it much. It's definitely an embarrassment for anyone in solidarity with the Palestinians or sympathetic to their right to use armed resistance against an occupation.

The odd thing is, Hamas seem to ignore their charter while the rest of the world obsess about it. It's become a handy way to insist that there is 'no partner for peace' even though Hamas has consistently offered peace based on '67 borders and the lifting of the blockade. I suggest that Hamas negotiate their charter out of existence as part of a settlement, should Israel ever agree to talk to them.

Benjamin Netanyahu's party, Likud, has a charter too, from 1999, and I read that as well. It's also full of extreme religious nationalism and dodgy history but the Islamophobia is only in the sub text. It refuses to accept that 'Judea and Samaria' (aka the West Bank) can be anything other than part of Israel, it says Settlements are an unassailable right of the Jewish people, and it sees Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital city of the Jewish State. Hopefully, Bibi will ignore his charter too. The rest of the world don't seem too bothered about it.

7. 'Terror Tunnels'

In wartime people are always prepared to believe the worst about their enemy. It's a necessary part of the process of dehumanising them so when the killing starts it is easier to deal with it both politically and emotionally.

Even though the existence of 'terror tunnels' dug from Gaza into Israel for the express purpose of killing Israelis had not been a part of the initial justification for Operation Protective Edge, it soon became so. The image of Hamas fighters or suicide bombers suddenly emerging through the floor of a kibbutz kindergarten gripped the Israeli public's imagination. A rumour that there were plans to commit mass murder and kidnapping around the Jewish New Year, with 200 Hamas terrorists dressed in IDF uniforms, gained credence without the slightest credible intelligence. The possibility was enough. Who needed evidence.

So far no tunnels have been found that reached anywhere near civilian centres. The purpose of the tunnels was certainly military and aimed at getting behind IDF lines to kill or kidnap soldiers near the Gaza border. It's called asymmetric warfare. You can read a helpful article at + 972 magazine.

8. Balance

People are getting very good at creating infographics. The dead and injured become neatly lined up stick people, anonymously conveying the asymmetry of the suffering on a tidy chart in bold colours.

The latest one I've seen tells me that apart from the 2,100 plus fatalities (including more than 500 children) there were also:

  • 3,438 children injured
  • 10,080 homes destroyed
  • 450,000 people internally displaced
This is what allegedly 'targeted precision bombing' ends up producing in a densely populated strip of land the size of the Isle of White.

I'm glad Israel's rocket defence system, the Iron Dome, exists. It meant that only a six Israeli citizens were killed during the summer. In fact Hamas may have killed more of its own people than it did Israelis, with rockets that fell short of their targets. That didn't stop Israel and its supporters presenting the conflict as though they, rather than the Palestinians, were facing a truly existential threat. But there is a big difference between sirens sounding in Tel Aviv and whole neighbourhoods disappearing in Gaza City.

Members of my family wanted me to convey 'more balance' in my writing. Which I think means putting Israel's side of the story. I keep saying there is no balance. Look at the stick people! And after all, isn't what happens to the Palestinians part of Israel's story too? Okay, I say, if the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies attempt some balance, then I will try harder as well.

9. Boycotts

Boycotts are the real 'terror tunnels' into the hearts of the Jewish community.

In the UK this summer the focus has been on a cosmetics shop in Kings Street in Manchester that sells products sourced from the Dead Sea, most of which is within the West Bank. So the issue has been that minerals acquired through an illegal occupation are generating profits for Israeli businesses.

The boycott Israel campaign makes most Jews in the UK feel angry, fearful, confused, personally threatened and extremely defensive. Attempting to present it as a legitimate non-violent protest against the policies of the State of Israel and in support of Palestinian rights just does not work for most of the Jewish community. 

From the mainstream Jewish perspective, BDS is simply a return to the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. And, as I was asked over the summer, why pick on Israel for such actions? Why not organise boycotts of Syria, or ISIS or Russia? "Surely this disproportionate focus on Israel is a manifestation of anti-Semitism."

I've tried to explain that BDS against Israel is a workable tactic for change against a country that relies on international trade. I've also made the point that it's the Palestinians that have called for this action. I've said that there are plenty of government led sanctions already in place against Syria and Russia and how on earth do you boycott ISIS?

But I suspect none of this cuts through. That's because the whole issue has deep emotional implications linked to religion, history and personal identity that a purely rational argument does not begin to address for most Jewish ears.

10. Big Thinking v Small Thinking

I believe there exists such a thing as Jewish values and ethics that are worth upholding and that have meaning that Jews can take pride in. Call it Jewish Big Thinking. There also exists a tradition of Jewish myopia and Small Thinking, of which Zionism, particularly in its religious nationalist vein, has done much to contribute to. Both the Big Thinking and the Small Thinking are equally part of Jewish history. By the way, the same distinctions can been seen in Christianity and Islam.

The Jewish Small Thinking was well represented over the summer. These were the people from the Jewish community who still think Israel-Palestine is just a problem of presentation ("If only people could understand what Israel is up against" etc).

More than a thousand people attended a 'Town Hall' meeting on August 13th in North London organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to discuss the situation in Israel and Gaza and its impact on the UK Jewish community. The media reports of the event told me a great deal about those who have the loudest voices in the Jewish community. At the meeting there were no cries for justice, no calls for reconciliation, no suggestion of establishing a friendly critique of Israel's actions. Nobody was in despair at the death of hundreds of children at the hands of the Israeli Defence Forces.

Instead, those speaking from the floor called for bigger London rallies in support of Israel, more effective lobbying of the British parliament and better PR on behalf of the Israeli government.

The need of large sections of the Jewish community to feel totally blameless and to maintain a self and public perception of victimhood is incredibly strong. So, at best, we say we are desperately longing for 'peace' while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the slightest culpability for 'war'. And by 'peace' we do not mean 'peace and justice' but rather 'peace and quiet'.

And in the meantime, the State that claims to act in our interests (mine included), has created another generation of orphaned, maimed and bereaved children who will struggle to give Israel the benefit of the doubt when they are asked to accept them as genuine partners for peace.

Still, if you live in Siderot or Ashkelon, at least it's quiet again. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, Israel is becoming a pariah state and Jews are threatened and attacked on the streets. But not because they are Jews but because our spiritual and communal leadership and a great many individual Jews too, have chosen to make no distinction between Judaism and Zionism.

So, these are the things I learnt during the summer that's just past.

As we enter the autumn and the days of annual Jewish repentance and spiritual renewal, there is a great deal to reflect upon.

Further reading from Micah's Paradigm Shift during summer 2014

Remembering COHEN A. and COHEN H. (Or the short trip from Flanders Fields to the Gaza Strip)

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Remembering COHEN A. and COHEN H. (Or the short trip from Flanders Fields to the Gaza Strip)

How did I get from my holiday visiting the Flanders Fields of Belgium all the way to the Gaza Strip? From the Western Front to the bombed wreckage of homes in Al-Shejaea? 

It turned out to be a much shorter journey than you might think.

Private COHEN A. from one of the many London regiments, and rifleman COHEN H. from Ireland had disappeared somewhere on the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. The fact that I and my two sons had found their names carved on the limestone walls of the Menin Gate meant their bodies had never been recovered.

Perhaps they had sunk into the mud of No Man's Land or been blown to smithereens in an artillery barrage. Either way, there was nothing left of them but their names. 

They had 'fallen', according the the inscription on the Menin Gate, 'Ad Majorem Dei Glorium' 'To the greater glory of God'. For COHEN A. and COHEN H. and the 54,896 other disappeared men from Britain and its Empire, their 'sacrifice' had been made 'Pro Patra, Pro Rege'. 'For Country and for King'.

There was no way to find out if my two namesakes had joined up voluntarily in the earliest days of the fighting or, more likely, had been conscripted, making their ultimate sacrifice on the orders of the British government.

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who knew first-hand what conscripted sacrifice looked like, was far from impressed by Ypres' classical archway honouring the dead. As the world marked the 1914 centenary this week I doubt there were many quoting Sassoon's poem 'On passing the new Menin Gate' which ends with this accusatory couplet:
"Well might the dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime"
Sassoon was right, we go to great lengths to honour our fallen of the Great War in order to cope better with their state sanctioned killing.

In all, 60,000 British Jews served in the armed forces during World War One and 3,500 were killed. In the German trenches there were 100,000 German Jews of whom 12,000 were killed. So Jews were shooting at each other, in the name of 'King and Country' and for 'The greater glory of God' on both sides of No Man's Land.

And in the immaculate Commonwealth war graves dotted across the Belgium countryside, the white headstones make no distinction between military rank or the nominal faith of the soldiers they name. Every headstone is identical with the occasional Star of David emblem sitting neatly between those marked with Crosses. In death all are equal in both rank and faith.

I wondered if the news had ever reached COHEN A. and COHEN H. that in November 1917 the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration. Would they have been pleased by the news that Prime Minister Lloyd George now supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine? Did the COHENS I had found see themselves as part of a 'homeless people' in need of their own nation state? Were they romantic Zionists, like the war poet Isaac Rosenberg, dreaming of an ancient glory. Or were these COHENS communists or bundists or socialists? Or perhaps A. and H. were content to make their way as best they could in the country that had given their parents refuge.

And then my mind began to wander and to play games with history.

What if everything had turned out differently?

What if the Manchester University chemist, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, had not been successful in bending the ears of the British wartime cabinet and persuading them that their diplomatic needs melded perfectly with his? What if the Balfour Declaration had never been signed?

What if the Jewish voices who opposed Zionism, such as Lucien Wolf, Claude Montefiore and Edwin Montagu, had won the argument?

After all they had made some good points. Hadn't the days of a Jewish Kingdom long gone? Surely for Jewish nationalism the camel train had left the station two millennia ago. There was no going back. And if you did, how would such a restoration change the status of the millions of Jews who had won citizenship in countries around the world? And anyway, the ethnic diversity of Jews made it obvious that they were a people of shared faith but with differing histories and no consistent culture or spoken language. The blood and soil nationalism of 18th and 19th century Europe did not quite fit the Jewish reality. Jewish self- determination had to look different.

What if Lloyd George, and his Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, had instead decided to honour any of the other multiple and contradictory pledges about the future of Palestine that their ministers and officials had been cooking up with the French government, and with the Turkish and Arab nationalist leaders?

What if the words of Lord Curzon, another member of the War Cabinet and a future Foreign Secretary, had been heeded instead?
"What is to become of the people of the country?...[they] have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years, and they own the soil...They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter."
What if...?

And every now and then another BREAKING NEWS alert would drop into my Blackberry inbox to remind me that a hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, its fall out was still being felt.Currently in a loud and deadly way in the homes and in the streets of Gaza.

And then an even more treacherous thought entered my head.

What if COHEN A. and COHEN H. and their brothers in arms from all parts of the British Commonwealth, had failed to hold the line of the Ypres salient? What if the Germans had broken through and captured the channel ports and crossed to England? What if Kaiser Wilhelm had won the First World War?

No Treaty of Versailles.

No Weimar Republic.

No Adolf Hitler.

No Holocaust.

And, in all likelihood, no Jewish State as it is today constituted.

And while my 'what ifs...' were piling up, where might the descendants of the families of COHEN A. and COHEN H. be now? In my alternative universe, none I imagine would have be conscripted into something called the Israeli Defence Forces. None would have been asked to defend a Jewish nationalism that in the last month has had to justify to the world the killing of more than 400 children in the name of Jewish self-determination.

Perhaps these are silly mind games to play. 

No doubt history would have thrown up alternative scenarios just as dreadful as the ones we have had to live through in the last hundred years, including different challenges and threats to the Jewish communities of Europe.

But my point is this. History does not follow inexorable lines. There are always alternative routes to follow. Different voices to be listened to. Different names that even now could be rescued from historical oblivion to be hallowed and celebrated.

As I write, a ceasefire is holding in Gaza. There is hope that it could lead to talks on the long-term issues of the conflict. But I doubt such talks will get very far while the same power dynamics remain in place. After all, the Israelis have already rejected all of Kerry's and the Palestinian's compromises since last summer.

The last month has brought Israeli terror to the Palestinian people of Gaza. The loss of life and the destruction of an already impoverished economy bares no relation to the threats faced by Israel, especially with the Iron Dome at its disposal. This was a war of choice from the moment Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the murder of three Israeli teenagers on the West Bank. The Palestinians have paid dearly in order for Israel to wreck the Fatah/Hamas Unity deal and divert attention from the failed Kerry peace initiative.

The last month has put on display, like never before, an Israeli society willing to tolerate the most extreme expressions of racism, and even calls for Palestinian genocide, by its parliamentarians and leading rabbis. It is a society that has backed, with overwhelming support, a massively disproportionate attack on a vulnerable people whose land it effectively occupies.

As for Diaspora Jewry, when this Gaza war finally ends, it will be left with one fundamental question to be answered.

How many children will have to die before our communal Jewish leadership decide that they cannot 'Stand by Israel'?

Attempting to blame the victims for their own death has become a sickening argument as the days and weeks have passed. Israel has a right to defend itself! Well, yes, but 'defence' is hardly what we have witnessed in the last four weeks. Claiming that Hamas cares nothing for its women and children and is happy to use them as human shields is contemptible once you have watched toddlers screaming from the pain of shrapnel wounds on their backs and fathers carrying their children wrapped in tiny white shrouds. 

If our Jewish leadership and our synagogue councils cannot understand what most other British citizens do, it is because their moral compass has been thrown into spasm by the demands of defending Zionist principles.

After this summer, our Jewish leadership can watch the campaigns for Israeli economic, academic and cultural boycotts grow. And they can watch as as anti-Israel fury fails to distinguish between Diaspora Jews and the government of the State of Israel. I hope they will begin to understand their responsibility for all of this. They could have spoken out. They did not.

It was indeed a short journey from Flanders Fields to the Gaza Strip. And if I could take COHEN A. and COHEN H. to Al-Shejaea or Beit Hanoun, would they rise from the slime and recognise that a crime has been committed in their name...and mine.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Time to cross the line - A letter to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

A letter to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the UK Movement for Reform Judaism

Dear Rabbi Laura

I listened to the Gaza conflict debate on BBC Radio 4's ‘Today’ programme on Tuesday 22 July. I was grateful that you were willing to take part in a discussion, alongside journalist Mira Bar-Hillel, that demonstrated to listeners that there are a variety of views within the UK Jewish community when it comes to Israel, and in particular what’s happening right now.

It was good to hear you stay well clear of the Israeli government lines that are being used to justify the killing of so many civilians, including at least 132 children (so far).

Most of the UK pro-Israel comments I have read in the last two weeks have avoided any attempt at historical context  - the decades of occupation, the seven year siege of Gaza, and the economic and social collapse this has led to. They certainly avoid referring to the immediate timeline that led to the renewed violence - Israeli missile attacks on Gaza following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the arrest of  hundreds of Hamas supporters on the West Bank.

Instead we get statements like these from the Israeli government which sound increasingly morally vacuous by the hour:

“What country could tolerate rockets rained down on its people?”
“They use their children as human shields.”
“We are acting in self-defence.”
“We value human life…they celebrate death.”
“What would any other country do?”
“We warn them to move out before we strike.”
“We only target known Hamas operatives.”

“They choose the telegenic dead to gain world sympathy.”

In contrast, Rabbi Laura, you showed common humanity and reflected how emotionally torn many in the Jewish UK community must be feeling right now. These were your comments that I noted down from the radio discussion yesterday:

“People feel absolutely frightened by what’s happening...There is empathy for people on both sides...I have seen people in front of me weeping for civilians on both sides...They understand how complicated it is...We are Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian.”

Having grown-up in the UK Reform movement, I recognise your more nuanced understanding of the situation and the desire to uphold Jewish ethical values. Unlike many Jewish/Israeli voices I hear, you are not attempting to dehumanise the Palestinian people nor claim that they all hate Jews and only want the “destruction of the State of Israel”.

I very much welcome your stand because it is so much better than most of what I am hearing. 

But at the end of the day it fails to address the real situation that Judaism and the Jewish Diaspora community is facing. Our treatment of the Palestinians is the greatest challenge to us today. Right now we are failing that challenge with horrific consequences.

There is clearly a line that you, and your fellow Reform and Liberal rabbis, are unwilling to cross – at least in public. It is a line that, in crossing, would put you in direct opposition to the current government of the State of Israel.

Prayers for both Israelis and Palestinians, and acknowledgement of the deaths and suffering happening on both sides of the conflict, may look like good morality and feel like ethical responsibility.

But it's not.

In the end it's a moral cop-out.

At the end of the day you have to make a stand. You have to cross the line.

You have to decide, which side has the real the power? Which side has the real weaponry?

You have to decide, who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors?

We are taught to seek justice and speak truth unto power. As the Hebrew prophets discovered, this can quickly put you at odds with your own community and its leadership. But what else should Judaism stand for? The Reform and Liberal movements have upheld the tradition of prophetic Judaism for more than two centuries. But that tradition needs to be acted upon to be truly honoured.

If Israel is to survive as a liberal, democratic nation, then it will have to sit down and talk to Hamas. It will have to end its blockade of Gaza and allow its people to rebuild their economy.

If Israel really wants ‘peace’ rather than merely ‘quiet’, it will have to acknowledge Hamas as legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, along with Fatah. It will have to negotiate with a Palestinian Unity government, rather than attempt to destroy it.

If you, and your rabbinical colleagues, want to make a real difference in the name of Jewish values then this is what you need to be talking about, very clearly and very loudly.

It will take great courage and conviction and you will need to draw deep into the well of Jewish ethics.

The time is over when expressing sorrow for both sides and insisting on the ‘complexity’ of the situation is enough...if it ever was.

At the end of the day, you have to make a stand. You have to cross the line. I hope you will feel able to do this before it is too late for the Palestinians and for Israel.

With all best wishes and encouragement for your work.

Robert Cohen, author Micah's Paradigm Shift

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Standing On One Leg for Israel-Palestine (or What I mean by 'Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant')

Things are looking especially bleak right now. And it will get worse before it gets better. 

The abductions. The phone call. The shots. The murders. The round-ups. The arrests. The house demolitions. The clashes. The deaths. The revenge killing. The beating. The riots. The racist rhetoric. The rockets. The bombing. The children killed. More rockets. The sirens. The Iron Dome. More bombing. The assassinations. The children killed.

As I write thousands of Israeli soldiers are preparing for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Why? Because Israel is under attack.

So far, since 7 July, during this Hamas 'war of terror' on Israel, at least 80 Palestinians have been killed including 18 children and 10 women. Seven entire families have been wiped out. One journalist and more than 520 have been wounded including hundreds of children.

In this war of terror against Israel, no Israelis have died. Hopefully it will stay that way. This is not a competition for martyrdom.

But everything is so back to front and upside down that sometimes I think Lewis Carroll must be writing the script.

There is no balancing of the columns in the Israel-Palestine ledger of pain. This is not a battle between equals. To mourn all of the dead and pray for all of the families, as our UK Jewish leadership asked us to do last week, is a welcome breakthrough. The loss of Palestinian life is rarely acknowledged and certainly not prayed about. But I doubt the UK Jewish leadership will be holding any prayer vigils for the dead children of Gaza this week. Those children don't count because we can't question the actions of the 'most moral army in the world'.

Meanwhile, the burning to death of Mohammed Abu Khedir has reminded us that there are strains of Jewish expression and Jewish religious understanding that most of us would want to disown as a rogue aberration of 'true Judaism'.

The truth is though, that like every other religion, Judaism has its dark side.

Sacred texts can be used to justify hatred and murder. Racist thugs can believe that they are acting honorably and upholding the holy values of the tribe. The rest of us have to champion a different understanding and lay claim to a higher ground. 

Or perhaps the murder of Mohammed Abu it is the inevitable outcome of more than 100 years of muddying the distinction between Judaism and Zionism, religious faith and ethnic nationalism. Despite returning to our historic homeland, we appear more uprooted from our ethical heritage than ever before. As I said in my last post, we have even forgotten the true meaning of Brother's Keeper.

This summer sees the third anniversary of my blog Micah's Paradigm Shift

I am three years in, a mere 49 posts published, approaching a meager 50,000 page views. Compared to many others I admire (and some I loathe) it's small beer. But it is a stand. It is my stand. And it is better than doing nothing and saying nothing while my people insist on choosing an endless war over a just peace.

Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant

Since the beginning, I have attempted to remain true to the blog description I adopted at the very start: Israel-Palestine from a UK Jewish perspective. And the strap line: Act justly, love kindness, walk humbly. Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time.

As the might of Israel continues to kill Palestinians in the name of Israeli security in an operation called 'Protective Edge', what can 'Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant' mean? What is Micah's Paradigm Shift trying to 'protect' and what possible 'edge' could my words have over the high-tech power of the Israeli Defence Forces?

The scripturally minded will recognise the abbreviated quote from the Hebrew Prophet Micah.

Justice. Kindness. Humility.

For me, this is what the Hebrew Covenant boils down to after 5,000 years of Jewish history. This, to answer the test question set by the prophet in the 8th century BCE, is what God requires of us. Our end of the Covenant is about behaviour, actions and outlook, all of which flow from an understanding that we are here for a great deal more than just the thrill of the ride.

If I hadn't loved the Micah passage so much, I could have called the blog 'Standing On One Leg' in honour of Rabbi Hillel, the 1st century Judean sage (and contemporary of Jesus). Hillel, as many of you will know, was asked to sum up Jewish teaching while balancing on one leg (I have no idea why he was set such an odd task). Hillel replies, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — now go and study.” So, there are 613 commandments, but it all comes down to how you treat your fellow human being.

So whether Micah or Hillel is your guide, the Covenant is the sacred understanding that we are created for the sake of others. And with so much emphasis in the Hebrew bible on the 'stranger' and 'neighbour' there is little doubt in my mind that the justice/kindness/humility/do not do unto others ethical imperative must embrace all of humanity. Which, despite the remarks of some Knesset members in the last two weeks, must include Palestinians living in Gaza City and Khan Younis too.

The Covenant that's past its sell by date

And in case you were wondering, and to be absolutely clear, what don't I mean by the Hebrew Covenant?

Well I don't mean the (highly conditional) Promises of Land made in various (and inconsistent) ways through the pages of our ancient scripture. And it cannot mean Chosenness if that means contradicting the fundamental equality of all of humanity in the eyes of God. Nor can the Covenant mean special privilege through Godly election, for the same reason.

All of these ideas had their moment in the evolution of our Jewish self-understanding. But in our joined-up, inter-dependent, multi-faith, economically-wired-together world, tribal traditions from the Iron Age will not serve us well. We can try clever modernist interpretations to soften the impression these ideas carry, but personally, I'd rather not bother. 

Those earlier theological understandings can be honoured, respected and studied as part of our heritage but they cannot be acted upon. In fact, clinging onto them has the power to destroy us. If God is worth our consideration at all then He cannot be 'on our side'. The Covenant is about everyone being on His side.

So having established what kind of Covenant I'm championing how does it relate to today's State of Israel? And if my understanding of the Hebrew Covenant has become so globally embracing why am I picking on Israel for special attention? Surely any righteous anger should first be directed at the likes of President Assad or Boko Haran or plenty of other unpleasant regimes and gangs that stain the planet.

For me this is very simple to answer.

Personal responsibility

Israel is my primary cause because the country acts in my name. It justifies its behaviour because it claims to represent the interests of Jews worldwide. It has set itself up as the answer to our redemption after 2,000 years of European Anti-Semitism. Whether I like it or not I am personally bound up with the fate of this particular nation. That means that when eight Palestinians are killed while watching a World Cup semi final in a Gaza beach cafe, I feel a personal responsibility for what has happened and a strong responsibility to speak out.

And since I see the central value of Judaism as following the Micah/Hillel imperatives, the entire Zionist project looks highly problematic, not just for the Palestinians (who bear the consequences daily and intensely right now) but for Jews and for Judaism. So Israel has to be my priority.

Jewish territorial sovereignty didn't work out so well the first two (biblical) times. See Isaiah and Jeremiah for further reading. Third time around and we are making another ethical hash of things.

If you don't recognise such a description then I can only assume that you don't have a problem with ethnic dispossession or military occupation or collective punishment, or institutional discrimination all of which could be the case if you are still seriously wedded to the chosenness/election reading of the Covenant. And there are plenty of non religious Jews (and Reform and Liberal Jews too) who still hold onto these dangerous ideas of Covenant at some deep level of their Jewish consciousness.

I firmly believe that nothing will change (in fact things will continue to deteriorate) without the Jewish Diaspora taking a strong, independent and critical stand against the current and past actions of the State of Israel. Why do we consider it somehow acceptable that when things get tough for Israeli Prime Ministers, and world opinion is starting to turn against them, they decide to pummel Gaza (again). The lack of political imagination is staggering. The Settlers have occupied both sides of the Green Line but the Jewish Diaspora leadership fears to lift a finger in reproach.

Those of us who can see that the status quo is unsustainable, undemocratic, immoral and not very Jewish, are raising our voices. But we are a tiny minority.

The actions of the State of Israel, both historical and contemporary, towards the Palestinians are the greatest challenge facing Judaism and the Jewish people today. That's why I started this blog and that's why I am, along with Rabbi Hillel, Standing on One Leg for Israel-Palestine. That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. This is the whole Torah. Now look around you and see what is happening in Gaza in the name of Judaism and the Jewish People.

If you know others who would like to stand on one leg with me (and we may be balancing for a long time yet) then please share this post.

Until next month's attempt to rescue the Hebrew Covenant...Shalom, Salaam, Peace (but with justice too please).

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The true meaning of 'Brother's Keeper'

Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?" "I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Genesis 4:9

When I first heard the news on 12 June that 19 year old Eyal Yifrah, 16 year old Gilad Shaar, and 16 year old Naftali Fraenkel, were missing, somewhere near Hebron on the West Bank, I knew this was not going to end well.

My first reaction was as a parent, with daughters the same age as the three boys. I could feel my heart tightening as I read the news reports and thought their chances of being found alive were slim. I began to imagine what the political consequences would be. Most of all though, I thought about the boys' parents.

It didn't matter to me that the three teenagers were from Settler families. It didn't matter to me that what the boys called 'home' was stolen land for the Palestinian people. It didn't matter that I would probably find much to disagree with in the religious teaching at the Yeshivas they attended. Actually, it didn't matter that they were Jewish at all. What mattered was that they were children and what ever their background or the actions of their parents or the political movements they supported, they did not deserve this.

I could come up with a list of reasons why the murderers of the boys acted the way they did. Who knows what their personal experience of Israeli Occupation has been. Who knows if they have suffered personal family loss or the destruction of their property or the confiscation of their land. In the end, any mitigating circumstances or explanations for their motivation don't change the nature of their actions. They kidnapped three children and shot them dead. Resistance to the Occupation is entirely justified but it cannot look like this.

And before the bodies were found, what did the Israeli government do?

The Netanyahu government played this tragedy for everything it was worth. Without any published evidence, Hamas was blamed for the abduction and once again Netanyahu could claim that Israel and the Jewish People were at the mercy of hate-filled, anti-Semitic terrorists. Never mind that the Hamas leadership denied any involvement and the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the action and called for the teenagers to be released.

And why would the Hamas leadership order and plan such a thing? Why would they even agree to sanction the action by more lowly operatives? What possible advantage could it bring? Whatever you think of their stated aims, Hamas is political and rational. With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they have been on the back foot looking for a way to remain relevant to their followers and influence the Palestinian future post the Obama/Kerry failure to get peace talks started. Forming a unity government with Abbas' secular Fatah does not look like the action of crazed religious fundamentalists.

But for Netanyahu it was too good an opportunity to miss.

Having been blamed for intransigence on the latest American peace initiative, he wanted to remind the world that Israel is forever dealing with murderous Palestinians out to kill Jews because they are Jews. By putting responsibility squarely at the door of Hamas he could discredit the fledgling unity government long before it gives Palestinians a chance to vote in long over-due elections.

And so Operation Brother's Keeper was launched with the aim of shutting down Hamas on the West Bank. Homes were raided, houses destroyed, more than 400 arrests were made. Five people were killed during clashes with the IDF as they made their round-ups, including 15 year old Mahmoud Dudeen who was struck by live bullets in the chest on June 20 in the village of Dura. He was with other youngsters throwing stones at the soldiers who had stormed into his village.

And the now the three boys' bodies have been recovered the revenge begins. I knew it was going to end badly.

Here is what Netanyahu said last night (Monday 30 June) in a media statement:
"Revenge over the blood of a small child is not the devil's work, and neither is revenge for the blood of a teenager or young man...Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay."
On Monday night the revenge began. After an emergency cabinet meeting, Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip, hitting 34 targets claimed to be terror-related, whatever that means. In the West Bank city of Jenin, another Palestinian child was killed in more clashes with the army, this time it was 16 year old Yusef Abu Zaga who lost his life.

Of course the deaths of Mahmoud and Yusef are not considered tragedies in the way that Eyal, Gilad and Naftali are. The Palestinian boys' acts of resistance against the IDF mean they forfeit all innocence. They became terrorists and therefore legitimate targets. At best, their deaths are just unfortunate mistakes made in the heat of battle.

Following the three funerals of the Israeli teenagers this afternoon, the Israeli cabinet is in session again planning the next acts in its stated aim to eradicate the evil of Hamas.

How far they will go is anyone's guess. It will not be good news for the people of Gaza or the West Bank. This is unfocused collective punishment on a grand scale. I'm not sure it is even revenge. Just bad politics.

And what do the Israeli government really understand to be the true meaning of the 'Brother's Keeper' title of their ongoing operation? What does it tell us about their worldview?

The phrase originates from the story of Cain's murder of his brother Abel in the book of Genesis. Cain denies to God that he is responsible for his brother's welfare. The teaching is of course that exactly the opposite is true. We are all responsible for our siblings and indeed the welfare of all humanity. The actions of the IDF though, and the entire Israeli government apparatus that keeps the Occupation ticking along, points towards a very different attitude.

While the price of young Jewish lives will be made extremely high in the coming days and weeks, young Palestinians are a very different matter. If we are to be true to our traditional Jewish teaching then the ethic of 'My Brother's Keeper' has to mean more than this. We have to take more care of each other's children.

Update: Wednesday 2 July

Since I posted this last night, Israeli police have found the body of a Palestinian teenager who was kidnapped overnight in East Jerusalem. Mohammed Abu Khdair, 16 years old, was last seen being forced into a car. His partly-burned corpse was discovered in a forest. We appear to be in a terrible downward spiral. I hope the Palestinian leadership will be smarter than the Israelis in how they attempt to apportion blame.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Micah meets...Marc H. Ellis

This month something special. To mark the publication of his new book, I have a review and an exclusive in-depth interview with the radical Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis.

Book review: Future of the prophetic

It used to be that you had to wait a few years between reading anything new from the leading Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis.

But times have changed.

Since retiring as Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Ellis has moved to Florida, set himself up on Facebook and become a regular, sometimes daily, contributor to Mondoweiss, the online platform for dissident comment and non-mainstream reporting on Israel-Palestine. A regular home on the web has allowed Ellis to reflect on the current twists and turns of the subject that has dominated his theological thinking. So now we can get the instant Ellis reaction on the growth of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the failed Kerry peace initiative, American campus battles over freedom of speech and the almost daily examples of ethical chutzpah from the Jewish American establishment. Often his Mondoweiss writing can read like a stream of ethical consciousness pointing out the absurdities Jewish political life.

Retirement has also afforded Ellis the time to revisit the major themes of his career and test them against the latest developments and thinking in the Jewish, Palestinian and wider world. So, now we have a new book: Future of the prophetic - Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-presented published in the United States and the UK last month (May 2014).

Before I go any further, a moment of full disclosure (and personal thanks) seems in order.

Ellis has been a major influence on my thinking on Israel-Palestine ever since I read Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation (TJTL) published in 1987. That booked helped a whole generation begin to understand the complex impact of the Holocaust on Jewish self-understanding and the political role it has played in creating a narrative around the actions of the State of Israel that is built on innocence, redemption, eternal victimhood and endless vulnerability. All of which undermines, and leads to the active suppression of, any attempt to understand what has happened to the Palestinians as a result of the 'miracle of Jewish national rebirth'. When I starting writing Micah's Paradigm Shift three years ago, I knew that Ellis would form a major part of the blog's ethical infrastructure.

Through TJTL, and subsequent books, we have been introduced to a new lexicon of Jewish ethical descriptions: 'Constantinium Judaism', 'Empire', 'After Auschwitz', 'the ecumenical deal', 'Jews of Conscience', 'Prophetic consciousness'. For nearly three decades Ellis has been exploring the shattering theological and political impact of the Holocaust. Through all of his books he has attempted to find a way back to the Biblical moral imperatives of the Hebrew Prophets who challenged the immorality of Jewish power and individual behaviour in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ellis draws a straight line between the prophetic challenges to injustice made by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah and the modern Jewish dissidents who have refused to allow the narrow nationalism of Zionism to hijack traditional Jewish ethical understanding.

Future of the prophetic is his most detailed exploration of these themes since TJTL and brings the Jewish civil war (Empire Jews versus Jews of Conscience) bang up to date.

As Ellis makes clear in the new book, the prophetic continues to break through, and break out, despite all attempts to silence it: "Whether Jews like it or not, they are stuck with the prophetic". And in every generation there are new voices willing to witness to the unravelling moral disaster even if their views lead them into a new social, political and religious 'Jewish Exile'.

However, despite the resilience of the prophetic in Jewish DNA, there are some disturbing questions posed by Ellis that make it perfectly clear just how much he believes is at stake. For much of the book there is a pessimism and sense of mourning about the prospects for the Jewish future.
"For more and more Jews, Jewish life has reached a tipping point...these last decades have introduced a new question. Is there anything ethical left in Jewish life worth saving?"
For Ellis, the relationship between Jews and Palestinians is the defining issue. Everything else is secondary or informed by the layers of self-deception and denial that have accompanied the Jewish dream of empowerment through a modern nationalist project of 'return'.

Throughout the book, Ellis makes audacious and deeply challenging, sometimes disorientating statements that will disturb Jewish sensibilities: "Too often, the Holocaust demobilizes Jews rather than mobilizes them to act justly." The book is full of such thought provoking (and highly quotable) propositions that are then thoroughly explored.

Ellis has always championed, hidden, forgotten or new voices that are pushed to the margins of acceptable discourse or have dropped out of the standard history. Future of the prophetic maintains that tradition.

In these pages we meet again the lost voices of 'homeland', as opposed to 'statist' Zionism, from the 1930s and 40s (Magnes, Buber, Einstein, Arendt) whose warnings against an ethnic Jewish State have turned out to be horribly prescient. But we are also introduced to modern voices, Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli such as Jeff Halper and Mazin Qumsiyeh.

But perhaps the most arresting presence in the book is that of the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, an Israeli born Jew. Atzmon's anti-Zionism has, in the view of many 'Jews of Conscience', crossed over the line into anti-Semitism because of his writing on Judaism itself which he sees as being an intrinsically racist and colonialist religion. Ellis holds Atzmon up like a mirror to even the most pro-Palestinian Jews and asks us whether these views, that appear beyond the Jewish pale, are an example of Atzmon out-propheting the prophets, taking to a new level even their scathing criticism of Jewish culture? And despite Atzmon's declared abandonment of all things Jewish, Ellis wonders if he is just another link in the chain of the ancient prophetic. It makes for a fascinating, and challenging, few pages in the book.

For Ellis, one way out of the current Jewish impasse is to radically broaden our understanding of the Holocaust and to lift it out of its Jewish-centric setting. This is in no way to deny or downplay the scale and horror of the Jewish experience in the mid 20th century. But Ellis does want to take it away from being only understood as the quintessential act of anti-Semitism. This way of viewing the Holocaust has, in Ellis' analysis, vindicated the need for an empowered Jewish State that then casts all Palestinian opposition as simply modern permutations of Nazism.

To support this new approach, Ellis introduces the work of the historian Timothy Synder and his book: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Ellis sees the implications of Synder's thesis as "explosive". Bloodlands widens the Holocaust field of view to take in all 14 million civilians murdered across Eastern Europe between 1933-45 under Nazi and Soviet empires. Inevitably, Synder shifts his readers to a universal reaction of humanity towards all of the victims of the terror. The cry of 'never again' becomes a call for human rights and obligations rather than a justification for Jewish nationalism.

In the final reckoning, Ellis believes that the maintenance of the Jewish prophetic, and in turn the preservation of a distinctly Jewish ethic, can only be achieved by broadening Jewish horizons to make the connections between our own suffering and those of others.
"When Jews expand their view of human and political rights outward and then apply it in their own backyard, a global broadening of the Jewish horizon is inevitable."
As Ellis has said previously in his work, we Jews need the help of the Palestinians to find our way back to the prophetic, back to the heart of that part of our tradition that has the greatest and most lasting relevance. The path to 'return' as the ancient prophets understood it (that is to say not merely nationalistic and territorial return) involves looking up and outward. The prevailing Jewish mindset, created by the Holocaust and the image of Israel as a threatened and persecuted nation, will not make this task easy.

By the end of the book the reader is left convinced of the tenacity of the prophetic in Jewish life. But like the ancient prophets themselves, the mission may be vital but the work looks overwhelming. It has to be done, but the chances of success appear slim.

Nevertheless, Ellis has made another highly significant contribution to what is becoming an existential debate on the future of Judaism. The Holocaust and Israel has left us at a crossroads and Ellis describes this moment better than any other writer. Some, as I did, will find this book stimulating and challenging, providing essential fuel for the ethical struggle ahead. But like the fate of the ancient prophets, still more will ignore or dismiss his words. Either way, the prophetic will live on.

An interview with Marc H. Ellis

Marc, welcome to Micah's Paradigm Shift.

Micah's Paradigm Shift: Seventy years on and the Holocaust remains the driving force in Jewish discourse. You write about how the Holocaust and Israel have: "overwhelmed the Jewish tradition". Is it simply that we have learnt the wrong lessons, choosing empowerment at all costs rather than universalising the implications of our experience?

Marc H. Ellis: The importance of Holocaust discourse is diminishing now. Its shelf-life – about twenty years or so – is about up. Part of this is time and distance. The other part is Israel’s outrageously aggressive behaviour over many years. How can one raise the Holocaust issue when Palestinians are being permanently ghettoised? The point isn’t universalising the implications of the Holocaust but taking the Holocaust, as a particular experience, in a different direction. Using the Holocaust to justify the end of Palestine is a dead-end for Palestinians – and for Jews as well.

MPS: You've just returned from a lecture tour of Germany. What did your audiences make of your take on the Holocaust and how it has shaped the Jewish story since the end of World War II?

MHE: On the whole Germans take the experience of the Holocaust very seriously. They may be the last community where on the Left, Jewish particularity can be spoken about openly. Having said this, more and more Germans are aware that repentance for the Holocaust has led to another injustice, this time against the Palestinian people. For the most part, Germans are stuck in this predicament. They know what’s going on. They cannot find the words to speak. Even as they are stuck in this predicament, Germany continues to arm Israel. That is why I wrote an essay before I left for Germany with the title – “Repentant Enablers.”

MPS: What is the additional power that linking to the ancient prophetic brings to the situation? What wrong with simply championing a modern understanding of human rights as a gold standard of human behaviour?

MHE: Human rights are important but limited. Human rights can’t do much without political rights. Both have to be grounded somewhere. Though many find that grounding in the Enlightenment – which is fine – this, too, is limited. For Jews the grounding is the evolving Biblical prophetic, when it is affirmed as important and especially its importance is denied. I see the explosion of Jewish dissent, almost exclusively secular, as a struggle against the final assimilation of Jews to power. It’s about idolatry, Biblically defined. Jews of Conscience aren’t going the idolatry route.

MPS: There are many who will think you have 'crossed a line' by quoting Gilad Atzmon and taking his views seriously. Most people think he is 'beyond the pale', what makes you find him a compelling voice?

MHE: Crossed what line - a line more important than the permanent ghettoisation of the Palestinian people? Atzmon is interesting rather than compelling, a provocateur if there ever was one. But focusing on him is a red herring. It’s misplaced. The question should be thrown back to those who pursue him. Do they seek to deflect the truly outrageous violation of Jewish ethics visited upon another people by being outraged by a Jewish Israeli who takes delight in slapping them in the face? The Biblical prophets were one-off types, disturbing the peace on all sides and refusing to be team players. So what’s new? I’ve never met Atzmon and my analysis of him is limited and specific. I don’t agree with some of his positions – I don’t even know all his positions. I don’t argue with those who refuse to work with him politically. I understand why people don’t want to work with him politically. But that’s a different issue than the one I am raising in my book. Jewish Israelis who leave Israel because they can’t take the injustice they’re commanded to commit are a varied lot. They aren’t a pacific mannered bunch. Israel’s conquering of Palestine is driving the Jewish prophetic to the edge. Look for more of this in the future.

MPS: So, Atzmon can't be off limits?

MHE: Atzmon might be an example of what I think of as prophetic insanity but if you want an edgier picture of prophetic insanity check out the Bible. When cornered, the prophets go scorched earth – from our vantage point they’re clearly irrational. Today they would be characterised as anti-Semitic. The prophets are relentless internal critics of Jewish hypocrisy. They aren’t folks you want at your local synagogue. Or, God forbid, at the Vatican prayer summit! This issue with Atzmon isn’t his politics or his hitting at the sacred in the Jewish community – Israel and the Holocaust. Atzmon is about the outer limits of Israeli abuses of power. Concentrate on injustice rather than the foibles of those who have become unhinged by that abuse. Eliminate discussion of Atzmon and you still have a conquered Palestine. So where should we focus?

MPS: You were unimpressed by Pope Francis and his pray-in at the Vatican with Peres and Abbas. I agree it had little political significance but what made that moment such a sham for you?

MHE: Awful. Everyone looked totally bored. Perhaps they resented being used for something that meant so little. When prayers become platitudes – in the face of great suffering – then it’s time to call these religious leaders to account. In my mind they become culpable enablers of injustice. Talk about the silence of God! I happen to be religious but such empty ceremonies confirm everything negative about religiosity. To have the global stage and fail so miserably, you have to shake your head – in disbelief. If Pope Francis was really interested in justice for Palestinians, if he really cared about the Jewish people, during his visit to Palestine he would have stayed in the Palestinian refugee camp he visited and refused to leave until justice was done. Or he could have prayed at the Apartheid Wall and stayed there. Anyone who wanted to pray with him – within that decision and embodiment – then I would listen to those prayers. Talk about the international spotlight! Pray if you like but for God’s sake make it meaningful. Prayer as a sacrifice for justice. Prayer embodied. In the ghettos and refugee camps of our world. Not the Vatican garden.

MPS: Are there aspects of the ancient prophetic tradition that we now have to abandon in order to keep the prophetic itself alive and relevant in our own time? I'm thinking about the way in which the Hebrew prophets never question the original conquest of the Promised Land. It was not given, it was taken. Does that allow present day ideas of Jewish exceptionalism and the hierarchy of suffering to continue at the expense of the Palestinian people? This is the Gilad Atzmon position again.

MHE: The Jewish critique of exceptionalism – is exceptionally Jewish. Like Sholmo Sand’s deconstruction of Jewish history and identity. It’s so Jewish! For thousands of years, Jews have thought themselves exceptional. Exceptionalism, or, as I prefer, a sense of Jewish destiny, isn’t going away. Nor should it. What is important is the direction that the sense of exceptionalism/destiny takes. Why give up on a source of meaning in the world? Besides, if you diminish Jewish destiny, you give up the prophetic. But the Jewish prophetic is a great gift now shared around the world. The world can’t be better off without the Jewish prophetic. Rather the Jewish prophetic should be nurtured as the primal root of the global prophetic. In my book, I explore a number of figures who have radical positions on Zionism. Like Yakov Rabkin who, as an Orthodox anti-Zionist Jew, believes that the Holocaust was punishment for Jewish sins and that the state of Israel, in and of itself, is tempting God to unleash another catastrophe upon the Jewish people. His book has been translated into a number of languages and he tours the world to communicate his message. I find his theology wrong-headed. Nonetheless, he is right to claim that he is within the Jewish tradition. Why read him or others out of the tradition when they clearly are within it? Meanwhile, the oppression of the Palestinians continues unabated with many honors going to those who perpetrate that oppression. So honors for Shimon Peres and reading the riot act to others? Then there is the radical Palestinian, Joseph Massad. I spend many pages on his provocative analysis of the Palestinian Authority as akin to the Jewish Councils that presided over the Jewish ghettos in Nazi Europe. I would pay more attention to Massad than Atzmon or Rabkin. But each has his say.

MPS: Okay, let's leave Gilad Atzmon for the moment. You say in the book that if we want to jettison the Biblical colonialism involved in taking the Promised Land, then we also risk losing the Exodus paradigm of liberation that is so central to the development of Jewish ethics? We are caught in a bind. Is there a way through this? Or do our sacred texts forever inhabit both Empire and moral consciousness?

MHE: Sorry to say but it’s both. My favourite part of the book is my take on the Biblical inheritance. Of course, I know much of the scholarly literature on the Bible and enjoy reading it. However, the Bible is an essential part of Jewish identity and deconstructing it for scholarly effect doesn’t leave us much at the end of the day. I want to know and embrace what it means to be Jewish and make my statement on it. In the Bible, the land is promised to Israel but the prophetic takes precedence. The prophetic – not the land - is the indigenous of the people Israel. It is the essential element of Jewishness and worth fighting for. Having said that, there is no license for taking Palestinian land and Jews of Conscience today are intervening in the prophetic tradition – decolonizing it if you will. Whether consciously or not, the Biblical promise is being reinterpreted from the vantage point of the prophetic in what amounts to a Biblical re-do in the creation of the state of Israel. That’s why the modern day Jewish prophetic is so relentless.

MPS: You talk about the actions of Jews of Conscience being a "last-gasp fling with Jewish identity". Is that the fate of those, like yourself, who find their solidarity with Palestinians the strongest articulation of their Jewish identity?

MHE: We are down to the basics. The Holocaust stripped us of the last vestiges of Rabbinic Judaism. Though horrible beyond words, the Holocaust presented Jews with the essence of what it means to be Jewish. Some take the empowerment over others route – I call them Constantinian Jews. Others take the prophetic route – I call them Jews of Conscience. Deep in exile, Jews of Conscience grapple with the difficult embrace of the prophetic. In fact, they embody it. After that embodiment, what’s left? That’s anyone’s guess but there will always be those on the other side of power who need the prophetic voice. Of all the issues in the world, Jews of Conscience galvanising around the question of Israel-Palestine tells us something. Behind the political secular veneer what is at stake is the entirety of Jewish history. Jews of Conscience aren’t about to let Jewish history go down the drain.

MPS: What is it about the 'Jewish condition' that makes for this prophetic disposition? Why does it keep breaking through? Is it just another reaction to a history of persecution? In fact, the flip side to the reaction that leads to the idolatry of empowerment? And if our secure comfortable lives (in the UK or USA) have brought an end to that suffering, does the prophetic end too?

MHE: The indigenous of Jewish is the prophetic. No matter how much others want the Jewish prophetic to die and no matter how much the Jewish establishment wants it to die, the Jewish prophetic is here to stay. The Jewish prophetic will never die. I think of this as persistence of the prophetic and no matter how many qualifiers one throws in – how many contextual variations that “explain” the Jewish prophetic - such explanations don’t exhaust that persistence. Jews have always been on both sides of the empire divide and will continue to be. Empire is the Jewish hope for normalization but it is consistently undermined by the prophetic. As it turns out the instability of Jewish life – which comes from the prophetic – is our stability. Of course, it is also true that the God of Israel is unstable. Jews and God are quite a pair.

MPS: Labels like 'Jews of Conscience' and 'Empire Jews' feel like they are loaded with self-righteousness. Even though I may want to align myself to the Jews of Conscience camp it doesn't feel entirely comfortable. It shuts down the potential for dialogue and caricatures both sides. In fact are most Jews in neither camp?

MHE: The dialogue is false, manipulated, corrupt. That includes dealing with Progressive Jews who have held back dealing with the real issues for decades. In terms of self-righteousness, I find much of the Left superficial as well. Norman Finkelstein’s charge that BDS is a cult only means the cult he cultivated is leaving his side. Like International Law, BDS has its place. Both are part of the mix and limited. Neither deals with Jewish or Palestinian particularity at a deep level. As well, outsiders who take up the Jewish or Palestinian cause should check their anger at the border. They often come from cultures, religions and political entities that are knee-deep in Jewish and Palestinian blood. Cheerleading is fine at a football game but when it comes to thought we need thinkers who call it as they see it. There aren’t any enforcers who demand that you listen to me or others. If you don’t want to think along these lines, don’t. But when people are suffering like the Palestinians are and Jewish history is on the line, niceties, often construed as being constructive, have to be jettisoned.

MPS: You take a pretty hard line Marc

MHE: Jews who exercise their conscience are Jews of Conscience. Those who feast upon and enable empire are Constantinian Jews. It’s a civil war out there and in the war of words and institutional power, Constantinian Jews wield a more powerful platform. Constantinian Jews, along with their allies in the Christian establishment - they’re brutal – and wrong. They persecute Jews of Conscience, bring them up on trumped-up charges, payoff witnesses and defame the character of those who seek justice in the world. It’s a slander machine but then most of the persecutors are bagman. They take their bribes in dollars and empty tributes.

MPS: For a theologian you do not leave much room for God in your writing. You see Him as silent yet you remain convinced that the Jewish covenant breaks through even when it is voiced by those who would describe themselves as thoroughly secular. How do you see that working?

MHE: It’s more complicated than that. The silence of God in the Holocaust is one thing – that’s theology stumped. That silence, however, is trumped by the prophetic: The prophet embodies the possibility of God – and meaning - in the world. Neither are assured. In a world where God is silent – a premise I take to be self-evident – and where there is no rescue from ourselves – another self-evident reality – we are faced with the prospect of nothingness. At the end of the day, though, that’s a superficial rendering of the human condition. When we come to face to face with the prophet and the prophetic, we are called to a deeper encounter with history, our world and ourselves. That encounter raises the question of God.

MPS: How hopeful are you that the prophetic tradition can ever overcome the forces of empire and empowerment' 'Constantinian Judaism'? The ancient prophets didn't seem to have much luck on this score themselves.

MHE: All is lost – that’s where we need to begin. In the darkness where is light? That’s the next step. The prophet gathers light in the darkness. What remains after the constant shattering is what we have. Why not admit it and get on with life? We are at the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it. Full stop. But then aren’t Christians at their end? Muslims? The believers in the world’s most powerful faith, modernity? At the end is our beginning. The end is exile and the beginning is the recognition that we aren’t returning to our birth communities and that the diverse and growing world of exiles is our community. I call this exile community the New Diaspora.

MPS: I want to finish by asking about your Facebook posts. Apart from sharing links to your Mondoweiss pieces, you often post your photographs of Florida sunrises and sunsets taken on morning and evening strolls near your home. Does the sheer beauty of creation continue to root you in some form of belief?

MHE: Yes I am being identified as “that guy who does the sunrise photos” and I am now working with a web whiz who wants to partner with me in publishing my photos with my commentary. In this harsh civil war that I have been involved in since 1987 people classify you in ways that don’t fit the reality. It’s like an out-of-body experience. They use my name but I cannot identify myself in their speech about me. I conclude that they must be speaking about someone else with the same name I have. I have been writing poetry since I was child and I love the beauty of the world. Your question of belief doesn’t fit here since again the only reason to be Jewish is to embody the prophetic. Embodying the prophetic is Jewish belief. The two hours or so I spend in and around the beach each morning isn’t about belief or unbelief. It’s about the beauty, sounds and silence of the world and our inner being connected to the world. I also sit on a cushion in the morning, Zen-like, to clear the junk from my mind and get to a still point where I can hear my heart beat. Inside the prophetic is an internal life – little has been written about it. My sense is that justice is only the outer shell of the prophetic. I am trying to explore this inner world and photograph aspects of it. As has been said, the rest is commentary. In exile, I have time to explore the heartbeat of the prophetic. Why not?

MPS: Marc, thank you. Good luck with the new book and with the website project.