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.