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).

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for speaking up. You may be familiar with the quote "The only thing necessary for the progress of evil is that good men do nothing" (I hope I have that right).
    PS, I was introduced to your blog by a fellow storyteller. The story, as I heard it, is that a man went round all the Jewish teachers saying he wished to learn about Judaism but for reasons of his own had to do it standing on one leg. All the other Rabbis dismissed him as a time-waster; only Rabbi Hillel took up the challenge.