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