Saturday, 5 December 2015

Maccabees, Miracles and Grandpa Boris: The battle for the soul of Hanukkah in 2015

My Hanukkah post is up at Patheos

Here's an extract

There’s always been an interesting tension between the two aspects of Hanukkah celebration.  Which should take precedence in our thoughts each year? Should it be the miracle of the Temple light which burned for eight days when there was only enough sanctified oil for one day? Or should we place the greater emphasis on the military victory of the Maccabees against a regional superpower, the Assyrian Greeks?

Read the full post here 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Prophet in Exile – an interview with radical Jewish theologian Marc H. Ellis

"Right now, BDS is more or less the only way forward and BDSers are right to strike hard. As an avenue for victory, though, I have my doubts. Let’s say that I am supportive and an agnostic."

My new interview with Marc Ellis is just published. A real insight into his life and work.

Read the interview at Patheos here

My review of his new book 'The Heartbeat of the Prophetic' is here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The End of Jewish History? What makes radical theologian Marc H. Ellis too hot to handle?

I've just read 'The Heartbeat of the Prophetic', the latest book by the radical Jewish theologian Marc Ellis.

Ellis has, and still is, making a highly important contribution to modern Jewish thinking particularly on Israel/Palestine.

My review of 'Heartbeat' and thoughts about Ellis' career have just been published at Patheos

Here's an extract:

Are Jews across the world really tearing their communities apart over the question of Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians? Are things so bad that we face the demise of Judaism as we know it and the abandonment of the community by a disaffected generation fed up with the hypocrisy of it all?
There was a time when Marc H. Ellis was in favour with at least some parts of the Jewish religious and cultural establishment. I can tell by the fact that quotes from his writings can be found anthologised in the study sections of my prayers books.
But I doubt Ellis gets quite so many copyright requests these days. His views have become too hot to handle.
'Heartbeat of the Prophetic’ goes a long way to explaining why Ellis has fallen out of favour even within the liberal Jewish elite that once championed him following the publication of ‘Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation’ nearly 30 years ago.

I will also be posting a new interview with Marc in the coming days.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why Christians are finding it hard to boycott Israel (and 10 helpful rebuttals to their critics)

My new post is published at Patheos

Here's an extract:

BDS is going to be the battleground in the West where the rights and wrongs of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict will be fought out.

As Gandhi once said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We have certainly reached the “fight you stage”.

But if you are a Christian and you support boycotts against Israel, then you are in particular trouble. The opposition that will line up against you will be especially formidable. There’s a long way to go before you come anywhere near winning this By supporting BDS you will straight away place yourself well beyond what your local community and establishment hierarchy considers an acceptable form of protest.

Friends and relations will think you have become extreme in your outlook.

Vicars, priests and Bishops, who may be sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinians and even voice criticism of Israel from time to time, will decide that you have gone too far.

Very quickly you will be accused of being divisive, one-sided, morally inconsistent, naïve, anti-dialogue, anti-negotiations, and of course, anti-Semitic.

You will also be told that you are undermining decades of interfaith dialogue that has sought to repair and atone for centuries of anti-Jewish Church teaching that incited murder and mayhem across Christian Europe and paved the way for the Holocaust.

And there you were, thinking you were just standing up for someone else’s human and civil rights and applying the very ethical teaching you had been taught in Church since you were a child.

Friday, 23 October 2015

“Dear Chief Rabbi…” The Knife Intifada sermon that failed the test of moral and communal leadership

My latest blog post is published at Patheos

Britain's Chief Rabbi Ephriam Mirvis, gave a sermon last Sunday (18 October 2015) concerning the latest violence taking place on the streets of Israel and the West Bank. It was disappointing to say the least.

I've written an open letter to the Rabbi to explain why I feel he is letting down the Jewish community in Britain.

Here's an extract:
The key sentiments you expressed in your talk were commendable. There is indeed “an urgent need for communication” and “the healing of relationships”. But if that’s what you really believe then the rest of your sermon was an object lesson in how not to achieve either “communication” or “healing”.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Holocaust deniers, Kafka’s sisters and how anti-Semitism can kill global Palestinian support

Here's an extract:

...soon after I started writing something else began to happen that I’ve found far more difficult to tolerate. I’ve found myself attracting a different form of commentary on my writing, one that uses my words as the jumping off point for incitement to genocide and, of late, Holocaust denial.

For some people, only spilling Jewish blood is the answer. For some people, only dead Arabs are acceptable.

It turns out that there is no shortage of hatred in the world and a considerable number of people who are firmly of the opinion there is little that can’t be solved (certainly in the Middle East) through a timely massacre of ‘the guilty’.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Micah meets...Jeff Halper

Palestinian pacification, Franz Kafka, the global arms trade and why the Boycott movement needs to change its strategy - my interview with leading Jewish Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper is now available at my Patheos page.

Here's a couple of quotes from the piece:

“It seemed to me there was an elephant in the room that we’re not seeing. And, casting around, I think that it’s the military security connection.”
“You can’t explain why Israel would be close to Saudi Arabia. They’re very close, in all kinds of ways; politically, and militarily; and they co-operate. It seems counter-intuitive if you take normal international relations. There’s nothing in common, and they’d be enemies if you talk about the Arab/Israeli conflict.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

He came, he saw, he sold us some high tech surveillance systems – A report on Bibi’s Grand Day Out in London

My new post is published at Patheos

Here's an extract:

There was another helpful element to the timing from Bibi’s perspective. Due to the Labour Party leadership contest there was no official opposition leader that had to be met to fulfil diplomatic niceties. If it had all happened a week later we would have the fun of imagining the ‘full and frank exchange of views’ that would have come to pass in a Netanyahu/Corbyn encounter.
 Actually, I think Jeremy would have boycotted Bibi on the grounds that the Israeli Prime Minister is, safe to say, in receipt of financial backing from the State of Israel and an advocate of Settlement expansion on the West Bank. And that’s before we get into the whole War Crimes question. Or maybe Bibi would have boycotted Jeremy first on the grounds of his much commented on ‘friendship’ with Hamas. Sadly, the battle of the boycotts never took place.

Friday, 11 September 2015

This High Holidays I'm Challenging the 'Modern Jewish Sacred'

Here's the opening:

We are entering the Jewish High Holidays. A period of reflection, of repentance, of returning to God. In Hebrew we call it 'teshuvah'.

Built in to the Jewish religious calendar is the assumption that every year we will lose our spiritual way and will need to find a way back to all that is Sacred. That period of 'returning' begins with the Jewish New Year and culminates with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) ten days later. It is not only a time of individual repentance, it is a time of Jewish communal contrition.

But what happens when we enter the New Year of 5776 (September 13th) and realise that the Jewish Sacred is itself lost and wandering?

In past centuries and millennia it was easy to define the Jewish Sacred.

God was sacred. So much so, that even his name could not be spoken or written.

God's creation, and in particular human life, was sacred. We all held within us the spark of the Divine. 

The Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God dwelt during the Children of Israel's forty years in the desert, was sacred.

The inner sanctuary of the First Temple where the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments were kept, was sacred.

The Torah, with its commandments for building and maintaining a God centred, just society in the Land of Israel, was sacred.

The rabbinic commentaries that helped us to interpret the Law and apply it in places far away from The Land of Israel, were sacred.

As Jews dispersed, the sacredness of Time replaced the sacredness of Land as we made holy the Sabbath and the annual cycle of festivals, liturgy and prayer.

Righteous acts were sacred as we fulfilled the commandments to protect the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

But what is Sacred for Jews today? And is it worthy of holiness?

Confronting the Modern Jewish Sacred

I've just returned from two weeks travelling around Israel and the West Bank with my family.  We met with Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim.

As we travelled, listened and talked, the Modern Jewish Sacred revealed itself to us....

Monday, 10 August 2015

After the murder of baby Ali, is Zionism beyond redemption?

My latest blog post is published at Patheos.

Here's an extract...

Soon I will be heading back to Israel and the West Bank for my fourth trip to the area.

Along with notebooks and pens, I'm packing questions too. The recent deadly arson attack by Jewish Settlers in the village of Duma, near Nablus, has again focused my mind on what Zionism is or isn't and what the Jewish project of nationalist renewal should mean to me as a British Jew.

Just as the kidnapping and burning of Mohammed Abu Khudeir did last summer, the death by fire of 18 month old Ali Dawabshe has provoked horror and soul-searching by Jewish Israelis. They are asking How has this happened? How could we have stopped it? What are they teaching their children in these Settlements?

But Duma was hardly an isolated incident, as this report from Al Monitor makes clear. And Israel's track record in finding and prosecuting those that carry out such attacks is far from impressive. The death of a child however put the attack on radar of the international media and so prompted this reaction from Prime Minister Netanyahu, who would normally stay silent on Settler violence:

“I am shocked over this reprehensible and horrific act. This is an act of terrorism in every respect. The State of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of who the perpetrators are."

The sentiment has been echoed by Jewish Communities around the world. In Britain, the Jewish Chronicle gave three pages of coverage to the issue of Jewish extremism this week and the Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies, Richard Verber, had this to say:

“We share in the pain of the Dawabsha family and hope that the perpetrators of this act of terror will be brought to justice as soon as possible.”

On Saturday 8 August Ali's father Sa'ed died in hospital from his injuries and his mother Riham and older brother Ahmad are still in a critical condition. Meanwhile, there have been a number of arrests of suspects including Meir Ettinger, the grandson of the notorious ultra nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane. They are being held under 'administrative detention' with the same lack of due process and transparency usually reserved for Palestinians.

But was it a random act of Jewish terror, a hate-filled aberration to disown, grieve over, and then move on from? Or was it a direct consequence of the near fifty year Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Has the Jewish State created a political culture that has nurtured the attitude of Ali and Sa'ed's killers? Indeed has it subsidised the fundamentalist rabbis and yeshivas that taught them their hateful chauvinism.

Or worse still, is Duma the inevitable consequence of the entire Zionist programme of Jewish renewal through 'return' and state building? After all, it never was a land without a people for a people without a land, as the old Zionist slogan liked to frame things.

As I pack my questions for Israel I'm asking: Is Zionism in 2015 beyond redemption?

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Did the BBC cover-up the antisemitism of Gaza's children?

My latest post at Writing from the Edge

Here's an extract:

Has a mistranslation in a BBC documentary created an image of innocence where none should exist?

Was the motivation of the broadcaster to avoid diminishing sympathy towards the Palestinians while increasing antipathy towards Israel?

For those that missed the coverage let me bring you up to speed.

According to a report in the Jewish Chronicle, Britain's oldest and most widely read Jewish newspaper, the BBC substituted the word “Israelis” for "Jews" in its translation of interviews with Palestinian children.

The documentary, Children of the Gaza War, was presented by the BBC's chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet to mark the first anniversary of the conflict and included extensive and sympathetic interviews by Doucet with both Israeli and Gazan children and their parents.

At one point in the film, a Gazan child says the “yahud” are massacring Palestinians. However the TV subtitles read: “Israel is massacring us”. The Jewish Chronicle pointed out to its readers that the correct translation for “yahud” from Arabic to English is “Jew”.

Lyse Doucet told the JC: “We talked to people in Gaza, we talked to translators. When [the children] say ‘Jews’, they mean ‘Israelis’. “We felt it was a better translation of it.”

The Jewish Chronicle appears to be raising two very important issues. Are Palestinian children in Gaza antisemitic and can we trust the BBC to be fair to Israel.

Let me attempt to unscramble the thinking (or lack of thinking) going on here.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Five brilliant things about Judaism (that we sometimes forget)

I sometimes think we have lost sight of the 'big picture' for Judaism, the thinking that turned us from a slave rabble to a Holy Nation. Our 21st century 'communal theology', as acted out in the public sphere, has become one of victimhood and defensiveness. Jewish history provides an explanation for why that has happened. But it's a poor substitute for a brilliant, galvanising and inspiring religious vision.
Read the full post at Writing from the Edge at Patheos

Thursday, 9 July 2015

What's wrong with this picture?

Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses 1933

Well, nothing is wrong with the picture itself. It's real. It wasn't faked. It is a true artifact of 20th century European history. The poster on the shop window reads: "Germans beware. Don't buy from Jews".

What started as boycotts against Jewish shops and businesses eventually led to the gas chambers and incinerators of Auschwitz and Treblinka. All of this is irrefutable.

What's wrong is how this picture, and others taken at the same time in the early 1930's, are now being used to suppress free speech and non-violent protest and brand a movement for civil and political rights as racist and illegitimate.

It's an ironic and depressing state of affairs.

What we are seeing is a deliberate attempt to make a direct link between those that follow the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel and those that perpetrated the Holocaust.

[It] is poor deduction, sloppy history, and appalling ethics. It also looks desperate and hysterical.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Christians United for Israel comes to Britain – Here’s one Jew that’s less than thrilled

My new post at Patheos is just published.

Here's an extract:

Lately, we in Britain seem to be importing some of the less attractive aspects of American Evangelical Christian culture.
Last month saw the official launch of the British branch of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) thanks to the deep pockets of pastor John Hagee.
Up to now, mass market, multi-channel, televangelists have not really troubled our shores. Hagee, despite his millions of followers and best selling books and videos, is not a name most Christians here will be familiar with (let alone the wider public). Maybe it's something to do with the weather, but Christians in this country tend to be of the more self-effacing variety and a whole lot less certain about exactly what's on God's mind at any given moment of the day.

Read the full blog post at Writing from the Edge at Patheos 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Topsy-Turvy world of the Israel Gaza conflict – First thoughts on the UN’s report

My new post is up at Patheos


"Assuming it is serious about protecting its own people, one day Israel is going to have to sit down and talk to Hamas. When it does it will need to adjust its topsy-turvy world view.

In the real world, Hamas is weak, not strong. Neither Hamas politicians nor Hamas militias have a stranglehold on Israel. The reverse would be more accurate.

And there's no point in demanding that they first renounce their racist charter, or recognise the essential Jewishness of the State of Israel, or embrace pacifism and lay down their arms before any conversation can start. If they do that they will have nothing left to negotiate with.

The IRA declared its war against the British was over and decommissioned its arms at the end of the negotiations NOT at the beginning!"

You can read the full post at Writing from the Edge on Patheos

Thursday, 18 June 2015

A new home for Micah

Dear Micah's Paradigm Shifters

I wanted to let you know that I have a new home for my blogging.

I've been recruited by the website Patheos to write regular posts from a British Jewish perspective very much in tune with my work on Micah's Paradigm Shift.

The new blog is called 'Writing from the Edge - Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blogpost at a time' and you can read the debut piece which has just been published.

Patheos is home to a rich array of writers coming from diverse religious and political perspectives and it reaches hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. So I hope to grow the brilliant support that you have given me over the last four years.

I plan to write more regularly (and more concisely!) than in the past and with a slightly boarder remit. 

I will post short extracts at Micah's Paradigm Shift but you will have to click through to read the full articles at Patheos. Alternatively, you can set up a blog subscription for Writing from the Edge from my new homepage.

Thank you again for being such loyal followers and I hope I can continue to provide something worth reading.

Robert Cohen
Blogger At Large

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Reclaiming the language of Jewish identity

The following post was commissioned by Jews for Justice for Palestinians and published on its site on Sunday 24 May 2015 as part of the JfJfP Signatories Blog series. 

As time goes on I'm attracting more and more hostility. This is not entirely unwelcome.

Nothing tells you better that you have arrived on the scene than someone taking the trouble to insult you.

It's taken me a few years of writing about Israel-Palestine to move beyond a welcoming and supportive readership of like-minded folk to something rather different.

But now it's happened.

Recently I have been described as a "traitor", a "Marxist", "narcissistic", and "shameful" because I have advocated for boycotts in support of Palestinian human rights.

One Twitter correspondent said my writing was attempting to "groom" a false conclusion, a verb we now use when describing the act of entrapping children with the intention of sexually abusing them. I'm quite sure this was the intended association.

But what is it my critics want me to be loyal to?

In their world view what should I be defending? Land grabs? Water appropriation? House demolitions? Child arrests? Judicial apartheid? Shoot to kill policing? A fifty year occupation the rest of the world says is illegal? Should I turn a blind eye when Israeli soldiers provide testimonies from the streets of Gaza that tell us how brutal their orders were towards Palestinian civilians last summer? Why have I become the 'shameful narcissist' rather than them?

I used to think that tribal loyalty as a starting point for reaching political or ethical opinions didn't really work for me. Shouldn't we draw on more objective and universal thinking? But as I started to write I changed my mind. I decided that it was more important than ever to reclaim the language of Jewish ethnic and religious identity.

Arthur Herztberg wrote in the introduction to his collection of Zionist writings in  the 1950s that Zionism was a battle for "the total meaning of Jewish history". He was right. But today you can take that thought even further.

The actions of the State of Israel have become a battleground for the meaning of Jewish history, Jewish identity, Jewish loyalty and indeed the values of Judaism itself.

How has this happened in such a short space of time?

It's long been noted that as Jews have become more secular and less religiously observant, the expression of Jewish identity has shifted from the realm of the spiritual to the territorial. The need for a Jewish Israel has become greater than the need for a Jewish God. This is particularly so when Israel is seen as the only rational response to the Holocaust and Jewish history is understood as little more than one pogrom after another.

Meanwhile, for those Jews still attending synagogue regularly, there also exists an almost unchallengeable belief that the State of Israel has become central to our understanding of Jewish identity. Belief in the inherent goodness of Israel has become a tenet of faith equal to our commitment to monotheism. We have successfully and seamlessly merged our ancient mythological understanding of the Promised Land with a 19th century blood and soil ethnic nationalism. And few appear to notice that there is the slightest thing odd about this.  

So if you have serious problems with Israel, you may as well give up on thinking of yourself as being Jewish. Both secular and religious Jews will find you difficult, if not impossible, to tolerate.

But I have been trying my best to turn all this on its head.

I want to criticise Israel not to do down the tribe but to stay loyal to it. I want to uphold the values and teaching that I think of as mine by birth and by upbringing.

Jewish nationalism, and a blind loyalty to all things Israeli, has stolen my identity and my religion.

Now I'm taking it back, one blog post at a time.

My support for Palestinian rights comes from a self-consciously Jewish starting point. When I speak out I want to put my Jewish Kippah on my head not a Palestinian kaffiyeh around my neck.

Ethnically and politically, my motivation comes from a reading of Jewish history that points towards the need for freedom, tolerance and respect for any minority group.

My outlook is informed by Judaism with its constant scriptural emphasis on compassion and care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed. In other words, the marginalised in every generation.

My writing has at its heart our Jewish millennial project to heal a fractured world and build a just society.

Our prophetic tradition tells me that I have an obligation to speak out when power is used to trick and steal from those who have least or when idols are proclaimed as the source of our salvation. And the fact that our Hebrew prophets were not roaring their rage at our foreign enemies but at our own religious and political leaders is another reminder of Judaism's built-in tradition of self-criticism.

As I write these words we are celebrating the festival of Shavuot when we recall the giving of the Ten Commandments to the ancient Israelites at Mount Sinai. Only fifty days previously we had been rescued from slavery in Egypt and this is the moment when a down-trodden rabble becomes a holy nation in the service of God and the ordering of a just society.

Rabbinic tradition tells us that every Jewish soul yet to be born was there at the foot of the mountain hearing the thunder, seeing the lightening and watching as Moses came down with the tablets of stone. A covenant is made which is full of expectations and responsibilities for both God and the people.

When I read through the verses in Exodus and the accompanying commentaries in my prayerbook, I see nothing that creates a requirement to defend Settlements, Checkpoints, Separation Walls, Jewish only buses or indeed the members of a new Israeli government who seem to have only a passing acquaintance with democracy and human rights.

So I'm not boycotting Jews or Judaism when I make the case for a radical change in our attitude to the Palestinian people. Rather I am upholding all I see as worthwhile, eternal and universal from my Jewish heritage and history. I do not want Jews to be powerless and insecure. There is no inherent virtue in that. But power and security cannot be ends in themselves. That is not what it means to be Jewish nor is it the teaching of Judaism.

The abuse thrown at me from my online critics may have put me 'on the scene' but its a scene that needs reforming.

My hope is that others will start to recognise the contradictions and inconsistencies that currently sit so centrally to their Jewish identity. A critique of Israel cannot be outlawed from our synagogues nor banned from our secular discourse.

There is a great deal of concern that lies in my desire to reclaim the language of Jewish identity. Our relationship to Israel and the Palestinians has become defining for us individually and collectively. Nothing less than the future of Judaism and the Jewish people is now at stake.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Going Green for Palestine, Israel and Judaism - Micah goes to the Polls

According to the Jewish Chronicle, statistically at least, I should be voting Conservative and returning David Cameron to Downing Street on Thursday 7 May. Certainly if I care about the State of Israel.

It's a message that Cameron, and his supporters at the JC, have buttressed in the closing days of the campaign with a new interview with the paper once again endorsing Israel's military action in Gaza last summer. "As PM, putting yourself in the shoes of the Israeli people, who want peace but have to put up with these indiscriminate attacks - that reinforces to me the importance of standing by Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself."

The sub text is that Cameron is good for Israel and therefore the natural choice for British Jews in next week's General Election.

But what if I do care about the State of Israel, and the state of Judaism and the plight of the Palestinians too? And aren't there other shoes Cameron should try on?

So what's an apparently conflicted Jew supposed to do as Britain goes to the polls?

Unlike most of those who bother to look at party election manifestos, it wasn't the front pages and the big ticket pledges that I went to first.

Instead, I headed straight to the back pages and the foreign policy sections. It's not that I don't have a view on managing the deficit, funding the National Health Service, immigration controls, university tuition fees or the future of welfare services, I certainly do. But after four years of blogging on the topic, Israel/Palestine has become my litmus test for party political integrity. It's through that measure that I've decided to make my decision on how to vote in this General Election.

It didn't take long to realise that the manifesto commitments by the Conservatives and Labour (the only parties with enough national support to lead a government) are pretty much interchangeable. 

Both can be summed up as follows:

- Commitment to a two-state solution
- Condemnation of Jewish settlement building on the West Bank
- Criticism of Hamas
- Support for diplomatic negotiations

The third biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, who could once again hold the balance of power in the new Parliament, also tick all of the above in their policy position.

However, if you look carefully, you can spot some nuance in the wording of the manifesto positions that reflect significant differences of opinion just below the apparent cross-party consensus.

The Conservatives emphasise "...robustly defending the right of Israel to protect its security..." which we know from last summer, and from Cameron's latest interview, means an unwillingness to criticise Israel's assault on Gaza.

Labour talk about "... a secure Israel alongside a viable and independent state of Palestine...". That sounds like a code for insisting that any two-state solution must leave the Palestinians with a connected land mass, borders they are allowed to defend and sovereignty in East Jerusalem. All of which Israel, even on a good day, would not accept.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats "... condemn disproportionate force used by all sides." Which means they think Israel did go too far last summer but they'd rather not say so in quite those words.

Ed Miliband's position on Israel, and consequently his relationship and standing with the Jewish community in Britain, has been fascinating (and rather depressing) to watch.

In 2012 he wrote in the New Statesman "I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?".

It was refreshingly honest but the "complexity" has not done him any favours with the Jewish community. Last year, within weeks of his first official visit to Israel, he found himself criticising David Cameron for supporting the Jewish State in its disproportionate use of force:
"... the prime minister is wrong not to have opposed Israel's incursion into Gaza. And his silence on the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel's military action will be inexplicable to people across Britain and internationally." 
Then in October he rallied his MPs to support a non-binding Parliamentary resolution recognising a Palestinian State.

Consequently, the Jewish community in Britain, according to the Spectator magazine, is finding it hard to back Labour despite Ed being on the brink of becoming the first Jewish Prime Minister (if you don't count Benjamin Disraeli whose father had him baptised a Christian).

It looks like staunch support for Israel has become the benchmark of Jewish loyalty in which case Ed has failed the test. The Jewish community has decided that the Old Etonian Cameron is a better friend to us than the North London state educated Miliband. Who would have imagined it?

The Liberal Democrats, like Labour, have a strong pro Palestinian wing with a few MPs who often find themselves in hot water for daring to speak up for them.

As for the Conservatives, even they have some principled voices on the subject despite being the only party at Westminster without a Friends of Palestine grouping. Last August Baroness Warsi, a Foreign office junior minister, resigned from the government over Cameron's "morally indefensible" refusal to condemn Israel over Gaza.

But my difficulty with all three main parties is that when it comes to their official party platforms none of them is prepared to acknowledge that the dynamics of the conflict have changed radically. So much so that their policy approaches look hopelessly disconnected from reality.

The Israeli government has no interest in peace talks with the Palestinians. It proved that to Barack Obama and John Kerry last year. It has no interest in stopping Settlement expansion on the West Bank either. In fact, quite the opposite. Meanwhile, newly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu's belief in a two-state solution is a bit like those lines from the Smiths' song 'Death of a Disco Dancer':
Love, peace and harmony?
Love, peace and harmony?
Oh, very nice
Very nice
Very nice
Very nice
But maybe in the next world
Maybe in the next world.
And with no diplomatic or economic cost to their strategy of 'conflict management', why should Israel change?

Every opinion poll suggests, and every commentator agrees, that this election is the most difficult to predict for decades. In all likelihood we will have another 'hung parliament' with neither Cameron or Miliband able to govern alone. That means that electoral support for the smaller parties becomes far more significant with the opportunity for them to punch about their weight.

All of which brings me to the Green Party.

The Greens already have a good track record in challenging widespread denial and inaction about a situation staring all of us in the face. Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity but we carry on regardless tinkering at the edges of our economic policies without any risk to disturbing the status quo.

Israel is a lot like climate change. Nobody wants to face up to the reality and take the tough decisions. And like climate change, there are plenty of people still happy to deny that there is very serious problem to deal with.

The Greens are the only party contesting elections in all parts of Britain that are tackling both of these issues head on without worrying about upsetting the political status quo or the paid lobbyists. In the Green's manifesto we finally see the word 'just' enter the policy lexicon on Israel along with the recognition that the dispute has become one of 'human rights'.

Here's their wording:
"We seek a just, sustainable and peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, based on mutual recognition of the rights to independent statehood for Palestinians and Israelis. We condemn human rights violations by both parties and the oppression and disproportionate use of aggression by the Israeli government against the people of Gaza."
But then there's this pledge which puts their policy into a whole different league.
“We seek to suspend the EU–Israel Association Agreement."
You may have never heard of the EU–Israel Association Agreement but it's worth millions of euros a year to Israel through preferential trading arrangements. It's also meant to be contingent on Israel upholding human rights (which it demonstrably fails to do).

The Greens are the only party willing to cross the line and treat Israel the way we treat other nations that habitually break international law and disregard human rights. The monetary impact of scrapping the EU Agreement is less significant than the political signal it would send to Israel from Europe. The Greens also want to see the end of the Gaza blockade and an arms trade embargo from Britain until the situation improves.

Their position on all the major topics of this election, from the deficit to immigration, is informed by the pursuit of a just society and a view of humanity obligated to be responsible custodians of the planet. That sounds like the Judaism that I inherited and was taught in my youth. 

Finally, there is a political party that has remembered what a compelling vision is meant to look like. 

That doesn't mean we get there next week but at least we know we are trying to get somewhere worthwhile.

So I intend to stay true to the position I've written about over the last four years. Micah will be casting a vote for the Green Party candidate standing in the Skipton & Ripon constituency in North Yorkshire. It will be a vote cast in favour of a just resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, one that's in favour of human rights and in favour of sanctions and boycotts to get us there.

With their support spread evenly but thinly across the country the Greens may only win one or two seats. But what's important is that their policies, from climate change to Israel/Palestine, are breaking open the space of acceptable and rational political debate. A significant popular vote for the Greens across the country will provide increasing airtime and column inches to matters that are only becoming more urgent.

That can only be good for Britain, for the Palestinians and Israelis and the rest of the planet too.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Boycotting from Within - a letter to the President of the Board of Deputies

Dear Vivian Wineman

I'm writing as a British Jew wanting to bring a dissenting Jewish perspective to the Board's fifty page denouncement of peaceful protest in support of human rights.

I very much doubt I will change your mind but I would like others reading this to understand the historical, political and moral flaws in your arguments. I also believe it is vital for the wider Jewish community, and the British public, to see that the Board's position does not reflect the considered viewpoint of all Jews in this country.

Just before Passover, our annual celebration of freedom and liberation, you published 'A Better Way than Boycotts' in which you set out the case against using boycotts, divestments or sanctions as a way to bring a resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

While attempting to sound reasonable and balanced, your document frames the debate in a way that deliberately obscures some very basic facts that the British Jewish establishment would do better to acknowledge.

You also take the memory of the Holocaust and perversely use it to delegitimise entirely legal, democratic and peaceful protest.

Meanwhile, your presentation of Israel's 'painful compromises' and 'generous offers' in pursuit of peace does not ring true to anyone who cares to read the historical record from both sides.

Your alternative actions to BDS, while worthwhile in themselves, will never sway an Israeli government content to manage rather than resolve the issue. Why should it, while the price it pays for its behaviour, politically and economically, is so minimal?

As a Jew I now feel that the best way to demonstrate my understanding of our Jewish religious heritage and our historical experience is by standing alongside the Palestinian people in their dispute with the State of Israel and in their call for boycott, sanctions and divestment.

In short - and borrowing a description used by Israeli Jews who share my understanding - I am boycotting from within.

In what follows I will explain why.

The missing truth

There is one fundamental fact that you fail to mention anywhere in your document. And without that  your claim to bring a balanced, rational and pro-peace viewpoint to the debate becomes highly questionable.

Nowhere across the fifty pages of 'A Better Way than Boycotts' do you once acknowledge that Israel continues to perpetrate an illegal occupation of the West Bank (now in its 48th year) or an illegal blockade of Gaza. It's an omission that demonstrates a bias you are quick to accuse others of holding. But without talking about this simple fact you cannot hope to make sense of the motivations that underpin the BDS campaign. 

Pointing out the illegality of Israel's position is not a leftist or jihadist or antisemitic act. The current status quo is viewed as breaking international law by the British government, the EU, the United States and just about every other country in the world. Is it really unworthy of mention?

You are right that Israel should not take sole blame for all that has happened, but your document paints a picture in which Israel has no blame whatsoever.

Instead you frame the debate as a dispute between Israel and a hostile neighbour.

But this is not the reality. Far from it.

Israel directly or indirectly controls the lives of more than 4 million Palestinians. This is in no way an argument between equals that can be resolved between themselves if only they were left alone to get on with it. This is an asymmetrical conflict where military power, political resources and, most glaringly, civilian casualties are not remotely even. Without this being understood, the case for boycott, divestment and sanctions will not make sense to the general reader. But I think you know this.

The democratic deficit

Contrary to the claim you make about supporters of BDS, I have no wish to deny Israel's right to exist. Nor would I deny the religious and cultural ties that Jews have to the land or their unbroken presence there.

But none of these strong connections to the land justify the denial of another people's rights, a people with equal, and in many ways stronger connections to the same land.

It is not the state itself that is illegitimate but its actions and laws certainly are.

On the West Bank Israel operates parallel and discriminatory judicial and policing systems. It applies strikingly different planning and house building regulations. It builds roads that only some people (Jewish Settlers) can use. It controls the movement of some people (Palestinians) but not others (Settlers). You may object to the use of the word 'apartheid' but what other label would you care to give it? 'Security' perhaps? That appears to be the catch-all justification for any amount of discrimination and oppression.

As for the boycott campaign wanting to force Israel's hand, you are absolutely right. And for good reason. So far no one else has succeeded in doing this. Not Obama, not Kerry, certainly not Cameron. Plenty of carrots from Western leaders, the encouragement you claim is essential for progress, but never any stick.

You present a picture of on-going peace talks and reconciliation that BDS will jeopardise by encouraging the international community to demonise Israel. But there is no peace process, there is no reconciliation happening. In fact the opposite in taking place. Israel just keeps stealing and building, building and stealing. As John Kerry discovered last year, an Israel that will not even halt Settlement construction for just a few months when establishing good will is paramount is hardly a willing partner for peace.

The two-state solution and other myths

You premise your whole position on the broad consensus among, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews in Britain and international governments that a two-state solution is the only fair way forward. I wish I could share your faith in the likelihood of this as an outcome.

After 25 years of diplomatic 'peace process' the two-state solution has failed to be delivered. Today it has become very clear to the whole world (but perhaps not to the Board of a Deputies) that the Israeli Prime Minister agrees with two states in theory but never in practice.

And what happens when Settlement building has been so rampant that no amount of 'land swaps' will compensate for it or allow the creation of a contiguous and defendable piece of land worthy of being called an autonomous state?

You quote the Israeli politician Yair Lapid, the then Finance Minister, talking in 2014 about the Kerry negotiations:If this peace process wont work, we should start again and again... Never, never, never give up. I would rather cite a more impressive Jewish thinker, Albert Einstein, who said:  "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results".

You call supporters of BDS well meaning but "extremely naive". I think that description better fits your position.

There is no two-state peace process. However, there already is an emerging one-state reality. The only question is will it be democratic or, as now, will it not. 

Your faith in the two-state solution would carry more conviction if you had once in the last 25 years urged the State of Israel to recognise international law, halt settlement construction and accept that Jerusalem should and could be shared. But you did not.

(Less than) Generous offers

The truth is, we are no longer looking at two competing national liberation movements. Israel 'won' a long time ago. But the victory has always been hollow and year by year it has destroyed the ideal (perhaps contradictory from the start) of a Jewish and democratic state.

Worse still, it has led to the violent death of many thousands of Palestinian civilians, most recently more than 500 children in Gaza last summer. Yet you, the Jewish leadership of Britain, insist on emphasising the need for Israeli, not Palestinian, security. It is a topsy turvy way of seeing the world and not one that I or many other British Jews wish to endorse.

You talk about Israel's long history of making 'painful concessions' and 'generous offers' in pursuit of peace. The Palestinian's ability to negotiate has indeed been flawed but not because of a failure to make significant compromises.

The PLO gave up 78% of its historic claims 25 years ago. Ever since, the Palestinians have struggled to get a just agreement on the remaining 22%. Hamas, despite its ridiculous and antisemitic charter, also recognises the 1967 Israeli borders. All of its negotiating positions have been based on that fundamental stance. While Israel has made peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan (existing sovereign states) it is yet to recognise that the Palestinians have a legitimate right to a state that controls its own borders and airspace or that has contiguous defendable land. You know all of this but again fail to consider it relevant information.

The misuse of the Holocaust and antisemitism

You argue against BDS on the grounds of sensitivity to Jewish history and the likelihood of boycotts becoming antisemitic in nature.

The BDS campaign does not target Jews for being Jews as was the case in Nazi Germany. BDS targets trade with the State of Israel until the state changes its policies and recognises its legal obligations towards the Palestinians. There is all the difference in the world between these two situations.

But if BDS supporters find it difficult to make the distinction between Jews and the State of Israel it's hardly surprising. Every Israeli Prime Minister enjoys speaking as if they were our international leader. Our communal organisations, like the Board, refuse to offer an ounce of criticism towards Israel and our synagogues offer weekly prayers for the State of Israel and its defence forces. Why wouldn't BDS campaigners draw the conclusion that Judaism, Jews and Zionism are all one and the same?

Over the last 70 years we have merged our ancient faith with a very modern political nationalist project to the point where most Jews accept the State of Israel as a seamless continuum of all our beliefs and traditions. You have contributed greatly to this situation but have left yourself no room and no words to unscramble it.

However, if BDS actions insult, bully, abuse or physically attack Jews, just because they are Jews, that must be called out, condemned and punished according to the law. But it does not change the merits of bringing pressure on the State of Israel through economic protest.

It does us no good to view our current challenges always through the prism of the Holocaust. For the first time in many centuries Jews have considerable power over another people. Around the world Jews have benefitted and thrived from open and democratic societies. We are no longer an oppressed, vulnerable people. We need to adjust to our new reality and to the responsibilities power and influence brings.

Using our own past suffering to trump the present suffering of another people gets us nowhere. Yet you are willing to use Jewish sensitivities to cancel out support for the Palestinians. It is not a good equation.

I, and a growing number of Jews worldwide, believe that the experience of the Holocaust ought to take us in a very different direction than the one you are choosing for us. And how odd that we thrive in liberal open democracies but you insist in defending the narrow and flawed democracy we have created for ourselves in Israel.

Increasing desperation

You document gathers together every possible objection to the BDS strategy and stacks up the arguments against it in ways that look increasingly desperate.

Israel brings high-tech advances to Britain
We import important medicines from Israel
Boycotts would harm the Palestinians

Are you seriously suggesting that other makers of medicines and high-tech equipment are unavailable to Britain? As for harming the Palestinians, I suggest you speak to a few to discover if they think BDS is good or bad for them in the long term. I'm confident of the answer you will receive.

You then go on to examine the academic and cultural aspects of the boycott campaign. I'm not going to attempt to counter all of your arguments here except to say that universities are complicit in the in-going occupation in multiple ways through military funded research projects. Meanwhile, Israeli artists that are happy to perform in segregated settlement venues should be shown that this is not considered acceptable.

Your championing of academic freedom might sound admirable if you had not recently expended so much effort to stop an academic conference on Israel taking place at Southampton University. Why does every discussion of Palestinian human rights have to be labeled an anti-Israel hate fest?

Your alternatives to BDS

At the end of the document you make a positive call to support charities and NGOs working to build understanding between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

I would support this too. Groups such as The Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA) and the Parents Circle are doing excellent and important work and we should highlight them and give them financial help.

However, it is entirely disingenuous to suggest that this alone will be sufficient to change the dynamics of the conflict. While these organisations are doing good, they cannot influence the current asymmetrical conflict or the unwillingness of Western leaders to apply the same sanctions they impose on other nations that break international law.

You want to offer individuals, churches, local authorities, trade unions etc a different way of demonstrating their concern for the Palestinians, one that will do less harm to the public's perception of Israel. But the conflict has not arisen because people need to get to know each other better (although that will certainly help long-term reconciliation). The conflict has not arisen because there is insufficient bridge building between communities. The conflict has become one of human rights. Who has them and who does not.

Boycotting from within

Our relationship to the Palestinian people is the greatest issue the Jewish people and Judaism itself face in this century.  And we are currently making a spectacular mess of it. Your document is just one more example of that.

What Israel needed most from the Jewish community over the past decades was a critical voice willing to speak privately and publicly about the direction Israel was taking. But instead we provided them with apologists and cheerleaders or at very best complicit silence.

In the past, Palestinian tactics to bring attention to their cause have been rightly condemned. Murder, hijackings and suicide bombings were never legitimate routes to justice.

But BDS is very different. At last there is a movement aimed at bringing awareness and understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people that is non-violent and that can shift the perception that all Palestinians are nothing more than antisemitic terrorists. But still you insist on denying them even this legitimate tactic to bring some balance to the conflict.

The actions of the State of Israel are dividing Jewish families and Jewish communities while making all us more vulnerable to antisemitic attacks. But it is the Palestinians that are suffering far more than any of us.

I have chosen where I wish to stand and have come to my conclusions out of respect for the beliefs and traditions I was raised by and the history of the Jews that I have studied.

I find myself having to boycott from within because so many from my own community have chosen narrow tribal values over simple universal humanity. That can change if we place ourselves on the side of justice and peace that our tradition has always taught are the foundations of our true freedom.

Our own liberation is now only possible in partnership with the Palestinian people. BDS provides that partnership.

Yours sincerely

Robert Cohen

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Exodus & Numbers: Who's counting this Passover?

When it comes to the Exodus we seem to love the numbers.

Our Passover Haggadah is full of numbers. In fact, full of arguments about numbers.

We gather our family and friends around the Seder table and recount an esoteric rabbinical discussion about exactly how many plagues the Almighty brought down on the heads of the Egyptians.

The rabbis debate back and forth, arguing first for ten, then 60, then 200 and finally Rabbi Akiba stops the bidding at 250. By which time Pharaoh must have been very glad to see the back of us. It all comes down to interpretations about the fingers and hand of God and various methods of linguistic and metaphysical multiplication. Go figure!

There's more number crunching in the book of Exodus itself as we attempt to count how many Hebrew slaves left Egypt. According to Exodus 12:37:
"The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from women and children."
The book of Numbers (appropriately) gives a more precise figure.
"These were the men counted by Moses and Aaron and the twelve leaders of Israel, each one representing his family. All the Israelites twenty years old or more who were able to serve in Israel’s army were counted according to their families. The total number was 603,550." Numbers 1: 44-46
According to the Jewish Study Bible, if you add in women and children you would reach a grand total of at least 2.5 million people. Googling I found a figure for the Egyptian population in 1250 BCE of 3 to 3.5 million. So no wonder Pharaoh was getting concerned about the growing number of Hebrew slaves in his land.

Further frivolous research reveals that marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, the escaping Children of Israel would have formed a line 150 miles long. An impressive slave escape. No wonder Moses had trouble keeping them all in order.

For most of us these numbers don't add up to much. The documentary and archaeological evidence for the Exodus, including plagues (whether ten or 250), is somewhere between scant and non-existent. But none of that matters three thousand years later.

What matters is how the story of the Exodus from Egypt has marked Jewish behaviour and outlook throughout the generations in good times and bad.

Every year something draws us back to this story of a God who intervenes in human history on the side of liberation and justice.

In the past the numbers spoke for themselves.

In the turmoil of Russia at the start of the 20th century Jews were starkly over represented in radical movements for social and political improvement.

When the American Civil Rights campaign was at its height in the mid 20th century, Jews were right in the thick of it, showing activism and solidarity and losing their lives for the cause of African American liberation.

When the world finally opened it eyes to the injustice of apartheid South Africa, Jews were already in the vanguard.

But in the last fifty years or so something has gone awry with our previously reliable Exodus orientated moral compass.

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians all that wonderful ex-slave mentality becomes a fraction of what it was. These days, when faced with the issue that should trouble us most deeply, the number of Jews showing solidarity with the oppressed takes a tumble. Instead, like Pharaoh, our hearts constrict and we become gripped by denial and self-justifying rationalisation.

They brought it on themselves
They are uncompromising and obdurate
They teach all their children to hate us
They prefer death to life
Our security must always be paramount
We won, they lost, let them get over it

It all looks like ethical bankruptcy to me. No numbers left at all.

As we come together to celebrate Passover in the coming days, I offer you some new numbers to consider. Try adding these to the traditional numerical debates we find in our Haggadah and in the pages of Exodus.

All of these figures are from one week in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza) covering 17-23 March 2015. They were collected by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Israeli forces injured 21 Palestinians, including seven children, in various clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians. The most serious incidents reported in the West Bank, include an eight-year-old child who was seriously injured when a soldier, with his rifle, hit the child in the eye while playing in proximity to clashes in Al Khader (Bethlehem); three Palestinians, including two children (14 and 15 years old), shot with live ammunition in Silwan; and a man who was shot with live ammunition in the back during clashes at the entrance to Al Jalazun Refugee Camp (Ramallah). Another three Palestinians were injured during clashes with Israeli forces next to the Gaza perimeter fence, east of Khan Younis.
At least 21 incidents involving Israeli forces opening ‘warning’ fire into Access Restricted Areas (ARA) on land and at sea in the Gaza Strip were recorded this week, one of which ignited fire in a vehicle. Israeli forces entered Gaza east of Rafah and carried out land leveling on one occasion.
Israeli forces conducted 86 search and arrest operations and arrested 93 Palestinians in the West Bank, mainly in the Hebron and Jerusalem governorates.
In Area C of the West Bank, the Israeli authorities demolished 30 Palestinian structures for lack of Israeli-issued building permits. The demolished structures included five residences, leading to the displacement of 15 people.
Israeli forces uprooted 492 trees and saplings planted by Palestinians next to the Majdal Bani Fadel (Nablus), Bidya (Salfit) and Adh Dhahiriya (Hebron) villages in Area C of the West Bank, on grounds that these areas were designated as “state land”. According to official data, over 99 per cent of “state land”, or public land, has been included within the jurisdictional boundaries of the local and regional councils of Israeli settlements, built in contravention of international law.
Four Israeli settler attacks resulting in Palestinian injuries or property damage were recorded, including two stone-throwing incidents leading to the injury of a six-year-old girl and a woman; and the uprooting of 83 trees and saplings in the villages of Turmus’ayya and Deir Ndham (Ramallah) by settlers from the outpost of ‘Adei ‘Ad and the settlement of Halamish, respectively.
Israeli settlers took over a family house of a Palestinian family, consisting of three separate apartments as well as two plots of land, in Silwan (East Jerusalem), claiming ownership to the properties.

We choose not to see numbers like these that add up week by week and year by year.

When it comes to the Palestinian people, we are still trapped in the 'narrow place', in bondage to our own fears and prejudices.

It is as Rabbi Nehorai describes in this passage from the second century Mishnah:
"Only one out of five of the Children of Israel went out from Egypt. Some say one out of fifty. And some say only one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: Not even one out of five hundred."
Exodus & Numbers - choose the ones you want to figure out this year.

Hag Sameach!


If you found this post worth reading you may like these too.

'Occupy the Haggadah' from 2012 (a signature post for this blog)

'On the impossibility of Passover' from 2013 (Micah tries his hand at poetry)

'In Every Generation: How Passover locks shut the Jewish imagination' from 2014 (Group therapy)

And if you are on Facebook and you haven't done so already please 'like' my Micah's Paradigm Shift community page.

Friday, 20 March 2015

"Indeed" - Bibi Mk4 and the unraveling of the British Jewish consensus

The night before the election there was this exchange with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interviewer: "If you are prime minister, a Palestinian state will not be established?" Netanyahu:  "Indeed".

One word and the British Jewish consensus was blown to pieces.

Three days later, after winning a comprehensive victory for his Likud party and a fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu had this apparent clarification for American television viewers:

"I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change."

In Britain, if you are a pro-Israel lobby group like We Believe in Israel, or BICOM or the Zionist Federation you have a tricky time ahead. If you are leading our religious or communal bodies from the United Synagogue to Liberal Judaism and of course the Board of Deputies, then you are now in a very serious fix.

Here's why.

Bibi is back and this time he's telling the truth.

And don't be fooled by any apparent discrepancy between the two interviews.

When Bibi says "circumstances must change" he is in the realm of messianic times, that distant horizon when the moon and stars are aligned and all the Middle East is at glorious peace with itself. What Bibi means is that it ain't gonna happen on his watch. It's all of a piece with the stumbling blocks he put in front of John Kerry for a year but now Bibi is being honest about it.

Over the last few years it has been possible (just about) for Jewish communal leaders around the world, including Britain, to maintain the illusion that the Israeli government wanted to see peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people.

Broadly speaking, this would be achieved through a two-state solution. Two states for two peoples, side by side.

This is what the British government wanted, what the rest of the EU wanted, what the United States wanted, what the United Nations wanted and what most Palestinians wanted. It's also the position supported overwhelmingly by British Jews.

That consensus has allowed the Board of Deputies to develop a policy on Israel that they can comfortably ask every parliamentary candidate standing in Britain's General Election in May to sign up to, so maintaining a broad cross party agreement on the issue.

The pro-Israel lobby groups in Britain have maintained the same two-state line. It makes everyone sound reasonable and fair and progressive and allows comfortable alignment with the Israeli government, all of the Westminster political parties and the vast majority of British Jews.

In reality things are not quite so straight forward.

When you scratch the surface of all this unanimity you quickly discover that there are vastly different ideas about what these two states should look like. Where would the capital of a Palestinian state be? What should happen to the Jewish Settlements and the exclusive resources that service them on the West Bank? How much control would a Palestinian state have over its own borders, airspace and internal security?

But to enable the consensus to hold together our communal and religious leaders (and the lobby leadership too) have deliberately avoided taking a clear public position on issues like the annexation of East Jerusalem, the expansion of the Settlements and the rights of Palestinian refugees. Instead of framing these issues as moral questions they have opted for tribalism. They have for decades abdicated ethical responsibility by saying that the brutal reality of a 50-year occupation is just detail to be negotiated by an Israeli government.

It's a strategy that has created the appearance of community cohesion even if it lacks moral backbone and disregards Jewish ethical tradition.

But with Netanyahu's new found honesty over the two-state solution the consensus in Britain is about to unravel. David Cameron might be happy to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and overlook the racist tone of his campaign but Likud's return to power has just sparked a huge crisis in British Jewry.

The Board of Deputies' election manifesto is now at odds with what will soon be the official Israeli policy - no to two-states, or at best, 'sometime never'. The same crisis goes for the current positions held by our main religious denominations and even the British pro-Israel lobby groups.

The question they must all face is whether to acknowledge the difference and adopt a critical stand against the Israeli government or realign with Bibi and open divisions with the British government, the opposition parties and indeed most British Jews.

So expect to see turmoil in the ranks of the Jewish establishment, some soul searching among the rank and file and a clear fracturing of publicly voiced Jewish opinions on Israel. And about time too.

However, if you have not locked yourself into uncritical support for Israel and you have preferred to follow a Jewish tradition that has informed universal human rights and international law, then Netanyahu Mk.4 leaves everything looking very much clearer.

The next few years will be easy to navigate.

Without considerable external pressure, both political and economic, Israel will not stop Settlement expansion, will not dismantle the separation wall, will not give up an inch of the Occupied Territories, will not end the siege of Gaza. It certainly will not sit down and negotiate a peace deal that looks remotely just to Palestinian eyes. Why should it while the rest of the world allows its behaviour to continue without cost or consequence? And God help the children of Gaza if Hamas dares to fire any more home-made rockets in the general direction of the most powerful army in the region.

But with Netanyahu finally putting the two-state solution six feet under, that necessary pressure is on the way.

It will come from European governments and it will come from grass roots activists. The pressure will undoubtedly include boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And those activists will increasingly include Jews. Not self-hating Jews but profoundly disillusioned Jews. It will come from Jews looking for a new kind of Jewish leadership and hoping to protect their democratic and ethical ideals and rescue what's left of their Jewish heritage.

Mr. Netanyahu, thanks for showing us the way forward.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Jewish encounter with Easter

What follows is a short talk commissioned by the Methodist podcast NOMAD. Thanks to Tim Nash for asking me to write it. Happy Easter to my Christian friends and readers.

I can remember, surprisingly well, the thoughts and feelings I had the very first time I sat through a Good Friday Church service nearly 30 years ago. None of them were particularly godly. Most of them lacked any generosity towards my hosts.

Let me tell you why.

I was with my university girlfriend and we'd travelled back from Manchester to her hometown in Kendal in Cumbria. Anne had grown up in an Evangelical Anglican Church and she wanted to attend the Easter services with her mother and she invited me, her new Jewish boyfriend, along too.

I agreed to come, seeing it all as some kind of anthropological exercise, a social science trip to explore the tribe my girlfriend had come from. This wasn't an attempt at conversion on Anne's part, merely an introduction to her home and upbringing.

But in truth this was never going to be a dispassionate investigation on my part. I was carrying with me far too much cultural baggage.

Religious beliefs and family background had inevitably cropped up early in our relationship. It was too important to both of us to be left unspoken. We had already found much we could agree on. But Easter is at the very heart of the Christian calendar and despite all of the parallels with the story of the Hebrew Exodus, it has appeared to be where Judaism and Christianity are forced to part theological company.

I hoped our Easter trip to Kendal was not going to see our own relationship split asunder.

The idea of God existing simultaneously as a Father and a Son had always felt like an affront to  my strict Jewish monotheistic sensibility. The idea of a physical resurrection was also problematic but that had more to do with my modern scientific view of the world than with Judaism, which has its own accounts of biblical returns from the dead.

But at the time I remember that my biggest problem with Easter was not the the doctrinal divisions it created but its long-term historical fall-out.

For me Easter was not the joyful occasion it was to Christian worshippers delighting in the affirmation that 'He is Risen'. No, Easter was the annual disaster that created license for Christians to bring mayhem and murder to Jewish communities across Europe. All this was thanks to anti-Jewish Church teaching that went unchecked for nearly 2,000 years embracing both Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Jew as eternal 'Christ Killer' had been a mainstay of Christian education. The account of the Jewish religious elders passing judgement on Jesus, the Jewish mob outside Pilate's head quarters calling for crucification and of course that staggering unhelpful passage in Matthew that has the local Jews saying: 

"His blood be upon us and on our children. (Matthew 27:2425)

And none of this stopped with the Reformation. Actually, it got worse for a while. Here's what Luther wrote in 1543. They, the Jews, are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth." Cheers Martin! Another unhelpful Christian contribution to interfaith dialogue.

No wonder across Europe my ancestors locked their doors and hid during Easter Week. It was open season on the Jews. And all of this created the fertile soil that allowed Hitler to perpetrate the murder of a third of the world's Jewish population just seventy years ago.

So all of this was on my mind that first Good Friday service with its solemn telling of the Christian Messiah's final earthly hours.

In a perverse and mean-spirited way, I was sitting there, not just waiting to be offended, but secretly hoping it would happen. I wanted the vicar to say something crass and stupid, something ignorant and offensive to a Jewish listener sat in his pews. I wanted my prejudices about the Church to be confirmed.

In retrospect, I can see how my feelings were those of a righteous victim. Somewhere in my upbringing I had imbued the psychological survival strategy for any long-term oppressed group.

I had cultivated a feeling of moral superiority towards the oppressor.

This is how the mind-set works. And I will admit there is a touch of the Woody Allen school of righteous paranoia in what follows.

Okay, so you may be the powerful all conquering world religion but all the best bits you learnt from Judaism and your violent behaviour towards the very people who nurtured your Messiah brings you no credit and much moral debit. And if you keep bashing on about the Jews rejecting their Messiah I'm going to get pretty hacked off by your self-righteous arrogance. Since when did you corner the market in cosmic revelations? Oy Vey, I forget, that happened at the first Easter.

Sadly for me at the time, the vicar made no moral gaffes that I can recall. The communal Jewish rejection of Jesus was not a theme of the preaching that day. There were far better and more interesting things for him to reflect upon. As much as I tried, I couldn't find offence. In reality, at least in Kendal in the late 20th century, the problems were all inside my head. But of course that's a problem in itself.

As for the Easter Sunday service, which we also went to, it was the joyfulness that I found most off-putting. I obviously preferred my religion to be solemn and contemplative rather than celebratory. I couldn't understand why the congregation appeared quite so pleased with themselves and with life in general. I think this had more to do with personal temperament than with Jewish tradition, which undoubtedly does celebration quite well too.

Time to hit the fast forward button.

A Quaker wedding, four children and 30 years later, Anne, the university girlfriend, is my wife and I am now the Jewish husband of an Anglican vicar in North Yorkshire. I have had the privilege of attending a great many Good Friday and Easter Sunday services. I now find the Good Friday story utterly profound and deeply moving as an account of personal and universal suffering. My time with Christians of deep and loving faith has been immensely rewarding and nothing but positive. I have undoubtedly gained strength in my own faith through being a part of these worshipping communities. And, despite all of this exposure to Christianity, I remain happily, proudly, perhaps stubbornly, Jewish.

What has changed, is not only a deepening of my own faith in the God of my ancestors but a radical change in my attitude.

Long ago I decided not to allow doctrine or liturgy to trip me up when it comes to interfaith relations, whether institutional or personal.

We are all limited by our mental capacity to grasp the mysteries of the universe. And all we have at our disposal are words which mostly struggle to do justice to our spiritual condition.

While remaining comfortable in my liberal Judaism with its emphasis on an ethical and prophetic tradition, I've come to appreciate what Christianity brings to the human party.

While Judaism is hotter on justice, Christianity breaks more ground with love and forgiveness. While Christianity can get a little hung-up on sinfulness and the afterlife, Judaism likes to keep things firmly grounded in practical matters of family and community.

To me it looks like ecclesiastical swings and roundabouts.

And for our Sabbaths, both faiths take a formal moment to stop and rest and wonder at creation.

And in those moments, between our prayer book words and the communal singing, we are all wrestling with the same questions about the same human dilemmas.

How we frame our answers my be slightly different from each other but it's the questions that we should allow to unite us rather than letting the answers divide us.

But what about the really big stumbling blocks between Christianity and Judaism? The ones that come out so strongly at Easter time. Surely there's no way to ever completely square that religious circle?

A few years ago I was sitting in the chapel near the sea of Galilee built on the site where Jesus is said to have given the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the peacemakers and notice the plank in your own eye before the spec of dust in your neighbour's...and much more ethical brilliance.
I was thinking what a shame it was that Jesus and all his teaching is so 'persona non grata' in Judaism.

We've been forced to cold shoulder an outstanding and innovative Jewish teacher and social critic who was clearly steeped in Jewish law and liturgy.

Wasn't Jesus pioneering a post Temple movement of Jewish renewal based on prayer and ethics rather than temple sacrifice? In fact the same agenda rabbinic Judaism was to develop.

The Christian church is mostly to blame for this state of affairs. Jesus, and all he said, became Jewishly toxic because of the Church's persecution of the Jews. Both sides lost out in more ways than one. But the body count is rather higher on my side of the fence.

But there I go, getting all defensive and victim-like again.

When it comes to the 'Jewish Jesus' I'm more than happy to invite him home for bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese....and maybe some roll mop herrings. And I've found the theological links between Easter and the Jewish Passover, with their parallel themes of rebirth, renewal and liberation, fascinating to explore.

But how far can I go in my understanding of the 'Christian Jesus'? The one that dies on the cross for the sins of the world and then comes back from the dead to everlasting life at the right hand of God.

Well, perhaps I can go further than you might think. After all who am I to limit God's ways of working.

If God wanted to cast himself as an earthly human to make it easier to relate to Him, then what right do I have to limit the Almighty's room for manoeuvre?

Okay, so I have to adopt a more flexible approach to monotheism but aren't there visions in the Book of Daniel that sound suspiciously like a God who intends to send a messiah that clearly has metaphysical attributes. Christianity never seems to escape its Jewish roots...and quite frankly I'm happy for us to take the collective credit for all Christianity's best ideas! You owe us big time after all.

Easter, I can now see, is the moment when Judaism gets super-charged, repackaged and delivered to the world. It's a development to be welcomed.

But none of that has to make Judaism obsolete or superseded. The same goes for the world's other great faiths.

When I look at the world I see variety in everything. Trees, birds, Heinz soup, and of course human beings. God's creation is all about the majesty of difference.

So why, when it comes to religion, would we be so arrogant as to suggest that there is only one true way to the truth. 

Did God really have in mind Methodism, or Anglicanism, or Coptic Christianity as the ultimate and final manifestation of his will?  And which variety of those denominations was he thinking of? "Do it like the North Yorkshire Anglicans" He might say..."or wait for the lightening to strike!"

No, I don't think so.

I think God likes the variety and is probably slightly amused at our well-meaning, but bumbling attempts, to create the 'correct way' to worship him.

Except of course when we turn our distinctive and particular understandings against each other. Then, I suspect, any heavenly laughter stops abruptly.

Typically, the bad stuff happens when faith gets knotted-up with power and politics and particularly territorial nationalism. Local cultures and a poor reading of history usually have a role in the trouble making too. 

In Judaism you can see this playing itself out in the strand of Zionism that has become a form of extreme religious nationalism. It rejects, or at least sees as inferior, all other claims to the Holy Land. It certainly leaves no room for Palestinians whether they are Christian or Muslim.

All of which leads me to the issue I want to leave you with.

These days the question I think we should ask of ourselves, is this:

What is our theology of 'the other'? How does our world outlook find a safe and respected space for people who do not share our precise notion of the will of God?

I can understand your possible reservations at this point.

Our theology, doctrines and creeds may feel like strength, comfort and certainty. But they can turn out to be frighteningly dangerous, especially in our wired up digital global village where we all live, at least virtually, side by side.

For some, my question and its challenge may feel like a fairly easy task. For others it will require some theological heavy lifting, including some reinterpretation of holy texts.

Why not start with Easter though? Can you celebrate the risen Christ and still believe that I - or a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist friend - have an experience which is true and valid and not, at best, just a well-meaning mistake?

If you are struggling with this, keep asking why? What's getting in your way of seeing the spark of God in the face of your neighbour? Why do they have to change rather than you?

As a Jew I have finally reached a comfortable accommodation with the Easter story. I am no longer threatened by it. I no longer react with anger and resentment. Instead I see the power and value, not only in the story but in its Christian interpretation as well. I don't think you are wrong. I don't think you have made a mistake. God created a very big universe, I'm quite sure it is big enough for all of us.

Now, can we all say that of each other?

Happy Easter!