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