For the last three years I’ve been writing monthly posts about Israel-Palestine from a UK Jewish perspective. At times like this, with the news from Gaza dominating world headlines, I feel an even greater responsibility to champion a Judaism that stands for more than a narrow nationalist ideology.
It took me about 25 years from the point of first engaging seriously with the subject as student in the 1980s to feeling confident enough to start saying anything in a public sphere. Like many other Jews, for years I felt increasingly uncomfortable with what was going on in Israel in the unchallengeable name of defense and security. I was the classic liberal Zionist, brought up on a diet of Jewish ethics and Western democratic values. It was an upbringing that left me in an ever increasing state of ‘angst’ over the actions of the Jewish State, a country that claimed to act in my name and in my interests. But whatever I was feeling, I avoided family discussions let alone public debate.
It was operation Cast Lead and the ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008/9 that began my journey from an Israeli supporting peacenik to a marginalized Diaspora Jew, questioning the entire Zionist project. After watching children dying from Israeli missiles and bombs, my silent Jewish angst felt like so much useless self-indulgence. It was a feeling I wanted to avoid next time things kicked off in Gaza. And I suspected there would be a next time.
A visit in 2011 to Israel (my third) and to the West Bank (my first) finally completed the emotional and intellectual journey. Talking to Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line taught me that something had gone very wrong with the Jewish dream of self-determination. Whatever the questions raised by two thousand years of ‘exile’, this could not be the answer. A Sparta state, increasingly racist in its culture of Jewish ethnic privilege, had not resolved any of the issues Herzl and the early Zionists had set out to address. Instead it had created a truck-load of new problems and left another people homeless and oppressed.
But with support for Israel now fundamental to Jewish identity in the diaspora, and anti-Zionism considered a more serious communal offense than marrying-out, where could an individual still committed to their Jewish values, but at odds with Israel, find a place to stand and speak?
Well not in the synagogue nor at family simchas. Too many prayers for the IDF and too much singing of Hatikva to allow dissent. The blogosphere and the internet, with its ability to create virtual communities of interest, has become the only place big enough and open enough to allow me in. In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream…or choose to click you into silence.
And now, in 2014, the people of Gaza are being pummeled again. And with the sound of sirens still ringing in Israeli ears, who is willing to listen to a lecture on Jewish values when Jewish lives have been at stake?
I am reminded by members of my family that ‘our side’ drop leaflets and make phone calls before firing missiles. And, unlike ‘them’, we care about the safety of our children and put them in air raid shelters. So that makes our missiles moral and their dead children their own fault not ours. You should at least show some balance in your views, they say.
But I stopped seeing any ‘balance’ a long time ago. I don’t credit the phone calls or the leaflets or the ‘knock on the roof’ ballistic warnings. All I can see is the same old colossal lack of imagination, dressed up in clothes of self-righteousness and victim hood, that has driven both Israeli and Jewish communal politics into an ethical brick wall.
I pray that a ceasefire can be successfully negotiated (to the satisfaction of both sides) so that Palestinians will stop being killed and Israelis can stop living in fear….at least for a while. But it is at times like this, that ‘rescuing the Hebrew covenant’ becomes paramount.
Since I began, three years ago, I have attempted to remain true to the blog strap line I first adopted: Act justly, love kindness, walk humbly. Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time.
The scripturally minded will recognize the abbreviated quote from the Hebrew Prophet Micah.
Justice. Kindness. Humility.
For me, this is what the Hebrew Covenant boils down to after 5,000 years of Jewish history. This, to answer the test question set by the prophet in the 8th century BCE, is what God requires of us.
The Micah based Covenant is the sacred understanding that we are created for the sake of others. And with so much emphasis in the Hebrew bible on the ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbour’ there is little doubt in my mind that the justice/kindness/humility ethical imperative must embrace all of humanity. Which, despite the remarks of some Knesset members in the last two weeks, must include Palestinians living in Gaza City and Khan Younis too.
If my reading of scripture is correct then Jewish territorial sovereignty didn’t work out so well the first two times. See Isaiah and Jeremiah for further reading. Third time around and we are making another ethical hash of things.
If the mainstream Jewish leadership in the UK, North America and the rest of the Diaspora, does not recognize such a description then I can only assume that they don’t have a problem with ethnic dispossession or military occupation or collective punishment, or institutional discrimination. All of which could be the case if they are still seriously wedded to the Land/Chosenness/Election reading of the Covenant. To me that’s an Iron Age religious understanding that is now well past its sell-buy date.
Our actions, both historical and contemporary, towards the Palestinians are the greatest challenge facing Judaism and the Jewish people today. We have to find a way through this that means more than defending a narrow nationalist ideology. In the long run, rescuing the Hebrew Covenant is the only sane, ethical and Jewish way forward.
Robert Cohen’s blog can be read at:Micah’s Paradigm Shift