Reclaiming the Language of Jewish Identity

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Sunrise over Mount Sinai.

Radical change in our attitude toward Palestinians isn't a boycott of Judaism. It is part of an eternal and universal Jewish heritage. Above, the sun rises over Mount Sinai. Credit: CreativeCommons / Richard White.

The following post was commissioned by Jews for Justice for Palestinians and published on its site on Sunday, May 24th 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 lightning 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 it’s 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.

This article was originally published on Robert Cohen’s blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift, where he writes on Israel-Palestine from a UK Jewish perspective.