Reclaiming the Language of Jewish Identity


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.

7 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Language of Jewish Identity

  1. I cannot help but be sickened when I read this blog. You really are dismissing the right for Jews to have a sovereign state. By the same token, you marginalizing those who died defending the only Jewish state in the world. Israel’s creation, as popularly perceived, is not a product of the Holocaust. Zionism predates the Holocaust by decades. The initial partition plan was offered in 1938. Herzl said after viewing the Dryfess Affair, the Jews were strangers in the lands of their hosts. Without a land of their own they are like ghosts. Looking at the resurgence of anti Semitism in Europe, Herzl’s words resonate today. I am not pro settler or pro occupation, but I recognize how settlement activity has been allowed to happen. I also continue to value Israel and the contribution it makes to the world. Going all the way back to the 2nd intifada, Israelis have lost faith in the peace process. The presence of Hamas, with their disregard for human life and desire to replace Israel with an Islamic state, gives Israelis a high degree of insecurity. Add to it the fact that the Arab world is in flames from extremists of all kinds. You are disregarding the lives of Israelis of all kinds with you misplaced self rightousness. I guess Israeli lives are cheap.

    • Hi Fred
      I appreciate your reading my post above and taking the trouble to comment.
      A few points I’d like to offer in response.
      A Jewish Homeland in the historic Land of Israel is a good thing in my view. However, it is no guarantee of security for Jews either in Europe, the rest of the diaspora or Israel itself. Anti-Semitism, like all racism, will always be with us. So I think the Zionists were over optimistic about that. For our Homeland to be true to the Jewish values nurtured from biblical times, and especially through our Exile, it cannot be a country that denies rights to another people either as individuals or as a national group. As for the Hamas charter and wanting to replace Israel with an Islamic state that is also a non starter in my book but the evidence of Hamas political statements is that they want a settlement based on 67 borders. So I suggest Israel tries negotiating rather than demonising them. To create two states both honouring and protecting the rights of all of their citizens will be a struggle and it will take some new thinking and bold action. Israel hold most of the cards though and as a Jew I’m far from convinced that my best interests are being protected by the intransigence of successive Israeli governments over the key issues…settlements, Jerusalem and refugees.

      • Robert, you have several mistakes here. Your statement that “the evidence of Hamas political statements is that they want a settlement based on 67 borders” is absolutely false. Hamas has never, never, never revoked it intention — which it overtly states over and over — is that it intends to destroy Israel completely and wipe it off the map. Read a recent post (“The Palestinians Real Strategy”) in The Gatestone Institute by Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian reporter, how Hamas continues to say it intends to destroy Israel and that its statements in Arabic are always very clear to its audience. Further, you say Israel holds all the cards, but that is not true, either. The Palestinians are playing more and more cards that are in their hands — cards with the EU, the UN and with their own people whom they indoctrinate to hatred. You say the situation will need “bold actions and new thinking” but I believe those are hollow words, easy to say. Israel has offered many concessions that the Palestinians continue to refuse unless they get everything they want (which is totally destructive to Israel). That is why the peace process broke down. Israelis voted for it and were willing to make many serious concessions, but when the Palestinians showed no interest in real peace and only in continued violence, the Israelis turned to security above all else. The bold action and new thinking will have to come from Palestinians, who unfortunately continue to want victory over peace. You cannot make peace with a tiny fraction of Palestinians when their leaders and most of the populace still wants to kill you. That is the sad fact.

    • Fred
      That Jews have a “right” to a “sovereign state” is debateable. However, what is not debateable is that foreign Jews had no right whatsoever to create an exclusionary/expansionary “Jewish state” in historic Palestine by dispossessing and expelling 80% of the native Arab inhabitants between late 1947 and the end of 1948 (400,000 were driven out before Polish born Ben-Gurion et al declared the “Jewish state” effective 15 May 1948 and a further 400,000 were expelled during the resulting war) through force of arms, mass rape, several massacres and intimidation (see Benny Morris’s “Birth Of The Palestinian Problem 1947-1949”)
      It should also be noted that neither the illegal Balfour Declaration nor the Class A League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine called for the creation of a “Jewish state” or “homeland” in Palestine. The former was incorporated into the terms of the mandate, which made no mention of the creation of a state or homeland. The British government repeatedly declared that in accordance with its Class A mandate, a Jewish state or homeland was prohibited.
      As I noted, the 1922 League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine was a Class A Mandate, i.e.,, Palestine was to be administered by Britain AS A WHOLE until its citizens were able to assume democratic self-rule. By incorporating the Balfour Declaration the mandate did facilitate Jewish immigration to “secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home,” but it did not call for the creation of a sovereign Jewish state or homeland in Palestine or any form of partition. This was made very clear in the Churchill Memorandum (1 July 1922) regarding the British Mandate: “[T]he status of all citizens of Palestine in the eyes of the law shall be Palestinian, and it has never been intended that they, or any section of them, should possess any other juridical status.”
      Also, regarding the British Mandate, as approved by the Council of the League of Nations, the British government declared: “His Majesty’s Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State.” (Command Paper, 1922)
      Furthermore, In May 1939, the British government issued the MacDonald White Paper, which in accordance with its Class A Mandate, ruled out the possibility of either an Arab or a Jewish state, and declared Great Britain “could not have intended Palestine should be converted into a Jewish state against the will of the Arab population of the country.” It called for a Palestinian state in which Jews and Arabs would govern jointly based on a constitution to be drafted by their representatives and those of Britain. The constitution would safeguard the “Jewish National Home” in Palestine and if good relations developed between Jews and Arabs, the country would be granted independence in ten years. Land sales to Jews were to be restricted and the annual level of Jewish immigration was to be limited to 15,000 for five years, following which, Palestinian Arab acquiescence would be required.
      You now know why Britain abstained during the UNGA vote re the 1947 Partition Plan, Res. 181, i.e. it violated the terms of the League of Nations mandate.

  2. I am saddened by fred’s response. He doesn’t get the point before stepping into the automatic existential “defend Israel” position. I didn’t hear any suggestion of not defending Israel or allowing a sovereign state. I am horrified by how much violence and land-grabbing is justified by an existential fear for Israel’s existence. If anything were to bring about the downfall of Israel, I believe it would be its overly aggressive actions, the denial of its people, and the increasingly disapproving response of the rest of the civilized world.

  3. A thought for Fred: if you are not pro-settler and not pro-occupation, your “recognition of how settlement activity has been allowed to happen” is not worth much more than my recognition of what might lead people to be racists, anti-Semites, or Islamic fundamentalists hell-bent on the destruction of Israel. Allowing it to happen, in my view, has been a huge factor for (a) the ongoing transformation of Israel from vibrant, progressive beacon of hope to theocratic, hyper-nationalistic garrison state; (b) the rise of Hamas and fundamentalist Islam generally; (c) failure of peace efforts and continuation of the “existential threat” against Israel; and (d) the re-appearance of anti-Semitism in Europe. The occupation of the West Bank, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in general, is not something we can shrug off and say we understand how it could happen.

  4. Prophetic comments by 5 eminent Jews:
    Then Secretary of State for India and the British cabinet’s only Jewish member, Lord Edwin Montagu’s response to Prime Minister Lloyd George following issuance of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: “All my life I have been trying to get out of the ghetto. You want to force me back there.”
    Senator Henry Morgenthau Sr., renowned Jewish American and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, 1919: “Zionism is the most stupendous fallacy in Jewish history….The very fervour of my feeling for the oppressed of every race and every land, especially for the Jews, those of my own blood and faith, to whom I am bound by every tender tie, impels me to fight with all the greater force against this scheme, which my intelligence tells me can only lead them deeper into the mire of the past, while it professes to be leading them to the heights. Zionism is… a retrogression into the blackest error, and not progress toward the light.”
    Asked to sign a petition supporting settlement of Jews in Palestine, Sigmund Freud declined: “I cannot…I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state….It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land….I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.” (Letter to Dr. Chaim Koffler Keren HaYassod, Vienna: 2/26/30)
    Albert Einstein, 1939: “There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people…. Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.”
    Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism, 1944: “The concept of a racial state – the Hitlerian concept- is repugnant to the civilized world, as witness the fearful global war in which we are involved. . . , I urge that we do nothing to set us back on the road to the past. To project at this time the creation of a Jewish state or commonwealth is to launch a singular innovation in world affairs which might well have incalculable consequences.”

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