Brian Klug on 'Being Jewish and Doing Justice'

June 30, 2010


Brian Klug, philosopher at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford University, asks what Jewish ethics can contribute to the road to peace in the Middle East

By JNews, Saturday, 26 June, 2010

Judaism is rooted in the Torah – the five books of Moses – and in the commentaries on these and other biblical texts, elaborated by learned scholars over thousands of years. Surely this body of debate, argument and reflection can contribute something to resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

While what you find in the Torah, says Brian Klug in his essay Being Jewish and Doing Justice, depends on what you bring to it, you cannot simply impose your will upon it. “Reading the Torah is a matter of give and take: the text is a given but how we take it is down to us; ultimately, to each of us… Judaism is a configured space; it is an arena of argument, not a body of doctrine.”

So what has been made of it? During Operation Cast Lead, the offensive on Gaza, rabbis set out to educate Israeli soldiers in ‘yiddishkeit [roughly, Jewish values] and a fighting spirit’ as the chief army rabbi of the IDF put it. He found in the Torah ‘a biblical ban on surrendering a single millimetre of [the Land of Israel] to gentiles’. And others found even more warlike injunctions, one flyer calling on Israeli soldiers ‘to spare your lives and the lives of your friends and not to show concern for a population that surrounds us and harms us.’

But Rabbis for Human Rights takes a different view, a vision of justice in which human rights – basic rights that accrue to each and every one of us purely and simply in virtue of being human – are a fundamental element.

Klug sides with them and explains the deep connection between Jewish identity and human rights. Partly, it is a matter of collective experience and collective memory. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 came in the shadow of and in reaction to the Nazi Holocaust. And partly, he affirms: “when the language of human rights is spoken, many of us hear the voices of those Hebrew prophets, rabbis and other Jewish figures down the centuries for whom Judaism means nothing if it does not mean social justice and, in particular, protecting those who are vulnerable.”

Some argue that this is anachronistic, that we are reading the modern concept of human rights into the thought of another era when the concept did not exist. In the core of this essay, Klug argues firmly against this interpretation, finding strong affinities between biblical concepts and those of human rights today.

From this, he concludes that there is a clash at the heart of Judaism – and one becoming sharper with the passage of time: “[T]he position with Judaism today is this: there are two suitors seeking to win its heart. One is the principle of unconditional support for Israel, the other is the principle of unconditional commitment to justice. Judaism cannot have both these principles at its heart.”

The Goldstone Report and its reception represents the most recent manifestation of this clash. The differences are deep indeed. But Klug is clear: “[W]hen Jews around the world speak out about Israel, condemning its breaches of human rights and denouncing policies that are inimical to peace…we are not turning against our Jewish identity: we are turning towards it.”

The full essay

The essay Being Jewish and Doing Justice is the Epilogue to Brian Klug’s forthcoming book, ‘Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life’, forthcoming from Vallentine Mitchell in October 2010.

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