“…in some sense if you don’t live in Israel – I don’t live in Israel – you’re morally obliged to be nearly silent, nearly silent.”
Simon Schama – The Story of the Jews, episode 5, broadcast Sunday 1st October 2013
By Robert Cohen, Micah’s Paradigm Shift
October 09, 2013
It was the final episode. After four Sunday nights of television and three thousand years of Jewish history, here was the telling of the modern State of Israel. Simon Schama had entitled it: ‘Return’.
After all I had read beforehand about Schama’s promise that the last part of his ‘Story of he Jews’ would make “the moral case for Israel”, this final episode was a great deal more nuanced, considered and reflective than I had dared to hope for.
Schama gave an appropriately agonised and conflicted portrayal of Zionism, both in its theory and its practice. It was light years away from the previous popular Jewish histories that I’d been re-reading over the summer as homework in preparation for what the BBC had billed as a highlight of the television year.
Books by Cecil Roth and Max Dimont, which I’d first read as Bar Mitzvah presents in 1979, had been written in the 1940s and 1960s. They now looked badly marred by self-serving colonial views of Arab culture and suffered from a highly biased portrayal of the Jewish ‘return’ to Palestine from the 1880s onward.
Paul Johnson’s ‘History of the Jews’, published in the mid 1980s, stood up better to my 2013 scrutiny than either Roth or Dimont. But Johnson had just missed the start of the new wave of Jewish Israeli and Palestinian history writing that has since set the record straight and challenged the traditional narrative of brave, virtuous, morally entitled Jews – Versus – cowardly, intransigent, hate-filled Arabs.
So a new popular history of the Jews was well over due if only to update the last 120 years. Thankfully, Schama had taken a great deal of the new thinking on board (even if the mainstream Jewish establishment and most Western political leaders are still struggling to catch up).
Zionism’s fundamental test
In telling the story before 1948, Schama gave time not only for the big names in Zionist history, such as Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion, but also for the philosopher, Martin Buber, a hero of this blog. Schama described Buber as the most “thoughtfully tortured” of the Zionist idealists. Buber, he told viewers, knew that Zionism should not be “mostly about matters of power”. For Buber, explained Schama, “if Zionism merely ended up reproducing the power play of the rest of the world, all of its achievements would be merely self-defeating”. Buber’s fundamental test for Zionism would always be how it treated the Arabs of Palestine.
The camp set up at Atlit, (Mediterranean coast, south of Haifa) by the British for Jews trying to flee Germany. In order to preserve the status quo they were not allowed into Palestine. Atlit was a station on Simon Schama’s road to Israel.
It was a relief that Schama didn’t try to duck acknowledgement of the Nakba of 1947-8 and the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes as the State of Israel came into being. He wasn’t as clear as he might have been about how all this took place on the ground and he went on to look for a ‘balance of suffering’ by citing the Jewish refugees that had to flee their Arab homes in the aftermath of Israel’s establishment. But this was opening the doors to a period of history that is still widely unknown or just deliberately ignored in Jewish circles.
Schama did confront the socialist kibbutznik about the abandoned Palestinian village on top of which his home was built. He did dismiss the smiling and engaging West Bank settler who based Jewish entitlement entirely on scripture. He did show the daily ordeal of Palestinians crossing the West Bank checkpoints like so much cattle at a market. He did speak to the Israeli Jewish author David Grossman (a philosophical descendant of Buber) about the dangers of the Jewish spiritual imagination and its attachment to the biblical Land of Israel.
And then, in the closing minutes, Schama stood in front of the 18-metre high, grey, concrete slabs of the Separation Wall and wondered if this was Jabotinsky’s ‘Iron Wall’ against the Arabs come true. In another nod to Buber, he saw a Judaism that has had to “scurry for safety beneath the watch towers” during the last few decades of Israeli history.
This was all a mightily refreshing approach to the subject matter and I hoped that the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the office of the Chief Rabbi would all be sending out the DVD as Hanukkah presents this year.
But then came this:
“I want to say that nobody, including me, ultimately has the moral right to say that the Wall shouldn’t have happened….in some sense if you don’t live in Israel – I don’t live in Israel – you’re morally obliged to be nearly silent, nearly silent.”
And that’s where Simon Schama and I, having got along so well up to this point, had to finally part company.
Not an option
Silence is not an option I can subscribe to any more. In fact, I can’t think of a more inappropriate response to the on-going Occupation, the blockade of Gaza, and the institutional discrimination against the Arab citizens of Israel.
Schama’s context was that the Wall had stopped the wave of suicide bombings that had killed 500 Israeli citizens during the Second Palestinian Intifada a decade ago. He failed to mention the number of Palestinian civilians that were killed during the Israeli suppression of the uprising (the total number of civilian deaths was actually much greater than 500 for both Jews and Arabs during the period 2000-2005). You can read about the full casualty figures for both sides here.
I’m not for a moment condoning suicide bombing, but the idea that the Wall alone has been the cure for this immoral tactic of resistance is thoroughly disputed. There’s certainly not a simple ‘cause and effect’ that justifies its building in the face of international law and the deprivations it has brought.
So what sets Schama and me apart? How have we ended up expressing a shared concern for the Jewish future in such different ways?
I suspect the answer has much to do with what distinguishes liberal Zionists, like Simon Schama, from ‘Diaspora-Universalists’ (or, if you insist, ‘anti-Zionists’) like me.
I believe it is Schama’s attachment to Zionism that leaves him unable to articulate what has gone wrong in Israel and that causes him to take a vow of silence and then call it morality.
For Schama, everything was basically okay before 1967. It has been the Occupation of the West Bank and the building of Jewish Settlements that has undermined what had been a ethical endeavour until that point.
Schama sees Zionism as a movement born out of existential necessity, caused by the failure of the European nation states to integrate Jews, as Jews, into their societies.
There is no question that the European Jewish story, through to the mid 20th-century, ends in an unparalleled tragedy, not just for the Jews but for European civilisation, and neither the Jews nor Europe will ever fully recover from it. But even this cataclysm does not provide the proof that Zionism was the only way forward for the Jewish people.
Zionists (even American ones) appear to forget that while Europe in the 19th-century was full of setbacks and false dawns for Jewish emancipation, a whole different story was emerging on the other side of the Atlantic. Schama described this himself in episode four: ‘Over the Rainbow’. The American story surely contradicts the central premise of Zionism that successful Jewish integration, on Jewish terms, is impossible. In fact, doesn’t Simon Schama’s own life and his successful UK/US academic career prove that progress is possible without the retreat to narrow nationalism?
The ethical cul-de-sac
For me, who wants to champion the Jewish Diaspora experience with all of its many highs and despite its terrible lows, Zionism has been a failed response to antisemitism. It has led us down an ethical and spiritual cul-de-sac that leaves us silent when faced with our own wilful displacement and slow destruction of another people. Zionism has created a whole new set of problems without resolving any of the issues it set out to address.
How could we hope to deal with the on-going discrimination and persecution of the Jews by resorting to the same ethnic, nationalist and colonialist thinking of Europe that was feeding the growth of antisemitism on the continent in the first place?
What’s made the situation even more difficult to deal with is that Zionism succeeded in wrapping itself around Judaism’s traditional messianic longing for the end of Exile. It was a sleight of hand that was challenged at Zionism’s inception and needs challenging again today. Zionism does not, and never did, equal Judaism.
But we are where we are.
There is a Jewish State of Israel and now we need to find a path to justice, peace and security for Jews and Palestinians on which ever side of the Separation Wall they live.
Staying silent though is not the way to get there.
Painting of Moses on Mount Sinai with Jews gathered at the foot, by Jean Leon Gerome.
Gathered at the foot of Mt Sinai
The rabbis tell us, through a Midrashic legend, that as the Children of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, all the Jews were there to see and hear Moses come down from the mountain top with God’s Law. This was the moment when tradition says we received the words that would forever guide us to a just and faith-filled way of life.
And every Jew was there.
Not just the slaves on the run from Pharaoh, but every Jew that has ever been born, and all those yet to be born.
That’s a deeply affecting idea and once heard it seeps into the Jewish soul. And the message from the mountain top is what gave us the strength and adaptability to survive, scattered across the globe, when other kingdoms rose and fell and other civilisations came and went.
We are a people with a shared faith, a shared heritage and a shared history that binds us together and creates a powerful feeling of being mutually accountable and mutually responsible to each other. When it comes to the Jewish story, we are all in it together.
For me, that does not mean you stay silent when you see your brother or sister making terrible mistakes. When it has become abundantly clear that Martin Buber’s worst fears for the revival of a Jewish homeland have come to pass, then it is time to step up and speak out. Not remain silent.
But Diaspora Jews have abdicated their familial responsibility. We allow Israel to speak in our name and keep our disquiet to ourselves. Or perhaps we simply close our eyes, preferring to slumber in a state of denial about the reality of Israeli power.
Not the final chapter
I have no doubt that the creation of the State of Israel is not the natural conclusion of Jewish history. It is certainly not our redemptive pinnacle, a miraculous ‘Return’ or a post Holocaust ‘Resurrection’. How can it be when it has achieved neither the normalcy nor the safety that its ideological founders had hoped for? How can it be when it has turned us from a David into a Goliath in the space of a single generation?
At this moment in Jewish history, “silence, or nearly silence”, is not what is called for.
Instead we should be remembering what we all heard at the foot of the mountain in that first period of enlightenment and wandering. The mission we were given was to build the just society by treating others as we would wish to be treated. The rest is commentary!
So, rather than agonising in front of the Separation Wall and mourning a version of ‘benign Zionism’ that never really existed, we should be shouting from the synagogue rooftops for justice for the Palestinians in the name of Judaism and demonstrating with Jewish menorahs on flags outside the Israeli Embassy. Or failing that, start a blog.
I hope that in another 100 years we will be able to look back and see how a revitalised Jewish future began to take shape in the early 21st-century as Jews worldwide started to reconnect to their most long-lasting and resilient of values.
As Simon Schama said at the close of the final programme:”The chapter is written but the book is not finished.”