Political and moral identities

June 14, 2015
Sarah Benton


The cause that chose me

by Brian Robinson
June 12, 2015

I used to defend Israel because I thought it was good for the Jews, now I no longer defend it, because I realise it’s bad for the Jews. I wish I didn’t have to say that, and I also know that people may think me terribly tribal and ethnocentric, especially when I add a further confession. My involvement in campaigns for justice for Palestinians, which to my discredit came rather late, was for me, to be frank, always more about my being Jewish than it was about Palestinians.

It’s not that I didn’t care about the sufferings of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis, I did and do care, but to be honest no more, and even somewhat less, than I care about the daily sufferings of women, free-thinkers, apostates, political dissidents and those wishing to express that normally occurring human variation which we call homosexuality: the horrors we read and hear about in such places as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and too many other countries to mention here.

The world, as well as being wonderful, can be very wicked, and we can’t go around trying to campaign about everything because that’s the way to achieve nothing. But I think it’s true to say that we don’t always choose what injustices stir our emotions into action; at least as often, it seems that issues force themselves upon us, as if they chose us, and what those issues are for each of us depends hugely on where we were born and what influenced us during our developmental years.

Suppose I hadn’t been born Jewish in Dublin, and had instead been born into an Irish family at least as nationalistic as mine were Zionist. I can easily imagine I’d have become a supporter of Irish republicanism. But I became a Zionist and even spent several months on a kibbutz (as a volunteer, in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur war: I can’t pretend to heroics; I needed a big cause, I’d lost my way, the usual everyday sort of crisis in a life, you know …)

But there’s another point where being Irish met being Jewish, and that was during the height of the IRA bombing campaign in Britain. To be Irish then in the UK was sometimes uncomfortable: words like embarrassment or shame didn’t cover the feeling. Is this what some Palestinians might feel today about Hamas, about Hezbollah? Perhaps. But during Operation Protective Edge I felt a recurrence of that uneasy sense of guilty complicity, but this time as a Jew, the same emotion I’d previously experienced as an Irishman. And in some ways it was much worse, because prominent Israeli ministers were loudly insisting that Israel acts in the name of all Jews everywhere. I don’t think Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness ever said as much for Sinn Fein, let alone the IRA.

I used to think that BDS was antisemitic, and of course I’m certainly aware that it can be an easy peg for genuine antisemites to hang their dirty old cloaks on, but those, in my experience quite few in number, are even simpler to spot today than they used to be, and sharply disowned as damaging to the Palestinian cause. (Although it seems to suit the Netanyahu government to exaggerate their significance.)

But if not antisemitic in the motivation of its practitioners, antisemitic in its consequences? Well, how can it be antisemitic to remind us of our mandated imperative to derech eretz, usually translated as “the way of the world”, but really, to paraphrase from one online website on Jewish ethics, signifying the code of proper behaviour that binds us to each other as human beings and as Jews, a code defined by our impact on others. (We hear echoes in that of the Golden Rule, and especially in the form given to us by Rabbi Hillel. Perhaps it’s best stated in its negative form: Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.)

Israel today is so very far from what Herzl’s personal construct of his nation-state must have been, and even further alienated from Martin Buber’s non-political vision of a cultural powerhouse to safeguard and stimulate Jewish thought and values throughout the Jewish diaspora and the wider world, a place of genuine spiritual enlightenment, a vision that tragically never came to pass. What a different world we’d have now, at least in the middle east, if the politicians had heeded one of our greatest modern philosophers.

But then came the Shoah, a word that some people don’t like to use for precisely the reason that, in this context, I insist on using, because it refers specifically to that part of the Holocaust that relates to the Jews, the Judeocide. (Others think, correctly I’m sure, of the Holocaust as including in its signification the Roma, the chronic mentally ill, gays, political dissenters from the hideous German regime, and other victims, including the populations of neighbouring countries defined by the Nazis as untermenschen.)

If the Shoah transformed the attitudes of most Jews in the world towards Zionism, so that support for a Jewish state (in Herzl’s form) became the default position, displacing their former antipathy or indifference, could the Jewish catastrophe also have been responsible for nurturing the fiery seeds of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s territorial maximalism? (What are commonly referred to nowadays as ‘settlements’ in the occupied territories should really be called at the least moderately sized towns, and in a few cases could without exaggeration be dubbed small cities.)

Derech eretz? Rabbi Hillel HaGadol, Hillel the Great? ‘If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?’; ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’

Even those of us who don’t believe that there are or ever have been any gods, let alone any particular one of them, can still learn, and ought to, from the likes of the revered sage. And, Shlomo Sand, despite what you say, yes, asseveratively, powerfully yes, we can be Jews whether we observe the rituals of Judaism or not. And of course, just because some of us may not believe in God doesn’t mean we have to worship Israel instead (and that is certainly not to be taken as a nod to Neturei Karta, please don’t even go there).

Let’s return to BDS. And I want to close by asserting something about BDS that I never for a moment imagined I’d ever say; I couldn’t have even dreamed it much before a year ago. But today, far from thinking that BDS is antisemitic, I now believe that it is, with a probability amounting to near certainty, likely, in the long run, to be good for the Jews. I should like to suggest that we may do well to look upon BDS as one of the most sincere expressions of good will towards Jews. We should embrace it, not simply for the sake of those whom Israel has wronged in the name of all Jews everywhere, but for our own well-being.

The Netanyahus of this world will never see it that way, and that is the tragedy not simply for the Palestinians, nor simply for the Jews, but for all of us.

Brian Robinson
Retired psychiatrist
Milton Keynes

The reference to the derech eretz quote: Derech Eretz (Civil, Polite and Thoughtful Behavior)

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