Rethinking Jewish Identity and Solidarity with Israel


January 1, 2000
Richard Kuper

A Time to Speak Out:

Rethinking Jewish Identity and Solidarity with Israel

Dr Brian Klug

Published in the Jewish Quarterly (http://www.jewishquarterly.org/), No 188, Winter 2002-2003

Reprinted with permission of the author

On 27 August 2002, the Guardian published an interview with Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks. In the course of the interview, the Chief Rabbi made certain comments about Israel that sparked a fierce controversy within the Jewish community in the UK and abroad. Some praised his courage for speaking out about Israel. Many denounced him. A typical accusation was that he was ‘giving comfort to Israel’s enemies’. And yet, as he himself was at pains to emphasize later, he did not criticize Israel at all; he merely lamented the fact that the prolonged conflict with the Palestinians is having a corrupting effect on the nation and its culture. The real significance of his comments lies less in their content than in the scale of the public reaction. Both the praise and the denunciation — especially the latter — were out of all proportion to what he actually said. This raises the question: Why were his remarks received this way? Why the exaggerated reaction? It points to something that lies beneath the surface of the controversy.

The deeper issue is a tendency among Jews to define Jewish identity in terms of the State of Israel, and the ethos of ‘solidarity’ to which this gives rise. This ethos has led to an environment within the Jewish community in the UK and elsewhere that is intolerant of all criticism of Israel, mild or strong, actual or — as in the case of the Chief Rabbi’s comments in The Guardian interview — merely perceived.

In this essay I shall critically discuss this ethos and the place Israel has come to occupy in Jewish self-understanding. I shall argue that the spirit in which Jews are bonding together in the name of solidarity with Israel is misguided and unhealthy. In the first place, it distorts Jewish identity, whether secular or religious, to collapse the distinction between being Jewish and owing allegiance to the State of Israel. In the second place, it prevents Jews who do feel a tie to Israel from thinking clearly about what genuine solidarity means. After making certain distinctions that form the basis of the argument, I focus on the Israel Solidarity Rally that took place in Trafalgar Square, London, on Bank Holiday Monday, 6 May 2002, in which tens of thousands of people took part. The Jewish Chronicle (10 May) observed that ‘more British Jews turned out, in response to a call for public solidarity, than ever before’. Everything that is wrong with the whole ethos of solidarity was concentrated in this landmark event. I conclude by drawing out some implications for the future.

I

The subject of Jewish identity, not least in relation to Israel, is complex, confusing and fraught with emotion. It is difficult to differentiate between the various elements (cultural, religious, ethnic and so on) that enter into someone’s sense of being Jewish and their tie — or lack of a tie — to Israel. It varies from person to person. It would, therefore, be rash to try to speak across the board: anyone who tries to define what it means to be Jewish is taking their life in their hands! Consequently, although the subject is a general one, I am not sure how to tackle it except in the first person singular, which is the tack I shall take. I shall speak for myself and leave it to readers to judge to what extent, and with what adjustments or qualifications, the following reflection speaks for them too.

There is a song — and a question — that haunts me from childhood: ‘Vi Ahin Soll Ich Geh’n?’ (‘Where Can I Go?’). Some time in the 1940s (probably around 1948 when the State of Israel came into existence) Leo Fuld, the ‘King of Yiddish Music’, recorded the song in Yiddish and English. We frequently played the record, an old 78 rpm, at our North London home. My mother would sing it with feeling, as if its questions were hers and its answer an answer to her prayers. To the best of my (and her) recollection, the English version of the first verse was as follows:

Tell me, Where can I go?
There’s no place I can see.
Where to go, where to go?
Every door is closed to me.
To the left, to the right,
It’s the same in every land.
There is nowhere to go
And it’s me who should know,
Won’t you please understand?

Even without the soulful melody, these despairing words ring in my ears; when sung they go straight to the heart. As a young child, the first verse seemed to me as melancholy as Kol Nidre — the solemn supplication that opens the evening service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — but less obscure. Here was a person in a nightmare: lost, shut out, cut off, set apart, a voice crying in the wilderness. I was a child and I understood crying. I understood lost as well. ‘Won’t you please understand?’ Oh, but I did, to the core. But where to go, where to go? The song itself supplies the answer, expressed in the jubilant second verse:

Now I know where to go,
Where my folk proudly stand.
Let me go, let me go
To that precious promised land.
No more left no more right.
Lift your head and see the light.
I am proud, can’t you see,
For at last I am free:
No more wandering for me.

No more wandering, no more questions. Unless it’s the question ‘Can’t you see?’ But I could see. I saw a nightmare ending. I saw the person in the song approaching a light at the end of the tunnel. This was my first glimpse of Israel. I was a child and so was the state. However, 50 years later we have both lost our innocence; I have learned that light can be deceptive and that it can also be blinding. The song comes back to haunt me, but I see a different nightmare now, one that has the whole of ‘that precious promised land’ and all its inhabitants, Jewish and other, in its grip. And the question I hear, subtly altered, is a cry of bewilderment rather than despair: ‘Tell me, now that I’m here, where am I going?’

Given the ethos of ‘solidarity with Israel’, it is difficult to make this question audible, let alone offer an answer. Calls for solidarity rain down from the pulpit. While this varies from congregation to congregation, and although there are notable exceptions,[i] rabbis of every stripe (including the Chief Rabbi) tell their congregations to rally round in support of the Jewish state. Leaders of community organizations proclaim the same message. Some hasten to add that Israel is not beyond reproach. They acknowledge that Jews of goodwill may hold views about Israel that depart from the mainstream. But God forbid if anyone does. And if they do, this is taken to indicate that they are clearly not Jews of goodwill. They are branded as either naïve or ignorant or cowards or self-hating traitors or some strange behemoth that is a hybrid of all these things. Now is not the time, we are told, for Jews in the ‘Diaspora’ to criticize the government of Israel.[ii] Loyalty is what is expected of us now. But why now, especially? And why of me, exactly? And what is loyalty, anyway? Or is it disloyal to ask?

The fact of the matter is that, above the din of sermons and admonitions, I hear the question the song puts to me in the here and now: ‘Where am I going?’ (‘Am I going wrong? Where am I going wrong?’) So of one thing I am positive: now, especially now, is not the time for closing ranks and keeping quiet, nor for vociferous expressions of blind support for Israel in the name of unity. It is a time for clarity rather than unity: for making distinctions, for questioning certitudes, for thinking through; a time, ultimately, to speak out.

Clarity begins at home. Accordingly, I shall try to clarify why the song haunts me. What chord in me does it strike? To put it another way, what does Israel have to do with me? Well, when I am asked (or expected) to show solidarity, at least two separate claims are made, though they are so fused together that it is hard to pick them apart. On the one hand, there is the claim based on the idea that Israel, being a Jewish state, is my state, and that its people, the Jewish people, are my people. This is the point of view of Zionism, the movement to establish a home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel on the model of a nation-state. Zionism, a modern political idea, draws heavily on Judaism, an ancient religious and ethical tradition whose roots lie in the Torah and the Talmud. The fact that Zionism uses the vocabulary of Judaism, but adapts it to the idiom of modern political theory, goes a long way towards explaining why this subject — Israel and Jewish identity — is so confusing. For at the heart of Judaism there is also the notion of the Jewish people, but it is a significantly different notion. This notion — the religious and ethical notion of the Jewish people — is the other basis on which I am asked to show solidarity with the State of Israel. I shall discuss this basis first, and then turn to the claim that derives from Zionism.

Zion, in the Bible, refers to Jerusalem. But it is not a city merely. In the biblical and religious context, Zion is the place of which Isaiah (2:2-3) speaks when he proclaims his vision of ‘the last days’, saying, ‘out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’. Isaiah speaks as a prophet and ‘Zion’ is a term of his art. Now, if this is the Zion in whose name I am being asked to show solidarity with Israel, then it is appropriate to respond in kind — by invoking the religious ethic to which this idea of Zion belongs and judging Israel’s actions by that standard; for that is the standard I am being asked to affirm. It is the standard I do affirm if I am in shul on shabbat for the opening of the Ark at the beginning of Kriat Hatorah (the Reading of the Torah) and join the congregation in the singing of the very verse from Isaiah that I have just quoted. To appeal to my Jewish identity, and at the same time tell me not to apply to Israel those standards of truth and justice which, along with peace, Judaism itself insists upon as fundamental:[iii] this strikes me as inconsistent. It is certainly incongruous when, week in week out, in the Torah readings that are the focus of the shabbat service, the children or people of Israel are constantly being chastised and criticized for their failings. To take self-criticism out of Judaism would be like taking the light out of a candle or the heat out of a flame: it would mean taking the ‘Jewish’ out of the Jewish people. The whole point of this people, in the context of the Torah, is that they are constituted by commitment to an ethic — the covenant they accept at Sinai — in order to be (in the words of Isaiah 49:6) ‘a light to the nations’. It is precisely this commitment that makes them, as it were, a people apart, ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6), rather than an ethnic group as such. This is the concept of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, the Jewish people, in the Torah: a people constituted by their commitment to the book or word of God. This commitment constitutes a way of life, not a modern political state. It cannot be the basis for unconditional solidarity with a country — any country, especially one called Israel.

If, on the other hand, I am expected to show solidarity on the basis that Israel, being a Jewish state, is my state, then my response is this. I do feel a tie to Israel insofar as Israel came into existence to provide a home for Jews fleeing persecution and seeking a place where they could live in peace and security. After the Second World War and the Holocaust, Israel was a state for the stateless, for Jews who had lost everything and had nowhere to go because, in the words of the song that still haunts me, every door was closed to them. It was the same in every land. Then suddenly, miraculously as it seems, there was one door that opened and they stepped through it into what they believed would be the safe haven of Israel. At last they were free. It was the end of a nightmare — or so they believed. But now their dream is shattered. They live in fear of their lives every day. Even when they go to the market, or eat at a pizzeria, or sit down to a Seder with family and friends to celebrate freedom: they are not free. At every turn their lives are at risk — just as before they came to this land. What can they do? Where can they go? I see their plight and my heart goes out to them. It goes out to them as fellow human beings. But on top of that I know that there but for the proverbial grace of God go I, for they are Jewish, and I am Jewish, and being Jewish is what brought them to these straits. This makes their predicament more poignant for me — not greater than the predicament of other human beings in similar circumstances but more pointed.

This is the tie that I feel, these are the chords that are struck by the song. They resonate with me deeply. But the tie is a tie of affection, not loyalty or allegiance. Israel is not my country and I am not its citizen. To put it another way, ‘the people of Israel’, in the modern political sense of that phrase, is not synonymous with ‘the people of Israel’ of which the Torah speaks. Many Jewish Israelis feel no affiliation whatsoever to Judaism and even repudiate it totally. They are Jewish people but they do not see themselves as part of ‘the Jewish people’, Am Yisrael, the People of the Book. Moreover, about one million Israeli citizens — approximately one fifth of the total population — are not Jewish: they are ethnically Arab and profess either Islam or Christianity or feel as secular as some of their Jewish co-citizens. They also are part of the (modern) people of Israel. They are, I’m not. There are other minority groups within Israel too. In short, while in terms of dominant culture Israel is a Jewish state, the people of Israel, like the people of Britain, are a motley crew.

Moreover, if Israel were my country, I would not consider it my patriotic duty to support it right or wrong. If I thought its policies were foolish or shameful, unwise or unjust, I hope I would not hesitate to speak out, even in a time of crisis — all the more in a time of crisis because this is the part of a conscientious citizen. More to the point, it is what Israelis do. Israel is not a monolith. Its citizens are at odds over the issues of the day, and are hardly shy about saying what they think. In particular, on the subject of the future of the Occupied Territories, the question of land for peace, the two-state solution and the treatment of Palestinians in the interim: there are diametrically opposed camps. The divisions pit Israeli Jew against Israeli Jew. Consequently, not only do I not feel under an obligation, as a Jew, to show solidarity with Israel, but there is no such thing as ‘solidarity with Israel’: it is a sentimental illusion.

II

Some readers who have got this far will, I expect, be itching to tell me that I have completely missed the point about solidarity with Israel. In particular, they will want to put me right about the Trafalgar Square rally, to which I now turn. I imagine them giving me a little lecture, speaking, as it were, on behalf of the Jewish community. To draw on published sources, I would hear something like this: ‘Of course there are diametrically opposed camps in Israel. What do you expect: it’s a Jewish state. But there is something that transcends party politics: survival and the right to live in peace and security. This is why Jews were urged to attend the Israel Solidarity Rally: to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Israel and to say in one clear voice. ‘We are with you. Yes to peace. No to terror.’ Is this so wrong?’

Yes. Given the spin being put on it, it is so wrong that it is hard to know where to start. The lecture makes the claim that the Israel Solidarity Rally transcended party politics. I take it that this claim refers to domestic politics in Israel, and I assume for the sake of argument that the rally was genuinely intended to be non-partisan. No doubt, many people who took part saw it that way. The fact that there was some diversity of view on the speakers’ platform might have seemed to give substance to that perception. However, what the onlooker saw was something else: a high profile public statement of support by British Jewry for the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Consider the message proclaimed by the main official banner (and cited in the lecture): ‘Yes to peace. No to terror.’ What does this really mean? Saying ‘yes to peace’, in itself, means nothing. Who says no to peace? Everyone, unless they are insane, ultimately wants peace. The real issue is not peace per se but peace on whose terms and peace by what means. Here, for example, is Sharon on the subject of Israel’s intentions: ‘Israel will act, and with might. Israel will fight anyone who tries to wage fear [sic] through suicide terrorism. Israel will fight. Israel will triumph. And when victory comes, Israel will make peace’ (Ha’aretz, 8 May 2002). So, if peace means triumph, Sharon is ‘a man of peace’, to use President Bush’s sobriquet. But who isn’t? ‘Yes to peace’ is an empty platitude, a well-meaning but meaningless gesture. ‘No to terror’, on the other hand, is telling. It determines the political sense of the rally — because of what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say ‘No to settlements’. Nor does it say no to curfews, closures, collective punishment, deportations, demolition of homes, destruction of vineyards, uprooting of olive groves, and all the other apparatus of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Thus, far from being apolitical, the rally could hardly have been more partisan. Within the Israeli political spectrum it came down, broadly speaking, on one side (say, Likud) over another (say, Meretz). This was compounded by the way the limelight fell on Binyamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister, whose hardline hawkish views are similar to Sharon’s. When I told an Israeli friend that Netanyahu was going to be one of the main speakers, she e-mailed me emphatically, ‘I’d agree that it would be far more supportive to stay away from such a rally!’ So when the demonstrators waved their banners saying ‘Israel, we’re with you’, who were they with exactly? Not with my friend, and not with those Israelis who feel as she does: who oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and the spread of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories; who stand up against their own government’s repeated violations of the international human rights conventions to which Israel is a signatory; who promote Jewish-Palestinian cooperation; and who seek a resolution of the conflict that will enable two long-suffering populations to have a future side by side; all of which happens to be in Israel’s interest. These far-seeing Israelis want and need solidarity. They and their cause — which includes the peace and security of Israel — were betrayed by the Israel Solidarity Rally on 6 May.

Of course, there are those who attended the rally who take a different view of the conflict with the Palestinians and of Israel’s long-term interests. In their opinion, the Israelis I am calling far-seeing are at best shortsighted. The last thing they would want is to give succour to Israelis like my friend. Some of these people think the Palestinians must be bludgeoned into submission; some believe in a ‘Greater Israel’ that incorporates the Occupied Territories; some went on the rally in the spirit of ethnic bonding, pure and simple. (As one letter to the Jewish Chronicle on 3 May 2002 put it, ‘We cannot abandon our kith and kin’.) All such people are entitled to express their views. However, on the one hand, they should stand up and be recognized for who they are rather than hide behind the fuzzy veil of a vague ‘solidarity with Israel’. On the other hand, for some Jews who took part in the rally nothing could have been further from their minds than the policy of brute force or the cause of expansionism or the values of ethnic bonding. These people went in a spirit of peace, a peace based on negotiation, not subjugation; on sharing the land, not appropriating the whole of it; on universal principles of justice and human rights, not on the racial or ethnic interest of one of the parties to the conflict. But a public rally makes a public statement. And the statement it actually makes is not necessarily the same as the one in the minds and hearts of people who take part.

What did the world see on 6 May? It saw a mass expression of jingoism in which Jews, as Jews, were siding with an established state occupying the land of a stateless people. True, the banners said ‘Yes to peace’. But again: by what means and on whose terms? If this had genuinely been a peace rally, rather than a blatantly nationalistic one, then Trafalgar Square would not have been awash with blue-and-white Israeli flags (plus the odd Union Jack). As it is, irrespective of intentions, and even without any overtly anti-Arab placards, the slogan ‘Israel, we’re with you’ conveyed to the onlooker the message ‘Palestinians, we’re against you’, as surely as tails is the opposite of heads. This is not the attitude of peace — unless for ‘peace’ read ‘triumph’. Those people who took part in the rally and whose sympathies lie with the peace movement in Israel were either duped or self-deceived.

Yet, given the way the State of Israel and its institutions are written into Judaism and Jewish identity, it is almost impossible to keep one’s head. For example, the new edition of the widely-used Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1998) includes the following prayer as part of the liturgy for the shabbat morning service: ‘Heavenly Father: Remember the Israel Defence Forces, the guardians of our Holy Land. Protect them from all distress and anguish, and send blessing and prosperity upon all the work of their hands.’ All the work? Including the destruction and havoc caused in Jenin and Ramallah and Nablus, the humiliation and indignities visited daily on Palestinians at checkpoints in the Occupied Territories, not to mention the violence sometimes meted out to Israeli Jews who protest against their government’s violations of human rights? Note the poetic, biblical language — ‘all the work of their hands’ — and the sacred epithet, ‘the guardians of our Holy Land’. This makes Israel’s military an institution of Judaism itself. The rabbi or chazan (cantor) recites this prayer in front of the open Ark, holding a Sefer Torah (Scroll of the Law), with the whole of the congregation standing united. United as what? As Am Yisrael before God? Or as the local weekly Israel Solidarity Rally? There is no room, in such a climate, to stop and think about the nature of your tie as a Jew to the State of Israel. How can you think, when your very identity is soldered to the state? (So where do you go if, as a Jew, you do not identify yourself in terms of Israel, but no longer feel you can ignore the community’s definition? Or if you are alienated by a prayer that implicates you in military actions that you abhor? Where do you go if you wish to go to shul, whether regularly or for festivals and special occasions? More and more individuals are liable to feel that the doors of the synagogues are closed to Jews who either do not define themselves in terms of Israel or who repudiate the Israeli government of the day. Increasingly, they will feel excluded. Reform or orthodox, to the left to the right: there is nowhere to go.)

And yet, even as I protest, I myself feel a longing to believe the very thing I am repudiating. There is something in me that wants it to be true — that wants the modern State of Israel to be the salve that heals all the wounds of Jewish history. Those wounds go deep. Even if there were no external pressures brought to bear by the community to show ‘solidarity with Israel’, there would be those exerted from within: experiences, memories, stories stored at the back of the mind that seep into the heart, a song from childhood that resonates down to the present day. Unless I am mistaken, when Jews turned up in their tens of thousands to support Israel, they were simultaneously showing solidarity with the past, with all those Jewish communities, long gone, that came under attack and did not — could not — defend themselves. It feels like a debt to the dead: to stand up and fight for the living. It also seems like a duty to posterity: not to let history repeat itself, the history of discrimination, inquisition, expulsion, pogrom, and finally mass extermination. But who will discharge this debt and perform this duty? For many Jews, Israel came into the world for this very purpose. ‘Never again’ is the state’s unofficial motto.

This gets to the crux of the relationship between Jews in the ‘Diaspora’ and Israel. It is something I grew up with: the sense that Jews must come to the defence of Israel so that Israel can come to the defence of Jews. Hence the prayer for the Israel Defence Forces; it is as if they defend not only Israel but Jews everywhere. Hence also Sharon, Prime Minister of Israel, calling himself in an interview with CNN ‘the prime minister of the Jewish people’ (Ha’aretz, 10 June 2002). And when he says, ‘Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have the right and capability to defend themselves, by themselves’, he hits a nerve with Jews around the globe. Significantly, he said this at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, on 18 April 2001, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Speaking, as it were, in his dual capacity of (elected) Prime Minister of Israel and (self-appointed) Prime Minister of the Jewish people, Sharon has described the conflict with the Palestinians in epic terms: ‘This is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the state of Israel’ (televised address to the nation, reported on www.news.bbc.co.uk, 10 April 2002). The leaflet advertising the rally used the same word: survival. ‘Survival’, for Jews, is a buzzword. Once the conflict with the Palestinians is put in terms of survival, the floodgates of collective memory open and Jews are moved to rally round. To invert what I said earlier, it is as if a massive congregation assembled in the open-air synagogue of Trafalgar Square in order to affirm with one voice ‘We will survive’. All distinction between religious and secular, Orthodox and Reform, was dropped for the purposes of this non-denominational ‘service’ so as to make it as inclusive as possible. Seen this way, the rally was less a demo than a love-in, a coming together for its own sake; which is why those words ‘Yes to peace’ seemed to signify something, even though they didn’t. In the spirit of this love-in, the slogan ‘Israel, we’re with you’ was not meant badly; it wasn’t intended to imply ‘Palestinians, we’re against you’. It wasn’t really aimed at them at all but at ‘the world’, a world that has always been against ‘us’, that has denied ‘us’ peace, and, in the words of a London Jewish lawyer quoted in The Times (11 April 2002), ‘does not like to see Israel strong’.

I understand — from the inside — these perceptions and emotions and why they seem so compelling. Nonetheless, in fact the Jewish people do not have a Prime Minister. Israel is not the only place in the world where Jews have the right — or the capability — to defend themselves. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is not a battle for the survival of the Jewish people. And ‘the world’ is not a unified body that wants to see Israel weak. These ideas are not just false they are crazy. Even to say that the survival of the state is at risk is to distort both reality and history. One correspondent to the Jewish Chronicle (3 May 2002) put it succinctly:

The suggestion that it is Israel, rather than the Palestinians, whose survival is currently threatened is not only nonsense, it also diminishes the very real dangers that the Israeli nation — and the Jewish people — have faced in the past.

Nonsense and craziness are all that can come from a state of mind that cannot distinguish fantasy from fact, Arafat from Hitler, the intifada from the Inquisition.

III

‘Vi Ahin Soll Ich Geh’n?’ ‘Where Can I Go?’ There were two echoes of this song in the reportage that followed the intense 10-day battle fought between the Israel Defence Forces and Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. One was a message left on a wall of a house that the Israeli army had occupied and used as a base. A soldier had written ‘in neat blue ink’ the simple sentence, ‘I don’t have another land’ (Guardian, 16 April 2002). The other was a remark attributed to an elderly Palestinian who refused to leave his home when soldiers were about to demolish it. This ‘stubborn old man’ is reported to have said, ‘Fifty years ago you expelled me from Haifa. Now I have nowhere to go’ (Ha’aretz, 19 April 2002). In a way, these two statements sum up the whole conflict. However, the appearance of parity is misleading. For when the dust settled on the battle, where did each of them go? The soldier to his barracks — and ultimately to his home in Israel. But the ‘stubborn old man’ was left in the dust. There is no equality between this Israeli and this Palestinian. The one has a state, the other is stateless. He has nowhere to go — and it’s we who should know.

Jews should know, partly from their own historical experience, and partly because of the impact this had on Palestinians. The old man alluded to this when he said, ‘Fifty years ago you expelled me from Haifa.’ Like many Jews, I grew up believing that the Palestinian ‘refugee problem’ was not caused by Israel; that it was an artificial problem created by surrounding Arab nations who, promising to crush the new Jewish state, urged Palestinians to flee their homes temporarily. The whole truth of this story, however, is more complex and less comfortable, as Israeli historians such as Simha Flappan, Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim have shown. What cannot be denied is that, tragically, solving one refugee problem led to another. On the one hand, Jews who survived the Holocaust found a haven in Israel. On the other hand, the creation of the state displaced around 700,000 Palestinians. 15 May, which Israelis celebrate as Yom Ha’atzmaot, Independence Day, is remembered by Palestinians as the date of al-Nakba, the Catastrophe. This is not because they are antisemites who think that anything good that happens to Jews is ipso facto catastrophic. They are not Nazis actuated by hatred. They are people who suffered a great loss: their homes, their land, their livelihoods. The creation of the State of Israel was a catastrophe for them. This is fact, not anti-Israel propaganda.

It is time to face this fact and to stop insisting on the exclusive righteousness of Israel’s cause. While Israel, despite the way it is sometimes portrayed, is not the wicked witch of the Middle East, nor is it a paragon of virtue, with the Arabs as the villain of the piece. The conflict between Israel, its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians is political. It is not a battle between good and evil; thinking this way can only lead to moral blindness. It is time to see the Palestinians in the light of the Jewish experience of statelessness; to recognize their predicament; to say ‘Never again’ and refuse to subjugate them or force them out — as if they had somewhere to go.

The truth is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have anywhere else to go. Any solution to the conflict that is not based on this truth is either doomed to fail or, if it were to succeed, would be abominable. But as Abba Eban said, shortly after the first Camp David talks (which led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt), ‘We shall never construct a harmony in the Middle East unless we learn to separate ourselves from our past’ (Address to the Toronto Leadership Conference, 13 September 1979). To separate itself from its past, Israel needs a new understanding with Jewry worldwide. It needs to be taken off its mythic pedestal and relieved of its impossible millennial role as the defender and saviour of the Jewish people. Jews outside of Israel must allow Israel to be its own state, not theirs, so that it can concentrate on its own vital interest in the here and now — making its peace with the region of which it is a part — rather than carrying the whole burden of Jewish history on its shoulders. It needs to cure that corruption of its culture of which the Chief Rabbi spoke in his Guardian interview. It needs to do these things for the sake of its own people, the people of Israel — all its people, Jewish and non-Jewish, equally and alike.

By the same token, Jewish communities in the so-called Diaspora need to live in their here and now, ‘constructing a harmony’ within the world. This implies the reverse of the ethos of ‘solidarity with Israel’. Instead of lumping everything together, it is time to make distinctions — between Judaism and Zionism, Israeli and Jew, the biblical and the political. When everything is lumped together, judgement goes to pieces. Why else do so many Jews of goodwill and sound mind persist in defending the indefensible when it comes to Israel? Making distinctions allows those who care about the state to offer something better than blind, unconditional support: cool, careful, measured, qualified, sustained, candid criticism — the kind you cannot give unless you are at one remove. This is solidarity worth its salt. At the same time, it means making room within Jewry for all Jews, including those who feel no tie to Israel.

For my part, my tie with Israel goes back to the song that haunts me from childhood and the question it puts in the here and now: ‘Tell me, Where am I going?’ (‘Am I going wrong? Where am I going wrong?’) Hearing this question, holding to the standards Judaism affirms, and believing as I do that Israel has gone off the rails: how can I not speak out?

Brian Klug

Dr. Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, Saint Xavier University, Chicago. His articles on Jewish subjects have appeared in Jewish Quarterly and Patterns of Prejudice.

Notes


[i] The exceptions can be found across the various Jewish denominations, but apparently more among Liberal and Reform rabbis. At the other end of the religious spectrum there are ultra-Orthodox movements that are either lukewarm about Israel or, as in the case of the Neturei Karta, positively hostile to Zionism and the very existence of the Jewish state.

[ii] The term ‘Diaspora’ is itself problematic. In terms of Judaism, it denotes the state of exile that will come to an end in the Messianic era. With the creation of the State of Israel, it has acquired a purely secular sense and simply means those Jews who do not live in Israel. Diaspora, as a religious concept, implies a longing to return, with all that this implies about restoring a relationship with God. The secular use of Diaspora has, as it were, borrowed the sense of longing, thus conveying the idea that Jewish life outside of Israel is not as complete — not as Jewish — as it is within Israel.

[iii] In the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, ‘The world endures by three things (d’varim): truth, justice, and peace’ (Mishnah, Tractate Avot, I:18). In a commentary on this mishnah, Rav Muna says, ‘These three things are one. Where justice is done, truth is accomplished and peace is made (Tractate Derech Eretz Zuta, Perek Hashalom, 2).

I am grateful to several people, particularly Reva Klein, for their invaluable comments, suggestions and corrections based on reading earlier versions of this essay. My thinking on this subject has benefited greatly from conversation and correspondence with numerous friends over a long period.

 

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