For many Jews today, Israel is not a normal state – it is a cause or ideal, and therein lies the problem
A crisis in Judaism
Israel's war in Gaza has multiple meanings. First and foremost, for Palestinians on the ground it is the scene of terror and devastation. It has ratcheted up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by several notches. It poses a threat to the peace of the region and beyond. And it has brought to a head a crisis in Judaism itself, a crisis centred on Israel that threatens to tear Jewry apart.
Partly because of the Jewish history of exclusion in Europe, and partly on account of biblical associations, Israel raises such passions that we Jews do not necessarily even know how to understand them, let alone handle them. We need, despite our differences, to examine these passions together. But, by and large, the "leadership" in Anglo-Jewry insists on a unity that, by excluding those who do not toe the Israeli government line, is divisive. As Keith Kahn-Harris puts it:
British Jews who have felt discomfort with Israeli actions have generally been faced with a bleak choice: to express this discomfort privately and quietly or be marginalised and perhaps even ostracised.
Last Sunday, 11 January, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) held a demonstration on one side of Trafalgar Square. The central area was occupied by a rally in support of Israel, organised jointly by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council. We were there, as Jews, to counter that rally.
To get to our site outside Canada House we had to run a gauntlet of jeers: "traitors", "cowards", "scum" and other epithets were hurled in our direction. When the rally was over, some of us were spat at and called "kapos" (a term used for Jewish collaborators in Nazi concentration camps). The contempt and hatred for us, as Jews, was palpable. But it did not come from fanatical jihadists or from fascists in the British National Party; it came from fellow Jews. A ritual was being enacted in which we were being symbolically "othered". And although – thanks to police protection – we did not feel at risk at the time, we were conscious of a menacing wrath simmering under the surface.
There are always individuals who bring their venom to a political rally. But this is not just a matter of a few fanatics. When Jewish leadership, both secular and religious, lines up solidly behind the Israeli government; when synagogues act as conduits for Israeli propaganda from groups like the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre; and when no distinction is made between supporting Israel's wars and fighting antisemitism: then a climate is created that breeds the abuse dished out in Trafalgar Square.
Vilification of a minority view: this is one symptom of the crisis in Judaism. Three others were apparent at Sunday's rally. First, the confusion that comes from blurring Israeli and Jewish identity. The main rally was addressed by the Israeli ambassador, the president of the Board of Deputies and the Chief Rabbi – as if they were three different functionaries of one single body: Jewry. "Anglo-Jewry finds its voice" proclaimed the headline over the lead story on the front page of last week's Jewish Chronicle, as if one voice speaks
for all – the exact antithesis to the principle of independent
Then there is the self-deception that leads people of goodwill to
imagine that they are promoting peace when in reality they are
supporting war. True, the message on the official placard
said "Peace for the people of Israel and Gaza". But this appeared
under the slogan "End Hamas terror!" Never mind the massive state
terror being unleashed day and night by the Israeli military or the
unceasing blockade of the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the forest of blue
and white Israeli flags that filled the square was a clear statement
of partisan support. Exactly like the "solidarity rally" that took
place over six years ago in the same place, at a time when Israeli
forces were wreaking havoc on the West Bank in places like Jenin,
the message of the rally in effect was fierce belligerence: support
for an assault that will not cease until the military objective is
attained. ("End Hamas terror!")
Which brings me to a further symptom of the crisis in Judaism today:
the moral blindness that leads decent, humane, sensitive people to
look the other way when Israeli planes strike, or to reduce the
gargantuan suffering of a people to the size of a single teardrop:
sincere but derisory.
Vilification, confusion, self-deception, moral blindness: Is this
Judaism? It is not "the Judaism that I cherish", as I wrote last
week. It is not the tradition that reflects the Talmudic tenet that
the continued existence of the world depends on three things: truth,
justice and peace (Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel). This is the Judaism
that many of us, as Jews, religious or otherwise, recognise as our
heritage. The trampling on this tradition is what led a friend to
say the other day that she wondered if she could resign from being
Jewish. Her despair is not new but it is spreading. More Jews feel
this way every time Israel claims to act in our name and the
congregation of Anglo-Jewry says "Amen".
What has happened to place this tradition in jeopardy? Basically,
taking a state – the state of Israel – and putting it on a pedestal,
like a statue: making it the magic focus of all the fears and hopes
of Jewish experience. For many Jews today, Israel is not a normal
state: it is a cause or ideal. Or idol. This is the heart of the
matter. It is not the state as such but its status that is causing
the crisis in Judaism. But what, in Heaven's name, does it mean to
be a Jew if not to knock statues off their pedestals? If, whatever
our political differences, we cannot rise above the State of Israel
and put it in its place, then we are not Jews, or we are Jews in
Some Jewish readers will say that I overstate my case or misrepresent their attitude to Israel. I do not mean to. We need to talk. In "Avoiding the trap of hate", Asim Siddiqui and Adrian Cohen appeal for "inter-communal dialogue between Jews and Muslims" based on "honest discussion" about Israel and Palestine. I applaud their
call to reach across the ethno-religious divide. But there is an
internal divide within Anglo-Jewry that is, in its own way, as deep
and as hate-filled.
Kahn-Harris believes that, with the cracks in the Jewish mainstream
getting larger, the war in Gaza could be a turning-point. I agree
that opportunity knocks. But where are the Jewish leaders, rabbis or
otherwise, who will take the lead and open up the conversation –
honest, searching and painful – that is desperately needed among
Jews? In their silence or absence, the state of Israel could turn
out to be the rock on which Judaism splits.