A Time To Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity

January 2009: A Palestinian man in his 60s is driving his two teenage sons back to Khan Younis in southern Gaza when they are fired upon by Israeli soldiers. They are ordered out of their car. One son is shot and dies immediately. The other is shot in the leg. The father begs the soldiers, who are visible and within speaking distance, for an ambulance. For 11 hours, they refuse his request. He has a mobile phone and calls humanitarian agencies, the emergency medical services, the media and another son in Canada but by the time the soldiers allow the ambulance through, his son has bled to death.

To critics of Israel, the soldiers' behaviour is incomprehensible, a sign of Israel's moral depravity and inhuman treatment of civilians. To supporters, the soldiers were just protecting themselves from enemy combatants hiding among the civilian population.

I heard this story in London on the 8th March at the launch of A Time To Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity, a book of essays by British and Israeli Jews published by Verso Books, 2008. It was one of the examples of medical violations of human rights in Gaza given by Miri Weingarten, Director of Palestinian Occupied Territories of the Physicians for Human Rights Israel. As well as impeding the evacuation of the wounded to hospitals within Gaza and to Israel, she gave details of attacks on medical personnel and the destruction and damage done to health facilities by the Israeli military. When asked how many of the more than 1300 dead Gazans were civilians, she shrugged and said that was a matter for debate. Most people agree that women and children are civilians but what about the men attending a police graduation ceremony? She told us about the hardening of attitudes among the Israel public fueled by the intense propaganda campaign in the Israeli media. The lack of information and the stifling of dissent ensured that Israeli Jews knew very little about events in Gaza. For the duration of the attack, Israeli Jewish peace activitists were placed under house arrest and interrogated, a new phenomenon in Israeli society (not so new for Israeli Arabs who were also rounded up and detained).

By the time Miri finished her measured, evidence-based presentation, I was in tears. I felt a heavy sorrow for all the victims of this stupid unwinnable war - for the Palestinians (more than 1300 dead, more than 5300 injured, more than 100,000 displaced and homeless, the infrastructure destroyed, the loss of hope, Hamas stronger and more militant than before) and for the Israelis whose psyches are twisted with revenge, hysteria and hopelessness and who are more extremist than before.

It was Uri Avnery, the keynote speaker, who described Operation Cast Lead as stupid and the Israeli government as fascists. Now 85, Avnery is Israel's leading peace dissident. He fought for the Irgun in 1948, met Arafat during the siege of Beirut in 1982, was one of the founders of Gush Shalom in 1993 and was a member of the Knesset.

For more than 60 years he has advocated a two-state solution. In his view, it is the only solution possible. To explain why, he took us back to the end of the 19th century when the Zionist movement grew out of the belief that there was no place for Jews in the emerging nationalist identities of Europe, that our salvation lay in a Jewish state. The Nazi Holocaust confirmed this belief. He said Israeli Jews would never give up their belief in a Jewish state, a need based on a deep mistrust of non-Jews and a fear of being in a minority. A one-state solution is unthinkable, he said, because Jews would be a minority in ten or 15 years time. He was adamant in his belief that people of different national identities cannot live together in one state and that indeed, there is no place in the world where they do.

Despite Avnery's insistence that Israel is unique and cannot be compared to any other conflicts throughout the world, what I heard from him was an eloquent and passionate defence of ethno-nationalist ideology, no different than that expressed by the British National Party and most other ethno-nationalist movements around the world.

It's not an ideology I agree with and I wonder how many Jewish citizens of Britain or of any country outside Israel truly believe in this ideology of despair. Our history, like those of Israeli Jews, includes centuries of European anti-semitism and the Nazi Holocaust. Yet, we do not draw the lesson from our shared past that we must continue to fear and mistrust our non-Jewish neighbours. In Britain, we are a tiny minority among a cosmopolitan mix of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities with a white, English, nominally Christian majority. I can't be the only Jew who appreciates and enjoys this diversity. My experience, my lived reality, is one of freedom and security. Here, I can be open about my Jewishness; I can belong to a synagogue and practise Judaism as and when I choose; I can live and travel anywhere in the country; I can apply for any job and not be discriminated against because of my Jewishness; I can vote and run for political office even though I'm Jewish. My partner's Quaker identity, my involvement with Radio Salaam Shalom, my friendships with non-Jews, my work with parents from across the ethnic spectrum – all these enrich my life.

In their insistence on being in the majority, it seems to me that Israeli Jews have less sense of security and greater fear than we do living as a minority in Britain.

Lisa Saffron

Author of Checkpoint, the novel about relations between Israeli and diaspora Jews.

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Comment by Lisa Saffron on March 22, 2009 at 8:20pm
Dear Judith, It is very hard to know what is really going on. There is such suspicion of the media. I have been told by British Jews that the British media is anti-semitic and has exaggerated the stories of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There is an article in the Jewish Chronicle reporting a visit by a British Jewish woman named Yvonne Green who visited Gaza a few days after the end of Operation Cast Lead. She claims that she saw no signs of devastation, that the reports of the injured and dead were exaggerated, the markets are full of food and that the Palestinians she spoke to were unaffected by the bombardment. Her story has been picked up by people here in the UK and spread around as fact proving how anti-semitic the world media is. Even if the media report the facts, people won't necessarily believe them. As Marshal Mcluhan once said, "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it." How do you get your information? What sources do you trust?
Comment by judith laurance on March 22, 2009 at 1:55pm

I was very pleased to read your thoughts. I have now lived in East Jerusalem for a year. (my husband works for WHO in the West Bank and Gaza so was deeply involved in the Gaza crisis in January) I have Jewish friends in uk (I was brought us as a Quaker) and have made some very close friendships here with Jewish women (some very involved in peace activism), as well as women in the international community, and Palestinians.

I am frequently amazed at the isolation of Israelis here. They are hardly aware of what is going on in Gaza and the West Bank, let alone the rest of the world! I talked to many of them during the Gaza bombardment and discovered that they had been presented with very different facts with those that we received direct from Gaza, which were cetainly picked up friends and relations in the UK via the media.

It was good to read in Haretz this weekend that Israeli soldiers had been speaking out. I would like to commend them for doing so, and for the media for reporting their stories.



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