Building a broad based movement for Israel/Palestine
Source: JEWS FOR JUSTICE FOR PALESTINIANS
By Robert A. H. Cohen
5 August 2017
“It’s about equality, and that’s why I can’t work with you on this.”
This is a short talk I gave this week about building a broad based movement for Israel/Palestine. It took place at the annual ‘Gathering’ of British Quakers held at Warwick University near Coventry, Thursday 3 August 2017. Thanks to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) for the invitation to speak.
A movement requires a broad consensus.
There’s has to be some agreement on the nature of the problem and what the best outcome would be.
It needs a clear, easy to understand message. A bold ambition. But, ultimately, an achievable one.
Something that most people can unite around.
When it comes to Israel/Palestine we still don’t have that single, bold, unifying message.
Personally, I don’t believe our starting point should be ‘anti-Occupation’ or ‘anti-Settlements’.
I don’t believe a movement should be built around the idea of ‘Two States’. Or ‘One State’. Or ‘Boycotts’.
None of these things, on their own, quite captures where we need to be.
A real broad-based movement requires something more fundamental. Something more elemental. Something that needs to be agreed upon before anything is considered.
Luckily for you, I have that clear, bold, easy to understand message.
It’s in my pocket.
I can read it out if you like.
Okay, are you ready?
It’s two words.
It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s easy to understand.
But tragically, it’s also highly contentious. Highly controversial.
What counts on Israel/Palestine?
The strange thing is that calling for equal rights is generally considered ‘a good thing’ At least it is in Western liberal democracies.
Except when it comes to Israel when suddenly a whole set of other considerations come in to play.
Because equal rights, International Law, UN Security Council resolutions don’t appear to count for much when it comes to Israel/Palestine.
So what does count?
Well, the relationship between Christians and Jews in Europe across two millennia, counts.
How the West, and most Jews, have come to understand the Holocaust, counts.
Christian Zionist reading of scripture, counts.
The Jewish pro-Israel lobby in America, counts.
Jewish understanding of the ‘right to national self-determination’, counts.
Recent definitions of antisemitism that attach themselves to a political agenda, counts.
The international arms trade and the demand for high tech civil surveillance equipment, also now counts.
None of these things are terribly helpful when it comes to building a movement based on equal rights for all who call the Holy Land home.
We have created too much complexity, too many excuses. Far too many reasons to justify injustice.
But despite all that’s in our way, I still believe that the concept of equality is where we should start. Because starting out from any other place quickly leads you back to inequality.
That central message of equality may derive from religious belief or secular belief. I don’t mind how you get there, as long as you get there.
How this then plays out in practical arrangements on the ground could go in a number of directions.
Two states, one state, a federation. But if our starting point is equality, backed up by equal rights for everyone from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, then that will radically alter the nature of the discussions from day one.
The greatest issue, the greatest challenge
If you’ve read any of my writing over the last six years, you’ll know that I come at all of this from a particular Jewish perspective.
I come to this issue out of solidarity with the Palestinian people but I come to it firstly from a concern for the future of Jews and Judaism.
I’m in no doubt that as Jews, our relationship with Israel and the Palestinians is the greatest issue, and the greatest challenge, facing us in 21st century.
Everything else either relates to that relationship, or it pales into insignificance against it.
The tragedy is that right now we are making a terrible hash of it.
From my perspective I’d like to build a movement on Israel/Palestine that has widespread Jewish support. But I can’t because most Jews in Britain are still asking themselves, and everyone else, the wrong questions about Israel/Palestine.
“Why do they teach their children to hate us?”
“Why do they incite violence against us?”
“Why do they pay their terrorists?”
Or at best, “Why can’t they (the Palestinians) share the land?”
I find it exasperating that my community consistently asks the wrong questions, counts the wrong things, and mistakes symptoms for causes.
There is a paradox at the heart of modern Jewish identity.
It goes like this:
“We wholeheartedly support equality in every land apart from the place we call our national home. There we claim privilege, we claim superior rights, we claim a superior history, we claim a unique story of oppression which, we argue, requires a unique and discriminatory response.”
There’s not time for me to discuss the seamless merger that has taken place over the last 70 years between Judaism and Zionism and modern Jewish identity.
All I’ll say is that the merger has taken us down a moral cul-de-sac that’s now very difficult to walk back out from.
It’s a cul-de-sac that’s left us bereft of the vocabulary, whether religious or secular, to make sense of what has taken place and what’s still taking place in the name of the Jewish people and Judaism itself.
I would love it if my own people could do some catching up and recognise that we are no longer the victimised people, no longer the oppressed people.
For perhaps the first time in two millennia we are strong, we have status and we have respect.
In all of those places where we enjoy equal rights we have succeeded and we have made outstanding contributions to those societies.
In Israel we have something more. We have power over another people. We are not handling it well.
However, most of us still don’t see it like that.
But to build a movement you can’t afford to move at the pace of the slowest participant.
Especially, if they still don’t really see the problem in the first place.
I can’t work with you
Because if you say: “Zionism is nothing more and nothing less than a Jewish movement of national liberation and self-determination”, then, I can’t work with you.
Mostly because you need to read more books and talk to some different people and you need to understand what happens when your sacrosanct understanding of Jewish identity plays out as a catastrophe for another people.
If you say that Zionism is a “noble and integral part of Judaism”, then, I can’t work with you.
Mostly because you are very ignorant about Jewish history and Jewish theological understanding of exile – and this is especially problematic if you also happen to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi.
If you say boycotts in support of Palestinian rights are a form of antisemitism and/or should be illegal, then I can’t work with you.
Mostly because you don’t understand the history of political protest and you certainly don’t understand Nazi Germany boycotts of Jewish businesses in the 1930s, and because you also oppose free speech.
Or perhaps, you do understand all these things but you prefer to play politics with history for the sake of a very narrow and short sighted advantage.
If you can’t acknowledge that Israel/Palestine is an asymmetrical conflict in which one side has power, and a state apparatus, and a standing army, and is maintaining an illegal occupation with the backing of the world’s super power, then I’m going to struggle to work with you.
Mostly because you are in a serious state of denial.
If you count incidents of antisemitism but refuse to acknowledge that Israel’s behaviour and our Jewish community insistence that Israel is central to Jewish identity are contributing factors to that antisemitism, then I can’t work with you.
Mostly because you’re debasing the meaning of antisemitism and reducing all criticism of Israel to mindless hatred.
If you think it’s okay to hang out with Christian Zionists who love the State of Israel but have a theological problem with Judaism, then I can’t work with you.
Mostly because you think Jewish nationalism is more important than Judaism itself.
So I don’t think I can work with such people but I am happy to talk to them. I don’t want to demonise those I don’t agree with. I don’t think that’s right or helpful.
But the truth is they don’t want to talk to me.
I receive many invitations to speak from across the country, thank you for your invitation today. But I’ve not had a single one from a mainstream Jewish organisation. In their opposition to boycotts, there’s lots of talk of “bridge building” and “local dialogue” from the leadership of my community, as if the heart of the problem is that Jewish Israelis and Palestinians just need to get to know each other better.
But if you question Zionism (whether you are Jewish or not) you find yourself firmly boycotted.
That tells me something about the inability of the Jewish community in Britain to cope with open debate on this issue. It also tells me the limits of including mainstream Jewish institutions and their leaders in a movement based on equality through equal rights. They don’t have the language or conceptual thinking that will allow them to champion Jews and Judaism and at the same time lead us back out of the ethical cul-de-sac of Zionism.
A more serious problem
There are other people I have an even more serious problem with.
They are the people who claim to be motivated by Palestinian solidarity but who too easily slip into real antisemitism in their opposition to Israel.
If you say the Holocaust didn’t happen, I don’t want to talk to you. And you need help.
If you say there’s a Jewish media conspiracy, or Jewish control of governments or international finance then I’m not interested in working with you or talking to you. You need to grow up.
If you say Jews have no place in Palestine, I can’t work with you.
If you think a Free Palestine is free of Jews, I can’t work with you.
Building a movement
So now I’ve ruled out so many people, let me finish with who I can work with and where we should look to build a global movement.
If you’re starting position is equality through equal rights, whether you are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, I can work with you.
If you can accept that a great injustice has taken place against the Palestinian people, then I can work with you.
If you agree that Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions are legitimate forms of protest, even if you don’t want to take that action yourself, then I can work with you.
If you think liberal democratic societies that respect and protect all of their citizens are good for all people, everywhere, regardless of history, culture and religion, that’s fantastic, I can work with you.
I’m in no doubt that this will not be easy or straight forward.
A movement based on equal rights will be shunned, attacked, and yes, branded as antisemitic.
But the principle of equal rights is the place to begin the journey and from which to build the movement.
Equal rights recognises that that this is not about terrorism, it’s not about security, it’s not about competing nationalisms, it’s not about antisemitism.
Equal rights recognises there has been a great injustice that must be acknowledged in order to move on.
Equal rights recognises that there is no pre-Zionist Palestine to return to. Both people are now permanently part of the future landscape.
Equal rights recognises that both Jews and Palestinians are connected to the land – historically, culturally, religiously. It even recognises that American and Russian born West Bank Settlers, whether we like how they got there or not, also have rights.
For me this must be the basis of the movement. It may sound outrageous to some ears. But the more people like me that say it, the easier it becomes to have this new conversation. What is now considered political suicide, or in my case ‘self-hatred’, starts to become normal discourse.
So we need a ‘paradigm shift’ and that means taking this issue away from our current crop of world leaders, certainly May, Macron and Trump. It means taking it away from our current crop of religious leaders and many of our current community leaders.
They are all failing us. They aren’t promoting peace and justice, they are in practice holding it back.
Equal rights is the lesson I draw from Judaism, from two thousand years of Jewish history, and from the Holocaust.
Equal rights is the way.
Equal rights is the movement.
Let’s build it.
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