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Why must someone's "Jewishness" depend on how much they support Israel?

January 25, 2014 at 3:19 pm

At a fund-raising event raising money for the Palestine Legal Aid Fund, I was greeted very warmly by a friend who told me excitedly that she had just returned “from Palestine” and how pleased she was to see me. Actually, Linda Ramsden was one of many people I knew at the fund-raiser so perhaps this wasn’t too unusual. When I read Roger Cohen’s “The ‘Real Jew’ Debate” in the New York Times, however, I thought of Linda, who is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions UK. I wonder if she thinks that Jewishness is in any way dependent on one’s level of support for Israel.

Coming hot on the heels of the “controversy triggered by Mick Davis, Chair of United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA)” who “criticised the policies of the Israeli government… and… called on his co-religionists to criticise Israel openly” (British Jewry reeling from the apartheid analogy, MEMO, 26 November), Roger Cohen’s article is yet another eye-opener on the fate awaiting those Jews who break Zionist ranks.

Ira Stup, relates the NYT columnist, returned “troubled” from a visit to Israel. He had attended an anti-settlement rally with some friends, and they had a banner with them: “Zionists are not settlers” it read. They were attacked physically by “a group of religious Jews”. The twenty-four year old said, “About 20 people saw the whole thing and just watched. They were screaming, ‘You are not real Jews.’ Most of them were American. It was one of the most disappointing moments of my life — you can disagree as much as you want with a banner but to allow violence and not react is outrageous. For me it was a turning point. Nobody previously had said I was not a real Jew.”

Someone like Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta International would argue that those so-called “religious Jews” are the ones with an identity crisis. For Rabbi Weiss, such Jews “cannot represent Judaism or the Torah” because they support Israel, “which is a rebellion against the Almighty”. The New York rabbi is clear: “According to the Torah, Jews are in exile and are forbidden to have a state of their own. Likewise we are forbidden to kill, steal and oppress, etc., another people. Therefore, as long as the Zionist state continues to exist, we believe that there is no way true peace can be achieved.”

Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues in Neturei Karta are a minority, albeit a vocal minority. The views represented by the “religious Jews” who attacked Ira Stup are, says Roger Cohen in the NYT, “widespread” and “Israel-right-or-wrong continues to be the core approach of major U.S. Jewish organizations, from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations”. Ira Stup found out the hard way that “to oppose the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank… or question growing anti-Arab bigotry as personified by Israel’s rightist foreign minister and illustrated by the ‘loyalty oath’ debate, or ask whether the ‘de-legitimization’ of Israel might not have something to do with its own actions is to incur these organizations’ steady ire”.

Although MEMO revealed that a “rather chastened Jewish Chronicle editorial… conceded, ‘Debate is Jewish'” this is something that American Jews haven’t taken on board. Roger Cohen claims that in the USA, “debate remains stifled” on the issue of Jewish support for Israel. The main Israel lobby mouthpiece in the States, AIPAC, has “systematically shunned a debate with J Street, the upstart Jewish organization that supports Israel, opposes the settlements and attempts to reclaim the progressive ideals of Zionism by saying that the systematic oppression of the Palestinians undermines Israel”. J Street’s president told Cohen that AIPAC’s and other mainstream Jewish organisations’ view “remains essentially that any time you engage in an activity critical of Israel you are trying to destroy the state of Israel”. The “great liberal values [taught] at Hebrew schools” mean nothing when young American Jews “talk about what’s happening in Israel… It’s a dynamic that cuts off discourse”. Cohen claims that the breakdown of the peace talks, which has left President Obama “dangling” is “a failure of US politics and the way those politics are straitjacketed by an Israel-right-or-wrong mantra”.

Despite recent comments by David Cameron about Gaza, interpreted by some optimists as illustrative of a shift towards greater support for justice in the Middle East, George Osborne’s speech to the Board of Deputies Anniversary Dinner a couple of weeks ago suggests that the same straitjacket is in place in British politics.

“We must stand by the land of Israel, see its existence and its safety as our duty,” said the Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Understand that this nation is a friend of Israel.” He also made mention of the government’s intention, through the Police Bill, to change the law in this country to suit Israeli politicians and soldiers who might otherwise face war crimes charges under existing legislation.

My article on Osborne’s speech was criticised by someone called Mark Gardner on the Community Security Trust’s blog. I wonder where Mr. Gardner stands on the issue of human rights, justice and free speech or if he condemns Roger Cohen for suggesting, in effect, that the Israel lobby is strangling any possibility of an open debate about all three issues if it means being critical of Israel?

When George Osborne told the Board of Deputies, “You represent the views and defend the rights of the Anglo-Jewish community”, he obviously laboured (or toried?) under the impression that what he said is true. Of course, it isn’t, as Liberal and Reform Jews around the country will tell you. But perhaps the very fact that they are liberal and seek reform means that they too are not “real Jews” in the eyes of some of their co-religionists. That is something the Neturei Karta rabbis might have a view on which would concur, perhaps, with Mike Gardner’s and the Board of Deputies’.

What all of this shows is that Jewishness probably has nothing to do with support for Israel or a lack thereof; further, that the conflict in the Holy Land is not a religious issue, it’s about politics. More precisely, it’s about Zionism, a political ideology which is not Judaism; nor is Judaism Zionism. I have no real interest in George Osborne’s religion, if he has one, but as far as I know he is not a Jew; his support for Israel, however, makes him a Zionist and he is not the only Gentile Zionist around. Messrs Cameron, Blair, Brown and Bush et al are in that category too.

People of all faiths and none should be free to criticise the practices of a state founded on the principles of Zionism without having their religious or cultural identities challenged or threatened; without being accused of anti-Semitism, which is the implied charge against me in Mike Gardner’s blog. The final word deserves to go to the definitely not anti-Semitic Ira Stup, who asked the equally definitely not anti-Semitic Roger Cohen, “Why is it poisoning minds to encourage [young Jews] to think critically about the actions of the Israeli government?” Why indeed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.