Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Time to cross the line - A letter to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

A letter to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the UK Movement for Reform Judaism

Dear Rabbi Laura

I listened to the Gaza conflict debate on BBC Radio 4's ‘Today’ programme on Tuesday 22 July. I was grateful that you were willing to take part in a discussion, alongside journalist Mira Bar-Hillel, that demonstrated to listeners that there are a variety of views within the UK Jewish community when it comes to Israel, and in particular what’s happening right now.

It was good to hear you stay well clear of the Israeli government lines that are being used to justify the killing of so many civilians, including at least 132 children (so far).

Most of the UK pro-Israel comments I have read in the last two weeks have avoided any attempt at historical context  - the decades of occupation, the seven year siege of Gaza, and the economic and social collapse this has led to. They certainly avoid referring to the immediate timeline that led to the renewed violence - Israeli missile attacks on Gaza following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the arrest of  hundreds of Hamas supporters on the West Bank.

Instead we get statements like these from the Israeli government which sound increasingly morally vacuous by the hour:

“What country could tolerate rockets rained down on its people?”
“They use their children as human shields.”
“We are acting in self-defence.”
“We value human life…they celebrate death.”
“What would any other country do?”
“We warn them to move out before we strike.”
“We only target known Hamas operatives.”

“They choose the telegenic dead to gain world sympathy.”

In contrast, Rabbi Laura, you showed common humanity and reflected how emotionally torn many in the Jewish UK community must be feeling right now. These were your comments that I noted down from the radio discussion yesterday:

“People feel absolutely frightened by what’s happening...There is empathy for people on both sides...I have seen people in front of me weeping for civilians on both sides...They understand how complicated it is...We are Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian.”

Having grown-up in the UK Reform movement, I recognise your more nuanced understanding of the situation and the desire to uphold Jewish ethical values. Unlike many Jewish/Israeli voices I hear, you are not attempting to dehumanise the Palestinian people nor claim that they all hate Jews and only want the “destruction of the State of Israel”.

I very much welcome your stand because it is so much better than most of what I am hearing. 

But at the end of the day it fails to address the real situation that Judaism and the Jewish Diaspora community is facing. Our treatment of the Palestinians is the greatest challenge to us today. Right now we are failing that challenge with horrific consequences.

There is clearly a line that you, and your fellow Reform and Liberal rabbis, are unwilling to cross – at least in public. It is a line that, in crossing, would put you in direct opposition to the current government of the State of Israel.

Prayers for both Israelis and Palestinians, and acknowledgement of the deaths and suffering happening on both sides of the conflict, may look like good morality and feel like ethical responsibility.

But it's not.

In the end it's a moral cop-out.

At the end of the day you have to make a stand. You have to cross the line.

You have to decide, which side has the real the power? Which side has the real weaponry?

You have to decide, who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors?

We are taught to seek justice and speak truth unto power. As the Hebrew prophets discovered, this can quickly put you at odds with your own community and its leadership. But what else should Judaism stand for? The Reform and Liberal movements have upheld the tradition of prophetic Judaism for more than two centuries. But that tradition needs to be acted upon to be truly honoured.

If Israel is to survive as a liberal, democratic nation, then it will have to sit down and talk to Hamas. It will have to end its blockade of Gaza and allow its people to rebuild their economy.

If Israel really wants ‘peace’ rather than merely ‘quiet’, it will have to acknowledge Hamas as legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, along with Fatah. It will have to negotiate with a Palestinian Unity government, rather than attempt to destroy it.

If you, and your rabbinical colleagues, want to make a real difference in the name of Jewish values then this is what you need to be talking about, very clearly and very loudly.

It will take great courage and conviction and you will need to draw deep into the well of Jewish ethics.

The time is over when expressing sorrow for both sides and insisting on the ‘complexity’ of the situation is enough...if it ever was.

At the end of the day, you have to make a stand. You have to cross the line. I hope you will feel able to do this before it is too late for the Palestinians and for Israel.

With all best wishes and encouragement for your work.

Robert Cohen, author Micah's Paradigm Shift


  1. I liked your previous quote from Micah
    "The Micah based Covenant is the sacred understanding that we are created for the sake of others. And with so much emphasis in the Hebrew bible on the ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbour’ there is little doubt in my mind that the justice, kindness and humility is the ethical imperative that must embrace all of humanity."

  2. The following comment was emailed to me from Alice F LaChapelle. many thanks Alice for letting me share this.

    Mr. Cohen,

    I am so glad that I found your site. Initially, it was Micah that grabbed my attention first. Your piece is the most well-reasoned, compassionate treatment of the genocide that is now occurring in Gaza. It is germane to the dehumanizing treatment that has been inflicted upon the Palestinian people since the mid-1940s.

    Your words here remain true and are consistent with the moral ethics and humanity that have always marked the Jewish people as unique. For this, they have paid a terrible price over the millennia. But their truthful message and their love for Yahweh have survived and they will continue to do so, even if only as a remnant, along with others who remain true to God’s Word. The are our brothers and sisters in a shared monotheistic faith. I am proud and thankful that my Christian roots are firmly and irrevocably embedded in Judaism.

    It is Israel’s present government and leadership that need to be indicted and held accountable for their human rights crimes against the Palestinians – the co-indigenous peoples of the land that is now called the State of Israel.

    President Obama and those in Congress who echo his self-serving erroneous point of view must be held accountable and censured (if not impeached) for their continuing monetary support (our tax dollars) and verbal sanctioning of Israel’s illegal, inhumane actions.
    These elected ‘representatives’ do not in any way speak for me nor for a multitude of fair-minded Americans. Instead, they do the bidding of AIPAC and other special interest paid lobbyists who fill Congress’ pockets with blood money and who decide our foreign policy.

    Micah has always been one of my favorite prophets. His ‘book’ is small compared to other prophets but what he says is powerful and easy to remember – particularly now when the world is so broken in spirit and looking for answers. I directed a Scripture study in my parish for over 13 years. Our group consisted of pre-Vatican II Catholic women who were almost totally ignorant of Scripture. It was the happiest, most graced time of our lives.

    Your prophetic words, “ have to make a stand. You have to cross the line” will stay with me for a long time. This advice brings to mind a quote from the Christian Scriptures, the Book of Revelation, where the Spirit speaks to the church at Laodicea ( NAB 3:16): “...because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit (vomit) you out of my mouth.”

    You and your peers and colleagues who believe as you do are truly blessed by God’s grace, Mr. Cohen. It must be extremely difficult and even dangerous at times for you to speak and write as you do. You have obviously taken a stand and your soul and your conscience will be the better for it.

    Peace be with you.

  3. Robert,

    Well put. Indeed, it is time to take sides. Those who choose to climb down from the increasingly precarious perch on the fence from which one condemns Israel's actions while still clinging to the notion of a democratic, non-racist Zionism, a Zionism that does not result in a militarized state intent on the enslavement if not the eradication of an other that has been made into an enemy, those who finally make the choice to come down from the fence and take a stand for justice and decency, those people will be able to answer to history when this story is told in the perhaps not too distant future.

    I call to your attention this piece that ran in 972 Magazine today, in which the author, brilliantly referencing The Merchant of Venice, concludes with these words:

    The Jews are no longer knocking on doors to be let in. We have our own fortress now, bristling with arms. But the cost has been heavy; on the altar of nationalism and ethnic supremacy we have sacrificed the long-cherished ideal of common humanity. Israelis and Zionist Jews, and their most vociferous supporters, can no longer see themselves in the Palestinians. And what we are left with is the second half of Shylock’s speech:

    And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.