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A Crisis in Judaism: For Many Jews Today, Israel Is Not a Normal State — It Is a Cause or Ideal, and Therein Lies the Problem

Brian Klug
Summer / Fall 2009

Israel’s war in Gaza has multiple meanings. First and foremost, for Pal¬estinians 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 centered 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-Haris puts it:  
British Jews who have felt dis¬comfort with Israeli actions have generally been faced with a bleak choice: to express this discomfort privately and quietly or be margina¬lised and perhaps even ostracised.  
Trafalgar Square Demonstration  
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 direc¬tion. 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 Communi¬cations and Research Centre and when no distinction is made between supporting Israel’s wars and fighting anti-Semitism: 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 Jewish voices.  
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 mes¬sage 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 state¬ment 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!”)  
Moral Blindness  
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 de¬pends 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 tradi¬tion 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 name only.  
Honest Dialogue  
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 get¬ting 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.  
(This article originally appeared in The Guardian of London and is reprinted with permission.)  
Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, a member of the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and Hon. Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton. He was formerly Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Saint Xavier University, Chicago. He is Associate Editor of the journal Patterns of Prejudice.

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