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A time to break ranks

As individual Jews come under increasing pressure to unite behind their ‘leaders’, Brian Klug puts the case for disunity

On Sunday 29th June 2008, Trafalgar Square was filled with thousands of people who had ‘come out’ as supporters of Israel. Henry Grunwald, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, under whose auspices (along with the Jewish Leadership Council) the event was held, told the crowd: ‘We are proud to be British, we are proud to be Jewish and we are all proud to support Israel’. Union Jacks were dotted like sails in a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags. It was hailed as ‘the first ever UK “Salute to Israel” parade’. But Nelson on his column, unless he turned a blind eye, would have had a sense of déjà vu.

The scene was a reprise of the Israel Solidarity Rally held in the same place six years earlier when tens of thousands of British Jews assembled with placards proclaiming ‘Yes to peace, No to terror’ and ‘Israel, we are with you’; slogans that begged certain questions. Who exactly were ‘we’ (or indeed ‘you’)? Why say ‘No’ to terror but not to occupation, closures, collective punishment and demolition of homes? These questions went unasked: the mood in the square and across a broad section of the British Jewish population was not exactly reflective. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to rally round.

It was shortly after Operation Defensive Shield, when Israeli troops had entered the West Bank in force. Television viewers and newspaper readers were assailed with scenes of devastation in Jenin, Ramallah and elsewhere. But seen through the eyes of Ariel Sharon, it might have been the other way round: Palestinians laying waste to Tel Aviv or Ashdod – or the Warsaw ghetto. ‘This is a battle for survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the state of Israel’, declared Israel’s Prime Minister at the time.

As the collective clamour leading up to the rally grew louder, someone close to me wrote in a private email:’I would go so far to say – speaking entirely for myself – that it is getting hard to hold on to any Jewish identity at all when it bears no relation whatsoever to the mindless nationalism one is forced to listen to from Jews round the world every day.’ Though speaking for herself, her words spoke for many others who felt (as another friend put it) ‘the untenable position of being Jewish today’.

It was not untenable if you endorsed the placards that said, in effect, ‘Yes to occupation, No to Justice’ and ‘Israel, we are you’. If you accepted the nationalist formula in which individual, community, faith, culture, people, history, tradition, land and state merge into one amorphous blob, then being Jewish was a perfectly tenable proposition. But if you didn’t, the choice was stark: Either tolerate having your Jewish identity taken from you – or take it back.

Taking it back calls for the opposite of rallying round. It means coming out and openly breaking ranks with the likes of the legions amassed in Trafalgar Square in spring 2002. In the six years that have elapsed, more and more Jews in Britain have made up their minds: it is time to break ranks.

Breaking ranks is an ancient Jewish custom. It goes back to Abraham who, after literally breaking the ranks of idols in his father’s workshop, left his childhood home to go his own way. And while Judaism, like any other rich and complex human tradition, has many different currents, there is a strong vein of iconoclasm and independent-mindedness running through it. So much so that, to quote Isaac Deutscher, ‘The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.’ (Indeed, this paradox itself belongs to a Jewish dialectical tradition.) Seen in this light (which is not necessarily the light in which they see themselves), the Jewish Socialists’ Group, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, even Jews Against Zionism (both the secular and Satmar varieties) are following in Abraham’s footsteps.

But in an atmosphere of ‘mindless nationalism’, when unity is the supreme value and loyalty the cardinal virtue, different expressions of Jewishness are liable to be seen in a different light: as self-hatred and betrayal. On its own terms, I suppose, this makes sense. But why accept these terms? Whose identity is it anyway?

Mike Marquesee, in the closing words of his new book, If I am Not For Myself, remarks: ‘The people who call us self-haters want to steal ourselves from us – appropriate our selves for their cause – and speaking as a self, I’m damned if I’m going to let them get away with it.’ Mike, a self-described anti-Zionist atheist, is a signatory of ‘A Time to Speak Out’, the declaration with which Independent Jewish Voices was launched in February 2007. Not that you have to be either an atheist or an anti-Zionist to sign the document or to sympathise with its broad-based message. But his words go to its heart – and to the heart of the book that goes by the same title, A Time to Speak Out, soon to be published by Verso. The book comprises short essays on Israel, Zionism and Jewish identity. There is no party line, only a shared commitment to human rights and social justice. Each of the 27 contributors speaks ‘as a self’; and, speaking as a self, each in their own way breaks ranks with the ringfence of solidarity around Israel.

Given that Mike is right about ‘our selves’ being appropriated for ‘their cause’, does it really matter? Why not ‘let them get away with it’? There are several reasons. It’s a chutzpah; it is a form of identity theft; it hijacks a heritage that is a common possession and travesties a tradition that defies classification; it is coercive; it is divisive; it rewrites history to fit a nationalist agenda that conduces to collective denial; and it empowers those who presume to speak on behalf of ‘the Jewish people’ as a whole or its British branch, notably vis-à-vis the Middle East.

Which brings us back to the parade in Trafalgar Square this summer, at which the Chief Rabbi spoke to the crowd that had gathered to salute Israel. First, he weighed the causes of the conflict on the scales of judgement: ‘Today, because of Israel, there is at least a chance of peace’, he said judiciously. ‘Yet every time Israel proposes peace, it is greeted with terror and suicide bombings, Katyushas and Kassams.’ Then, addressing the enemy in absentia, he extended the hand of friendship: ‘We say to the Palestinians: You have a right to a home. All you have to do is to recognise that the Jewish people also has a right to a home. Let us live together side by side in peace.’

I do not doubt that this was well-intentioned. But who is the ‘we’ on whose behalf he was speaking? Whom did he mean when he said ‘Let us live together’? Sharon saw himself as ‘the Prime Minister of the Jewish people’, and here was the Chief Rabbi saying ‘Take me to your leader’, as if he were the Prime Minister of Israel! It sounds surreal. But in this script the surreal is the real. For if we’re all one, then it comes to the same thing: any distinctions are purely internal and have no bearing when dealing with the external world. Israeli Prime Minister, UK Chief Rabbi, President of the Board of Deputies: all are ambassadors of the unified ‘Jewish people’. Each, in their own way, speaking as a collective self, says the same thing. Any of these officers of the nation can make an offer on its behalf to ‘the Palestinians’, without feeling the slightest bit silly.

If the Chief Rabbi’s interventions in the Middle East conflict were just a contribution to the theatre of the absurd, we could let him get away with it. We could say: Let him take our name in vain, while we get on with our lives. But first, he can do harm. His grand gesture in Trafalgar Square, like Barak’s ‘generous offer’ at Camp David, was actually more an incitement to anger than an invitation to peace. Gently stroking the crowd with his message, he was inexorably pouring fuel on the flames. Moreover, he is not the sole offender. Our name is taken in vain over and again by ‘community leaders’ who appear to represent us, as Jews, to the world. If we acquiesce, we collude. If we do not break ranks, we acquiesce.

There are those who say that we should not ‘wash our dirty linen in public’; that the argument over Israel is private business to be conducted behind closed doors. Many of these same people march in open support of Israel, waving their flags and holding their placards aloft. I am glad they feel confident to ‘come out’ as Jews. But they cannot have it both ways. If it is kosher to rally round in public, then it is kosher to break ranks in public. The alfresco displays of solidarity with Israel in 2002 and 2008 have flung the doors wide open. Whether we like it or not, we are all bang in the middle of the public square.
In Britain and elsewhere, an open battle is being fought among Jews, a battle that is, in its own way, as crucial in its bearing on the future as the conflict in Israel and Palestine. It too is over ownership, but not of land. At stake is an altogether different kind of claim: Who owns the deeds to the title ‘Jewish’? This is our Trafalgar. Nelson on his column may look away, but for us on the ground this is a luxury we cannot afford. Ours not to turn a blind eye.

Brian Klug

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1 thought on “A time to break ranks”

  1. How about the Zionists who collaborated with the Nazis, like Shamir? The Zionists agered with the Nazis that liberalism was the enemy and that Jews would forever be aliens in Germany and elsewhere.You are good at offering the official lobby line, but it is full of misstatements and distortions. Your position comes down to: If the Palestinians would capitulate in grand theft and other rights violations that occurred and are continuing, there would be peace.Your position conflicts with individual property rights, freedom, and justice. The state you defend has violated rights in every way from the start. Then when the victims resist, you cry foul. It is shameful. “We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” –Ben-Gurion.”The slogan ‘Jewish state* (or commonwealth) is equivalent, in effect, to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs.” –Judah Magnes, founder, chancellor, president, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem Readers: Check this all out for yourselves. Don’t do history a priori.

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