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How three Guardian articles on Israel made me a happy man

Thoughts about three articles in this weekend’s Guardian and Observer.

By Matt Plen

The first one was by Iain Banks, on why he won’t allow his books to be sold in Israel.  This is the kind of article I usually avoid as I find the badly-argued hostility and venom they usually contain, directed exclusively against Israel and therefore in some part of my mind against me personally, too much.  But I read this one, partly because it came out the day after Banks announced that he has cancer and only has months to live, an announcement in which he gave the impression of being a genuine, decent person with a sense of humour.  I also like his books.

My immediate thought about pro-boycott articles –of which this is one – is why are you boycotting Israel and not one of the many other countries with far worse records of human rights abuse and illegal actions?  In the first paragraph my eye settled on, Banks explained that he would never allow his books to be sold in Saudi Arabia either but that the problem has never come up as they’re banned there anyway.  This seemed to reflect both balance and a certain awareness of the relative merits of Israeli democracy.

Banks was also clear that his target was the Israeli state not the Israeli people.  He clearly respects and identifies with the Jewish people, even granting tongue-in-cheek that our contribution to world culture has been more important than that of the Scots.  And he took a subtle, friendly swipe at claims that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic (‘Israel and its apologists can’t have it both ways, though: if they’re going to make the rather hysterical claim that any and every criticism of Israeli domestic or foreign policy amounts to antisemitism, they have to accept that this claimed, if specious, indivisibility provides an opportunity for what they claim to be the censure of one to function as the condemnation of the other.’)  More than anything I was touched by his memories of boycotting apartheid South Africa (I too grew up in a home free of South African products), which he managed to evoke without implying any direct parallel between Israel and apartheid.

Article two was by Canon Giles Fraser, entitled ‘Why Theodor Herzl’s writings still have an urgent message: antisemitic attacks in Hungary illustrate the necessity of Israel.’  The headline really says it all.  One paragraph was particularly striking: ‘I am a Zionist. Not an Israel right-or-wrong type of Zionist. Not a supporter of the settlement movement type of Zionist, and absolutely not a supporter of the shameful treatment of Palestinians type of Zionist.’  A Guardian columnist admitting to being a Zionist is unusual itself.  The nuanced idea that you can be a Zionist and oppose the occupation – rare enough in our community, more so in wider British society – was even more so.

Finally, a report on an article by Amira Hass in Haaretz, Israel’s liberal broadsheet, which called for Palestinian schools to train their students in non-violent protest, including stone throwing against Israeli soldiers.  The article has provoked criticism (some within the pages of Haaretz itself), demonstrations and calls for Hass to be prosecuted for incitement.  The failure of successive Israeli governments (and their Palestinian counterparts) to end the occupation and the damage to democracy and human rights that go along with it, juxtaposed with the fact that a mainstream Israeli newspaper chose – and was allowed – to print such a trenchantly subversive piece, says a lot about the knotty nature of the conflict and the irreducibility of Israeli reality into black and white terms.

When I lived in Israel, I freely criticised the government, voted and even campaigned against it.   My commitment to Israel was never questioned – rather, the depth of my criticism reflected the depth of my commitment to Israeli democracy and by extension to Zionism itself. Since returning to the UK nearly five years ago I’ve become sensitive to the connection between criticism of Israel and attacks on the Jewish community – a connection which is all too prevalent.  But more important than the objective existence of this connection is a deep rooted feeling among UK Jews that protecting Israel’s image is essentially a form of self-defence.  It goes back to the Anglo-Jewish bunker mentality, a mentality formed as a result of the historical experience of living in an ostensibly tolerant society where subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) expressions of antisemitism were always close at hand.  This is the same state of mind that all too often inhibits us from engaging in important projects for the common good with non-Jewish colleagues.

Reading the papers this weekend confirmed me in my belief that while Israel (and the Jewish community) has enemies, we also have friends out there – and the depth of criticism is no indication as to the depth of friendship.  Ten years in Israel helped me step outside the bunker mentality and grow the Jewish self-confidence to understand this issue in a nuanced way.  I wonder how we can encourage the community down the same path.

This month

I’ve neglected my blog as I’ve been writing for other publications: an article for the Jewish News on some of the issues raised here, a piece for the Jewish Chronicle criticising Michael Gove’s decision to exclude Hebrew from compulsory language teaching in primary schools, and a long review of a number of recent Introductions to Judaism books for the Jewish Quarterly (forthcoming).

At Masorti Judaism, between preparing for and recovering from Pesach, we’ve been busy.  My main task between now and the summer is to raise a chunk of new money to ensure we can achieve the goals set out in our strategic plan next year.  The big new projects are to start working with an outreach rabbi for students and new communities, build up a fund to support rabbinical students and bring them into our communities for placements, take on a new member of the professional team to manage leadership training, education and events, and to expand our communications work through publications and a new website.  To that end I’ve been working with lay-leaders on plans to hold fundraising events, approach potential donors, secure some corporate sponsorship, and begin planning this year’s fundraising dinner.

The Marom (students and young adults) team have run a successful five-day training seminar for Marom leaders from across Europe and tomorrow 20 students will be heading out on the Marom trip to Lithuania.  Meanwhile, Noam (Masorti youth) have exceeded their target for numbers on this year’s summer camps and have begun raising money for the camp subsidy fund, to ensure no-one’s excluded because of inability to pay.  Next month we’ll all be running in the Maccabi GB Community Fun Run to raise more money for the fund – more details soon.

Posted on 8 April 2013

This blog aims to provide articles of interest on the weekly parashah and issues in Masorti Judaism, representing the full range of diverse views that exist among Masorti members. For guidance on any of the issues raised, please consult your rabbi.

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