Thursday, 31 December 2009

If we phone them first then its all okay - an unfortunate response to the Goldstone report

Rene Cassin gave a presentation at Limmud on the Goldstone report, on which I have written before. They showed this interview with Goldstone which I recommend viewing. In the discussion that followed one man argued that Israel can't be accused of war crimes because it phoned up Gazans and sent letters warning them before attacks. What other army does this? he asked. In doing this, he said, Israel had acted impeccably.

Now Goldstone himself acknowledges in his report the 'significant efforts' Israel took to protect civilian life in this way. But from the fact that Israel sent warnings it doesn't follow that Israel acted lawfully in the war. Firstly because it fails to address many of the war crimes identified by Goldstone. Israel's use of civilian human shields, for example, cannot be justified by the prior sending of letters warning of attack. Secondly, and as Goldstone points out in the interview, sending warnings is not sufficient (necessary though it may be) to justify an attack on a target in or near civilian areas. The target also has to constitute a military target, and according to the findings of the report, the bombings of certain sites had no identifiable military objective: it was the civilian infrastructure that was bombed - factories, utilities and so on - and not targets with any use by or connection to Hamas.

It also shouldn't be forgotten that at least one senior Israeli politician actually actively and explicitly advocated Israel committing actions that constitute war crimes. As Eli Yishai said at the time:

Even if they fire at an open area or into the sea, we must damage their infrastructures and destroy 100 houses.

As the Gaza conflict reaches its first anniversary it’s time - in fact it's long overdue - for Israel to deal with the uncomfortable findings of the report. And, as Jews in the Diaspora - in whose name Israel claims to act and speak - we have every right to encourage Israel to do so.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Bringing J-street to Britain

In a session at Limmud today entitled 'Israel advocay in a time of urgent de-occupation', Daniel Levy, who was a special advisor in the Prime Minister's office during the Barak Government and has more recently been involved with the creation of J-street, America's left wing pro Israel lobby, discussed the role of pro-Israel lobby gropus.

He explained that most US congressmen find themselves in districts where Israel is not a winning or losing issue; in most districts not enough people care. And so when it comes to votes on Israel congressmen 'either vote with their conscience or their pocket...'

'Prior to the creation of J-street,' he observed, 'there was nothing on the pocket side' for those who were both supportive of Israel yet critical of its policies.

Levy outlined the thinking behind J-street's pro-Israel stance by saying that the diasporah should feel able to say to Israel "We will support you as much as we can but no further." Referring then to Israel's occupation and settlements in the West Bank he continued: "we cannot support a poliicy that is driving you off a cliff and will harm us too."

Unfortunately, the Zionist Federation in this country seem quite happy to see that policy continue; perhaps it's time for Britain to produce it's own J-street.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Limmud: where Jews go at Christmas time...

Yay! It's Limmud tomorrow. A 2000 person conference on all things Jewish, it's Anglo-Jewry's premier educational event, and I'm looking forward to it.

Sadly Limmud's cross-communal ethos and open lectern policy is too much for some Jews. (the Chief Rabbi appears to be one of them). By allowing all types of Jews to come and teach, they argue, Limmud in practise excludes very Orthodox Jews like them. Why? Well as one limmud-rejecting friend explained to me, it would be intellectually dishonest for him to attend because rabbis whose authority he doesn't recognize are invited to teach.

Sound like intellectual cowardice to you? It does to me. Since when did you need to accept somebody's authority to be able to listen and (who knows?) maybe even learn from them?

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Boycotting Britain

It's hard to believe, but Israeli parliamentarians are threatening to boycott British goods. Fourty two MKs - over a third of Israeli parliamentarians - have signed the 'Knesset says no to British products' petition calling for:

"a boycott of British goods in the wake of the [British] government's recommendation that Israeli products made beyond the Green Line be marked as such."

Apparently they plan to start the boycott with Marks and Spencers. (Going for the quality then).

The boycott envisaged is shortsighted for the following reasons:

(1) It makes a mockery of previous arguments used by those opposed to boycotts of Israel. Statements such as 'boycotts don't work' and 'boycotts undermine collaboration and dialogue' seem less persuasive when the people saying it are themselves engaged in boycotting others.

(2) Israel is engaged in huge amounts of trade with Israel. If they start boycotting companies like Marks and Spencers, this could end up hurting the Israeli suppliers of those companies.

(3) Britain's proposed action is simply to mark products made in the West Bank as being products made in the West Bank. Why is this so controversial? If Israel launches a boycott in response it will be perceived as a childish overreaction.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Railway teaching

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has launched an unlikely educational scheme to bring academia to the general public - it's getting its professors to give free lectures on trains!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Sacks on the JFS case...

Last Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled that the admissions policy of JFS, my old school, was discriminatory. In this week's JC the Chief Rabbi responded to their judgement. He wrote that the judges conclusion:

cannot be what the framers of that legislation [the 1976 race relations act] intended... nor did they intend to circumscribe the freedom of Jews in Britain to practise their religion and educate their children in their faith.

Come again? How does the judgement 'circumscribe the freedom of Jews to practice their religion'? How does the change in JFS's admissions policy - a change which, for the purporse of school admissions, focuses on the primacy and importance of Jewish faith and practise over other facets of Jewish identity - somehow inhibit the ability of Jews to practice and express their faith?

The answer is: it doesn't!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Moving JFS from a race school to a faith school

This is a little dated now but...

The admissions policy of JFS, my old school, is currently being debated in the Supreme Court. JFS is an Orthodox Jewish state school. Until recently their admissions policy held that in order to be eligible for entry, you had to be Jewish according to the Orthodox Jewish law – and that means having a Jewish mother. What you believed in and practised was irrelevant. All that mattered was who your mother was.

The case began with disgruntled parents whose child was denied a place in the school on the grounds that their mother’s conversion (incidentally an Orthodox conversion) to Judaism was illegitimate. The family keep kosher and attend synagogue. They believe and practise pretty mainstream Judaism. The reason their child was denied a place in the school was not because the child did not adhere to the Jewish faith, but rather because the child was not deemed by the United Synagogue to be a Jew. A bacon munching practising Christian whose mother happened to be Jewish, by contrast, would be eligible for the school.

Now if someone adheres to the Christian faith then they are a Christian. But adhering to the Jewish faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for someone to be a Jew (according to the Orthodox). And from this stems the problem with the old admissions policy of JFS.

Let’s take a step back: what’s a faith? My dictionary offers ‘reliance, trust; a belief in religious doctrine’. So a faith is something you can believe in and express. A faith is not something you can ‘be’; it is not something you ‘are’. What’s a race? A Race is ‘a group of people with common ancestry... esp as grounds for discrimination or division’.

Moving from the definitions of these words, we can say that a faith-school concerns belief and expressions of that belief. A race-school concerns people’s ancestry. With its old admissions criteria, JFS came closer to the second category than the first. It was concerned with who you ‘are’ and not what you believed in. It had a race-based criterion of Judaism and not a faith-based criterion.

Now at this point a few objections may be raised.

First, people get very angry about suggesting that Judaism may be a race. After all, it isn’t: you can convert to Judaism; whereas (Michael Jackson notwithstanding) you can’t convert from one race to another. This is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that taking who someone’s mother is as a criterion for admission to a school has nothing to do with belief and practise and everything to do with their ancestry.

Second, some people object to the law courts ‘defining Judaism’. I find this objection absolutely bizarre. The judges aren’t defining Judaism. Rather they are rather assessing whether or not the Orthodox definition of Judaism, when applied to a school’s admissions policy, does or does not contravene the race relations act.

Some people at this point raise a third objection: that the judges are in effect branding Judaism as being racist. This is nonsense. It is true that the judges are acknowledging that the Orthodox definition of Judaism is not simply a concerned with faith. But then the Orthodox would accept that themselves. What the courts are saying is that a non-faith based definition of Jewishness, concerning as it does parenthood and not belief, is not justifiable criteria for a faith school. Faith schools are allowed to discriminate between applicants on the basis of faith. But not on the basis of parenthood and ancestry. Orthodox Judaism is perfectly entitled to a definition of Jewishness that is based on parenthood and ancestry. But a schools admissions policy is not.

A final objection – and this one really is the silliest – is that it should be up to every faith group (prior to any definition of what a faith is or is not) to decide for themselves what they mean by ‘faith’. Thus the Jews should be allowed to say that, even if he is an anti-religious atheist, a person with a Jewish mother is – astonishingly – a part of the Jewish faith. This approach is anti-semantic, abusing as it does the meaning of words. The logical conclusion of such an argument also commits its proponents to allowing any group to call itself a faith and apply any criteria they want. After all, who are the courts to say what a faith is?

Just imagine the Griffinist faith group. To be a Griffinist you have to be white. Griffinists also have some beliefs, like worshiping a guy called Nick. Now let’s imagine the Griffinists want a state-funded school for their faith. To be eligible for admissions you would have to be a Griffinist. The courts object, saying that their admissions policy is not based on faith and is therefore unjustifiably discriminatory. The Griffinists get irate: how dare the courts tell us what our faith is!

Now of course Judaism is nothing like Griffinism. But I use the analogy to show that the argument that it should be up to every faith group – without first defining what a faith group is – to decide for themselves what they mean by ‘faith’ is ludicrous. It strips the word ‘faith’ of any meaning. The courts must have some basic parameters for what they will allow the term ‘faith’ to include. You’re very welcome to argue that the definition should include ancestry and parenthood, but don’t be surprised if people turn back and say ‘that’s funny, I’ve never seen a dictionary understand ‘faith’ in such terms – you seem to be talking about something else, like ‘race’ or ‘peoplehood’, and I'm not sure we should be discriminating between people on these terms'.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Open letters, the Goldstone Report, and the Zionist Federation

The Zionist Federation published a press release on Wednesday. Written in response to an open letter in the Times endorsing the Goldstone Report – that letter having been produced by Independent Jewish Voices and other Jewish organizations – the ZF’s press release informs readers that ‘most of the signatories [of the letter] have little connection with Jewish organizations’.

It should be noted that the ZF makes this claim without offering any supporting evidence. It’s also unclear what they mean by ‘Jewish organizations’. After all, the letter they attack was expressly supported by five Jewish organizations. Perhaps the Zionist Federation has chosen to adopt some hitherto unknown definition of ‘Jewish organizations’ so as to exclude those Jewish organizations that do not ‘stand squarely with Israel’.

Having signed the letter myself, along with around 600 others (seven of them Rabbis) I quite resent the suggestion that I and my co-signatories have ‘little connection with Jewish organizations’; ‘only self-identify for the sole purpose of public vilification of Israel’; and ‘represent a tiny idiosyncratic publicity-seeking fringe which takes its cue from Iran, Libya and Zimbabwe’. I mean really? Really? Is the ZF seriously suggesting that the 600 of us who signed the letter, as though incapable of independent thought, actually waited to see what Iran, Libya and Zimbabwe will do in order to ‘take our cue’?

Particularly contemptible is the ZF’s claim that the signatories ‘only self-identify’ as Jews ‘for the sole purpose of vilification of Israel’. Again, no evidence is provided to substantiate this claim. Does the ZF think that the Rabbis who signed the letter only self-identify as Jewish because they want to demonise Israel?

To suggest that those who signed the letter must be insincere about their Judaism – only self-identifying as Jews in order to attack Israel – is also deeply offensive. It attempts to cast doubt on the idea that a Jew may both self-identify as a Jew out of a love for their Jewish heritage and endorse the Goldstone Report; the insinuation being that to support the Goldstone report is evidence of someone’s not really being very Jewish. The ZF are, in effect, trying to propagate the idea that the Jewish identity of Jews who publically criticize Israel is in some sense illegitimate.

This idea, as well as being hurtful to those like me who are passionate about their Judaism while being openly critical of Israel, reveals an ignorance of British Jewish history. In 1897, at the time of the first World Zionist Congress, the then Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, Hermann Adler, described the event as an ‘egregious blunder’, denouncing the idea of a Jewish State as ‘contrary to Jewish Principles’. Twenty years later, the then president of the Board of Deputies, Lindo Alexander, wrote an open letter in the Times (it must be a Jewish thing) rejecting Zionism. He was shortly after forced to resign, but not, as historian Geoffrey Aldermann notes, because of his anti-Zionism, but rather because his letter purported to represent the views of British Jewry, when in fact no discussions had first taken place to gage the views of the community. Alexander’s replacement, incidentally, was also not a Zionist. More recently, the previous Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovitz vocally opposed aspects of the Israeli occupation, eliciting a demand from Israel’s chief Rabbi, Shlomo Goren, for him to be excommunicated. None of these individuals self-identified as Jews for the sole purpose of publically vilifying Israel or Zionism. There is nothing illegitimate or inauthentic about their Jewish identity; the same is true for the signatories of the open letter in the Times.

I am a Zionist (albeit with some qualifications). Living as we do in a world of nation-states, in which the principle of national self-determination is generally upheld, it seems to me to be indefensible not to extend that principle to all peoples – and that includes the Jewish people. What the ZF have failed to appreciate, however, is that there is nothing incompatible about being a Zionist and a supporter of Israel on the one hand, and being prepared to condemn Israeli violations of international law on the other. (Richard Goldstone – author of the Goldstone report – is himself a Zionist). The ZF’s press release was entitled ‘British Jews stand squarely behind Israel’. This title is misleading. For a Zionist can stand squarely behind the existence of Israel without having to stand squarely behind Israeli violations of international law. That’s exactly what I intend to keep doing.