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A Response to David Ward MP

About me

Rabbi Neil Janes is rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue - the largest and oldest Liberal synagogue in the UK. He is working towards a PhD in Jewish Thought through Haifa University. He also has a BA in Psychology and Education from Cardiff University. A leading voice for progressive Judaism in the UK, he has appeared on radio, television and in the press. Views expressed on this blog are solely his own.
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Dear Mr Ward

I have been following the reporting of your comments on Holocaust Memorial Day and have refrained from writing. However, I am beginning to think that either you are utterly incapable of understanding the full impact of your comments or so full of pride and thoughtless in your determination to stand by your words that you will go to even more offensive lengths to defend them. I want to speak to the way this has affected me as a Jew and as a leader of a Jewish community who frequently has to address, in sensitive ways, issues of memory, injustice, the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, the Holocaust and, sadly, antisemitism.

You wrote: “Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Following which, as far as I can tell, you have defended your comments by quoting Elie Wiesel, reframed your comments in athletic contortions and yet you strike me as, in actual fact, utterly unrepentant. I’ll return further on to how you defend your use of the term ‘Jews’, of your claims about a machine that protects Israel from criticism, and your description of the challenges of peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a ‘Palestinian issue’.

But let us take the original comment in and of itself for a moment. Are you so completely oblivious and pride-ridden that you are incapable of understanding that by eliding the situation in the Middle East with the Holocaust you are not only crassly insensitive to the purposes of Holocaust Memorial Day but also defaming the memories of victims of the Holocaust and other genocides? Can you not simply pause to remember the long dark night of the 20th Century without making what I consider to be simplistic and specious capital out of the day?

My grandparents and their immediate family were German Jewish refugees who left Nazi Germany in the 1930s. I am also an Israeli citizen. Perhaps you would rather I returned to the ‘classrooms’ of Auschwitz to learn the lesson of the Holocaust better? After all, you seem to imply that I appear to have failed to fully comprehend the depths to which humanity can sink in the Nazi’s desire to seek the total extermination of the Jewish people. Of course, based on your subsequent comments I have come to think that you would have the world believe that it is my intention to see a similar extermination of the Palestinian people in a more shrewd process of annihilation than that which was inflicted on my family.

Are you beginning, even slightly, to appreciate how offensive your comments were, not just for their content but also for their timing?

Let us step back for a moment. I have criticised, and will continue to criticise, Israel when I think justified and I also work in a Jewish denomination (Liberal Judaism) that has been both vocal in its criticism and supportive of partnerships with groups working for co-existence, peace and universal human rights. I also understand the complex existential anxiety felt by Israelis. I am a supporter of Zionism as the right of the Jewish people for self-determination based on a historic yearning for the land of Israel, a modern political movement, a desire for a thriving cultural and spiritual centre for the Jewish people and a refuge for Jews from anywhere in the world. At the same time, because of my understanding of the complexity of politics, religion and life in Israel I also have a small insight into the difficult place that the Holocaust has in the national psyche of Israel. A yearning for sovereignty in the land of Israel pre-dates the Holocaust yet there are many in the world who would simplistically argue that the foundation of the State of Israel was the result solely of the Holocaust. This itself is a fallacious argument. However, at the same time, after the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe, the survivors and their descendents have had the experience of hatred staked through their hearts and, in a very real sense for some, this experience is literally permanently branded on their bodies.

It is because of all this that I fail to understand how you think it is your place on, of all days, Holocaust Memorial Day, in a throw away comment, to simplify the fullness of this complexity.

Moreover, I have substantial problems with your defense of your words. Much has been made of the problem of your use of the word ‘Jews’. Instead of revisiting this issue I would like to reflect on your suggestion that some kind of machine prevents you from criticising Israel. Leaving aside that you chose to do this on Holocaust Memorial Day, I simply do not see evidence of this machine. Of course, there are activists on all sides of the political spectrum who vigorously defend their position and some of whom would prefer criticism not to be made. However, criticism by politicians from all over the world (including in Israel) that is made in a judicious way, that acknowledges the complexity of the situation for Israelis and Palestinians, that seeks the establishment of secure and peaceful borders for all, is made all of the time and no-one accuses those politicians of antisemitism or seeks their silence. In truth, your comments about a machine that silences criticism of Israel made as a result of your misplaced use of ‘Jews’ is dangerously close to the suggestions found in the antisemitic hoax that is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Are you beginning to get it now? Are you starting to understand how offensive was both your initial statement and your follow up defense?

So we move to your comment that I saw in the Guardian which reported you seeking a ‘peaceful solution to the Palestinian Issue’. I have serious problems with the settlements in the West Bank, I use the term occupation and I’m concerned about the universal (which includes Palestinians) protection of human rights and the development of civil and fair society. I’ve visited Palestinians whose homes have been demolished and spoken with Palestinians whose lives are affected by border controls and the separation barrier. I am a supporter of a two state solution based on negotiated secure borders for both sides. For the record, not that it’s your business, I’m not a particular fan of Netanyahu’s politics, or for that matter the extreme right wing political parties or ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and some recently passed legislation. But that does not mean that this is a Palestinian Issue. Had you forgotten that it was Israelis who were the targets of the rockets being fired from Gaza?

Instead of leaping to the conclusion that you are being silenced by a powerful lobby or that you were ‘just’ speaking truth to evil, I advise you to begin to demonstrate your understanding and empathy for all peoples – by the way, it is not just Jews and Palestinians who live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. If you had done that and then voiced your concerns in a measured way, not on Holocaust Memorial Day, you may have found the reaction would have been different.

Are you beginning to see why your comment and defense was, in my opinion, so ill judged?

I will conclude here, not because there is nothing more to say, but because I fear my words will fall on deaf ears. It is too late for you to say what might have made the difference in the first place – an unqualified apology for a misjudged comment on a day when we remember the victims and survivors of genocide – the utterly evil, depraved, vicious, racist and antisemitic depths to which humanity can sink.

Yours

Rabbi Neil Janes

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