Neutrality and its discontent: thinking about Israel

The letter below is something written inspired by a request that came to me from a teenager. It is not really a direct response to the individual but rather prompted by the sentiment of the question asked.

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Dear Friend

I was told you were looking for some objective information about what is happening in Israel at the moment. That you wanted something ‘neutral’. I do not know if that is your word or how your thoughts were interpreted.

Truthfully the task of finding something ‘neutral’ is impossible.

There is an understanding of the region which we can derive from appreciating the development of the Abrahamic religions, the attachment to the land of Israel, the ancient history of the land of Israel and of Jerusalem over thousands of years. We should also learn from the Jewish connection to the land and the nature of Arab and specifically Palestinian identity and their connection to the land. We can derive an understanding of the region from global history – the nature of conflict, colonialism and the end of the Ottoman Empire. We can also gain understanding from the history of political thought, including the rise of nationalism (not simply right wing nationalism) – the development of the idea of the nation state and a people’s right to self-determination. We must not forget the modern history of the State of Israel. Nor should we ignore things like the Holocaust, the changing nature of Western political power, international law and so on.

But that does not add up to an answer to your request for me.

I am passionate about the pursuit of justice and peace, of equality for all and the upholding of human rights for everyone. I am also a Jew and feel deeply connected to the fate of my people. I am both a universalist and a particularist – such is the nature of 21st century identity. That means that when three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped and murdered just for being Jewish, I feel deep pain. Their murder reflects on who I am as a Jew too, because I am no different to them and were it my children in their shoes they would be no safer. But it also means when a Palestinian teenager is murdered in what appears to be a revenge attack I also feel deep pain. Jewish literature teaches the value of all life, not just Jewish life. And I am disgusted that an attack of that sort could be provoked and carried out by Jews. Life is both universal (values, ideas and experiences applying equally to all of humankind) and particular (as a Jew there are things I share with other Jews and their families).

But this conflict is also one which has existentialist importance. I cannot be ‘neutral’ when there is a desire for the extinction of both my people and their presence in the State of Israel. I also cannot be neutral when the genuine desire for a state as an expression of self-determination is denied to the Palestinian people and the State of Israel continues to have too much power over the Palestinian people’s destiny.

How can I be neutral when it is my friends running for the bomb shelter or leaving their children behind as they are called up for reserve duty in the army? How can I be neutral when the loss of life is a trauma and tragedy inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians – victims of the machinery of violence and warfare?

I cannot be neutral when indiscriminate rocket attacks only do not leave a trail of damage and harm that it is hoped they will because of the investment of Israel in protecting its citizens.

How can I be neutral when innocent Palestinians are being turned into human shields by a brutal regime under Hamas in Gaza that I really think is more interested in wiping Israel off the map than its people’s longing for self-determination? How can I be neutral when I know there are those voices of hatred and revenge that grow stronger amongst Jewish Israelis and Palestinians?

We cannot be neutral. Neutrality implies something impossible – something without values, as if there are just ‘objective’ facts when it comes to human life. It is so complicated, there is much nuance and huge difficulty reading the picture unfolding at the moment.

And yet, I continue to work for peace, for justice, for a resolution, for two states with secure borders. I remain committed to nurturing love, empathy and respect for my fellow human beings. But I understand that is a tough thing to do if you’re living in the midst of conflict not sitting in the comfort of a North West London home – as I am.

My advice to you: read, read again, listen, really listen to everyone, understand, go back and read some more. Do not accept simple answers to complicated problems. Recognise that there is no one ‘version’ or ‘narrative’ that will offer objective truth. Read all perspectives deliberately – too often we only read materials that confirm what we already think/believe. Challenge yourself to read differently, from the other side. In the words of a good friend and colleague, “As well as reading from different perspectives – we need to understand that the truth does not lie between the different perspectives – we are not hoping to reach a compromise between two different understandings of history, but rather we need to accept that opposing narratives are both part of a multi-voiced, self-negatory, complex truth”.

Finally, hold on to the values that will one day, I pray, triumph – of truth, of justice, of peace, and of love.

Yours Rabbi Neil Janes

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2 thoughts on “Neutrality and its discontent: thinking about Israel

  1. Max July 13, 2014 / 1:05 pm

    Dear Rabbi Neil James,

    If only it were possible to transplant your reason, your tolerance and your calm into the minds of those on either side of the conflict. As a proponent of peace and a supporter of Palestine, naturally our views are different but our goals are the same, and I have a huge amount of respect for the way you conduct yourself in the face of the personal hurt you describe. Whatever your race, whatever your political or social allegiance, we must all aspire to conduct ourselves this way if lasting peace is to be achieved.

    It is rare to find such a source of passion and tolerance together. I hope you manage to hold on to them both for as long as you live.

    Thanks

  2. Daniel Treger July 13, 2014 / 2:09 pm

    Thank you for this interesting perspective! I certainly agree with how you set up the disconnect between neutrality, an almost theoretical term, and the practicalities of the situation.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently and I’ve been wondering how one can make sense of universalism and particularism. I like the way you’ve set them up here but let me try and flesh out a little of what I take a certain underlying issue to be:

    Particularism, as you said, is about the nature of your particularity, as a Jew. I share that particularity as do many people in the world and in this sense we find something quasi-universal the notion of a Jewish identity and the pull we feel towards other Jews. We feel more responsible for them than we do for other groups since we are members of this group. Particularism seems to breed, in this way, a distinct sense of division. Into me and you and into us and them.

    My worry is that in this light it seems as though this yields a lot of the difficulties we find ourselves dealing with in this conflict. We find complete de-humanisation of the opposition and a kind of self-interest that unfortunately marks global politics nowadays. I can’t help but feel if we were truly universal in our approach – if we were to consider ourselves by our universal quality, as human beings, rather than subdivided groups of Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians or West and Middle-East, we would find that the terrible things that are happening would be impossible. We would not be divided to allow for us to treat each other in these ways.

    I wonder what you make of this? Truth may be complex and self-negatory but is there not a fundamental tension between these diametric opposites? Between being a particular, a particular individual or particular of a particular group, and our aspirations for universalism? I struggle to make sense of these.

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