Israeli elections (not a sabbatical update)

(A slight rant – you’ve been forewarned and I know I might not be popular with the views below)…There’s a couple of things that I think we in the diaspora Jewish community have to acknowledge, when viewing the Israeli election results (and more generally Israeli politics). I wrote this before reading Rabbi Creditor’s piece.

The first thing is, for those of us progressively minded who may be dismayed by the results. My friends in Israel who have expressed the feeling of loss in the recent results, principally it seems because they really thought this time round Netanyahu would lose (so psychologically the grief is greater and despondency even more manifest), are entitled to feel despondent about whether the electorate represents their progressive views. There’s no escaping the incendiary views that seemed to win Netanyahu’s likely continuation as Prime Minister. But we in the diaspora are not entitled in the same way. We don’t live there.

By which I mean to say, we can be concerned about the strength of non-progressive feeling (even if there wasn’t a ‘massive’ rightward swing). We can seek to support organisations that more accurately reflect our values and what we seek for the State (and two states), lobbying policy change – after all Netanyahu comfortably presents himself as ‘the’ spokesperson for the Jewish people. But you know what, in my lifetime here in the UK we had years of Thatcher and Tory governments, followed by years of Blair and Labour. I could feel that one or the other didn’t represent me, especially as I reached voting age. But it was the will of the electorate. If I wanted to change the government, I had the option of joining a political party and/or participating in protest and I could cast my vote. If I couldn’t persuade enough people to join ‘my’ cause then it was my problem. Which means, you can be unhappy with Israeli government policy, advocate for change in the political positioning, I can even be fed up with Netanyahu’s woeful record in leadership anywhere but his own power. But if you don’t live in Israel you can’t complain about who was elected. If you want to change the government (as opposed to the policies) then go and live in Israel and participate in the democratic process. If you’re Jewish or even ‘simply’ have a Jewish grandparent you can move to Israel under the law of return, become a citizen, pay taxes, vote as much as you like (which by the way is the other side of the coin to Netanyahu’s offer for French or Danish Jews to come to Israel after the terrible shootings). If you don’t live in Israel, don’t bleat about the choice the electorate has made. That my friends is democracy. And the more we despair the clearer the gulf between the diaspora Jewish community and Israel seems evident.

Now here’s the other thing that many of my close friends and colleagues in Israel might not state explicitly or don’t agree with me about, but for me this is a case for Zionism. This election makes clear, especially having read some moving posts by those articulating a view of politics in Israel, that casting a vote in Israeli elections is making one of the strongest, demonstrable examples of life-and-death Jewish decisions. And I know it’s not just Jews voting (and for that matter there are those directly affected by the election who are unable to vote). Let us, as if it were possible, for a moment not talk about the enfranchisement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. I’m talking about the reality that day to day Judaism  is no longer, really, about these enormous decisions. It’s about who’s coming to the communal seder, complaining about Jewish leadership, choosing (or not) to join a synagogue, rising antisemitism. But casting a vote in the Israeli elections has clear ramifications for the future of the Jewish people in a way that little in the diaspora can.

Actually, it’s one of the deficiencies of Israeli politicians as I saw it this time round, and one of the deficiencies in Jewish leadership in the world. We no longer talk about visions for the Jewish people and the world in which we live. We don’t say often enough these are the values that I think should be manifested in my community and society and push a conversation around them. Not in specifics. But a vote in Israel, at least in an implicit way, is a way that the Jewish people understand their particular and universal vision and are given the chance to express that understanding – what it means to be Jewish (how to be) and what we want our relationship to the world around us (including our fellow citizens and neighbours) to be.

This year began with a frightening reminder of antisemitism and the threat it poses. As Jewish communities we have in the diaspora, especially in Europe, been faced again with the existential anxiety that merely being Jewish or identifying with the Jewish community can be life endangering. We have mourned again for Jewish blood shed on European soil. That anxiety has been all pervasive in the last three months in communal discussions. Now imagine if that anxiety was every day for decades. That is what hangs over the electorate when the votes are cast in Israel. Being Jewish counts for more than culture or niceties of communal politics. Jewish identity in Israel stands for, at least potentially, the possibility of life and the quality of life for all those who share life on a little sliver of land in the Middle East and all inhabitants of our tiny planet. That is the potential of Zionism. Not the tragic racism, bigotry, theocracy, inequality and occupation which these election results seem to reinforce.

Zionism is more than a romantic dream. It is the expression of a people’s identity. The opportunity to be and to become. The expression of a vision of a minority for the global society. No longer is Judaism bagels and bar mitzvah. It is values and vision. That’s what we have lost sight of I think. We obsess over us and them politics. We see shadowy figures of millennia of Jew hatred lurking at every street corner. We fight over communal politics and authenticity. We plutz over synagogue membership. We throw lavish Bar Mitzvah parties and go to our lovely cultural events. We have become blinkered and unimaginative. And we the leaders, preachers and speakers have fallen into this short sighted trap. It is time to speak again about visions and values, over and over until we’re heard, about turning our oldest gift of prophetic imagination into action.

Rant over, now back to giving some tzedakah (charity) to the organisations in Israel that share my progressive values and trying to support my friends who live in Israel who are at a loss for where progress towards peace, equality and justice will come from.


Political Discourse: David Cameron, Religious and Traditional Values

When politicians write or speak of values in the context of religion, I get just a little bit uneasy; particularly when they refer to values of the Bible or of a particular religion. So Prime Minister David Cameron was on a hiding to nothing with his Easter message this year.

He seems set on placing Christian values at the heart of life in the UK. My unease about this is similar to when politicians speak of ‘traditional’ values. Indeed, the stories in response to Cameron’s December 2011 speech commemorating the publication of the King James Bible frequently spoke of a return to ‘traditional Christian values’; so even the listener cannot always distinguish between religious values and traditional values.

To be sure, I have no problem with religion and religious conversations having a role in public discourse, as long as followers of religions do not expect their position to be the final arbiter of what is right or should be done. However, when it comes to Easter greetings and such like, I cynically suspect politicians are using religion to make political gain (especially since public declarations about religion for politicians in the UK are potentially toxic) and, on top of this, I have two other concerns.

Firstly, when politicians use the idea of religious values they seem to remove those values from their context. Let us suppose I wanted to speak of ‘the Golden Rule’ as Cameron did this Easter: do to others as you would have them do to you. The context of the Gospel of Luke 6:31 is very different to the context in which we find the almost contemporaneous rabbinic reference to the negative version of the Golden Rule:

“Hillel said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”

Nor is the context of Luke the same as the discussion which occur in other rabbinic teachings that demonstrates the problem of the version of the Golden Rule found in Leviticus 19:18: the rabbinic teaching suggests that since you may despise yourself, you might despise your fellow:

Ben Azzai said: THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE DESCENDANTS OF ADAM WHEN GOD CREATED HUMANKIND IN THE IMAGE OF GOD HE MADE HIM (Genesis 5:1) is a great principle of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva said: But YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOURSELF (Leviticus 19:18) is even a greater principle. Hence you must not say, ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbour be put to shame’. R. Tanhuma said: If you do so, know whom you put to shame, [for] IN THE IMAGE OF GOD HE MADE HIM. (Genesis Rabbah 24:7 Soncino edition).

Nor does Cameron’s use of the verse from the Gospel of Luke take into account the historical experience of the Jewish people who have found it particularly hard to turn the other cheek to their enemies, since their enemies were often trying to exterminate them. You may argue that interpretation of literature, and particularly the Bible, frequently takes phrases out of context to establish new or adapted meanings. However, when interpreted within a religious community that seems well and good, but when applied to the reified world of public political discourse it feels hollow and the impact of the words is dulled.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly of all, I work and live in a religious community that has embraced change, abandoned hierarchical constructions of power, worked for the equality of women, included people who are not heterosexual, recognised the role of science in understanding the world, and so on. If The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, where I work, had stuck to ‘traditional’ values we would not have a senior Rabbi who is a woman, we would not have conducted same-sex ceremonies and we would not have recognised scripture as a human product subject to great nobility and unethical fallibility. The religious tradition we inherited and continue to transmit has changed over time and we have also been a conscious and deliberate part of that change. Heaven forbid that we should try and hermetically seal the Judaism of today, attempting to deny the reality of change in the past or the possibility of change in the future.

Poor David Cameron, he tries to bring in religious teachings and ideas to the important public debate about our shared heritage and the character of society in this country and yet he is still criticised by a religious minister. Perhaps he cannot win. I’m sure the remarks this Easter were made with a genuine commitment to his faith and to his desire to make Britain a better place, just as I’m sure his Passover message was heartfelt and genuine. Believe it or not, I have no particular problem with acknowledging the role of Christianity in the history and cultural development of the Britain. At least Cameron did not use the misnomer of ‘Judeo-Christian’ values, as if two thousand years since the religions began developing their separate ways could be ignored. I just wish he was a little more subtle in espousing statements of the role of Christian values as defining of life in this complex country and, even more importantly, that ‘traditional’ values were not heralded as the great saviour of civil society.