Laying claim to Judaism

The following is an extract adapted from the final section of part III of Offence: The Jewish Case, by Brian Klug (London: Seagull Books, 2009). Distributed by University of Chicago Press:

On 11 January 2009 a rally in support of Israel, organized jointly by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, was held in London’s Trafalgar Square. A number of us, under the auspices of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), gathered on the fringe of the square for a counter rally. To get to our site outside Canada House we had to run a gauntlet of jeers. ”˜Traitors’, ”˜cowards’, ”˜scum’ and other epithets were hurled in our direction. When the rally was over, some of us were spat at and called ”˜kapos’ (a derisory term for certain Jewish inmates of Nazi concentration camps who were seen as collaborators). The contempt and hatred for us, as Jews, was palpable. But it did not come from fanatical Jihadists or fascists in the British National Party. It came from fellow Jews. A ritual was being enacted in which we were being symbolically ”˜othered’.

In a way, I am glad of it. Being othered reminds me that I am a Jew, especially when I consider what provoked this behaviour: the expression of open dissent about the State of Israel. For what does this mean? What does it mean when you are expected to stand solidly with a state? When you must declare that you love it before you may question it? When criticism must always be balanced with praise? When all the fears and hopes of a people are placed in its hands? When to distance yourself from it is to invite contempt, and to approach it is to ascend, as if it were resting on a pedestal? What does this mean? It amounts to this: Israel is not a normal – ordinary – state in the minds and hearts of many Jews. It means the state has been made into a statue. You can call it a cause or ideal. But it is an idol by any other name.

Which is no idle thing. In fact nothing is weightier in the Hebrew scripture than the matter of idolatry. What, in heaven’s name, does it mean to be Jewish if not to knock statues off their pedestals? If, whatever our political opinions, we cannot rise above the State of Israel and put it in its place; if we do not reduce its status to that of a mere thing among things; then we are not Jews, or we are Jews in name only. But things can be criticized, challenged, opposed, rejected, replaced: there is not a line that you may not cross when approaching a thing – not in the iconoclastic Judaism to which I lay claim.

But fellow human beings are another matter. They are fellow members of the largest Jewish family in the world: the human family, sharing the same bubbe and zeyda, grandma Eve and grandpa Adam, through whom (in the Genesis story) they inherit the image of God. From which the Talmud derives the principle of kevod habriyos, literally ”˜honour of the created’, in idiomatic English ”˜human dignity’. ”˜The dignity of every person is sacred’, writes Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, who for fifteen years was Rosh (head) of the famous Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The concept, he says, has ”˜overriding importance’:

Rabbinic enactments and various scriptural prohibitions are set aside when they conflict with human respect and dignity ”¦ The concept of [human dignity] does not, however, stop at refraining from insulting or degrading one’s fellow human being. One is also obligated to enhance and magnify the prestige and honor of one’s fellow (Reb Chaim’s Discourses).

So, you cross any line in order to speak out about the degradation of others: this is a rule in the Judaism to which I lay claim. You do not infringe this rule to support a state, whatever your attachment to that state. If there is anything that Jews should always support it is justice, not a state; especially not a state that sports the name ”˜Israel’, not if ”˜Israel’ stands for the toppling of idols (or their moral equivalent) and the pursuit of justice. ”˜Justice, justice shall you pursue’ (Deut. 16:20): this is the directive that Moses gives the people of Israel in the wilderness, the direction that he points out. And, starting with the Hebrew prophets, there is a long straggling line of Judeans and Jews, of ancient Israelites and modern Israelis, of rabbis and writers and activists, who have followed suit. Some call themselves secular, others religious, others just plain Jewish.

Between them, these two principles, the one positive (respect for human dignity), the other negative (rejection of idolatry), lay the substantive basis for a Jewish case for outspokenness. On the one hand, they motivate, on the other hand they limit, free expression of opinion about anything whatsoever. To which we can add a third – essentially procedural – principle: commitment to argument.

”˜Argument for the sake of heaven’: this is how the Mishna puts it when argument is conducted not for its own sake or for the sake of winning but with a view to a higher purpose, such as truth, justice or peace. Even God enters the argument when, for example, Abraham engages him in moral reasoning over the fate of Sodom (Gen. 18). And not even God can settle the argument, according to a remarkable tale in the Talmud. Once (goes the story) there was a dispute between two rabbis, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, when a heavenly voice intervened to say that Rabbi Eliezer was right. To which Rabbi Joshua retorted, in effect, that God has no standing. ”˜For the Torah has already been given from Mount Sinai and we pay no attention to a heavenly voice’. God ”˜smiled in that hour’ and said, ”˜My children have defeated me. My children have defeated me’ (Bava Metzia 59b). After quoting this passage, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik comments: ”˜[I]t is as if the Creator of the World Himself abides by man’s decisions and instruction’ (Hlakhic Man). Earth looks to heaven for guidance but heaven, in this story, looks back to earth. ”˜You decide. Argue it out’: argument for the sake of the world. (Argument for the sake of the world is argument for the sake of heaven: this, in a way, sums up Judaism for me.)

In the argument over Israel, there are no ”˜no go’ areas except as determined by the first two principles, applied via the third. Anything goes, even discussion of the most sensitive issues, even its existence as ”˜the Jewish state’. And if this causes offence, tough: no political entity, no state, no object: nothing is above and beyond the reach of argument in the interests of peace, justice and truth. These are the commitments that I recognize as staple in the Judaism to which I lay claim.