Robert A. Cohen
Writing From the Edge / June 6, 2020
If you can’t make the connections, it’s best to keep quiet. If you can’t see how your own views on related matters may defeat your credibility, then say nothing. If you think someone else is being racist but you’re only concerned about security, you need to do some serious study and a bit of self-reflection. Otherwise, you end up looking disingenuous, or foolish, or both.
I’m afraid that’s what happened this week as Jewish leaders and community bodies in the UK looked to express their horror at the murder of George Floyd, demonstrate their solidarity with black Americans and show their commitment to tackling racism more widely.
Here’s a couple of examples of what I mean. First, from our UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis:
“We cannot stand idly by as it [racism] takes hold of our societies. However, it is also not enough for us to simply join in with a superficial chorus of disapproval. Real change calls upon us to find the courage to challenge racism wherever we come across it: on social media, in the streets, in our communities and in our hearts.”
The Chief Rabbi speaks the truth. But it’s his words that are “superficial” when you set them against his previous statements and interventions.
This is the same Chief Rabbi who denied Palestinian history, culture and rights when he welcomed Donald Trump’s Israeli/Jewish centric view of the status of Jerusalem in December 2017, even believing that it would “advance the cause of peace in the region”.
This is the same Chief Rabbi who chose to make his attack on Jeremy Corbyn during last year’s UK General Election on the very day that Labour leader had launched the party’s manifesto commitments to black and ethnic minorities, ensuring that those policy pledges received minimal media coverage. If the Rabbi had really cared about racism in our society, he might have chosen a different day to say his piece.
The second example is from President of the Board of Deputies, Marie van de Zyl who tweeted this:
“I feel haunted and also traumatised about this cold bloodied racist murder. We must show solidarity against hate and such vile racism.”
The “vile racism” of a white policeman choking to death a black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes is easy enough to condemn. It doesn’t take much thinking or much courage. Nothing much is at stake in saying this. What’s harder to acknowledge, and almost impossible to publically call out, is the structural racism that sits at the heart of an enterprise which now dominates Jewish communal life around the world. Defending that racism is exactly what the Board, and most other Jewish institutions, do all the time.
The latest example of this came from the Board of Deputies only last week. In defending the Board’s decision not to take sides on the question of Israeli annexation of the parts of West Bank, Marie van de Zyl chose to use the idea of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as her defence:
“We also have to take into account that Israel – the only democracy in the Middle East – has an elected Government which reflects the will of Israeli voters.”
This is the kind of blindness to structural and institutional discrimination which she, and many others who champion Israel, just cannot bring themselves to see.
There are up to 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank where the major Settlements are located. It’s also the area over which Israel has total jurisdiction. Meanwhile, there are 65,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley. None of them had a vote in the Israeli election, yet it’s their land which will be annexed if the proposal goes ahead. So while the “will of Israeli voters” matters, the Palestinians directly impacted by all this have no say whatsoever. That’s discrimination based on ethnicity and religion – also known as racism.
Other statements of solidarity and compassion came from the Union of Jewish Students , Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism – all of them attempting to reach out to those hurting but failing to acknowledge the troubling racism that’s much closer to home.
A few days after George Floyd was murdered, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian, Eyad al-Halaq, was shot dead in East Jerusalem by Israeli border police.
Eyad al-Halaq was on his way to a school for children and adults with disabilities when police say they saw him carrying a “suspicious object that looked like a pistol.” The police officers chased him and then fired shots which killed him. After conducting a body search they found no weapon. Israeli news reports say the police thought he was a terrorist because he was wearing gloves. According to his family, Eyad had the mental age of a six-year-old and wouldn’t have understand what was going on but would have run in fear.
This kind of deathly racial profiling by Israeli security forces is nothing new.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a respected Palestinian leader for decades, reacted to the event by reminding us that “Israel has been on a killing spree”, with the latest “execution-style killing” bringing to at least 21, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli occupation forces since January.
Of course none of the Jewish voices commenting on George Floyd in Minneapolis have had a word to say about the killing of Eyad al-Halaq or the 21 other killings (so far) this year by Israeli security forces.
For our establishment Jewish spokespeople, the death of Eyad al-Halaq was, at best, an unfortunate mistake on the part of the Israeli border police. For them, it remains a security matter not a race issue.
Our Jewish community leaders and the organisations they represent, are incapable of making the necessary race connections because they are trapped in an ideological bind. That ideological bind is called Zionism. It’s a bind which makes you see the actions of the State of Israel through the prism of Jewish history and Jewish security while blinding you to any competing perspectives that could disrupt your Jewish centric outlook.
Liberal Zionism can’t hide its racism
Even the most liberal Zionists end up hobbled in their ability to show true solidarity with those who face daily discrimination around the world based on race, ethnicity or religion.
This week more than forty prominent liberal Zionists in the UK, including historian Sir Simon Schama and novelist Howard Jacobson, wrote an open letter, published in Haaretz, to the outgoing Israel ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, conveying their “concern and alarm at the policy proposal to unilaterally annex areas of the West Bank”. Although the letter mentions “grave consequences” for the Palestinians, its primary concern is not injustice or discrimination but rather the damage it will do to Israel’s global standing, its “Jewish and democratic” character and the chances of a two-state solution.
Despite Israel being the occupier and the Palestinians the occupied, the signatories still portray the Palestinians as the primary authors of their own oppression:
“We appreciate the crucial role Palestinian violence, abandonment of negotiations and rejections of offers made by previous Israeli leaders have played.”
But it’s when it comes to BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) that their claimed liberalism is quickly abandoned and the racial discrimination which underpins their outlook is revealed. It turns out that their greatest fear is BDS:
“Annexation would be a shot in the arm for the BDS movement and the delegitimisation of Israel. It will take calls for sanctions against Israel away from the fringes of the far-left and catapult them into the mainstream of the political discourse.”
It’s a very telling formulation. The writers choose to reject a peaceful protest movement which is supported overwhelmingly by Palestinian civil society. It’s the liberal Zionists who are doing the “delegitimisation” here. The message at the heart of the BDS campaign is not the destruction of Israel but a call to treat everyone in Israel, and the territories it controls, equally. Once again, Palestinian resistance is presented only as a threat to Jewish security. God forbid, that this “far-left” desire for fairness and equality might just go “mainstream”!
It’s impossible for even liberal Jewish supporters of Israel to recognise the structural and institutional racism they inhabit while they cling to the idea that only an exclusive Jewish sovereignty in Israel/Palestine can guarantee Jewish security. The longer this idea is treated as a universal law of nature rather than a sorely overrated political ideology, the longer it will take to recognise and then shed a racist mind set.
While America has spent decades struggling to acknowledge and rectify its past, Israeli Jewish society remains locked in a state of denial, with no hint of even beginning the struggle to re-evaluate its foundational stories. The same goes for the communities around the world who’ve placed Israel and Zionism at the centre of their Jewish identities. And that means the racism goes on, hard wired into Jewish institutions and culture around the world.
Until we drop Zionism as the lens through which we see the world, and our place within it, we will not understand why our project of national liberation has been, and remains, a racist endeavour for another people.
So how should Jews show solidarity?
So what should the white Jewish response be to what’s been happening in America and in Israel in recent days? And what can we do to begin to address the racism that sits within us?
As Jews we have a history of discrimination and hatred towards us, including state sanctioned brutality and murder. Today, thankfully, white Jews living in liberal democracies (and that’s most of us) don’t experience the daily social, economic and political discrimination faced by people of colour every day.
We can, and should, stand in solidarity with those for whom racism is a daily lived reality, and we can, and must, draw on our own history and experience to find empathy. And when people of colour ask us to look closely at ourselves and the prejudices that shape our outlook, Zionism has to be a big part of that individual and communal self-reflection.
Robert A. Cohen lives in Great-Britain