Sunday, 18 January 2009

Letter to Israel

Dear President, Prime Minister, people and unconditional supporters of Israeli policy,

I started writing this ten days ago, long before a ceasefire was in sight. That tells you how difficult it was to write.

On the subject of how you maintain security, I can no longer keep silent.

I have tried, and tried desperately, not least because many of the people I love support you and your policies ardently, and I have tried to respect that. I don't want to lose friendships, lose the precious ties that bound me to my ex-students, some of whom have found me again via Facebook and all of whom I am loath to lose. I love you all. Remember that challenge is a form of that love.

I have also kept silent out of my passionate love for Judaism. I came so close to entering your fold, but one of the things that held me back was the unspoken rule of unquestioning support for Israeli policies. I loved Judaism because I was allowed to discuss faith passionately and question it, but I was troubled by the fact that I couldn't question the politics of its homeland.

Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people and as a representative of God's kingdom on Earth, absolutely.

Current Israeli actions? Never.

I have had serious questions about Israeli motivations ever since I can remember, beginning with Sabra and Shatila. I could never quite believe, even when I was young, that it was about defence. It was...too much, too aggressive, too angry. Surrounding the camps whilst the Phalangists massacred people? Indiscriminate bulldozing, firing and bombing? The rage with which you respond is the rage of extermination and revenge, not the righteous anger of those protecting their own.

If you were truly protecting your own, you would respond with surgical and precise force, not that of Goliath.

What HAS been surgical and precise is the dismantling of the Palestinians' hope, leaving them nothing but inhuman ways to respond. I can understand why THEY respond with reptilian attacks - they have no prospects of a good education, a good job, of ever escaping the hell that is the huge, 60-year-old refugee camp of Gaza. In a misguided attempt to keep the Palestinians from being a threat, you made them one. You took away everything that could have given them hope: access to the lives that every human being aspires to. In dismantling - or preventing - an infrastructure of education and economy, you created the monsters you feared.

Had you come in and built Israel together with Ishmael's children, made them full Israeli citizens with the opportunities that every person deserves, Israel and the world would be a very different place. A better one, I suspect.

So why not?

I've thought about this long and hard, and the answer that keeps recurring is a troubling one. It starts in Egypt at the time of Moshe, during the first Pesach.

Your God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian to set you free. He killed *every first-born child* of people who *were also His creation* so YOU could go free. Parents lost their first-born children so you could go free: people who didn't know you were slaves, didn't necessarily have anything to do with your being slaves, lost children to pay for your freedom. Parents grieved the greatest loss because your God valued you more than He valued them. I'd like to think that I'd have told my Egyptian neighbours to put blood on their lintels.

That story has always bothered me - the idea that some lives are worth more than others to a God who created them all. Why murder innocent children? Why not completely freak Pharaoh out in some other way? Surely the God who created him knew what his weak spot was.

Then, I'd hear snippets that would be dropped in conversation - snippets about how charity was 'towards another Jew', leaving me to wonder where there that left the rest of us. And though this next argument is only discussed in the narrowest band of Judaism, I was horrified to discover that the question of whether or not it is appropriate to save a non-Jewish life on Shabbat was even entertained.

Yes, I understand the desire to protect your own, especially when you're a small group of tribes/nation. But there's a fine line between protecting your own and believing that those outside your tribe/nation are somehow less human than you are, and therefore their lives don't have the same value as yours. We all do it to some extent with those who are 'other'. It's not right, but it's human.

I just want one of you to stand up and tell the truth:

"Honestly, we view the Gazans as cockroaches, not human, and we're trying to exterminate them."

It's the only explanation I can come up with for why it is possible to imprison 1.5 million people in a small square of land, blockade them into near starvation, then bombard them relentlessly from the air, then prevent humanitarian aid from reaching them as much as possible.

It's the only explanation I have for why the country with the *best* surgical strike team in the world didn't use that to grab several hundred Hamas members you'd been keeping an eye on, rather than using a broadbrush ground and air assault.

It's the only explanation I have for bizarre excuses for large numbers of casualties, such as 'they dug up bodies from graves to pad out numbers of casualties.' Sorry, but decomposition and erm, empty graves would be obvious markers of that.

It's the only explanation I have for the lack of remorse at over 1,000 deaths. They're simply collateral damage.

It's the only explanation I have for the angry defensiveness at any kind of criticism from anyone, including the indiscriminate use of 'Holocaust denier'.

Every last one of which is a sign that you need to take a good, long hard look in the mirror.

It's the only way that I can make sense of the fact that people who are amongst the most thoughtful, humane, caring people I have EVER met can do what has happened in Gaza.

It's the only way to explain why people who are amongst the best at nuanced thinking can suddenly only think in black and white when it comes to the issue of Israeli security, and lose sight of creative solutions that might actually work, rather than repeating the same heavy-handed force that fails time after time. Your security and the security of the Palestinians are intertwined. They are NOT mutually exclusive.

To quote one of your own: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

It's time to grow up as a nation and accept responsibility, admitting that whilst your intentions were good, the end does not justify the means, and that the abused has come perilously close to becoming the abuser.

Look into your enemies' eyes. I think you may find that they are just like yours. One day at a time, one friendship at a time, this must end. And know that every goy's life is worth just as much as one of yours in God's eyes. Then, I think, it will all fall into place. And all those wonderful qualities you bring to bear in discussing your faith will come into your politics.

Surely sixty years of this is enough. Shalom.

Remember that every time you dehumanise another human being, you dehumanise yourself. And it breaks my heart to see that happen to children I have taught and people - a people - that I love.

But don't just listen to two excellent analyses, Robert Fisk and your own Avi Shlaim, who fought with the IDF in the 60s, offer food for thought.

And know that as tough as my criticism is, I love you dearly. I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't care.

G-d bless,

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