Thursday, November 06, 2008

independent jewish voices: 'a time to speak out'

In February last year a number of Jews living in the UK came together to form a new body called Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). IJV did not set out to be a political party, or to have a defined political programme, but describes itself as “a network of Jews in Britain who share a commitment to certain principles”.

These principles, laid down in the IJV’s founding declaration, include: putting human rights first, rejecting all forms of racism, respecting international law, and treating as equally legitimate the Palestinian and Israeli quests for a better – a peaceful, just and secure – future.

Those who signed the IJV declaration wanted to challenge the claim of successive Israeli governments to represent Jews in general. And they were frustrated that those who claim to speak for British Jews –including the Board of Deputies of British Jews – tend to reflect only the position of the Israeli government.

The new network aroused very mixed reactions in the British Jewish community. Some welcomed it; others were highly critical and said the criticisms of Israel by Jews threatened Israel’s very existence.

More than 560 Jews resident in Britain have signed the IJV declaration. They include the Marxist historian and author Professor Eric Hobsbawm; Nobel prizewinning playwright Harold Pinter; fashion designer Nicole Farhi; actress Zoe Wanamaker; psychoanalyst Susie Orbach and film director Mike Leigh. The TV personality and comedian Stephen Fry said: “I am proud to lend my name to a free-thinking group like this.”

Now the first book written by IJV members has appeared. The 306-page paperback, “A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity”, is published in London by Verso Books. Each of its 27 chapters is an essay by a member of IJV.

The title of the book reflects the urgency that its authors feel over the need for Jews to speak out. As Professor Lynne Segal puts it:“the failure to settle this brutal conflict helps to strengthen warlords and military hawks around the globe.”

The book was launched some days ago at the Metropolitan University in north London, at an event that also marked the launch of the university’s new faculty of humanities, arts, languages and education. Many of the book’s authors attended, and there were animated discussions between them and graduate students.

One contributor to the book, London-based architect Abe Hayeem, told Al-Hayat how at the launch Lynne Segal (pictured below), “gave a passionate speech about her experience of the terrifying checkpoints and Israeli soldiers bristling with guns, and wondered how this could be conveyed to the wholehearted supporters of Israel and the status quo.” Hayeem adds: “That is why this book is so important and why it should be read not only by Jews but by the whole community.”

Hayeem thinks that IJV’s role is “of a continuing importance to regularly raise the issue of Palestine, to push for a lasting solution” and that the IJV is “now more confident with the publication of this book, which is a kind of manifesto by its best academic, legal, literary minds.”

Several contributors to the book point out ways in which Jews who publicly criticise Israel are sometimes put under intense pressure. Hayeem (pictured) is a founder of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP), an organisation which highlights “the complicity of Israel’s architects, planners and construction industry in the brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”.

APJP was launched in February 2006 in the offices of the world-famous British Jewish architect Lord Richard Rogers. Lord Rogers only appeared at the beginning of the meeting, and made some introductory remarks on the importance of justice in architecture. A series of articles appeared in the British media claiming inaccurately that APJP had called for a boycott of Israel, and this led to a furious backlash against Lord Rogers in New York where he had recently been appointed architect for the $1.7 billion Jacob Javits Conference Centre.

Rogers was summoned to New York “like a suspected criminal, to face a tribunal of city councillors, heads of certain prominent mainstream Jewish organizations and elected officials.” They attacked APJP as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and threatened to withdraw the Jacob Javits contract, and possibly another major New York project, from Rogers. Rogers was forced to disassociate himself from APJP, and he put out a series of increasingly strong statements in which he for example condemned Hamas and said he was in favour of the (separation) wall.

Emma Clyne, a Swedish Jew, writes of her experience as chairperson of the Jewish Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, in 2006-07. She came under intense pressure from the Union of Jewish Students, the umbrella organisation which works with Jewish societies in universities.

Before she became the chair of the SOAS Jewish Society, she had found it was like an Israel Society with frequent talks by pro-Zionist speakers. She took over the chair on condition that there was to be a clear distinction between the Jewish Society and the Israel Society. This led to a furious reaction from the Union of Jewish Students, which told her: “That’s not what the Jewish Society does. You can’t separate Israeli politics from Jewish identity. It is all the same.”

The antagonism towards her reached a peak after she went to the launch of Independent Jewish Voices in 2007 and found the speakers “honest articulate and inspirational.” When she invited some of the speakers to a meeting at SOAS to discuss “the impact of nationalism on Jewish identity” the pressure on her increased, and she was told that the Union of Jewish Students and the Israeli Embassy were very concerned about the meeting.

The distinguished human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman, points to the consensus among international lawyers that Israel “has been and continues to be guilty of serious violations” of international law. He examines in detail the Israeli claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to its occupation of the West Bank, and its numerous violations of the Convention.“The eventual extension of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court may point the way forward,” he writes.

Disputes among Jews over Zionism and Israel go a long way back. Lynne Segal, the Australian-born Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College, writes of her grandfather who in 1895 founded the first, and for many decades only, Jewish newspaper in Australia He “spent the last two decades of his life embattled in bitter disputes over the political goals of Zionism.” In 1941 he criticised Political Zionism in articles, saying it is “unjust, dangerous to a degree, even cruel in it s inevitable consequences and, after all, unobtainable.”

Segal says that what is most maddening for peace activists in the front line of the conflict, and for their distant supporters such as IJV, is “the knowledge that Israel has so rarely been serious in its talk of wanting peace.”

Stan Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, spent around 17 years at the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cohen grew up in South Africa, and when he started teaching in Israel in 1979 he expected that most of his colleagues would be the equivalent of their liberal counterparts in South Africa. But he was disappointed. Israeli academics know all about the multiple Israeli injustices against the Palestinians and yet their record of fighting such injustices is generally very weak.

Cohen (pictured) calls Israeli universities “virtual universities” because they are somehow detached from the realities of occupation and intifada. He remembers a law faculty graduation ceremony, when the invited minister of justice was speaking of the absolute value of the rule of law. “Just outside you could smell the tear-gas in the air and see spirals of smoke coming from the nearby village of Al-‘Isawiya, now under siege from the border police.”

The writer Gillian Slovo (pictured, credit Charlie Hopkinson) notes how in South Africa, the great majority of those Whites who refused to close their eyes to the injustices of apartheid were Jews, like her father Joe Slovo who was a leading member of the African National Congress.

Slovo includes in her essay an exchange of e-mails between her and Paul Gross, then a member of the Public Affairs Department of the Israeli Embassy in London, that occurred in February 2007 during Israel Apartheid Week. The embassy had put out a statement headlined “The myth of ‘Apartheid’ Israel”. But Slovo argued in her e-mails to Gross why it is right to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with that of blacks in apartheid South Africa.

Jacqueline Rose (pictured below), Professor of English at Queen Mary College, University of London, examines “the myth of self-hatred”. She writes: “There is one charge against Jews who criticize Israel that seems to me particularly misguided, and that is the charge that we are self-hating Jews.” She does not hate herself or Jewishness or Israel when she criticises Israeli policies. “I hate what the Israeli government is doing, and has been doing for a very long time, to the Palestinians and to itself.”

She points out that it is central to the founding declaration of Independent Jewish Voices that its members speak in the name of a Jewish ethic: “We hereby reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice.”

Richard Kuper, a founder member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, examines “the new anti-Semitism”. Those who criticise Israel are sometimes accused of being anti-Semitic. One of the core claims in the “new anti-Semitism” is that Jews worldwide are being held responsible for what Israel does. But Kuper argues that Zionism itself has systematically made such a conflation. If leading Jewish organisations and individuals cannot distinguish clearly between Jews and Israelis, “we should not be surprised if others fail the test as well.” Anti-Semitic attacks are often a reaction to the actions of Israel, and the greatest contribution in halting such developments would be a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Along with allegations of “new anti-Semitism” there are often complaints that Israel is singled out unfairly for criticism and is demonised. But, Kuper writes, Israel singles itself out and presents itself as special with its claims that it is the “only democratic country in the Middle East” with the “most moral army in the world”.

The writer, sociologist and broadcaster Anne Karpf writes on the ‘Arab Nazi’ and the ‘Nazi Jew’.” She examines in detail the allegations that Arabs behave like Nazis. Karpf writes that while it cannot be denied that there is a virulent strain of anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim countries, “there is no evidence that the Arab nations in general, or the Palestinians in particular, have acted as Nazis in any meaningful sense of the term in the 60 years since the Second World War.”
The journalist and author D D Guttenplan says that many of his friends have told him that while they agreed with the IJV position, they will not sign its declaration. One main reason for this is that to support IJV in public would be “a scandal in front of the goyim” (ie non-Jews).

Guttenplan says that for decades Jews in the diaspora have kept silent “while a whole people have been brutalized and degraded.” He calls on his fellow Jews to meet the challenge laid down 2000 years ago by Rabbi Hillel, that Jews should stand up as individuals and be counted.

The writer and producer Michael Kustow, who has served as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and as associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, says the “last straw” that made him sign the UJV declaration was Israel’s blitz bombing of Lebanon in July 2006. “We diaspora Jews, with all the realism history might have taught us, should be reminding our leaders that they must talk to all parties, and not just to the Israeli leadership and [not just] to a Palestinian government that is not the government most Palestinians elected.”

Kustow praises the vigorous “alternative” tradition in which the best in Jewish culture has been produced by “Bad Boys and Bad Girls” (such as Harold Pinter, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Miller and Rosa Luxemburg) and not by unthinking solidarity with “the community”. Kustow ends his essay: “I do my best to keep company with the agitators and affronters, which is another reason why I signed this statement.”

Susannah Tarbush
published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat 6 Nov 2008

1 comment:

PEN Atlas said...

Thanks for the great blog, and a very detailed introduction to IVJ and this important book. I love Michael Kustow's apposite comment about the anti-authoritarian tradition in Jewish arts and culture, including figures such as Emma Goldman and Walter Benjamin who are continuing inspirations.