Archive for March, 2009

Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood


In this book, the Israeli historian, Idith Zertal, (Cambridge University Press, 2005) makes a strong case for the way Israel has “appropriated and used the memory of the Holocaust in order to define and legitimize its existence and poliitics”. She argues that the creation in Israel of a particular collective memory about the Holocaust has “led to a culture of death and victimhood which permeates Israeli society, its rituals, and its self-image. The ghost of the Holocaust is ever present in Israel, in the lives and nightmares of the survivors, and in the absence of the victims.” This isn’t a new analysis but Zertal shows how this memory has been constructed and maintained and how it prevents the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians.


The media – perpetuating peace or war


After a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel in 2005, I stopped listening to the mainstream media. Having gained a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship during the visit, I was painfully aware of bias, distorted framing of the conflict, hypocrisy, and lies in news stories carried by the British media.
But that wasn’t the only reason I tuned out. It was the unstated agenda that disturbed me – an agenda that goes beyond the reporting of events to one that selects only those events that fit the agenda of perpetual war, confusion and despair. Many peacemaking initiatives are never covered by the media and the context in which acts of violence occur are rarely made clear. The consequences of the relentless attention to violent conflict is to reinforce a negative view of human nature, to effectively perpetuate a state of war. In Israel, it is even more blatant than in Britain. Through the media, Israeli leaders “taught us to scoff at belief in peace and any hope for change in our relations with the Arabs. They convinced us that the Arabs understand only force, and therefore that is the only language we can use in our dealings with them. (David Grossman, Ha’aretz, January 2009). The effect is to legitimate the belief that our collective identities (Jew, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian) reflect real differences between us. In this version of reality, the media make peace that much more unattainable.
Is it possible for the media to have a peacemaking agenda? The visit in 2005 showed me that it is. That visit was with a compassionate listening delegation led by a US organisation ( It was a unique opportunity to listen to Israelis and Palestinians as they spoke their deepest truths. The experience opened my eyes and my heart to a different reality – that we have more in common than separates us and that beneath our opposing beliefs are the same fears, hopes, values and needs. What I heard from both Israeli Jews and Palestinians were cries for help and calls for love – to be heard and accepted, to escape the tyranny of fear and victimhood, to be free of demonisation and misrepresentation, to have the chance to live in peace, harmony and justice.
Shortly after the visit, my rabbi invited me to become involved in Radio Salaam Shalom (, a community media project that does reflect the version of reality I want to create. Based in Bristol (UK), we have an internet radio station staffed by volunteers with one paid co-ordinator. We started with music and discussion-based live shows and now produce fortnightly Jewish-Muslim talk-focused podcasts. Our mission is to “create a multimedia resource dedicated to Jewish and Muslim dialogue, to promote understanding and share awareness of common community values, and to be an innovative broadcaster for constructive Muslim and Jewish communication everywhere”.
We don’t make statements or release official positions and we don’t try to find a common position that we all agree with. We act as a resource to support and encourage dialogue about whatever issues people feel are relevant. There is no censorship. Not surprisingly, Israel/Palestine is one of the topics we discuss. It’s not the only one but with the attack on Gaza, it’s been in the forefront of our awareness. We talk to each other; we interview people working for peace; we highlight projects focussed on non-violent, peaceful change and cooperation.
I’ve used my slot to listen to alternative Jewish voices about Israel, Zionism and Jewish identity. These include a woman whose experience as a hidden child of the Nazi Holocaust led her to support the Palestinian cause; a rabbi explaining why Judaism and Zionism are incompatible; a Jewish woman who campaigns for Jews to boycott Israeli goods; and a volunteer with the Ecumenical Accompanier Programme in Palestine and Israel.. I’ve also provided a platform for Palestinians, including Maha Taji Daghash, peacemaker and academic living in Israel and a woman from the Bay Area Jewish Palestinian Dialogue Group. It’s not all talk – I produced Dove, a drama by a Jewish playwright that explores the pain felt by mothers whose children kill and are killed in violent conflicts.
Every programme leaves me feeling inspired and hopeful. But what really lifts my spirits is the cooperation, openness and harmony between the Muslim and Jewish volunteers in Radio Salaam Shalom. During the latest crisis in Gaza, we kept talking and worked together to produce several podcasts sharing our reactions. As Gandhi says, “be the change you want to see in the world.” We are doing just that.

A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity


January 2009: A Palestinian man in his 60s is driving his two teenage sons back to Khan Younis in southern Gaza when they are fired upon by Israeli soldiers. They are ordered out of their car. One son is shot and dies immediately. The other is shot in the leg. The father begs the soldiers, who are visible and within speaking distance, for an ambulance. For 11 hours, they refuse his request. He has a mobile phone and calls humanitarian agencies, the emergency medical services, the media and another son in Canada but by the time the soldiers allow the ambulance through, his son has bled to death.
To those who are critical of Israel, the soldiers’ behaviour is incomprehensible, a sign of Israel’s moral depravity and barbaric treatment of civilians. To those who support Israel, the soldiers were just protecting themselves from enemy combatants hiding among the civilian population.
I heard this story in London on the 8th March at the launch of A Time To Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity, a book of essays by British and Israeli Jews published by Verso Books, 2008. It was one of the examples of medical violations of human rights in Gaza given by Miri Weingarten, Director of Palestinian Occupied Territories of the Physicians for Human Rights Israel. As well as impeding the evacuation of the wounded to hospitals within Gaza and to Israel, she gave details of attacks on medical personnel and the destruction and damage done to health facilities by the Israeli military. When asked how many of the more than 1300 dead Gazans were civilians, she shrugged and said that was a matter for debate. Most people agree that women and children are civilians but what about the men attending a police graduation ceremony? She told us about the hardening of attitudes among the Israel public fueled by the intense propaganda campaign in the Israeli media. The lack of information and the stifling of dissent ensured that Israeli Jews knew very little about events in Gaza. For the duration of the attack, Israeli Jewish peace activitists were placed under house arrest and interrogated, a new phenomenon in Israeli society (not so new for Israeli Arabs who were also rounded up and detained).
By the time, Miri finished her measured, evidence-based presentation, I was in tears. I felt a heavy sorrow for all the victims of this stupid unwinnable war – for the Palestinians (more than 1300 dead, more than 5300 injured, more than 100,000 displaced and homeless, the infrastructure destroyed, the loss of hope, Hamas stronger and more militant than before) and for the Israelis whose psyches are twisted with revenge, hysteria and hopelessness and who are more extremist than before.
It was Uri Avnery, the keynote speaker, who described Operation Cast Lead as stupid and the Israeli government as fascists. Now 85, Avnery is Israel’s leading peace dissident. He fought for the Irgun in 1948, met Arafat during the siege of Beirut in 1982, was one of the founders of Gush Shalom in 1993 and was a member of the Knesset. For more than 60 years he has advocated a two-state solution. In his view, it is the only solution possible. To explain why, he took us back to the end of the 19th century when the Zionist movement grew out of the belief that there was no place for Jews in the emerging nationalist identities of Europe, that our salvation lay in a Jewish state. The Nazi Holocaust confirmed this belief. He said Israeli Jews would never give up their belief in a Jewish state, a need based on a deep mistrust of non-Jews and a fear of being in a minority. A one-state solution is unthinkable, he said, because Jews would be a minority in ten or 15 years time. He was adamant in his belief that people of different national identities cannot live together in one state and that indeed, there is no place in the world where they do.
Despite Avnery’s insistence that Israel is unique and cannot be compared to any other conflicts throughout the world, what I heard from him was an eloquent and passionate defence of ethno-nationalist ideology, no different than that expressed by the British National Party and most other ethno-nationalist movements around the world.
It’s not an ideology I agree with and I wonder how many Jewish citizens of Britain or of any country outside Israel truly believe in this ideology of despair. Our history, like those of Israeli Jews, includes centuries of European anti-semitism and the Nazi Holocaust. Yet, we do not draw the lesson from our shared past that we must continue to fear and mistrust our non-Jewish neighbours. In Britain, we are a tiny minority among a cosmopolitan mix of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities with a white, English, nominally Christian majority. I can’t be the only Jew who appreciates and enjoys this diversity. My experience, my lived reality, is one of freedom and security. Here, I can be open about my Jewishness; I can belong to a synagogue and practise Judaism as and when I choose; I can live and travel anywhere in the country; I can apply for any job and not be discriminated against because of my Jewishness; I can vote and run for political office even though I’m Jewish. My partner’s Quaker identity, my involvement with a Jewish-Muslim community media project, my friendships with non-Jews, my work with parents from across the ethnic spectrum – all these enrich my life.
I left the meeting more certain than before that I wouldn’t trade the sense of security I have as a minority in Britain for the fear and lack of security that Israeli Jews live with as a result of their desperation to be in the majority.