UK chief rabbi owes us Palestinians an apology

For Palestinians, Zionism has meant war, forced displacement and diaspora.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom has weighed in on the row over alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Writing in The Telegraph this week, Ephraim Mirvis claimed that Zionism is not separate from Judaism as a faith. He astonishingly implied that no one can have a view on this except Jews and Zionists.

So much for open debate and discussion!

He further claimed that “Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the center of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years.” The reality is that not all Jews agree with his definition, let alone non-Jews.

A survey of British Jews by City University London last year shows deep disagreement on the term, with 41 percent not taking up the political identifier “Zionist.” Thirty-one percent identified as anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, while 10 percent said they were unsure.

The survey also found that the number of British Jews who call themselves “Zionist” dropped from 72 percent in 2010 to 59 percent in 2015.

Muslims have a strong attachment to the cities of Mecca and Medina – and of course to Jerusalem – but should all Muslims have a right to move to Saudi Arabia?

And what about Christians? Where was Christianity born? The answer is in historic Palestine. Should all Christians have a right to go and live there?

Invisible

The chief rabbi and Zionism both ask us to accept that only Jews have a right to determine where they live and never mind the impact of their demand on whoever already lives on that land.

In his article, Mirvis astonishingly fails to mention my people, the Palestinian people, even once. His anger with the left has unfortunately left him ignorant of our plight.

To the chief rabbi, we are invisible.

He did not once acknowledge our existence on the land, our own unshakable connection to it or that it was and still is our home – whether for those living in historic Palestine or in the diaspora.

We are in the diaspora because of Zionism.

The chief rabbi implies that we cannot disassociate Zionism from Judaism – by implication accusing all Palestinians who oppose Zionism – as indeed we do – of anti-Semitism.

This is why Ephraim Mirvis is wrong, with the greatest respect to him, to conflate the two – a religion and a political ideology.

Racism

Palestinians do not have a problem with Jews – or with any other group – wanting to live in a state or entity of their own.

However, Zionists chose a land with a people, not an empty land for their state. That is the key issue here. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were violently driven from their homeland to make way for the realization of Zionism’s goal, and since then millions of Palestinians have been deprived of their most fundamental rights.

As British Palestinians we abhor all forms of racism including anti-Semitism. We will stand with our fellow citizens who follow the Jewish faith in striving to eradicate the scourge of all racism in this country, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

However, we will not accept the conflation of Judaism and Zionism to label us and those who support our legitimate right to self-determination in our homeland as anti-Semites.

The chief rabbi owes us Palestinians an apology for this conflation which suggests we are anti-Semites. Zionism owes us much more than an apology for our dispossession.

Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian academic and vice-chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, writing here in a personal capacity.

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"The survey also found that the number of British Jews who call themselves “Zionist” dropped from 72 percent in 2010 to 59 percent in 2015."

This is somewhat misleading. The survey cited also shows that British Jews agree with the statements "I support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State" 95% to 5%, and "Israel/plays some role in/is important to/is central to my Jewish identity" 93% to 7%. I would assume the decline in self-identified Zionists reflects in part the growth of the Haredi community in Britain, which generally does not identify as "Zionist," but strongly supports Israel.

At the same time the larger point, that conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism is problematic when the definition of "Zionism" itself is subject to multiple interpretations, is well taken.

Ali Abunimah's picture

There is no intent to mislead. The only point is that the meaning of the word “Zionist” is highly contested, even among British Jews. The fact a large majority still say they support Israel only underscores the point. I’ve also read the survey and it doesn’t break down what it means by Israel’s “right to exist as a Jewish state.” I suspect that if the survey authors had asked a question like this, they would get very different answers: “Do you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state even if it means depriving millions of Palestinians of their rights in perpetuity?”

And that is exactly THE question about Zionism, a point I make in a chapter of my book that asks “Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state?” I argue that it can’t have any such right, because the only way it can achieve this is by permanent subjugation of millions of non-Jews. I’ve yet to see anyone refute the arguments. It is because they can’t be refuted that I believe Zionists want to intimidate people from even asking these sorts of basic political questions by claiming that any such talk is inherently “anti-Semitic.” That’s what the chief rabbi is doing.

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- “Do you support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state even if it means depriving millions of Palestinians of their rights in perpetuity?”

Yes, if you ask a leading question like that, you'll get the answer you want. But Israel's "right to exist as a Jewish state" can take many forms. You say in your book excerpt "that this means in practice that Israel has a right to maintain a Jewish demographic majority." But that doesn't necessarily follow. You could interpret the right alternatively as "Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, unless and until the democratically elected government of Israel (elected by all of its citizens) chooses to revoke its status as a Jewish state, and with non-Jewish citizens having equal rights." Kind of like "England has the right to exist as an Anglican state, unless and until the Church of England is disestablished, and with non-Anglican citizens having equal rights."

Agree with the basic point that Rabbi Mirvis's conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is inappropriate.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Except that that is a very misleading comparison. Whereas the UK has an established church and other relics from the past, in practice, the UK has strong anti-discrimination laws that operate in every day life. Israel has no such protections and in fact enshrines discrimination in its legislation. The UK is not an “Anglican state” the way Israel is a “Jewish state.” And I’m all for democracy, but as you know, the Israeli Jewish majority is a result of violent gerry mandering: ethnic cleansing. As I argue in the last chapter of my book (not excerpted) the proper electorate for such a decision should be all legitimate residents of Palestine, including those violently expelled. If by “Jewish state” you mean a state in which Jews live like other citizens with all their political and cultural rights, but not superior status — as I argue for in my book — I’d be fine with that. But that’s not Zionism. It’s democracy.

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The comparison doesn't have to be wrong. England/UK used to discriminate far more, and then changed, while maintaining an established church. Israel can change too, while remaining a Jewish state. Israel can change its discriminatory laws, whatever they are, and enact laws to reduce societal discrimination, similar to U.S. civil rights legislation and rulings. E.g., Israel can enact laws desegregating housing and education, all while remaining a Jewish state. Conversely, there are lots of countries that do not have a state religion, yet have plenty of discrimination.

As for "violent gerrymandering and ethnic cleansing," I challenge you to find a state that wasn't built on violent gerrymandering and ethnic cleansing. The UK had its last "violent gerrymandering" in 1919-22/24. For the latest, I'd say South Sudan constitutes a "violent gerrymandering." There's also Ukraine/Crimea, former Yugoslavia, Turkish Cyprus, etc. Lots of ethnic cleansing examples too: India/Pakistan, Germans in post-WW2 Poland & Czechoslovakia, Greco-Turkish War, etc. Descendants of Muslim Indians forced to flee to Pakistan don't get to vote in Indian elections. Not sure why Israel/Palestine is the exception. Of course if Israel wishes to admit Palestinians and grant them the right to vote, it has that right like any state.

But getting back to the main point, British Jews "support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State" 95% to 5%. If you say that means, by necessity, "depriving millions of Palestinians of their rights in perpetuity," then you're saying that 95% (which is as close as you'll ever get to unanimous) of British Jews stand in diametric opposition to Palestinians. But I'd hope, and suspect, that at least some of that 95% see more ground for commonality and agreement than you do.

Ali Abunimah's picture

My only contention is that most Jews and indeed non-Jews in Britain have not been squarely faced with the facts of what a “Jewish state” means and has meant in the context of Palestine: ethnic cleansing, apartheid and occupation with no end in sight. Zionism may be a nice idea for Jews in London, Cardiff or Manchester but in practice it’s been a catastrophe for Palestinians. Many of the other questions you address are discussed in my book, which I hope you’ll read.

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You've completely missed the point. It is true that historical and contemporary examples of state creation on the back of ethnic cleansing are 'similar'. BUT International law differentiates between the older historical examples of 'violent gerrymandering and ethnic cleansing' as you put it, where rectifying the situation would cause greater upheaval than the original usurpation due to the passage of time and actual ongoing examples such as the Zionist operations in Palestine which is contrary to international law. If this was not the case, global states would all be subject to a non-stop nightmare of musical chairs writ large.

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Are you saying that Zionism can be interpreted as the project of setting up a Jewish state which grants equal rights to non-Jews?

Although that idea may provoke less revulsion in the eyes of British Jews than the form of Zionism that has generally occurred, the idea is still inherently exceptionalist and racist due to the presumption that it should be a Jewish state which has the power to 'allow others in'.

I think if you were going to make an argument for Zionism that does not rely on oppression of non-Jews it would have to have a kind of 'two-state Zionism' in mind which supports scaling the borders and settlements back to a level agreeable by the PA.

I suppose its still Zionism only in that it still supports a Jewish state. I would guess a fair number of British Jews would support that idea but would they call it Zionism?

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The ability to "allow others in" is something that applies to all states. Israel could cease to define itself as a Jewish state altogether, and still have the power over whom to allow in.

But the problem with all of these terms is that they have multiple definitions. Historically, "Zionism" encompassed the connection between Palestine/the Land of Israel and the Jewish people - nothing to do with a Jewish state, and completely consistent with end of occupation, Palestinian "right of return," etc. Conversely, there are many Haredi Jews (I would guess the majority) who would strongly support the occupation and hawkish Israeli attitudes, but would never define themselves as "Zionists," on the grounds that Zionism as an ideology is at odds with their religious beliefs. Rabbi Mirvis's statement that "Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the centre of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years" is misleading in that it covers only one form of Zionism. There are self-described Zionists who would not support that, and self-described non-Zionists who would.

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But at least the Chief Rabbi in his comments on Bar Kokhba has acknowledged the right of peoples to fight and rise up against external oppression. That's a major step forward.

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without them, I would feel 1) like the only Jewish person, questioning Israel and 2) despite my country's efforts to censor the truth of The Palestinian people's struggle, would still believe the false narrative, that I need a place to go, in case of another Holocaust, program, etc.

Don't let the trolls get under your skin - a scientific study was conducted about the online troll. They feel out of control or do not have the guts to say things to people's faces, so use a keyboard to intimidate others. That's why I post my legal name and location, in case they feel like saying vile and disrespectful things to my face. I chose to live in a Strong Black Inner City Community, who understands my strength and why I speak my mind, instead of standing by and watching my fellow humans suffer. I wish one of these inhuman, poor excuse of a human would show up on my doorstep.

Peace,
Jane Zacher Student and activist
North Philadelphia, PA

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Heck I can refute that pretty easily. There are dozens of means by which Israel can avoid subjugation. The most obvious is assimilation. Israel has assimilated multiple groups including non-Jews (example Russian Christians) during its existence. The Israeli Arabs were assimilating pretty effectively until around 1980 when the occupation reintroduced the notions of resistance and even despite an ideology hostile they continue to culturally move closer to the dominant Hebrew culture. A similar process is likely to start playing out on the West Bank once this "denormalization" fad plays out.

Another alternative is absorption into another state. The Palestinian refugee crisis of the late 1940s and early 1950s was caused by Zionism. The next 60 years was caused by the Arab League's policy of non-absorption. Had the Palestinians been treated like the many other millions WWII refugees and quickly permanently resettled you wouldn't be looking at any kind of permanent subjugation.

A third method would be an asymmetric agreement where different ethnicities / religions have control of different aspects of the state. Jews don't care much about growing olives. Conversely when they say a "Jewish state" what they really mean more than anything else is a Jewish army.

Ali Abunimah's picture

You didn’t refute, you confirmed. “Quickly and permanently resettled” just because they are not Jews = ethnic cleansing = subjugation and denial of rights on a massive scale.

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First off I gave 3 examples. But even for the one you objected to. Are the Galicians who resettled outside Ukraine today subjugated? The over 100k Belgians descended from the WWII refugees are they subjugated today? The almost 400k in the UK who came from countries like Poland? The 652k DPs who went to Israel and their descendants are they subjugated?

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This article is right on the mark. We Jews are not allowed a state until the coming of Moshiach (Messiah) when all Jews will brought to the holy Land by God. Not by atheist zionists. The Palestinians have every right to their land and homes and we do not have the right to forcefully take it from them. We as Jews are not to make war with other nations or provoke them into war or terrorism. The zionists are responsible for all the anti semitism in the world today.

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Yup, have this argument all the time with my Aunt who is not highly observant and follows what ever her husband's friends with finicial ties to the Occupied Territory, says or thinks.

There are many factors involved, but the main marketing point of that industry, known as Israel, is part of The Torah, and depending on which Talmud one follows, we are not obeying the rules and laws, by hurting others.

When I explain that to my Aunt, before her annual trip to stay with my relatives, in luxury, while Palestinians go without good water and basic needs, she says she knows nothing about politics. This is not "politics". It's called morals and ethics.

I love you Palestine - You Will Be Free in my lifetime. While there is breath in my lungs, I will speak of your pain and suffering. It's my duty.

Jane Zacher Student and activist Philadelphia PA

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Ephraim Mirvis only represents the Conservative Utd Synagogue movement, he doesn't represent the Haredi, nor does he represent Masorti, Liberal, Reform or Progressive synagogue congregations.
This dreadful article by him shows his ignorance of history; the ideology of exclusive ethnic nationalism that Zionism is would have been incomprehensible to the Jewish communities of the ancient world!

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Israelis have a right to a state, but not on stolen land. But to call that state "Jewish" and "democratic" is a contradiction in terms. They cannot co-exist in a civil government for all citizens. Separation of religion (synagogue, mosque, church, temple, i.e., all cults) and state is an absolute for democracy. One can't have it both ways.

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I am ex Jew ex Israeli. I realized Israel and Zionism were evil after I was ordered to murder unarmed Palestinian men, women, and children during Operation Cast Lead and I did as I was ordered. Nowadays I wish I had never been born.

Since then I think about the evil of Israel and Zionism all the time. The issue is very simple. After Auschwitz it was evil and criminal to found a state in post-Auschwitz genocide. Israel has signed and ratified the International Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Therefore it is obligated to dismantle itself and turn its leaders over to the ICC for trial.

The legal situation is starkly clear. No one can take the international antigenocide legal regime seriously unless it is applied uniformly. "Jews" can't get a pass to commit genocide.

As for other issues,

(1) I don't understand why E Europeans whose Slavic and Turkic ancestors converted to Judaism have any right to a state in Palestine.

(2) The whole concept of a Jewish People in the völkisch racist Zionist sense is total crap. I had nothing ethnically in common with my high school girlfriend, who was of Algerian Jewish origin (and therefore descended from Ibero-Greco-Roman-Berber converts).

(3) I suppose one could analogize "Jew" to Briton and note that the UK is considered one country and four nations (as Bernard Lewis has written in a propaganda piece), but I think it is a stretch. No one in my family has practiced Judaism since my great-grandfather's generation. After I left Israel and moved to NYC, I investigated Jewish religion and participated in some returnee study groups, but I only confirmed my earlier belief that Judaism is silly and repugnant as bigots like Mirvis continue to demonstrate.

(4) An ignoramus like Mirvis should refrain from commenting on the history of the Greco-Roman period unless he knows it at least as well as I do.

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It is interesting how this debate revolves around what is Zionism and what is Judaism.I can only suggest reading Michael Neumans book The case against Israel.The bottom line is Israel is a illigitimate state,has no defined boundaries,is an Apartheid Racist state intent on racial purity for its citizens,which in the 21st century is not acceptable
The country is heading for disaster.Even China now openly supports the rights of the Palestinians.The internet and news media like Russia Today and Al Jazeera means US pro-Israeli media is being challenged.
It will take time,the tide is turning towards the Palestinians.