Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Tuesday, 1 October 2002

Within the Walls

Within The Walls
October 2002

On August 27th of this year, an article by Jonathan Freedland appeared in the Guardian, under the headline Israel set on tragic path, says chief rabbi. The article was based on an interview which contained relatively little about the Israel/Palestine conflict, but it was those comments, unlike Sacks’ previously unqualified support for Israel, which predictably made the headlines. The Jewish community reacted as expected, with a large majority condemning Dr Sacks and a small minority welcoming his comments. Reaction in the press and wider community was largely favourable, as it was in the solidarity movement.

In the interview Dr Sacks’ summarised his position:-

“I regard the current situation as nothing less then tragic, because it is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals”

And went on,

“There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me very uncomfortable as a Jew.”

So who here is the victim and who is the perpetrator? For Dr Sacks, who mentions the plight of Palestinians not once, it is “the current situation”, forced on Israel by Palestinian intransigence, which is the culprit. And the victims are himself and Judaism’s “deepest ideals”. As a subsequent letter made clear,

“The tragedy is not the 35-year occupation, the house-demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards and the destruction of livelihoods. It is not even the 1,700 Palestinian deaths or thousands of maimed. No, the tragedy, it seems, is that many Jewish people are not sleeping easily at night because of the corruption of Jewish ideals.”        Paul Wright, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

Shortly afterwards, Gerald Kaufman’s programme, “End of the Affair” was screened. Written and presented by Kaufman himself, the programme chronicled his recent visit to Israel and explained his increasing disenchantment with a country he once loved. Reactions were much the same as to the chief rabbi’s interventions with most of the Jewish community furious at Kaufman’s apparent treachery and the wider community largely approving.

Unlike Dr Sacks, Kaufman’s anger is clearly and rightly directed at the excesses of occupation. Kaufman lashes out at the policies of the Sharon government (“staining the star of David with blood”), the architecture of the country (“unbridled squalid commercialism” …those hideous buildings”), and the rise of religious fundamentalism (“infested by intolerant, ultra-orthodox Jewish zealots”).

But it is in the scene at the grave of Rabin that we see Kaufman’s essence. “This,” he tells us, “Is where it all went wrong”, and reflects that Rabin’s assassin, killed not only Rabin, but also “the Israel for which Rabin stood.” The viewer is not invited to ask what, precisely, was this Israel for which Rabin stood? Was it the Israel founded on the brutal ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians? Was it the Israel, conceived as an ethnically pure state which suppresses its non-Jewish citizens with apartheid-style laws and practices? Or was it the Israel whose provocations and aggressions have led to the slaughter of thousands and to raging instability in the region? Or perhaps it was the Israel, led by Rabin himself, which, under the guise of peacemaking, attempted to lead Palestinians to accept confinement on selected parts of the remaining twenty-two per cent of their homeland, and to call this freedom? After subjecting himself to an impromptu rant from a Jewish American settler, Kaufman turns to camera and confides, “That’s the problem”. Would he not have done better to have concluded, “That’s the manifestation of the problem?

So what are we to make of these developments from within the walls of the Jewish community? Despite their obvious shortcomings, perhaps we should welcome these interventions by such prominent, high-profile Jews? Are they not a chink in the armour, a glimmer of light? Should we not draw strength from our opponents’ obvious discomfort and build on these divisions? Justice, it certainly is not, but it is a start.

Others will come to their own conclusions, but for me, I believe that we should not welcome these declarations. Far from advancing the cause of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, these interventions set it back, and they do this by perpetuating and legitimising the following dangerous myths. These are -

That the oppression of Palestinians is simply the work of the "right". That if only the good guys were in control things would be better. The history of the last hundred years simply does not bear this out. Left or right, Labour or Likud, Barak or Sharon, the one thing you can be sure of is that the conditions of Palestinians will get worse. This type of squabbling between the Zionist "left" and the Zionist "right" both within Israel and within the Jewish communities outside, has no meaning or relevance whatsoever to the suffering of Palestinians other then to prolong it by creating the illusion, firstly that an ethnic and theocratic state like Israel can ever see non-Jews as equals, and secondly, that justice is just around the corner. This good cop, bad cop routine, as exemplified by Sacks’ and Kaufman’ interventions, and by our applause for them, is no more then the same old routine by which political Zionism has bamboozled us all and made its conquest of Palestine more acceptable to Jews and to the rest of the world.

That the "occupation" can end. In Israeli government eyes, there is no occupation. There never was an occupation. If any Israeli government had ever wanted to end the occupation, they would have done so years ago. The "occupation" has always been a fig leaf to conceal the reality of the final conquest of Palestine. And we, who are in solidarity with the Palestinian people, have, for nearly forty years now, colluded with this deception.

That the state of Israel is, or ever has been,"moral".  No state can be moral and a state like Israel, founded on ethnic cleansing and maintained by apartheid-like discrimination, certainly can’t.

And the same is true for Jews. Jews are no better, no worse; no more or less ethical; no more clever or foolish, and should be held no more or less accountable then anyone else. If we haven’t learned this after one hundred years of Zionism, then surely we have learned nothing.

Paul Eisen                                                                                                                                                             October 2002

Paul Eisen is a director of Deir Yassin Remembered. He is writing in a personal capacity.