What makes some Jewish rebellions more acceptable than others? When can you use Judaism in the service of rebellion and when can’t you? And what makes Jewish protest over Israel/Palestine the boundary line of allowable behavior in mainstream Jewish circles?
These were the thoughts going through my mind as I watched the video of Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, wearing his prayer shawl and his kippah (complete with Extinction Rebellion hourglass logo), being arrested as part of the climate protests in London this week.
It was the start of the second week of climate action in the capital, with that day’s focus on London’s financial district. The 77-year-old Emeritus Rabbi for Finchley Reform Synagogue in North West London (the community he led for thirty years) was demonstrating with Extinction Rebellion Jews (XRJ), part of a loose coalition of faith groups who’ve joined an ever-widening movement calling for rapid action by the government to avert a climate catastrophe.
Rabbi Newman, who’s spent decades campaigning on environmental concerns, explained his commitment to the cause in distinctly Jewish terms:
“It’s impossible, at least for me, to read the Bible of Prophets without recognising how much we’re rooted in the Earth, in social justice, in an awareness of the world around us, and, attempting to give all that we have on its behalf seems to me the highest calling towards God.”
He went on:
“The highest principle is the saving of life, pikuach nefesh, there isn’t anything more that we’re doing here in Extinction Rebellion than being aware that millions, or hundreds of millions of people, already are at threat because of the changing climate, and if you add in future generations then … this is where we have to be. We have to work alongside those who are absolutely dedicated to trying to save life.”
The Rabbi, holding a Lulav and Etrog (symbols of the Sukkot Jewish festival that began that night) was arrested for obstructing the highway and taken to Brixton police station in South London. He took his prayer book into the cell. He was released later the same day.
Rabbi Newman acknowledged that he could take the risk of a criminal record in a way many others cannot. “I’m elderly so can afford to be arrested.”
The limits of Jewish rebellion
I have considerable respect for Rabbi Newman’s actions and I hope his arrest provokes debate in Jewish homes and pushes climate change further up the agenda for the Jewish community in the UK. But it got me thinking. About Jews. About protest. And about the limits of Jewish rebellion.
Rabbi Newman certainly has a distinctly Jewish take on environmentalism. When I joined the XRJ group the previous week in Trafalgar Square for a pre-Sukkot evening gathering, the same Jewish take on climate change was on show through prayers, readings and songs which reflected the themes of fragility and vulnerability that can be drawn from this particular Jewish harvest festival.
But which part of our hybrid and hyphenated British-Jewish identities was most relevant that night? Yes, we were Jewish, but weren’t we primarily gathering as Jewish representatives of humanity? Rabbi Newman was arrested as a rebellious Jew but it was not a Jewish rebellion. That’s a much tougher gig and it burns up a great deal more Jewish “social capital.”
To his credit, it’s a protest dynamic which the Rabbi will be all too familiar with. Rabbi Newman is a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, a supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights, and a founder of the UK branch of Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information. His endorsement quote for JfJfP will surely have brought him a heap of community criticism:
“Jews for Justice for Palestinians is concerned for justice for them—and us! Without justice for Palestinians, there is no hope for Israel.”
I take my own critique of Israel and Zionism further than Rabbi Newman’s. But it’s informed by the same understanding of what it is to be Jewish in the 21st century with the 20th century still casting its long, dark shadows over Jewish self-understanding.
As Rabbi Newman says, hope for Israel is indeed under threat. However, the consequences of injustice towards the Palestinians reaches well beyond Israel and into the Jewish global community and every community synagogue. I’m not talking about collective guilt or a direct responsibility applied to every Jew for the actions of Israel – that would be antisemitic. But mainstream Jewish thinking on Israel needs to be challenged. The narrative of righteous victims endlessly threatened by Jew-hating Arabs, needs disrupting – just as the false claims and promises of neoliberalism are being challenged and disrupted by Extinction Rebellion.
Too close to home
The factor that makes Jewish support for Palestinian rights an entirely different proposition from Jewish support for Climate action, is its closeness to home.
Israel is a specifically Jewish issue of interest and concern, just as it is a specifically Palestinian one. On the Jewish side of the story, it’s an injustice which (unlike climate change) implicates us within, rather than beyond, our Jewish identity. It’s happening on our Jewish watch. In goes on in our Jewish name. It’s justified through our Jewish history and religion. So calling out a homegrown injustice through radical Jewish protest is bound to generate a backlash, especially if you want to draw on Jewish scripture, the Hebrew prophets, and the Jewish ethical tradition to make your case.
If you disrupt Jewish events aimed at excusing Israel’s behavior; or use Jewish festival liturgy to create a collective Jewish atonement for the Occupation; or say Jewish prayers for those Palestinians shot dead while marching for their freedom on the Gaza border; you have to expect to be patronized and vilified by your own community.
And if you go further and question Zionism and support the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns in support of Palestinian rights, then expect far worse treatment. You are no longer just a rebellious Jew. You are undertaking a Jewish Rebellion.
Learning from Extinction Rebellion
There are parallels between how the Extinction Rebellion has analyzed the politics of climate change and where we now stand with Israel/Palestine within the Jewish world. Both situations have those who deny the facts, look to others to blame, or think minor reforms will fix things.
As a Jew who wants to ‘sound the alarm’ on Israel/Palestine, I’ve realized in the last two weeks of global climate protest that there’s a lot to learn from XR’s strategic agenda if you want to escalate the debate and make people recognize the crisis we are facing:
- Tell the truth,
- Declare an emergency
- Plan for radical change
- Work for a just transition for all
This is the understanding and the strategy we need to work for if we want to radically shift the debate on Israel within the Jewish community.
It looks like this:
Tell the truth: Just as Extinction Rebellion has understood, telling the truth is the most important demand and the hardest to achieve. But from it all else becomes possible.
The truth is the creation of the State of Israel was indeed a project of Jewish self-determination and a response to European antisemitism. But its mix of Jewish exceptionalism and European blood and soil nationalism meant it became, in practice, an exercise in Settler Colonialism. The truth is, another people has been dispossessed. The truth is, there is on-going oppression.
Telling the truth can be liberating for both Palestinians and Jews. As with the Climate Emergency, telling the truth enables everyone to move forward at pace. Not telling the truth traps the future for both Jews and Palestinians in a lie.
Declare an emergency: With Israel/Palestine there is an emergency on multiple fronts. A dire health and economic emergency for the two million Palestinians besieged in Gaza; a crime emergency caused by the theft of land and water in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; a human rights emergency which spreads from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
But it’s also an emergency for Jews and Judaism around the world. Collectively, we have created a situation that leaves Rabbis and Jewish community leaders constantly defending the indefensible or staying silent in the face of atrocity. That position undermines Jewish safety in the diaspora and the integrity of Jewish teaching in the Synagogue. This too is an emergency – an existential threat to our heritage and our faith.
Plan for rapid decolonization: Rather than decarbonization, on Israel/Palestine we need an action plan for rapid decolonization. Decolonization of the land and of the mind. Decolonising the land means handing back what’s been taken, or finding a path to acknowledge wrongdoing and make recompense.
The decolonization of the mind means ending a belief system which is incapable of distinguishing between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Ending a theology which has turned Jewish suffering into a justification for oppression and privilege. Ending an ideology that pedals borders as a guarantee of Jewish security and then perpetuates an endless anxiety of national extinction.
Work for a just transition: We need to create a land where all rights are protected and all religious and national identities can be celebrated. That means we stop using fear-mongering and talk of a second Holocaust as arguments against democracy. There cannot be a peace which creates further injustice. Jews and Palestinians will need to share the land but not as oppressed and oppressors.
None of this is easy. Nor is responding to the Climate Emergency. In both cases there are existential dangers at stake and powerful interests who will resist radical change with all of their might. Jewish establishment voices will continue to close down and exclude Jewish rebellion on Israel/Palestine, even if we clothe ourselves in Jewish prayer shawls and quote Jewish liturgy.
But as with climate change, we have already wasted too much time. The dangers to all are now greater than before. Mild reform is no longer available. Rebellion is the last great hope.
This article was originally published by Robert Cohen on his blog on October 19, 2019.