During the past week and a half, the news has been dominated by events in Gaza and Israel. Thank goodness, that after eight days of relentless violence, a ceasefire brokered by the Americans and the Egyptians came into force on Wednesday evening.

Of course, the ‘news’ is not news to us. For one thing, there’s nothing very new about Palestinian militants firing rockets into Israel as far as they can reach, and the Israeli army retaliating with bombardment of the rocket launching sites and other militant targets. And there is nothing new about the consequences of the violence: the death of civilians and injuries, both, physical and psychological: both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, living in fear for their lives.

And then, there is the reality that we, Jews here in Britain and elsewhere in the diaspora, feel involved. We feel that the conflict is not just between them – the Israelis and the Palestinians – it is also, in some way, about us. It is about us because we understand that, both, Jews over ‘here’ – in all the lands we live throughout the world – and Jews over ‘there’ in the State of Israel belong to one Jewish people, with a shared inheritance of persecution. That is after all, why the State of Israel was established in May 1948 – as a place of refuge from anti-Semitism. With the persistence of Jew hatred in modern Europe, political Zionism developed in the late 19th century with the goal of securing a Jewish state in our ancient homeland, where the Jewish people could flourish, free of persecution.

Of course, that’s not how the Palestinians see it. The Palestinians – a people, in many ways, rather like us, who live across the world as well as in their homeland, Palestine. But there is a difference. The Palestinians are a people connected together, not by religion – there are both Christian and Muslim Palestinians – nor by allegiance to their Arab brothers and sisters in other lands, but by their roots in particular places in the landscape of Palestine: the olive grove their family tended for generations outside Haifa; the orange trees that graced the courtyard of their grandparents’ house in Jaffa; the house that was home to their great-grandparents in West Jerusalem. In addition to the Palestinians living in the State of Israel, and those displaced from their homes in 1948, living in refugee camps in Lebanon and in Gaza, across the world hundreds of thousands of Palestinians hold, quite literally, cherished keys to thousands of front-doors in Palestine.

Israel and Palestine: one land; two peoples; two very different narratives. As the conflict was raging, in his blog, entitled, ‘The Fog of War’ posted on November 15, Rabbi Howard Cooper drew attention to the name given by the Israeli army to their operation against Gaza, ‘Pillar of Defence.’ He wrote:[1]

This is the English ‘translation’ – useful for media purposes because of its obvious emphasis on ‘defence’ – of the Hebrew phrase being used in Israel, Amud Anan [‘Pillar of Cloud’]: a Biblical term used to describe how God, as conceptualised by the authors of the Torah’s mythic saga, was present in the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel, guiding and leading them through the 40 years of their journey to the ‘Promised Land’. In an early appearance of the phrase in the narrative, just after Israel have left Egypt, we read : “The pillar of cloud… moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.” (Exodus 14:20). So the ‘pillar of cloud’ is like a defensive shield; and in a midrash on this phrase (quoted by the commentator Rashi) we read that ‘the Egyptians shot arrows and catapulted stones at them, but the…cloud caught them”.

So: the protection of the Israelites by the Eternal One described in the Torah, invoked by the Israeli army in the context of the most recent contest between the descendants of the Israelites and their present-day ‘enemy’. Isn’t there something wrong with this comparison? The Israelite slaves were a vulnerable, oppressed minority people in the ancient empire of Egypt. Israel is a state – a state with power – the power to shape its own destiny. But it seems that, despite that power, the Israeli government and the majority of Jews, both in Israel and in the diaspora, still seem to equate the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the persecution of our ancestors by the Egyptians.

So: we are right because we have been wronged – from Egypt until now – we are the victims. Of course, it’s not just the Jewish narrative that claims the role of victim in the conflict. Israeli Rabbi Arik Asherman wrote in the Rabbis for Human Rights e-newsletter also, like Rabbi Howard Cooper’s blog, distributed on November 15:[2]

Most of us have biases burned into our hard drives.  If our sympathies lie with the Palestinians, we see Zionist aggression and charred Palestinian babies. If our sympathies lie with Israel, we see terrified Israeli children with 15 seconds to run to a bomb shelter every time the siren sounds (According to one source, some 11,000 rockets in the last 4 years.)  For all too many of us, our sympathies are all encompassing and exclusive.  We see only Palestinian children or Israeli children.

And, the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians alike, see one land and just one people – one people with an exclusive right to the land.

But despite myopia on both sides, another narrative, a third way between the two exclusive claims to the land exists – a narrative as old as the modern nationalist aspirations of both peoples. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine, which followed, plans to divide the land between the two peoples were part of the political discourse for thirty years before the establishment of the State of Israel at the end of the British Mandate in May 1948.

The final partition plan of the Mandate era was adopted by the United Nations on November 29, 1947.[3] Accepted reluctantly by the Jewish delegation and rejected by the Palestinians, the plan divided the land into two states, according to the demographic concentrations of the two peoples – which meant that, in addition to the West Bank of the Jordan, part of the Galilee was assigned to Palestine. Since that time, plans for dividing the one land between the two peoples have been influenced by what is known as the ‘Green Line’. The ‘Green Line’ is the ceasefire line agreed by the Israelis and the Jordanians at the end of the 1948 war between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states, which was breached during the Six Day War in June 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank.

Again: one land; two peoples. The important point to remember is that in whatever way the land is divided up, for both Israelis and Palestinians, dividing the land involves territorial compromise.

Compromise: A necessary evil or a mature response to what Israeli writer, Amos Oz, has described as ‘a tragic clash between right and right’?[4] Sadly, for the extremists on both sides, compromise is a dirty word. But can there be any other way? Those who run The Museum of the Seam in Jerusalem,[5] dedicated to coexistence think not. Occupying a house that used to belong to an Arab family called Tourgeman and became a military outpost in the 1948 war, the Museum of the Seam stands on the ‘seam’ between East and West Jerusalem – literally, on the 1948 ceasefire line between Israel and Jordon. In its publicity material, the museum uses a powerful statement about compromise:[6]

Nonviolence means dialogue, and dialogue means compromise: it means using language to communicate; listening to others’ views, and respecting others’ rights, in a spirit of reconciliation. Nobody will be 100% winner, and nobody will be 100% loser. That is the practical way. In fact, that is the only way.

In the context of the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza and our hope that violence will not resume, this statement is very instructive. The cessation of violence doesn’t just mean that Israelis and Palestinians get peace and quiet and a good night’s sleep. Nonviolence provides the space for new possibilities.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai has written: ‘From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.’[7] Both peoples are right – and both peoples are wrong when they insist on their particular truth, and deny that the ‘other’ is right, too. So what to do?

The only option for people of good will to support a two state solution to the conflict. I say ‘people of goodwill’ because, as I discovered when, in my capacity as the Liberal Jewish Chaplain of Brighton University, I attended one of four University College Union meetings at the University, organised by Professor Tom Hickey, those who are campaigning for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel are also promoting a one state solution.[8] Dr Tony Klug, who wrote his Ph.D. on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ‘first advocated two states in the early 1970s in a Young Fabian pamphlet, A Tale of Two Peoples’, is pessimistic about the prospects for the implementation of the two state solution as long as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues to deepen and expand. Nevertheless he argues:[9]

All the evidence, past and present, and all the reasoning, point, I believe, to the inescapable conclusion that it is not possible to resolve this conflict without satisfying the common, minimum, irreducible aspirations of both peoples for self-determination in at least part of the land that each has regarded as its own. This, as I see it, is axiomatic.

Two weeks ago today, before the recent violence erupted between Gaza and Israel, I went to the Ecostream store in Western Road,[10] Brighton for a second visit. On this occasion, I held an Israeli and Palestinian flag, one in each hand, and wore a placard bearing the words: ‘Pro-Israel’ and ‘Pro-Palestine’. While the boycotters present sneered and derided me, some members of the Jewish community responded later by heaping abuse on me through the medium of the local Jewish community website.[11] Dismissing me as, a ‘PEP’ – ‘Progressive on every issue Except Palestine’ – all the boycotters could see was the Israeli flag I was holding. Condemning my action as ‘disgusting’, all the defenders of Israel could see was the Palestinian flag I was holding. Evidently, for both sides, by stepping into the gulf between them by holding both flags and advocating for both peoples, I had committed an outrage.

In his book, Embracing Israel / Palestine,[12] and in his e-letter posted on November 19, Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of the American progressive Jewish journal, Tikkun argues that no moves towards a solution to the conflict are likely to succeed ‘without’, and I quote, ‘a fundamental change of attitude: a new approach of compassion for each side by the other, the adoption of a zero tolerance of war as a solution to anyone’s problems, and the replacing of the strategy of “we’ll show them how tough we are” attitude that I call a strategy of domination with a new strategy of generosity (“we’ll show them how much we can care for them beyond all reasonable expectations”).’[13]

Just a few days after the intense upsurge in violence, that has left piles of smouldering rubble and shattered lives in its wake, it is very hard to see how and when this new strategy of generosity might take root and begin to bear fruit. Rabbi Michael Lerner argues that it begins with us – with our own attitudes, with our own tendency to allow our sense of allegiance to our own side to overwhelm our capacity for empathy for the other side. Speaking for myself, I know that I take strength from the Torah teaching which urges us not to oppress the stranger because we know the nefesh – the innermost being – of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.[14] I draw on my own feelings of anguish as a Jew, who bears the burden of the Sho’ah and centuries of anti-Jewish persecution to empathise with the anguish of the Palestinians. And I take courage from the spirit of hope – tikvah – that has helped us to survive as a people even in bleak times. Instead of retreating in fear behind the flag of Israel, consumed with the threat of anti-Semitism, let us find the courage to step forward in empathy towards the Palestinians and help to build a bridge between the two peoples. And let us also dare to hope that we may yet see two sovereign nations, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, enjoying mutual ties of cooperation and living side-by-side in peace. Bimheirah b’yameinu – speedily in our own day. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Shabbat Va-yeitzei

24th November 2012 – 9th Kislev 5773



[1] http://www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.co.uk/

[2] rhr@itnewsletter.co.il

[3] The Plan was described as a Plan of Partition with Economic Union and included the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem. On 29 November 1947, the General Assembly adopted a resolution recommending the adoption and implementation of the Plan as Resolution 181(II).

[4] The Jewish Chronicle, 08.11.12. See also: Amos Oz, How to Cure a Fanatic (2006).

[5] www.coexistence.art.museum/

[6] I own a paper carrier bag from the Museum of the Seam that bears this statement, printed on both sides.

[7] The Place Where We Are Right by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

From The Selected Poetry Of Yehuda Amichai. Newly Revised and Expanded edition translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (1996).

[8] Four meetings were held at different Brighton University locations organised by Tom Hickey for the UCU Coordinating Committee. I attended the 6 November meeting at Mithras House, Moulescoomb.

[9] From Tony Klug’s opening remarks as a panellist at a meeting of the LSE Israel Society held on October 25, 2011. See: www.opendemocracy.net/tonyklug/twostatesolution-where-next

[10] Ecostream is run by an Israeli company, Sodastream. Sodastream operates in Area C of the occupied Palestinian territories, where under Israeli law, Israelis are free to run businesses.

[11] www.webjam.com/indi (see ‘Demo’, p.67)

[12] Embracing Israel / Palestine. Tikkun Books, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2012.

[13] rabbilerner@tikkun.org

[14] Exodus 23:9