A Time To Speak Out

This post was written by Jacob on March 10, 2009
Posted Under: Identity,Israel/Palestine,Jewishness,Terrorism

Yesterday, at the Institute of Education, there was a long public meeting organised by Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), primarily as a launch for their book of articles “A Time To Speak Out“, but also as a forum for debate and discussion amongst Jews about Israel, the war in Gaza, identity, and the relationship of Jews at the edge of the community in relation to community leaders. IJV was established nearly two years ago, and in that time has been offering a platform to dissenting Jews, although admittedly those who get to speak are often of a rather academic bent. The meeting consisted of three sessions: a panel of writers of Time To Speak Out; a presentation from Miri Weingarten of Physicians for Human Rights on attacks on medical aid by the Israeli army during the recent war; and finally a talk by Uri Avnery.

Uri Avnery speaking yesterday at the Institute of Education

Uri Avnery speaking yesterday at the Institute of Education

Over the last few years the means by which Jewish people can speak out against the actions of Israel have been greatly augmented in Britain, with groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jews Against Zionism, and an internet presence of JustPeace being established, alongside older Jewish anti-Zionist groups such as the Jewish Socialists’ Group. In many ways IJV exists in a different space, and rather than being explicitly anti- or pro-Zionist, anti- or pro-Israel, it exists as a body of Jews who condemn the acts of Israel and wish to say publicly that Israel doesn’t speak for them. They are relative newcomers to the scene, but they do get media coverage, and as yesterday showed, are able to get significant numbers of people to their meetings.

Uri Avnery’s speech was by far the most interesting (unsurprising given he has consistently been one of the most forceful and outspoken voices for peace within Israel for decades.) He began by giving a reminder of a time he spoke in London in 1983 alongside Issam Satawi, in a meeting organised by members of the Jewish Socialist Group and Israeli ex-patriates. Satawi was assassinated a number of weeks later in Portugal. He gave an eloquent exegesis on the history of the question of Israel and the current fight for peace. The mood was pessimistic, as he stated that with a new government that includes “real fascists”, this is a “dark time for those fighting for peace.”

Avnery is interesting because he’s so completely serious about a two state solution, which of course is rather less common amongst Western lefties. But in saying this, he also clarifies “most politicians who talk about a two state solution in Israel don’t mean it; they mean something different… Any politician who talks about two states seriously is declaring war on the settlers, 250,000 very dangerous people and their allies in Israel.” He also says in no uncertain terms “Israel must go back to the borders of 1967, and East Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine.” Such a demand goes far beyond Barak’s so-called “generous offer” that Zionists to this day laud over Palestinians for rejecting. His belief in a two state solution is not taken lightly, but he believes that the demand for a single state would lead to the further radicalisation of nationalist separatist movements.

Avnery asks the question “What was the aim of the war?” and almost comically quips “If you go to a shooting gallery, the best way win is to shoot the bullet and then draw the bullseye later.” He talks quite candidly about his own experiences as a Zionist terrorist sixty years ago, and how he knows from this that the idea that one could attack the civilian population of Gaza so much that they rise up and overthrow their government is completely ill-founded. Of course he condemns Hamas, but he offers an understanding of how and why Palestinians have been driven into a state of supporting them. You don’t hear this sort of thing from Israeli every day, as sadly Avnery is far from the norm. He closed by saying that after the dreadful results of the Israeli election in which “the left became the centre, the centre became the right, and the right became fascist,” it is more than ever necessary to reach a solution.

In many ways, though, yesterday’s event was rather contradictory. The wish of IJV to not quite have a party line in order to entice a range of Jews to become signatories of their organisation means that often they seem woefully undertheorised. On the initial panel of writers, with the exception of Eyal Weizman (whose wonderful book Hollow Land I encourage everyone to read), the views were not so much contradictory as simply not really present. Underlying a lot of the politics of IJV is the issue of Jewish identity, and sadly many of the speakers, if asked what Jewish identity was about, would give the same sort of answer you see from Zionists: something about memory and oppression rather than anything positive. Just as the feminists and gay groups of the sixties went further than just to try to end oppression in striving to define themselves, diaspora Jews should be doing this too. We don’t want the same old negative identity reinterpreted, we should demand a new critical identity. Howard Cooper was particularly unimpressive on this matter.

I’m sure that there’s a place for IJV in the movement against Israel’s actions, but I’m not sure how far it can really go. On the one hand there are people who say that we as Israel gets more and more violent we can talk more about challenging their actions on humanitarian grounds rather than on politics. In my analysis the opposite is true: Israel’s violence is obverse of its politics, and to challenge what happened in Gaza on purely humanitarian grounds not only weakens our hand, but does a great injustice to the Palestinians we hope to defend. There is a difference between striking a balance and being noncommittal.

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Reader Comments


This is a very fair summary of the meeting, although I thought Miri Weingarten’s talk was very good too.

Avnery has been a cogent advocate of a progressive two states programme for many years, though it doesn’t prevent him form working with others who have moved towards the one-state position. The number of states is less important than the political content of the state(s).

In the current issue of Jewish Socialist magazine, which has just come out, Charlie Pottins reminds readers that the original demands for one state from the Palestinians was attached to the words “secular” and “democratic”, and that those on the left trying to outflank two staters with a one-state demand today tend to have forgotten to attach these words.

Written By Dave on March 10th, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

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