Saturday, February 10, 2007

Children of the Holocaust

Anne Karpf is a columnist in the Saturday Guardian's Family section. A writer and broadcaster, she is, most recently, the author of The Human Voice (2006)

I've just been talking on the phone to an aunt in Israel - a Holocaust survivor like my mother. After swapping news about the family, the subject of the Middle East came up. Though our views sometimes overlap they also differ because, despite her strong criticism of the current Israeli government and despair over their incursion last year into Lebanon, she's ultimately a passionate defender of the state.

Our conversation was heated but never less than amicable: what struck me was how long it is since I've had such a vigorous exchange of views about the Middle East with other Jews in Britain with whom I disagree that didn't end with me being accused of something - from being self-hating, to undermining the very future of Judaism. In fact, from what I've read and what my aunt described, I get the sense that the quality of debate is far more frank and uninhibited in Israel than it is here. This is why I signed the Independent Jewish Voices declaration.

Growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s as the child of Holocaust survivors, I learned not what some educators now like to glibly claim as "the lessons of the Holocaust" - be nice to your neighbour - but the opposite: lie low. The majority of British Jews either lived exclusively in Jewish communities or avoided drawing attention to their Jewishness.

This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, and a new confidence emerged, bringing an explosion of interest in Jewish identity and history. But as the situation in the Middle East has developed, it feels as if we're stepping back in time. Jews are under pressure, not least from many fellow Jews, to uncritically endorse everything that the Israeli government does, or else to lie low, almost disavowing their Jewishness for fear of being identified with an occupying power.

I refuse both positions. I grew up in household where practically every meal was conducted to the sound of heated political argument. This isn't unusual: the yeshiva (an academy for the study of the Torah) is fundamentally a place where one Jew likes to shout his viewpoint louder than the other, where knowledge is advanced by the fierce contestation of conflicting interpretation. The idea of a single Jewish orthodoxy is a sign of weakness, not strength; of fear rather than confidence.

It's been hard for me to speak out about the Middle East: most surviving members of my family live in Israel, and for a long time my family's experience made me anxious about the repercussions that could come from speaking one's mind.

Yet the more that the Israeli government claims to act on behalf of all Jews, the more I feel obliged to make my dissenting voice heard. In this I draw inspiration from the long Jewish tradition of fighting for human rights, other people's as well as one's own: Jews have been prominent in virtually every major modern movement for civil rights and social equality.

I also refuse the idea of "our civil rights versus theirs", as though justice for Israelis and Palestinians were not only divisible but also mutually exclusive. This is a form of polarisation beloved by those unwilling to expose their arguments to counter-evidence, who prefer slogans to dialogue, and who promote a false idea of winners and losers. In my view this formulation has played a significant part in perpetuating the conflict in the Middle East.

I want my children to grow up proud of their Jewish identity, and to know that there's no contradiction between being Jewish and fighting for human rights. I've put my name to Independent Jewish Voices to defend and enlarge a public space for debate, to assert that there's more than one variety of legitimate Jewish opinion, and in rejection of the idea that you can be against either anti-semitism or Islamophobia but not both.

Lying low is no longer an option.


At 6:08 PM, Anonymous Amir L said...

I am very happy that you are engaging yourself fighting for human rights etc., etc.. I also believe in human rights the court of law and that we should bring up our children in a way that they understand the difference between good and bad etc., etc. However what I do not believe is hypocrits. Now you just have signed a declaration for independent jewish voices in association with Harold Pinter a man who openly declared his support for Slobodan Milosevic, (the butcher of ex yugoslavia),and Fidel Castro, not really the beacon of free speech, Mr Hobsbawm, a man who had difficulties to admit Stalin and his murderous gang killed almost as many people as Hitler did, probably thats allright they were only counter revolutionaries.
I do think that you should choose more carefully the people you sign declarations with. There are more on that list who have one way or the other supported groups which are not really defenders of liberal human rights ideas as you declare yourself, however it would take me the whole day to write it down.
I believe that you have the right to say whatever you like but I have a problem to believe that this group is anything than a selfpublicising group declaring themselves to the british public mostly for their own selfish reasons.
And I do not think has any interest to start a meaningful discourse in the jewish community which would be important. Believe me most of the british public will see through that very quickly and dismiss your group because it does not even touch the majority of the jewish community. However if you start a discussion in the jewish community than the british public and also their representatives will listen on a long run. But for this you would have to engage yourself in the community and from what I read in your comment I can't see that. Amir L

At 3:51 PM, Blogger Gert said...

I did not sign the declaration: the author of the article did.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger ecoxiety said...

I am not sure when Jews had any trouble getting hold of an 'independent' or any other voice. That's not one of our problems. I read the Jewish Chronicle weekly and I see no shortage of coverage of a wide range of opinions.

Maybe as Amir says, these 'dissenting voices' should take part in the Jewish people a bit more, most Jews in this country are disaffiliated and know little or nothing of their own heritage. What are Jewish values? Do you know?

But as a lifelong supporter or Israel I think it is dangerous to do what these kind of groups do: take an unbalanced viewpoint on the Middle East conflict. All they seem to be saying is, "War is terrible" - and who wouldn't agree? - "and only one side is allowed to carry it out".

Yes, what is happening in the Palestinian territories is terrible, but so equally is what is being done to us. The Palestinians chose violence from the start, and we can see the results all around. Almost any one of the Arab nations could easily show they care - with actions not words - and solve the refugee problem overnight. But they don't want to. That's the bitter truth.

All the hatred and violence - on both sides - is futile, cruel and ultimately childless. We should enter in dialogue with each other, but while we're being vilified, I'll side with Israel.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger Gert said...

You're assuming their viewpoint is "unbalanced". Why? Because it doesn't coincide with yours?

At 12:14 PM, Blogger ecoxiety said...

Of course not. What I am really talking about is double standards. Perhaps 'unbalanced' is too subjective, as you allude, but double standards are quite demonstrable.

There are many examples, I'll give just a few: (1) any other race/creed/people has a recognised right to a homeland, Israel's right to a homeland is relentlessly challenged from numerous quarters

(2) most countries have at some time been occupied by a foreign power, for example the US' annexation of Mexico, Australia, New Zealand. These foreign powers are left in peace, but with Israel, a nation with a genuine historical right to live in the area, there is no let-up

(3) around the world there are numerous examples of human rights abuse and war crimes, yet Israel is again singled out for relentless criticism, even though its alleged abuses are far less. Even the Amnesty International annual reports do not particularly feature Israel, as opposed to the approach from other quarters

I value open debate and discussion. But that is a different thing to adding my own voice to Israel's already plentiful supply of detractors


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