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A Letter to My Non-Jewish Friends

Updated: Aug 15, 2023


'Woman Writing a Letter' by Rupert Shephard. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre



It’s difficult being a Jew today. Of course, over the centuries, that’s often been true. Jews have been reviled, excluded, insulted, isolated, murdered. The Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered, was the apotheosis of Jew hatred, mercilessly eliminating much of European Jewry.

Then, in 1948, when I was very young, the State of Israel was declared. In my parents’ synagogue, I sang Hativah, Israel’s national anthem, my young eyes tearing up. A Jewish state, wow! Over time, Jews in America became more and more integrated into the social fabric, flourishing and influencing. Israel was a place of joy, something special.


In my parents’ synagogue, I sang Hativah, Israel’s national anthem, my young eyes tearing up. A Jewish state, wow!

Blinded by pride and relieved to have a Jewish home, from the beginning we refused to see that Israel was a nation-state, not a holy piece of land exempt from disastrous decisions every human-made political entity makes. As to the Palestinians: we didn’t see them; we didn’t acknowledge their existence. They were indistinguishable from all those who wished for our destruction, and we had every right to destroy them as sworn enemies. They were entitled to no human rights.


I can’t speak knowledgeably about Jews in the UK, as I’ve lived here only seven years. My sense is that whilst Jews are much a part of life here, flourishing in communities both orthodox and more secular, they are less of a force than in the US. I suspect this has to do with myriad factors, including Jews’ exclusion from English life over the centuries, living outside city centres both physically (in Oxford, there was a wall around the city which Jews could not cross) and in terms of how Englishness is defined and expressed.


There’s less room here for marginal voices, more pressure to blend in to an Anglicized way of being. At the recent coronation of the king, for example, Protestantism in the form of the Church of England was a continual presence in validating his kingship. White Christian Nationalism is a growing movement threatening US democracy, but there is not yet an official declaration of a marriage between church and state as expressed in the UK monarchy.


These are generalities; discard what feels off. I aim to set the context for where we are now, in summer, 2023. Israel is a nation-state moving further towards a destruction of its democratic institutions, such as the judiciary. Its leaders embrace a set of beliefs underpinned by religious orthodoxies; religion in Israel is intertwined with all major appointments and activities. Watching Israel becoming a de facto theocracy is angushing. I see no difference between the blending of religion and nationalism Israel is embarked upon and the blending of these elements in Hindu India or Islamist Iran. We Jews were often lauded for our cosmopolitanism, our ability to flourish in any culture, at any time, making that culture richer by our presence. In today’s Israel, the desire of those in power is to assert Jewish supremacy and to extinguish that worldliness which once defined us.


We Jews were often lauded for our cosmopolitanism, our ability to flourish in any culture, at any time, making that culture richer by our presence. In today’s Israel, the desire of those in power is to assert Jewish supremacy and to extinguish that worldliness which once defined us.

Along with the destruction of what was once Jewish large-mindedness, there is also the undeniable truth that Israel is sustaining an illegal Occupation, contravening international law in relation to disputed territory. Agents of the state routinely humiliate and torment Palestinians. For the Israeli power structure, there’s no dispute: the land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean belongs to Israel, to the Jews. Period. No argument. 700,000 settlers have moved onto land which does not officially belong to Israel, displacing and tormenting and often killing Palestinians who get in the way. Defending the rights of Palestinians to have a home of their own is to risk being labeled a self-hating Jew, a traitor. You’re a fool for not seeing that Palestinians are the enemy and can never be trusted, only subsumed or destroyed.


I’ll not go on to list those groups who are working for justice, both Jews and Palestinians; those individuals who never give up trying to change minds. Nor will I list those complications that make negotiations difficult -- like a split Palestinian government with a sclerotic 87 y.o. as head of the Palestine Authority (for the nineteenth year and counting) and a militant anti-Israel Hamas in Gaza. I’ll not delve into the alliances the Israeli Right makes with Christian Zionists who are a major source of ongoing US support. I’ll not argue for or against the notion of Israel as a settler-colonial project nor examine the nuances of the term Zionism. The language and slogans and shouting are unrelenting and polarized, and they make it nearly impossible to find common ground.


I will implore my friends not to be paralyzed when it comes to looking at Israeli policy and insist that it must right the wrongs it is doing to Palestinians. It must address this issue and stop hiding behind Jewish vulnerability as an excuse to continue the status quo.


Anti-semitism is on the rise, but that is not a reason to excuse Israeli actions towards Palestinians nor to forgive the inactions of many so-called liberal democracies who turn away.

Anti-semitism is on the rise, but that is not a reason to excuse Israeli actions towards Palestinians nor to forgive the inactions of many so-called liberal democracies who turn away. Anti-semitism has many forms, some more blatant than others. There are visual representations of Jews with hooked noses, huddled over bank notes. There are those who insist Jews run the world, controlling policies through their grasping, moneyed hands. Nazi swastikas are painted on buildings. Jews are called zionist racists as a form of derision. Jews are sometimes shot whilst in gathering places like synagogues. Sometimes the sneering is obvious; other times, it’s a more subtle form of undermining Jews.


Anti-semitism is spreading, not only in right-wing populist countries like Hungary, but even in the good old USA and the UK. It’s real and it’s growing.


Get it clearly: antisemitism exists and it’s scary and it hurts everyone. But that is not a reason to allow Israel to continue its Occupation and to torment Palestinians, denying their human rights. I know it’s difficult to critique Israel because for many, Israeli equals Jew and criticizing Israel can be construed as anti-semitism. Don’t buy into that reasoning; it’s wrong.


I am a Jew. But I am not an Israeli. In fact, twenty percent of Israel’s population is non-Jewish Arab. But Israel refuses to separate out nationality from religion, insisting it’s a Jewish state and its Jewish citizens are to be privileged above its not Jewish ones. No, no, no. This sense of Jewish superiority is used to underpin the belief that Israel is exceptional, free from accountability, unlike other nations held accountable for what they do to all their citizens and what they do in the name of their citizens.


It is difficult and confusing to take a stand on Palestine and Israel. One is whipsawed in many directions. The hatred between Left and Right is extreme. Part of that vitriol stems from the longstanding belief that Jews are different, in horrible ways as in the ancient canard that Jews are Christ-killers and in less egregious but still negative ways. On the other hand, there are those who valorize Jews, giving them extraordinary qualities unlike those of other ethnicities.


Within the Jewish community, the splits between those who support Israel at all costs and those who insist it is on the wrong path are deep and ugly. If you’re not Jewish and you care about this issue, there are verbal landmines everywhere. This is an attempt to bring a bit of light, and to urge you to look as clearly as you can at this nation’s Occupation. Find a way of speaking against it, ever mindful of the distinction between a country--Israel--and an ethnicity--Jew.


3 Comments


I am not a Jew, Rose, but heart and head was with with you all the way. I thought you had handed me a business card but voila, I opened up on this thoughtful and moving article instead. Thank you. Yve x

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Dan Tennant-Ralphs
Dan Tennant-Ralphs
Aug 17, 2023

I'm Jewish myself, and think this is a superb piece of writing, thank you Rose.

Salaam shalom from Madrid,

Dan

✌️🇵🇸☮️🇮🇱🕊️

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Thank you, Rose, from one of your non-Jewish friend. Your letter really resonates with me. I so appreciate your perspective and insights.

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