As Jews, We Can't Be Neutral in This Conflict

How can I be neutral when it is my friends running for the bomb shelter? And how can I be neutral when the State of Israel has too much power over the Palestinian people’s destiny?

Rabbi Neil Janes
Rabbi Neil Janes
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Smoke rises following an Israeli strike on Gaza Strip as Palestinian rockets are launched into Israel, background, on Friday, July 11, 2014.
Smoke rises following an Israeli strike on Gaza Strip as Palestinian rockets are launched into Israel, background, on Friday, July 11, 2014. Credit: AP
Rabbi Neil Janes
Rabbi Neil Janes

Dear friend,

I was told you were looking for some objective information about what is happening in Israel at the moment. That you wanted something ‘neutral’. Truthfully, the task of finding something ‘neutral’ is impossible.

There is an understanding of the region which we can derive from appreciating the development of the Abrahamic religions, the attachment to the land of Israel, the ancient history of the land of Israel and of Jerusalem over thousands of years. We should learn from the Jewish connection to the land and the nature of Arab and specifically Palestinian identity and their connection to the land. We can derive an understanding of the region from global history – the nature of conflict, colonialism and the end of the Ottoman Empire. We can also gain understanding from the history of political thought, including the rise of nationalism (not simply right-wing nationalism) – the development of the idea of the nation state and a people’s right to self-determination. We must not forget the modern history of the State of Israel. Nor should we ignore the Holocaust, the changing nature of Western political power, international law and so on.

But that does not add up to an answer to your request.

I am passionate about the pursuit of justice and peace, of equality for all and the upholding of human rights for everyone. I am also a Jew and feel deeply connected to the fate of my people. I am both a universalist and a particularist – such is the nature of 21st century identity. That means that when three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped and murdered just for being Jewish, I feel deep pain. Their murder reflects on who I am as a Jew too, because I am no different to them and were it my children in their shoes - they would be no safer.

But it also means when a Palestinian teenager is murdered in what appears to be a revenge attack I also feel deep pain. Jewish literature teaches the value of all life, not just Jewish life. And I am disgusted that an attack of that sort could be provoked and carried out by Jews. Life is both universal (values, ideas and experiences applying equally to all of humankind) and particular (as a Jew there are things I share with other Jews and their families).

But this conflict is also one which has existentialist importance. I cannot be ‘neutral’ when there is a desire for the extinction of both my people and their presence in the State of Israel. I also cannot be neutral when the genuine desire for a state as an expression of self-determination is denied to the Palestinian people and the State of Israel continues to have too much power over the Palestinian people’s destiny.

How can I be neutral when it is my friends running for the bomb shelter or leaving their children behind as they are called up for reserve duty in the army? How can I be neutral when the loss of life is a trauma and tragedy inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians – victims of the machinery of violence and warfare?

I cannot be neutral when indiscriminate rocket attacks are prevented from leaving a trail of damage and harm only because of Israel's investment in protecting its citizens.

How can I be neutral when innocent Palestinians are being turned into human shields by a brutal regime under Hamas in Gaza that I really think is more interested in wiping Israel off the map than its people’s longing for self-determination? How can I be neutral when I know the voices of hatred and revenge grow stronger amongst Jewish Israelis and Palestinians?

We cannot be neutral. Neutrality implies something impossible – something without values, as if there are just ‘objective’ facts when it comes to human life. It is so complicated, there is much nuance and huge difficulty reading the picture unfolding at the moment.

And yet, I continue to work for peace, for justice, for a resolution, for two states with secure borders. I remain committed to nurturing love, empathy and respect for my fellow human beings. But I understand that is a tough thing to do if you’re living in the midst of conflict not sitting in the comfort of a North West London home – as I am.

My advice to you: Read, read again, listen, really listen to everyone, understand, go back and read some more. Do not accept simple answers to complicated problems. Recognize that there is no one ‘version’ or ‘narrative’ that will offer objective truth. Too often we only read materials that confirm what we already think/believe: Challenge yourself to read differently, from the other side. In the words of a good friend and colleague, “As well as reading from different perspectives – we need to understand that the truth does not lie between the different perspectives – we are not hoping to reach a compromise between two different understandings of history, but rather we need to accept that opposing narratives are both part of a multi-voiced and complex truth”.

Finally, hold on to the values that will one day, I pray, triumph – of truth, of justice, of peace, and of love.


Rabbi Neil Janes

Rabbi Neil Janes is rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue. He is working toward a PhD in Jewish Thought through Haifa University, having lived in Israel before returning to the U.K. to the congregational rabbinate and as a leading voice for progressive Judaism in the U.K. Follow him on Twitter: @rabbineiljanes

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