Growing up in Bnei Akiva in the UK in the 80s and 90s I was entirely ignorant of the occupation. There were no dotted lines on our maps of Israel, no Palestinians seeking self-determination, only millions of hostile Arabs wanting our land. Supporting Israel meant supporting Israel’s control of the whole land; I knew of no other option.
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Through such education the occupation was normalized for many Orthodox British Jews of my generation. It is common even now in both formal and informal settings to reject the use of that word to describe the situation in the West Bank.
This environment enables Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, member of the House of Lords, a high-profile member of both Yeshiva University and New York University’s faculty, and one of the most eminent modern Orthodox rabbis of his generation, to extend a “personal invitation” to Diaspora Jews to join him on a trip to Israel which includes “leading” the March of the Flags on Jerusalem Day and “dancing with our brave IDF soldiers” in the radical settler enclave inside the city of Hebron. The trip, marking the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, is run by Mizrachi Olami, the parent organisation of Bnei Akiva.
The March of the Flags, which celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem, passes through the Old City’s Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem and proceeds through the Muslim quarter. In his promotional video for the trip Rabbi Sacks quotes Psalms: “Jerusalem is rebuilt like a city that is compact together” and goes on to say, “of course that’s what we see each time we visit Jerusalem today”.
The Israeli authorities enable this wilful blindness to the reality of a divided city by issuing closure orders to Palestinian businesses along the route, and preventing Palestinian residents from being on the streets.
The march, largely attended by bussed in yeshiva students, is associated with hate speech and violence. Haaretz’s Bradley Burston describes it as “an annual, gender-segregated extreme-right, pro-occupation religious carnival of hatred, marking the anniversary of Israel's capture of Jerusalem by humiliating the city's Palestinian Muslims marchers vandalized shops in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter, chanted "Death to Arabs" and "The (Jewish) Temple Will Be Built, the (Al Aqsa) Mosque will be Burned Down," shattered windows and door locks, and poured glue into the locks of shops forced to close for fear of further damage.”
On their trip to Hebron, as well as praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs, the group will visit one of the most contentious of all the settlements. It comprises a few hundred Jews in the centre of a city of 150,000 Palestinians, heavily guarded by the Israeli army and causing huge ongoing disruption to the Palestinian population. ‘Dancing with soldiers’ in the streets of this settlement enclave is an unequivocal show of support for the settlers’ presence there, and of disregard to local Palestinians living under a form of perpetual siege.
The Western Wall and the Cave of the Patriarchs were inaccessible to Jews between 1948 and 1967. Celebrating renewed Jewish access and praying at these holy places is understandable; however Mizrachi’s planned activities venture beyond celebration into highly contentious territory and provocation, mixing political acts with religious celebrations. The trip aims to tacitly reinforce the same lesson I was taught in my youth: that supporting Israel’s presence in the entire land is an intrinsic and necessary part of supporting Israel.
It is surprising that Rabbi Sacks is promoting this trip. His most recent book, Not in God’s Name, discusses the importance of interpreting religious texts and obligations in a way that is consistent with peace and tolerance. He has earned a reputation for being thoughtful, measured and conciliatory. Last year he won the prestigious Templeton Prize in recognition of his appreciation and respect towards all faiths, for promoting the importance of recognizing the values of each of them, and for his inter-faith work.
In a 2002 interview Rabbi Sacks expressed serious concerns about the occupation, remarks for which he was much criticised by some in the Orthodox community.
For Rabbi Sacks and other religious leaders to endorse the message that to support Israel must require supporting the occupation, and some of its most radical settlers, has serious consequences. Many in the Diaspora accept this message, impeding real dialogue about how we can best support Israel, and about the plurality of views. Others see how Judaism, Zionism and the occupation are being presented as an indivisible whole and reject the former as well as the latter, at great cost to our community.
To the wider communities in which we live, the promotion of these events by one of the world’s most respected rabbis sends a message of normalization and acceptance of the occupation by the mainstream Jewish community. Many Jews in the Diaspora work hard to emphasize that being Jewish is not synonymous with supporting the Israeli government, and that supporting Israel’s right to exist is not synonymous with supporting the occupation. Rabbi Sacks’ actions risk undermining these messages.
A group of British Jews currently living in Jerusalem has prepared an open letter to Rabbi Sacks, expressing our concern at the implications of his trip on Diaspora communities, and asking that he reconsider his involvement in these events. We hope that together we can work towards a more honest dialogue about Israel, one in which we directly engage with the occupation rather than airbrushing it out.
Anna Roiser is a British lawyer and a New Israel Fund New Gen Activism Fellow for 2017/2018 currently living in Jerusalem. Follow her on Twitter: @12AnnaBanana