OPINION: Revisiting our Jewish values six months into the Israel-Gaza conflict

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OPINION: Revisiting our Jewish values six months into the Israel-Gaza conflict

Our Zionism is not just about Israel’s borders but also about its behaviours, write the co-leads of Progressive Judaism.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky and Rabbi Josh Levy
Rabbi Charley Baginsky and Rabbi Josh Levy

In October of last year, together with other communal leaders, we produced a set of principles about how to respond to the emerging crisis in Israel and Gaza. It was called Our Jewish Values (www.ourjewishvalues.org.uk) and spoke for many in our communities who were searching for the words with which to respond, evidenced by thousands of people from across the spectrum of the Jewish community, including over 100 rabbis, who chose to add their names to the online document.

Six months on, revisiting the words, they still resonate. More powerful is the heart-breaking realisation that so many of the challenges it articulates are unresolved.

We began with our clear commitment to Israel and Zionism. As time has passed, not only has this commitment been reaffirmed, it has been strengthened. We mourn all those who were lost on October 7, we grieve for families displaced, fear for those sheltering from rockets and call for the immediate release of hostages taken by Hamas. We have witnessed the depth of loss that Israelis have experienced, and know how connected to this pain and fear many Jews in the UK are, too. We recognise the existential threat that Hamas pose – as well as Hezbollah, the Houthis and others – and that Israel has a right to defend itself.

Nor has the last six months lessened our belief in Palestinian self-determination. We refuse to give up on the idea of a two-state solution, however hard this might be. This is the only possible pathway to an enduring peace.

Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 12, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

In that document six months ago, we together expressed a fear not only about what was happening, but about what was to come: the humanitarian situation that was unfolding and the loss of life of innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza. This has only grown more troubling. A war can be just and yet carried out in ways that go beyond what is acceptable, in international and Jewish law. The shocking number of non-combatant civilian deaths, together with the starvation and disease, demands our response. As does the violence in the West Bank that has been allowed, even encouraged, to grow.

The Zionism that we aspire to is a religious Zionism, one that comes from within our religious worldview. Our Zionism is not just about Israel’s borders but also about its behaviours. Israel, as a Jewish state, reflects on all the world’s Jews and Judaism itself, so it must seek to be a Kiddush HaShem, to sanctify the name of God, through its actions. Israel should aspire to be ‘a light unto the nations’, even though in so doing it might feel we are asking it to live up to higher standards than other countries. We must acknowledge that Israel under its current leadership has failed to live up to these obligations.

Over the past six months, the impact on society has stretched far beyond Israel and Palestine. In Israel, there has been a major impact on the work of human rights and coexistence organisations. Our Zionism is strengthened by the knowledge that so many of our colleagues are, even now, directly involved in protest and action to work for a better Israel, campaigning for a new Government and a different way forward.

Here, there has been a dramatic rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia, challenging the quantity and nature of interfaith work, and making it harder for diverse groups to speak to each other. Yet, in order to live together, we must step into the pain of the other, to see them and to hear them. There is not a hierarchy of suffering, nor is this a zero-sum game which prevents us from both holding our own pain and suffering and still giving voice to that of another. This is not only about Jews and Muslims: the crisis in Israel and Palestine has been polarising and is being used by those with malignant agendas to divide and stir up fear.

For the past six months we have tried to speak with complexity and nuance. We have sat in spaces that have been difficult and listened to words which have been uncomfortable to hear. We have added layers to conversations which required our voice and repeatedly refused to speak in slogans, or to make declarations that might make us feel better but do not make a tangible difference. We have sought to repair wherever we can and not further fracture, to seek dialogue and allyship not enmity. Our relationships in this country require us all to make this commitment.

It is six months on. It is devastating that the principles found in Our Jewish Values are now even more needed than before. We call on the Jewish world and beyond to revisit them.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky and Rabbi Josh Levy are co-leads of Progressive Judaism

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