Most of you know that I periodically publish commentary at The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog. As I was preparing my last post there I came across the writing of Seth Freedman, who is a regular twice a week commentator. Though there are now many progressive Jewish voices in the web/blogosphere I still get a little frisson of excitement when I find one I hadn’t heard of previously.
Seth is an Anglo-Israeli who grew up in England raised in an Orthodox family. He calls himself a “left wing, yet Zionist Jew.” Usually, when I read even progressive Jews writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict my views diverge at some point or another from theirs. I don’t yet know Seth well enough personally or politically to know if that will happen. But I’ve found his writing voice, spiritual values and politics to be remarkably simpatico. I’d strongly recommend my readers check his work out at Comment is Free.
One of his recent pieces spoke of the values of Sukkot and how they should make us more sympathetic to the suffering of the Palestinian children of Ishmael:
As Alexander Goldberg pointed out in his piece this week,”Succot reminds us of the fragility of our own existence,” due to the custom of eating (and even sleeping) in flimsy wooden shelters constructed in the open air. This practice is to remind us of how the Jews dwelt after fleeing the oppression of Egypt and before being given a state of their own – perhaps one of the earliest refugee camps on record.
However, where Goldberg’s interpretation of Succot’s message and mine diverge is in how we should put into practice the lessons of such a temporal, transient existence that our ancestors were forced to endure…There is a more parochial meaning to be taken from Succot for those with an eye on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. By reflecting on our own fragile history, it is incumbent on Jews to put ourselves in the shoes of a people playing out an almost carbon copy version of our past and decide whether we really want them to suffer the same fate as us.
Our wandering round the desert lasted 40 years, and saw an entire generation of Israelites denied the opportunity to enter the promised land. Even our leader, the prophet Moses, was – as punishment for a transgression against God – fated never to set foot inside Israel, the land sworn to his people by the Almighty. We feel his pain when we read about his sadness in the Bible, and – conversely – rejoice at the tale of the Jews finally being heralded into their homeland once God decided they were deserving of such reward.
So, when we look across the wall at our Palestinian neighbours mired in their own exile, we would do well to reflect on how responsible we are for their plight, and what measures we can take to ease their suffering. They too have wandered in the wilderness for 40 years since the expansion of Israel in 1967 (longer, if one wants to take the creation of the State of Israel as the actual beginning of their exile).
They too have been forced into a state of precarious limbo, with barely any headway made over the last half century into crystallising their dreams of their own independent state. And, like the Jews before them, they too have lost a generation – as well as their own so-called saviour, Yasser Arafat – to unfulfilled aspirations and bitter hardships without ever reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.
Many people choose to deride Palestinian aspirations for statehood by claiming that they never were a united people before Israel’s creation, and that therefore there is something fraudulent about their claims to be one today. However, as the Jewish narrative relates after their years under the yoke of Egyptian rule, decades spent in exile forged them into nationhood and enabled them to develop a political structure.
Once the Declaration of Independence was made in May 1948, the Jewish people fulfilled an ambition to regain sovereignty over their homeland that they’d harboured ever since their exile 2,000 years earlier. The jubilation and sheer delight felt by Jews worldwide bore testament to quite how fervent their yearning had been, and quite how desperate they’d been to achieve their dream.
So now, given that the shoe’s on the other foot and we are witnessing the same kind of heartfelt longing amongst the displaced Palestinians, we ought to be doing our utmost to see to it that history isn’t doomed to repeat itself. And, given that the rituals of Succot force us to feel physically what life in exile was like for our forebears, now is as good a time as any to feel some empathy not just with the figures of our past, but with our present-day neighbours living on our doorstep.
Seth’s regular gig at Comment is Free once again points to this site as one of the best for airing progressive views of the conflict. It puts all other online media including the Forward to shame.
I’m trying to persuade Seth to start his own blog as his voice as an Orthodox Jew is an often missing critical component to the debate over the I-P conflict. Usually, we hear hard-right voices emanating from the Orthodox community on these questions. But when I read people like Seth or Jerry Haber I feel reassured that there is common ground among many Jews regardless of religiosity or denomination.