“It was many years before I had the opportunity to meet and hear from Palestinians face to face. And it turned out to be decisive in pushing my thoughts and feelings forward.” Monday 29th November was the United Nations Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people. Our Chair of trustees, Robert Cohen, gave these reflections to mark the day during our Beautiful Resistance carol service tour in Leeds.
A UN school inside a refugee camp in the West Bank cut off from the community by the Israeli Separation Wall. © Amos Trust/James Jagger
I have lived my Jewish life in the fall-out of two of the most seismic events in all of Jewish history — the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. These two events are continuing to play themselves out in myriad and complex ways.
It means that Jews and Palestinians have found their lives and their futures entangled. For me that entanglement has been disturbing, upsetting, baffling, and certainly disorientating.
It was many years before I had the opportunity to meet and hear from Palestinians face to face. And, as I’m sure was the case for some of you here tonight, that opportunity was created by Amos Trust. And it turned out to be decisive in pushing my thoughts and feelings forward.
Justin Butcher (left), Chris Rose (middle) and Robert Cohen (right) outside the British Consulate in Jerusalem in 2017 as part of Amos Trust’s Just Walk to Jerusalem. © Amos Trust/Mark Kensett
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I, like most Jewish people, am weighed down by our own Jewish experience of discrimination and oppression. I carry this ‘baggage’ around with me and it shapes my outlook on many things. The way in which I understand what has happened to the Palestinian people is through a distinctly Jewish frame of reference.
I hear in the Palestinian story echoes of my own people’s history.
Resonances and dissonance
There will always be important differences and distinctions. I don’t see mirror images. But I don’t need to. There are enough resonances, enough notes, rhythms and phrases that my ears are alive to because they sound depressingly familiar.
What does it mean to be displaced and dispersed? To be migrants and refugees? To be contained in a ghetto? To have your movement restricted? Your opportunities in life curtailed? What does it mean to be told that political and social acceptance means forgetting your history and your heritage? What does it mean to be denied autonomy and self-determination? To be abandoned by the world? For your suffering to count for nothing?
I have lived my Jewish life in the fall-out of two of the most seismic events in all of Jewish history — the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Robert Cohen
These are the resonances I cannot help but hear when I listen to Palestinians.
But as well as the resonances, I also hear the sound of dissonance; of crashed melodies and broken harmonies. It’s the dissonance created when the tradition of Jewish ethics and responsibility I was taught as a child and which continue to be central to my Jewish identity, comes face to face with the cruelty of the Nakba and the harshness of the Occupation.
The entanglement of Jews and Palestinians has a power dynamic operating within it which means this is not a contemporary story of shared suffering or common experience. The rhetoric of ‘both sides negotiating for peace’ in the Israel/Palestine context turns out to be an act of denial or at least an obscuring of the truth of what’s happened and what’s going on today.
Which is why I always say in my talks that the greatest challenge facing Jews, and indeed Judaism, in the 21st century is our relationship to the Palestinian people.
A ‘Peace Wall’ on the Gaza/Israel border. © Amos Trust/Mark Kensett
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Can we, as Jews, accept that our project of national renewal and liberation has also been a project of settler colonialism? A project which has dispossessed another people and continues to deny them rights and self-determination. Can we hold the two truths of liberation and dispossession simultaneously? Can we recognise that the truth of one does not cancel out the truth of the other? Can we find a way to create both Palestinian and Jewish equality, autonomy and self-determination within the same land, from the river to the sea?
I’ve come to the conclusion that as Jews we cannot ask for freedom and equality in every nation in which we live as citizens, apart from the very place we call our ancestral homeland. The contradiction is too great to bear indefinitely.
I, like most Jewish people, am weighed down by our own Jewish experience of discrimination and oppression. I carry this ‘baggage’ around with me and it shapes my outlook on many things. Robert Cohen
And in Israel, Israeli Jews cannot expect to find security and peace while denying it to their neighbours whose lives their government controls.
As for the diaspora Jewry of which I am a member, we’re living at a time in which conspiracy theories are on the rise, ethnic nationalism is growing and democracy is on the defence. These are conditions in which antisemitism takes hold and thrives.
It’s a set of bewildering and troubling circumstances which confuses Jews as much as anyone else looking on.
All of us need to be creative in our thinking. Some kind of beautiful resistance has to emerge from the ugliness that now surrounds us, especially in the Holy Land.
It’s far from being an easy task. I don’t have all of the answers. But it begins with listening and it begins with solidarity.
Let me finish with a quote from a first century Jewish sage called Rabbi Tarfon. “It is not our job to complete the task, but neither are you free to neglect it”.
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Robert Cohen — Amos Chair of Trustees