Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Mary Grey, Debating Israel and Palestine, (Exeter, Impress Books, 2014).
It was George Orwell who wrote in his book 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” As with the conflict in Northern Ireland, where communal memories go back to at least the year 1690 and the Battle of the Boyne, the rival historical narratives which have dominated the conflict in what is now Israel and Palestine have deep and enduring roots, and still have their tragic impact today. But in all historical narratives there is also often a large element of myth. But the myth is used (especially by the stronger party in asymmetrical power situations) to justify ever more intransigent positions, leading to further conflict, which simply feeds the narrative with new grievances and perceived injustices.
In theory, this collection of dialectical exchanges between a Jewish academic and a Catholic colleague on the troubled history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute ought not to work. First, both writers are theologians, not academic historians: Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok is Visiting Professor Emeritus of Judaism, while Mary Grey is Emeritus Professor of Theology, both at the University of Wales. Second, each exchange blends detailed historical narrative (which is essential for a lay reader unfamiliar with, say, the details of the British mandate in Palestine from 1920 to 1948) with robust polemical debate. This makes for a dense and demanding book. Third, there is a built-in imbalance in the writing, given that Cohn-Sherbok can obviously speak for the Jewish/Zionist narrative, but in what sense can Professor Grey, a Catholic feminist and liberation theologian based in Hampshire, speak authoritatively for the Palestinian perspective? The book ought to suffer from the lack of an authentic Palestinian voice.
And yet the book does work, and magnificently so. This reviewer starts from a position of strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and yet after reading Cohn-Sherbok’s elegantly-crafted defence of the Israeli position, I found that I had a much better understanding of Zionism, or at least of the psychology which underpinned its emergence at the end of the nineteenth century. Cohn-Sherbok is especially strong in linking the campaign for a Jewish homeland with the impossible position of Jews when confronted with rabid and often violent antisemitism. He challenges Grey with the question, ‘How are Jews to escape Judeophobia?’ and manages to extract from his opponent an admission that she would probably have sympathised with the Zionist cause in the early days.
Despite not being Palestinian, and thus not obviously having any ‘skin in the game’ as it were, Dr Grey is brilliant at casting a forensic spotlight on some of the flaws in Zionism, and how such a political creed (bearing in mind that Zionism was initially a political not a religious movement) could possibly be reconciled with the fundamental human rights of the Arab peoples already living in Palestine. She also skilfully and rightly takes Cohn-Sherbok to task when his defence of Israeli policies goes too far, for example when he appears to invoke Menachem Begin’s defence of the appalling Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948 (“a necessary evil in war to keep military lines of communication open to Jerusalem and resist Arab aggression”).
In addition to its excellent treatment of early political Zionism, the book is also very strong when addressing the competing narratives that attended the creation of Israel in 1948-49. Was it a war of independence or a nakba (catastrophe?). The dialogue on this subject is bruising but always respectful, and certainly enlightening. But it is also ultimately unsatisfying: Cohn-Sherbok seems to acknowledge the tragedy of Palestinian dispossession without ever accepting that it was the inevitable consequence of a Zionist worldview which was based on an historical entitlement to the land and a conception of the Palestinians as a ‘non-people’ without any meaningful rights. Dr Grey repeatedly and eloquently alludes to this contradiction within Zionism, and challenges the notion that it can all be laid at the door of Arab aggression (a claim comprehensively debunked by Anglo-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in his book The Iron Wall) but appears not to be able to move her Jewish interlocutor.
This is perhaps the most depressing conclusion: if a liberally-minded Reform rabbi like Dan Cohn-Sherbok cannot be brought to see the inherent flaws in Zionism and Israeli policy, what hope is there for the extreme right-wing and rejectionist politicians who now dominate the Israeli government?
Both writers conclude with support for the so-called two-state solution, but their dialogue leaves the key outstanding issues in achieving such a solution – the rights of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and (crucially) the future of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – largely unresolved. Perhaps they can apply their intellectual and dialectical skills to these thorny issues in a second volume, one that looks forwards rather than back into history?
Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of Embrace the Middle East