It probably should have come as no surprise to see Rabbi Howard Cooper peddling his wares on CiF on February 19th. After all, he is a member of ‘Independent Jewish Voices, has defended Caryl Churchill’s antisemitic playlet ‘Seven Jewish Children’, describes Israel as being “morally bankrupt” and as having “reached a new and shameful nadir in its history” for defending its citizens against years of Hamas rocket attacks as well as having the gall to elect a government of which he does not approve.
Nevertheless, even the predictable can be disappointing. It is sad to see yet another British Jew collaborating with the Guardian in its long-term assault on Israel’s legitimacy. It is even more disturbing to see a Rabbi cynically use the Jewish faith as a tool with which to advance the political concept that Israelis do not represent ‘the true spirit of Judaism’. However, given Rabbi Cooper’s egregious record, it is reasonable to assume that he is entirely aware of what he is doing and that for his own political reasons he has no qualms about presenting himself as an authoritative voice giving undeserved credence to the Guardian World View that the nice, docile and ‘authentic’ Jews are the ones who do not live in or support Israel.
Exploiting his position as a religious leader, Rabbi Cooper stokes the fires of the growing urban myth – fuelled by the Guardian and certain other media outlets – to the effect that Israelis were disturbed to see Hosni Mubarak toppled last week.
“I recognise the notion of bending “the arc of history toward justice”. It forms part of my understanding of a Judaic vision for humanity. So I was saddened by the predominantly muted and apprehensive response to these uplifting events from many of my fellow Jews in the UK and in Israel. How is it possible, I have wondered, not to be moved and inspired by the sight of a people finding its voice to join protests against decades of dictatorship, corruption, brutality and repression?”
“Is it because this begrudging Jewish response has been dictated not by a recognition of the power of the human spirit to overcome oppression, but by fear?”
“But the spectre of Israel once again surrounded by implacable annihilatory enemies haunts the Jewish imagination. It’s as if fear is soldered to our soul. Fear that past patterns of prejudice will be repeated and thereby determine our future. I find this kind of fearfulness both dispiriting and a betrayal of the Judaism I hold dear.”
“For our response to these events to be dictated by our fears, rather than our hopefulness about the human spirit, is an act of bad faith: it reneges on the spiritual vision of our Judaic heritage. In secular terms, it puts us as Jews on the wrong side of history – it puts us on the side of repression and brutality.”
Those are undoubtedly easy words to write in Finchley, but they show a lack of empathy for the people living in Israel which is quite shocking when one considers that they come from a man who supposedly understands human beings both as a religious leader and a psychoanalyst. What Rabbi Cooper is saying is that anyone who is not as completely and utterly overjoyed as he is to see unrest on the streets in surrounding countries, anyone who is apprehensive of what the future may bring to the region, is betraying Judaism. That is a very serious charge.
It is a charge, however, which can only come as the product of a specific environment. Happily, there are some Jews in the world today who do not possess the collective memory of persecution in pre-war Europe, Soviet Russia or Arab countries. They have no understanding of the fear of a mob in the streets or the chill of hearing the cry of ‘Itbah al Yahud!’. They have never been stoned or bombed or attacked by missiles. They have never had to leave their homes in the middle of the night to search for safety in unfamiliar places. Their children have never had to see, let alone use, a gas mask or a bomb shelter. These things are not ‘spectres’ or products of the ‘Jewish imagination’ as Cooper claims, but very real and present phenomena.
And so, people like Rabbi Cooper can allow themselves to condescendingly lecture others from their particular little island of safety and comfort and – reprehensibly – cast judgement upon their emotions. Predictably, the Rabbi Coopers of this world always come from very privileged societies; we do not see Jews from Iran, Venezuela or Morocco indulging themselves in accusations of betrayal of their shared faith against other Jews in the Middle East.
Rabbi Cooper’s empathy for the Egyptian people shows no bounds; he takes great pains to show in this article that he is on ‘the right side of history’ and if, in order to do so, he has to collaborate with the perpetuation of an unfounded urban myth and even engage in a little ‘sinat hinam’ (baseless hatred) by categorising Jews into good ones who think like him and bad ones who ‘betray’ Judaism, that obviously does not worry him. Neither, apparently, does his rather astounding ability to claim a monopoly on Judaism.
To some, that may seem like strange behaviour for a Rabbi, but the reason for it is perfectly obvious – Rabbi Cooper’s politics trump both his chosen professions. For him, ‘the right side of history’ does not end in Tahrir square. It involves being on the ‘right side’ in his own society too and in some circles that means post-Zionism and a required ability to empathise more deeply with people who do not belong to his own ethnic group than those who do. And so, just as he was unable to find any sympathy for the children of Sderot when he wrote about operation Cast Lead on his blog (they did not even get a mention), he is also now devoid of any empathy towards those who hope that the Egyptian people are not about to exchange one kind of dictatorship for another.
Any fears that Israelis have about the eventual outcome of the Egyptian uprising are based both on a keen understanding of the forces at work in the region and the experiences of the rise to power of radical Islamist elements in both Lebanon and Gaza by means of democratic elections. Those fears are founded in reality and are certainly no less legitimate than Rabbi Cooper’s own fears regarding the need to be publicly seen to be on the ‘right side’ for the sake of his own self-preservation.
The real ‘act of bad faith’ here is committed not by people displaying honest apprehension at what the future may realistically bring in terms of renewed violence and conflict in this region, but by a man basking in the relative safety afforded by a few thousand kilometres of distance between himself and any potential danger, who is prepared to abuse his position in order to belittle and deride the legitimate fears of others solely to increase his own esteem in the eyes of his political fellow travelers.
(Postscript: Please note this video of the massive rally in Cairo on Friday, addressed by Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The chants you hear the crowd roaring are ”To Jerusalem (al Quds) we go, for us to be the Martyrs of Millions”)