Offence: The Jewish Case

What get us all hot under the collar


November 26, 2009
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Offence: The Jewish Case
By Brian Klug
Seagull Books, £12

If they agree with nothing else in Brian Klug’s essay, many will ruefully nod in recognition when he says: “It sometimes seems that an entire people… are perpetually broiges”.

The urbane Oxford University philosopher certainly knows about broiges since he was at the centre of one nearly three years ago as a co-founder of Independent Jewish Voices, which was set up to challenge the default solidarity with Israel adopted by mainstream Jewish organisations.

Offence: the Jewish Case carries on the argument. It was commissioned as part of a series on religion and freedom of expression by the group Index on Censorship, in which individual writers look at what gets people worked up within their own communities. More than anything else for Jews today, argues Klug, this involves Israel.

Along the way, he offers a witty reflection on what is Judaism (A religion? A culture?) which would be a useful prompt for any group discussion. But his main theme is to outline a case for criticising Israel from within the traditions of Judaism itself. This rests on three pillars: “rejection of idolatry, respect for human dignity and commitment to argument”.

Unconditional identification with a state represents a form of idolatry in his eyes, symbolised by two boys he sees at a rally draped in the flag of Israel as though it were a tallit. The talmudic concept of kavod habriyot, which he renders as “human dignity”, demands that one speak out whenever and wherever it is violated.

Thirdly, comes the concept of “arguments for the sake of heaven”, which Klug glosses to mean “nothing is…beyond the reach of argument in the interests of peace, justice and truth”.

These principles are broadly — very broadly — sketched rather than drawn in detail and his use of them is obviously selective. The figure of the “discomforting prophet” is invoked but the prophets, for all their broadsides against their erring brethren, were also bearers of national hope and consolation, as well as being merciless on Israel’s enemies.

According to one midrashic interpretation, Elijah was whisked to heaven because he overdid his castigation of Israel. Even prophetic criticism has its limits.

    Last updated: 5:55pm, January 27 2010