Birth of a Sabeel-Kairos Jew

Am I a radical Jew? A disloyal Jew? A post Zionist Jew? An angry Jew? Robert Cohen shares his latest thoughts on Judaism, Israel, justice, and his hope for the possibility of a ‘Jewish Sabeel-Kairos moment’


Reproduced from Patheos, with thanks.


This is the text of my talk given on Friday 30 September 2016 at Victoria Methodist Church to the Sheffield Sabeel-Kairos group, part of the Sabeel-Kairos movement for church solidarity with Palestine. My thanks to Garth Hewitt, founder of Amos Trust, for inviting me to share the stage with him. Sabeel-Kairos [Pronounced: Kai-ros] is a Greek word meaning ‘the right time’ or ‘the moment of truth’. 

When we met briefly at the Greenbelt Festival in August Garth said to me that perhaps I should say things tonight that it’s difficult for other people to say.

By which I think he was referring to all those things I write about the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the leaders of Reform Judaism and the Jewish establishment in Britain in general.

Those things that if any of you said them would get you in to very hot water. But when I say them they just ignore me.

If I didn’t put more value on the word, I might say they were being antisemitic for not picking on me the way they would certainly pick on you.

So I don’t get invited to many Jewish events to give talks like this.

Actually, that’s not true. I don’t get invited to ANY Jewish events to give talks like this.

So I’m delighted to be here with you – otherwise I’d never get out of the house.

The lack of Jewish invitations is a pity. Because when I sit down to write, and as a blogger that’s my main contribution to this work, I’m usually thinking about a Jewish reader, a bit like me, but not me today, but a version of me 10 or 15 years ago.

I want that reader to reach the place that I’ve got to but a lot quicker than it took me.

So, how to introduce myself?

It’s harder than it sounds.

I can pin a lot of labels on myself or tell you the ones that other people like to pin on me.

Radical Jew? I don’t feel like a radical and my four children certainly wouldn’t recognise that description.

Actually, I think my idea of what it is to be Jewish and what Judaism should teach is remarkably mainstream. It’s everyone else that seems to have lost the plot.

Jew of Conscience? That sounds a bit too grand and self-righteous for my liking.

Disloyal Jew? Disloyal to what exactly, would be my reply. I certainly don’t feel disloyal to the values I was shown how to love growing up in a Reform Synagogue community in South London in the 70s and 80s.

Post Zionist Jew? Well, I do think as a response to 2,000 years of European oppression of Jews, Zionism has proved itself to be, at the very least, disappointing. It’s created more problems than the one it set out to resolve. For the future of Jews and Judaism we could with a new big idea.

Luckily, I’ve got one. And it turns out to be a very old idea.

Anti-Zionist Jew? Yes, certainly. When Zionism becomes an ideology that’s used to justify atrocities against another people, then I’m anti-Zionist.

Self-hating Jew? That’s a very tiresome label. And you only have to look at my bookshelves at home to know how stupid that description would be for me.

Dissident Jew? I quite like that. I’m certainly dissenting from what’s become the expected and accepted opinion on what ‘being Jewish’ in the 21st century should look like.

Angry Jew? That fits too. Sometimes it’s good to be angry. It’s good to get worked up about things that matter to you. Anger can be a useful fuel for the journey. And, in my own mild mannered English way, I’m angry at what’s been done in the name of Jews and Jewish history, and Jewish security.

BDS Jew? I do support boycotts and divestment and sanctions, as a way to show Israel there is a cost and a consequence to its actions.

And because governments, including our own, don’t seem willing to do that despite saying consistently for nearly 50 years that Israel is in breach of International Law and the West Bank Settlements are an obstacle to peace.

I support BDS because it’s a lot better than hi-jacking, or throwing rocks at soldiers, or suicide bombing. And, at least in this country, it’s still considered a legal form of protest (just about).

And I support more than just a Settlement boycott. The West Bank Settlements are not the only issue at stake. And the Occupation of the West Bank, the annexation of East Jerusalem, the 10 year siege of Gaza are not the fault of a few extreme ultra nationalist religious Jews.

The Israeli government maintains the Occupation, allows the Settlements to be built and the siege to continue. It’s funded by every Israeli tax payer, and involves the army and the judiciary and just about every part of the Israeli economy.

Does supporting BDS make me antisemitic?

Does it make me want the destruction of the State of Israel?

Am I ‘delegitimising’ the Jewish State?

That’s how you’re labelled as soon as you cross into boycott territory.

I have no wish to destroy Israel, I don’t want to throw the Jews into the sea. What ever a just peace might look like, there is no going back to a Palestine before Zionism. Jews also have human rights that don’t disappear just because we take them away from another people.

There is no question that what ever a just peace looks like, it must embrace Jews and Palestinians. So I don’t want to destroy Israel. But I want to make it better and stronger and fairer place for everyone.

Let me try out some other labels.

Religiously observant Jew? Christians like to ask me that question. “I know you’re Jewish, but how Jewish are you?’ Are you a Jew or just Jew-ish?”

In some conversations with Christians, everything gets very doctrinal, very quickly. Especially if you get onto questions of ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Chosen-ness’. I think the sub-text of the question is: If you’re really a ‘practicing Jew’ how do you square your views with the whole Jewish covenant thing?

I think I may have confused people very early on I chose as as a subtitle for my blog page ‘Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time’. What’s wrong with being a little ambitious?

I stole that idea from a tee-shirt that I saw someone wearing at the Co-op head office in Manchester where I work, which said: ‘Building Co-operation one can of beans at a time’.

I’ll come back to what I mean by ‘Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant’.

Am I a Marginalised Jew? I think that’s a very accurate description. And to a great extent self-inflicted.

I’m certainly a victim of geography.

I am a Jew living in North Yorkshire, one of the least Jewish counties in Britain. I used to live in Cumbria which is probably the least Jewish county.

I grew up in Bromley in South London too which was, and still is for the Jewish community, ‘the wrong side of the river’.

So I never seem to be in the right place, Jewishly-speaking.

It gets worse though. And this is my own fault too.

My wife, Anne, is an Anglican Priest. She wasn’t when we first met as students at Manchester University 30 years ago. But these things happen. When God calls, it’s best to answer.

Consequently, I spend a lot of time hanging out with Christians, particularly vicars and sometimes bishops.

Despite hanging out with vicars and bishops for a longtime now, I remain stubbornly Jewish in my faith and theological outlook.

Maybe it’s because I spend so much time hanging out with vicars and bishops.

However, I do have trouble finding a synagogue I’d be happy to go to.

Distance is part of the problem but so too is Zionism.

Since 1948 and very strongly since 1967, Zionism has undergone a very successful merger with mainstream Judaism.

As the Chief Rabbi wrote in the Daily Telegraph in the spring: “Zionism is an axiom of Jewish belief”.

And most Jews in Britain would probably agree with him.

Our religious and communal leadership have done a superb job on mixing and muddling religious connections with a modern political project dreamt up by mostly secular Jewish Socialists in 19th century Russia.

So much so that if you’re a critic of Israel, a synagogue can be an uncomfortable place to be.

So a Religious Exile could be another label to pin on me.

For a long time I thought my marriage meant I’d forfeited my rights to comment on matters of concern to the Jewish community.

But I changed my mind about that. Because some things are too big and too important to keep quiet about. And anyway, this is not about me.

I like to try and embrace my ‘marginality’ by describing myself as an Edgy Jew which seems to cover a multitude of modern Jewish sinfulness.

On Israel/Palestine, my Jewish edginess allows me to understand the collective Jewish narrative that sees Israel not as a normal country but as a ‘just answer’, a ‘messianic redemption’, for a people who have suffered thousands of years of discrimination, oppression and genocide.

But my Jewish edginess also allows me to step outside of this narrative and to question its understanding of history, theology and politics. It allows me to enter the narrative of the Palestinian people and be changed by that experience and understanding.

I’m still not sure any of these labels –  Dissident Jew, Edgy Jew, Marginalised Jew, Religiously Exiled Jew, post-Zionist, anti-Zionist, BDSer Jew – quite captures what I want to say about Israel/Palestine or myself.

I think I need a new label, a new description of my situation and outlook.

What have I learnt?
I’ve been on something of a long journey on Israel-Palestine but there’s not time tonight to describe every twist and turn on the less travelled road.

But I will sum up what I’ve learnt.

I’ve learnt that Israel/Palestine is not a religious conflict. Although some people would like you to think it is. And tragically, it yet has the potential to become a religious conflict.

Right now, it’s not even a nationalist conflict. That ended in 1948.

It’s certainly not a conflict between equals.

It’s not ‘half of dozen of one and six of the other’.

It’s not ‘a plague on all your houses’.

And it’s not a case of: ‘If only they could sit down and get to know each other better and build bridges then everything would be fine’.

So what is it all about?

People like to tell you it’s very complicated. That’s one way to shut you up and scare you away from critiquing Israel.

In some ways it is complicated. There’s a lot a history on both sides.

But don’t let all the books stop you from seeing the big story.

There are some simple questions to guide you.

Who has rights and who does not?

Who takes those rights away?

And who protests and resists?

Who is treated well and who is treated badly?

Who has power and who does not?

Which side has just been given $38bn dollars to spend on weapons over the next ten years with no strings attached apart from having to spend all that money with American arms manufacturers? So that’s the Occupation and the next Gaza assault all paid for courtesy of US tax payers.

And then, to check you’ve not misread the situation.

Count the homeless.

Count the orphaned.

Count the maimed.

Count the dead.

And then decide which side should be most afraid.

Through the journey I’ve taken I have listened and learnt and opened my heart to ‘the other’.

To borrow from one of Garth’s songs, it turns out that Palestinians are human too.

For somebody like me whose sense of being Jewish is core to their identity, it’s been about recognising that our relationship with the Palestinian people is the single biggest issue facing Jews and Judaism.

How we deal with this will determine our Jewish future as well as their Palestinian future. And right now, we Jews, are making an almighty hash of it.

My regular criticism of the British Jewish establishment is that they fail to grasp any of this. But worse, they choose not to even try. They can’t get beyond framing everything in terms of terrorism and antisemitism.

And once all of this dawns on you, it’s about where you choose to stand and who you choose to stand with.

Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant
I promised to explain what I mean by ‘Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant’.

But first I need to explain what’s left left of the Hebrew Covenant that’s worth rescuing.

After 3,000 years of Jewish history what still counts?

After the loss of the Temple and the creation of a portable Judaism based on faith, prayer and good works; after dispersal, migrations and expulsions; after cultural mixing, genetic mixing, and the influence of Christianity and Islam; after the Enlightenment and political emancipation; after the Holocaust, after Zionism and Israel?

What’s left that really matters?

What does our Covenant relationship with God mean?

We live in a joined-up, inter-dependent, multi-faith, economically-wired-together world. In this world tribal traditions from the Iron Age will not serve us well. Ideas of Chosen-ness and an eternally Promised Land are no longer helpful.

We can try clever modernist interpretations to soften the impression these ideas carry, but personally, I’d rather not bother. We can honour our heritage and study it to understand our religious evolution. But we need to let go of it as any sort of justification for a superior claim to the land.

I’d rather keep things simple.

So after all this time, what does God still require of us?

He wants us to walk humbly on this earth, he wants us to be kind to each other and to pursue justice.

Everything else is commentary and detail. Lose sight of this and you’re lost.

You’ll recognise that the call for humility, kindness and justice are not my words. They are very old words of advice. Words from the Hebrew prophet Micah writing 700 years before the birth of Jesus.

They are the old idea that needs rescuing. You could call such a project of Jewish renewal ‘Micah’s Paradigm Shift’.

The title of tonight’s event is ‘Hope in the Holy Land?’. The most important part of that title is the question mark at the end.

Right now there is no reason to think that things are about to get better on the Israel/Palestine front.

In fact, they seem to get worse.

There is no peace process.

President Obama, who understood the conflict better than most of his predecessors, is leaving office with nothing to show for the good intentions he set out with.

Israeli society shifts further and further to the right.

The Palestinian leadership itself remains divided.

Meanwhile, Settlements are growing, house demolitions are on the increase, more children are being arrested without charge.

But I remain hopeful.


Because hope should not be mistaken for optimism.

Hope is not the same as wishful thinking.

Hope is something else.

Hope is the belief in the possibility of change.

Things don’t need to be the way they are. They can change and they do change. That’s the big message of the Exodus story. The oppressed can be lifted up.

The Jewish Sabeel-Kairos
My particular hope rests on the belief that there is the possibility of a Jewish Sabeel-Kairos.

A Jewish ‘moment of truth’ when we see that the cost of our Jewish redemption has been the enslavement of another people.

A moment of radical self-awareness. A realisation of the loss of our innocence.

What is abundantly clear is that a Sabeel-Kairos moment will never come from the Jewish establishment.

In the last 70 years, Zionism has become the dominant ideology within the Jewish community.

Indeed it has become the new Jewish theology as well, which is what allows accusations of antisemitism to be made against anyone who calls into question the behaviour of the State of Israel.

Marc Ellis, a radical Jewish Theologian, and one of my great inspirations, describes the time we live in now as “the end of Jewish history as we have known it”.

I think he’s right about that. We have failed to recognise what has changed for Jews in the last 70 years. For the first time in two thousand years we have power, influence, a mini empire of our own.

Don’t get me wrong, having power and influence is not a bad thing in itself. Ask anyone who hasn’t got it. Ask the Palestinians perhaps.

The point is what you do with your power and your influence.

The Jewish Sabeel-Kairos moment will begin on the margins of the Jewish community. Often it will be the Jews who don’t express themselves in a religious language at all.

The Jewish Sabeel-Kairos will only come when we see the Zionist understanding of Jewish history and the nationalist solution to Jewish woes as an aberration rather than a continuum of Jewish values.

I look forward to that Sabeel-Kairos moment when a mainstream Rabbi or synagogue congregation make a categorical statement about Settlements and the Occupation being not just ‘an obstacle to peace’ but barriers to humanity and an affront to Judaism.

Then perhaps I can find a synagogue worth joining.

For many Jews, the Jewish Sabeel-Kairos will be a painful moment and require a new construction of the Jewish narrative, one that can incorporate the Palestinian narrative too.

Meanwhile, Palestinians will need to understand our pain and our trauma, as well as their own, if open hearted dialogue is to be possible.

But remember, this is not a conflict of equals. We Jews hold the power. We have the superpower backing. The onus is on us.

In the meantime, Jews who wish to stand in the Jewish tradition of universal justice will find their friends outside of the Jewish community.

Our opportunity to influence events will be through our support of projects such as Sabeel-Kairos. If nothing else, it will demonstrate to local church communities that Jews may be monotheistic but they are not monolithic when it comes to Israel. There is a Jewish diversity of opinion that makes a nonsense of antisemitic accusations.

So finally, let me have another go at introducing myself.

Dissident Jew, Edgy Jew, Angry Jew. Yes to all that.

But above all else let me be –  a Sabeel-Kairos Jew.

Sabeel-Kairos is the operating name of Friends of Sabeel UK (FOSUK) Ltd, Charity number 1116817, Company Number 5595112

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