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Chief Rabbi Mirvis and the distorting mirrors

Updated: Feb 4

by Bernard Spiegal


Introduction by CAMPAIN: this article, published before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling of January 26 suggests that the Chief Rabbi whitewashes Israel's crimes in Gaza, fails to properly analyse the thinking of Hamas and evokes the Holocaust as a smokescreen.

See the original dated January 23, 2024, in Bernard Spiegal's blog. See Bernard's short bio below this article

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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, in his Sunday Telegraph article, sought to give the impression that he was taking a dispassionate look as to the merits of the charge of genocide against the state of Israel, brought before the International Court of Justice by the South African government.


In so doing, he pointed to the definition of genocide as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" contrasting this to a conflict that involved "the tragic loss of civilian life in a just war", but was not genocidal i.e. that did not meet the legal definition of genocide.


Seventeen judges drawn from a range of countries, including one each from South Africa and Israel,  are now determining whether South Africa’s case that Israel is engaging in genocide meet the criteria of plausibility such that the court agrees to hear the full case. If agreed, it could be years before the court delivers its final judgment.  In the interim, if the court finds that South Africa’s case is plausible, it will consider the nine "provisional measures"  requested by South Africa. The provisional measures requested include one directing Israel to suspend military operations in Gaza, another, to ensure humanitarian aid can be swiftly delivered.


Not dispassionate


In fact, the Chief Rabbi’s intent seems somewhat removed from a dispassionate consideration of the merits, or otherwise, of the case and more directed to whitewashing Israel’s actions in Gaza, irrespective of whether the charge of genocide would ultimately stick. Thus, the Chief Rabbi, addressing his readers from his embedded Zionist perspective, presented Israel’s actions in Gaza as if motivated by benevolence, concern – and restraint. "It should be obvious", says the Chief Rabbi,


that if Israel’s objectives were genocidal, it could have used its military strength to level Gaza in a matter of days. Instead, it is placing the lives of its own soldiers at risk in its ground operations, securing humanitarian corridors and providing civilians with advance notice of its operations, even to the detriment of its military objectives.


It is in fact possible that the Chief Rabbi believes what he is saying. I have no reason to believe he is consciously duplicitous, but a Zionist worldview tends to function like a set of distorting mirrors. From that worldview, what one sees is not what actually is. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, however, carries the full burden of clear-sightedness:


People are dying not only from bombs and bullets, but from lack of food and clean water, hospitals without power and medicine, and gruelling journeys to ever-smaller slivers of land to escape the fighting. This must stop. I will not relent in my call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.


Mirvis is anxious to underscore what he sees as the IDF’s fastidious, benign attention to detail when planning targets:


Indeed, to make the case that genocide is taking place, one would have to ignore the scores of military lawyers, engineers and humanitarian aid coordinators working within the Israel Defence Forces, who spend hours every day, planning how they might strike targets in a way that minimises collateral harm, facilitating the entry of aid into Gaza, collecting intelligence about civilian presence around targets and aborting attacks accordingly.


But reality is a crueller master. From OCHR, as at 20 January 2024:


…there are an estimated 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Gaza. Many of them have been displaced multiple times, as families have been forced to move repeatedly in search of safety. …Rafah governorate is the main refuge for those displaced, with over one million people squeezed into an extremely overcrowded space, following the intensification of hostilities in Khan Younis and Deir al Balah and the Israeli military’s evacuation orders.  


Understanding is not the objective


I’ve written previously about the futility of proscribing Hamas – Hamas and the politics of silencing – pointing out that:


The ban on Hamas…is a ban on knowing and understanding the perspective of an organisation which, whether we like it or not, has significant support among Palestinians.


Mirvis, however, seems intent on limiting understanding, the better to secure the Zionist case. He says:


… the inescapable truth that if there is indeed a genocidal force in this conflict, it must surely be Hamas, whose rape, sexual mutilation and cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians, which it proudly broadcast to the world, is clear evidence of its dehumanisation of Jews. It is the leaders of Hamas who have made it clear that they will repeat their atrocities “again and again” and whose founding charter makes it clear that killing Jews is among its very reasons for existing.


Hamas was certainly involved in atrocities, but a number of the claims made against them are increasingly not standing up to independent scrutiny. In particular, it seems clear that Israeli forces themselves were responsible for at least some Israeli civilian deaths. Nothing said here, however, is designed to minimise Hamas’ culpability where it is due. Mirvis, however, has been somewhat partial in his characterisation of Hamas, its policy and its goals.


Hamas 2017 charter


In 2017 Hamas published its revised charter, a very different document from the original of August 1988, twenty-three years prior. The 2017 charter is more overtly here-and-now political and pragmatic. The bedrock of Hamas’ analysis, however, is clear and, I would say, accurate:


The Zionist project is a racist, aggressive, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others; it is hostile to the Palestinian people and to their aspiration for freedom, liberation, return and self-determination. The Israeli entity is the plaything of the Zionist project and its base of aggression.


It goes on to say:


Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.


… Hamas is of the view that the Jewish problem, anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage.


Acceptance of two states


In a truly radical break with the past, Hamas goes on to say it will accept the 1967 borders as the basis for a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of refugees to their homes. But it does not go so far as to fully recognise Israel, certainly as a specifically Jewish state. Hamas does not relinquish its goal of ultimately ‘liberating all of Palestine’.

 

Clearly, from Hamas’ perspective, it has moved to a more pragmatic position, thus potentially creating time and space for a political approach to resolving the Palestine/Israel issue. 


Scepticism/Disbelief


Now, one may legitimately express scepticism, or even downright disbelief in Hamas’ revised position. But that cannot come at the price of ignoring the changes to the Charter as though they never happened.  


Taken at face value, in the light of the 2017 charter, it’s difficult to sustain the Chief Rabbi’s charge that Hamas harbours genocidal intent against Jews. But of course, the Chief Rabbi is perfectly entitled to say he does not accept the revised charter at face value. But he is not entitled to ignore it.  Nor is he entitled to simply dismiss it without considered comment. He would need to account for his accepting Hamas at its word in 1988, but not in 2017. 


The Holocaust


The Chief Rabbi draws his article to a close by invoking the Holocaust, the intention being to neuter any scrutiny, criticism or condemnation of Israel’s actions in Gaza. The implication being that merely questioning Israel’s actions will "tear open the still gaping wound of the Holocaust, knowing that it will inflict more pain than any other accusation".

 

But it’s not about what Israelis or Jews feel. It’s about giving proper account of what Israel is doing in Gaza, and putting a stop to it. The charge that Israel is carrying out genocide in Gaza cannot be wished away by claiming squeamishness about the use of the term, or characterising it as "a moral inversion, which undermines the memory of the worst crimes in human history".


Even if the ICJ does not find South Africa has made a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, that does not alter by one jot the fact that a murderous, cruel and callous regime has been unleashed in that territory, and Israel is the perpetrator.  


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The author, Bernard Spiegal says:

Previously I wrote, and worked in, the areas of public space, children and teenagers play, issues to do with risk in play and related areas. Articles on these and related topics can be found at www.playlink.org, and pre-2017 posts on my site https://bernardspiegal.com/. However, I’ve had a long-term interest in Palestine/Israel (P/I) issues, most recently visiting the OPT in particular in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022. This blog now focuses on P/I issues, though I may, if so moved, discuss other matters as well.

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