Social distance from hatred

Robert Cohen is a thoughtful UK Jewish blogger with a penetrating wit and a sense of humour. His blog says that he is rescuing the Hebrew covenant one blog post at anime. This was his latest from Mondoweiss.

Insist on social distancing from hatred

Passover truths

Earlier in April we held a Zoom Seder night to connect with our older children for Passover from their lock-down in Leeds. The Exodus story we recount each year is a multi-layered religious myth. That means that although the events we remember may never have happened, they are still packed with truth.

The truths Passover can reveal change over time, depending on how our current circumstances influence our reading of the text. So this year, when we retold the story of the ten plagues and their role in the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, one truth stood out. Plagues can trigger dramatic and transformative change with social, political and ethical consequences. 


My normal ‘beat’ in for this blog is Israel/Palestine and how it plays into the 21st century Jewish condition. Over the last decade of writing, I’ve tried to challenge what have become accepted wisdoms about the meaning and interpretation of Jewish history. I’ve questioned our Jewish understanding of safety and security. I’ve charted how the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people has distorted our Jewish identity and undermined long standing traditions and values. But is there a COVID-19 ‘angle’ to my on-going critique of Jewish communal politics? How is Palestinian freedom and Jewish wellbeing infected by coronavirus?

Like everywhere else, COVID-19 arrived in Israel/Palestine within an existing context. The context is the same power imbalance, the same human rights abuses, the same occupation and blockade that existed in pre-COVID ‘normal times’. COVID-19 plays out unfairly just as everything else does in that part of the world. The pre-existing dynamics make some minor adaptations and then, by and large, it’s business as usual. That’s certainly the picture witnessed by Mondoweiss’ Palestine reporter Yumna Patel, based in the West Bank:

“Despite widespread shutdowns, curfews, and quarantines, Israel has continued to raid Palestinian cities and towns, arrest and imprison Palestinians, demolish homes and tear down structures, and facilitate attacks carried out by settlers.”


The Gaza context for COVID-19 is one of the most frightening on the planet. It’s already been globally isolated for the last 13 years thanks to Israel’s stance and the co-operation of its western allies. Gaza’s economy and health system were shattered long ago. The tiny strip’s population of 2 million are the ultimate example of COVID vulnerability. As Jonathan Cooke wrote recently in The National: “Unless Gaza enjoys a miraculous escape, an epidemic is only a matter of time. The consequences hardly bear contemplating.”

If that happens Israel will undoubtedly put the blame squarely on Hamas. That’s despite still being effectively responsible for the territory under international law. Global public opinion may be less willing to see it Israel’s way. But that’s assuming people have the emotional bandwidth to absorb the news of COVID tragedies beyond their own national borders.

A COVID-19 catastrophe in Gaza will be the next test of Jewish communal leadership around the world. It would be better not to behave as Israel’s local public relations officer. But old habits die hard, even when they do more harm than good. Some social distancing from the government in Jerusalem would be a healthier response from the Board of Deputies, and others, this time around. But I’m not optimistic. COVID compassion is likely to run short of supply when it comes to Palestinians.

Some ways of thinking, some political ideologies, some religious attitudes will not serve us well in the years ahead. When it comes to my blogging ‘beat’, I’ve said before that Climate change makes Zionism obsolete as a strategy for Jewish security. Pandemics make it redundant too. Fortress states based on ethnic privileges are no longer practical responses to the greatest challenges we face.

As with the biblical epic of liberation we tell to ourselves each Passover, let’s make this plague one that changes the course of our history too. In 2020, a nationalist ideology dependent for its continuance on the on-going subjugation of a neighbouring people is not only immoral but unsustainable in every respect. And it’s infected every aspect of modern Jewish experience. It’s time to let it pass over.