Israel in Gaza: Investigating the Ethics of a War of Choice

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In Michael Mitchell’s recent piece for Forward Thinking “Israel’s Moral Army?” (July 18, 2014), Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” (or to use an title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”)

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He thus concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous indeed for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. Indeed, while Israeli and American politicians – and Israel-supporters the world over – have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as Forward Editor-in-Chief JJ Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket …and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.” By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.

This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers – even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility.  It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction – using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.

As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:

In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.

In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell’s effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis a vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.

If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the sacred imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.

If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement – a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.

Moreover, when Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Instead, they opted for yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 370 Palestinians, including 228 civilians, 77 children and 56 women, as well as 18 Israelis.

In other words, before we seek to unpack the ethical question of whether or not the IDF can claim the title of “the most moral army in the world,” it might well behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not these useless, tragic wars need to be fought in the first place.

Israel on the 17th of Tammuz: Confronting the Enemy Within

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily:

Yesterday the Jewish world observed the fast day known as Shiv’ah Asar Be’Tammuz, (the 17th of Tammuz), a communal day of quasi-mourning that commemorates among other things, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Roman army in 70 CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Interestingly enough, the 17th of Tammuz – as well as the upcoming fast day of Tisha B’Av – is not so much a day of anger directed toward our enemies, as much as an occasion for soul searching over the ways our own behavior too often leads to our downfall. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), for instance, the fall of the First Temple was due to the idolatry while the destruction of the Second Temple was caused by sinat chinam – the “baseless hatred” of Jew against Jew.

I would submit that this year, the 17th of Tammuz has an all-too-tragic resonance, particularly given the internecine violence currently being waged on Israeli streets. Case in point: this past Saturday in Tel Aviv, in which hundreds of peaceful anti-war protesters were set upon by a violent mob whipped up by popular right-wing Israeli rapper Yoav Eliasi (whose stage name is “The Shadow.”)

According to reports in the Israeli press, Eliasi and his followers angrily confronted and intimidated demonstrators – and when an air raid siren caused the crowd to disperse, they chased them through the streets and attacked them with clubs. During the melee, the sky lit up as a Gazan missile was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

In an extensive post for +972mag, Israeli journalist Haggai Matar reported that one demonstrator had a chair broken over his head and had to be evacuated to hospital. Others were punched, pushed, had eggs thrown at them or were attacked with pepper spray. According to witnesses, police did little to stop the violence and in the end, no arrests were made. (The Shadow later bragged about the support of Israeli police on his Facebook page.)

In what is undoubtedly the most deeply disturbing aspect of this entire affair was the discovery that some of the right-wing thugs who attacked the demonstrators wore T-shirts bearing a popular neo-Nazi symbol. According to a report in Ha’aretz:

As shown on journalist Tal Schneider’s Hebrew-language blog, some of the right-wingers wore T-shirts bearing the slogan “Good night left side.”

Neo-Nazis in Europe wear shirts with this phrase, which accompanies an image of a man attacking a left-wing activist, denoted by a star or anarchy symbol. The online store Final Resistance offers clothing bearing neo-Nazi slogans – popular attire at rock concerts by far-right bands.

If you’re still incredulous, check out this image below, from the Facebook page Occupy Judaism:

In a scathing editorial, Ha’aretz laid the blame on ultra-nationalist Israeli politicians for inciting and encouraging this ominously rising violence and for refusing “to internalize the real danger inherent in the type of violence displayed on Saturday.”  This is, indeed, one of the central messages of the 17th of Tammuz: for all of the concern about our external enemies, we ignore the dangers growing within our own community at our peril.

I can think of no more sobering example than this recent instance of Jews in fascist regalia violently attacking peaceful Jewish anti-war demonstrators while a missile launched out of Gaza literally explodes over their heads.


Tragedy in Gaza: Reckoning with Root Causes

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily

It’s happening again.

As of this writing, Israel has dropped 800 tons of explosives on Gaza, a strip of land roughly the size of Detroit. The official death toll currently stands at 81, the majority of whom are civilians and half of whom are women and children.

Yes, it’s happening again, and like the similar military onslaughts in 2008/9 and 2012, we’re hearing the same tired talking points from Israeli politicians, the US State Department spokespeople and the American Jewish communal establishment – all variations on the theme of “Well, they started it.” And like before, the suggestion that we examine the larger context of this carnage is tragically lost amidst the noise of the literal and figurative bomb-throwing.

But of course, anyone who is truly interested in seeking a real and lasting solution would do well to look at root causes. In the most immediate sense, that means reckoning seriously with what Forward Editor-at -Large JJ Goldberg has called the “foundation of politics and lies” propagated by Israeli politicians and military leaders that led straight to a “war that nobody wanted — not the army, not the government, not even the enemy, Hamas.”

In the larger context, it means recognizing that this war is but the latest instance of Israel’s “mowing the lawn” in Gaza – a strategy in which Israel shows Hamas who’s boss by way of massive military onslaughts every few years. The most unguardedly honest expression of this strategy was expressed by Israeli journalist Gilad Sharon (son of Ariel) back in 2012:

There is no justification for the State of Gaza being able to shoot at our towns with impunity. We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.

And in the ultimate sense, it means admitting that this latest injustice is irrevocably connected to an injustice that occurred decades ago. when scores of Palestinians were driven from their cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee and warehoused in the tiny Gaza strip. By all accounts, most were simply too overwhelmed to realize what was happening. The ones who tried to return to their homes were termed “infiltrators” and were killed on sight. Others resisted by staging raids in the newly declared state of Israel. Sometimes they succeeded, more often they did not. Either way, Israel decided early on that it would respond to each of these reprisals with a overwhelming military show of force.

In some sense, you might say Israel has been “mowing the lawn” ever since. If there could be any doubt, just read this famous 1956 eulogy given by General Moshe Dayan for a young kibbutznik named Ro’i Rotenberg, who was killed by Gazans who had crossed over the border into Israel:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us?  For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation. (Translation, Michael Shalom Kochin, 2009)

Those who are ready and willing to reckon with root causes must not be content to simply accept these bi-annual military onslaughts as simply the price of Jewish nationhood. Israel will never become, as its national anthem would have it, “a free people in its own land” until it deals squarely with the injustices that led to its birth – and have tragically continued until this very day.

In this regard we can take heart in the small but intrepid cadre of Israelis who have the courage to shine a bright light on this larger context. Take a look at the clip from the modest, yet courageous rally in Tel Aviv, in which protesters stood down angry motorists while holding up a large banner that read “The Occupation Murders Us All.” Read this powerful post by Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf entitled “Why I Object to This Military Campaign, Even as Missiles Fall on My City,” in which he compares the West Bank to a “minimum security facility” and Gaza to “a maximum security prison.”

And finally, read and consider signing on to this recent Open Letter released by Jewish Voice for Peace that urges us to “face the root cause of this crisis”:

In this time of tremendous suffering and fear, from Jerusalem to Gaza, and from Hebron to Be’er Sheva, we reaffirm that all Israelis and Palestinians deserve security, justice, and equality, and we mourn all those who have died.

Our unshakeable commitment to freedom and justice for all compels us to acknowledge that this violence has fallen overwhelmingly on Palestinians. And it compels us to affirm that this violence has a root cause: Israel’s illegal occupation.

We are united in our belief that:

The denial of Palestinian human rights must end.
Illegal settlements must end.
Bombing civilians must end.
Killing children must end.
Valuing Jewish lives at the expense of others must end.

Only by embracing equality for all peoples can this terrible bloodshed end.


For the 4th: “A Hemisphere Where All Live in Harmony”

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New American citizens say the Pledge of Allegiance after taking the oath of citizenship at a U.S. naturalization ceremony at Austin’s Delco Center on April 26, 2011. The ceremony included 984 people from 105 countries. (Photo by Jay Janner)

This morning we sang this song at our interfaith vigil at the Broadview, IL immigrant detention center – a powerful reworking of “America the Beautiful” by Sister Miriam Therese Winter.

I encourage you to sing it at your 4th of July gathering today – a profoundly aspirational prayer for the America/s – “A hemisphere where all people here/all live in harmony:”

How beautiful, our spacious skies,
our amber waves of grain.
Our purple mountains as they rise
above the fruited plain.
America! America! God’s gracious gifts abound.
And more and more we’re grateful for
life’s beauty all around.

Indigenous and immigrant,
our daughters and our sons;
Oh, may we never rest content till all are truly one.
America! America! God grant that we may be
a sisterhood and brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.

How beautiful, sincere lament,
the wisdom born of tears.
The courage called for to repent
the bloodshed through the years.
America! America! God grant that we may be
a nation blessed, with none oppressed,
true land of liberty.

How beautiful, two continents,
and islands in the sea
That dream of peace, non-violence,
all people living free.
Americas! Americas! God grant that we may be
a hemisphere where all people here
all live in harmony.


Empathy, Not Vengeance: A Rabbinical View on the Recent Violence in Israel/Palestine

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Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud: Blog of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

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Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir

Like so many throughout the world, we grieve the loss of Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar – the three Israeli teens who were found murdered this week near their homes in Hevron. The loss of children through acts of violence strikes at the very core of our souls – we can only hope the outpouring of grief being exhibited throughout the world for these three young men is providing a measure of comfort to their parents and loved ones.

And just as fervently, we grieve for Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, murdered in an apparent “price tag” act of vengeance for the deaths of the three Israeli youths. We also note with sorrow that at least eight Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military during the weeks following the abduction of the three Israeli boys, including 10-year-old Ali al-Awour, 15-year-old Mohammad Dudeen and 22-year-old Mustafa Hosni Aslan. Ali died of wounds from an Israeli missile strike in northern Gaza; Mohammad was killed by a single live bullet in the village of Dura; Mustafa was killed by live bullets in Qalandiya refugee camp during clashes with an Israeli military raid.

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Ali al-Awour

We are also not unmindful that, according to the Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem, over 1,384 Palestinian minors have been killed by the Israeli military since 2000. Indeed, as the Jewish Voice for Peace statement issued yesterday affirms, “we refuse to mourn only the deaths of Palestinians, or only the deaths of Israelis. But that does not mean we can ignore the enormous power difference between Israelis and Palestinians, or pretend it is just a ‘cycle of violence’ with no root cause or context. Each of these horrific incidents that harms both peoples happen in the context of an ongoing occupation, itself inherently a system of daily violence. And it is a system that by its very nature puts the lives, dignity, and human rights of all in jeopardy.”

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Mohammad Dudeen

Just as we must understand the larger context of violence in which these acts occurred, we must also search our own souls to examine the ways in which we, as Jews, respond to our Jewish losses. We believe that too often, we use our grief as a barrier between our community and the outside world. We withdraw into our pain, holding tight to the conviction that the world ultimately believes “Jewish blood is cheap.”

And all too often, we use our grief as a kind of weapon to lash out at those around us. In this regard, we are deeply dismayed by the incitement of Israeli politicians and religious leaders against Palestinians, particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public call for “vengeance.” It is impossible to separate this kind of incendiary rhetoric from the tragic violence perpetrated against Palestinians over the past few days.

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Mustafa Hosni Aslan

We stand with the great sage Rabbi Ben Azzai, who famously taught that the concept of humanity being created in the divine image is the most central value of Torah. If we ultimately view all life as sacred, then empathy – not isolation or vengeance – is the most healing response of all. Let us affirm that our losses are all ultimately connected in deep and profound ways. Let us affirm that the loss of Jewish children is inseparable from the loss of innocent children everywhere who fall victim daily to hatred and violence. Let our grief inspire us to grieve no less for children who fall victim to violence the world over – whether in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Iraq, in the West Bank and Gaza – or in cities throughout our own country.

Let us redouble our resolve to create a world of safety and security for our children and for all who dwell on earth. And let us do what we must to make such a world a reality once and for all.

May the memories of all our fallen children be for a blessing.

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Alissa Wise

Founders, Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council


The Presbyterian Divestment Vote: Toward a New Model of Community Relations

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily

Jews and Presbyterians pray together during deliberations at the 2014 Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit

In the wake of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, Jewish establishment leaders have been expressing their displeasure toward the PC(USA) in no uncertain terms.

Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman stated last week that church leaders have “fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel.” Rabbi Noam Marans director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee, declared that “the PC(USA) decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East.” And Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, publicly accused the PC(USA) of having a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

Given such extreme rhetoric, it may come as a surprise to many that the same overture that called for the Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions to divest from Caterpillar, Inc., Hewett-Packard and Motorola Solutions also included the following resolutions:

- (To) reaffirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with the United Nations resolutions;

- (To) declare its commitment to a two-state solution in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people;

- (To) reaffirm PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith dialog and partnerships with the American Jewish, Muslim friends and Palestinian Christians and call for all presbyteries and congregations within the PC(USA) to include interfaith dialogue and relationship-building as part of their own engagement in working for a just peace.

- (To) urge all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”

Do these sound like the words of a “hostile” church committed to a “Jew-free Middle East?”

In truth, these are the words of a religious community struggling in good faith to walk the path of justice while still remaining sensitive to the concerns of their Jewish sisters and brothers.

Such a description certainly comports with my own personal experience. I attended the Presbyterian General Assembly last week as part of the Jewish Voice for Peace delegation and had lengthy conversations with numerous GA commissioners. When I asked them to share their feelings about the divestment overture, the majority responded with a similar refrain: in their hearts they wanted to vote in favor, but they hesitated because they were worried what it might do to their relationships with their Jewish family and friends and colleagues.

This theme occurred repeatedly during the committee and plenum debates as well. Commissioners who opposed the overture relied less on political arguments than upon their concern for their personal relationships with Jews and with the Jewish community at large. Many commissioners who spoke in favor of the overture expressed similar concerns even as they decided to cast their votes as a matter of deeply held conscience.

In the end, the process that led up to the final vote on divestment was one of genuine discernment and faithful witness. To be sure, the final wording of the overture is a nuanced statement by a church that clearly seeks to follow its sacred mission of justice in Israel/Palestine even as it cherishes its long-standing relationship with the Jewish community.

As a Jew, I was deeply saddened that so many Jewish establishment leaders saw fit to resort to what can only be called emotional blackmail in order to fight against a Presbyterian overture that they didn’t like. But for all the undue pressure, I have no doubt that the heavy-handed nature of these tactics ultimately contributed in no small way to the success of the final divestment overture.

Notably, during the plenum discussion, one commissioner commented that he was “offended” to see some Jewish opponents to the overture wearing T-shirts that said “Love us or Leave Us.” Another asked if Reform movement President Rabbi Rick Jacob’s offer to broker a meeting in Jerusalem between Presbyterian leaders and Benyamin Netanyahu if they voted down the overture was somehow a thinly veiled threat.

As a Jewish supporter of divestment, I will say without hesitation that this vote was first and foremost a victory for Palestinians, who continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. On a secondary level, however, we might say that this was a victory for a religious community that refused to let its sacred convictions be stymied by cynical pressure.

As for us, the Jewish community is left with the very real question: Are we truly prepared to write off one of the largest American Christian denominations over this vote – a vote that was taken in good faith and with profound deliberation? And on a deeper level, we might well ask ourselves honestly, have the Jewish communal establishment’s bullying tactics finally reached the end of their usefulness?

Indeed, when it comes to the issue of Israel/Palestine, the unwritten rule of the Jewish establishment has always been, “toe our line or feel our wrath.” By voting for divestment, the PC(USA) declared itself ready to stand down this ultimatum.

There is now every reason to believe other denominations will now follow suit. Will our community continue to respond with cynical threats or will we finally be ready to model an approach to community relations grounded in trust, understanding and mutual respect?


God of Scarcity, God of Plenitude: My Address to the IPMN

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This past Monday it was my honor to give the keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The event took place in Detroit during the Presbyterian General Assembly and was attended by longtime Christian peace activists, many of whom have become become my dear friends and colleagues in the growing interfaith movement for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. 

Here is a text of my remarks:

I am humbled and honored to have been asked to speak to you tonight – and I’m particularly moved to look around the room and see so many people who have become my friends and colleagues in this amazing and growing movement that means so much to us all. I’d particularly like to thank  (Reverend) Katherine Cunningham (moderator of the IPMN) for being such a gracious host and guide to me during my stay here in Detroit.

I’d like to start by sharing a little bit of my journey and to try to explain how it is that I have come to stand before you today.

In most ways, you might describe me as a pretty average American Jew: I went to a Jewish Community Center pre-school, I grew up in a synagogue, had a Bar Mitzvah and belonged to my Temple Youth group. And like many American Jews, my Jewishness has been indelibly tied up with Israel for my entire life. My Jewish identity has been profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. It is, at its heart, a redemptive narrative – and it has assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older.

Politically speaking, I’ve identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I’ve long been inspired by Israel’s Labor Zionist origins, and I’ve generally aligned myself with positions advocated Israeli peace movement. I’ve always been very willing to openly criticize the actions of the Israeli government that I believed were counter to the cause of peace. At the same time, however, I generally viewed these kinds of actions as “blemishes” on an otherwise stable democracy and a noble national project. At the end of the day, I understood the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land.

Over the years, however, I confess, I struggled with gnawing doubts over the tenets of my liberal Zionist narrative. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. As an outspoken critic of American militarism, for instance, I would occasionally ask myself why I wasn’t equally as outspoken about Israeli militarism – why I habitually would give a pass to what was, after all, the one of the most militarized countries in the world.

I would also entertain nagging questions about the ethnic nationalism at the heart of Zionism. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state was bound up with its maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. Like many liberal Zionists, I’d often base my arguments for a two state solution by pointing to the population growth of Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the national character of the Jewish state. As an American, I’d never dare describe an ethnic minority in the US as somehow posing a “demographic threat” to our national American character. Why, then, was I so willing to invoke this concept about so freely when it pertained to the Jewish state?

And in the darkest, wee hours of the night, I’d even question the very concept of a Jewish nation-state-ism itself. I’d ask myself, what does it mean to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in a land that has historically been multi-ethnic and multi-religious for centuries? Was it even possible to create a Jewish state that was truly democratic? How could a state define itself as “Jewish” and not view its non-Jewish population, in one way or another, as a problem to be dealt with?

When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my personal political views. Given the ideological centrality of Zionism in the American Jewish community, my questions now carried very real consequences. As I’m sure you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel. Congregational rabbis in particular take a very real professional risk when they criticize Israel publicly. To actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians would be tantamount to communal heresy. So you might say I put those inner questions in a lock box and made a safe and comfortable home in liberal Zionism for the first decade of my rabbinate.

As Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians became more patently oppressive and widespread however, it became increasingly difficult for me to ignore my questions. The breaking point for me occurred in December of 2008, as it did for many American Jews. This was, of course, Israel’s military assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.

I remember reading the news out of Gaza with utter anguish. Like many rabbis, my e-mail inbox filled with official Jewish communal talking points about how to respond to the events in Gaza: “This was about Israel’s security pure and simple.” “Like every nation, Israel had a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.” “If Hamas hadn’t launched rockets into Israel, they wouldn’t have had to resort to such drastic military measures.”

In the past, I might have dutifully taken these talking points to heart, along with the obligatory apology: “of course we regret the deaths of innocent civilians.” But this time, I responded differently. In spite of my anguish, or perhaps because of it, I finally felt as if I was approaching this issue with something approaching clarity. The magnitude of Israel’s military onslaught was so disproportionate, so outrageous. By the end of Operation Cast Lead, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, 300 of them children. Whole neighborhoods had been reduced to rubble, Gaza’s infrastructure was left in ruins. By contrast, on the Israeli side, 13 people had been killed. Of these, 10 were soldiers, four of whom by friendly fire.

As I read the increasingly tragic news coming out of Gaza, I came to realize this was not about Israel’s security at all. This was about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. If Israel was truly seeking its security, it was clear to me that it was the kind of security that came from wiping out the other side with the overwhelming strength of its military might. But of course this approach had never and would never bring peace and security to either Israelis or Palestinians.

This is when my paradigm for understanding the Israel/Palestine “conflict” fundamentally shifted. I came to accept that this was not a conflict between two equal sides with claims to the same piece of land. This was about the oppressor and the oppressed.

Although I had always considered myself to be part of the peace camp when it came to Israel – I now came to realize just how hollow it was to invoke the notion of peace without reckoning just as seriously with the concept of justice. I was now ready to accept and to say out loud that Israel’s very founding was irrevocably tied up with a very real injustice to the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this very day. And I knew in my heart that until this injustice was fully faced openly and honestly, there would never truly be peace in this land.

There is much more I could say about my own personal trajectory since that time, but for now, I’ll only say that six years after my break from Liberal Zionism, I have gradually found a home in the growing Palestinian solidarity movement. Much to my surprise and delight, I have found I can actually do this as a Jew. For this I owe a great debt to Jewish Voice for Peace for providing a genuinely Jewish home for those Jews who believe as I do, that Jewish tradition demands that we stand with the oppressed and stand down the oppressor – yes, even when it comes to the state of Israel.

I also continue to serve my congregation in Evanston. That doesn’t mean it has been easy. Needless to say, there are many members of my congregation who do not share my views – and there are some who are deeply pained by my activism. But the fact that I can still remain employed at the congregation that I love and continue to make my home in the Jewish community gives me hope that the parameters of Jewish discourse on this issue are widening in significant ways.

I’m often asked, how can I, as a Jew, take the kind of stands that I do? To this I can only reply: it is because I am a Jew that I take this stand. I believe that standing in solidarity with Palestinians is the most Jewish thing I can do. As a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being, I am primarily motivated by the prophetic strains of Jewish tradition. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By a faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.

I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation – this is historically when religion has been at its very best. And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.

I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

Now, there are many who challenge such a religious vision as naive, as over-idealistic, as noble but unrealistic. They tell me it’s all well and good to promote justice, but in the real world “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” In the real world, we need to make hard compromises to achieve peace.

Whenever I hear these kinds of comments, I can’t help but think back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed the liberal clergy who had told him to stay away from Birmingham and not to rock to boat – and to give them the chance to negotiate with the Jim Crow authorities. I can’t help but think of those who criticized those who advocated for divestment from South African apartheid, who said that such measures would antagonize the apartheid regime and counseled “positive engagement” instead.

In all these cases and so many more, peace was viewed as synonymous with “not disturbing the status quo” and justice was seen as the enemy of the good. But of course, today we now openly venerate these struggles for justice and liberation. And these movements succeeded because they were led by people who understood, as King put it so well in his letter, that “Power is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

I’d like to end by addressing another way in which my theological understandings have been impacted by my participation in this movement. I mentioned earlier that I used to understand the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land. As well meaning as such an understanding might be, the problem with this kind of idea is that it is rooted in the notion that any people or nation can actually “stake a claim” on a piece of land. Such a notion can surely be traced back to the Biblical notion of a God that apportions the land and entitles one people to it. To be sure, this is a zero-sum theological model in which there is only enough room on the land for one people – a people who is, moreover, commanded to take possession of the land by dislodging others.

But when we shift the question from “which people has a right to this land?” to “how do we extend full human and civil rights to all who live on the land?” we discover a decidedly different Biblical vision. We lift up the God who tells us that all humanity is made in the divine image – and that when push comes to shove, the land does not ultimately belong to any of us, but to God and we are all but strangers upon it.

I submit to you that our movement is deeply rooted in this theological vision – one that invokes the God of plenitude, not scarcity. After all, when we define our entitlements to a finite commodity such as land, we only doom ourselves to a future filled with endless upheaval and violence. The Bible describes our lot in this regard only too well.

However, when come to understand that our ultimate entitlement is to a boundless commodity such as human rights and human dignity, we ensure a future of true peace for ourselves and our children. This, I believe, is the Biblical vision we share and to which I know we are all so passionately and fervently committed.

It is my honor to share this vision with all of you – and to help build the movement that will one day make it a reality.


From the Presbyterian GA: Jews and Christians in Support of Divestment

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With Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb at the JVP booth, PC (USA) General Assembly, Detroit, June 15. 2014.

I’ve just returned from two days in Detroit at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, where I joined together with Christian and Jewish friends and colleagues to help support overtures being brought to the plenum that support the cause of justice in our country and around the world – particularly in Israel/Palestine.

During my very full sojourn in downtown Detroit, I had the opportunity to testify in a committee meeting that was deliberating on an overture that presented new parameters for Interfaith Relations. I also attended the extensive committee discussions on the overture that is garnering a great deal of attention from around the world: divestment of the PC (USA)’s funds from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard. (See my previous post for more on this subject).

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As I wrote in my previous post, this overture has long, ten year history behind it. Although it has been brought to previous GA’s, each convention brings brand-new commissioners, so while many attendees are all too familiar with this particular overture, many (if not most) of the ones who will actually be voting are relatively new to the issues involved. Even so, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of commissioners who are considering this overture with an impressive level of thoughtfulness and seriousness.

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Some of the most profound moments of my experience at the GA came from the realization that I am truly part of a large and growing interfaith movement for justice that has fast become an important spiritual home for me. I came to the GA with a large delegation from Jewish Voice for Peace, who has worked closely with PC (USA) members who have engaged on this issue for nearly a decade. (You can meet just a few of them above and below).

At the same time, I worked hand in hand with many inspired Presbyterian activists who have become dear friends and true spiritual teachers. This past Monday night it was my great honor to offer a keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As I spoke, I was deeply moved to look out at the room and see so many old and new colleagues, all part of this very special community of conscience. (I will be posting my remarks in a subsequent post. Stay tuned).

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There is much more to unfold as the GA continues to deliberate this week. As of this writing, the committee discussing the divestment overture will soon be deciding whether or not to refer it to plenum. In the meantime, I highly recommend to you two important pieces on this issue recently written by my colleagues on the JVP Rabbinical Council.

From Rabbi Margaret Holub, writing in the Forward:

Our greatest hope is that the Jewish people would hear selective divestment from these corporations as what it is — a form of tochechah. It is a rebuke from our neighbors in the American religious landscape, calling us to task for a cruel policy that brings pain to their own brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Christian community and to all who live under Israeli occupation. Far from being hate speech, it is the speech of conscience.

We believe in fact that the Presbyterian Church has many new friends to gain in the Jewish community and beyond it through its courageous witness. We may not share all of our beliefs or political commitments. Such is the beauty and difficulty of coalition work, or of any kind of spiritual companionship. We have much to learn from each other, and in long-term relationships our differences are as important as our points of convergence.

And from Cantor Michael Davis, in Tikkun:

I, an Israeli national who served three years in the IDF, and who has served the Jewish community in Chicago for over 20 years, support the right of our Presbyterian friends to freely explore their conscience on divesting from American companies that benefit from Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank. I will be at the Presbyterian General Assembly arguing for divestment. I believe, along with a growing number of Jews and Israelis that BDS is the best non-violent option to stop the downward spiral to inevitable violence. For Jews – and for Christians – divestment is a principled position. As a supporter of BDS myself, I know how much effort the mainstream Jewish community is putting into shutting down this debate and excluding BDS supporters from the Jewish community. I would challenge those who are trying to shut down the Presbyterian debate to show how the motives of those supporting divestment are anything less than honest. This is unworthy of us as Jews and particularly egregious when directed at our Christian neighbors.

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Presbyterian Divestment Redux: All Eyes on Detroit!

ga1-580x580While the public criticism and upheaval over BDS continues apace, this movement is slowly and inexorably tallying victory after victory. Last week, the Gates Foundation announced that it was fully divesting from G4S – a British/Danish security firm that has been severely criticized for its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories and in prisons and detention centers in Israel, including those housing children and “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Now just this week, we’ve learned that the United Methodist Church – the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States – will be pulling all its investments from G4S as well. This news is huge – and a dramatic precursor to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be convening in Detroit next week. I can’t help but think the BDS tide is turning significantly, particularly in the arena of church divestment campaigns.

I’ve long participated with colleagues in Protestant church groups who have been actively involved in promoting the principled and targeted divestment of their denominations’ funds from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal and oppressive occupation of Palestinians. I was, in fact, an active supporter of the divestment “overture” brought to the last Presbyterian GA two years ago and wrote extensively about these efforts.

This is what I wrote at the time:

I support this resolution without reservation and urge other Jewish leaders and community members to do so as well. I am deeply dismayed that along every step of this process, Jewish community organizations (among them, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) that purport to speak for the consensus of a diverse constituency have been intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they attempt to forge their ethical investment strategy in good faith.

It is extremely important to be clear about what is at stake here. First of all, this is not a resolution that seeks to boycott or single out Israel. Divestment does not target countries – it targets companies.  In this regard speaking, the PC (USA)’s ethical investment process seeks to divest from specific “military-related companies” it deems are engaged in “non-peaceful” pursuits.

We’d be hard-pressed indeed to make the case that the Israeli government is engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.  I won’t go into detail here because I’ve been writing about this tragic issue for many years: the increasing of illegal Jewish settlements with impunity, the forced evictions and home demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, the separation wall that chokes off Palestinians from their lands, the arbitrary administrative detentions, the brutal crushing of non-violent protest, etc, etc.

All Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have cause for deep moral concern over these issues.  Moreover, we have cause for dismay that own government tacitly supports these actions. At the very least, we certainly have the right to make sure that our own investments do not support companies that profit from what we believe to be immoral acts committed in furtherance of Israel’s occupation.

As the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I am proud that JVP has initiated its own divestment campaign which targets the TIAA-CREF pension fund, urging it to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Among these are two of the three companies currently under consideration by PC (USA): Motorola and Caterpillar.

Why the concern over these specific companies? Because they are indisputably and directing aiding and profiting the oppression of Palestinians on the ground. Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work.  Motorola profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

And why is Hewlett-Packard under consideration for divestment by the PC (USA)? HP owns Electronic Data Systems, which heads a consortium providing monitoring of checkpoints, including several built inside the West Bank in violation of international law.  The Israeli Navy, which regularly attacks Gaza’s fishermen within Gaza’s own territorial waters and has often shelled civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, has chosen HP Israel to implement the outsourcing of its IT infrastructure.  In addition, Hewlett Packard subsidiary HP Invent outsources IT services to a company called Matrix, which employs settlers in the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit to do much of its IT work at low wages.

I repeat: by seeking to divest from these companies the PC (USA) is not singling out Israel as a nation.  The Presbyterian Church has every right to – and in fact does – divest its funds from any number of companies that enable non-peaceful pursuits around the world.  In this case specifically, the PC (USA) has reasonably determined that these particular “pursuits” aid a highly militarized, brutal and oppressive occupation – and it simply does not want to be complicit in supporting companies that enable it.

I encourage you to read the entire post, which also includes a detailed history of the process undertaken by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The current overture, like the one two years ago, seeks divestment from the same three companies: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

And inevitably, like before, the overture’s sponsors and their supporters have been subjected to an unrelenting barrage of criticisms and accusations from certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. I am particularly dismayed to learn that J St. – ostensibly an anti-occupation organization – is once again joining forces with those who hope to quash this principled, good faith proposal.

On this point, I’m in full agreement with Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, who recently wrote:

J Street was instrumental in beating back the same motion in 2012, when it failed before the church’s General Assembly by a vote of 333–331. But that was then. Then it was possible to argue (although I’d already stopped) that there was still hope that the United States would pressure Israel into making peace. Then it was still at least reasonable for J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami to tell the Presbyterian Church, “Reject divestment, and embrace full-on pursuit of the diplomatic efforts necessary to create genuine and lasting peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.”

But now? What argument can an anti-occupation movement make to the Presbyterian Church in June 2014 about why it should not divest from Caterpillar’s bulldozers, Hewlett-Packard’s ID system for Palestinians and Motorola’s surveillance machines? Because it would interfere with U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East? Because it would harden the Netanyahu government’s stance in the peace talks?

From an anti-occupation perspective, what is there to lose by a Presbyterian Church vote for divestment? Nothing. But what is there to gain? A blow against injustice, the kind that has been scaring the Netanyahu government and Israel lobby like nothing else — certainly not the Obama administration — which is a very good sign that the BDS campaign is on to something.

With the failure of the peace process and Israel’s recent announcement of 1,500 new settlements, it is clear that political pressure has been utterly ineffective in bringing a just solution to this unjust occupation. Why then, must we block attempts at the popular, nonviolent pressure tactics such divestment – particularly when such efforts have been demonstrably effective in other parts of the world?

I will be posting much more about the divestment overture at Presbyterian GA in the coming week. Stay tuned.


The ADL Global 100: Challenging Our Narratives of Anti-Semitism

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There’s been a great deal written about the report, “Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism,” released last month by the Anti-Defamation League. While the ADL has trumpeted the survey as “the most extensive such poll ever conducted,” reactions in the mainstream media have been mixed. In one widely read piece, Noah Feldman criticized the ADL’s methodology as “stacking the deck in favor of anti-Semitic answers.” Blogger/journalist Mitchell Plitnick has also written an important article that unpacks the political agenda behind the survey (writes Plitnick, “the cry of anti-Semitism is becoming the cry of the wolf-shouting boy.”)

For my part, I’ve been struck by the way the ADL’s survey unwittingly (and ironically) betrays some of the mainstream Jewish community’s most deeply held narratives on anti-Semitism. One of the survey’s most striking findings, for instance, reveals that Iran is by far the least anti-Semitic country in the Middle East. To be sure, the ADL hasn’t gone out of its way to publicize this point – you can only deduce it by comparing Iranian responses to those of other Middle Eastern countries. But in fact, Iran scores better on every one of the ADL’s eleven survey questions by a statistically significant margin. And as Israel/Iran analyst Marsha B. Cohen, has pointed out, Iran doesn’t even make it into the ADL survey’s “worldwide top 20 anti-Semitic hotspots.”

Sobering findings indeed, when you consider that Israeli politicians have long predicated their foreign policy on a narrative that views Iran as the world’s #1 threat to the Jewish people.  (Just this past April, in fact, Israeli PM Netanyahu mentioned Iran in the same breath as Nazi Germany during a Holocaust Remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem.)

Among other things, I believe these findings shed much-needed light on the cynical tropes wielded by Israel and the American Jewish establishment. I’m certainly not surprised that the ADL hasn’t promoted this particularly inconvenient truth in their press releases on the survey, but at the very least I believe it should encourage us to seek out a different kind of narrative vis a vis Iran: one that might encourage engagement and diplomacy over confrontation and lines in the sand.

On the other end of the spectrum, the ADL’s survey found that Middle Eastern anti-Semitism was the most pronounced among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. No shocker there. As Plitnick notes in his post:

There you will find many people, with no power who are dominated by a state that insists on claiming (falsely) to represent the world’s Jews. Are we to be surprised that an awful lot of them believe that “the Jews” have too much power, too much influence on other countries’ decisions, too much wealth, etc?

And that, I posit, is the real reason for the ADL’s report. No sooner had the report been issued than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pounced on it as “proof” that the Palestinian Authority “incites” hatred of Israel and Jews. As if the settlers and soldiers – who are the only examples of Jews or Israelis that Palestinians ever see anymore — don’t do that quite efficiently all by themselves. What would one expect of an occupied population, in the West Bank, and a deliberately starved and besieged one on Gaza? That these conditions would breed a great love of Jews and of Israel?

And here I would submit, the survey belies yet another narrative popularized by Israel and so many American Jewish leaders: that Israel represents the most important defense/response to anti-Semitism  (a claim that dates back to the days of Theodor Herzl.) In the face of findings such as these, we might justifiably ask: in what ways do Israel’s actions actually foster anti-Semitism? This question is particularly salient as regards Palestinians who live under Israeli military occupation. At the end of the day, can Israel truly claim to be a Jewish “safe haven” with such a population in its midst?

We might also ask, to what extent do Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians inspire anti-Semitism throughout the world? Anti-semitism, like all forms of prejudice, is very real – and we must certainly respond to it with all due seriousness. But at the same time, might it be possible that some of the attitudes uncovered by the ADL survey are less the result of genuine Jew-hatred than anger toward unjust actions perpetrated by a state that purports to represent all Jews everywhere?

Again, I’m sure the ADL never intended its study to inspire questions such as these – but we’d do well to consider them.


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