JVP Rabbis Passover Message: This Year Let’s Divest from Hewlett-Packard!

Here’s a new Passover video message from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, which uses the final line of the seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” as a cue to examine the current dire reality in earthly Jerusalem. Please watch – and consider using its text as a reading/call to action at your seder this year:

This year in Jerusalem, Israeli policies seek to limit the number of Palestinians who can live in the city.

This year in Jerusalem,  Palestinian Jerusalemites are deemed “permanent residents.” Israel considers them immigrants even though for many, Jerusalem has been their family’s home for generations.

This year in Jerusalem, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, is maintained by daily practices of surveillance and control.  In recent years, these practices have increasingly relied on technology provided by international corporations.

This year in Jerusalem: a Hewlett-Packard powered system divides Palestinians into four categories, each with different rights: blue Israeli IDs, green-blue Palestinian-Jerusalem IDs, green West Bank IDs and orange Gaza IDs.

According to Human Rights Watch, over 640,000 Palestinians risk separation from a direct family member who holds a different colored ID. Hewlett-Packard profits from this colored ID system that divides Palestinian families and loved ones.

This year in Jerusalem:  Israel’s “Cen­ter of Life” policy requires that Palestinian Jerusalemites prove continuous residency in the city to retain their Jerusalem IDs.  There is no such requirement for Jewish Israelis.

This year in Jerusalem:  More than 120,000 family unification applications remain unprocessed. Over 10,000 Jerusalem children are estimated to be unregistered and more than 14,000 Jerusalem residencies have been revoked.

The decision to grant or deny Jerusalem residency for Palestinians is at the discretion of the Israeli government.  Meanwhile Jews throughout the world are entitled to receive automatic and immediate citizenship through Israel’s Law of Return for Jews and reside in Jerusalem at will.

Hundreds of churches, colleges and socially responsible retirement funds continue to be invested in Hewlett-Packard.  This year let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, bashana ha’baah, we’ll be one step closer to the day when Palestinian families can gather and pray freely in Jerusalem.

This year, let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, bashana ha’baah, we will be one step closer to Jerusalem being a just home for all of its residents.

This year, let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, b’shana ha’baah, we will be one step closer to Jerusalem truly being a city of peace.

(To take a Passover pledge to support full freedom of movement for all Jerusalemites, click here.)


Land and Liberation: An Interview with Reverend Naim Ateek

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This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to engage in an extended interview with Reverend Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, during a brief visit he made to Chicago. I’ve known Rev. Ateek for several years and am honored to call him a friend and colleague – and I’ve written before about his important work in the development of Palestinian liberation theology.  Since he’s been the object of unrelenting attack by the Jewish institutional establishment, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to model a different kind of Jewish-Christian engagement on his life and his work.

An edited version of our conversation follows here:

Read the rest of this entry »


My Al Jazeera Debate with Rabbi Ari Hart

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Al Jazeera has just published a “point-counterpoint” dialogue on Zionism between me and Rabbi Ari Hart, Assistant Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and founder of the orthodox social justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek.

An excerpt from Rabbi Hart’s piece:

The state of Israel is the single best expression of the dreams of the Jewish people to have been realised in thousands of years. Since it was founded in 1948, it has meant that thousands of persecuted and displaced Jews from Ethiopia and Arab countries have been able to find safety and that millions of oppressed Russian Jews have been able to freely practice their faith. It has resulted in an explosion of Jewish culture and life unlike anything we have witnessed in millennia and led to a flourishing of the Jewish faith, with more people studying the Torah than at any other point in Jewish history.

And it has not only been positive for the Jewish people: the state of Israel has produced scientific, literary, medical, agricultural, and academic advances that have benefitted billions of people across the planet.

I am always confounded by my Jewish brothers and sisters who do not recognise that the state of Israel has represented the realisation of a dream for our people, and how vital its health and security is to our continued flourishing.

And from my counterpoint:

While Rabbi Hart is certainly correct when he asserts the ways the state of Israel has benefitted the Jewish people, I am struck by the fact that he is relatively silent on the precise nature of the “nightmare” it has created for the indigenous people of the land.

I believe that as Jews, we must be willing to own this dark history and say it out loud: during 1947 to 1948, Zionist military forces either displaced or forcibly expelled over 700,000 Palestinians then forbid their return, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. Today more than 4,000,000 Palestinians harbour their own dream of return – not to a mythic Biblical homeland but to a land that they remember only too well.

In short, Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with an inherent injustice to the people who had made a home in this land. More critically, it is an injustice that continues until today through policies of dispossession and displacement designed to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the state of Israel.


Why I Celebrated the Persian New Year on Purim this Year

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Addressing the NIAC Chicago Nowruz Celebration, March 16, 2014 (photo: Roxane Assaf)

Like many American rabbis around the country, I spent the most of the day yesterday leading my congregation’s noisy, joyously raucous Purim celebration, complete with a carnival and a family Megillah reading. As per usual, we read a somewhat watered-down version of the Book of Esther – one that characteristically kept the sexual hijinx and violence to a minimum.  Even with our PG version, however, there was no getting around the decidedly darker aspects of the Purim story – particularly the infamous ninth chapter in which we read that the Jews of Persia slew 75,000 Persians then celebrated the day after with a festival of “feasting and merry making.”

As always, this part of the story stuck seriously in my throat. While we adults can intellectualize the more disturbing parts of the Purim narrative (“it’s irony,” “it’s a revenge fantasy,” “it’s cathartic,” “it’s not meant to be taken seriously, after all…”) I’m just not sure we do any favors to our children when we read these kinds of stories to them, even in censored form. I’m fast coming to believe it’s time to tell a fundamentally different version of the Purim story to our children – one that celebrates the venerable Persian-Jewish experience rather than cynically telling a Persian version of “when push comes to shove, all the world really just wants the Jews dead.”

I’m also mindful that there are all too many adults who are willing to take the Purim story literally. I’ve written before about the disgusting Purim violence annually inflicted against the non-Jewish population in Israel. And on a geopolitical level, leaders of the state of Israel (and many in the American Jewish establishment) have openly and unabashedly used the Purim story to frame our relationship to Iran – presenting present day Ayatollahs and Mullahs as nothing less than Haman incarnate and promoting all out war as the only way to settle the current nuclear impasse.

For all this, however, I’m happy to report that Purim ended for me on something of a redemptive note this year.

As it turns out, the Persian New Year known as Nowruz is fast approaching and last night, I was thrilled to attend a Nowruz party sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  So after I got home from my congregation’s Purim carnival, I took off my clown costume, put on a suit, and drove to a suburban restaurant where I celebrated the coming of spring with Chicago’s Persian community and supported the important work of NIAC, which among other things supports a “policy of persistent strategic engagement with Iran that includes human rights as a core issue.”

When I addressed the gathering (above), I thanked them for reaching out to me and explained that ever since I returned from a visit to Iran in 2008, I’ve always hoped to score a Nowruz party invitation from my Persian friends. I also explained why celebrating Nowruz with NIAC was for me the perfect, redemptive coda to Purim. And I added that contrary to the impression created by some Israeli politicians and Jewish institutional leaders, there were many in my community who believed that the current crisis should be settled through diplomacy and engagement and not an inexorable march to war.

Now I’m thinking there might well be something to this Nowruz/Purim celebration. Can’t think of a better way to, in words of the Book of Esther, “turn grief and mourning into festive joy….”


Untold Stories from Gaza: A Conversation with Ayman Qwaider and Sameeha Elwan

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I’ve written before about the wonderful Chicago initiative “Untold Stories,” which features Palestinians sharing their personal stories of their lives under occupation. While it began as a project of my congregation, it has since expanded to become an interfaith community effort. I’m so gratified by the success of this program, which draws upon the unique power of narrative rather than political rhetoric. As ever, the simple sharing of stories has an uncanny ability to cut through the convoluted complexities of political issues like little else.

Up until now, “Untold Stories” has featured Palestinian-Americans (and recently, the addition of Israelis as well.)  This past Sunday, however, for the first time participants were able to hear from Palestinian presenters speakers speaking to us directly from Palestine. I was honored to serve as the facilitator of a Skype conversation between attendees at the Evanston Public Library and a young Palestinian couple in Gaza: Ayman Qwaider, a community educator and peace activist and his wife Sameeha Elwan – a blogger/student/activist.

For well over an hour, Ayman and Sameeha shared details of life inside the Gaza blockade.  Ayman, 26, received his degree from the Islamic University of Gaza in 2008, after which he worked for two years as an international humanitarian aid worker. In 2010, he was granted a scholarship to travel to Spain, where he received his master’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies. He currently works for a non-governmental organization in Gaza.

Sameeha is a talented writer and blogger who, like Ayman, received her BA at the Islamic University, then received a scholarship to earn an MA in Culture and Difference at Ustinov College in Durham, UK. Her work is featured in the important new anthology, “Gaza Writes Back,” recently published by Just World Books. Sameeha has received a scholarship to pursue a Phd in English literature but it is as yet unclear if she will receive permission to travel once again pursue her studies.

It was clearly important for Ayman and Sameeha to be able to share their stories with us, particularly since the plight of Palestinians in Gaza is the chronically forgotten story in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now six years into this blockade, Gazans still live in a virtual open-air prison with severely curtailed access to the most basic necessities of living.  As Ayman and Sameeha told us, 80% of the population is dependent on international aid, the economy has all but collapsed, the percentage of children suffering from malnourishment is rising, unemployment is at 60%, there is a shortage of drinkable water and access to electricity is limited to several hours a day.

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To drive this point home, Ayman told us at the beginning of the program that we should expect their electricity to go down in one hour. At that point, we would need to wait for a few minutes while they hooked their computer up to a reserve battery. When we reconnected, they were sitting in the darkness of their Gaza City flat, their faces illuminated only by the light from their computer. (Compare top pic with the pic above).

I’ve written extensively about the politics dimensions of the Gaza crisis so I won’t belabor the point here. I will only say that I am deeply grateful to “Untold Stories” (and its coordinators, Sallie Gratch and Mark Miller) for enabling us to hear Ayman and Sameeha’s story – and help us bear witness to this injustice with a unique kind of power.

It’s truly difficult to describe how it felt to converse with a young couple who were sitting in the darkness of their apartment from inside a blockaded strip of land while we sat in the comfort and freedom of an Evanston library. It is so very, very important to hear these untold stories and to create real relationships with those who are living them out day after day. I’d add it is even more important to view ourselves as an integral part of these stories, so that we might somehow participate in their just resolution.

Some links I encourage you to read: click here to read Ayman’s blog and here to read Sameeha’s. Click here to read an excellent article by journalist Ruth Pollard which describes the current reality under the Gaza blockade and prominently features Ayman and Sameeha’s story.

And finally, click here to donate to ANERA – a heroic NGO that has long been endeavoring to provide sustainable support to the people of Gaza.

"Untold Stories" co-coordinator Mark Miller

“Untold Stories” co-coordinator Mark Miller


The Story of Anibal Fuentes and a Tragicially Broken Immigration System

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Anibal Fuentes (fourth from left) with his wife and son.

One individual story to drive home the tragically high cost of our nation’s broken immigration system:

On Friday, December 6, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided an apartment building in the Albany Park neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. They knocked at all of the apartments in the building holding a picture of somebody they claimed to be looking for and interrogating anyone who answered the door. When Anibal Eligio Fuentes Aguilar tried to help answer their questions they took him away from his wife and infant son, placed him in a detention center and told him he was going to be deported.

The apartment building where Anibal and his family live has been raided by ICE at least four times in the past year and there have been immigration raids in other parts of the neighborhood as well. ICE agents arrive wearing police vests, question anybody they come across and take undocumented immigrants into custody.

Anibal first came to the US to when he was 16. When his mother passed away he visited Guatemala to attend her funeral but was stopped once by border patrol on his way back to Chicago in 2009. He has always been very active in his community and is a member of his local soccer league. He has a 6-month old baby, Franky, who is a US citizen. Anibal has no criminal record, and was only placed into immigration custody due to his encounter with border patrol five years ago. In addition, Anibal fears returning to Guatemala, a country where before his father passed away, he had been kidnapped three times.

anibalAfter Anibal was detained in December his family and community began to mobilize. He was released from detention, given an ankle bracelet and placed under continuous monitoring. ICE agents told him to have a ticket back to Guatemala by January 30th. His subsequent request for  prosecutorial discretion was denied, and he was given two months to leave the country. Last week he submitted a deferred action application to qualify under a relief program for undocumented youth established last year.

Yesterday, Anibal and his supporters held a press conference (pictures above and to the right) where we reaffirmed our  solidarity with him and his family before he resubmitted his application at Chicago ICE headquarters. By the end of the day, we learned he was granted a 6-month stay of removal.  While we are all obviously relieved by this latest outcome, ICE still has not closed his case. Unless something changes before September, we will continue our campaign to stop Anibal’s deportation.

Anibal’s case is but one of millions of stories of injustice across our nation, in which undocumented immigrants are victimized by a horribly broken system that is quite literally tearing families apart. While politicians dither in Washington over comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform, it makes sense at the very least to provide relief from deportations for those such as Anibal, who would be included in the bill.

Please click here to sign a petition urging President Obama to suspend deportations until Congress passes immigration reform – and to make sure those seeking a path to citizenship aren’t deported before it even opens.

In the meantime, I will continue to report on Anibal’s case. Stay tuned.


My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman

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This past Sunday I had the great pleasure and honor to participate in a open conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman in “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit,” a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Los Angeles. As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.

As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.

Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.

Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.

Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.

I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.

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Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.

I’m still feeling so happy and proud to have been able to share the stage with Rabbi Beerman. Heartfelt thanks to Estee Chandler, the head of JVP – LA for her masterful stewardship of this wonderful event. Thanks also to Eliyahu and Pennie Ungar-Sargon for filming the program – I’ll post the finished video of our talk when it is complete.

PS: After the program was over, I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Beerman’s wife, children and grandchildren, who were sitting in the front section. As we chatted I mentioned to them how wonderful it felt to get such a nice reception, adding that Leonard and I were worried there might be “troublemakers” in attendance. His daughter smiled and said, “The only troublemakers were up on the stage…”


More Heat Than Light: My Response to Rev. Chris Leighton

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Dear Reverend Leighton,

Thank you for your response to my open letter. While I’m also not particularly interested in turning our dialogue into a debate to be “won” or “lost,” I do take exception to much of what you wrote and feel compelled to respond in kind. I agree with you that our differences are worthy of ongoing dialogue. I can only hope that the airing of our disagreement might somehow be helpful to those who struggle with an issue that is of such critical importance to our respective faith communities.

I’d like to start with your observation:

(To) deny…Zionism and Judaism do not share deep historical and religious roots…strikes me as a serious error. You work with a very limited conception of Zionism as a 19th century political movement that breaks from Jewish tradition. I work with a much broader understanding of Zionism and see this movement as driven by yearnings for a Jewish homeland with deep biblical underpinnings. The blending of peoplehood, land and Torah strikes me as integral to Jewish tradition.

In writing this statement, you’ve chosen to sidestep my point that for thousands of years, the Jewish connection to the land was expressed as a spiritual yearning – not as a desire to create a sovereign Jewish nation.  “Homeland” and “political nation” are two intrinsically different concepts, and as I’ve already written, Jewish tradition consistently regarded the notion of Jewish political nationhood to be an anathema. Political Zionism was never “integral to Jewish tradition” and this concept was not even introduced into Jewish life until the 19th century.

By insisting on this point, your analysis of Jewish tradition and history betrays a characteristically Zionist bias that assumes the centrality of sovereign statehood. That is fine – you are certainly welcome to your biases. But you should at least be prepared to own them for what they are and not attempt to present them as normative.

The very concept of nation-statehood itself is a fundamentally modern notion. Like all modern forms of nationalism, Zionism arose to consciously create a sense of seamless continuity to the past through recourse to an ancient mythic history. But of course, this is an artificial “continuity;” one that owes more to modern political ideology than Jewish religious tradition.

It also has little to do with actual “history” as we know it today. As “Zionism Unsettled” notes, it is extremely problematic to use the Bible as a history book to lay claim to particular piece of land. In the first place, the Bible is a profoundly ahistorical document, as we have long since learned from literary scholars and archaeologists.  Moreover, the Bible was certainly never intended to be “history” according to our current understanding of the term. The authors of the Bible did not purport to create a literal history of the events of their day – rather, it is a religiously inspired narrative that reflects ideas and values unique to the world of the ancient Near East.

This is more than just an academic point. As “Zionism Unsettled” points out, the use of the Bible as a historical justification for a modern nationalist movement is not merely historically problematic – it has had tragic consequences for the inhabitants of historic Palestine, particularly when you consider Biblical passages that express entitlement to the land, a religious intolerance of the “foreign nations of Canaan” and commandments that require nothing short of their total dispossession – and in some cases, even annihilation.

So in one sense we are in complete agreement when you write “even the more secular strains of Zionism that became predominant in the 19th century were suffused with Biblical imagery.” Perhaps we only disagree on the dark outcome of this phenomenon.  We should not be unmindful of the ways that the Biblical land traditions were used by early Zionist ideologues and the political founders of the state – and are currently wielded by Israeli politicians, settler leaders and ultra-religious rabbis alike.  This use of Biblical imagery must not be dismissed as mere religious rhetoric – these theological linkages have enormous power, particularly when we consider the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1947-48 and policies of displacement and transfer that continue to this very day.

You go on to ask:

Do you want to uncouple Zionism from Judaism altogether, or do you want to critique its more militant and “colonial” manifestations? Can all expressions and forms of Zionism be accurately placed into an ideological lump and legitimately condemned as a movement that leads “inexorably” to the displacement and mistreatment of the Palestinians, as the IPMN guide indicates? Do you think that Jews do not belong or have a legitimate claim to the land of Israel?

It is true that there are many different forms of Zionism – a fact that is extensively explored in “Zionism Unplugged” (see Chapter 2).  I would argue, however, that since the establishment of the state of Israel, the existence of these various “Zionisms” has largely become an academic point. In a very real way, the birth of Israel represents the ultimate victory of the values of political Zionism that were promoted by the founders of the state.

As someone who identified as a Zionist for most of his adult life, it is with no small measure of sadness that I acknowledge the ways political Zionism has “inexorably led to the displacement and mistreatment of the Palestinians.”  Perhaps most critically, I have come to painfully reckon with the ethnic nationalism at the core of political Zionism’s raison d’etre – and its insistence upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land to safeguard the “Jewish character of the state.”  In the end, no matter how vociferously Israel might insist that it is, in fact, “Jewish and democratic,” I do not believe it is ultimately possible to establish a demographically Jewish state without regarding the presence of non-Jews to be a problem.

In this regard, I do believe that “Zionism Unsettled” bravely shines a light on the tragic legacy of the Zionist idea, a concept that ultimately resulted in the forced depopulation of Palestinians from their homes in 1947/48 (a phenomenon by now well attested to by Israeli historians) as well as the policies of dispossession that continue to be enacted by the Israeli government even today. These events and policies do not exist in a vacuum – they are the logical end-product of a very specific nationalist ideology that privileges the rights of one particular group over another.

You ask me if I believe Jews “do not belong” or “have a legitimate claim to the land of Israel.” Of course I believe that Jews have every right to live in the land. I’m not sure, however, what you mean by a “legitimate claim.” If you mean can we Jews rightly maintain a religious connection to the land, then my answer is certainly yes. If you mean do we have some kind of intrinsic right to exert our political sovereignty over this land, then my answer is most certainly no. When it comes to nation-statism, it has historically been the case that “might makes right.”  The real question, it seems to me, is not “who has the right to this land?” but rather “how can we extend full rights to all who live on this land?”

You write that you “have yet to see efforts to undo the establishment of the State of Israel produce constructive results.”  I’m struck that you equate an insistence upon equal rights for all to be tantamount to Israel’s “undoing.”  But when it comes to a choice between a Jewish and democratic state, as increasingly seems likely, what should be our choice?  My community is fast approaching a reckoning: which kind of state will ultimately be more “Jewish,” one that unabashedly places Jewish rights above Palestinian rights or one that allows full and equal rights for all?

I also find your statement about “Israel’s undoing” to be more than a little incendiary. By projecting nefarious designs onto an entire movement, this kind of rhetoric only exploits the deepest and darkest of Jewish fears. I will tell you that I have been participated in the Palestinian solidarity movement for some years now and have yet to encounter the kind of anti-Semitic anti-Zionists you speak of. Are there anti-Semites in this movement? Undoubtedly. There are odious types on the margins of every political movement. But I can say without hesitation that the Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists I have met and worked with have nothing but the deepest respect for Jews and Judaism at large and consistently endeavor, as I do, to draw a scrupulous differentiation between Zionism and Judaism.

I don’t disagree with you that  “the quest for home is deeply woven into the tissue of our humanity” and that this concept is deeply woven into the fabric of Jewish collective consciousness. But I must disagree with you strongly when you insist that “the search for homeland aim(s) at sovereignty.” To me, this is an astonishingly narrow and reductionist reading of the notions of home and homeland.

You write that “a national identity is difficult to construct and preserve without the power and freedom that is exercised by the state.” But in fact, that is precisely what the Jewish people have done for centuries.  Judaism as we know it was born in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, as a profound and spiritually courageous response to the reality of dispersion and exile. As such, Jewish tradition is replete with teachings that respond to this trauma with a message of spiritual hope and renewal.

In one of my favorite rabbinic midrashim, for instance, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.”  In other words, Judaism arose to assert that despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one particular land – spiritual meaning and fulfillment could be found throughout the diaspora wherever the Jewish people might live.  (The midrash ends, notably, on a messianic note: “And when they return in the future, the Divine Presence will return with them.”)

In so doing, the rabbinic Judaism transformed a land-based cultic practice to a global religion, enabling Jewish life to flourish and grow widely throughout the Diaspora. This, I believe represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: in a time of profound upheaval and crisis we spiritualized the concept of homeland and redefined ourselves as a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home.” The concept of exile became, in a sense, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.

As a Jew I do not need you to tell me that this conception of Judaism is somehow “exceptionalist” because it “refuses the rights and conditions that every other nation claims for itself.”  With all due respect, it is not for you to take it upon yourself to define my Jewish rights and claims, particularly when it runs counter to centuries of Jewish tradition and experience. I understand that you have chosen to adopt the Zionist narrative of my history and that is certainly your right. But you do not have the right to preach to a Jew that his understanding of “homeland” must ipso facto be expressed through sovereign statehood.

Moreover, there are numerous stateless peoples throughout the world. Would you go on to suggest that they too have the intrinsic right to “the opportunities and burdens of an independent state?” If so, where does this right come from and how might it possibly be implemented? If not, then why are you granting this unique right to the Jewish people?  Quite frankly, I find your conflation of the concepts of “homeland” and “nation-state” to be hopelessly confused, creating a myriad more problems than it purports to solve.

On the concept of exceptionalism, you write:

I have yet to encounter a nation or religion that does not fuse religion and politics – and overtly or implicitly make a claim to being exceptional. The challenge is how to identify and respond when the mixture turns toxic.

Like the authors of “Zionism Unsettled” I would go much farther than this. I believe that challenge is to identify and respond to those aspects of our respective religious traditions that assume our superiority over others – and to thoroughly disavow them.

It is all well and good to “support and sustain our nations, our religious communities, and families with financial and psychological investments that give them priority.”  I’m even willing to admit that it is natural for a person or group to feel “chosen” in a way that doesn’t automatically denote superiority.  The problem occurs, as ZU rightly points out, when exceptionalism “exempts the chosen from the need to conform to normal rules, laws, or general principles that we use to hold other people accountable.” (p. 8)

As the study guide notes, religious exceptionalism has historically been at its most dangerous when it is wedded to state power. In illuminating this point, ZU actually devotes a significant amount of analysis to post-Constantinian Christianity and its legacy of anti-Semitism over the centuries. In so doing, it identifies the ultimate problem as the merging of religion and empire – not Zionism per se. You misrepresent the guide egregiously when you accuse it of treating Zionism as “an exceptional and inherently evil manifestation of nationalism.” In fact, “Zionism Unsettled” repeatedly places political Zionism within the larger context of religious and national exceptionalism – a phenomenon that has historically proven to be, to paraphrase your words, a uniquely toxic mixture.

Finally, you bemoan the lack of a more “comprehensive and balanced account” in “Zionism Unsettled.” I would suggest that this lack of balance does not originate in the guide but rather the Israel-Palestine conflict itself.  To be sure, this conflict does not and has never constituted a level playing field. Rather, it has pitted one of the most militarized nations in the world – one that enjoys the near unconditional support of the world’s largest superpower – against a people it has dispossessed from its land; a people whose yearning for home now reflects, as you so eloquently put it, “a quest…that is woven into the very tissue of (its) humanity.”

I do believe this is the most critical place where you and I part company. You express your religious faith through your work in the world of interfaith dialogue – an arena that assumes balance and equity on two equal “sides.” I view my faith as refracted through my work as an activist who stands in solidarity with a people that is seeking its liberation. As such I do not view this conflict in any way as a balanced equation. On the contrary, I seek to re-right what I believe to be an inherently unbalanced situation.

I realize full well that by saying such things I leave myself open to further accusations of “polemical excess that does not do justice to what needs to be said.” So be it. I would only ask you to consider that rhetoric has a fundamentally different function in the world of dialogue than in the arena of political transformation. I understand that in your world, words are typically wielded in the furtherance of creating “more light than heat.” But when there is very real oppression occurring, as I truly believe is the case here, it is not at all inappropriate to turn up the heat, no matter how upsetting it may be for Israel and its advocates.

I do not know if you have ever visited Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza and have witnessed first hand the deeply oppressive reality of their daily existence. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so. I encourage you to talk to Palestinians who live in villages whose livelihood has been choked off by a wall that separates them from their agricultural lands in order to make way for the growth of Jewish settlements.  I encourage you to meet with Palestinians whose weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the wall are met regularly with brutal force by the Israeli military. Speak to Palestinians mothers and fathers whose children have been abducted in the middle of the night by the IDF and subjected to interrogation in Israeli prisons. Get to know Palestinians who have had their residency rights revoked and/or their homes demolished so that Jewish demographic facts can be created on the ground. Talk with Palestinians in Gaza who are being collectively punished by a crushing blockade and subjected to life inside what has essentially become one of the largest open air prisons in the world.

I believe if you take the time to do so you will invariably come to find that these men and women represent spiritual teachers just as compelling as the American Jews and Christians which whom you regularly engage in dialogue. At the very least, I hope they might somehow challenge your views on “what needs to be said” about this conflict.

While you may well consider the above to be just another example of my “polemical excess,” I would only say that my convictions come from a faithful place – and from a religious tradition that exhorts me to stand with the oppressed and call out the oppressor. I also believe these same religious convictions inform the very heart of “Zionism Unplugged” and whatever its specific flaws, I find it to be an enormously important and courageous resource.  You claim that the “vast majority of Presbyterians will not align themselves with a project that aims to disassemble the State of Israel.” Of course the guide does nothing of the kind. It does, however, call for the dissembling of an inequitable system that privileges one group over another and replacing it with one that guarantees full rights for all. For this it makes no apology, nor should it.

You certainly know the Presbyterian community better than I, but I will say that I have met and spoken with many Presbyterians – and members of other Protestant denominations – who have expressed gratitude for this new guide and are eager to use it in their churches. As with my own faith community, I do sense that we are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift on the issue of Zionism and I am not anywhere near as certain as you that the “vast majority” of Christians or Jews are so ready as you to denounce such ideas as abject anti-Semitism.

Again, thank you for taking the time to respond to my open letter. I agree with you that there is much more to be discussed. Whether or not we engage in further exploration together, I hope and trust that our conversation might still be helpful to those who have read our exchange.


Guest Post: Rev. Chris Leighton Responds to My Open Letter

zionism_unsettledRev. Chris Leighton has responded to my open letter of February 19, in which I addressed what I considered to be his troubling and unfounded attack on the newly released study guide, “Zionism Unsettled.” I have posted his words below. I genuinely appreciate his desire to enter into dialogue and will post my own response in several days.

I appreciate the time and thought that you directed to my critique of “Zionism Unsettled.” I am not particularly interested in entering a debate that yields winners and losers and that drives combatants more deeply into their entrenched positions. I am interested in conversation that might enable people with deep disagreements to learn from one another, and I am acutely aware of how much more I have to learn in the ongoing struggle to understand and respond to the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Colleagues such as Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, A.J. Levine, Peter Ochs, Tikva Frymer Kensky (of blessed memory) and even your former havrutah partner and now staff member at the ICJS, Ilyse Kramer (among others including folks at the Hartman Institute) continue to rattle me out of my complacency and remind me constantly that mahloket is a rabbinic discipline desperately needed in these tempestuous times.

You make a number of observations that I want to ponder more deeply. You also indulge in some polemical excess that does not do justice to what needs to be said. At the end of the day, you believe that this congregational guide can prove a helpful resource. I think that it is so riddled with historical and theological flaws, and so dismissive of the Jewish community that it will do much more harm than good. We disagree, and the most immediate question whether our differences might prove worthy of some ongoing dialogue.

I wonder if we might begin more productively by examining some arguments that you make that I find puzzling. They may clarify our divergent readings of ZU and enable us to better understand when and where we speak past one another.

You make a strong case for the separation of Judaism from Zionism, and I think rightly note the mistakes that arise when the two are collapsed. At the same time to deny that Zionism and Judaism do not share deep historical and religious roots also strikes me as a serious error. You work with a very limited conception of Zionism as a 19th century political movement that breaks from the Jewish tradition. I work with a much broader understanding of Zionism and see this movement as driven by a yearning for a Jewish homeland with deep biblical underpinnings. The blending of peoplehood, land and Torah strikes me as integral to Jewish tradition. Even the more secular strains of Zionism that became predominant in the 19th century were suffused with biblical imagery and so this movement was not as radical a rupture from the Jewish tradition as the more secular Zionists imagined.

So here is where I found your account confounding. Do you want to uncouple Zionism from Judaism altogether, or do you want to critique its more militant and “colonial” manifestations? Can all expressions and forms of Zionism be accurately placed into an ideological lump and legitimately condemned as a movement that leads “inexorably” to the displacement and mistreatment of Palestinians, as the IPMN guide indicates? Do you think that Jews do not belong or have a legitimate claim to the land of Israel? Do you want to trace the problem to the UN’s 1947 resolution to partition the land and to establish the State of Israel? Or do want to focus on the problems that emerge in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967?

I have yet to see efforts to undo the establishment of the State of Israel produce constructive results. I have seen efforts to de-legitimize the State, to brand it as “an apartheid nation,” and to punish Israel economically and politically polarize and fragment our communities. This is not to say that all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. Yet it would be a terrible blunder not to acknowledge that many of them are. At another time we can circle back to clarify what constitutes “antisemitism” and its relationship to “anti-Judaism” before exploring who decides when it is fair and accurate to apply these categories. I do want to note that I did not throw around the term, indeed I used it only once and quite specifically in my critique.

Back to the issue of a Jewish homeland. I believe that the quest for a home is deeply woven into the tissue of our humanity, and you would not deny that this yearning has occupied a prominent, if not central role among Jews over the centuries. My impression is that you would not annul the longing to establish a Jewish homeland nor characterize this desire as intrinsically pernicious. Does the problem then take hold when Jews move from claims to a homeland to making their bid to establish a sovereign state? Homeland is OK. Sovereign State for Jews is not (unless divinely implemented).

When a Frenchman speaks of his homeland, or an Irishman, or American, or a Palestinian, or a Tibetan are they designating an attachment to a specific land independent of the sovereignty on which the messy business of governments depend? Does not the search for a “homeland” aim at “sovereignty?” A national identity is difficult to construct and preserve without the power and freedom that is exercised by the state. One of the truly remarkable achievements of the Jewish people has been the ability to endure and even flourish over a remarkable span of history without the powers of a sovereign state. Yet to acknowledge the claims to homeland while denying Jews the opportunities and burdens of an independent of state enshrines the status of Jews as “exceptional” and refuses them the rights and conditions that every other nation claims for itself. Your line of thinking seems to me to end up creating the very phenomenon that you and the guide condemn, albeit it is a different form of “exceptionalism.”

Finally, I do not know of a nation, a religion, or even a family that does not hold to some kind of exceptionalism. Our national, religious, and familial identities are constructed on the basis of stories that distinguish us from others. Even when we insist that we are not superior to others (and hopefully we regard this task as a moral imperative), we support and sustain our nations, our religious communities, and families with financial and psychological investments that give them priority. We live our lives treating our own with greater levels of time, energy, and resource—even as we strive to respond to the legitimate claims of those who need and demand our active engagement. Furthermore, I have yet to encounter a nation that does not fuse religion and politics—and overtly or implicitly make a claim to being exceptional. The challenge is how to identify and respond when the mixture turns toxic. I suspect that we agree that this is a vital responsibility of our religious leaders.

While keenly aware that your movement has for the most part rejected the notion of “chosenness,” I do not think that this category invariably generates a sense of superiority. The rejection of “exceptionalism” strikes me as a thinly veiled rejection of a concept that remains prominent in much, if not most of the Jewish world. The step from a condemnation of “exceptionalism” and “Chosenness” to an indictment of Israel and the larger Jewish community as ethnocentrically racist is made without qualification.

The concept of “exceptionalism” (at least as it is defined and applied in this guide) strikes me as a problematic. Are not the real problems to which you point a manifestation of “nationalism?” And if every country must be vigilant about the dangerous directions in which nationalism can move, why would the guide not acknowledge this challenge within Palestinian nationalism? It certainly would not be an arduous task to illustrate the problematics by offering a brief overview from George Antonius to the Hamas Charter.

One example of dishonesty that I find troubling in the study guide is the unwillingness to offer a more comprehensive and balanced account. If the problem is that Jewish nationalism is different from other kinds of nationalism and deserving of condemnation, then the guide once again becomes guilty of the very error that it impugns. In other words, Zionism becomes an exceptional and inherently evil manifestation of nationalism. At best I think that the analytic methods used in this guide are intellectually shoddy and the terminology reinforces the tendency to use confused and confusing generalizations—thereby reinforcing the polemical discourse that generates plenty of heat and a shortage of light.

These flaws point to a more serious issue, namely the unwillingness of the study guide to come clean on what it really believes is the necessary end game. Is the goal to help Israel achieve the democratic ideal embodied in its May 14, 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, or to reject this national project, work to dismantle the current State of Israel, and create a new and different national entity? What do the authors really think necessary to overcome the plight of the Palestinians? It is essential to own up to the vision that animates this study guide, because the tools that are being deployed need to be appraised on the basis of ends that they serve.

In my opinion, the vast majority of Presbyterians will not align themselves with a project that aims to disassemble the State of Israel. I think that the authors and editors of the guide know this and therefore have strategically decided to conceal the objectives for which they strive. Again this strikes me as dishonest.

There is of course much more to be discussed. Perhaps these reflections will at the very least open up some points for further exploration.

The Reverend Christopher Leighton is a Presbyterian minister and the Executive Director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland.


Casino Workers to Neal Bluhm: “Keep Your Promises”

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This past Wednesday I stood together with workers from Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, IL, Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, and SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia who demanded that owner Neal Bluhm stop his draconian campaign against their organizing efforts.

Our action began as we marched down Michigan Avenue to Mr. Bluhm’s offices located at the exclusive mall, 900 North Michigan. When we entered the building, we were stopped by security – and when we requested to speak to Mr. Bluhm, we were told to leave immediately.

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Can you spot the rabbi in this picture?

We then gathered outside on the sidewalk, pulled out our cell phones, and left messages for Mr. Bluhm and his CEO partners, asking them why his casino’s employees were making far less in wages and benefits than those doing comparable jobs at his (unionized) Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  We also asked why these workers, who were helping Bluhm’s casino’s rake in record profits, were facing harassment and intimidation from management for legally seeking to organize themselves into a union.

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Refused entry to 900 North Michigan Ave, we hit the cell phones

Bluhm and his casino’s management are hoping they can win this one by hiring expensive anti-union firms to forcefully dissuade workers from organizing into a union. The courageous workers I met on Wednesday, however, show sign of backing down. It was my honor to stand together with them as they demand Neal Bluhm keep his promise for a fair process for them as they decide whether or not to unionize.  So far it’s been anything but fair: as I’ve previously reported, the casino’s actions have prompted 55 unfair labor practice charges to be submitted to the NLRB.

As always, I’ll continue to report on the progress of this growing organizing effort. Stay tuned.

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Unite Here Local 1 President Karen Kent addresses the crowd

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