My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub (who recently joined me as co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council) has just traveled to South Africa to spend the next six weeks in Cape Town. It’s her second sojourn there and in addition to reconnecting with old friends, she’ll be spending her time interviewing clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church about their life during and after the fall of apartheid.
The DRC is the Afrikaans-speaking church which was famous – or notorious – for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990s. The Church has come a long way since then – their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness and have made moves to integrate their churches.
As a self-described rabbi “edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Margaret is particularly interested in learning more about the experience of white South African clergy:
What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC? What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end? Did they feel cornered? Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings? Did they feel like they had to defend them even so? Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses? What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history? Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice… I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.
The quote above came from Margaret’s blog, “Summer in Winter,” in which she promises to faithfully chronicle her experiences on this amazing trip. I plan to follow her adventures faithfully and recommend that you do too!
Cross-posted with Rabbi Brian’s Blog
We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world,
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.
This is one of the many songs I sang as I led a remarkable delegation of US Civil Rights movement leaders, young human rights leaders, prominent Black academics and educators and several Jewish activists that traveled through the West Bank two weeks ago.
Our delegation was a project of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an organization dedicated to human rights education and to building a global human rights community. Dorothy Cotton served as the Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was the only woman on the executive staff. She led the Citizenship Education Program that empowered the disenfranchised to exercise their rights as citizens.
The goals of this historic delegation were:
- to create and build an ongoing relationship between leaders of the US civil rights movement and the leaders of the growing Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement on the West Bank and their Israeli allies;
- to increase the visibility of this movement in the US and internationally;
- to learn from one another about nonviolence, effective solidarity and social transformation;
- and to educate Americans about the role the United States plays in supporting the status quo on the West Bank.
Our delegation spent two weeks on the West Bank. We visited three Palestinian villages – Budrus, Bilin, Nabi Saleh – that have engaged for many years in a popular nonviolent struggle to reclaim land expropriated by the Israeli military. We met several young Palestinians who are building the Coalition for Dignity, a grassroots, youth – led nonviolent movement.
And we met Israeli allies who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolent movement and who work in their own society to end militarism and human rights violations against Palestinians. We learned from many Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activists about their work, their vision and their dreams.
In short, our delegation saw and learned about realities that the overwhelming number of visitors to Israel never see or hear.
Singing was an essential part of the spiritual and political life of our trip. Dorothy has a beautiful spirit, a powerful voice, and loves to sing. Throughout the delegation, she always reminded us that singing was a critical tool for energizing the civil rights movement. She told me,
We had songs for different occasions. We sang at mass meetings, and we sang at funerals … We sang, “I am going to do what the Spirit says do” and our singing inspired us to do just that.
And so our new civil rights delegation sang as we traveled through the West Bank. Singing was just one powerful way in which our delegation made a connection between the Black-led struggle for civil rights in the US and the Palestinian struggle for justice, peace and security for all.
This, for instance, is the song we sang at the grave of a young man in Budrus who was killed in a nonviolent demonstration to protest the confiscation of his village’s land:
Come By here my Lord, come by here.
For our brother, my Lord, come by here.
For his courage my Lord, come by here.
Standing around the grave, delegates spontaneously composed the lyrics. It felt like we were praying, acknowledging the courage and the profound cost that the struggle for freedom demands.
We sang before we joined the weekly nonviolent demonstration in Nabi Saleh, another village on the West Bank fighting to reclaim their land. The residents of the village had made special signs composed of quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King in honor of our visit. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” read one of the signs.
And we sang:
Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.
Keep on walking, keep on talking, marching down to freedom land.
We sang to express our appreciation and to provide support after hearing activists tell us their stories – Palestinians and Israelis who told us of their amazing work and the toll it has taken on their lives, and sometimes even their spirits and souls. One such occasion was after Israeli activist Gabi Laski told us of her work to defend children from villages like Nabi Saleh who are arrested at night.
We’re going to keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, never turning back, never turning back.
We sang after standing next to the thirty foot high Separation Wall in Jerusalem dividing a Palestinian neighborhood in two. And we sang on the bus as we went through a checkpoint on our way to the airport at the end of our trip, encouraged by our Palestinian guide to keep singing even when the soldier boarded our bus. (Our bus was pulled aside for a security check because it was a Palestinian bus while Israeli buses and motorists were waved through the checkpoint).
We returned to the United States both inspired and disturbed by our experience. We were inspired by the determination, vision and commitment of so many Palestinians and their Israeli allies, working tirelessly day after day, year after year, often at great personal and communal cost, for justice, freedom and equality for all. Now that we are home, we look forward to sharing the stories and vision of these courageous civil rights activists with our friends and communities.
But our trip was not simply inspiring. It was profoundly disturbing to witness the harsh realities of life on the West Bank that are so invisible to the discourse in America. Every day we saw and heard about a systematic denial of human rights in countless ways: land confiscation, extensive restrictions on movement, humiliation at check points, home demolition, the arrest of children, the revocation of residency permits and many other violations.
The delegates were profoundly shocked. Several American civil rights veterans commented that the discrimination, humiliation and injustice they witnessed was “frighteningly familiar.”
While we were on the West Bank the two presidential candidates tried to outdo one another in their public declarations of support for Israel in the final presidential debate. They mentioned Israel 31 times with only one passing reference to Palestinians. The contrast between American policy and what we witnessed is stark. Now that we have returned, we are determined to share this disturbing reality with our communities; to challenge the ways in which our country funds, provides diplomatic cover, and enables these injustices.
I have visited the West Bank before but never for more than a day or two, and almost always with progressive Israeli groups. On this visit, however, we spent virtually all out time in the West Bank – on the other side of the Separation Wall. For me personally, it was a transformative experience. It was a privilege to travel with such a special group of people and to see the profound impact of our delegation on the activists that we met.
Before we left on our journey, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Vincent Harding, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, a person with a long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and a very close life-long connection to Jewish teachers, fellow travelers and co-workers. Dr. Harding talked about “encouragement” as one of his primary goals for the trip. I was struck by the word and the simple power of his intention. He wanted to meet activists on the West Bank and to “encourage” them.
And that is exactly what happened. The people we met commented how encouraged they felt by meeting people who had spent their entire lives fighting for freedom in the US. Dr. Harding and others would repeatedly ask all our presenters to tell us about themselves, their families and what motivated them to do what they were doing.
He and others always shared how much he appreciated their work and how important it was for all of us and for our collective future. After hearing an inspiring talk by Fadi Quran, one of the young leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement, Dr. Harding said, “Fadi, I want to tell you how proud I am and how grateful I am for you, and want to encourage you to keep on going.”
It felt like we were building a new world. On the very first day of our trip, Dorothy Cotton sang and danced with three women activists, Israeli and Palestinian, who had spoken to us. It was a joy to see the profound gift she was giving them and that they were giving her in return. Those who had spent their lives building a new world in America were creating a relationship with those who were building a new world in Israel/Palestine.
Towards the end of the trip we realized that we were just beginning to build a new world in another way by creating a new possibility for the relationship between Jews and Blacks in our own country. Historically, Israeli policy has been a source of tension between the African American and Jewish communities. While many African Americans on the delegation have deep and positive connections to Jews, it is often difficult for Blacks and Jews to have honest conversations about Israel.
There were eight Jews on this delegation. On this trip we joined together as a group of Blacks, Jews, Christians and people with varied faith commitments, united in our commitment to nonviolence and our dedication to justice, freedom and equality in Israel/Palestine, in our own country, and around the world. We are renewing an alliance between Blacks and Jews, an alliance rooted in our shared values.
We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world.
We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.
Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,
Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.
Two spot on responses to the recent NY Times article, “Church Appeal on Israel Angers Jewish Groups:”
The first comes from the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan:
It seems to me that aid of all kinds should have basic human rights strings attached to it. I would have suspended all aid to Israel when it refused to stop its settlement policy on the West Bank, but that’s a little like being in favor of an immediate space station on Mars, given the Greater Israel lobby’s grip on Congress.
So let me just reiterate something that has no chance of ever happening, but I might as well put on the record: we should treat Israel as any other recipient of US aid. If a country is occupying and settling land conquered through war, if it’s treating a minority population with inhumanity, the US should stand up for Western values. It should not single Israel out; but we have to stop treating Israel as the exception to every other US foreign policy rule.
Rev. Jim C. Wall (Contributing Editor of the “Christian Century”) in an unflinchingly honest blog post:
To begin with, the 15 church leaders are heavyweights, top officials for their denominations. They include the leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee. Two Catholic leaders also signed, not including the Catholic Council of Bishops.
These are not just leaders of a few religious groups, which a Protestant version of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs could corral into an interfaith dialogue meeting. These are the major-domos of American Protestantism, which raises the question of what exactly gives the JCPA and its scattered letter signers, these “outraged Jewish groups” as the Times calls them, the right to claim religious standing in this conversation. Many of these Jewish groups are secular and function as part of the Israel Lobby, a collection of lobbying organizations that have Israel, not Judaism as their primary client…
The JCPA and its letter signers have no dogs in this hunt. They can be as outraged as they want. This is still a free country. But the 15 church leaders have made the right religious, not political, move. They are speaking the language of “moral responsibility” in a letter directed to the U.S. Congress on the matter of U.S. funds used by Israel to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people.
Interfaith dialogue has always been nothing more than a device used by American Jewish groups to intimidate the American churches into keeping the ecumenical deal. By this intimidation, these groups have followed the example set by the government of Israel which has long used the so-called “peace process” to sustain its occupation and expand its borders, always to the detriment of the Palestinian people.
It is the right time for the leaders of the American churches to make their moral demand to the Congress. With their letter, they have done so, courageously, considering the political climate of our time. Interfaith dialogue can wait.
As things stand now, the Jewish groups have called for a “summit” for the top leaders of Christian churches to “discuss” the situation with them – and they are reportedly considering it. I hope the Christian leaders will stand firm. It is not the role of these Jewish organizations to dictate how Christian religious leaders can live out their conscience or their values. These Jewish leaders have chosen to walk away from the table – they are in no position to demand the terms by which “dialogue” may resume.
We can only hope this sad turn of events will lead to a more honest interfaith conversation about Israel-Palestine – one based on honesty, respect and justice rather than emotional blackmail.
Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud:
The undersigned members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council stand with our American Christian colleagues in their recent call to “make U.S. military aid to Israel contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable US laws and policies.”
We are as troubled as our Christian colleagues by the human rights violations Israel commits against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons. It is altogether appropriate – and in fact essential – for Congress to ensure that Israel is not in violation of any US laws or policies that regulate the use of US supplied weapons.
The US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act specifically prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of US weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.” The Christian leaders’ letter points out, in fact, that the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons such as tear gas.
It is certainly not unreasonable to insist that foreign assistance be contingent on compliance with US laws and policies. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg has rightly pointed out that during this current economic downturn, Congress has been scrutinizing all domestic assistance programs - including Social Security and food stamps - to ensure that they are being carried out legally in compliance with stated US policy. Why should US military aid to Israel be exempt from the same kind of scrutiny?
While some might feel that requiring assistance to be contingent with compliance would compromise Israels security, we believe the exactly the opposite is true. As Israels primary ally, the US alone is in a place to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians - and true security for all who live in the region.
As Jews we acknowledge that the signers of the letter, and the churches they represent, have ancient and continuing ties to the land of Israel just as we do, and that their concerns for the safety and dignity of Christians in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories is as compelling as our concern for the safety and dignity of Jews there.
We are troubled that several Jewish organizations have cynically attacked this faithful and sensitive call – and we are deeply dismayed that the Anti-Defamation League has gone so far as to pull out of a scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue in protest. We believe that actions such as these run directly counter to the spirit and mission of interfaith dialogue. True dialogue occurs not simply on the areas where both parties find agreement, but in precisely those places where there is disagreement and divergence of opinion. We call on all of our Jewish colleagues to remain at the table and engage our Christian colleagues on this painful issue that is of such deep concern to both our communities.
We express our full support for the spirit and content of this statement and likewise call upon US citizens to urge their representatives to end unconditional military aid to Israel.
Signed (list in formation):
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi Lynn Gottleib
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Jessica Rosenberg, Rabbinical Student
Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbinical Student
Last week a group of US clergy, theologians and laypersons unveiled Karios USA, a powerful and important American Christian spiritual call for justice in Israel and Palestine. As a religious Jew, I am inspired by its prophetic courage, its unabashed call for justice and its heartfelt model of compassion. It truly deserves to be shared and studied by all who who seek a genuinely religious call for justice in this land that is so central to so many peoples and spiritual traditions.
Kairos USA is modeled on the religious testimony of Kairos Palestine, a document that was drafted by prominent Palestinian Christian leaders in 2009 (which was itself inspired by the 1985 South African Kairos statement). Despite these important influences, however, Kairos USA stands on its own as a uniquely American Christian call for justice in Israel/Palestine.
Indeed, this unique mission is evoked in the statement’s Preamble at the very outset:
In June 2011, a group of U.S. clergy, theologians and laypersons, cognizant of our responsibility as Americans in the tragedy unfolding in Israel and Palestine, and mindful of the urgency of the situation, met to inaugurate a new movement for American Christians. We have been inspired by the prophetic church movements of southern Africa, Central and South America, Asia and Europe that have responded to the call of their Christian sisters and brothers in occupied Palestine. This is our statement of witness and confession—and our response as U.S. Christians to the Palestinian call.
And more specifically, from the Introduction:
As U.S. Christians we bear responsibility for failing to say “Enough!” when our nation’s ally, the State of Israel, violates international law. Our government has financed Israel’s unjust policies and has shielded its government from criticism by the international community. At the outset of the current U.S. administration, our government led Palestinians to believe that at last we would pursue a political solution based on justice. But the “peace process” has continued to be no more than a means for the continuing colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the imprisonment of Gaza and the intensification of the structures of oppression.
I have no doubt at all that like Kairos Palestine, Kairos USA will be excoriated by many self-appointed leaders of the American Jewish establishment. As for myself, now that I’ve read the document carefully, I can say without hesitation that I believe this statement is a truly sacred testimony, offered in good faith and with genuine religious integrity.
I was particularly moved to read how sensitively Kairos USA treads over some of the most complex hot-button issues in the Jewish-Christian relationship. For instance, on the issue of historical church anti-Semitism, the statement includes the following confession:
As Christians addressing the Palestinian cause we must also acknowledge our shameful role in the historic persecution of the Jewish people. We recognize the dehumanizing and destructive power of doctrines and theologies that denigrated Judaism. Our predecessors perpetuated anti-Semitic stereotypes, practiced scapegoating and cloaked prejudice, hostility and murder itself in the robes of our religion. We confess that our churches failed to resist, and sometimes even aided and abetted pogroms, mass dislocations of Jews, and the calamity of the Nazi Holocaust itself. In so doing, they betrayed the teaching and example of the one we claim to follow. We speak for and with our forbears in expressing deep remorse. With a commitment to never forget those failures and to be instructed by them, we pledge ourselves to growth in faithfulness, compassion and justice.
The statement goes on, however, to state that Christians’ honest desire to repent for the church’s historic crimes against Jews must not inhibit them from speaking out against injustices perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians. To my mind, this is a call for real and honest interfaith relations – dialogue that is not defined by guilt or emotional blackmail, but rather by a willingness to venture into and openly discuss the more difficult and painful places:
We acknowledge with sadness and distress that because of the powerful impulse on the part of Christians to atone for their sins against the Jewish people, vigilance against anti-Semitism today has come to trump working for justice in Palestine and Israel. The Christian need to rectify centuries of anti-Jewish doctrine and actions and to avoid even the perception of anti-Jewish feeling has served to silence criticism of Israel’s policies and any questioning of the consequences of U.S. government support for Israel. Differences between anti-Semitism and legitimate opposition to Israeli actions are avoided or explained away. Responsible discourse about Zionism is often denounced as hostility toward Israel and its citizens or branded as anti-Semitism. We believe that in our dialogue with our Jewish friends, family members and colleagues and in our relationships with the Jewish community on institutional levels, we must confront this pattern of avoiding, denying or suppressing discussion of issues that may cause conflict or discomfort. The fact that anti-Semitism still exists makes it all the more important to differentiate between actual anti-Jewish feelings and criticism of the actions of a nation state. Uncomfortable though it may be, we cannot be afraid to address the urgent issue of justice and human rights in Israel and Palestine with our Jewish sisters and brothers here in the United States.
I also deeply admire the statement’s willingness to directly address the charged issue of so-called Christian “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology (a view that promotes Christianity – and not Judaism – as the genuine fulfillment of Biblical tradition):
We are aware that in denying a theology of entitlement that gives the Jewish people exclusive rights to the Holy Land, we risk the charge of reviving the Christian doctrine known as replacement theology (sometimes known as supersessionism). In this view, the Church takes the place of Israel in God’s purposes, denigrating Judaism itself and condemning the Jews to suffering for rejecting the Gospel. Christians have rightly wished to distance themselves from this destructive and divisive doctrine. We repudiate the anti-Semitic legacy of the church’s past and the theology that undergirds it.
As a Jew who rejects a sense of Jewish entitlement just as strongly as I reject any religious viewpoint that makes an exclusive claim to the land, I particularly appreciate Kairos USA’s religious approach on this point:
Our core Christian belief is that God’s promise in the Gospel is a promise to all nations. This means that God’s kingdom work in Christ is a promise to everyone regardless of race. We believe that the Church has found in Christ a fulfillment of all that God promised in Abraham, and that both Jews and Gentiles have been invited equally into this promise of a world renewed in love and compassion. The Church does not replace Israel. Jews continue to have a place in God’s plan for the world. In Christ, all nations can be blessed (Genesis 18:18, 22:18; Galatians 3:8). In these times of growing international conflict and cultural mistrust, this is a significant promise. Theologies that privilege one nation with political entitlements to the exclusion of others miss a central tenet of the Gospel and inspire increased conflict.
I believe the above statement provides a crucial challenge to both American Jews and Christians. From a theological point of view, I believe it is time to reframe the issue. The real debate is not about which religious tradition or people has a more compelling religious “right” to the land of Israel, rather, it is between those who make exclusivist theological claims and those whose theology makes room for all peoples who live on or feel a connection to this land.
I also have no doubt that many in the American Jewish establishment will reject out of hand Kairos USA’s positive advocacy of BDS (“Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”). But here again, I find that the statement deals with a hot-button issue with sensitivity and integrity:
Participation in the BDS movement by U.S. churches, notably in the form of initiatives to divest church funds from companies profiting from the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, has generated critically-important discussions at local, denominational and ecumenical levels about the responsibility of the church to act. It has also generated intense controversy. Opposition, from Jewish organizations as well as from voices within the churches, has often been fierce, claiming that such actions will inflict grievous damage on hard-won positive relationships with the Jewish community. Many express fear that these actions may encourage anti-Semitism. We note with distress that many have confused these actions with anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution in the Christian past. But BDS is directed at Israeli policy, not the state itself or its citizens, and certainly not against the Jewish people. Divestment and other forms of socially responsible investing (SRI) are not directed against groups, nor are they intended to hurt individuals, corporations or states. They are, rather, directed at unjust, oppressive policies and are about promoting our own values and stated commitments by noncooperation with evil. Furthermore, methods to exert economic pressure on governments and companies, in addition to being a legal, ethical and time-tested way of influencing the political process and corporate behavior, serve to increase awareness, promote open discussion and create the grassroots support required to urge governments to take effective action and to change unjust policies. We urge congregations, clergy and church leaders to become educated about the BDS movement and to consider the many forms that it can take on personal, local and national levels.
As I American Jew who is deeply distressed by the American Jewish establishment’s abject vilification of BDS, I don’t think I could possibly put it any better.
I urge all people – whether religious and secular, Christian, Jewish or Muslim – to read, share, discuss and respectfully debate this important new American statement of faith. My deepest gratitude to those (including my good friends Mark Braverman and Father Cotton Fite) who helped spearhead and draft Kairos USA. May it inspire us all to reframe a new religious response to the sorrows of Israel/Palestine – and lead the way to a better future to all who call this land home.
After the United Methodist divestment resolution was voted down at the UM General Conference last week, I’ve received my fair share of gloating responses from divestment opponents. (Award for the most colorful goes to “Tzahal,” who sent in this attention-grabber: “BDS Fail, you f***ing KAPO”).
Actually, while many of us were disappointed by the final vote, I don’t view this as a fail. Not by a long shot.
First of all, as I reported from Tampa, I was deeply inspired to meet so many remarkable activists – Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, Israelis and American Jews – who constitute a new community of conscience working for justice in Israel/Palestine. This new interfaith/inter-ethnic coalition is growing rapidly and we are most certainly succeeding in raising conscience and awareness each time these kinds of resolutions are brought forth.
Beyond the final vote on this one specific resolution, we should consider it a success that these issues are increasingly being publicly discussed by our religious communities. My fellow activists and I had numerous conversations with delegates in the convention hall and we were heartened to engage so many people so honestly on this difficult issue. I was particularly gratified to speak with the numerous African delegates (who constituted 40% of the convention) who immediately understood the very real parallels to the legacy of colonialism in their own countries.
In addition, as my fellow activist Anna Baltzer recently pointed out, while the divestment resolution did not ultimately pass, the UM General Conference did adopt a resolution that among other things urged the US government to “end all military aid to the region,” called on all nations “to prohibit… any financial support by individuals or organizations for the construction and maintenance of settlements,” and “to prohibit… the import of products made by companies in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
In BDS terms, this means that while the United Methodists did not affirm D (“Divestment”), they did support B and the S (“Boycott” and “Sanctions”). No small statement, this.
I am coming away from this experience more convinced than ever that divestment is a critical tool in our quest for a just peace in I/P. Over and over I’ve heard that divestment is an unduly harsh and polarizing tactic – and that the emphasis should be on positive engagement and investment. This, despite the fact that decades of political engagement by our government have failed miserably. This despite almost a decades worth of failed attempts by church groups to engage companies such as Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett/Packard – companies that literally profit from an oppressive, illegal occupation.
Add to this the testimonials of numerous Palestinian leaders who addressed “positive investment” by telling us it wasn’t charity they needed, but real, actual justice. In the words of Zahi Khouri, a prominent Palestinian Christian businessman and CEO of Coca-Cola Palestine:
It may shock you, but whenever there is a viable project identified in Palestine, we can raise the funds. We don’t need your financial help, your charity. What we need is to be able to operate freely. Divestment is the best, most immediate way that you can help us achieve that. We have been waiting for more than 40 years; we need action now.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was so correct when he urged support of the divestment resolution by invoking MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Then, as now, those who sought justice were counseled by religious leaders to “be patient” and to address the issue of oppression through engagement and non-confrontational tactics. Then, as now, there was an assumption that those who wielded corrupt power could somehow be “convinced” to give up their power voluntarily. Then, as now, this kind of patronizing counsel rings hollow and false in the ears of those who continue to suffer daily from ongoing injustice and persecution.
No, this was not a fail. There is a movement is building and this was only the beginning. Stay tuned. Similar resolutions will soon be considered in Pittsburgh at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis.
My new colleagues and I look forward to continuing this sacred work together.
It was my honor to attend the opening of the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Tampa, where they will be considering a resolution to divest church funds from three companies – Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar – that profit from Israel’s oppressive occupation.
I’ve been so inspired by the amazing people I’ve met in Tampa – Methodists from around the country, Palestinians, and many Jews – who constitute a new community of conscience on this profoundly important issue. This coming-together has been particularly important for me, because many quarters of the United Methodist Church have been unfairly demonized by the Jewish establishment over the issue of church divestment.
The resolution will be considered in committee some time over the next few days – and may possibly be voted on in plenary next week. If you, like me, stand with our Methodist brothers and sisters in our desire for justice in Israel/Palestine, please sign our Rabbi’s Letter that supports “conscientious nonviolent strategies, such as phased selective divestment, to end the occupation.”
You can read a thorough report about our efforts here on Tampa Community Radio. The clip above: my statements at a press conference yesterday which was convened by my friends at United Methodist Kairos Response – the primary sponsors of the UM divestment resolution.
My good friend and colleague Rabbi Mordechai Liebling has just written one of the most eloquent and thoughtful statements in support of church divestment I have yet read. Mordechai’s voice on this subject is particularly noteworthy becuase he has long been an important Jewish community leader on the issue of ethical investing.
Mordechai has previously served as the director of the “Torah of Money” initiative at The Shefa Fund and later became the Executive Vice President of Jewish Funds for Justice. He currently serves as the director of the newly created Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. His statement is all the more powerful because in 2004 he wrote a public article questioning the effectiveness of divestment as a strategy – and as late as two years ago, he still viewed divestment as counterproductive.
As he wrote in his statement, he has reconsidered his position for compelling reasons:
What happened that made me change my views? I changed a little, and the reality on the ground changed even more.
At the time I wrote the article I was organizing the Jewish Shareholder Action Network in my capacity as the Torah of Money Director at the ShefaFund. I was very involved in the world of faith-based socially responsible investments and learned a lot about shareholder activism.
When Protestant churches started considering selective divestment from corporations profiting from the occupation back in the mid-2000′s, I knew many of the socially responsible investment staff people in those denominations. I did not think divestment was a good strategy and said so to my colleagues. But things have changed since.
I was concerned about the potential that divestment measures would have in undermining the Israeli political center. I was concerned about Israelis feeling more isolated than ever and adopting a circle-the-wagons mentality that would make peace harder to attain. These concerns are valid and real. But in the last number of years, the Israel political center has moved to the right–even without divestment. The Israeli government has become more intransigent in its position; the settlers more aggressive. The Netanyahu government has already circled the wagons.
Given this reality, we need to take a look at new approaches. We cannot rule out options that are rooted in non-violence, promote non-violence and call for an end to unjust practices. Divestment is one such option. Palestinian nonviolent direct action is another.
If the reality on the ground in Israel and in the West Bank has changed, so have the attitudes of Israeli Jews and Jews abroad towards the use of tools such as divestments and boycotts. Previously very few Jewish groups would have supported such initiatives. Now we see a lively discussion inside our Jewish communities about the appropriateness of using these tactics to end the occupation and oppose settlement expansion. Countless Israeli artists refuse to perform in the Cultural Center of the settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. Boycotting settlement goods is now discussed in Israel, in the pages of the New York Times, and inside our very own Jewish communities. Symptomatic of its move to the right, the Israeli government has outlawed this practice, and the brave Israelis that speak about it, risk heavy court-mandated fines for expressing their views. But inevitably, the more intransigent the Israeli government, the more popular this and other nonviolent measures will become.
Now to be sure, boycott and selective divestment are not the same thing. The former is carried out by consumers; the latter by investors. Divestment from a corporation does not come in a vacuum. It is the logical step that follows after shareholders try to negotiate with a company to address their concerns and after shareholder activism fails. Back when I opposed divestment, I was concerned that divestment was being invoked when the first two steps had not been tried yet, or at least pursued to its completion. This is not the case today. To their credit, the churches have gathered a full record of failed corporate engagement and have experienced years of frustrated shareholder resolutions that do not achieve the desired change in corporate behavior. Now that step one and step two have failed, it is time to move to the inevitable step three, and that is divestment. Not doing so puts at risk the integrity of the whole socially responsible investment model.
I want to make clear that I would not support divestment or boycotts from Israel as a whole. I do not support turning Israel into a pariah state. And it is precisely because of this that I support the churches’ measure approach to selective divestment. The resolutions under consideration–divesting from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard–do not single out Israel, and they certainly do not single out Jews either. They single out specific corporate complicity with the occupation. Churches hold tobacco companies in their no-buy list, not because they believe that smokers are bad people. They do not single out smokers for criticism. They do so because smoking is wrong. In the same way, bulldozing civilian homes and making people homeless is wrong too. It does not matter whether this happens in Israel or elsewhere. The problem is not with the place or with the people, but with the action. This bulldozing is taking place in Jerusalem, where Palestinian homes are being bulldozed to make room for more Jewish settlements. Not condemning wrongdoing simply because it happens in Israel is singling out Israel. Israel does not need affirmative action; it needs to be treated exactly the same as every other state, not better, and not worse. This means acknowledging when it does things right, but also taking corrective action when it does not.
I’m thrilled that Mordechai has now signed on to our Rabbi’s Letter campaign in advance of the United Methodist Conference in Tampa this week, where the divestment resolution will be presented once again.
There will be much more to report on this important story – please stay tuned.
I’m already on record as fully supporting the Presbyterian Church (USA) divestment resolution that is being brought to the PC (USA) General Assembly this summer. Now I’m thrilled to report that my colleagues on the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council have released a letter in support of both the Presbyterian and the Methodist Church’s efforts to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard) that profit from the Israeli occupation.
Here’s an excerpt of our letter:
Every day Jewish leaders are building alliances with our interfaith partners to oppose all forms of oppression and to express our outrage over the confiscation of Palestinian land, the destruction of Palestinian farms, groves and homes, and to work to end the daily harassment and violence against Palestinian people.
Several Christian denominations are making brave, constructive decisions to investigate whether their churches’ investments contribute to this violence and oppression in Israel and Palestine.
We believe that to invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is the best way to support Muslims, Christians, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians –truly all people.
We can think of no greater act of friendship than to work with us, side by side to bring justice, equality and self-determination to all people. This selective divestment process is one of the strongest tools we have.
In making this decision, we are together, Jews and Christians, living up to the biblical promise to pursue justice.
I encourage you to visit rabbisletter.org for a plethora of resources, including FAQs, additional Jewish expressions of support – and the opportunity to sign on to our letter.
You can also click here to directly support the Methodist resolution (which will be considered at the United Methodist Church General Conference in Tampa on April 24-May 4) and here to support the Presbyterian initiative (which will brought before the PC USA General Assembly in Pittsburgh, June 30-July 7).
Here is the sermon that I delivered yesterday at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. If you would like a copy of “Steadfast Hope,” the study guide to which I refer in my remarks, click here.
I am so pleased to be here with you this morning – and so very honored to have been invited to preach to you today. I want to especially thank Dean Joy Rogers for the invitation and to St. James for hosting me so graciously.
I’d also like to thank my very dear friend, Father Cotton Fite of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, who I believe had no small part in making my visit here a reality. Many members of my congregation have come to know Father Cotton well – in addition to our friendship, he has become something of a mainstay at our Shabbat morning Torah study group. I value my friendship with Cotton quite deeply – and I’d like to think that our the work might provide a model for a new kind of interfaith action. Indeed, this very model is at the heart of my message to you this morning.
I’d like to start properly: with this Sunday’s Episcopal lectionary selection from the Hebrew Bible: 1 Samuel, chapter 3:
In an earlier chapter, we’ve already read that Samuel was born under somewhat remarkable circumstances. Before his birth, his mother Hannah had promised to dedicate him to divine service if only God would only bless her with a child. In chapter 3, the young Samuel is now serving under Eli the priest at the temple in Shiloh. We’re told that in those days, “the word of the Lord was rare; prophecy was not widespread” – clearly a literary clue that this all about to change.
Samuel is sleeping in the temple, next to the Ark of God. In the middle of the night, God calls out to Samuel, and Samuel, who thinks he hears Eli calling him, runs to the priest, and says “Hineini – Here I am.” Eli replies, “I didn’t call you – go back to sleep!” This happens again, and Eli, presumably with even greater exasperation in his voice now, sends Samuel back to bed.
When it happens a third time, Eli finally realizes what is going on. So he instructs Samuel, “If it happens again, say ‘Speak Lord, for Your servant in listening.” When Samuel is called yet again, he follows Eli’s instructions. God then reveals to Samuel that Eli’s priestly house is about to be punished, due to the corruption of his sons and his unwillingness to rein them in.
The next morning, Eli asks Samuel what God said, adding “please do not hold anything back.” And so the young Samuel tells Eli everything: “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” if you will. Painful though it must have been, Eli accepts God’s word as delivered by Samuel.
At the close of the chapter, we learn that Samuel grew up and “the Lord was with him.” As the text puts it, “(God) did not leave any of Samuel’s predictions unfulfilled.” Thus, Samuel quickly gained a reputation through Israel as a trustworthy prophet. He would go on, of course, to be one of the greatest prophets in Israelite history.
Now on the surface of this story, there is sort of a endearing slapstick quality to the young Samuel’s discovery of his prophetic abilities. Because of this, I think it’s too easy to misunderstand the real source of Samuel’s greatness. What made Samuel a great prophet? Was it because he was promised to God by his mother? Was it because he had the ability to hear God talking to him when no one else could – not even Eli the priest himself?
No, I believe the key to his prophetic greatness lay in what came next. Samuel learned a harsh and painful truth about a very powerful man – a man who also happened to be his spiritual mentor – and he was willing to speak that unvarnished truth to him. He did not shrink from his prophetic responsibility, although the chances were probably strong that Eli could cast him out for delivering such a message.
This is, after all the essence of being a prophet. A prophet isn’t someone who can tell the future – and a prophet is certainly not special for being chosen to deliver God’s divine message. No, the essence of being a prophet lies in one’s readiness to speak painful, difficult, often public truths to power.
We will soon learn a great deal about the wages of power in the book of Samuel. The Israelites will eventually come to Samuel and tell him they want a king of their own, telling him they want to be “governed like all the other nations.”
Samuel is grieved by this request – like all prophets, he takes it very personally. But God tells him, “Don’t fret. It’s not you they are rejecting, Samuel, it’s me. They’ve just never understood where the real source of power in the world lies, despite my attempts to demonstrate this to them over and over again. If they think that putting their faith in military and political power will save them, fine. But they will soon find out where that path will lead them.”
And of course as they come to discover, kingship in Ancient Israel doesn’t go so well for the new nation. It becomes focused on militarism, becomes incorrigibly corrupt, splits in two and eventually gets overrun from within and without. During this period, it is only the prophets who continue to speak the hard truth to power, who rail against the toxic ambitions of Israelite empire, who warn that this path will eventually be their downfall. And so it becomes.
When I asked Dean Joy for some advice on what I should say in my sermon to you today, she advised me to share my own spiritual vision with you, to speak a bit about the values that drive me as a spiritual leader. So I will say that, personally speaking, prophetic religion is my primary spiritual inspiration as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By 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.”
And as a 21st century American Jew, I cannot help but view the world through prophetic eyes as well. Painful though it is, if I am to be true to my understanding of my spiritual tradition, I cannot simply look away when I see my own country going down the road to empire, when I see our nation enmeshed in a state of permanent war around the world with economic disparity growing ever larger here at home.
To be sure, these are not issues of concern for the American Jewish community alone. And in my own interfaith activism, I have been deeply inspired by my clergy colleagues and other people of faith who share this prophetic vision. For me, this is the most critical aspect of the interfaith relations – the movements that are created when faith traditions come together to hold power to account in a time of unacceptably growing gaps between the wealthy and poor, the privileged and the exploited, the powerful and powerless.
However, in order for this coalition to truly thrive, more specifically, in order for Jews and Christians to truly work together, we are going to have to find new ways to talk to each other. We must not park our prophetic values at the door whenever our conversations grow difficult. And one of the most difficult conversations has to do with the issue of Israel and Palestine.
In my opinion, the issue of Israel – Palestine is the one area in which true interfaith cooperation tends to break down. However, if we are to use the prophetic model as a guide for Jewish-Christian relations, then our communities cannot shirk from sharing hard truths with one another.
Just as the Jewish community has not hesitated to hold the Christian community to task for any number of historical issues, I do not expect the Christian community to shrink from fully speaking its mind on the issue of Israel – Palestine. We cannot and should not dance around this issue. To my mind, there is simply too much at stake.
This is, needless to say a painful issue for Jews to talk about amongst themselves, let alone with others. But I would like to emphasize that there is by no means a uniformity of opinion on this issue in our community. While I have strong feelings about this subject, I do not pretend to speak for my congregation or the Jewish community at large – nor should any Jewish leader.
In this regard, I want to your church to know I am profoundly appreciative of the Episcopal publication of “Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace,” the report that originated in the Presbyterian Church. I’m glad to know that your church has been studying it together these past few weeks and I’m so happy to be able to join your study session here after our service this morning.
More than the content itself, I am truly inspired by this study guide because it represents an authentically prophetic statement. It is faithful, forthright, and unflinching. Rather than paper over the difficult issues, it shines a light on them. And in the end, these are the places where real dialogue must ultimately start.
I have no doubt that “Steadfast Hope” is being attacked angrily by some in the Jewish community and elsewhere. But that is, of course, the nature of prophetic witness. You don’t shy away from speaking your truth because you’re worried about hurting feelings, you can’t dwell on the prospect of being labeled any number of names, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be bullied or cowed into silence. On the contrary, acting prophetically means speaking your truth knowing full well that there will be strong opposition, but with the faith that there will also be those on the other side who are ready to hear your message and ready to work alongside you in your struggle.
So I’d like to suggest carving out a new place for interfaith relations between our respective communities. Not one that seeks dialogue for dialogue’s sake, nor one that engages in political bartering, but one that finds common cause in prophetic witness.
Indeed, I hold on to this hope for my own community as well – and here I’d like to return to our lectionary chapter once more. If we read this story carefully, we may well discover that Samuel is not the only hero here. There is also Eli the priest – who is able to hear powerful rebuke, along with a prophecy of terrible consequences for his family.
What does he do? He has the wisdom, the humility and the strong sense of self to ask Samuel for the whole truth – and when he hears it he is able to accept it. He is able to hear this difficult, harsh, prophecy and not react with anger or defensiveness – for he knows it comes from a place of truth and righteousness.
I believe that Eli’s response to Samuel’s prophecy provides a powerful model for my own community. While I fervently hope that we find the strength to offer prophetic witness, I also pray that we find the courage to accept it as well. To overcome the fears that keep us from finding true partners in the struggle for liberation in our world.
So let us come together by facing down the glorification of corrupt power. Let us work together to affirm loudly that it is not by might and not by power but by God’s spirit alone that we will create God’s kingdom here on earth. And let us find a common worship in the God that stands with the oppressed, the marginalized and the vulnerable.
I look forward to working together with you in this sacred work and, once again, I thank you so very much for inviting me to join you in worship this morning.