Responding to European Anti-Semitism: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5775

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According to legend, the U’netaneh Tokef – the High Holiday prayer in which we publicly ponder “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year – was originally written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany. As legend would have it, this 11th century sage was pressured to convert to Catholicism by the Archbishop. The rabbi asked for three days to think it over, presumably as a delaying tactic, and later refused to respond to the Archbishop. When he was brought before him, Rabbi Amnon asked that his own tongue be cut off to atone for his sin of even considering conversion.

The Archbishop ordered something even more ghastly: he decreed that Rabbi Amnon’s arms and legs to be amputated limb by limb as punishment for refusing to come when ordered. At each point, he was given the opportunity to convert – and at each point, the Rabbi refused. As this was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue where he composed and recited the U’netaneh Tokef prayer in his dying breath. Three days later, the Rabbi’s spirit appeared to one of his rabbinical colleagues and asked that this prayer be included as part of the High Holiday service. And so, the legend tells us, U’netaneh Tokef became part of the regular liturgy of this season.

It’s not the most heartwarming legend – but then again, U’netaneh Tokef isn’t exactly the most heartwarming of prayers. It’s actually among the most emotionally raw prayers in Jewish tradition: a collective crying out against the randomness of our world and the vulnerability of our lives. It might well be called the quintessential prayer of the High Holiday season.

It also seems to me that this legend is a commentary on the ways that the U’netaneh Tokef is a product of the Jewish communal experience. This prayer might well be viewed as the liturgical expression of a people that has experienced more than its share of randomness and vulnerability over the course its collective history. Indeed, it’s not difficult to read the words “who shall live and who shall die” and not imagine how they must have resonated for Jews living under the very real existential threat of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.

For the majority of 21st century Jews, this resonance is far less powerful than it has been for previous generations – perhaps than at any other time in Jewish history. Still, I’m sure there are those who would claim that the words “who shall live and who shall die” have been gradually taking on renewed power for the Jewish people in recent years.

I’m speaking in particular about the reports of a significant rise of anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in Europe. In past year in particular, press reports and polls have been painting an alarming picture. In a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 66% of the Jewish respondents felt anti-Semitism in Europe was on the rise. 76% said anti-Semitism had increased in their country over the past five years. In the 12 months after the survey, nearly half said they worried about being verbally insulted or attacked in public because they were Jewish.

Much of this ominous news comes from France. According to France’s Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community, totals of anti-Semitic acts in the 2000s are seven times higher than in the 1990s. This past summer, during the war in Gaza, there were disturbing reports that protests against Israel’s actions spilled over from anti-Israel calls into anti-Jewish rhetoric and even violence. Over a two-day period, protesters marched through the streets of the predominantly Jewish suburb of Sarcelles, reportedly chanting “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.” Protestors also firebombed Jewish-owned businesses and two synagogues and one Jewish-owned pharmacy was burned to the ground.

Last May in Belgium, a country with a much smaller Jewish population, a gunman murdered four people in front of the Jewish Museum in Brussels. And this past month, during a Holocaust Memorial dedication on their European Day of Jewish Culture, youths hurled stones and bottles until the police arrived. Three days later, a fire erupted on an upper floor of a Brussels synagogue; the authorities investigated the incident as arson.

In Germany, there have been reports of similar incidents, including the attempted arson of the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal. In an interview with the Guardian magazine, Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said:

These are the worst times since the Nazi era… On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticizing Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed.

There have also been reports of similar incidents in Italy as well as throughout the Netherlands. A few months ago, a Dutch Jewish watchdog group reported a 23 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands since 2012. In Malmo, Sweden, for instance, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic violence over the past several years, causing some members of the Jewish community to emigrate.

My very good friend, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian has lived in Malmo for several years and has reported frankly to me about the impact of anti-Semitism on her adopted hometown. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives, was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a recent e-mail to me, she described the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe as a “festering sore,” adding “it’s ugly.”

Rebecca added that the recent upswing of incidents in Malmo, as in the rest of Europe, was mostly in response to the violence in Gaza, which she said “naturally spurred a lot of random, violent hate directed at Jewish people and Jewish places.” She said the Chabad rabbi there was attacked several times, but fortunately was never hurt. Another one of her friends, a modern orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, was so tired of being harassed that he has taken to wearing a baseball cap over it. She wrote to me, “Even I was a bit fearful of, for example, taking a taxi to the JCC where we live. I would ask to be left on the corner, even with luggage.”

What do we make of reports such as these? As Jews, as people of conscience, what should be our response to news of a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe? There is, of course, one answer on which I believe we can all agree: we must call it out. As with any form of racism or prejudice, silence equals assent. When we hear these kinds of reports, it is our sacred duty to speak up – and to act.

Beyond this basic answer, however, it gets more complicated. When confronted with the reality of anti-Semitism in this day and age, what we say and do will depend on our analysis of its causes. I would go even further and suggest that the nature of our analysis may well define what kind of Jews we want to be – and what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm.

Many Jews will look at the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and conclude that this demonstrates the critical importance of the state of Israel. After all, Zionism itself arose in response to European anti-Semitism. Political Zionists dating back to Theodor Herzl have posited that the only thing that could effectively safeguard the collective security of the Jewish people is a Jewish state of their own. And since its founding Israel has become the symbol of Jewish empowerment: a Jewish nation-state with a Jewish army that ensures the security of Jews not only in Israel, but around the world.

It is not uncommon today to hear the claim from some in the Jewish community that Israel is a kind of “Jewish insurance policy” – that if (or when) things invariably go bad for the Jews anywhere in the world they will always have Israel to go to. For many Jews, in fact, the critical importance of a Jewish state is the central lesson of the Holocaust. Never again will we depend upon other nations to keep us safe. For so many in our community, a Jewish state is our island of security in a dangerous world.

While I certainly understand the logic and psychology of this response, particularly living as we do in the post-Holocaust era, I find this narrative to be problematic in many ways – grounded more in ideology than reality. At the end of the day, I simply don’t believe that statehood has provided us with a real or effective answer to the problem of anti-Semitism.

In some ways, it might be claimed that the exact opposite has occurred. While Israel was largely created to ensure Jewish safety and survival, it has become, ironically enough, the one Jewish community in the world that lives in a near-constant state of vulnerability and insecurity. Indeed, for all of the troubling reports of European anti-Semitism this past summer, the most indelible images of Jewish insecurity came from news footage of Israelis traumatized by missiles coming from Gaza, running for bomb shelters at the repeated sounds of air raid sirens. This was not – to put it mildly – the picture of a “safe haven” for Jews.

I believe these images sadly drive home the tragic reality behind the Zionist dream. Israel, the nation that was created to be a safe home for the Jewish people, has been in a perpetual state of war since its’ founding. Israel, the nation founded to normalize Jewish collective existence, routinely characterizes itself as a small country surrounded and besieged on all sides by hostile enemies. Whatever else we might believe about how a nation can achieve safety and security in the 21st century, I would posit that the founding of Israel has not provided the Jewish people with a panacea.

It is certainly true that Israel has historically opened its arms to oppressed Jews around the world – and we certainly should not understate its importance in this regard. More recently it has been reported in the media that European Jews – particularly Jews from France – are starting to immigrate to Israel in response to rising anti-Semitism. The predominant narrative here is that there is now a new European exodus of oppressed Jews to the Jewish state.

Again, however, I believe these reports have more to do with ideology than reality. According to data from the Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, there has indeed been an increase in the number of immigrant from Western Europe in recent years: from 3,339 in 2012 to 4,694 in 2013. What many news reports fail to mention, however, is that Israeli Jews are immigrating to Western Europe at nearly the same rate. In fact, the number of Israeli Jews living abroad has been estimated at 1,000,000with most émigrés citing the economy and war-weariness as their main reason for leaving Israel. Berlin alone is home to 17,000 Israelis, according to the German embassy in Tel Aviv. Though it is remarkable to even contemplate just decades after the Holocaust, there is a thriving and growing Israeli expat community in Germany, with its own radio station and cultural arts scene. When we take a close look at what is really going on, then, the reality is much more complex that what the media has been reporting.

When all is said and done, the tragic reality is that Israel was born in conflict and has lived with conflict as its daily reality for its entire existence. Since 1967 Israel has been militarily occupying another people – and I don’t believe it is a stretch to suggest that this ongoing, often brutal occupation impacts attitudes toward Jews not only in Israel but worldwide.

By every indication, whenever violence connected to the Occupation has risen, so too have the incidence of anti-Semitic attitudes and acts around the world. I’ve already mentioned that European anti-Semitism spiked during the Gaza war this summer – as it did during the Gaza wars of 2012 and 2009 as well as the First and Second Intifadas. But it is also worth noting that this linkage works both ways. During periods of peace and diplomacy, particularly during the optimistic days of the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin, in the early 1990s period, global anti-Semitism was at an all time low. As much as violence begets violence, so too, apparently, does tolerance beget tolerance.

What should be our response as we read these reports of rising European anti-Semitism? I would suggest that the answer is not to put our faith in nationalism and militarism to keep the Jewish people safe. I believe our first response should be to understand that anti-Semitism is but one form of racism and prejudice – and as such it is no different than the intolerance that is directed toward any people or group in the world who are perceived as “other.” The appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to recede behind higher walls or build stronger weapons, but rather to find common cause and solidarity with all who are being targeted in this way. To publicly affirm that the well-being of the Jewish people is irrevocably connected to the well-being of every group victimized by racism.

Here’s an concrete example of this response in action: back in 2012, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian wrote that when the Jewish Community Center in Malmo, Sweden was attacked, she was appalled to read quotes by American Jewish leaders proclaiming that Malmo was an unsafe travel destination for Jews and that they should prepare to flee to Israel or another country. In fact, Rebecca pointed out, immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil, in which women, men and children gathered in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups, and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.

Indeed, while much attention is paid to the fundamentalist Muslim perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks throughout Europe, relatively little is devoted to the local actions of Jews and Muslims who come together to stand up against the bigotry that ultimately affects both communities. I was heartened to hear from Rebecca that despite the recent uptick in anti-Semitism in Malmo, their interfaith group is “stronger than ever.”

As she wrote to me in her e-mail:

Even during the (Gaza) war, we spoke candidly about the need to work together to fight any type of hate crime. At a panel discussion, I spoke as a Jew for humanitarian aid to Gaza and for an end to the killing and injuring of civilians. The Imam on the Board spoke about the need for Muslim youth to not attack Jewish people and property. We all spoke of co-existence. In the words of my friend who wears the kippah, the answer lies in education. We need to learn about one another. And the good news is that is indeed happening.

When we contemplate our response to this new anti-Semitism, I believe we should also take pains to differentiate between individual anti-Semitic acts and the much more serious phenomenon of state sponsored anti-Semitism. While we should be alarmed and should rightly protest whenever we hear about anti-Semitic incidents and attacks, historically speaking the most insidious and deadly form of anti-Semitism has been the legislated variety. We must not forget that the Holocaust, like all genocides, occurred when a government directed it own state institutions and resources against minorities in its midst.

Thus, as troubling it is to read of shootings and firebombings, I believe we should be far more disturbed when we hear reports of far-right and even neo-Nazi candidates being elected into Parliaments throughout Europe. My friend Rebecca referred to this phenomenon as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. She pointed out that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”

For all of the recent news coming out of Europe, we should be heartened by the knowledge that there are no longer and Jewish communities anywhere in the world that are collectively targeted and oppressed by its government for being Jewish. And we should be likewise heartened when we hear the heads of European governments pledging their support to minority communities plagued with hate crimes. In response to the recent anti-Semitic incidents in his country, for instance, French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has publicly said, “to attack a Jew because he is a Jew is to attack France. To attack a synagogue and a kosher grocery store is quite simply anti-Semitism and racism.” Likewise, at a recent rally, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called the recent incidents “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state.”

In the end, this may well be the most important, profound and effective response of all. The answer to anti-Semitism, as with all forms of racism is not to adopt a victim mentality or to circle the wagons, but to demand more democracy, more civil rights, more humans rights for all. As American Jews, we should know this better than anyone. We should understand that our new-found engagement with the world has resulted in freedoms truly unprecedented in our history. Today, in our globally engaged 21st century world, I believe we of all people should be on the forefront of this call.

I’d like to conclude now where I began: with the U’netaneh Tokef prayer. As it happens, the legend of the martyred Rabbi Amnon turns out to be precisely that: merely a legend. Scholars tell us that in fact, this prayer was actually composed several centuries earlier, and was likely an edited product of many different authors, influenced by a variety of early Christian hymns. As always, the reality is more complex than our often fatalistic mythology would have it.

And in the end, I believe it is a more hopeful reality. Yes, as this prayer reminds us, the world can be a dangerous place. No, we do not know what this new year has in store for us. It may be a year of blessing or a year of curse, or more likely something in between. But no matter what emotional or historical baggage what we bring to this prayer, we would to well to remember that we always end with the uplifting words, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree.”

In other words, we must respond to the often harsh nature of our world by engaging with it. Not by hiding from it or fighting against it, but acknowledging all that is good and right and just about it – and then by fighting for these values in no uncertain terms.

In the coming year, in all the years to come, may we do what we can to mitigate the harshness of the decree.


For Tisha B’Av: A Lamentation for Gaza

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This Monday night begins the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning for the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. Among other things, the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy includes the chanting Biblical book of  Lamentations.

Given the profoundly tragic events currently unfolding in Gaza, I offer this reworking of the first chapter of Lamentations.  I share it with the hope that on this day of mourning we might also mourn the mounting dead in Gaza – along with what Israel has become…

A Lamentation for Gaza

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.


Israel in Gaza: A Statement by the JVP Rabbinical Council

photo: AFP: Menahem Kahana

photo: AFP: Menahem Kahana

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud

We are currently amidst “the three weeks” – the annual Jewish period of quasi-mourning that leads to the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This is the season that bids us to look deeply into the soul of our community and examine the ways that our sinat chinam – baseless hatred – has led to our communal downfall.

Driven by the spirit of this season, we cannot help but speak out in response to the horrific loss of life currently taking place in Gaza, at the hands of the Israeli military. We deplore the Israeli government’s military crackdown in the West Bank that led to its lethal, military onslaught on the people of Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, including children.

We condemn Hamas’ rockets attacks on Israel and are deeply grieved by the anxiety, injury and death they have caused. But we cannot view this as a war between two equal sides. Israel has unlimited hi-tech weaponry; it dominates Gazan airspace, its borders, its utilities and economy.

Moreover, it was Israel who willfully launched this mission of death on the Palestinian people. Israel hides behind the pretext of avenging the still unsolved kidnapping and killing of three Jewish boys. Rather than seeking recourse through civil, legal means, Israel’s leaders have called for vengeance, with terrible consequences.

We can not stand idly by as the Jewish State acts with such wanton disregard, with such sinat chinam, for the humanity of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, children and elders of Gaza.

As Jews, we abhor the abuse of human rights that are standard practice of our fellow Jews in the Israeli government and Israeli military. This is not the path of justice.

As rabbis, we must speak out against collective punishment, the blowing up homes of innocent people, the terrorizing of an entire people, and the killing of innocent children.

This Jewish season asks us to engage in a collective moral accounting; to reckon seriously with the ways our own failings have historically led to our communal downfall. Mindful of this spiritual imperative, we call upon the government of Israel to end its military onslaught, which we believe will only lead to more tragedy for Jews and Palestinians alike.

We stand with all people of conscience who reject the ways of militarism and occupation and who seek a path to a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

*Statements of the JVP Rabbinical Council represent the council as a whole but not necessarily individual members


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

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Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar

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

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Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir

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

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

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Ali al-Awour

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

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Mohammad Dudeen

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

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

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Mustafa Hosni Aslan

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

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

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

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Alissa Wise

Founders, Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council


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

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here is a text of my remarks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Rabbi Margaret Holub, writing in the Forward:

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

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

And from Cantor Michael Davis, in Tikkun:

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

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