Throughout the organized Jewish community, the mainstream media and academia, we’re hearing increasing talk of a sharp increase in anti-Semitism on American college campuses. In response to recent incidents at UCLA and elsewhere, one congregational rabbi from LA has warned of “something deeper, more troubling, insidious, and pervasive…on college campuses nationwide.” Another rabbi has declared ominously, “This is a war — a war for the heart, mind, and soul of the American university.” Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, who co-authored a recent study alleging rising antisemitism on campus, has opined that the “the events in California” were not “isolated incidents” and that this “type of hatred, stereotyping and bias is a worrying new development that suggests a generational problem.”
To judge from these comments, it would appear that colleges and universities have become virtual petri dishes of Jew-hatred. Have our campuses indeed become overrun by anti-Semitism?
I would argue that something very different is going on. As the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel grows and student divestment campaigns increasingly find traction throughout the United States, we’re witnessing a new kind of tension forming between Palestinian solidarity activists and Israel advocates on college campuses. And while it doesn’t surprise me that some Jewish community leaders are raising the all too familiar cry of anti-Semitism, I believe it’s critical to carefully examine the context that lies beyond the hysteria.
Some background: the UCLA incident occurred last February, when a student candidate for the Judicial board of the Undergraduate Students Association was asked by a student member how, given that she was Jewish and affiliated with Jewish campus organizations, would she “see (herself) being able to maintain an unbiased view?” After a subsequent discussion, the council first voted to reject her nomination – but after a faculty adviser pointed out that it was not appropriate to view a student’s affiliation with Jewish organizations as a conflict of interest, the students voted again and unanimously approved of her nomination.
This incident, which was captured on video and posted on YouTube, led to a an intense and at time painful reckoning throughout the UCLA campus community. The four students who initially opposed the student’s nomination wrote a public apology in the campus newspaper, stating that their “intentions were never to attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people” and that they were “truly sorry for any words used during this meeting that suggested otherwise.” UCLA’s chancellor, referred to the incident as a “teaching moment.” Later, the student council unanimously passed a sweeping resolution condemning anti-Semitism.
Many observers have referred to the board members’ line of questioning as “anti-Semitic,” claiming that their questions raised the infamous anti-Jewish tropes of dual loyalties. But whether their comments were anti-Semitic, obnoxious, or merely naive, it is important to note that in the charged world of campus divestment politics, attitudes toward Jewish students – particularly those who serve on student boards – do not exist in a vacuum.
To begin with, any serious analysis of this issue must factor in the heavy-handed interventions of off-campus advocates of Israel into student politics. Perhaps the most infamous example is Adam Milstein, a businessman and convicted felon who is connected to right-wing Zionist groups and has reportedly funneled money through UCLA Hillel to influence student elections and oppose divestment campaigns.
Blogger Richard Silverstein has written extensively on the controversies surrounding Milstein’s activities at UCLA:
For at least the past three years, Milstein has donated funds via UCLA Hillel (another comprehensive review of the entire scandal is here) to support the pro-Israel student government slate Bruins United, an affiliate of Bruins for Israel. Though we know that Milstein personally donated $1,000 to the slate (e-mails confirming this are published here), he also solicited funding from other pro-Israel donors. Both he, Hillel, and the slate have refused to reveal how much external funding was given. Milstein was much more than a mere donor. He held strategy sessions with the executive candidates. He held a gala fundraising event at his home attended by Hillel staff, prospective donors, and UCLA faculty and staff. The purpose was to encourage donors to participate in the project to benefit both Hillel and Bruins United and to oppose BDS.
In addition to individual actors such as Milstein, there are many Jewish institutional initiatives (such as AIPAC Campus Initiatives, Hasbara Fellows, the JNF Campus Fellowship Program) that receive direct support from the State of Israel to train students to advocate for Israel and combat divestment initiatives. Last year, in fact, the Judicial board of the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association heard a complaint that two student government members had taken trips to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee prior to voting on a student divestment resolution.
Although this context has not been widely reported, it is crucial to our understanding of the most recent incident involving the questioning of the student Judicial board candidate. Given the high profile of professional Israel advocates in student affairs, it is fair to assume that these interventions might well affect attitudes and assumptions about the loyalties of Jewish students at UCLA.
Having said this, it would be a mistake to characterize these campus tensions in simple binary terms as a conflict between Jewish students and Palestinian solidarity activists. In truth, there is a significant and growing percentage of Jewish students actively participating in campus divestment campaigns through Students for Justice in Palestine and student chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace. I know first hand that many of them are motivated to their activism by their deeply held Jewish values of justice and the dignity of all. I took it as something of a sign of the times when just a few months ago, I was contacted by a undergraduate at Northwestern University who grew up in my congregation. This young man, whom I had not seen since his Bar Mitzvah, told me he was involved in the student divestment campaign and invited me to speak in support of it on campus.
By the same token, it would be mistaken to assume that all campus Israel advocates are necessarily Jewish. There are for instance numerous Christian Zionist campus groups that work alongside Jewish Israel advocates, the most prominent of which is CUFI on Campus – the student affiliate of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.
On their website, CUFI on Campus notes:
As anti-Semitic activity on American college campuses has steadily increased, CUFI recognizes that Christian students have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.Field Organizers travel the country actively developing student leaders. Our Field Organizers travel the country actively developing student leaders to ensure they have the skills, resources, and guidance they need to do this successfully on their campuses.
Anyone familiar with the right wing Evangelical theology of Christians United for Israel might well find it puzzling that CUFI on Campus is concerned with rising anti-Semitism on college campuses, particularly when you consider that CUFI Pastor John Hagee has long preached that the Holocaust was God’s will, that the Jewish people need to accept Jesus to avoid going to hell, and that the contemporary Zionist settlement of Israel is a necessary precursor to Armageddon.
Despite these its embrace of these wildly anti-Semitic beliefs, Jewish Federations and Zionist organizations have had no qualms about partnering with CUFI when it comes political Israel advocacy. The same can be said for student groups. Earlier this month, for instance, CUFI on Campus co-sponsored a program with Rutgers Hillel which focused, ironically enough, on “how to combat anti-Semitism.”
Given these realities, I would suggest we avoid simplistic narratives that blame Palestinian solidarity activists for creating an “unsafe environment” for Jewish students. The truth is that there are Jewish students and non- Jewish students on both sides of this issue.
We should also think seriously about what we mean by the term “unsafe” – an oft-heard complaint of Jewish Israel advocates on campus. I have no doubt that some Jewish students are uncomfortable with divestment resolutions and other actions employed by Palestinian solidarity activists. I also have no doubt that on occasion such actions might spill over into the inappropriate or offensive. But as a rabbi who has worked together with activists from SJP and JVP on several campuses over the years, I can personally attest that I have found these student leaders to be smart, passionate organizers who are motivated by deeply held anti-racist values – and who understand full well the difference between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
And if, on occasion, the line between the two sometimes get blurred, we might well ask ourselves: is this due to the abject Jew-hatred on the part of Palestinian solidarity activists or a contemporary Jewish communal mentality that has placed support for the State of Israel at the center of Jewish identity?
In fact, for all of the hue and cry about the rise of campus anti-Semitism, statistics show otherwise. In fact, a recent Forward editorial entitled “The Anti-Semitism Surge that Isn’t” dismissed the Trinity College report as flawed, citing studies by the Anti-Defamation League that show campus anti-Semitism is in fact at “the lowest it’s been since the ADL started keeping track in 1999:”
In its audit of 2014, set to be released April 1 and shared with the Forward, the ADL said there were 47 incidents of anti-Semitism on campuses nationwide, where hundreds of thousands of Jews study. The number organically fluctuates year to year … but this is one trend that’s unmistakeable. Overall, anti-Semitic incidents are at the lowest point in 15 years.
47 incidents of anti-Semitism on campuses nationwide. Now compare that to the institutional repression faced by Palestinian campus activists during the same year. According to Liz Jackson, a staff attorney with Palestinian Solidarity Legal Support:
The reality is that, for every real incident of anti-Semitism on campus, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has documented many more false accusations aimed solely at thwarting serious discussions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In 2014 alone, we documented over 240 incidents of repression and requests for legal advice, nearly 75% on campuses. These ranged from disciplinary actions against students for peaceful speech activities, to attempts to cancel events, to smear campaigns against groups, students and professors, to death threats and anti-Arab and Islamophobic slurs and assaults against activists because they voiced their views. Virtually all of these cases resulted from unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism and unrelenting pressure from Israel advocacy groups to censor and punish those organizing and engaging in speech activities advocating for Palestinian rights. So far this year, we have already documented over 80 such cases, 40 of which occurred in California.
In the end, I would suggest this concern over the “new campus anti-semitism” is really a red herring. Anti-semitism, like all forms of racism should certainly be condemned and stood down in no uncertain terms. But for all the concern over anti-Jewish attitudes, it is worth noting that Jewish students and Israel advocates face absolutely no institutional restrictions to their cause or to their freedom of speech on campus.
It is far from clear that the same could be said for students who advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights.
Today marks Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and as it turns out, this year it falls on a serendipitous milestone: namely the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Although MLK wrote his letter to respond to the reality of Jim Crow in the American South, I do believe his words have much to offer us as we remember those who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II – in particular, King’s insistence on the moral imperative to break unjust laws and the inherent immorality of legal segregation:
(There) are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
In light of King’s words, it is worth noting that the rise of Nazism in Germany was facilitated by largely “legal” means – through a myriad of laws and regulations that successfully segregated them from the rest of German society. King himself pointed this out in his letter when he wrote:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal…” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.
In this regard, Dr. King’s insight might well inspire us to commemorate this sacred day by redoubling our resolve to eradicate laws that segregate peoples on the basis of their national, ethnic or religious identities.
While it pains me to say it, I cannot help but note that the very country that first established Holocaust Remembrance Day itself enforces its own form of legal segregation between Jews and non-Jews. As one Israeli observer wrote in Ha’aretz five years ago, “Segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israel…is almost absolute.” In the West Bank, Jews and non-Jews are segregated by separate legal systems, separate roads, separate transportation systems, and in some cases, separate sidewalks. And in Gaza, Palestinians are segregated from the outside world entirely.
I have no doubt that there will be those who consider it unseemly of me – or worse – to point this out on Yom Hashoah of all days. To this inevitable criticism, I can only respond, how can we purport to take the lessons of the Shoah to heart while ignoring realities such as these? How long will we, as Jews, look way from these unjust laws in Israel that “distort the soul and damage the personality?” On this, of all days, shouldn’t we, as King suggested in his letter, “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive?”
May the memory of the fallen be for a blessing.
Last night I appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” with my friend and colleague Rabbi Andrea London to discuss the issue of Israel/Palestine in the wake of Netanyahu’s re-election. Andrea spoke to the J Street position while I represented the Jewish Voice for Peace point of view. Although the station tried repeatedly to find a local rabbi to represent the AIPAC line, none were willing to participate. I’m sad to report that several of the rabbis contacted cited my presence on the panel as the reason for their refusal.
On the other hand, I was so heartened that Andrea and I were able to model a principled and respectful Jewish communal debate on this issue and I was so grateful for her willingness to engage. Click here to watch.
I’d like to begin my remarks this morning with a verse from the Torah – it’s one of the central lessons at the heart of the Exodus story. It comes from the Burning Bush episode, when God reveals God’s self to Moses and tells him, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:9)
Now regardless of your theology – or even if you have a theology at all – I think there is a very profound lesson being taught to us by this verse. In a way, it provides us with a kind of physics approach to understanding liberation. Throughout human history, we have seen these moments – the moments when the experience of a community’s oppression reaches a tipping point. They invariably come when a community’s oppression becomes impossible to ignore, when the cry and the outrage becomes too great; when it becomes impossible to look away. It is at these critical moments in which the process of liberation inevitably begins.
I think of this lesson often when I think about the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestinian solidarity movement over the past few years. It is sobering to contemplate, but it’s true: most of the significant periods of growth of our organization have occurred as responses to devastating human tragedy. We all know how JVP has grown so dramatically in the wake of the tragedy of this past summer. I myself became actively involved in JVP following Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2009-09. In truth, the growth of our movement has been exponentially linked to the cries of the oppressed. Perhaps it has ever been thus.
During my remarks to you this morning, I’d like to offer a few brief meditations on how we at JVP might take advantage of this moment – this time which is clearly so critical in the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. Specifically speaking, I want to take my cue from JVP’s recent strategic plan, in which our leadership set our organizational goals for the next 3 to 5 years. I’d like to use two of these formal goals in particular as a frame; and use them to offer you a few thoughts on this critical time for our organization and our movement – and where the journey might lead form here.
I’ll start with Goal #4: “Shifting Culture and Public Discourse:”
Changing the public discourse and shifting cultural understandings of what is happening in Israel/Palestine is a prerequisite for changing policy.
In short, we are attempting to change the narrative on Israel/Palestine. I think we all know how central narrative change is to the process of political transformation. Speaking personally, I know how transformative it was for me to embrace a new narrative on Israel/Palestine – and how absolutely key it was to my participation in this movement. It represented a fundamental shift – it meant abandoning, painfully, the liberal Zionist narrative that had been at the center of my Jewish identity for my entire life.
I’d like to read to you now from a blog post that I wrote on December 28, 2009 – exactly one year after the onset of Israel’s so-called “Operation Cast Lead.” Though I don’t know that I fully appreciated it at the time, this post was ultimately about the transformative power of narrative change:
As I read this post one year later, I remember well the emotions I felt as I wrote it. I also realize what a critical turning point that moment represented for me.
As a Jew, I’ve identified deeply with Israel for my entire life. I first visited the country as a young child and since then I’ve been there more times that I can count. Family members and some of my dearest friends in the world live in Israel.
Ideologically speaking, I’ve regarded Zionism with great pride as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Of course I didn’t deny that this rebirth had come at the expense of another. Of course I recognized that Israel’s creation was bound up with the suffering of the Palestinian people. The situation was, well, it was “complicated.”
Last year, however, I reacted differently. I read of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a 140 square mile patch of land with nowhere to run. In the coming days, I would read about the bombing of schools, whole families being blown to bits, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated at all any more. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.
Of course I think we’d all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is technically complicated. But at the same time I think we all know that at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution. The political situation in Darfur, for instance, is enormously complicated – but these complications certainly haven’t stopped scores of Jews across North America from protesting the human rights injustices being committed there. We do so because we know that underneath all of the geopolitical complexities, oppression is oppression. And as Jews, we know instinctively that our sacred tradition and own tragic history require us to speak out against all oppression committed in our midst.
I’d suggest that if there is anything complicated for us here, it is in possibility that we might in fact have become oppressors ourselves. That is painfully complicated. After all, our Jewish identity has been bound up with the memory of our own persecution for centuries. How on earth can we respond – let alone comprehend – the suggestion that we’ve become our own worst nightmare?
More than anything else, this is was what I was trying to say in that anguished, emotional blog post one year ago: is this what it has come to? Have we come to the point in which Israel can wipe out hundreds of people, whole families, whole neighborhoods and our response as Jews will be to simply rationalize it away? At the very least will we able to stop and question what has brought us to this terrifying point? Have we become unable to recognize persecution for what it really and truly is?
Those who know me (or read my blog) surely know that it has been a painfully challenging year for me. My own relationship to Israel is changing in ways I never could have predicted. Since I started raising questions like those above, I’ve lost some friends and, yes, my congregation has lost some members. If Zionism is the unofficial religion of the contemporary Jewish community then I’m sure there are many who consider me something of an apostate.
But at the same time, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the large number of people I’ve met who’ve been able to engage with these questions openly and honestly, even if they don’t always agree with me. I suppose this is what I decided to do one year ago: to put my faith in our ability to stand down the paralyzing “complexities,” no matter how painful the prospect.
One year later, I still hold tight to this faith.
When I wrote back then that my relationship to Israel had changed in ways I could never have predicted, I was openly acknowledging that my accepted narrative had shifted – and it led to life changes that are still ongoing for me. It certainly transformed the way I saw myself as a Jew and how I would do my work as a congregational rabbi.
But on a deeper sense, I think this narrative change transformed me on what I can only call a spiritually cellular level. It challenged me to reckon with the meaning of solidarity in its truest, most universal form. It reaffirmed that lesson that comes straight from the heart of the Exodus story; the story that teaches God hearkens to the cries of the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And it empowered me to speak my truth in unprecedented ways – as I put it in that blog post, “to stand down the paralyzing ‘complexities,’ now matter how painful the prospect.
I’ve also come to believe that narrative change is not only true on the personal, but on the political level as well. We know from experience that narratives which were formerly unthinkable can eventually become all too politically real. A big part of the challenge is learning how best to articulate our discourse; understanding when, where and in what ways it can be most effective.
The most challenging place to do this narrative changing work, I think we all agree, is within the mainstream Jewish community. And that brings me to Goal #1: “Challenging institutional Jewish communities.” Again I’ll quote:
We are challenging institutional Jewish communities to act on values of justice, and we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
Having made a home in the institutional Jewish community for my entire adult life, I will say that I do believe there is important work to be done in engaging the Jewish establishment on this issue. When I started doing Palestinian solidarity work openly and unabashedly, I had been working in my congregation in Evanston for 10 years. And I take great heart in the fact that for the next 10 years, I was supported by my congregational leadership and by the majority of my congregants, even when many didn’t agree with me.
So yes, I believe there are indeed signs that we are seeing a nascent paradigm shift beginning in the Jewish community on this issue. Open Hillel is providing us with an inspiring important model of how to fight for a wide Jewish communal tent. This past summer, “If Not Now, When” showed us magnificently what principled Jewish communal dissent might look like. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of these initiatives have been organized and led by young people – and this should give us very real hope for the future of this discourse in the American Jewish community.
At the same time, however, I don’t have any illusions about the ability of the Jewish establishment to be pushed to act on values of justice when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I have many rabbinical and Jewish professional colleagues who must remain in the closet about their work with JVP – because to make their affiliation would constitute a very real professional risk. There are actually JVP members at this very gathering who have to wear stickers on their name plates that say “no photos please” for fear that they might endanger or lose their jobs – a reality that should rightly appall each and every one of us.
So at the end of the day, I think we need to be realistic about the challenge before us when we talk about engaging the mainstream Jewish community on the issue of Israel/Palestine. It is and will continue to be a daunting and perilous task. And frankly: on a strategic level we need to be honest about how much time, energy and resources we need to spend trying to engage the Jewish institutional community on this issue.
Actually, when it comes right down to it, I’m much more excited by the second half of this Goal #1: we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
In this regard, I was so pleased and excited to hear Rebecca Vilkomerson talk during the opening plenum – and Cecile Surasky last night – about the ways JVP is creating a new and unprecedented form of Jewish community. For the remainder of my remarks, then, I’d like to explore what a justice-centered Jewish community might actually look like. I’d like to suggest a vision that is fundamentally, perhaps radically different than our customary notions of Jewish community.
I’d like to read an excerpt to you now from a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave three years ago entitled, “Judaism With Tribalism.” Although I did not specifically intend it so at the time, I believe it promotes a vision I believe is deeply relevant to the kind of community we are trying to create here at JVP:
I know personally how hard it is for many of us to challenge our tribal Jewish legacy. But as for me, I believe to my very core that whether we like it or not, our collective future will depend upon building more bridges, and not more walls, between peoples and nations. I believe the most effective way for us to survive – the only way we will bequeath our traditions to the next generation – is to affirm a Judaism that finds sacred meaning in our connection to kol yoshvei tevel – all who dwell on earth.
I also believe this because I know that while Judaism certainly contains tribal and parochial teachings, it also has also a strong tradition of religious humanism – mitzvot that demand we love all our neighbors as ourselves. After all, one of the first – and most powerful – teachings in the Torah is that human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. From the outset we learn that all human beings are equally worthy of respect, dignity and love – and, I would add, equally worthy of one another’s allegiance and loyalty. Moreover, a key rabbinic concept, Kavod HaBriyot, demands that we ensure all people are treated with honor and dignity. In a famous verse from the classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is honored? The one who honors all human beings.”
All are created in God’s image. Honor comes to the one who honors all people. To my mind, these are the strands of Judaism we must seek out and affirm in no uncertain terms. In this day and age, when the fates of all peoples are becoming so very deeply intertwined, I believe we must consider values such as B’tzelem Elohim and Kevod HaBriyot to be among the most sacred of our tradition.
Perhaps we can also take our cue from these values in order to affirm a new kind of tribalism. To forge “tribal” connections with others not simply because they happen to be Jews, but because they share our values of justice and equity. In other words, I believe our ultimate loyalties should lay with the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized – and all who fight on their behalf. Whether they happen to be Jewish or not – why shouldn’t we consider these to be the members of our most cherished tribe?
Here’s a personal example. As a rabbi, I do a great deal of work with clergy, both inside and outside the Jewish community. And over the years I’ve come to notice that the most meaningful and important community work I do is not necessarily exclusively with other rabbis. When it comes to the values I hold most sacred, values of social justice, human rights, community service, I find myself working and finding common cause with clergy of many different faiths. Some may be Jewish, some not, but it in the end it doesn’t really matter. These are the ones I consider to be my primary faith colleagues – my primary clergy community.
In one sense, then, perhaps our most sacred religious values actually compel us to look past the feelings of tribal loyalty. Needless to say, if we are going to do this on a communal scale, it’s going to take a radical shift in consciousness. We’re going to have to step out from behind the walls we’ve built and understand many of our real sisters and brothers have been there all along. And we will have to recognize that in the end, their hopes, their dreams and their suffering are irrevocably connected to ours.
I have no illusions that it would be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed such a call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of antisemitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it is no small matter to go beyond our own fears and feel the pain of the other as our pain as well.
To do this, I believe, we’ll have to construct a distinctly 21st century Torah – one that reflects a world in which the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with other peoples in profound and unprecedented ways. One that lets go of old tribal assumptions and widens the boundaries of our tent in new and creative ways.
Perhaps we can start here: with a reconsideration of the Jewish value Ahavat Yisrael – Love of the Jewish People. What do we really mean when we use this term? Certainly it might mean an abstract sense of connection and kinship with other Jews throughout history and around the world. And it’s true – we do feel a special connection to Jews we meet in unlikely places throughout the world. It is also quite powerful to know that the words we pray and study are the same words have Jews prayed and studied for centuries. But beyond this, what do we mean by Ahavat Yisrael? What does it mean to love a culturally constructed community that includes people with whom we may or may not share basic, fundamental values?
In truth, the definition of who is a Jew has always been disputed – and what we call “the Jewish community” is more diverse and dynamic today than ever before. It is also being increasingly enriched by the participation of many non-Jews who are marrying into the community. So what do we mean when we talk about “Love of the Jewish People” when the very truth of our “peoplehood” is so complex and ever–changing?
I’d like to suggest that a deeper understanding of this value shouldn’t stop at love for just fellow Jews. After all, while the word “Yisrael” does refer to the Jewish People, it also literally means “Wrestles With God.” Seen thus, we might render “Ahavat Yisrael” as “Love for All Who Struggle.” To love all who fight, as we have, for freedom and justice and tolerance in the world. To stand in solidarity with those who struggle against tyranny and are beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed for doing so. To throw our allegiance to those who wrestle deeply for meaning in their lives; who seek to tear down the limits of religious dogma or ideological coercion. These are the members of our tribe – perhaps our most sacred tribe. And whenever we reach out to them and celebrate our inherent connection with one another here, around the world, or throughout history – that is truly when we fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael.
I realize that this new understanding might seem like radical change to many. But in truth, the Jewish world is changing, as it has from time immemorial. The only question before us is: will we have the courage to recognize these changes – and to see in them as a precious opportunity rather than as a threat to be fought at all costs.
Since I am no longer working a congregational rabbi, I am more mindful than ever that JVP is now my primary Jewish community. It is, truly, an unprecedented form of Jewish community: one that is based on the universal ethics of justice and liberation for all, not on the tired tribal boundaries of the past. If we are members of any tribe, it is the one that extends to include those who seek a better and more just world and are willing to work together to make it a reality.
This past summer, like so many of you, I was in deep anguish over the carnage Israel was inflicting on the people of Gaza. My anguish was all the deeper as I realized I was self-censoring my public voice due to the turmoil in my congregation. But if there was one redemptive Jewish moment for me last summer, it was thanks to JVP, when I participated in a Chicago chapter action that disrupted a Jewish Federation fundraiser in support of Israel’s war effort. Similar JVP actions were occurring around the country: which for so many represented critical Jewish voices of conscience during that dark, dark time.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the hotel ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. I will say that attending this event was beyond painful – to witness firsthand an organization that purported to represent my community cheering on Israel’s sickening violence as it was still ongoing. But when my friends finally stood up, pointed their fingers at Rahm Emanuel and Michael Oren and shouted, “We are Jews – Shame on You!” – at those moments, I truly felt that my Jewish soul had been given back to me.
I submit it is moments like these – and so many more – that demonstrate why we are all so proud to be part of this movement. I am so very proud to be standing here with you all. Now let us go together from strength to strength.
Crossposted with “Acting in Faith”
In my previous post, I explored the ways that Quakers and Jews have been historically connected and proposed a deeper spiritual connection between our respective faith traditions. As a rabbi who now works for AFSC, I can say without hesitation that my spiritual life has greatly benefitted from my encounter with Quaker thought and practice. The more I dwell in these two religious communities, the more I am able to discern important parallels between them.
I’ve found particularly fertile ground in my study of Quaker Testimonies, which have clear commonalities with Jewish spiritual values. Here, then, are some excerpts from the AFSC booklet, “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” juxtaposed with parallel values from Jewish tradition. I present them with the hopes that such a consideration might point us toward a deeper place of Quaker-Jewish encounter, collaboration and solidarity.
Peace: Peacemaking at Home and Abroad
Friends oppose and refuse to engage in war and violence. In pursuit of lasting, sustainable peace, they seek to eliminate causes of violent conflict, such as poverty, exploitation and intolerance.
For us, peace is not just ending war or violence, but nurturing the capacity of individuals, communities, and societies to sustain harmonious relationships based on mutual respect and caring for the welfare of all. We seek to reconcile enemies and serve the needs of all sides torn by violent strife.
Shalom: The Pursuit of Peace
Jewish tradition is replete with commandments that exhort the pursuit of peace as a central religious precept. As the great Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel wrote, “Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”
While Judaism contains a vast repository of positions on the subject of war and peace, it is certainly possible to discern a distinct tradition of Jewish pacifism. In fact, Judaism itself was born out of an act of non-violent cultural resistance, when in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai refused to join the ill-fated Jewish revolt against Rome and instead negotiated to establish a center of Jewish learning in Yavneh. Ben Zakkai’s courageous rejection of Jewish violence enabled Judaism to survive and grow as a global religious faith. Moreover, throughout Jewish history, Jewish pacifism has been promoted by important figures such as Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret, Rabbi Judah Magnes, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, and Rabbi Everett Gendler, among many others.
Equality: Seeking Social Justice
Friends hold that all people are equal in the eyes of God and have equal access to the “inner Light.” This profound sense of equality leads Friends to treat each person with respect, looking for “that of God” in everyone.
AFSC supports the development of societies and structures that recognize the dignity of every person. We seek to work with all people in pursuit of justice – the economically impoverished and the materially comfortable, the disenfranchised and the powerful – inviting the Spirit to move among all these groups, making great change possible.
Tzelem Elohim – Humanity Created in the Divine Image
One of the central universalist values in Jewish tradition is the Biblical teaching that allof humanity is created in God’s image. In a celebrated classical Jewish commentary on the book of Leviticus, Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai debate the central principle of Torah. Rabbi Akiba cites the verse from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In response, Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”
Akiba’s approach is the more particularistic philosophy; according to him, Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community. Ben Azzai’s, citation, the other hand, holds that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not. From this we learn that all people – regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, age, mental faculties, physical capabilities, etc. – are of intrinsic and inestimable value.
Integrity: Consistency in Word and Deed
In the AFSC community, we are committed to making our words, actions, and beliefs consistent. We “speak truth to power” – and to each other – even when it is difficult and our message may be unpopular. We deal honestly and fairly with colleagues and partners. We take responsibility for our actions and their results. We fulfill our commitments, and we give credit to others for their contributions.
Derech Eretz: The Way of the World
Derech Eretz is often understood to mean “common decency,” its essential meaning is even more fundamental. A classic Jewish saying teaches: “Derech Eretz precedes Torah” – suggesting that even before we engage deeply spiritual behaviors such as prayer or study, we must first ensure that we are living lives of fairness and integrity.
The Jewish value of integrity is also deeply rooted to the prophetic ideal: i.e., “speaking truth to power,” even when (or especially when) that truth may well not be particularly popular. In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously commented after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma:
For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
Community: Living in Fellowship
At AFSC, we nurture relationships and partner with communities, believing that, in gathering together, people increase their strength, vision, wisdom and creativity. We accompany and support communities in their efforts to seek justice and improve their own lives and circumstances. Where people are divided, we strive to build bridges, encourage trust, and create spaces for dialogue and cooperation.
Kehillah – God in Community
In the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are hopelessly communal people.”
According to the Talmud, “When two or three people study Torah, God is present.” Not only does this teaching reinforce the central importance of study; it illuminates the sacred nature of relationship itself. Quite simply, God is most immediately present in fellowship. The personal and political implications of this idea are powerful indeed.
Simplicity: Spirit-Led Restraint
In contemporary terms, Friends try to live lives in which activities and possessions so not get in the way of open and unencumbered communication with others and with one’s own spirituality. Clearing away the clutter makes it easier to hear the “still small voice within.”
In (AFSC)’s work, simplicity requires focusing our efforts on what is most important rather than diffusing our energies too broadly. In our personal lives, simplicity may mean limiting our consumerism – and resisting over-commitment, so that we have time to care for ourselves and to be present with one another.
Histapkut – Simplicity
These words remind me in particular of the values of Musar – a Jewish ethical movement that arose in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and has undergone something of a contemporary popular revival in recent years.
The importance of living a life of simplicity (in Hebrew: “Histapkut”) lies at the center of the Musar way of life. On this subject, the contemporary Musar teacher Rabbi Ira Stone has written powerfully:
Defined as temperance, Histapkut is often seen as embracing simplicity, being content with less. Not focusing on trying to fulfill never-ending needs and desires frees us to be fully present to the moment and available to the others in our lives…
(Histapkut) asks us to respond to the basic questions about our relationship to the acquisition of the material in our lives. “What is enough?” “Do I have enough?” “Can I choose to be content with less?” “What am I consciously choosing to acquire?”
Stewardship: Care for the Earth and Its Inhabitants
Friends strive to use God’s gifts wisely, with gifts conceived in the broadest of terms. These gifts include our talents and our possessions, as well as our natural environment. Friends believe that such gifts are not ours alone.
(At AFSC), we are attentive to conserving energy, recycling, and reducing waste. Concern for the ecosystem also leads us to strive to reduce our personal consumption and develop a simple yet adequate lifestyle.
Shomer Adamah/Ahavat Habriyot – Guarding the Earth/Love for All that Lives
The importance of human stewardship over creation has deep roots in Jewish tradition. The very first chapter in the Torah makes it clear that the earth belongs to God and that humanity are its stewards. Judaism later expanded this idea to develop a host of commandments focused on the care of the earth and its creatures.
Judaism teaches us over and over again that acts of care for our natural world are among the most essential in our tradition. According to an oft-quoted classical Jewish commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes:
When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.
In this era of climate change and an ever-increasing reliance on fossil fuels, this sacred rejoinder has clear and obvious ramifications.
Though the examples above merely scratch the surface of a larger Quaker-Jewish inquiry, I offer them here in the hopes that they might offer us a useful place to start. Indeed, as I think more deeply about these Quaker-Jewish points of spiritual connection, I can’t help but hope that such an investigation might eventually take us to a place beyond simple interfaith dialogue.
Might this spiritual exploration have real movement-building implications for Jews and Quakers? I’m genuinely excited by the prospect.
(Crossposted with Acting in Faith)
When I tell people that I’ve just started working for the American Friends Service Committee, some will inevitably scratch their heads and ask, “What is a rabbi doing working for a Quaker organization?”
Those who know me well, know enough not to ask. During my twenty-plus years as a congregational rabbi/activist, I’ve often worked alongside AFSC staff and progressive Quakers, particularly on the issue of Mideast peace and justice. I’ve cultivated a wonderful ongoing relationship with the Friends Meeting in my hometown of Evanston and have spoken there on more than one occasion. During the course of my travels throughout the peace and justice activist community in Chicago and beyond, I can say without hesitation that some of my best friends have been Friends.
For those who do ask, I explain that while AFSC is a Quaker organization, it is wonderfully multi-faith in its composition. I’m certainly not the first Jew to work for AFSC (nor am I even the first rabbi – my friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb served as Co-Director of AFSC’s Middle East Program in San Francisco from 2007 to 2009). Since the announcement of my hiring, in fact, I’ve heard from increasing numbers of Jewish friends and colleagues who have told me of their involvement in AFSC in various capacities over the years.
Of course this connection is more than merely anecdotal; there are in fact important historical affinities between Quakers and Jews. During the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, our respective communities have been proportionally well represented in progressive movements of social change, particularly in the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Our faith communities are also historically linked by the heroic efforts of Quakers and the AFSC to help save thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust and to provide relief for scores of Jewish refugees in the war’s aftermath.
In more recent years, it would be fair to say that the Quaker-Jewish connection has become somewhat fractured over the Israel-Palestine issue. While this subject deserves consideration in another blog post, I will only say for now that I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those in my community who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. I would add as well that there are increasing numbers of Jews like myself who reject the nationalism/militarism of Zionism in favor of a Jewish vision that promotes peace with justice and full rights for all who live in the land. I do believe that this trend is providing an important new place of connection between Jews and Quakers – particularly among a younger generation of activists and organizers.
Beyond these historical connections, I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring a different form of Quaker-Jewish encounter: namely, the deeper spiritual commonalities between our respective faith traditions themselves. I do believe that this Jewish-Quaker connection transcends simple political affinity. In this regard, I’ve been particularly struck by Jews who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Jewish tradition while at the same time unabashedly embrace Quaker practice and spirituality.
For instance, Claire Gorfinkel, who worked for the AFSC for many years and attends both a Quaker Meeting and a Jewish synagogue, explored this territory memorably in her 2000 Pendle Hill pamphlet, “I Have Always Wanted to be Jewish – And Now Thanks to the Religious Society of Friends I Am.”
For Gorfinkel, the most critical point of commonality between these two faiths lies in their rejection of Divine intermediation as well as their powerful ethical traditions:
For both Quakerism and Judaism, God is directly accessible to the seeker, without need for priests or other intermediaries. God appears in the faces of our community and in the wonders of our natural world.
For both traditions, faith and the words we use are far less important than how we treat one another and our environment. Our human worth is measured in acts of loving kindness, “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with your God.” (p. 31)
More recently, Jonathan Zasloff, a Jewish law professor at UCLA wrote a powerful piece for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal entitled, “Some of My Best Jews are Friends.” In his article, a commentary on Prophetic portion for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Zasloff revealed that he regularly attends a Quaker meeting – and that the practice of silence “has deeply enhanced (his) Jewish practice.”
Contending that “silence and individual spiritual expression” are “absent from modern Judaism,” he suggested “there is no reason why Jews cannot adopt Quaker practice:”
Some form of silent worship has a long tradition in Judaism, one that our people has regrettably allowed to lapse. The Talmudic sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Moses Maimonides) interpreted this as silent motionlessness in order “to settle their minds and quiet their thoughts.”
As a Jew who also finds a comfortable spiritual home in the Quaker community, I’m encouraged and excited by these kinds of connections. In our increasingly multi-faith 21st century, I firmly believe it is time to seek out those places where we might lift up and celebrate our spiritual commonalities rather than simply fall back upon a religious tribalism for its own sake.
As I think more about potential areas of further Jewish – Quaker encounter, I am particularly intrigued by the parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish religious values. Indeed, when I first read AFSC’s booklet “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” I was immediately struck by a myriad of connections – causing me to think more deeply about the similar ways these ideals have been understood and acted upon in unique ways by our respective faith traditions.
As I read through them, I’m struck by a number of questions. As a Jew who has found a comfortable home in the Quaker community, I wonder:
To what extent do these testimonies/values reflect the unique experiences of our respective faith communities?
What is ultimately more important: the uniqueness of our paths or our shared vision of universal peace and justice?
And how might we find the wherewithal, despite our differences, to travel this road together?
Here’s their description of our conversation:
After 17 years as the rabbi and spiritual leader at JRC-The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston–Rabbi Brant Rosen conducted his last service on December 19th. His views, work, and words on the Israel/Palestine issue caused deep rifts among the members at JRC, and Rosen ultimately believed it was best for himself and the community that he resign. Rosen joins us to talk about the decision, the controversies, and his new job with the American Friends Service Committee.
Click here to give a listen.