My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course.  In the meantime here’s a taste:

Ahmed Moor on the One-State Solution

Last Thursday, Ta’anit Tzedek hosted a fascinating, stimulating conference call with Palestinian-American journalist Ahmed Moor. Moor, who was born in Gaza, has reported from Lebanon and Egypt and is currently a graduate student in public policy at Harvard.  He has been an outspoken advocate of a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine – and during our conversation he elaborated extensively on a subject not commonly countenanced in the American Jewish community.

We recorded the call and will be posting it on our website soon. In the meantime, I’ve transcribed portions of our conversation and have posted them below. Personally speaking, I find Moor’s way of thinking to be fresh and important and I believe these kinds of ideas deserve a fair hearing in our community.

On the notion that Israel must exist in order to safeguard Jewish culture:

First I want to address this idea that a Jewish state has a right to exist because Jewish culture is valuable.  Jewish culture is valuable. Hebrew culture is valuable. It is intrinsic – that’s true whether or not Newt Gingrich thinks it’s invented. But the question of whether culture needs to be mapped on a geographical space in a state environment, I think, is one that is open to discussion.

And so when we think about Jewish life here in America, I don’t know that many people would disagree with me when I say that some of the most vibrant examples of Jewish life are here in America, in the diaspora, amongst non-Jewish people. So right-wing Israelis like to make the argument that where Hitler failed, assimilation is going to succeed. Intermarriage is the biggest threat to the Jewish people, not Iran.

Well, if you believe that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and that it’s the only state guarding Jewish culture, well then you are in a sense aligning yourself with those arguments.  It’s illiberal, fundamentally illiberal.  We know from American experience that a multiplicity of cultures can exist alongside one another and engage with one another and strengthen one another and maybe, even yes, impact one another in positive ways.

And when it comes to Palestine and Israel, American Jews say, “Well this is kind of the homeland of the Jewish people, it’s going to preserve Jewish culture for us,” but it’s almost a relationship apt to an amusement park. “I don’t want to live there – I want to experience it for two weeks. I want to take some of the symbols home with me, but I don’t really want to engage with it in the way that I do at home.”

Well, that’s unfair. No matter how much you value Jewish culture, and no matter how much you believe Israel needs to exist for the preservation of Jewish culture, if it’s a museum, which I don’t think it is, you’ve got to realize that your cultural progress is coming at the expense of somebody else’s freedom. And I think that there’s an asymmetry there in what matters.

On the notion that Israel should exist in case another Holocaust should occur – and Israelis’ fears that a one-state solution is just a pretext for “throwing them into the sea:”

I think that first we’ve got to look at the reality today. The status quo is about expelling Palestinians from Jerusalem, their land in the West Bank, and disenfranchising them in greater ways in Israel proper…So the reality is exactly the opposite. The status quo, the two-state solution process, is about pushing the Palestinians not into the sea, but in the other direction.

First I want to address Jewish American fear, and I hear this from a lot of Jewish Americans of a certain age, when they talk about the Holocaust, which is obviously an evil, genocidal but I want to emphasize, a historical act. I had the benefit of speaking with (New York Times columnist) Roger Cohen recently, and we talked about American Jewish life and I asked him whether he feels unsafe in America. And he was unequivocal: “Absolutely not, America is safe for the Jewish people, we’re welcome here, we’re part of the people, we’re part of the cultural fabric. We are America. America is us.”

Do you ever believe as American people that there’s ever going to be something like Kristallnacht or a pogrom targeting the Jewish people in America?  If the answer is yes, well then perhaps it’s time to move to Israel – and that’s what most right-wing Israelis say. If the answer is no, well then you’ve got to realize that you are opting for the preservation of an insurance policy, but the price of that insurance policy is being borne by another people. The Palestinians are paying the cost of a Jewish American insurance policy. There’s that asymmetry again. That doesn’t work. That’s not a moral position to take and it’s unsustainable.

As for Israelis’ fear about whether we seek to ethnically cleanse them, I think there’s again a gap in perceptions of realities. The Israelis are the ones with the guns. The Israelis are the ones with the American support. When the one-state solution is actualized, it’s going to be necessarily through Israeli consent. The idea that the Middle East or Palestine has to be in any way ethnically cleansed of Jewish people is a European action transplanted onto Palestine.

On Israeli historian Gershon Gorenberg’s recent claim that a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine would create civil war à la Lebanon:

Gershon’s fear is related directly to governmental structures – the way in which you structure multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies, or sectarian societies. In Lebanon I think it was structured exactly the wrong way. In Lebanon, whether you’re liberal or you’re somebody who’s more conservative, whether you believe in one policy versus another, the state almost compels you to vote along sectarian lines.

In Lebanon the Speaker of the Parliament has to be a Shia Muslim, the Prime Minister is a Sunni and the President has to be a Maronite Christian. That’s constitutionally true – that’s mandated. And so what that means is that you end up voting – where your vote is impactful and meaningful – is in your sectarian group. The Lebanese demography there is so sensitive – they haven’t had a national census since 1932 or 33, I think.

You have the American case, on the other hand – the structure of this country is along a federal basis. Federalism enabled this country to recover from the wounds of the Civil War and to persist for another 150 – 160 years since the Civil War ended.

It’s important that we think about questions like the ones Gershon is raising, but I don’t think that those questions necessarily stand in the way of a one-state solution. So there are good federal structures, confederal structures even, for dealing with ethnic or religious strife in democracy.

What I’m thinking of specifically is a state with four federal units: the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem is its own district, sort of like Washington DC, central Israel and the Negev and finally the West Bank and the Mediterranean corridor so now you’ve got four districts and Jerusalem. And each of those federal units would be defined geographically and every one of them, with the exception of the Strip, would be made up of minorities either of Jewish people or Palestinian people.

And so in the West Bank federal state you’d have an expression mostly of Palestinian culture. Why? Because 5 out of every 6 people on the West Bank are Palestinians. In the Gaza Strip you could have an expression of Palestinian culture. In the northwestern state there’s a big minority of Palestinian Israelis, but it’s primarily Jewish. I mean we’re talking about the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor and that would be a majority Hebrew culture state. Same with the Negev.

So you have parity amongst the states because the states are defined geographically and you enable people over time to move for personal preference reasons. Over time your could get a drift across these federal lines, kind of like what happened in the States. You used to define yourself as an American 100 years ago as a South Carolinian or a New Yorker, but today your primary locus of identity is as an American when you deal with the rest of the world. This was the failure of Lebanon – instead of geographically defining the states, the individual community boundaries within Lebanon don’t allow for that drift, so what they’ve ended up with is kind of ossified sectarian structure.

So I don’t think it will be perfect, I don’t it will be easy, but the idea is that you grant people equal rights and give them the freedom to move back and forth across borders. They won’t initially, but they will eventually. That’s been the American experience.

On the political future of the one-state solution:

I heard an Israeli speak recently, an older guy, an activist, and he mentioned the one-state solution is about where he remembers the two-state solution was in the seventies. And so it’s really about changing discourse, changing people’s thought patterns. Lots of people will come into the one-state conversation because they’ve realized the two-state solution is unworkable and that apartheid is just not something they are capable of supporting.  We’ll achieve a critical mass. It’s impossible to predict how or when, but two states isn’t going to work and apartheid isn’t going to work. And so you can arrive at this position by default even if you don’t actually believe it’s the best thing anyway.

On cultural autonomy in one democratic state:

People talk about a unitarian model where it would be just one man/one vote and I think that’s a great model to think about. My biggest concern there would be preservation of cultural autonomy, which I think many people at this stage really, really value in that part of the world. Palestinians don’t want to give up what it means to be a Palestinian and I think Jewish Israelis have developed a Jewish kind of culture. I don’t know whether its an Ashkenazic culture or a Sephardic culture, I don’t know. It’s not for me to decide. But there is an Israeli culture and I think those people want to preserve it. And when American Jewish people talk about Jewish culture in Israel, that’s something they’d like to be capable of accessing. And so I’m concerned that the unitary system may not permit the kind of cultural autonomy that many people would like.

But we’re still in the early stages of imagining what it could look like and the question of how to get there really does hinge on people of good will standing up and saying no to apartheid.

On the Palestinian right of return:

The right of return today for the Palestinians is actually about the right to be able to go back and live in Palestine. Lots of people still remember native villages which no longer exist, so the practicalities of it are difficult to map out.

The right of return for the diaspora is more about, I think, official recognition of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and in the period leading up to May 15 1948. It’s an official apology, reparations where appropriate and possible and just recognition. And I think the Jewish people probably understand this better than anybody. Once a historical injustice has been done to you as a people, recognition matters. Apologies matter. Reparations matter. Even symbolic measures matter a great deal.

When it comes to the practical implementation of the right of return, (Palestinian researcher) Salman Abu-Sitta has done really great work on identifying where refugees could return to.  Eitan Bronstein of Zochrot, an Israeli organization, has also done a lot of great work on the right of return…

Who do I believe will return to Palestine? I think most of us will not. The Palestinians in the diaspora have done pretty well for themselves. Palestinians in Jordan have done pretty well, the ones in Western Europe, in Latin America, in Northern America are doing pretty well. I think you could draw a direct analogy to the Jewish American diaspora. You want to go you want to visit, you want to go and hang out on the beach and go home to where you’re from.

The only missing group of Palestinian refugees who will actually return to Palestine if they have the opportunity are the 300,000 or 400,000 Palestinian refugees who live in Lebanon. Their lot really is very, very poor and the Lebanese state is racist in many ways in the way they interact with Palestinians there – it’s inexcusable, but that’s also the reality. And given the opportunity I think many of them will leave their squalid and impoverished camps and return to Palestine. But everywhere else, I think you’ll get kind of a vibrant interaction with a diaspora community and the country itself, which I think mirrors, in many ways, the Jewish experience.

Ta’anit Tzedek Conference Call: Journalist Ahmed Moor on the One State Solution

As the prospects for a viable two-state solution for Israel/Palestine grow more and more unlikely, we are witnessing a tentative but growing discussion of a one-state solution in the Jewish community.

Indeed, this concept has already been raised and advocated by respected Israelis. As far back as  2002 a one state solution was publicly supported by famed political scientist Meron Benenisti. And more recently, Israeli journalist Dimi Reider has pointed out:

In light of the ongoing deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, leaders such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni have raised the specter of a one-state solution. Their intention, of course, is to scare some sense into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his intransigent coalition partners. But, as this once-taboo idea becomes a legitimate part of political discussion in the region, some Israeli intellectuals are making the case that this is not something to fear, but a path toward a viable resolution to the region’s long-running crisis.

Here in the American Jewish community, however, this sort of discussion is considered to be naive at best and heresy at worst. But as difficult and painful as it might be for us to contemplate, I believe that sooner or later (and probably sooner than later) it is a conversation we will inevitably have to have – regardless of where we might personally stand on the issue.

To this end, I am proud to announce the next conference call sponsored by Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza: “Conceiving of a One-State Solution” with Palestinian-American journalist Ahmed Moor on Thursday, December 15 at 12 noon EST.

Ahmed Moor was born in Gaza and raised in the US, graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 2005 and spent several years as a freelance journalist based in Lebanon and Cairo. His work as been published in numerous publications, including Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently a graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University.

During our conversation, Moor will share his views on the need and the prospects for one secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians live together as equal citizens.  Can we conceive of such a solution and what would such a state look like practically speaking?  What are the political realities that mitigate against it and how could they ever be shifted? What are the prospects that these two peoples could live and govern a state together?

Call Info:

Thursday, December 15 at 12 noon EST
Access Number: 1.800.920.7487
Participant Code: 92247763#

As always, there will be opportunities for questions and answers during the call.

We are looking forward to an informative and respectful conversation. I encourage you to join us.

Understanding the Palestinian UN Initiative: A Conference Call with Josh Ruebner

How can we understand the PA’s initiative to declare statehood at the UN? How should US and the international community respond?  Will it advance the prospects for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine?

To explore these timely issues, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is sponsoring a phone conference with Josh Ruebner, National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation on Thursday, September 22 at 12 pm (EST)

Ruebner is a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service, a federal government agency providing Members of Congress with policy analysis. His analysis and commentary on US policy toward the Middle East appear frequently in media such as NBC, ABC Nightline, CSPAN, Al Jazeera, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Middle East Report, and more.

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is a national coalition of nearly 350 organizations working to end US support for Israel’s illegal 43-year military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and to change U.S. policy toward Israel/ Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality.

Call-in info:

  • Call in number: 1-800-920-7487
  • Code: 92247763#

Participants in the call are encouraged to read one or more of the following articles:

Please join the call!

Conference Call With Journalist Jared Malsin: “Operation Cast Lead: Two Years Later”

This Thursday, December 16, at 12:00 pm (EST), Ta’anit Tzedek  – Jewish Fast for Gaza will present a conference call, “Operation Cast Lead: Two Years Later” featuring American journalist Jared Malsin.

Call-in info:

Access Number: 1.800.920.7487

Participant Code: 92247763#

Jared Malsin served as the chief English editor of the Palestinian news agency Ma’an. He spent two and a half years reporting from the West Bank, based in Bethlehem.

In January 2010, while returning from a vacation in Prague, the Israeli government detained Malsin at Ben-Gurion airport after questioning him about his allegedly “anti-Israeli” political views, Palestinian contacts, and news articles authored “inside the territories.” Malsin spent a week in jail before he was deported to the US.   His deportation was condemned by the head of the International Federation of Journalists as “an intolerable violation of press freedom.”

Since October 2010, Malsin has been reporting regularly from Gaza as a free lance journalist.

Here’s Malsin in an interview with radio journalist Christophen Lydon:

If you’re living in the West Bank or Gaza, your water gets shut off for a week or ten days at a time, in the summer, routinely. Which means that if you live in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, for a week or ten days in the summer you can’t wash yourself; you can’t wash your children. You can’t take a shower. You can’t cook food. It’s incredibly dehumanizing, but it’s one of these issues you just don’t hear about because there are no explosions going on. It’s one of these daily lived ways that people live occupation. And that’s what I think the real meaning of it is… Those are the stories I’m interested in.

Maguire and Shapira on Justice for Gaza

Ta’anit Tzedek hosted a powerful and inspirational conference call today with Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire and Israeli human rights activist Yonatan Shapira. Both spoke movingly about their activism and their participation on the latest Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.

Click here to listen. Please send it on.

Addendum 10/21: The Velveteen Rabbi has just posted a long piece about the call , complete with extensive background and transcriptions. Thanks, Rachel!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,158 other followers