Building a Jewish Community of Justice: My Remarks from the 2015 JVP National Members Meeting

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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.


Thoughts on the Passing of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, of Blessed Memory

With Rabbi Leonard Beerman, left, Los Angeles, 2/2014

With Rabbi Leonard Beerman, left, Los Angeles, 2/2014

I am devastated to learn of the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l, who died early this morning at the age of 93. His death comes as a profound shock to those of us who knew and loved him. Despite his advanced age, Leonard maintained his extraordinary vigor and energy until very recent days.

Readers of this blog may recall my post on our joint speaking presentation in Los Angeles last February. It was such a tremendous honor for me hold this open conversation with him, in which we mutually explored the subject of “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit.”

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

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.

Little did I know, as I wrote these words, that I would be posting them again in less than a year’s time, as a tribute to his memory. And little did I know last February, as I openly shared my open admiration for Leonard as a congregational rabbinical role model, that in only a few months I would be find myself unable to continue combining radical political activism with a congregational rabbinate. I am all the more in awe of what Leonard was able to achieve, serving as the rabbi for Leo Baeck Temple for 37 years as he bravely spoke out on important and controversial issues of his day. We will not soon see the likes of him again.

I encourage you to read this wonderful LA Times profile of Rabbi Beerman that was published just last month. You can see our presentation in its entirety below.

May his memory be a blessing forever.


Disruptions Over Gaza: Notes from a Summer Protest

I had planned to write this post several months ago, but when circumstances in my personal/professional life recently took a dramatic turn, I took an extended hiatus from blogging. I’m happy to say I’m finally coming up for air – and that readers of this blog can fully expect to see increasing posts in the near future.  I’m leading with one that deals with an event from this past summer. Although it deals with news that are now a few months old, I believe it is a story that remains tragically relevant.

Back on August 21, I participated with a small group of activists from Jewish Voice for Peace – Chicago that disrupted a fundraiser sponsored by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF). At the time, Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza was in full swing and the JUF,  like many Jewish Federations across the country, was actively raising funds for the war effort.

It is important to note that Jewish Federations are more than merely a network of social service agencies; they seek to serve as the official face of the Jewish community.  Given their prominence as community spokespeople, their unquestioning, knee-jerk support of Israel’s policies and actions has been painfully problematic – particularly when it comes to a war as controversial as Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” this past summer.

It is safe to say that increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community were morally repulsed by Israel’s actions during the months of July and August. We understood full well that this military onslaught was a war of choice, not self-defense. We watched as the Israeli military killed 2,100 Palestinians in two months, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians – including 500 children. We listened over and over as the Israeli government and its apologists justified its bloodshed by claiming that Hamas used its civilian population as “human shields” – a false claim that has been repeatedly disproved by human rights observers.

While JUF Chairman Bill Silverstein made the claim at the fund raiser that “world Jewry is standing behind (Israel),” there were, in fact, a myriad of public Jewish protests against Operation Protective Edge throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, Jewish Voice for Peace chapters organized protests in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, and San Diego, among others. In a protest against one prominent corporate enabler of Israel’s war machine, the Seattle chapter of JVP staged a “die in” at Boeing headquarters in Tukwila, WA, temporarily closing the entrance to their facility. Here in Chicago, JVP staged an act of nonviolent civil disobedience inside Boeing’s corporate office, resulting in the arrest of five activists (video here).

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In addition, “If Not Now When?,” an inspirational new grassroots initiative spearheaded by young Jews, held public prayer vigils at Jewish communal institutions across the country. INNW’s dramatic inaugural vigil in New York City was held on July 28 in front of the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. After a statement was read, memorial candles) were lit and placed on the ground. Nine activists were arrested during this prayerful act of Jewish civil disobedience (video here). It was my honor to participate in such a vigil here in Chicago, which took place on August 7 in front of the JUF offices downtown (see pic above).

While all these actions differed in approach and tone, together they provide evidence of a growing movement of Jewish conscience against Israeli militarism and the devastating human toll it has exacted in Israel/Palestine. During Israel’s similar military onslaught on Gaza in 2009/09, this movement was barely in its nascent stages; by the summer of 2014 I think it safe to say it found its voice in an immensely powerful way. It was particularly notable that many of them were organized by young Jews in their 20s, reinforcing the findings of an August Gallup poll that found a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 considered Israel’s actions in Gaza to be “unjustified.”

It is also important to note that these protests have been deeply rooted in Jewish values, symbols and liturgy.  The JVP Chicago members who organized and carried out the disruption at the JUF fundraiser were most certainly motivated by the sacred Jewish imperatives that exhort us not to stand idly by, to pursue justice, to not follow the multitude to do wrong. And I was particularly proud that our group was multi-generational, ranging in age from 20s to 60s.

While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the Hilton Towers ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. As you can see from the video clip at the top of this post, there were a series of five disruptions during the course of the evening. The first occurred as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was speaking; two members of our group stood up, held up a banner that read “Shame on Israel,” and repeatedly chanted, “We are Jews, shame on you. Stop killing children now!”

Security grabbed their banner away immediately and they continued chanting as they were escorted from the room. Three other pairs of protesters and an Israeli-American also disrupted speakers at various points during the program. Each time time, the response of the crowd grew angrier – the final pair of activists were physically struck and had water thrown in their faces by attendees. (I myself was eventually asked to leave and was also escorted from the room by security. I can only assume someone from JUF recognized me and outed me to the program staff).

Speaking personally, I will say without hesitation that my participation in this action was a profound, even sacred experience. It took place during a terrible, tragic time in which I, as a Jew, was being implicated in crimes that were being committed by a state purporting to act on behalf of the Jewish people. In my hometown of Chicago, the organization that claimed to represent my community was openly urging on the war effort and was publicly raising funds to support it.

It is difficult to describe the sense of anguish and alienation I felt as I sat in that room, listening to speaker after speaker urge on the war effort without expressing an iota of concern over the scores of innocents that Israel was killing daily. The only mention of the Gazan dead arose when speakers defensively and cynically wielded the canard of “human shields.”

I was sitting directly behind the first pair of disrupters. They stood up just as Rahm Emanuel had announced that he and his wife were pledging $5,000.00 to the JUF’s Israel Emergency Campaign. (Why exactly the mayor of Chicago was so publicly and dramatically taking sides in a international conflict is another troubling question for us to ponder). I must say that when I saw my friends stand up, point their fingers at Emanuel and exclaim “Shame on you!” it truly felt like a redemptive moment. It was if my own soul as a Jew – indeed, as a human being of conscience – had finally been given back its voice.

Following the action, I heard criticisms from some that our disruption ran counter “to the values of dialogue.” If we were looking for convince members of the Jewish community of the worthiness of our cause, we were told, this kind of jingoistic, disruptive sloganeering was just not the way to do it.

Of course such a critique utterly misses the point of our protest. We were not seeking “dialogue” with members of our community; on the contrary, we were protesting war crimes being committed in our name. We certainly did not have any illusions that our action would convert anyone in that ballroom to our cause. Our target audience was not the attendees of the JUF fundraiser – rather, we sought to send a message to the world at large. To state loudly and openly that the entire Jewish community is not, in fact, marching lock step in support of Israel’s war effort.

We also heard the critique that our actions was just downright rude: rude to our civic leaders, rude to the speakers and guests, rude to decorum of this function and rude to the JUF as a whole.

Yes, our action was disruptive – that was, in fact, its point. But if these disruptions felt rude and impolitic, the discomfort felt in that room was beyond miniscule in comparison to the horrors that were being inflicted at that very moment on the people of Gaza. Our protest was at its very core, an act of tochechah (“reproof”), hearkening back to the Biblical dictum “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and incur no sin because of that person” (Leviticus 19:17).

When I think of this kind of criticism, I can’t help but think back to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed a very similar critique leveled at him by liberal clergy who urged him not to “cause tension” through public acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in their city.

As King wrote to his Birmingham colleagues:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

It is now three months since the ceasefire that ended the carnage of that terrible summer. And of course, we have already forgotten about Gaza. With the increasing shortness of our news cycles and attention spans, it has all but disappeared from our view.

But of course, the tragedy continues on. The death and destruction inflicted on the people of that tiny strip of land still reverberates: through pain and agony of the injured and the traumatized and through the grief of so many who lost parents, siblings, children and friends. As a Gazan friend recently told me, no one – no one – in Gaza is untouched by the pain of grief.

As a Jew I will never forget the tragedy of those two months, nor will I remain silent over the crimes that continue to be committed in my name. But I am heartened by those in my community who are increasingly finding the courage of their convictions. It is truly my honor to be counted with the disrupters, the “nonviolent gadflies” who seek to “dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.”


Presbyterian Divestment Redux: All Eyes on Detroit!

ga1-580x580While the public criticism and upheaval over BDS continues apace, this movement is slowly and inexorably tallying victory after victory. Last week, the Gates Foundation announced that it was fully divesting from G4S – a British/Danish security firm that has been severely criticized for its operations in the occupied Palestinian territories and in prisons and detention centers in Israel, including those housing children and “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Now just this week, we’ve learned that the United Methodist Church – the largest mainline Protestant church in the United States – will be pulling all its investments from G4S as well. This news is huge – and a dramatic precursor to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be convening in Detroit next week. I can’t help but think the BDS tide is turning significantly, particularly in the arena of church divestment campaigns.

I’ve long participated with colleagues in Protestant church groups who have been actively involved in promoting the principled and targeted divestment of their denominations’ funds from companies that profit from Israel’s illegal and oppressive occupation of Palestinians. I was, in fact, an active supporter of the divestment “overture” brought to the last Presbyterian GA two years ago and wrote extensively about these efforts.

This is what I wrote at the time:

I support this resolution without reservation and urge other Jewish leaders and community members to do so as well. I am deeply dismayed that along every step of this process, Jewish community organizations (among them, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) that purport to speak for the consensus of a diverse constituency have been intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they attempt to forge their ethical investment strategy in good faith.

It is extremely important to be clear about what is at stake here. First of all, this is not a resolution that seeks to boycott or single out Israel. Divestment does not target countries – it targets companies.  In this regard speaking, the PC (USA)’s ethical investment process seeks to divest from specific “military-related companies” it deems are engaged in “non-peaceful” pursuits.

We’d be hard-pressed indeed to make the case that the Israeli government is engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.  I won’t go into detail here because I’ve been writing about this tragic issue for many years: the increasing of illegal Jewish settlements with impunity, the forced evictions and home demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, the separation wall that chokes off Palestinians from their lands, the arbitrary administrative detentions, the brutal crushing of non-violent protest, etc, etc.

All Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have cause for deep moral concern over these issues.  Moreover, we have cause for dismay that own government tacitly supports these actions. At the very least, we certainly have the right to make sure that our own investments do not support companies that profit from what we believe to be immoral acts committed in furtherance of Israel’s occupation.

As the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I am proud that JVP has initiated its own divestment campaign which targets the TIAA-CREF pension fund, urging it to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Among these are two of the three companies currently under consideration by PC (USA): Motorola and Caterpillar.

Why the concern over these specific companies? Because they are indisputably and directing aiding and profiting the oppression of Palestinians on the ground. Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work.  Motorola profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

And why is Hewlett-Packard under consideration for divestment by the PC (USA)? HP owns Electronic Data Systems, which heads a consortium providing monitoring of checkpoints, including several built inside the West Bank in violation of international law.  The Israeli Navy, which regularly attacks Gaza’s fishermen within Gaza’s own territorial waters and has often shelled civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, has chosen HP Israel to implement the outsourcing of its IT infrastructure.  In addition, Hewlett Packard subsidiary HP Invent outsources IT services to a company called Matrix, which employs settlers in the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit to do much of its IT work at low wages.

I repeat: by seeking to divest from these companies the PC (USA) is not singling out Israel as a nation.  The Presbyterian Church has every right to – and in fact does – divest its funds from any number of companies that enable non-peaceful pursuits around the world.  In this case specifically, the PC (USA) has reasonably determined that these particular “pursuits” aid a highly militarized, brutal and oppressive occupation – and it simply does not want to be complicit in supporting companies that enable it.

I encourage you to read the entire post, which also includes a detailed history of the process undertaken by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The current overture, like the one two years ago, seeks divestment from the same three companies: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and Caterpillar.

And inevitably, like before, the overture’s sponsors and their supporters have been subjected to an unrelenting barrage of criticisms and accusations from certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. I am particularly dismayed to learn that J St. – ostensibly an anti-occupation organization – is once again joining forces with those who hope to quash this principled, good faith proposal.

On this point, I’m in full agreement with Israeli journalist Larry Derfner, who recently wrote:

J Street was instrumental in beating back the same motion in 2012, when it failed before the church’s General Assembly by a vote of 333–331. But that was then. Then it was possible to argue (although I’d already stopped) that there was still hope that the United States would pressure Israel into making peace. Then it was still at least reasonable for J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami to tell the Presbyterian Church, “Reject divestment, and embrace full-on pursuit of the diplomatic efforts necessary to create genuine and lasting peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.”

But now? What argument can an anti-occupation movement make to the Presbyterian Church in June 2014 about why it should not divest from Caterpillar’s bulldozers, Hewlett-Packard’s ID system for Palestinians and Motorola’s surveillance machines? Because it would interfere with U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East? Because it would harden the Netanyahu government’s stance in the peace talks?

From an anti-occupation perspective, what is there to lose by a Presbyterian Church vote for divestment? Nothing. But what is there to gain? A blow against injustice, the kind that has been scaring the Netanyahu government and Israel lobby like nothing else — certainly not the Obama administration — which is a very good sign that the BDS campaign is on to something.

With the failure of the peace process and Israel’s recent announcement of 1,500 new settlements, it is clear that political pressure has been utterly ineffective in bringing a just solution to this unjust occupation. Why then, must we block attempts at the popular, nonviolent pressure tactics such divestment – particularly when such efforts have been demonstrably effective in other parts of the world?

I will be posting much more about the divestment overture at Presbyterian GA in the coming week. Stay tuned.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Conversation with Rabbi Leonard Beerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prawer Plan Scrapped – How Will the “Bedouin Problem” be Solved?

Children flying kites to the demonstration against the Prawer Plan during November 30 "Day of Rage" protest outside Hura in the Negev Desert.

Children protest against the Prawer Plan during a “Day of Rage” demonstration in the Negev town of Hura.

Received the wonderful news yesterday that Israel’s Prawer-Begin Plan – a bill which would forcibly relocate over 40,000 Israeli Bedouin from their ancestral lands – was just scrapped by the Knesset.

This is huge on a number of levels. Most importantly, it’s very welcome news for the tens of the thousands of Bedouin who were facing an unjust eviction and transfer from their homes. Up until relatively recently, in fact, the passage of Prawer seemed virtually assured. But as I mentioned in my last post, Knesset support began to unravel when Benny Begin, the co-sponsor of the bill, revealed that he had never even shown the plan to the Bedouin – putting to lie the widespread claims of government officials that the majority of Bedouins had approved of it.

After revealing a map of the actual plan, the Knesset’s right wing attacked it, claiming it actually allocated too much land to the Bedouin (even though it would have taken 61,700 acres from them and resettled them in a compound totaling 42,000 acres.) Feeling the pressure from both sides, the government was forced to scrap their plan entirely.

As I’ve followed this issue, I’ve found it utterly infuriating whenever I read supporters of the bill invoke a “Bedouin Problem” that needed to be solved, as if the economic and social issues facing the Bedouin were somehow of their own making. In truth, there is no need for a special government relocation bill to “solve” this “problem.” What the Bedouin need is for the Israeli government to officially recognize the areas in which they live so that they can finally receive basic infrastructure such as water, sewage, and electricity. They need Israel to treat them them as equal citizens, offering them full government services, to allow them to vote or run in local government elections.

But they can’t, of course, because Israel desires to create more facts on the ground in the Negev. In other words, the real “Bedouin Problem” stems from the fact that the Bedouin are not Jewish.

Of course the scrapping of this bill does not mean that the fate of the Bedouin is by any means assured. There is every possibility that the government will resubmit the plan in an even more draconian fashion. As Mairav Zonszein pointed out yesterday in +972mag:

While today’s news will at the very least delay the State’s plan to implement the largest displacement a Palestinian population since 1967, there is little reason for celebration. It it will only be the end of the current version, which  was in jeopardy mostly due to concerns from right-wing MKs that it was “too generous” to the Bedouin.  It is probable a revised bill will be drafted that will in all likelihood not be any better as far as Bedouin claims.

While this may well come to pass, it is fair to say that a more restrictive bill will undeniably be met with fierce opposition from a powerful and widespread movement of solidarity that has now coalesced to support the Bedouin’s cause. And this is another reason why the scrapping of Prawer-Begin is so significant: it speaks to the growing power and influence of the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Indeed, over the past several months, this movement was galvanized by Prawer-Begin, bringing together a wide coalition of organizations in Israel/Palestine and abroad. The tipping point was reached two weeks ago during the “Days of Rage” protests, in which hundreds of Palestinians and solidarity activists staged demonstrations in the Negev town of Hura as well as Haifa, East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Jaffa. Simultaneous protests took place throughout the world in London, Berlin, Rome, Istanbul, Cairo and in the US. There is a very real movement growing, and it is slowly but surely chalking up significant victories for the cause of justice in Israel/Palestine.

Still, while there is every reason for this movement to celebrate this latest legislative success, the need for vigilance ever continues. Many Bedouin homes and villages are still slated for demolition – and the village of Al-Araqib has already been demolished over 60 times. As this press release from Jewish Voice for Peace aptly puts it:

We can exhale for now, with relief the Prawer Plan is no more, and then take a new breath and get ready to continue the work to ensure that the Negev Bedouin, and all people in the region, have what they need to thrive.


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