Israel in Gaza: Investigating the Ethics of a War of Choice

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In Michael Mitchell’s recent piece for Forward Thinking “Israel’s Moral Army?” (July 18, 2014), Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” (or to use an title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”)

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He thus concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous indeed for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. Indeed, while Israeli and American politicians – and Israel-supporters the world over – have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as Forward Editor-in-Chief JJ Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket …and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.” By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.

This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers – even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility.  It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction – using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.

As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:

In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.

In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell’s effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis a vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.

If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the sacred imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.

If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement – a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.

Moreover, when Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Instead, they opted for yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 370 Palestinians, including 228 civilians, 77 children and 56 women, as well as 18 Israelis.

In other words, before we seek to unpack the ethical question of whether or not the IDF can claim the title of “the most moral army in the world,” it might well behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not these useless, tragic wars need to be fought in the first place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Rabbi Margaret Holub, writing in the Forward:

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

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

And from Cantor Michael Davis, in Tikkun:

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

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Update on Destroyed Tree Groves at Tent of Nations

Here is an update on the situation at Tent of Nations, where the Israeli military recently destroyed 1,500 to 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines were destroyed along with terraced land. (See my blog post of May 21 for more information.)

The letter below is adapted from an email by Bill Plitt of Friends of Tent of Nations – North American (FOTONNA)

May 31, 2014

Dear Friends,

The video above was taken during a talk given by Daoud at St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle on May 18 – the day before the bulldozers attacked his groves.  Daoud visited the devastated land for the first time mid-week.  The full scope of the destruction left him heartbroken, of course.  He told us that there was one lone fig tree left standing on the side of the hill (on purpose? by accident?) that was the sole witness to the work of the IDF soldiers.  It now stands as a living monument to what was lost – a lone sentinel that will someday have new friends, thanks to you.

We have been told that the State Department needs to hear from Congress before taking any real stance on this issue.  If you haven’t already contacted your Senators and Representatives, please take time to do so now. Click here for a Congressional action alert.  Scroll down in the body of the text and click on “Write your senators and representative.” Fill in the information and click “Submit.”

If you haven’t signed our FOTONNA Petition Letter yet, you can do so through this link.

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There has been an overwhelmingly supportive response from around the globe from friends of the Nassar family and the work carried out at Tent of Nations.  Individuals and organizations have put together their own petition letters, written to political leaders, called influential leaders at all levels of government, written oped pieces for their papers, and carried out demonstrations in front of the Israeli Embassy in NYC.  Peace groups from all persuasions are standing in solidarity with this remarkable family.  FOTONNA alone had 2,500+ signatures on its petition as of May 28, 2014, and the list is growing.

At this point, our goals are the following:

1. Prevent any more destruction on the land;

2. Keep up the pressure on the courts to finally re-register the land in the Nassar family name;

3. Support the Nassar family as they seek financial recompense from the Israeli Military for their illegal actions and for the incredible loss of twelve years of hard work, 1,500-2,000 lost trees and grape vines, lost revenue from the sale and/or use of the fruit, etc.

We cannot thank all of you enough for the wonderful responses you made to our appeals for support.  It is also nearly impossible to capture the breadth, depth and width of this movement worldwide.  We are just a small piece in this whirlwind of action – small, but fierce – and there will be justice in the end.

In solidarity and with deep gratitude for all of you,

The FOTONNA Steering Committee


Israeli Military Destroys Orchards at Tent of Nations – Please Act Now!

The Nassar family farm, before and after its destruction by the Israeli military

The Nassar family farm, before and after its destruction by the Israeli military

I am heartbroken to report that the Israeli military has destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 fruit trees at the Tent of Nations – the Nassar family farm located south of Bethlehem.

I have written extensively about Tent of Nations and the work of Daoud Nassar, whose struggle to keep his family farm has provided an inspiring model of peaceful resistance to oppression.  I have personally visited his farm with members of my congregation on more than one occasion (most recently this past October) and have hosted Daoud on his visits to Chicago.

Those of us who know Daoud know him to be a profoundly decent and honorable man, thoroughly dedicated to the cause of a just coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. (On a stone next to the front gate of the Nassar farm are the words “We Will Not Be Enemies.”) Given his personal circumstance, his innate compassion is truly inspirational – and that’s what makes this latest turn of events all the more sickening.

I am forwarding this letter from Bill Plitt, Executive Director of Friends of Tent of Nations, below. Please, please join me in acting on behalf of the Nassar family farm now.

Dear Friends of Tent of Nations,

We are writing this letter to call for action against acts of injustice by the Israeli Military towards the Nassar family farm and their Tent of Nations Peace Project. This farm (known as Daher’s Vineyard) is located just six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank).

As you know, this family has registration papers for their 100-acre farm dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and they are now in a situation where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) brought in bulldozers on May 19, 2014 and destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines, all in the lower valley of the farm.

This move was totally unexpected as their latest case for proving ownership has been in the Israeli Military/Civil Courts since February 2013. An appeal was also made on May 5 to protest a warning placed on the land in late April 2014 that declared the land as “State Land” and should be “evacuated”. There was no warning ahead of time about the impending destruction, however (as is the usual case), so the Nassars were caught off guard with the wanton destruction that took place. In addition to the destruction of the trees, the terraced land on which the trees were planted was also destroyed, left in a state of rubble that cannot currently be re-planted.

We are appealing to you to contact appropriate congressional committee members, members of Congress, and others you know who may have some influence in this kind of situation; this can include your church leaders as well and an article in your local newspaper would be more than welcome. We are including a short letter and a timeline of past events you can use to educate people about the details of this farm’s history as well as a sample letter you can use to send out if you want.

In particular, we ask that you contact the U.S. Department of State, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv, and the Consulate General in Jerusalem and ask them to investigate the circumstances surrounding this travesty.

We urge you to contact these authorities as well as others you know personally. You have our permission to use information from this letter in your appeals. We also urge you to sign our Petition  Letter and forward it to all of your own personal contacts, urging them to forward it also.

We would like to have you act on this information as soon as you can in the hopes that we can prevent any more destruction from taking place on Daher’s Vineyard.

Sincerely,

Bill Plitt – Executive Director – on behalf of the FOTONNA Steering Committee

 

Sample appeal letter:

Dear (church/community leader, etc.),

I/we are writing this letter to call for action against acts of injustice by the Israeli Military towards a Palestinian Christian family (the Nassar family) that has registration papers for their 100-acre farm dating back to the Ottoman Empire. The family has been working through the Israeli Military/Civil Courts and the Israeli Supreme Court since 1991 to defend their rights to the land on a vineyard just six miles southwest of Bethlehem in the Occupied Territories of Palestine (the West Bank). A Peace Project was established on the land in 2001 called Tent of Nations. Thousands of international visitors have visited the farm, worked as volunteers, held workshops and conferences in the facilities there, worked in the Summer Youth Camps, and have taught in the Women’s Education Center they established in the nearby village of Nahalin.

On May 19, 2014, the Israeli Military took unwarranted and illegal action and destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines growing in the lower valley of the farm. We are appealing to you to contact appropriate congressional committees and members of Congress regarding this issue. In addition, we ask that you contact the White House, the State Department, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, our Ambassador in Tel Aviv, and the Consulate General in East Jerusalem (see the attached contact list).

In the past, (December 2012), Israeli Military/Civil Courts threatened to demolish 13 structures on the land (pens for animals, tents for volunteers, compost toilets, etc.) and denied the family’s appeal against these 13 demolitions. By appealing these orders through the family lawyers, however, the deadline for action was moved to February 24, 2013. At the same time, the family also requested (again) that the land be re-registered in their name (having all the papers legally required to prove ownership). The family provided all additional information requested by the Military Court by that date, and they submitted and paid for requests for building permits for the existing 13 structures placed under the demolishing orders.

In late April 2014, the Israeli Military placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and, therefore, constituted a trespass and should be “evacuted”! The family filed an appeal on May 5; they were waiting for a court decision on these issues, and that is what makes the destruction of these trees illegal.

We would like you to inquire about this issue and why this vendetta against the Daher’s Vineyard is taking place. Israel needs to be held accountable for its actions against a family that lives by the motto ‘We Refuse to be Enemies’ and that believes in non-violence as a solution to the problems there.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at ___________ .

Regards,

(individual or organization)

 

Timeline of Events

- In 2009, on two separate occasions, Israeli soldiers forced their way onto the property, conducting searches of family members and internationals and threatening to return with eviction papers. They never followed through on that particular threat.

- In May of 2010, they did issue nine demolition orders to remove buildings, tents, animal sheds and restrooms which they claimed the family had no permission to build. The Nassars went to court to stop the demolitions, and no action was taken on the part of the Military courts.

- In April 2011, a court decision was made, without the family’s lawyer present, to follow through on the demolition orders because of a plan to build an Israeli-only road nearby. The lawyer intervened and, to date, no action has taken place.

- On February 14, 2012, as the family was working in the ‘Trees of Life’ orchard, volunteers found, in three different places (under rocks and tacked onto trees), papers with maps signed by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (which is the Israeli Military Government) giving them 45 days to appeal their claim to the land or the land would become State Land. This order covered one-third of the existing 100-acre farm. The family lawyer filed an appeal immediately. Many other Palestinian farmers discovered similar notices under rocks on their land. To date, there has been no decision on the appeal.

- On Monday, May 19, 2012, demolition orders were posted on a portion of the farm in the valley in the same manner as the earlier notices. This time the authorities identified a cistern which has been in use for ten years that was scheduled to be demolished within three days. While the order was contested, the Court ruled in favor of the military, but no action has been taken.

- Other acts of harassment have occurred on a regular basis. On May 5, 2012, civil authorities came and removed the barricade on the road that connects both the farm and the village of Nahalin to Route 60, the main north/south highway in the area. The next day, the bulldozer came and re-barricaded the road, thereby preventing any movement by local residents. Palestinians now, in order to travel between Bethlehem and the Nassar family farm, must travel through the villages of Nahalin and Husan. This is a burdensome detour for them as well as for the 20,000 villagers affected by these new regulations.

- On December 13, 2012, military trucks and large jeeps entered the west side of the village of Nahalin and destroyed olive trees that grow between the village and the settlement of Beitar Elit in the west. Immediately after doing so, they drove to the east side of the village, near Daher’s Vineyard (the family property) and uprooted several fruit trees belonging to village farmers in addition to trees on the Vineyard.

- On December 16, 2012, the Nassar family received notice that their appeal to the Military Court had been denied. The Nassars were given 45 days (January 30 deadline) to demolish the structures themselves or reapply for permits which will cost them $1,500 per structure.  Under the ‘New Rules’ they will also need to submit a zoning plan and sign an agreement that, if the permits are denied, they will pay for the costs of demolishing the structures.  The Nassars are trying to determine the intentions of the Israelis in the hope that access to the farm can be preserved. They have reapplied again for permanent registration of their land. As always, the family wishes to proceed calmly, constructively and legally.

- On January 31, 2013, the family lawyer was told the following:

- The family must reapply for all previous permits (13) including the more recent structures, such as: big tent, cistern near home, a cistern in the valley; and the office trailer. They must do this with the understanding that for those structures denied a permit, the Nassars must demolish them at their own expense.

- They must submit additional land survey maps: one topographical map which shows the farm location in the region; two technical maps, one at 1/250 scale and the other 1/50,000 scale, which show the new structures and their locations and dimensions.

- They must submit plans for sources of providing electricity and water to the land from the village and for provisions for gray water and filtration systems.

- They must apply for approval/signature of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, certifying that the land is agricultural land.

All submissions were due by February 24, 2013;

the family was able to meet each of the criteria set out for them.

The courts have not as yet responded to the Nassars appeals or requests for building permits.

- In January 2014, three “stop cultivation” orders were found on the land. The Nassars had their lawyers look into the situation, but the courts have not responded to these appeals, either.

- In early May 2014, 1,000 dunums (250 acres) of land bordering the road leading to the farm and south of the nearby village of Nahalin were declared as State Land; this was land owned by other Palestinian farmers. The old blockade to the road leading to the farm was enlarged with additional piles of rubble and boulders, making it even more difficult to walk from the road to the Tent of Nations Peace Project site.

- In late April, the Israeli Military authorities placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and, there, constituted a trespass and should be “evacuated”!

- On May 5, 2014, the Nassar family filed an appeal with the Military Court against the order. According to the law, no demolition or evacuation is allowed once an appeal is filed and until a final verdict has been forthcoming.

- On May 19, 2014, the Israeli Military bulldozed between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines growing in the lower valley of the farm and destroyed the terraced land that had been cleared for planting. There was no forewarning given, and this was an illegal act on the part of the IDF.


Land and Liberation: An Interview with Reverend Naim Ateek

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This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to engage in an extended interview with Reverend Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, during a brief visit he made to Chicago. I’ve known Rev. Ateek for several years and am honored to call him a friend and colleague – and I’ve written before about his important work in the development of Palestinian liberation theology.  Since he’s been the object of unrelenting attack by the Jewish institutional establishment, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to model a different kind of Jewish-Christian engagement on his life and his work.

An edited version of our conversation follows here:

Read the rest of this entry »


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…”


John Kerry Says “Boycott” – Cue the Outrage

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We learned yesterday that Netanyahu and his senior ministers are all astir by remarks made by John Kerry at a recent security conference in Germany. Echoing similar warnings he’s made in the past, Kerry noted that the failure of talks would only increase Israel’s isolation in the international community:

Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary … You see for Israel, there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things.

Responding quickly, Netanyahu criticized the remarks during a subsequent cabinet meeting. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, told Israel Radio on Sunday that Mr. Kerry’s comments were “hurtful,” “unfair” and “intolerable” and added, “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head.” Not to be outdone, Knesset member Motti Yogev, of the Bayit Hayehudi party said Kerry’s “obsessive pressure” had “anti-Semitic overtones.”

There’s much to be said about the escalation of a war of words between Israeli politicians and the US Secretary of State. For my part, however, I’m less interested in a diplomatic pissing match over a moribund peace process than the way the issue of boycott has now firmly become entrenched in official discourse. Can their be any surer sign that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has become a force to be reckoned with?

In this regard, I couldn’t help but be struck by Netanyahu’s comments in response:

Attempts to impose a boycott on the state of Israel are immoral and unjust. Moreover, they will not achieve their goal.

Of course, Kerry made no such claim that boycotts were “moral” or “just” (as a defensive State Department spokesperson hastened to point out). He was simply noting their very existence. And Netanyahu’s apoplectic reaction over this harmless comment makes it clear that he takes their existence very, very seriously indeed.

As well he should. With the recent American Studies Association announcement that it is honoring the academic boycott of Israeli universities – and the even more recent attention over Scarlett Johansson’s ill-fated agreement to shill for SodaStream – BDS is increasingly moving into the mainstream media spotlight. And more importantly, it is increasingly gaining adherents.

Anecdotally speaking I can attest to the growth of this movement by the growing number of conversations/debates I’ve been having on the issue of BDS. Generally they retread over the same territory: “Is BDS anti-semitic?” “Is BDS a double-standard?” “Is BDS effective?” “Will BDS lead to the destruction of Israel?”

I’m not interested in addressing these questions here – I’ve explored them at length in numerous blog posts dating back to 2009. Besides, it seems to me that right now the most important thing we can say about the BDS movement is that it is here to stay  – and as long as Israel’s intolerable treatment of Palestinians continues, it promises to be chalking up even greater successes in the near future.

That’s why Kerry’s comments – candid though they were – smacked to me of a very real disingenuousness.   After all, what is the real “delegimization campaign” here: the BDS movement or Israel’s oppressive policies toward Palestinians?  If our government is unable or unwilling to hold Israel to account, we should not be surprised by the growth of a popular movement that does.


Reclaiming MLK’s Vision of Economic Justice in Chicago!

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It was my great honor to participate yesterday in the profound and important MLK commemoration: “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality.”  On a cold Sunday afternoon, an SRO crowd of 2,000 participants streamed into St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side to reaffirm King’s unfinished work: the dream of economic equality for all Americans.

While few of us would deny the importance of devoting a National Holiday to the life and work of Dr. King, I believe this day too often sanitizes his legacy into meaninglessness. Even worse is the way corporate America has co-opted his name for its own profit and gain. (This morning, I opened the morning paper and was greeted by ads that invoked King to sell everything from cars to Macy’s merchandise.)

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It’s worse than ironic, when you consider how often King railed against corporate greed in this country – particularly toward the end of his life. Here’s but one example – a pointed MLK quote that was read aloud at yesterday’s gathering:

You can’t talk about solving the problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.

Our keynote speaker, Reverend Dwight Gardner, of Trinity Baptist Church in Gary Indiana, put it very, very well:

Today in this celebration we will not lift up the toothless, scrubbed and anesthetized Dr. King as created by the mainstream media and ruling elite but we will uncover the real Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his radical vision for economic equality.

In 1963 during the March on Washington, Dr. King gave an address that included a short section about a dream, but in the same speech he also declared that America had written the Negro a bad check that had come back stamped insufficient funds.  To paint him with only the hope that we could all just get along does his legacy a disservice and confuses Dr. King with Rodney King.

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And so our event, organized by the People’s Lobby and IIRON, brought together a wide range of citizens to reclaim King’s radical and unfinished legacy of economic equality. And more: to commit to creating a new movement to make it so.

Speaker after speaker spotlighted local Chicago and Illinois legislation that addressed issues ranging from corporate financial accountability, a living wage, public sector jobs, the prison industrial complex and environmental protection. One by one we invited elected officials to the stage and asked them tell us if they would support these legislative initiatives. Then we ended with a pledge to continue organizing to make this dream a reality.

One of our speakers, George Goehl, Executive Director of National People’s Action, correctly pointed out that the unprecedented inequities currently facing our nation are the product of a “masterful forty year plan hatched by CEOs and right wing politicians who were clear that they had to aggregate power to expand profit.”  Goehl noted that those of us who believe in a more equitable system will now have to develop our own long term plan for the “New Economy” with the following core goals:

- Everyday People Controlling the Economy

- An End to Structural Racism

- Corporations Serving the Common Good

- True Democracy – People in, Money Out

- Ecological Sustainability

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The power of these kinds of public meetings resides in their modeling of a system that is generated by people power. Unlike most political events, in which elected leaders or candidates drive the agenda, this gathering was driven forward by the people themselves. The politicians who participated were not allowed to give stump speeches but were rather asked to say aloud to the community whether or not they intended to support these legislative efforts. As King himself taught us, our elected leaders are not change agents – it is rather the popular movements that lay their demands at their door.

I encourage you, this MLK Day, to resist the corporate co-opting of King’s name – and to support efforts in your community to create true economic justice to our nation. Click here to learn about organizing initiatives near you.


Some Thoughts as the BDS March Continues

PGGM-logo-BE9F491EDE-seeklogo.comStep by step, the BDS movement inexorably marches on. Now the news has just come down that PGGM, the largest pension fund management company in the Netherlands, has decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks (Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the First International Bank of Israel and Israel Discount Bank) because they have branches in the West Bank and/or are involved in financing construction in the settlements.

I’m struck that whenever we hear this kind of news, BDS opponents invariably claim that this is “one isolated incident” that will not have any real effect or influence. But of course, this is not one isolated incident – it is but a part of a growing pattern occurring throughout the world. This latest news is but one more indication that the BDS movement is quickly gaining momentum.

And there is every indication that Israel’s leaders understand this. In the wake of the PGGM decision, Knesset member and Bayit Hayehudi party chairwoman Ayelet Shaked called for an Israeli response to the BDS movement, adding that “it was the greatest threat faced by the country.”

I’m also struck by one paragraph from the Ha’aretz report on the PGGM move:

The Israeli banks responded that Israeli law doesn’t allow them to cease providing service to entities connected to the settlements. Nor, given the daily reality in which the banks operate, would this even be feasible, they added.

This is an enormously telling comment – particularly as a response to those who advocate for BDS within the Occupied Territories only but not in Israel proper. Perhaps the most prominent advocate of this approach is Peter Beinart, who has long spoken of a difference between “Good Israel” and “Bad Israel:”

(We) should call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it. It counters efforts by Israel’s leaders to use the legitimacy of democratic Israel to legitimize the occupation and by Israel’s adversaries to use the illegitimacy of the occupation to delegitimize democratic Israel.

Having made that rhetorical distinction, American Jews should seek every opportunity to reinforce it. We should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel. We should push to end Internal Revenue Service policies that allow Americans to make tax-deductible gifts to settler charities. Every time an American newspaper calls Israel a democracy, we should urge it to include the caveat: only within the green line.

But a settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel. We should spend money we’re not spending on settler goods on those produced within the green line. We should oppose efforts to divest from all Israeli companies with the same intensity with which we support efforts to divest from companies in the settlements: call it Zionist B.D.S.

This is, of course, an utterly artificial distinction, as the recent comment by the Israeli banks makes clear. The “daily reality” is that the Occupation is facilitated and fed by Israel itself. They are, quite simply, inseparable from one another – as Israel’s own economic establishment openly admits.

As the BDS movement inevitably amasses more gains, we will likely hear louder and and louder calls to “take this threat seriously.” But I believe the inexorable growth of this movement suggests something more fundamental: the world is increasingly taking Israel’s oppression of Palestinians seriously.


Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

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The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook -  but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.

First, some background:

The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.

Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:

The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.

We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.

Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals.  It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.

Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.

This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems.  And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.

Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.

I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience.  The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.

One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:

BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders.  The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.

This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.

This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)

As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.

From the BDS National Committee Website:

The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.

I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently?  Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.

I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.

As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.


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