On the surface, the Book of Ruth, the Biblical story traditionally read on the Jewish festival of Shavuot (which began last evening), appears to be a simple parable about two women struggling to survive in the wake of a devastating famine. If we dig deeper, however, we’ll find that Ruth is actually a profound and radical story that explores themes of isolation and connection, dispossession and return, emptiness and plenitude, exile and redemption.
As a Jew who views solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation to be a sacred obligation, I find that these themes to be particularly resonant. As we celebrate Shavuot this year, for instance, we are receiving tragic reportsthat the Israeli military has forcibly transferred the Palestinian residents of the Ein Samiya village, including 78 children (whose school was targeted for demolition). This latest act of political dispossession is only the latest in alarger Israeli program of ethnic cleansingthat dates back to the establishment of the state in 1948.
Amidst this ongoing reality of Palestinian exile, I’d like to suggest four themes from the Book of Ruth that call out to me with special urgency this Shavuot:
One: the story of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, a childless Israelite widow and her Moabite daughter in law Ruth, who return to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem, in the hopes of finding safety and security. As unmarried women, they are radically marginalized, forced to use the power they have at their disposal to survive in a world that has symstemically disempowered them. Those of us who stand in solidarity with Palestinians – indeed, all who are oppressed – would do well to heed the moral imperative at the heart of this story.
Two: as the story opens, Naomi migrates with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab. She later crosses back with her daughter-in-law when she receives word that the famine has lifted in her home country. In its way, the Book of Ruth portrays a world in which migration was a natural social phenomenon; when border-crossing was an accepted and necessary part of life. Today, this very land is strewn with militarized borders, checkpoints and refugee camps – and Palestinians are routinely denied the most basic right of human mobility. The Book of Ruth thus calls to us with a striking vision: a land and a world in which borders pose no barrier to those seeking a better future for themselves and their families.
Third: the driving center of the Book of Ruth is the deep and loyal relationship between an Israelite woman and her Moabite daughter-in-law. Those who are familiar with the Hebrew Bible will not help but note that the Moabite nation is typically portrayed as the arch enemy of the Israelite people. In this story, however, these national allegiances and historical enmities are nowhere to be found. Instead we are left with this simple, sacred message: the ultimate path to redemption is not to be found through power and violence – but rather through mutual love and solidarity.
And finally, the Book of Ruth opens in amidst a devastating famine in Bethlehem and ends with the reaping of a new harvest and the promise of an abundant future for Ruth, Naomi, their family and descendents. This vision of abundance: in which there is more than enough for all who dwell on the land, is indeed at the heart of the Palestinian struggle for liberation: one that envisions a future of equity, justice and peace for all who live between the river and the sea.
Back in 2009, when I was beginning to struggle openly with my relationship to Israel and Zionism, I wrote a blog post entitled “Why I Didn’t Celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.” Here’s how it began:
I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.
That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.
As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.
In the fourteen years since writing these words, I haven’t wavered on this essential conviction. I still don’t consider the founding of a Jewish state on the backs of another people to be a day to celebrate.
A rabbi whose work I’ve often admired recently tweeted, “What if you knew your heart was big enough to hold the joy of Yom HaAtzmaut and the bitter anguish of the Nakba?” I must respectfully disagree. I reject the implication that those of us who refuse to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut with joy are somehow being “small hearted.” There are increasing numbers of Jews who refuse to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut out of genuine and deep seated moral conviction. We understand all too well that the the “national liberation” of Jewish statehood was accomplished through the ethnic cleansing of another people – a Nakba that is still very much ongoing. Intentionally or not, those who celebrate this selective form of liberation are, in a very real sense, normalizing dispossession. And it is not small hearted to affirm this.
As I see it, the question on whether or not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a question of holding complex, contrary emotions at the same time. Rather, it is a question of solidarity. As Marek Edelman, the anti-Zionist leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising famously put it, “To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed and never the oppressors.“ Perhaps this is the real question: “What if you knew your heart was strong enough to stand down a celebration of dispossession – particularly when this dispossession is actually occurring in real time?”
As with the fourth of July in the US, these kinds of national holidays give us the opportunity to interrogate our histories and think honestly and seriously about their legacies. To this end, I’d like to suggest that the Jewish community find new ways to commemorate the occasion of Israel’s founding (see for instance, my 2018 prayer “A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day.”) I am not suggesting for a moment that we should appropriate Nakba Day and “make it about ourselves.” It should go without saying that Nakba Day rightly belongs to the Palestinian people. But at the same time, I do think it provides the Jewish community with the opportunity to acknowledge the truth of the Nakba in a world where Nakba denial continues to run rampant.
As a Jew, I believe that the Nakba…is the most important ethical and spiritual issue facing the Jewish people in our time. Our people will be judged, and we will judge ourselves, by whether we will treat others differently when we have power over them. Will we mistreat others in the same way we were mistreated, or will we follow the ethical imperative of our tradition to treat everyone as an individual created in the image of God deserving of equality, compassion and love? This is a moral question on which the future of Judaism and the Jewish people rests in our time.
…We must ask ourselves what is the cost that Palestinians should pay for our safety? We simply must create a different reality where both peoples thrive, not one at the cost of the other…The first step of teshuvah is hoda’a/acknowledgement. The very first step is to challenge the denial by acknowledging the truth of what was done, no matter how painful that acknowledgement may be.
As I wrote in 2009, just because I’m not celebrating on Yom Ha’atzmaut with joy, it doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s establishment. Rather, I’m taking this opportunity – as a Jew and a person of conscience – to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, to acknowledge the truth of their historic and ongoing dispossession, and to affirm a different reality: “where both peoples thrive – not one at the cost of another.”
May we all have the strength of heart to make it so.
Today marks the seventy eighth anniversary of a public Shabbat service held in liberated Dachau. While it’s not a particularly well-known story, it deserves to be commemorated and widely retold, not least because it illuminates the powerful ways that prayer has historically served as a form of resistance.
The service was led by Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, a Jewish chaplain in the US Army’s XV Corps. Rabbi Eichhorn wrote extensively about this – and many other of his remarkable wartime experiences – in letters that were compiled in (the highly recommended) book, “The GI’s Rabbi.” While Eichhorn experienced a number of well-known historical events during the war, for me, the most indelible moments in the book come from his witness to the liberation of Dachau: from his description of the army’s numbing discovery of masses of naked, emaciated bodies, to the acts of revenge committed by ex-prisoners against their former captors, to his moving description of courageous non-Jews who “had saved Jewish lives at the risk of their own.”
Eichhorn’s most memorable recollections of the liberation of Dachau involve his role in the Shabbat service he led on May 5, 1945. One day before, on Friday afternoon, after leading a service in the women’s barracks, a lieutenant colonel approached him with tears in his eyes. It was the famed Hollywood film director George Stevens, who was in charge of the Signal Corps unit that had been taking official army footage of Dachau. (Stevens’ movie “D-Day to Berlin” is among the films made by five Hollywood directors who were embedded in Europe to document the war effort – a project powerfully recollected in the book and documentary “Five Came Back” – also highly recommended.)
Eichhorn and Stevens made arrangements for Stevens to film the camp-wide service that was scheduled to take place the next day in the main square of the Dachau compound. When Eichhorn arrived the next morning, however, he discovered that no preparations had been made. He was subsequently informed that Polish non-Jewish inmates had threatened to break up the service by force if was held in the main square. As a result, the service was moved to the camp laundry, which only accommodated a fraction of Jews who desired to attend. As Eichhorn recalls it:
While the service was in progress, in a jam-packed room with hundreds of others crowded around the open doors and windows, Colonel Stevens came in, elbowed his way to my side and demanded to know why the service was not being held in the square. His cameras and crews were ready for action and he wanted the event to go on as scheduled…After hearing the “inside story,” he exploded in anger. “I did not give up my good job in the movie business in Hollywood,” he bellowed, “to risk my life in combat for months and months, in order to free the world from the threat of Fascism and then stand idly by while the very victims of Fascism seek to perpetuate its evils.” …He took me to the Camp Commandant, and with a loudness of voice and much banging on the table, George Stevens repeated his anti-Fascistic sentiments.
…And so, thanks to the decent instincts of an American movie director, the camp-wide service was held in the main square. It was attended by every Jewish male and female whose health permitted. As promised, every nationality was represented by flag and delegation. There were an estimated two thousand Jews and non-Jews at the service. And ringing the outer rim of the service with faces turned away from the platform was the American military “guard of honor.” They were prepared to deal with a situation which did not develop. No untoward incident of any kind marred the service.
(from “The GI’s Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn,” pp. 185-186.)
When I first watched it on YouTube, I found that the very familiar words of these prayers had a powerful new resonance. It was essentially an abbreviated Torah service, with other added prayers relevant to the occasion. It began with a prayer known as the Shehechianu – a blessing of gratitude for having been kept alive long enough to celebrate a sacred moment or season. He followed with Birkat Hagomel – a blessing traditionally recited by someone who has recovered from a serious illness or has otherwise survived a traumatic, potentially life-threatening episode. While I have been part of countless services that have included these blessings, it is indescribably moving to witness them recited by thousands of Jews recently liberated from a death camp. I had a similar response to the recitation of El Male Rachimim – the prayer for the dead – a prayer that has become a staple at Holocaust remembrance services.
In the end, however, it seems to me that the very act of holding the service was itself an act of resistance. I was most moved by the sight of the Torah scroll – the most indelible symbol of Jewish spiritual survival – being held aloft before the liberated of Dachau. It is, in its way, an iconic and redemptive image – one that speaks not only to this historical moment, but to our collective responsibility to a liberative future.
As Rabbi Eichhorn so aptly put it to his “congregation” that day:
What message of comfort and strength can I bring you from your fellow Jews? What can I say that will compare in depth or intensity to that which you have suffered and overcome? Full well do I know and humbly do I confess the emptiness of mere words in this hour of mingled sadness and joy. Words will not being the dead back to life nor right the wrongs of the past ten years. This is not a time for words, you will say, and rightfully so. This is a time for deeds, deeds of justice, deeds of love … Justice will be done.
On Passover, when we gather at the seder table to tell the story of the Exodus, we are reminded by the haggadah (the seder text) that merely telling the story is not enough. We are asked to not only relate but to interrogate this sacred narrative, to contemplate its meaning and to discuss the questions it raises for us. Most importantly, we must connect the lessons of the Exodus story to liberation struggles “in every generation.”
This year, many have inevitably been making connections between the Passover story and the recent anti-government protests that have unfolded in Israel since January. In a widely read sermon last February, for instance, Rabbi Sharon Brous compared the protests to the “great birth story” of the Exodus. In a recent New York Timesop-ed, Bret Stephens wrote that the protests were “as close to a revolution as the modern state of Israel has ever seen.” One Jewish leader commented to the press that he plans to read from the Israeli Declaration of Independence at his seder, particularly the passage that promises the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
On the surface, this framing might seem to make sense: Since late last year, thousands of Israelis have regularly been filling the streets to protest draconian policies proposed by the newly elected far right government of six-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The protests have largely focused on the “threat to democracy” posed by the government’s plans to drastically curtail the power of the judiciary. The demonstrations seem to have succeeded: late last month Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he would seek a compromise with his political opponents in order to “avoid civil war.”
While this certainly seems like a “power to the people moment,” it’s worth asking: who exactly are the “people” who have taken back the “power?” Though it was not widely noted by the mainstream media, the protests were largely organized and attended by centrist and liberal Israeli Jews — Palestinians were notably absent. Indeed, it was difficult to ignore the sea of Israeli flags at these demonstrations, along with the drumbeat messaging over “saving Israeli democracy.” By the end, it had become clear that these protests were less about equal rights for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians alike than a desire to reclaim the patriotic Zionist mantle from a newly elected far right government.
In other words, before we’re tempted to connect the Israeli demonstrations to the festival of Passover, it’s worth investigating how we tell the story of liberation, who tells it, who we include, and who we leave out.
These questions are not, in fact, unique to this year. It is common for Zionists to refer to Zionism — the movement to build a political Jewish nation-state — as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Many might find this to be a curious use of the term, as it is typically used in regard to movements that struggle for liberation against colonial oppression — notsettler colonial movements themselves. Such rhetoric belies the origins of an ideology inspired by 19th-century European nationalism and a movement that actively sought to transplant European Jews in historic Palestine.
However, even Zionists who view Jewish nation-statehood in liberative terms must ultimately admit that from the beginning, Zionism focused exclusively on Jewish liberation — and that this liberation most certainly did not extend to Palestinians. Quite the contrary, of course. As a nation-state whose identity was predicated on a demographic majority of Jews in the land, Palestinians were, through their very existence, viewed as an obstacle to Jewish liberation.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence makes it clear that this nation was created first and foremost for Jews. The 10 paragraph-long preamble essentially reads as a Jewish history lesson, ending with the line, “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” There is only one paragraph that pertains to the rights of non-Jews:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Note that the Declaration “ensures” social, political and religious — but not national — rights to its Palestinian citizens. This language is quite intentional: Israel considered Jews throughout the diaspora to be part of the “Jewish nation,” granting any Jew who immigrated to the state from anywhere in the world instant citizenship through its Law of Return. Conversely, the over 700,000 Palestinians refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes and forbidden to return were decidedly not included as part of the newly established nation.
To this day, Israel has maintained a careful distinction between “nationals” and “citizens.” As non-Jews, Palestinians in Israel can be citizens, but they are not nationals, thus depriving them of rights and privileges enjoyed by Israeli Jews. As a result, to this day, there are more than 60 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel directly or indirectly, impacting virtually every aspect of their lives, including housing, employment, education, health care, and who they can marry.
The status of Palestinian citizens was compromised yet further in 2018 with Israel’s passage of the so-called Nation-State Law, which determined that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” established Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and established “Jewish settlement as a national value,” mandating that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” According to Adalah:
This law – which has distinct apartheid characteristics – guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism, and systemic inequality.
Of course, the injustices facing the almost 3,000,000 Palestinians who live under military occupation in the West Bank — and the over 2,000,000 who live under a crushing blockade in Gaza — are dramatically worse than those experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. But it would be a mistake to draw a fundamental distinction between these different Palestinian populations. As the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem puts it in its 2021 report, Israel maintains “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Put simply, as a Jewish nation-state, Israel systemically denies basic civil and human rights to all non-Jews who live under its control.
It’s interesting to note that the “selective liberation” story we tell about Israel is not dissimilar from the story we tell about the establishment and history of another notable settler colonial state — namely, the United States. Indeed, I’m often struck that we typically use the term “American Revolution” to refer to what was essentially a political-economic secession by colonists from the British empire, whose nation was built on the genocide of Native peoples, enabled by the stolen labor of Black slaves.
Here too, it’s critical to interrogate how we tell the story of this national liberation, who tells it, who we include, and who we leave out. It has often been observed that the opening words to the American Constitution, “We the People,” is a radical misnomer as the founders originally defined “we” to be limited to white, property-owning males. This inherent inequity was already being openly challenged not long after the founding of the state. As Frederick Douglass famously declared in his 1852 speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July:”
The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
When it comes to this legacy of American structural injustice, one can draw a direct line from Douglass to the words of Malcolm X, from his 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”:
No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.
At the same time, however, there remains a uniquely American tension between the “American nightmare” of Malcolm X and the “American Dream” referred to by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where he famously challenged the United States to be true to its stated intention to form a more perfect union: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
More recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the “1619 Project” has observed that “the United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” Still, she concluded:
Despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Of course, we are currently witnessing a white supremacist backlash against those who seek to challenge the legacy — and reality — of American structural racism. As ever, Americans are struggling openly over how inclusive, extensive and complete our liberation will be. It is a tension that has been ongoing since the very founding of this country — it is at its core, a quintessentially American struggle.
In Israel, however, the struggle for democracy is far more complicated. As a Jewish state, Israeli democracy can only truly extend to its Jewish citizens. Unlike the U.S., where those who advocate equal rights for all can still be described as “believing fervently in the American creed,” those who call for one state with full citizenship for all are routinely accused of antisemitism, seeking nothing less than “the destruction of the Jewish state.”
Another important difference: unlike the U.S., Israel does not have a Constitution that, theoretically at least, ensures equal rights for its citizens. Noting Israel’s early, aborted attempts at creating a Constitution, journalist Joshua Leifer has recently commented:
America’s Constitution begins, “We the People.” One of the things that’s very striking when you read the drafts of the Israeli constitution that were written in 1950 is that the proposed version of Israel’s constitution began with “the Jewish people.” The ethnos was imagined as the demos from the beginning.
Like many Americans, I believe it is my responsibility to challenge my country to, as MLK put it, “live out the true meaning of its creed.” Among other things, this means actively supporting anti-racist struggles in the U.S. that demand full and equal rights for all itscitizens. As an American Jew living in the age of Zionism, I can demand nothing less for all who live between the river and the sea.
As Aurora Levins Morales concludes in her classic poem “Red Sea:”
This time that country is what we promise each other, our rage pressed cheek to cheek until tears flood the space between, until there are no enemies left, because this time no one will be left to drown and all of us must be chosen. This time it’s all of us or none.
This Passover, it is clearer than ever before that we need a new Jewish liberation story: one that is inseparable with the vision of liberation for all.
This year, the Passover seder supplement I’ve composed for Tzedek Chicago highlights the rise of anti-trans hate legislation throughout the US. In addition to the reading, the supplement contains action components to help you participate in the resistance movement to the growing threat to the well-being of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.
As it concludes:
May the bitterness of this maror awaken us to resist and turn back all legislated hate directed toward trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. Let us redouble our resolve to build a society that recognizes the tzelem elohim – the divine image – in all people – and a world that cherishes each and every one of us for all of who we are.
Here are a few more Passover resources that I’ve developed over the years – feel free to print out, share and use at your seders this week:
For the past several days, Israeli politicians and military leaders have been publicly condemning last Sunday’s settler rampage in the West Bank village of Huwara. While the pogrom was well underway, in fact. Netanyahu publicly assumed the posture of the reasonable, measured moderate, pronouncing to the settlers, “Don’t take the law into your hands. I ask that you allow the IDF and security forces to do their work.” More recently, a top Israeli general said in an interview that the military had predicted the settler attack, but that they “didn’t predict a pogrom.”
It was indeed ironic that during the attack, Netanyahu beseeched the settler community to “let the IDF and security forces do their work” since the IDF and security forces had already done their work all too well. Israeli journalist Orly Noy reported that when the attack commenced, “the Israeli army shut down the two entrances to Huwara and allowed the settler mob to enter the town by foot, doing nothing to prevent the ensuing atrocity.” Noy added that “settlers were seen handing out food to the soldiers stationed at the town’s entrances, which the soldiers gladly took and warmly thanked them for.”
So don’t be fooled by the hand-wringing. The notion that one of the most powerful militaries in the world was unable to control a civilian mob is nonsense. Despite official protestations to the contrary, this was state-endorsed violence, full stop.
In this regard, it bears a chilling resemblance to the horrific 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Another Israeli reporter, Gideon Levy, aptly made this connection in a recent Ha’aretz op-ed:
Turning a blind eye in this way conjures up forgotten memories. The IDF also turned a blind eye in 1982 at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, making it possible for Lebanese Phalangist militias to commit the terrible massacres there. There was no massacre at Hawara, not yet, but no one could have known in advance how things would turn out. If the rioters had also wanted to massacre the population, no one would have stood in their way on Sunday. No one stopped the Phalangists at Sabra and no one stopped the Phalangists at Hawara.
Indeed, when these kinds of events occur, we must never lose sight of the face that they occur within a context of constant state violence. These are not isolated “vigilante actions,” nor do they constitute a “cycle of violence.” Yes, the pogrom occurred in retaliation for the murder of two Israeli settlers – but we cannot forget that it also occurred within the context of a brutal military occupation in which the Israeli military has routinely been killing Palestinians on an almost daily basis.
It’s also critical to note that military violence against Palestinians in the West Bank has dramatically increased over the past few months – just last week at least 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 injured in an Israeli military raid on Jenin – and that observers have long been warning of a resurgent Palestinian uprising in response. But of course, none of this is new. Israel’s military oppression of West Bank Palestinians has been normalized and routinized for decades. If there is anything new now, it is that there are now Israeli politicians who are ready to proudly display their hated of Palestinians out loud, as Zvika Fogel, chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee did when he proclaimed on Monday, “A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see…We need burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act.”
In the wake of the Huwara rampage, I’ve read some debate as to whether or not it should accurately be referred to as a “pogrom.” To my mind, most of these analyses miss the central point entirely. Yes, the pogroms waged against Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were carried out by local non-Jewish populations, but they were typically fanned and encouraged “with government and police encouragement.” Historically speaking, pogroms have generally been carried out by local actors, as a pretext for larger government designs.
When it comes to Jewish pogroms against Palestinian communities, some of the worst violence has historically occurred during the holiday of Purim. I’ve written about this sickening phenomenon before; Jewish pogroms against Palestinians have become an annual inevitability in Israel, when extremists have used the violence at the end of the Book of Esther as a pretense to terrorize and brutalize Palestinian communities. In particular, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hebron has become an annual tradition for the unleashing of anti-Palestinian pogroms.
As Purim eve arrives this Monday evening, I have no doubt that Palestinians in Hebron and throughout the occupied territories are bracing for more rounds of horrid, tragic violence. I fervently hope and pray that this will not be the case – and I hesitate to indulge in alarmism – but given the tenor of the current moment, I genuinely fear that Purim is arriving at the worst possible time.
Whatever may happen this year, I hope we will not be fooled by the hand-wringing protestations of hypocritical politicians, that we will summon the courage to call out state-sponsored violence when we see it, and that we are prepared to demand in no uncertain terms that the true perpetrators are held accountable.
Over the past week or so, there was rising alarm over reports that some neo-Nazi groups had called for a “Day of Hate” against the American Jewish community. While the day thankfully came and went with no reports of any incidents, it seems to me that there are several important takeaways from this frightening “non-event.”
The first, of course, is that we should never take the threat of anti-Jewish violence for granted. In the wake of the “Day of Hate” warning, there was increased security at synagogues and Jewish institutions in major cities throughout the US. This response was certainly understandable, particularly following the news of a recent shooting of two Jewish worshippers outside an LA synagogue.
At the same time, as I wrote last Friday to my congregation, I was particularly heartbroken to know that extra police presence at synagogues would surely cause many in our community – particularly Jews of color – to feel less safe in their own houses of worship. As Erika Gatson, a black-Jewish activist and writer recently wrote:
I very deeply understand the need for some sort of security at synagogue, but it does not make for a comforting expereince. As a Black Jew, if feels like I have to continue to worry about not being protected by those brought in to protect the community.
It should also be noted that authorities made a point of saying there was no evidence of any imminent threat to the Jewish community. The initial report of the threat came from a leaked internal memo by the New York Police Department’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Bureau, originally stemming from a January 4 message left on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, by members of Crew 319, an Iowa-based white supremacist group whose most visible action to date had been a relatively minor flier campaign. Indeed, one ADL leader noted that “the activism of the day will most likely be limited to small demonstrations with banner drops or graffiti, rather than violent acts.”
It might well be said that under the circumstances, the strong Jewish community response was justified, However it can also be argued that it was overblown – that in the end, the attention given to this news was disproportionate to that threat and ultimately counterproductive. A report released yesterday by the Network Contagion Research Institute, in fact, came to this very conclusion:
The recent “National Day of Hate” event planned by an obscure Iowa-based white nationalist group received little attention (roughly 20 likes) within its own subcultural ecosystem on Telegram, yet received widespread amplification from mainstream media and organizations such as the ADL. There is little publicly available evidence to suggest larger white nationalist groups engaged with posts associated with the planned event or were planning to participate…
Sounding an undue alarm about low-signal extremist content can potentially elevate security risks and embolden bad actors, as they see the attention generated by their actions as a sign of success and validation, and may be motivated to carry out further extremist activities.
It is sobering to consider that the ADL and other similar organizations helped to drive up #DayofHate to over 100,000 tweets while a post on an underground site from a small and little-known hate group received 20 likes. It’s worth asking whether this kind of “undue alarm” may have boosted the profile of Crew 319 while simultaneously emboldening their followers. As Ben Lorber, an analyst at Public Research Associates tweeted in response, “Is this what keeping Jews safe looks like?”
And while we’re on the subject of Jewish communal response to the threat of antisemitism, this disconcerting mass email from the Jewish United Fund of Greater Chicago landed in my inbox just this morning:
Whatever we might think about the wisdom and effectiveness of the Jewish communal reaction to the “Day of Hate,” I would say it’s generally a good rule of thumb to avoid cynically capitalizing on a non-existent antisemitic event in order to raise money for your organization.
In the end, if there were any positive takeaways from this horrid affair at all, I found it in the numerous messages of heartening solidarity from our friends and allies in the greater community, including several that I received personally. I was particularly heartened by a message to my congregation from my friend and colleague Rev. Tom Gaulke of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Cicero, Illinois, who ended his remarks with these beautiful words: “As your family, we’ve got your back, come what may. Together, we’ve got a love that will conquer hate and a love that can only overcome.”
For the past two months or so, thousands of Israelis have been holding weekly protests against the extremism of the newly elected Israeli administration, focusing in particular on the new government’s proposals to gut the power of the Israeli judiciary. While many American Jewish institutions have been predictably loath to publicly criticize the new Israeli government, liberal Zionist organizations in the US such as J St., the New Israel Fund (NIF) and T’ruah have been openly supportive of the protests. But as heartening as these statements may seem on the surface, there is a deeply problematic contradiction at the heart of this new movement to “save Israeli democracy.”
This contradiction was in full force during a widely shared sermon recently delivered by Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of the Los Angeles synagogue, Ikar. In her stirring and passionately delivered remarks, Brous rightly criticized the American Jewish community for its silence over the policies proposed by the new Israeli administration. Calling for a “reckoning,” she went on to identify several “myths” about Israel/Palestine that the Jewish community “needs to smash.” With respect, however, I believe that Brous herself perpetuated numerous problematic myths herself during the course of her sermon.
These most prominent: the oft-invoked myth of the “endangered Israeli democracy.” This is, of course, a well-known Liberal Zionist trope and Brous drove it home early in her remarks when she stated “we believe not only in the legitimacy, but the necessity of a Jewish state….We believe in the vision of a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as envisioned by (Israel’s Declaration of Independence.)” She continued, warning that this “precious, beautiful dream” is currently under threat from extreme, undemocratic political forces in the current Israeli government.
Brous reinforced the “threat to Israeli democracy” myth when she curiously referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as the “great defender of the abuse of human rights” while there is ample evidence that demonstrates it is precisely the opposite. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has in fact, referred to the Israeli Supreme Court as “the Supreme Court of the Occupation” and has documented it’s systemic enabling of Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses in numerous reports:
When it comes to violation of Palestinians’ rights, Israel’s Supreme Court neither holds effective judicial review nor keeps the security forces in check. It is willing to sanction almost any injustice based on unreasonable legal interpretation, and systemically ignores the context: that the appellants come from an unrepresented population governed by a strict military regime for more than 50 years, denied political rights and excluded from basic decision-making. The court thereby sanctions not only violations – but the occupation itself.
Brous rightly went on to state that Israel’s “march toward illiberalism, ultra-nationalism and extremism has been building for decades.” However she undermined that very argument by claiming this march began when we “got comfortable with the language of ‘us and them.'” In truth, however, the rhetoric of “us and them” has been deeply rooted in the culture of the Zionist project since before the founding of the state. That is because the very idea of a Jewish state predicated on a demographic Jewish majority is itself inherently illiberal.
Similarly, Brous did well to raise the odious ideology of “Jewish Supremacy” inbred in Israeli culture. But this this ideology is not, as she put it, the product of a “marginal, fringe group” whose ideas have moved “into the mainstream.” Yes, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are most certainly extremists who espouse patently undemocratic ideas. But they are also expressing an inconvenient truth: that the notion of a majority Jewish nation state is itself intrinsically undemocratic – and that to maintain a Jewish majority, Israel has been ethnically cleansing and expelling Palestinians from their homes since its origin.
I was heartened when Brous later addressed the “myth of moral equivalency,” correctly stating that we cannot condemn the recent killing of Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem without also condemning the Israeli military’s killing of 35 Palestinians during the month of January (including a 6 year old boy and a 61 year old woman). I likewise appreciated the way she connected the dots between the young Palestinian gunman’s personal story to his grandfather who was murdered by a Jewish settler who has never held accountable (by yes, an Israeli court).
But while Brous invited us to “interrogate why there is so much violence,” she herself sadly failed in this regard when she neglected to interrogate the crucial role played by Israeli state violence and militarism in the structural oppression of the Palestinian people. On the contrary, she notably romanticized Israeli militarism earlier in her sermon when she spoke about the father of an Israeli friend who was “born with the state” and had served as “an IDF commander in two wars.” As she put it, “these are the ones who dedicated themselves to building the state so precious, so beautiful, so fragile. And they see it being transformed before their very eyes into something utterly recognizable.”
But perhaps the most problematic myth perpetuated by Brous was the Liberal Zionist trope of a “shared future.” She raised this issue at the end of her remarks when she concluded, “If you’re feeling helpless about what’s unfolding over there, the way forward is to follow the lead of Israelis and Palestinians in the streets who are speaking a language of shared destiny.”
This is, in fact, a complete misrepresentation of the current demonstrations. As Israeli journalist Haggai Matar has pointed out:
Palestinians, for their part, have so far mostly been sitting this one out. While many Jewish Israelis are mourning, terrified, or enraged over the barrage of illiberal legislation that they see as signifying the “end of Israeli democracy,” most Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line never saw the regime as a democracy to begin with. In the words of MK Ahmad Tibi, “this is a Jewish Democracy: democratic for Jews, and Jewish for Arabs.”
The current protests are thus intended to defend only the rights of Israel’s already privileged Jewish citizens, while ignoring the rights of the oppressed who lack citizenship and civil rights. The thousands of Israeli flags waved by protesters symbolize what is bad about these demonstrations: They are intended for Jews only.
It is indeed difficult to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of Israeli flags of these demonstrations, underscoring the reality that these protests are less about justice for Palestinians than they are about saving the Zionist enterprise. As Brous quoted her friend’s parents at the beginning of her sermon, “we have no other home, no other loyalty but to Zion.”
Moreover, Brous is crucially silent over the precise nature of this “shared future.” Is she advocating a two-state solution that even J St. admits is now all but impossible? Or is she promoting equal rights for all who live in the land – a move that would inevitably spell the end of her “precious, beautiful, miraculous dream?” As long as she refuses to address this critical question, I can’t help but view her call for a “shared future” as an empty and disingenuous gesture.
Brous ended her sermon by invoking the Torah portion Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites crossing over the Sea following their Exodus from Egypt. She powerfully and poetically compared the Exodus story to a birth moment, calling upon us all to “amplify the voices” of our “Palestinian and Israeli friends and their calls for a just and equal society, to remind them to breathe and push, to breathe and push and then to be with them on the other side, to join hands and sing together a song of freedom, of liberation, of justice and a song of love.”
Like Rabbi Brous, I also find a profound resonance to the Exodus story in this current moment – but it isn’t in the myth of Palestinians and Israelis joining hands and singing a song of liberation. Rather, it is through the painful admission, at long last, that Zionism represents a present day Pharaoh – and that we will only make it to the other side when we dismantle and transform Israel’s systemic oppression of the Palestinians into a truly Promised Land for all who live between the river and the sea.
As I write these words, it’s been reportedthat Israeli troops have killed nine Palestinians, including an elderly woman, in the Jenin refugee camp. Another twenty have been wounded, at least four of whom are in critical condition.
This tragedy should not come as a surprise to us. Observers have noted that the Israeli military has been killing Palestinians with alarming regularity in recent months. According the UN, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2006. 30 Palestinians have been killed in January alone – and the month isn’t even over yet.
Though it has not been widely reported, Israel has been dramatically escalating these deadly raidsagainst Palestinians in the West Bank. While the election of its radical right-wing government is garnering the lion’s share of attention these days, it’s important to note that these raids were initiated well before Netanyahu’s regime took power. As journalists Mariam Barghouti and Yumna Patel reportedlast October (before the election):
The past few weeks have witnessed a noticeable intensification of Israel’s crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank, targeting both ordinary civilians in their homes and villages, and armed resistance fighters and groups…
The current repression, and the resistance to it, are part of a larger, months-long campaign to quell growing Palestinian resistance, particularly armed resistance, which has seen a resurgence in areas of the West Bank.
While the Israeli government justifies this violence as “security measures to fight terrorists” and the mainstream media describes these events as “clashes,” I’d argue for a different power analysis: “this is state violence, full stop. The state of Israel was founded upon the dispossession of Palestinians and Palestinians have been resisting that dispossession ever since. Yes, some of that resistance is violent in nature. Such has been the nature of resistance struggles from time immemorial.
As I watch this current violence unfold, I’m mindful that we’re currently reading the Exodus story in our weekly cycle of Torah portions. At its core, this narrative has a very clear power analysis: it’s a story about resistance to violent state power. How else are we to regard Pharaoh, who responds to the demographic growth of the Israelites by subjecting them to avodah kashah (“brutal servitude”)? How else are we to understand a God who “hearkens to the cry of the oppressed?”
If we are to be true to this sacred narrative, I do not think we can dither on this point. Yes, as a Jew, I’ve obviously been conditioned to identify with the Israelites – but as I’ve learned about the history of liberation movements (including those inspired by this very story), I’ve come to understand that any people who suffer under oppressive state violence are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that builds its statehood on the backs of another people can become a Pharaoh.
To the One who demands justice… give us the strength to resist power wielded with fear and dread; fill us with the vision and purpose to build a power yet greater, a power rooted in solidarity, liberation and love.
Grant us the courage to dismantle systems of oppression – and when they are no more, let us dedicate our wealth and resources toward the well-being of all.
May we abolish all forms of state violence that we might make way for a world free of racism and militarization, a world where no one profits off the misery of others, a world where the bills owed those who have been colonized, enslaved and dispossessed are finally paid in full.
Last month, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib spoke at an organizing seminar for Palestine solidarity activists. It was an in-house event, and it likely would not have garnered much attention except for one part of her speech:
It has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government. And we will continue to push back on and not accept this idea that you are “progressive except for Palestine.”
I’m opening with Rashida Tlaib’s words because I believe they’re deeply relevant to Yom Kippur. This is, after all, the day for facing up to hard truths, particularly the ones that affect our community. And I frankly cannot think of a more important, more critical moral challenge facing the Jewish community than the issue of Palestine-Israel.
As you might expect, after Rep. Tlaib made her remarks, the wrath of the titans rained down upon her. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, berated her on Twitter and accused her of being an antisemite. So did Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Scores of her Democratic colleagues condemned her for slandering the “Jewish and Democratic state of Israel.”
Tellingly, however, none of her critics actually responded to the essential claim of her comment – namely, that Israel is an apartheid state. None of them mentioned that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’tselem, the most prominent Israeli human rights organization, have all determined that Israel is an apartheid regime. B’tselem’s report concludes, in words that are powerfully appropriate for Yom Kippur:
As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot. The harsh reality described here may deteriorate further if new practices are introduced – with or without accompanying legislation. Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.
Fighting for a future based on human rights, liberty and justice is especially crucial now. There are various political paths to a just future here, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but all of us must first choose to say no to apartheid.
But you really don’t need to pore through human rights reports to grasp this reality. The bottom line is this: Zionism promotes a Jewish majority state in historic Palestine. In order to keep that majority, Israel must pursue policies that are patently undemocratic. It must create and enforce laws that fundamentally privilege Jews over non-Jews. It must dispossess and disenfranchise Palestinians. It must maintain what B’tselem calls “a regime of Jewish supremacy” from the river to the sea.
So yes, as Rashida Tlaib put it, you can’t be progressive and support apartheid. Unless you define the term “progressive” in a way that is devoid of any meaning whatsoever, you cannot support a Jewish supremacist state and claim to be a progressive. It’s interesting to note that virtually every one of Rep. Tlaib’s critics slammed her for creating a “litmus test” for progressives. But in truth, I don’t believe she was interested in creating a test for her colleagues. She was simply arguing for moral consistency.
When I read about this dustup, I was reminded of Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Whenever I hear so-called progressives defending injustice in the name of progressive values, I invariably think of King’s letter. It was written to liberal white clergy in Birmingham who had signed a public statement telling King to stay away and not make trouble in their city. At one point they wrote, “We feel that inflammatory and rebellious statements can lead only to violence, discord, confusion and disgrace for our beloved state.”
Now fast forward to 2022. This was Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s angry response to Rep. Tlaib:
Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Suggesting otherwise is shameful and dangerous. Divisive rhetoric does not lead to peace.
In the end, it’s really just a distraction to make this a debate about what is or isn’t “progressive.” It’s an issue of basic morality. For the Jewish community it’s a challenge that goes to the very core of our spiritual and ethical tradition. I don’t believe you can identify as a Jew in the age of Zionism and dither on this issue. Every single day, Israel’s actions present us with this basic question: will we support apartheid, dispossession and militarism in our name or will we not?
I’m sure all of you know that the Tzedek Chicago membership voted last March to change our core values to articulate that we were an anti-Zionist congregation. Our decision followed a unanimous board vote and a month’s long series of congregational meetings. As those who attended will attest, these conversations were inspiring in their depth and thoughtfulness. No matter what their position, members who participated in this process shared their opinions openly, honestly, and with deep respect for one another.
In the end, 72% of our membership quorum voted in favor of the change. Yes, there were those who voted against, but I’m heartened that as far as I know, no members have left our congregation as a result of our decision. In fact, we actually gained several new members, many of whom said that this was the first time they had joined a synagogue – that they had wanted to be part of a Jewish congregation, but the issue of Zionism had consistently kept them at bay.
I can’t understate what a powerful statement we’ve made. Yes, we are one small congregation, but the bottom line is that as a result of our decision there is now a new fact on the ground. There is now a progressive (yes, progressive) Jewish synagogue that is openly and unabashedly promoting a Judaism beyond Zionism. Tzedek Chicago has taken a public, principled stand on the most important, most critical moral challenge facing the Jewish community today.
And by the way we don’t stand alone. At this very moment, the Mending Miyan, an anti-Zionist congregation in New Haven, is celebrating its first High Holidays with its new student rabbi, May Ye, who many of you will remember was Tzedek Chicago’s rabbinical intern in 2018. Just a few days ago, I was contacted by a friend who told me that a group of Jewish anti-Zionists, inspired by what we have done here in Chicago, had held their first Rosh Hashanah service together in Denver. And I have no doubt there are others – that this is only the beginning.
Our decision is also important because we are currently witnessing a very real and very dangerous campaign that seeks to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The Israeli government and the Jewish institutional establishment are clearly doubling down to stem the growing number of Jews in the US — particularly young Jews — who are openly identifying as non or anti-Zionist. This backlash has been fierce, and at times perverse, actually calling into question our very status as Jews. In a widely read essay last year, Natan Sharansky labeled anti-Zionist Jews as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Reform rabbi in the Chicago area gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”
Given the tenor of the current moment, I believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is more critical now than ever. Most importantly, Jewish anti-Zionists create cover for Palestinians, the ones who are most directly impacted by these accusations of antisemitism. Right now, public figures such as Rashida Tlaib, as well as scores of Palestinian activists on college campuses and communities across North America, are being subjected to withering attack. We know how devastating the accusation of antisemitism can be. It destroys careers and ruin lives. And right now, this accusation is being weaponized by Israel and its institutional supporters in profoundly harmful ways.
The most insidious thing about this accusation: when we equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, we effectively brand just about every Palestinian in the world as an anti-Semite. How could it be otherwise? The direct product of Zionism was the Nakba – the forced expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. The creation of an exclusively Jewish nation state in historic Palestine has led to the ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people that continues to this very day. How could we honestly expect Palestinians to be anything other than anti-Zionist? By this definition, Palestinians are guilty of being antisemites just for being Palestinian.
We can’t underestimate the power of this current backlash against anti-Zionism. After Tzedek Chicago made our announcement, we garnered, as you might expect, some “responses” from the Jewish institutional community. While we did get some positive and thoughtful press, there was the inevitable nastiness, particularly and inevitably on Twitter. I don’t have much to say about that, except for this: amidst all the horribleness and toxicity, I noticed an interesting common denominator. Over and over, our attackers made the claim that Zionism was essential to Judaism – and that our being anti-Zionist was tantamount to being anti-Jewish. This, I would like to address:
Of course, the claim that Eretz Yisrael is intrinsic to Jewish tradition is absolutely correct. It would be ignorant to claim otherwise. However – and this is a big however – the notion of creating a sovereign Jewish nation state was never part of the Jewish land tradition until the rise of political Zionism in 19th century Europe. And herein lies the central fallacy of the Zionism equals Judaism argument: for most of Jewish history, the yearning for Zion has been rooted in an idealized messianic vision. The very idea of a mass migration to the land in order to establish a 3rd Jewish commonwealth was commonly considered to be an anathema – a “forcing of God’s hand” – by traditional rabbinic authorities.
Those who say Zionism is central to Judaism consistently and conveniently neglect this point: political Zionism did not arise until relatively recently in Jewish history. Yes, Zionism is undeniably a Jewish movement, and a successful one at that. But it is also a quintessential movement of Jewish modernity that represented a conscious and radical break with traditional Judaism as it was understood and practiced until that time. While it has clearly been embraced by a majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora, the claim that Zionism is somehow intrinsic to Judaism is false and in fact, deeply disingenuous.
In the end, however, this struggle isn’t over what is or isn’t Judaism. Rather, it is over what kind of Judaism we want to affirm in the world. I don’t believe in essentializing Judaism – or any religion, for that matter. The fact that Zionism was “a modern movement that broke with traditional Judaism” is not in itself a bad thing. After all, modernity gave rise to a host of Jewish movements that broke with traditional Judaism. My own denomination, Reconstructionist Judaism is most certainly such a movement.
I often think of this when I hear liberal Christians respond to the hateful things said and done by white Christian nationalists by saying, “that is not Christianity.” No, in fact it is Christianity. The Christian church certainly has a great deal to live down from its history up until present day. But to the Christians who seek to promote humane Christianity, I would suggest that the answer is not to deny the more problematic or toxic manifestations of their tradition. The answer is to recognize that every religious tradition, every religious community has its good, its bad and yes, it’s ugly. And if we want the good to prevail, it seems to me, we must be ready to confront the all of our religious traditions.
The same goes for the Jewish community. Even if Zionists deny us our Jewishness, It’s not intellectually honest, nor is it particularly productive, to deny Zionists theirs’. The question before us is not who is the most “authentic” Jew? The real question is: what kind of Judaism do we want to lift up in the world, to live out, to bequeath to future generations?
This is why I feel so blessed to be a part of Jewish congregation that is ready to stand up and say we seek a Judaism beyond Zionism, beyond apartheid and settler colonialism. A Judaism that views the diaspora as the fertile ground for Jewish creativity, a Judaism that seeks the Divine wherever we may happen to live, that affirms the whole earth is filled with God’s glory. A Judaism that values spiritual power over physical power. A Judaism that makes its home in the margins, because that’s where our sacred sparks of creativity have always resided. A Judaism of solidarity, that knows our place is alongside all who are marginalized, demonized and oppressed for who they are.
So, this Yom Kippur and for every day forward, let this be our prayer:
May the dream of a world complete become reality soon, in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May the world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion.