“Birthday of a World on Fire” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5780

photo credit: Reuters

One of the signature moments on Rosh Hashanah is the sentence traditionally proclaimed after the shofar is sounded: “Hayom Harat Olam” (“Today is the birthday of the world.”) On Rosh Hashanah, tradition tells us, we celebrate a world reborn, joyfully acknowledging the order and balance of God’s creation and the awesome power embedded deep within it. What better way to celebrate the potential for our own renewal in the year ahead than by looking to a world that renews itself every year according to the sacred rhythms of birth and rebirth?

While I personally find this idea to be among the most profound of this season, I’ll confess, I’ve been struggling with it in recent years. With the hard reality of the global climate crisis hitting home deeper and deeper every year, I find myself asking, what does it mean to gather every Rosh Hashanah to reaffirm creation even as we are literally undoing it?  How can we honestly celebrate the power embedded in God’s world, even as human power is steadily destroying it? Even as the world is literally on fire? To be completely honest, in this era of global climate crisis, I’m not sure the traditional understanding of Rosh Hashanah really makes much sense any more.

And it is indeed a crisis. Many are suggesting, in fact, that we’ve moved beyond crisis and have entered the category of emergency. And we can’t say we haven’t been warned. As far back as 1992, 1700 scientists around the world issued a famous statement called a “warning to humanity,” declaring that we were on a “collision course” with the natural world if we did not “fundamentally change” the way we lived upon it. 

More than 25 year later, almost all of their chilling predictions are now in full swing. Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the first in a series of three reports that describe in vivid detail the effects of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world. The first of three reports, which came out last October, warned that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. If we go up even half a degree beyond this, we will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. 

However, this was not merely a prediction: the report made it clear that this crisis was already well underway. The world is currently 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is already the hottest of any five-year period on record. The Amazon rainforest, even as I speak now, is still burning. It’s been estimated that we’ve already lost 50% of the planet’s biodiversity in the past four decades. 20% of the earth’s coral reefs have died. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost three trillion tons of ice in the last 25 years. In roughly that same amount of time, the rate of global ocean warming has doubled. Many, if not most, of these losses are irreversible. 

And these losses are increasing exponentially. Every new half degree will cause rapidly increasing and irreversible chain reactions: growing species extinction, greater food insecurity, the disappearance of coastal cities and island nations, increased migration and social conflict, more wildfires and hurricanes, the destruction of polar ice, the loss of entire ecosystems. 

It’s important to note however, that the IPCC report did not conclude that all is lost. The scientists repeatedly stressed that it was still possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But they also made it clear it will take a radical global effort to achieve this goal. Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group put it this way: “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”

Unprecedented indeed. Given our voracious dependance upon fossil fuels – and the economic interests in the companies that produce them – the hard truth is that we have only twelve years to reverse the growth of global capitalism itself. This is not a radical statement – I’d argue it’s actually quite reasonable under the circumstances. Those who dismiss advocate structural proposals such as the Green New Deal as naive, “pie in the sky” ideas routinely miss this one essential point: we need radical solutions if we are to take on the unfettered economic greed that has brought us to this terrifying moment in human history.

Now I know that many, if not most of you have heard these facts and figures before. But even so, as I pondered what to talk about this Rosh Hashanah, it felt enormously important to me that the findings of the IPCC report be spoken out loud. We need to say them out loud. Otherwise, I’m really not sure if the rest of our prayers really make much sense.

I realize how depressing, how enormous – how terrifying – it is to contemplate all of this. But as we gather for Rosh Hashanah, I really can’t think of a more important issue for us to talk about. And so this morning, I’d like to push a brief pause on our celebration of creation’s power and face the ways we are willfully degrading that power. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how we might reframe our understanding of this crisis so that we might avoid the inevitable overwhelm, paralysis and despair that comes with it. Ultimately, I suppose, what I’d really like to do is offer a measure of hope in the face of an increasingly hopeless reality. To take our cue from the new year and imagine a world reborn – so that we might feel that much more ready to go forth and actually make it so. 

When most of us confront the overwhelming reality of the global climate crisis, I think we tend to do what comes naturally: we compartmentalize it. We silo it into its own separate category the way we do with so many other complex social issues. We view it as one issue among many in the desperate hope that if we isolate it, we might be able to find a way to somehow address it. 

But in truth, the climate crisis isn’t one issue. In fact, I would say it is in many ways the issue. It’s the one universal issue that connects all others. The changes we are causing to the earth’s temperatures have direct causal relationships to immigration, to human rights, to poverty, to housing, to war, to so many examples of social and political upheaval worldwide. 

So yes, addressing this crisis means we must advocate for policies that will keep global temperatures from reaching the 1.5 mark. But it cannot only mean that. It must also mean that we must stand with the scores of people around the world who are already suffering from the effects of the climate crisis. In the end, there is really no contradiction between working for justice and climate activism. They are, in fact, intimately intertwined. 

We know full well that the primary brunt of the global climate crisis is being borne by the poor and communities of color. It has been estimated that the global climate crisis could push more than 120 million more people into poverty by 2030. Even if we do manage to increase to only 1.5 degrees by 2100, extreme temperatures in the global south will leave disadvantaged populations increasingly food insecure, with less incomes and worsening health. Increasing numbers of people will have to make the agonizing choice between starvation or migration. 

Here in the US, we can see the connection between the climate crisis and structural racism all too well. Polluting facilities are routinely built in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which means that people with marginalized identities experience more asthma, a greater likelihood of heart attacks and premature death. The disadvantages that come with those health issues create a cycle of poverty and lack of access to opportunity for people of color and the poor in the United States.

It’s a sad irony that the ones least responsible for the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of it – and have the least capacity to protect themselves. This phenomenon has been referred to as “environmental racism” or “climate apartheid” – in which the wealthy have the means to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to fend for itself. 

We witnessed climate apartheid in full swing when the devastating Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas earlier this month. In advance of the hurricane, the ultra-wealthy homeowners on Abaco Island hired local workers to board up their vacation houses, while they escaped to their primary homes in the US or Europe. The Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club hired a private security team, equipped with helicopters and assault rifles, to protect their property. The rest of the island’s residents, made up mostly of undocumented Haitians, had nowhere to go and had to ride out the storm in shanty towns and church shelters. Within hours, the community was almost completely flattened. Dozens of poor residents were killed and thousands more are still missing. 

As Jews, we need to acknowledge that climate apartheid is deeply enmeshed throughout Israel/Palestine as well. Since the Middle East is among the hardest hit by global warming, the issue of justice in Israel/Palestine is directly related to the control of water resources – and Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region. The so-called Mountain Aquifer, the most critical water source in Israel/Palestine, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line. This goes a long way to explain why Israel has not and likely will never give up the West Bank – as doing so would mean surrendering its most valuable water source. 

The environmental situation in Gaza is even more dire, due largely to Israel’s crushing blockade. At present, 97% of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption, and only 10% of Gaza’s two million people have access to safe drinking water. As a result of Israel’s regular military assaults, 110 million liters of raw and untreated sewage are pouring directly into the Mediterranean every day, creating a massive sanitation crisis. 

But, as is invariably the case in all forms of climate apartheid, what goes around comes around. This past June, Ha’aretz reported on the effects of Gaza’s toxic pollution on Israel. The headline read: “Collapsing Environmental State of Gaza Poses Threat to Israel’s National Security, Report Warns.” Tellingly, even as it maintains total control over natural resources, Israel cannot escape the devastating impact of the growing climate crisis.

My friend and colleague, Robert Cohen, a writer and blogger from the UK, recently wrote a post in which he argued that “the climate emergency makes Zionism obsolete.” In it, he made this very compelling argument:

How can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round. In a region already fraught with conflict, climate analysts expect temperature rise to have a multiplier effect that exacerbates and accelerates wars and mass migrations. Promoting Zionism starts to look like an invitation to Jews to jump from the metaphorical frying pan into the literal fire.

When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land. Climate change is staunchly apolitical, ahistorical and agnostic.

Of course, climate change won’t make antisemitism go away. But like much else that’s wrong and unfair about the world, the Climate Emergency compels us to look at things differently, consider the root causes, and understand the interconnectedness of injustice. As well as terrible threats, climate change forces upon us the possibility of a profound ethical revolution.

I believe Robert hits the nail on the head with this analysis. In a way, the Israel/Palestine issue is a microcosm of a much larger, universal issue. In the face of global climate crisis, nationalism will not save us. Stronger borders will not save us. Sooner or later this crisis will come for us all. In the meantime, however, we can be sure that those who have more power will do everything they can to protect themselves from its effects until the very bitter end – at the expense of everyone else. 

This is where, as Robert Cohen puts it, the “profound ethical revolution” comes in. Yes, to address the climate crisis, we must be advocating for policies and practices that decrease our global carbon output – but it must mean standing in solidarity with those most affected by the crisis as well. There can be no separation between the two. And in this regard, we all have a part to play. 

The first step, I believe, is to resist the temptation toward overwhelm and despair. This is, quite frankly, a luxury we cannot afford. While it can be tempting to adopt a fatalistic, “all is lost” attitude, we would do well to remind ourselves that some of the most committed, inspired climate activists are those who are most directly affected by it. If they have not succumbed to despair, than neither can we.

In fact, the movement for climate justice is being led by members of indigenous nations worldwide. This past April in Brazil, an estimated 4,000 indigenous peoples from various tribes gathered for three days in that nation’s capital to protest for their rights, demonstrate their traditions and confront congressional leaders. This nonviolent mobilization, called Free Land Camp, has taken place every year since 2004 and is organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil — an alliance of indigenous communities and organizations from several regions of the country. 

Closer to home, the resistance by at Standing Rock has been at the vanguard of the fight for climate justice in this country. And as this movement is increasingly youth led, we need to be lifting up the work of indigenous youth activists – young people such as 15 year old Autumn Peltier, of the Wiik-wem-koong First Nation in Northern Ontario who recently spoke at the UN and 19 year old Naelyn Pike, of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, who had this to say in her speech at a youth leadership gathering in 2017:

I’m saying no! And many people, millions of people in this world, are saying no! We have so many sacred lands that are going to be desecrated, so many fights to protect Chaco Canyon, to protect Bears Ears, to protect Indigenous land, food, water, the right to live, our identity. We’re fighting against so many pipelines. And the thing is that these generations behind us had told us this prophecy.

But there’s another prophecy: That the youth is going to stand. And that’s us today. That’s us here and now.

In addition to Indigenous-led movements, there are any number of growing climate justice movements that deserve our attention and support – and I know many in this room have long been active in these efforts: the Sunrise Movement, the Climate Strike, +350 and Extinction Rebellion, to name a few. And as I mentioned earlier, given everything that is at stake, we need to wage an all-out political fight against the economic interests that make greater profit through increased greenhouse gas emissions. In this country, this fight is primarily being waged nationally via the Green New Deal, but it is also being fought on state and local levels as well. As I said before, there is a part we can all play. The main thing is to connect the dots, to understand that the climate crisis is at heart a justice issue – and that all struggles for justice are ultimately bound up with the movement to roll back the climate crisis. 

So what can Rosh Hashanah mean at this moment in human history, in this unprecedented time when the very future of our world is literally hanging in the balance? I want to suggest that we can no longer celebrate the new year – the birthday of the world – without explicitly spelling out what is at stake. Yes, it is a day of hope, but this hope must be celebrated together with a hard and sober realism. 

We know that the task ahead of us will be daunting. We know that some of the effects of climate change can yet be turned back. But we also know that some of the damage we’ve inflicted upon the earth is permanent. We do have a window of time in which we can stop or decrease global temperatures, but it will take a Herculean world-wide effort to achieve this. We’ve been told by scientists that we have 12 years before the social and economic fabric we take for granted starts to unravel beyond the point of no return. We need to admit this and say it out loud if these New Year’s rituals are to retain any meaning for us whatsoever any more. 

In the end, it may well be that the High Holidays will hold more meaning than ever before. After all, when the new year is through, when we move toward Yom Kippur, our prayers will literally evoke a world that hangs in the balance. We will ask “who shall live and who shall die?” We will plead to be written into the Book of Life. We will ask ourselves honestly, how can we change our ways to ensure it shall be so? It seems to me that these prayers have never had more universal, global meaning than right now.

One of the things I love most about Judaism and Jewish culture in general, is that it invites us to work toward the world to come, the world as it should be. Yes, this work can be a struggle, but it can also be filled with joy and celebration. And there are yet times during the struggle when we create a microcosm – when we get a glimpse of the world to come. These moments remind us we must continue to live with a spirit of joyous resistance, even if we know full well that world we seek may never be at hand.

How do we possibly do this? How do we find the strength to fight a fight we know we may not win? And to so joyfully? Let me share with you the words of indigenous activist and organizer, Kelly Hayes, who offers us as eloquent a manifesto for the new year as I can imagine:

I would prefer to win, but struggle is about much more than winning. It always has been. And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world? And what will you say to the people you love, when time runs out? If it comes to that, I plan on being able to tell them I did everything I could, but I’m not resigning myself to anything and neither should you. Adapt, prepare, and take the damage done seriously, but never stop fighting. Václav Havel once said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” I live in that certainty every day. Because while these death-making systems exist both outside and inside of us, so do our dreams, so long as we are fighting for them. And my dreams are worth fighting for. I bet yours are too.

This new year, let us commit to fight like hell for the world of our dreams, for a world reborn anew. Let us fight with joy, commitment and solidarity, knowing full well that this is a fight for the survival of the world as we know it. And let us fight not with the certainty that we will ultimately be victorious, but with the faith that it is worth waging no matter what.             

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be our will this new year – and every new year from this time forward.

Shanah Tovah.

Israel and North America: A Tale of Two Judaisms

Nur Shlapobersky / Never Again Action

Observers have long suggested that two radically different visions of Judaism are currently unfolding in the contemporary world: one in Israel and the other in North America. While this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, I can’t recall a time in which there were both so fully on display as they were last Sunday during the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av – when two very different Jewish communities observed the day in dramatically different fashion.

Tisha B’Av (literally “the 9th of the month of Av”) is a Jewish fast day of quasi-mourning that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to chanting from the Book of Lamentations, Tisha B’Av contains prayers that yearn for the restoration of the Temple. But while traditionally religious Jews characteristically view this mythic restoration in the context of a far-off messianic age, there is a rapidly growing extremist movement in Israel that has been calling for the literal rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Temple movement also advocates the destruction of Muslim shrines – an act that would undeniably result in a violent cataclysm of unthinkable proportions.

Last Sunday, the Temple Mount became a flash point for violence on the day of Tisha B’Av – which happened this year to coincide with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In anticipation of the day, Temple movement leaders were pushing hard on the Israeli government to upend the status quo and allow them to worship on the site (which is ruled off limits to Jews by Jewish law – and thus the state of Israel.) Eventually, the political pressure from the Temple movement and far-right Israeli politicians caused Prime Minister Netanyahu to cave and allow the extremist worshippers to enter the Temple Mount. In midst of election season, Netanyahu is loath to alienate the extreme rightist voters he has been desperately trying to court.

Thus, on Sunday morning. Temple movement worshippers gathered on the Temple Mount. Later that morning, violence erupted after Muslim worshipers finished their prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. According to reports, police forces fired stun grenades and tear gas canisters after, they claimed, “worshipers began hurling objects at officers and yelling ‘nationalistic remarks.'” The Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 Palestinians were wounded in the clashes, with 15 evacuated to nearby hospitals. The police reported that seven people were arrested.

This then, was how Tisha B’Av was celebrated in Israel this year: a politically emboldened group of Jewish zealots was given license by the Israeli government to provoke violence on a site considered holy by both Jews and Muslims.

(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Now compare this with Tisha B’Av in the United States, when thousands of American Jews attended immigration protests and vigils in over 60 cities, organized by a broad network of Jewish groups, including Never Again Action, T’ruah, Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and and Economic Justice, and a myriad of local immigrant justice organizations.

At one of the more substantive actions, more than 1,000 demonstrators sat down in an Amazon store in NYC to protest Amazon’s technology contract with ICE. 40 protesters took arrest, including numerous local area rabbis.  In downtown Los Angeles, members of Southern California’s Jewish community and other immigrant rights advocates held a “Close the Camps” rally at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Here in Illinois, it was my honor to be among the 250 Jews and allies gathered at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee for a Tisha B’Av ceremony that included the chanting from Lamentations, and the recitation of prayers, songs and personal testimonies.

It’s not an understatement to suggest that the nascent Jewish resistance movement embodied by Never Again Action is one of the most remarkable and significant religious-political developments in American Jewish life in generations, as Allison Kaplan Sommer recently pointed out in a feature for Ha’aretz:

Never Again Action’s emergence highlights a growing trend: progressive young American Jews interested in political activism while clearly identifying themselves as Jews – in causes that have no direct link to Judaism. They wear T-shirts with Jewish slogans, sing Hebrew songs and in some cases even conduct prayer wearing kippot and tallit.

Critically, Sommer noted, “the issues that energize such leftist activists have nothing to do with Israel,” adding that “Israel has become a topic that divides their community rather than uniting it, depleting people rather than energizing them.”

I’d suggest that last week’s Tisha B’Av events demonstrated an even deeper dichotomy between these two communities. In Israel, the day was commemorated through a distinctly land-focused, land-centric style of Judaism that ultimately resulted in violence on the Temple Mount. Zionism after all, is an ideology that views the return to the land in real terms, and redemption is not envisioned in a far-off messianic age but through the real time settling of Jews in the land – an act that resulted, and continues to result, in the violent displacement of the Palestinian people.

Given this land-centric focus, it was really only a matter of time before Tisha B’Av became an occasion for viewing the destruction of the Temple as a historic loss that could only be redeemed through its literal rebuilding. It’s particularly notable that the Temple movement, once considered a fringe movement in Israel, is rapidly ascending in political power and is increasingly considered to be an important political bloc by the government of Israel .

By comparison, the diaspora movement of Jewish resistance currently emerging throughout North America regards the destruction of the Temple in mythic – not literal – terms. Note for instance, this pointed description of the Tisha B’Av vigil at the Illinois detention center, taken from its Facebook event page:

Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day that honors and mourns the brokenness, loss, and shattered ideals in whose shadow we live every day, symbolized by the destruction of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

This Tisha b’Av we’ll mourn the brokenness of a nation that hunts down, detains and deports immigrants, separates families, cages children and turns away asylum seekers. We will also explore our communal culpability in this tragedy and ask honestly: how do we stand down this causeless hatred?

Here, the destruction of the Temple is not regarded as a literal tragedy/loss, but a mythic moment of brokenness that is embodied by the chronically broken world in which we live. According to this view, redemption occurs not through the quasi-pagan deification of bricks and mortar but through sacred actions of resistance to injustice and oppression. Could there be any greater demonstration of the radical dichotomy between these two fundamentally divergent spiritual approaches?

There is, of course, a much simpler way to describe the difference between these two Tisha B’Av moments: one the one hand, redemption occurs through the physical power of the state while on the other, redemption occurs through resistance to that power. 

Postscript: as of this writing we are receiving news that an ICE police guard has driven a truck into a peaceful crowd of Never Again protesters at a detention center in Rhode Island. 

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our day. 

White Supremacy is Coming For All of Us

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(Crossposted with Newsweek)

If ever there was a moment of clarity for us, it’s now.

As we witness and grieve the carnage of two back-to-back mass shootings, we cannot afford to ignore the clear signs that the ascendance of white supremacy in our nation is all too real. 2018 saw a national increase in hate crimes, with nearly all extremist homicides carried out by the far right. Last May, the head of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit, Michael McGarrity, testified to Congress that the bureau was investigating about 850 cases of domestic terrorism. Read this again: 850. We know conclusively that white nationalist extremists have killed more people in the United States than any other category of domestic extremists since September 11, 2001.

Many of these crimes might seem different on the surface: When a white supremacist killed nine Bible study students at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, the victims were African-American; when eleven worshippers were gunned down by a white supremacist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the targets were Jews; the white supremacist who killed 20 at an El Paso mall last Saturday was gunning for Latinix immigrants, according to his manifesto. And within 24 hours another mass shooting occurred in Ohio, the motivation of which is still unclear as of this writing.

We can’t deny the influence of one massacre on another. One empowered white male with guns is invariably followed by another. Indeed, the manifesto attributed to the El Paso gunman is clearly inspired by the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, which promoted a white supremacist theory called “the great replacement”—an ideology that claims elites in Europe have been working to replace white Europeans with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. This is akin to the “white genocide” theory affirmed by the Pittsburgh shooter.

The needs of this moment could not be clearer. The time has come for a structural intervention. We should rightly expect every branch of government to take clear and unmistakable actions to halt the growth of white supremacy in our nation. We must demand of every politician, every media figure, every pundit and faith leader to name and call out this toxic racism wherever it may come from, including—especially—when it comes from the White House.

It can no longer be up for debate whether or not our president is emboldening this rise in white supremacy and the increase in mass shootings. He is. There is no way to question this in good faith. The same person who inspired a crowd to chant “send her back” to Somalian-American Representative Ilhan Omar, the same person whose tweets are increasingly racist, the same person who welcomes white supremacists to the White House, is more than a part—a huge part—of the problem. He is the catalyst to much of this violence.

But this is also a time of action—a time to stand up and reach out to those who are being targeted. And those of us who are members of these targeted minorities must stand in common cause and solidarity with one another. For instance, as a Jew, I cannot begin to say how heartened and supported I felt when, in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I learned that the Muslim American community responded immediately by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the families of the victims.

I am likewise proud of the work of Never Again Action, a new Jewish network working with local allies around the country to organize actions of civil disobedience at ICE detention centers. History will judge how we responded in this time, and we are now well past the wake-up call. We must prioritize the fight against white supremacy in this country and beyond.

This weekend will mark the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (the “ninth of the month of Av”)—a fast day that mourns the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, symbolized by the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One of the central lessons of this day is that the Temple was not destroyed by any external enemy, but by the sinat chinam—“baseless hatred”that ultimately destroyed the Jewish community from within.

This Tisha B’Av, I am all too aware of the toxic sinat chinam of white supremacy that is so clearly on the rise, corroding our nation and our global community. At the same time, I cannot but redouble my commitment to the growing diverse social justice movement in all its forms, welcoming and uniting our struggles, mourning our loses and striving to protect one another, over and over again.

During this horrible, clarifying moment, I take heart in the sacred power of solidarity.

Playing Politics with Human Rights: Thoughts on the Recent Anti-BDS House Bill

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photo: Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor

Last Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass an anti-BDS bill with the strong support of progressive democrats (including “squad” member Ayanna Pressley). I know there are many who are asking how and why did this happen? As I see it, the answer, as always, is pure politics.

Just a bit of history: the genesis of the bill known as H. Res. 246 dates back to the AIPAC convention last March, when a number of liberal Jewish groups, including  J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and Reconstructing Judaism (my own denomination), met informally to give their preliminary approval to this prospective bill. As they saw it, this was a strategic move. The bill was designed to give cover to liberal Democrats who had previously voted against anti-constitutional bills that virtually criminalized BDS. This new bill would allow them to vote on the record for a non-binding bill that criticized BDS without curtailing freedom of speech or labeling it as antisemitic. It would also give Democrats aligned with liberal Zionist groups the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the two state solution.

Like I said, pure politics.

Still, no matter how much liberal Democrats might rationalize their support for H. Res. 246, (Rep. Pressley explained on Twitter that her vote affirmed to her “constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist”) no amount of explaining can wash away the fact that this resolution is a cynical political move that unfairly and incorrectly attacks a genuinely non-violent movement for human rights – and will do little to advance the cause of real justice in Israel/Palestine.

Just a few responses to the actual text of the resolution:

• While the resolution mentions “rising anti-Semitism,” it is completely silent on anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia. Even the simple term “occupation” is nowhere to be found.

• The resolution claims that the BDS “seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world.” In fact, this is not the goal of BDS; the very suggestion reduces the entire movement to an essentially nefarious aim. Rather, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS advocates for non-violent economic activism as a tactic toward three rights-based goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

• The resolution claims that BDS “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations.” The three goals of BDS above are not “concessions” – they are basic rights enshrined in international law that have been patently ignored or denied in previous negotiations. There is nothing in the BDS call that “rejects negotiations.”

• The resolution quotes BDS leader Omar Barghouti (who addressed Tzedek Chicago on the eve of Passover this year) thus: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” While this quote is genuine, it crucially omits the first part of his statement: “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”

Here, Barghouti calls into question whether an exclusively Jewish state – as opposed to one state of all its citizens – can ever be truly democratic. This is an important question that deserves genuine consideration and debate. This egregiously truncated quote, however, only serves to imply Barghouti and the BDS movement seeks nothing more than the “destruction of the Jewish state.”

• The resolution states that the BDS movement ” targets … individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel.” This is a false and spurious accusation that the resolution offers with no evidence whatsoever. The targets of BDS campaigns have always been institutions, not individuals. (The government of Israel and Israel advocacy organizations, however, routinely target individuals with blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission and by barring entry of Palestine solidarity activists into the country.)

• The resolution states “BDS does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” There is no universal consensus that self-determination for any group of people must ipso facto mean the establishment of an independent nation state on a particular piece of land. Self-determination goes by many definitions and takes many forms. There are millions of Jews around the world who are happy to enjoy individual self determination in the nations in which they live. (It’s also worth noting that the Israeli government recently passed a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel.)

• The resolution states that BDS “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel.” Here again, the resolution is putting out a damaging claim without offering any evidence whatsoever. What can be stated however, is that however uncomfortable some Jewish students may be made to feel by pro-divestment campaigns on their campuses, pro-Israel activist students enjoy significant support from college and university administrations. By contrast, Palestine solidarity activists (including many Jewish students) experience routine suppression of their freedom of speech. Palestine Legal reports that “seventy-six percent of the incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related” and that they “responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine activists, double the number from 2017.”

• The resolution states “in contrast to protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change, the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel is not about promoting coexistence, civil rights, and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of the country and its people.” To this, I can only say, see bullet point #2 above. In fact, the BDS call is actually very much akin to “protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change.” Nowhere does it “delegitimize” the state of Israel. Anyone who take the time to read the actual call will see it focuses exclusively on the basic, essential rights that Israel routinely denies Palestinians.

To this final point, it was quite sobering to contemplate that on the very day that the House voted to condemn a nonviolent Palestinian call for human rights, House members were notably silent in response to Israel’s massive demolition of homes in East Jerusalem that took place at the very same moment.

In the end, despite the cynical politics behind this particular bill, I cannot personally view this as merely a political issue alone. As a Jew and a person of faith, I view the BDS call as nothing short of a religious imperative. I said as much in an address I was honored to deliver at the American Academy of Religion two years ago:

I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.

In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.

Blessed are the ones who hearken to the cry of the oppressed.

AOC is Right: Trump is Running Concentration Camps on the Border

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Insider the Homestead Concentration Camp, Homestead, FL.

(Cross-posted with Newsweek)

Last December, I was arrested on the border in San Diego while standing with faith leaders to protest, among other things, Trump’s unlawful incarceration of immigrants. My experiences on the border and at immigrant detention centers in my home state of Illinois have left me with no doubt whatsoever that our nation is warehousing humanity in concentration camps—and that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correct when she refers to them by this term.

As a rabbi, I am compelled to act on behalf of immigrants because my religious faith and historical legacy demands that I do so. And I’m not alone: most American Jews embrace progressive values of social justice—and understand that we ourselves have a history of oppression at the hands of state violence.

Yesterday, AOC stirred something of a hornet’s nest when she retweeted an article in Esquire by an expert on immigrant detention who characterized Trump’s immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps.” Almost immediately, some Republican politicians, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York pounced, claiming AOC’s “regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.”

It is deeply problematic, highly partisan—and historically incorrect—to declare that the use of “concentration camps” is to be constrained to the limits of “Holocaust terminology” (itself hardly an academic term.) As scholar Jonathan Katz recently pointed out in the LA Times, the term “was invented by a Spanish official …during Cuba’s 1895 independence war.” FDR, notably, also used the term in reference to his Executive Order to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. And enough people have pointed out in recent days the usage of the term by the British suppressing the Boer rebellion in South Africa for it to be elaborated on here.

We Jews do not own this term. But in fact, I would argue it is imperative that we Jews use this term whenever these dreadful facilities are imposed on groups of people other than ourselves. History has shown us that the concentration of humanity into forced detention invariably leads entire societies to exceedingly dark places. This practice did not begin with Nazi policies against European Jewry—nor did it end there.

The same is true of AOC’s impassioned and all-too familiar call, “Never again.” As a rabbi, a Jew and a person of conscience, allow me to put it as plainly as I can: AOC’s use of this phrase was altogether appropriate. I do not and cannot view this call as “Holocaust terminology.” On the contrary: “Never Again” means never again for anyone, or else it doesn’t mean anything at all.

The fact that we are even debating these terms shows just how twisted the conversation has become. Rather than parsing the words of a human rights champion like AOC for petty political gain, these politicians and Jewish leaders should be directing their criticism where it truly belongs: at a morally depraved national policy that parses out access to human rights according to origin and ethnicity, tears apart families, and cages children in, yes, concentration camps.

Remembering Stanley Tigerman

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(Photo: WTTW)

Below: an excerpt from a eulogy I gave today at the funeral of celebrated Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. As this Tribune obituary notes, “Stanley Tigerman (was) the most influential Chicago architect of his generation and the ringleader of a group of rebels who opened the way for a more inclusive view of Chicago architecture and changed the course of the city’s design.”

As I note below, it was a truly an honor for me to officiate at his funeral. 

Given that Stanley made no secret of his antipathy for organized religion, some of you might be wondering why a rabbi is leading his service. Stanley actually reached out to me several months ago through my wife – whom he knew professionally – and personally asked me to officiate at this funeral. Somehow, Stanley found out that Hallie’s  husband was a rabbi and when he asked her about me, she related to him that I had my own issues with organized religion myself.  I was humbled and honored that he reached out to me the way that he did – and that he trusted me enough to ask me to help lead this tribute to his life and work.

My wife and I spent a wonderful evening recently with Stanley and Margaret. It was clear that he wanted to share certain parts of his story with me and most importantly, to make sure I knew about the formative influences his life. In particular, he spoke to me at length about his childhood and his experiences growing up in grandfather’s Edgewater rooming house during the Great Depression. His grandfather Max was an immigrant tailor from Hungary who, after arriving in America, devoted his life to traditional Jewish Talmud study.  Stanley’s parents, Sam and Emma, like so many of their generation, were hit hard by the Depression and struggled economically – and eventually had to move in with Stanley’s grandfather, where he spent his formative years.

Stanley’s stories about growing up as an only child in the rooming house, as you might expect, were colorful and filled of characters that could easily fit into a Damon Runyon novel. The central character in his childhood was clearly Max, who Stanley described as “the most significant individual in my young life.” His grandfather was clearly his most important early teacher, teaching him English and Hebrew and enrolling him in the Hebrew school at Agudas Achim, an orthodox synagogue in Uptown.

Of these years, Stanley wrote in his memoir:

My grandpa and I were together constantly. He was a role model of some consequence, and if he had lived somewhat longer than he did there is the distinct likelihood that my life would have taken an entirely different turn. Conceivably, I can imagine studying to become a rabbi. But, given my notoriously short attention span combined with excruciating memories of difficult Hebrew lessons at Agudas Achim, where knuckles bloodied by baton-wielding rabbis were a daily occurrence, I have serious doubts about my ability for such a noble calling with its attendant discipline.

Stanley told me that he only realized later what a profound influence his grandfather had on his life during those early years. As he grew older, he came to believe that his schooling in the interpretive traditions of the Jewish religion and his devotion to the field of architecture were inextricably linked. In particular, he felt a deep kinship to Judaism’s culture of inquiry and debate – of contrarianism. Of course Stanley was nothing, if not a contrarian – and he told me he was sure this aspect of his makeup was due in no small way to his childhood education in yeshiva.

When Stanley was eight years old his grandfather died and his yeshiva days came to an end. His mother enrolled him in very different Jewish school: the Reform Temple Shalom on Lake Shore Drive. Stanley told me that as a child from a poor home, he never fully fit in at the high-end Temple Shalom. This experience only exacerbated his sense of being an outsider. It also left him with a lifelong antipathy to organized religion, although his own personal sense of connection to Jewish spiritual tradition remained an important influence on him and his work for the remainder of his life.

There are those who are far more equipped than I to discuss Stanley Tigerman’s architectural achievements and the monumental legacy he has left behind: his years as a leader in the post-modernist movement, his role in the so-called “Chicago Seven.” There is also so much more to say about Stanley’s formative days in the Navy, his love of progressive jazz music, his deep commitment to social justice, his famously irascible sense of humor, his professional partnerships so many important colleagues – and his personal/professional relationship with his beloved wife Margaret. And there is even more than that – much more than we could ever cover in one short service. And I am confident that these tributes and stories will be shared at length as his legacy is discussed and shared by those who were touched by his life and his genius.

For now, I’d like to offer just a few brief thoughts based on Stanley’s words to me during that memorable evening we spent together. It was clear to me from the beginning that he didn’t need to tell me details of his biography or to recount his specific accomplishments. Rather, he wanted me to understand the essence of his philosophy of life that clearly animated everything he did – indeed, everything he stood for.

Stanley gifted me two books that he had written, and he urged me to read them in order to understand him more thoroughly. One was his memoir, appropriately titled “Designing Bridges to Burn,” and the other was an astonishing scholarly work entitled “The Architecture of Exile,” that he dedicated to the memory of his grandfather. His ideas, I believe are quintessentially Jewish, quintessentially American, and quintessentially Stanley Tigerman.

In “The Architecture of Exile,” he wrote,

We are in a state of exile. Post-modern Americans, like their Renaissance predecessors, yearn for another, simpler, time. America is a land of foundlings and orphans, who are detached from their proper parenthood and wander in search of legitimacy in a world of other histories of longer periods of time. Americans, collectively displaced from the many lands of their separate origins, are torn between the desire to gain their roots and the knowledge that this information, once attained, will do them little good.

When you hear these words, you understand the essence of Stanley’s identification as an outsider. You can also plainly see his understanding of conflict as an essential fact of our existence. Throughout his life it seems to me, Stanley embraced these essential contradictions in a brave and beautiful way. Of course we must know and understand our past. But we cannot and must be imprisoned by it, which for Stanley would mean to descend into shallow nostalgia. As Stanley wrote, “While it is common practice to predict where we are going by where we have come from, there is no assurance that memory will help us to ascertain where we are going.” The only true way forward, Stanley seems to be telling us, is to simultaneously honor and challenge convention. To be acknowledge the status quo even as we show no hesitation in upending it.

I believe this ideal explains so much about Stanley Tigerman. It certainly explains his fierce devotion to social justice and solidarity with the outsiders, the downtrodden and the oppressed of our world. It also explains why he did not suffer fools – or those whom he considered to be fools – and why he was ready to take the hits for ideas and principles he deeply believed in. When I think of one of his most iconic artistic works, the collage of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Crown Hall sinking into the sea like the Titanic, I can’t help but think of the Biblical midrash of Abraham destroying his father’s idols. There are few in the world such as Stanley, who at once could honor those who blazed trails before him, even as he sent their work sinking into the watery depths.

So let us honor Stanley’s legacy. Let us honor his legacy by embodying his courage, his principled iconoclasm, his understanding that conflict is an essential building block of creativity and justice in our world. If we are indeed brave enough to embody these ideals, then the sacred narrative of his remarkable life will live on, perhaps even longer than the buildings he built while he was alive. And I have no doubt that Stanley would have wanted it this way.

Zichrono Livracha – may his memory be for a blessing.

When Secular Israelis Claim “God Gave This Land to Us”

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(photo: AP video)

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, created something of viral sensation last week when, during a speech in the Security Council, he dramatically brandished a Bible and declared “This is the deed to our land.”

He then continued:

From the book of Genesis; to the Jewish exodus from Egypt; to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; to the gates of Canaan; and to the realization of God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel; the Bible paints a consistent picture. The entire history of our people, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael, begins right here.

Danon’s use of an ancient religious text as justification for the State of Israel’s right to the land was likely an astonishing moment for many. What on earth was a secular Israeli doing lecturing the UN on “God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel?” For those familiar with Zionist pedagogy however, his comments were neither unusual nor unprecedented.

When I heard about Danon’s Biblical tutorial, I immediately recalled a famous story about a 1937 meeting between David Ben-Gurion and Lord Peel, who was then heading the British Royal Peel Commission of Inquiry into the potential partition of Mandate Palestine. According to the story, Lord Peel asked Ben-Gurion where he was born and Ben-Gurion replied that he was from Plonsk, Poland. Lord Peel responded that the Arab leaders with whom he had met were all born in Palestine and most of the Jewish leaders were from Eastern Europe. Peel noted that the Arab people had a kushan (Ottoman land deed) that entitled them to the land – and asked Ben-Gurion if he also had a document that proved the land belonged to him.

At that point, Ben-Gurion became aware of the Bible upon which he had just sworn as a commission witness. He grabbed it, held it up and exclaimed, “Here is your kushan. It is the world’s most highly respected book and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land!”

This phenomenon – that of otherwise secular Israeli Jews proclaiming “God gave this land to us” – is not particularly uncommon. It is actually rooted in the unique form of nationalist ideology that gave rise the state of Israel. If we are to grasp this mentality properly then, we must first understand the early ideological trends that motivated Israel’s original settlers and eventual founders.

Many scholars have pointed out that Zionists – particularly those from Russia and Poland – were markedly influenced by the ideas of European Romantic nationalism (also known as “ethnic nationalism,” “organic nationalism” or “integral nationalism”) an intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th century. The early seeds of this ideology were planted in the ideas of Rousseau, Hegel and particularly the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who posited that “each nation is separate, distinguished by climate, education, custom, tradition, and heredity.”

These ideas were a powerful part of the ideological fabric of 19th century Europe from which Zionism emerged. In his book “The Founding Myths of Israel,” Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell notes that “Herder’s thinking had tremendous importance in Eastern Europe” during the 19th century and that these ideas were formative for important Labor Zionists such as A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion. Sternhell’s work compellingly demonstrates how otherwise secular socialists could espouse an ideology that articulated a deeply spiritual – and at times almost mystical connection of the Jewish people to land, history, language and ritual:

A cultural-organic conception of the nation necessarily included religion, which it saw as an inseparable part of national identity. This was the case in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, in France and Spain. French integral nationalism was no less Catholic than Polish nationalism, and religion played the same role in it as it did in Poland or Romania. It was a focus of unity and identity, over and beyond social divisions. In integral nationalism religion had a social function, unconnected with its metaphysical content. Generally, it was a religion without God; in order to fulfill its function as a unifying force, religion required only external symbols, not inner content (p. 56, emphasis mine.)

In other words, the settlers and eventual founders of the Jewish state instrumentalized religion, emphasizing its social function to unify the people under one national identity. Indeed, the idea of a “religion without God” can be clearly discerned in the words of many pivotal Zionists. Thus Gordon, the father of Labor Zionism, could in one breath excoriate traditional Judaism with incredible vehemence while claiming that “the greatness of nationalism is its cosmic dimension” (p. 62). Sternhell also describes the venerable Labor Zionist figure, Berl Katznelson, as “a kind of secular rabbi whose strength lay in a direct contact with a sect of believers” (p. 135).

As my anecdote above demonstrates, Ben-Gurion’s world view was also deeply motivated by this mindset. Decades after lifting a Bible before Lord Peel, Ben-Gurion famously convened a study group of archeologists, academics and military officers to read and discuss the Biblical book of Joshua. It was well known that Joshua, which describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan in vivid detail, was Ben-Gurion’s favorite book of the Bible. In keeping with the ways of Romantic nationalists, he considered the Bible to be the Jewish people’s “national epic,” connecting them to a glorious ancient past as well as the a justification for their contemporary settlement of the land.

As American scholar Rachel Haverlock has noted:

Similar to other national movements, Zionism appealed to the glories of an ancient past and brought biblical words and phrases into spoken Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible served as a linguistic source and literary template in the prestate Yishuv and early decades of the State of Israel…

Ben-Gurion saw the biblical war narrative as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying myth of national identity. Not only could modern Israelis relate to the processes of conquest and settlement, but through the prism of Joshua they could also understand them as reenactments of the biblical past (“The Joshua Generation: Conquest and the Promised Land ” p. 309.)

The use of the Bible as national epic was not the exclusive provenance of Labor Zionists. Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism (the ideology of the present-day Likud party) wrote the 1927 novel, “Samson the Nazirite,” which portrays Samson as a Jewish national hero. Though Jabotinsky was a passionate opponent of Labor Zionism, he and his socialist Zionist compatriots clearly shared a deep attachment to the trappings of Romantic nationalism.

Since the founding of the state (when the Bible was invoked in its Declaration of Independence), these romantic mythic narratives have since exerted an indelible hold over Israeli socio-political culture. Well before Danon’s UN pronouncement one could choose from a myriad of examples. To offer but one more: Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress, in which invoked the Biblical book of Esther to drive home the “threat” of present day Iran to the state of Israel. (“Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”)

With the political ascendency of the settler movement, it might be said that the Romantic nationalism Israel’s of socialist founders has found common cause with religious Zionists who use the Bible to make unabashedly fundamentalist claims on the land. Thus, an extreme nationalist Israeli politician like Ayelet Shaked can be accurately described as “a secular woman from left-leaning Tel Aviv (who has) become the most successful spokesperson for the religious-nationalist party and the settlement movement it strongly supports.” In a sense, we might say that the trajectory of contemporary Zionism has hopelessly conflated secular nationalism and religious ideology into one Biblically-based claim to historic Palestine.

In the end, however, whether it is used by Labor Zionists, Revisionist Zionists or right wing West Bank settlers, the use of the Bible as the “Jewish people’s deed of sale” to the land of Israel represents a radical break with Jewish history, throughout which Jews regarded this text as a religious – not a political – document. It is also a profoundly fraught enterprise, particularly when you consider that the Zionist national epic includes God’s command in the book of Joshua for the Israelites to take the land by force and dispossess its Canaanite residents.

In an era that is currently witnessing the rise of romantic/ethnic (read “white”) nationalism throughout the world once more, it is critical that nations honestly assess what it is that truly binds them together. Is it one people’s “organic right” to a particular land or a commitment to the individual rights of all who dwell upon it?