“Social Justice” Israel Trips Must Not Cover Up Oppression

Here is a guest post by Michael Deheeger, who you may know from the radio interview about our JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour last year.

Michael grew up in my congregation and has worked for several years as in Chicago as a political activist and a community organizer. His most recent job, from which he has just resigned, was as Program Director for AVODAH: Jewish Service Corps in Chicago.

On October 26, I resigned from my position as Chicago Program Director for AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Each day I have spent in this job has been a blessing, but I have no choice in light of AVODAH’s decision to co-sponsor a 10-day “service-learning” trip to Israel with the American Jewish World Service through their joint initiative Pursue: Action for a Just World.

AVODAH and AJWS agreed to this trip as a grant stipulation for funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a prominent donor in the Jewish nonprofit world, major supporter of pro-Israel causes, and Pursue’s principal funder.

I believe it is irresponsible for social justice organizations to organize a trip that focuses on “diversity, poverty and social integration” without meaningfully, and publicly, addressing Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land, systematic oppression of Palestinians across “Israel proper” and the Occupied Territories, and enforced exile of Palestinian refugees.

I believe doing so contributes to the “normalization” of a deeply abnormal oppressive situation – presenting Israel as a liberal democracy with nothing more than the usual challenges rather than a state which imposes an ethnicity-based military regime on millions of people. It perpetuates the idea that it is acceptable to ignore Israel’s daily abuses of Palestinians in the pursuit of cultural, religious, financial or other interests.

Similar Jewish “social justice”, artistic, LGBTQ and environmental trips are often used to mount a facade of democracy over Israel’s state-sponsored human rights abuses.  It is well known that Israeli government ministries and American Jewish organizations have been collaborating on an extravagantly funded “Brand Israel” project designed to improve the country’s image abroad by “avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.” Arye Mekel, former Deputy Director-General for Cultural Affairs with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, has described this strategy as a way to “show Israel’s prettier face.” I have no doubt that the Schusterman Foundation has a similar agenda for this Pursue trip.

Through this trip, AVODAH and AJWS become active participants in covering up oppression, whether that is their intention or not. They publicly lend their organizations’ names and reputations to injustice, violating the social justice principles enshrined in their missions which inspired me to join AVODAH’s staff in the first place.

My decision to resign is informed by my support of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Initiated in 2005, BDS is a call endorsed by the great majority of Palestinian civil society groups as a nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel into ceasing its systematic oppression of Palestinians.

I believe in listening to people fighting their own oppression when they lay out a strategy to achieve their human rights. For the overwhelming number of Palestinians, BDS is that strategy.  Being strong allies and taking our lead from people directly impacted by oppression is, in fact, a philosophy deeply held by organizations such as AVODAH and AJWS.

I decided to write about my decision in the spirit of Tokhecha, or sacred rebuke, a central value of Torah:

Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him” (Leviticus 19:17)

Rashi’s interpretation of “incur not guilt” is “Do not embarrass [them] in public.” My goal is not to embarrass or shame AVODAH or AJWS. I love and respect AVODAH, which is staffed by dedicated and thoughtful individuals, and which remains committed to open discussion on this and other issues among its participants and alums.

However, this trip communicates a public message – that these organizations are willing to overlook Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in exchange for funding. It therefore requires a public response.

My understanding of Tokhecha is that it includes the responsibility to help those to whom it is directed make amends. I echo the call put out by AVODAH alums and current Corps members that AVODAH and AJWS commit publicly to “never sponsor an Israel trip in this way again.”

We in the Jewish social justice community have a choice. On the one hand, we can stay silent and try to avoid provoking the ire of powerful donors like the Schusterman Foundation. On the other hand, we can publicly oppose, or at least not cover up, the oppression Israel commits directly in our name.

I have faith that our community, increasingly, will choose the latter, and that as BDS continues to gain traction among young Jews, there will be a growing cost in staff and participants for organizations that allow themselves to be used as cover for the oppression of Palestinians.

22 thoughts on ““Social Justice” Israel Trips Must Not Cover Up Oppression

  1. An American Muslim

    You are an inspiration Michael. Thank you for taking such a brave position. May God always protect you.

    Junaid M. Afeef
    Former Exec. Dir., Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago

  2. Paul Prker

    Michael and Brant,
    Your are fulfilling the will of God of humanity. Thank you for your example of commitment to God and the justice of God.

  3. Meredith

    I have been following the e-mail exchange on the AVODAH Alumni Listserv, and I think it was appropriate and wholeheartedly support Michael to resign regarding his views, because someone who is so blindly biased against 50% of world Jewry (those who live in Israel) has no place in a leadership role in a Jewish organization dedicated to all of the social values that Israel does stand for (such as women’s rights, gay rights, and democracy), in the face of the values of her neighbors: subjugating women, publicly executing homosexuals, and installing oppressive regimes that rule for decades and took violent revolutions to overthrow, costing the lives of thousands on innocents. AVODAH aims to improve the world through focusing on issues of (domestic) urban poverty, education, homelessness, food insecurity, etc. These are all issues faced by Israelis both Jewish and Arab, and that can be learned about on a trip to Israel. AVODAH is not directly involved in issues of land disputes and sovereignty, nor does it officially take any stand on global politics. If one views visiting Israel and learning about social issues as “covering up” atrocities, then that person needs to realize that their advocacy boarders on obsession, and that they have only bought into the vitriol spouted by Israel-haters and anti-Semites alike for decades. One final note on BDS: British author Ian McEwan said it best regarding his acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize, “I don’t feel I endorse every corner of Israel’s domestic or foreign policy…but I feel it’s right to engage with it.”

    Meredith Levy
    AVODAH – Washington, DC 2004-2005

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I don’t think it’s quite fair to Michael to say that because he opposes Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians (which you do not address anywhere in your comment) that this makes him “blindly biased against the Jews who live in Israel.” He is not taking a position against the citizens of Israel, he is taking a principled stand against the institutional repression embodied in the actions of their state.

      In regard to the liberal “social values” you cite: it has been widely reported that Israel’s liberal democracy does simply not extend to its non-Jewish citizens. (I strongly encourage you to read Adalah’s recent “Inequity Report on the Palestinian Minority in Israel”). It is simply disingenuous to purport to examine the social challenges facing both “Jews and Arabs” in Israel without examining the deeply problematic ethnically-based institutional reasons for their existence in the first place. These are valid concerns and they cannot be so easily dismissed by simply pointing to the abuses of Israel’s “neighbors.”

      AVODAH may not take stands on global politics, but by sponsoring a “social justice” trip to a country embroiled in one of the most controversial conflicts in the world and then totally ignore this conflict it is most certainly taking a stand on it whether it intends to or not. Trust me, as this status-quo becomes ever more entrenched and the reality of Israel’s oppression becomes even more patently obvious, it will be increasingly more difficult for our community to ignore this reality by sponsoring trips such as this. In this regard, “cover-up” is a very appropriate term – and we should applaud Michael’s willingness to point it out to us.

      If this be “obsession,” then I’d say we could use more of it in our community.

      1. Ben

        Rabbi Rosen,

        I want to respond to your reply to Meredith’s response. The primary goal of this trip is to show the participants other social service agencies within Israel that are working on behalf of both Jews and Arabs. I would also be concerned if in learning about the plight of those people there was no mention of a significant cause of their disenfranchised status- the occupation of the West Bank and other instances of obvious oppression. Unfortunately it is just not true that the trip is ignoring these issues. Throughout this discussion within the Avodah alumni community, the Avodah staff have been communicating with us that the trip itinerary remains in flux and that they are responding to community input. They also say that the trip will include meetings with many organizations within Israel that work on behalf of Arab citizens directly affected by oppression and discrimination, including organizations funded through the New Israel Fund, as well as its Social Justice fellows. Just because these efforts don’t go as far as Michael would like does NOT mean that the trip is ignoring the issue of the occupation. To require that every single trip to Israel also make a stop into the West Bank doesn’t seem like an appropriate precedent to make.

        I think it can be dangerous to get in the middle of this discussion without knowing the facts. Again, I cannot stress this enough- Avodah is not ignoring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this trip. Avodah is not an active participant in covering up oppression and it is deeply offensive to Avodah and the work we as alumni are doing to suggest that it is.


        Ben Fogel
        Avodah Chicago Alum

  4. Steve Hinman

    For those of us on the progressive left who champion freedom and human rights, let’s get serious. The BDS will likely never be more than a rallying call for the hard left – do you really think people will refuse to use their Israel developed Intel computer chips, turn off their Israel developed voice mail, or not take their Israel manufactured generic drugs? Let’s turn our focus to the urgent crisis in Syria. 3,500 freedom protesters have been killed in recent months. It feels like the beginning of a repeat from when former Syrian president Assed killed between 17 – 40,000 of his own people putting down a rebelion in 1982. Yet we on the left remain silent…

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      I think your words “let’s turn our focus” speak volumes – and I believe your use of these words proves Michael’s point perfectly. The Jewish community (and this includes “we on the left”) has “turned it’s focus” toward human rights abuses in Arab countries for decades while willfully turning its focus away from Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians. Michael is one example of growing numbers of young Jews who are tired of this imbalance and are looking to re-right our focus.

      On the issue of Arab vs. Israeli human rights abuse, I’d recommend this important analysis by Moshe Yaroni, who had this to say in Zeek magazine last year:

      This is a tired argument. Few states enjoy such close cooperation in the diplomatic, industrial, political and economic arenas with the United States than Israel. None of these countries have the kinds of human rights violations allegations made against it that Israel does due to a forty three year long occupation, one that has only grown harsher and more complex in its severity since the peace process first began in the early 1990s.

      Israel is welcomed into the family of Western democracies, by the US and Europe, and therefore enjoys many benefits that Arab states and Iran and other states do not. Israel’s recent admission to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is the latest example. These benefits should carry with it raised expectations—Israel is supposed to behave better than Iran or Saudi Arabia.

      The occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are very serious issues. They are sources of immiseration and exploitation, with enormous global consequences. It is a fallacy to suggest that these issues, which involve American governmental and corporate support to a much greater degree than many other issues, cannot be protested simply because there are worse problems in other places.

      1. Richard Kahn

        I’ve been thinking more and more about the argument that we should be more concerned about Israel human rights abuses because the U.S. supports them, and I’m not sure if it holds. If people are suffering, I don’t really see why it matters that the U.S. is funding the regimes or not. Of course, the U.S. shouldn’t be aiding human rights abuses. But the question should not be “which human rights abuses are indirectly caused by us?” but “which human rights abuses can we have the most impact on?” By not devoting resources to other human rights abuses, aren’t we indirectly supporting them? We are indirectly supporting anything that we’re not trying to stop.

        This isn’t supposed to be polemical. I’m seriously interested in your response.

  5. i_like_ike52

    After having followed your blog for some time, I have come to the realization that the world Israel evokes only one emotion in your minds….revulsion. Israel has only one meaning to you : “oppression of the Palestinians”. It seems to have no existence other than that. During your congregations visit to the Palestinians some time ago, I never saw one reference that your group even stopped in Israel itself. As Jews, you seem to have no interest in what your fellow Jews have done over the last century to pick themselves up by their bootstraps after experiencing the pogroms and Holocaust in Europe and the endemic persecution the Jews faced in the Middle East and Ethiopia in the same period. In spite of this historical baggage and the violent opposition of the Palestinians and Israel’s other neighbors these Jews managed to build a country, that although is imperfect, does work and even serves as a model to many other people around the world. This leaves you cold. You only care about the supposed “oppression of the Palestinian people” even though they have a major share in the creation of the situation they are in. As I note from things you have stated in the past, in addition to Deheeger’s comment about the “enforced exile of the Palestinian refugees” that the ending of Israel ‘occupation’ of the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state would do nothing to sanitize Israel in your eyes, because no Israeli gov’t is going to allow the so-called “Palestinian right of return” and so the refugees are not going to return to Israsel no matter what. You have stated yourself that the very creation of Israel was a crime so nothing Israel can do will ever satisfy you except to vanish.
    You certainly exhibit a lot of passion on this issue.

    1. Fazal

      No one is denying the oppression, genocide, prejudice that Jews have dealt with especially most recently in a large scale in Germany. The only question is why are the Palestinians being made to suffer for the acts of WWII Europe. That makes no sense. Shouldn’t Europe (for the genocide and for ignoring it) pay for that? It is simple, now spin it as much as you want.

  6. Nancy Bruski

    Congratulations to Michael for following his beliefs, even at the cost of potential harm to his own personal interests. This is the true test of our principles…we can all “talk the talk.” How many of us actually “walk the walk?” Michael is doing so and shining the light of day onto even such a basically good and worthwhile organization like Avodah, which when it turns its back on elements of its principles in order to secure funding, buys into the “ends justify the means” concept, which usually leads to corruption of the ends as well as the corruption of the means.

    I am deeply admiring and appreciative of you, Michael. And of course, always of you, Brant as well! We are lucky to have you both in our community as such powerful advocates.

  7. Shirley Gould

    I stand with Meredith Levy, even if I’m the only one. My main objection to the “Poor Palestinians” point of view is that they as a whole are depicted as suffering massive injustices perpetrated by Isreal and those who support her. There’s more to this situation than the one sided positions that are so often taken. No good can come out of any efforts unless the problems are seen in toto — not just that Israel is always correct nor that the Palestinians are always suffering . I want to see the distorted spectacles removed and reality expressed and examined.

  8. Barbara Engel

    I feel great admiration and respect for Michael and his lovingly principled position; leaving Avodah because it doesn’t live up to to its own standards of just and ethical behavior. I appreciate your courage in taking that step and creating the space for another important conversation that reflects the growing disenchantment in the larger Jewish community with the Israeli government’s policy of occupation, and concomitant abuse of Palestinians. We (Jews) have spent centuries experiencing abuse by others, it hurts my heart that the Israeli government ( with support by a significant portion of the Israeli and American Jewish community) treats Palestinians with abject brutality and profound disrespect.That ugliness is completely contrary to all I was taught in my Jewish home, and all I believe about the way to live and co-exist in the world. Thank you Michael and Brant. In Peace, Barbara Engel

  9. joan - Wilmette

    Michael, per your second to last paragraph, I suggest that there is another choice: that is to work together with ALL GROUPS and find a solution that is respectful and prudent for all of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. There is no social justice in blaming one side or the other exclusively for the area’s problems. Perhaps joining in the Avodah-AJWS trip and encouraging them to view a refugee camp, while those on the other side look at Israel’s positive accomplishments would allow for a truly open discussion that looks for a resolution instead of who is most at fault. I believe that those who claim Israel is all wrong-all the time, are no more in search of a solution than those who say the Palestianians are the indisputable victims.

  10. Yasmine A., Chicago

    Salaam Michael,
    It is only when communities on both sides of this conflict stand up together and speak out against injustice and oppression will change ever happen. We need more courageous voices like yours to bring honest discussions about Israel’s policy of occupation within the mainstream American Jewish establishment. Occupation can never be sugar-coated or rationalized.

  11. TM

    The automatic branding of Israel as “oppressor” by so many here who count themselves as “progressive” is not just sad, it’s laughable.

    The “oppressor” of which you speak has been the subsidizer of the very schools from which Adalah’s fine lawyers graduated. The “oppressor” in fact is subsidizing a BDS movement founder’s (Barghouti) current Tel Aviv University education. The “Oppressor” is the first country in the Middle East to allow Arab women to have and keep the vote and in fact to allow its Arabs to have an honest vote that counts.

    The Palestinians, for example, despite having the ability to call elections any time they wish have preferred to have the “one vote, one time” model. That’s called “dictatorship” and since Israel does not interfere in the Palestinian elections, the Avodah members and former members who are so concerned about oppression of the Palestinians are apparently blaming Israel for ills which are the fault of the Palestinians. By the way, the Palestinian press is controlled by the PNA and other organs of the Palestinian government. Freedom of expression is not known in areas under Palestinian control which is why you will find the Palestinians “on message” all the time. Just like they’re on message in hiding homosexuality and on message in demanding the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

    Back to the “oppressive” Jewish state. Israel’s Arab male citizens have higher life expectancy than American males. As you can imagine this is much higher than life expectancy in Arab and virtually all Muslim countries. It is lower than Jewish life expectancy, but Jews in Israel don’t have consanguineous marriages, unlike many of the country’s Arabs, which can have devastating health consequences. Israeli Arabs represent a percentage of university and higher education students in Israel on par with their percentage in Israeli society. Before you jump and say “But what about the Palestinians in the Territory,” their life expectancy is higher than almost all other Arab countries and they have more universities than Israel – all of which came into being after Israel took over in 1967.

    Now we can debate whether checkpoints are oppressive and whether the security barrier is oppressive. We can debate whether having a military presence in areas where Jews live is oppressive. It most certainly isn’t a picnic for the Arabs or the Israelis. Strange thing, though, is that everybody seems to forget that once upon a time, say about eleven years ago, Israel was cooperating with Palestinian security and checkpoints were few and the security barrier didn’t exist. Then the Palestinians were made two peace offers and they launched a war of terror that brought about the loss of territory in their control, brought about additional security measures by Israel and caused the barrier to be constructed.

    And then Israel left Gaza down to every last Jewish resident and soldier. It got war in return. I have family in Sderot so spare me the stories and justifications. The Gazans were lucky Israel was so patient before it finally retaliated. Then Israel made another peace offer. This one, like the one before it, offered them all of Gaza, 95% of Judea and Samaria (West Bank is what Jordan named this area without any justification or historical right while Judea and Samaria, despite Abbas’s denials, are historic names of this area), 1:1 land exchange for the remaining 5% of land, removal of all settlements and settlers outside that 5%, tens of billions of dollars in reparations, a divided Jerusalem, a compromise on the holy sites (first offer suggested division within autonomy, second offer offered division within statehood while third offer included an internationalized Holy Basin) and most important, a Palestinian state to which Palestinian refugees may return. Israel even agreed to take in tens of thousands of actual refugees (that is, 1948 refugees).

    Israel got no’s to the first two offers and a silent walk-away from the third offer. Moreover, it got this disgusting international diplomatic war in which Mr. Deheeger and Rabbi Rosen appear to be soldiers. Shills who have bought into the lie of Palestinian non-responsibility for their own fate and who use their Jewishness to further those lies. It’s not just pathetic, it’s actually one of the key reasons there is no peace. If the Palestinians did not see such shills doing their dirty work for them, they would not possess the swaggering confidence that they are actually going to win this extermination war against Israel. But thanks to the shills, they believe they have not just a chance, but a good chance of winning.

    Too bad for them and too bad for us all. Israel is not going anywhere. Israel is an amazing country that despite its many challenges has managed to build a society that remains vibrantly democratic (I’d like to see what happens to any American politician who would dare to do what Ahmad Tibi or Haneen Zoabi do – can you imagine a congressman going aboard a ship intended to supply the Taliban in Afghanistan?), possesses a strong and free press, a strong and free judiciary and a military that has managed to hold off several countries whose populations number multiple times Israel’s population. Israel has built an incredible cultural, business and sciences infrastructure and a warm Jewish society that has found expression for Jewish culture that comes from many different avenues. It is a society that contains people from over 100 nationalities, all races, multiple Jewish streams and yet manages to hold itself together! Amazingly, the same freedom of religion and expression applies to Israeli Arabs of all denominations, not just allies such as the Druze but also Shia and Sunnis, B’ahai and Bedouin who worship freely, speak freely, vote freely, are enabled to work and earn freely and who consistently answer in poll after poll that they would rather not live anywhere else or under the rule of anybody else, particularly not the Palestinians from the Territories.

    All the Palestinians need and needed to do to end the “oppression” is agree to a peace deal. I am willing to bet, however, that those of you here who are so concerned about Israeli “oppression” of the Palestinians and of Israeli Arabs are busy denouncing Israel instead of compelling your Palestinian friends and allies to compromise and come to terms with Israel.

    In the meantime, the Palestinians are running one of the most sophisticated propaganda and diplomatic efforts the world has ever seen. They live off endless gifts instead of their own economy (no, it’s not the checkpoints, it’s the terrorism – prior to their war in 2000, they had a higher per capita income than Egypt’s). They go to the UN and beat off the United States, no less. And yet you continue to treat them as if they are infantile and need help against the “oppressor.” Like I said earlier, it’s sad and laughable. End the occupation? Sure, just ask Abbas to sign the deal that gives him virtually all of the land he supposedly wants, Eastern Jerusalem and even joint control of the Holy Basin. Go ahead! Make peace.

  12. Pingback: Charting a Life of Commitment | AVODAH: Jewish Voices Pursuing Justice

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