Anti-Racism as a Sacred Jewish Value: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5777


I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:

Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.

“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.”

Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”

I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”

I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.

I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.

What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.

To quote from their introduction:

We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…

Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.

This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”

Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it?  But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)

Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.

Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.

Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.

These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.

There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.

I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)

There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:

With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.

It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:

Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…

We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.

Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.

Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.

So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.

Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.

In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.

Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.

Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:

Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.

So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.

Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.

So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:

1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.

2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.

3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations.” According to some estimates, 10% to 20% of Jews in this country are Jews of color. Estimates of black Jews in the US range from 20,000 to 200,000. And unlike white Jews, Jews of color are impacted by institutional racism. Any new anti-racist paradigm must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.

4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.

After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.

May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.


Celebrating a New Jewish Diasporism: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777


A synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”

This is how we explain this particular core value:

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.

However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”

It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.

Read the rest of this entry »

Guest Post: Observations on the Jewish Response to the Movement for Black Lives Platform from a Self Loving Antiracist White Jew

imageA guest post from my friend Martin Friedman:

For the purpose of this piece I will be referring to Blacks who are for the most part gentile and white Jews (Jews who have come to get the racial designation of White in the context of the US regardless of self identification).

This particular piece is really written for Jews who have come to be called White. Jews who are also people of color are writing excellent pieces from their unique perspective. I will not attempt to speak from that perspective.

What a(nother) crucial time for relationships between “Blacks” and “Jews”! What will we choose? Will we, as we have done so many times in the past, choose whiteness and the perceived safety that we feel goes with that in the US or will we choose to align ourselves with those that are most oppressed in a given society? This is a very familiar spot for the Ashkenazi (and occasionally Sephardi) Jew who now gets a racial designation as white in the US.

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Jewish, in the United States, isn’t a race. It is a culture that includes both spirituality and religion and also includes non religious ways of life. Jewish is also, arguably, an ethnicity based on being a cultural marker that has traveled with us and defined us. In this country Jewish is not a race.

So please, Ashkenazi Jews, just stop saying, “I’m not white. I’m Jewish.” Yes we are Jewish and we will also be assigned a race based on how we are commonly perceived by institutions and systems. How we see ourselves or how we self identify does not matter in this race-constructed and race-constitutionalized country. A Jewish person who is also Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or mixed race will be identified first by their race even as they self identify as a Jew.

OK, let’s get something else out of the way too. I am a self loving Jew (who is also white). I love my Jewishness. I am unapologetically Jewish. So let’s just wipe out the whole, “Oh, he must be a self hating Jew because he isn’t mortally offended that the Movement for Black Lives platform used the terminology of genocidal and apartheid policies in relationship to Israel.” Or, “Oh, we don’t have to listen to Martin because he went to Israel and visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been critical of Israeli policy on his Facebook page”. Not true! On my grand and great grandparents! On my great Aunt Leah from whom I got my middle name. I love my Jewishness! I love the connection I feel to my Eastern European Jewish heritage.

I am also in love with an ideal of Jewishness that isn’t rooted in whiteness and domination. A Jewish ideal of true Tikkun Olam; of Repairing the world. All the world! Not just a world defined by whiteness or Europeanness. Not a world where we get to control the conversation.

The world is broken. Does our refusing to engage with BLM help repair it? Can we repair it if we don’t engage with people who criticize current Israeli policy and US financial and Military support for the government that developed and enforces those policies?

It’s time for White Jews to stop choosing whiteness and align ourselves with those most oppressed in the US because that is what true Jewishness is about. And why wouldn’t we? The point of the Movement for Black Lives Platform was to speak truth to all power, not to use pleasing language. It is our duty to sit across the table from people who have been most oppressed in our country and hear what they have to say about what they perceive to be genocidal policy that’s connected to Institutional, Systemic and Structural Racism in the US.

What are we afraid of? Why are we, of all people, afraid of conversation about oppression? If the policies of the Israeli government really are leading to a fair two or one state solution, why can’t we sit at a table and discuss it? Remember, the one piece of the platform we are so hyped up about is about governmental policy both here and in Israel not about hating or oppressing Jews? Remember that Egypt was mentioned at the same time as Israel? I hope we are not forgetting those things because this is just an easy reason to disengage.

We are a people who have such a long history of debate and multiple interpretations of the same text (or in this case policies) so why are we shutting this conversation down? Because of multigenerational historical trauma from the European Holocaust? All the more reason to sit down with people who have multigenerational historical trauma from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and US chattel slavery. Multigenerational trauma from lynchings and Jim Crow. From a Eugenics narrative that was studied here in the US by German Nazis. My people, we share roots in our historical trauma.

We, White Jews, have confused comfort with safety. And the root of that confusion is the root of the problem, power. Power is defined (by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) as legitimate access to institutions and systems sanctioned by the state. Power that is equivalent to Whiteness. People that have strong access to institutional and systemic power confuse discomfort with safety all the time.

I put forth, vehemently, that the wording of one section of the Movement for Black Lives platform makes us uncomfortable, not unsafe. We must be willing to engage. It’s pure privilege to get to pick and choose when and with whom we engage on this subject. It’s extreme privilege to just say no, I’m done. Extreme privilege to be able to shut someone down.

This is another in a long line of moments in history where we as white Jews get to chose alignment with whiteness or with People of Color. And what’s even crazier this time is that it feels like it’s our Jewishness that is at stake. It’s even crazier because it feels like this is anti Semitism. Again, being anti-Israeli policy and anti-US government policy is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic.

Historically, we’ve chosen the perceived safety of whiteness. Our ability to become fully White was due to governmental policy, the GI bill plus redlining which gave us our whiteness while excluding Blacks and Latinos who such a short time earlier had been our partners and friends. But they couldn’t access it in the same way as we could due to racism.

Yes, many of us were in the civil rights movement. Yes, many of us marched side by side. But we let ourselves get coopted so soon after. We chose whiteness because it got us out of the ghetto (named because of us by the way!) It was our literal ghetto pass. We need to understand that we left our brothers and sisters behind.

What are the costs of choosing Whiteness over Jewishness? One of the costs of our comfort and our privilege is Black and Brown lives. As long as we align ourselves with whiteness we contribute to the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of institutions. Their deaths are part of the the cost of our comfort, safety and privilege.

The other loss is the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. That it means to not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. That it means true Tikkun Olam. We are at such a(nother) crucial time of choice.

Let’s choose our Jewishness over Whiteness this time. Let’s choose life.

A Prayer for the Global Shabbat Against Home Demolitions

The very sad news came yesterday that Israel had demolished Palestinian homes throughout the West Bank, including five in Umm al-Kheir – the village I visited last month with a delegation from the Center For Jewish Nonviolence.  Susiya, another village we visited is also under threat of immanent demolition. Please join me in signing this petition to urge Secretary of State Kerry to “to use the leverage the United States has, as Israel’s biggest supporter, to put real pressure on Israel to stop displacing Palestinian families from their homes.”

This Friday night August 12, will mark the Global Shabbat Against Home Demolitions – an international show of solidarity with Palestinians who live with daily possibility that their homes will be destroyed and their families uprooted. Click here to see if there is a gathering near you. If not, please consider organizing one.

A Prayer for the Steadfast

This is a prayer for the steadfast,
the ones who stand firm,
the ones who say:
you can destroy my house
but you will never destroy my home.

This is a prayer for the ones
who lose their fields
only to clear new ones,
uprooting weeds, moving stones,
planting zatar seedlings
in the hot summer sun.

This is a prayer for the ones
who sift through the rubble of their homes
and find dolls, blankets, tea canisters,
photos of ancestors gazing at them
through shattered glass.

This is a prayer for the ones
who live in tents
next to twisted steel and broken concrete
knowing they will have to rebuild
before winter comes again.

This is a prayer for the ones
who issue appeals
and stays and petitions
to courts that issue no justice.

This is a prayer for the ones
who put their children to bed at night
in huts of corrugated metal,
praying they will not awaken
to the sounds of bulldozers.

This is a prayer for the ones
who stand amidst the ruins
once the soldiers have gone
and silently vow:
demolish our houses again
if you choose
but we will never leave.

We will rebuild, we will replant,
we will remain.

Our very existence
is resistance.

Jewish Solidarity with Black Lives Matter: We Can’t Have it Both Ways


The Black Lives Matter movement has just taken a huge and important step. A new coalition called Movement 4 Black Lives recently released “Vision for Black Lives,” a powerful, comprehensive policy statement released by thirty grassroots organizations and endorsed by sixty others.

“Vision for Black Lives” is the product of a collaborative research and writing process that took more than a year by an eight person team – and is intensely relevant to the current political moment.  Team member Marbre Stahly-Butts summed up the purpose of the statement this way: “Democrats and Republicans are offering anemic solutions to the problems that our communities face… We are seeking transformation, not just tweaks.”

In contrast to the hollow posturing that counts for political discourse in the US, the M4BLM platform offers an important alternative vision: a deep analysis of how systems of oppression intersect and the devastating impact they have on people/communities of color. It’s particularly vital because it doesn’t come from a political party, think tank or special interest lobby, but rather directly from the grassroots communities most impacted by racism and oppression. In so doing, it represents a huge step toward the creation of a real movement for social and political change in our country.

As journalist Collier Myerson recently wrote in Fusion:

This is a really, really big deal. By shedding its previous identity as a largely reactionary, structureless movement, Black Lives Matter seeks to definitively lead the national discussion on the safety, health, and freedom of black people. Painting the movement with a broad brush is a seismic shift. And it’s a shift that Occupy Wall Street never put in motion, a failure which many point to as the reason for the movement’s eventual dissolution. The list of demands set forth by M4BL explicitly unifies organizations across the United States—and though the goals are purposefully lofty, it’s a significant move towards harnessing the power of local groups into something bigger.

Vision for Black Lives has been welcomed enthusiastically by many allies in this growing movement (such as those fighting for immigrant justice for instance). And as for the Jewish communal establishment?  For its part, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston angrily “disassociated” itself from the statement, calling it “false” and “malicious”. Why?  Because in the midst of this vast and extensive platform, the M4BLM statement referred to Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinian people and expressed its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Actually, I wouldn’t expect anything else from an organization such as the Boston JCRC. Earlier this year, in fact, David Bernstein, the President and CEO of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (the parent organization of JCRCs around the country), wrote an op-ed in which he thoroughly denounced “the solidarity between the Black Lives Matter and Palestine movements” and made a strong pitch for finding allies that will help them drive a wedge into Black-Palestinian solidarity. (Notably the Boston JCRC statement referred to its “friends and neighbors in the African-American community” who share their views on Israel and Zionism.)

I was very disappointed however, to read a statement released by Tru’ah – a progressive rabbinical organization that advocates for human rights that has in the past articulated strong support of BLM. Yet in their immediate response to the M4BLM platform, T’ruah spent almost all of its wordage decrying the genocide reference and BLM’s support for BDS.

Though I have many friends and colleagues in T’ruah whose work I respect greatly, I find this statement much more disturbing than the one released by the Boston JCRC. While the latter group openly vilifies the BLM movement, T’ruah purports to stand in solidarity with them. As opposed to more conservative Jewish establishment institutions, I’ve always had the impression that T’ruah truly “got it” when it came to the BLM movement.

On T’ruah’s website, for instance, you will find a powerful “Prayer for Black Lives Matter“. You will also find a post written by Rabbi Susan Talve and Sarah Barasch-Hagans entitled “10 Rules for Engagement for White Jews Joining the Black Lives Matter Movement,” a smart and insightful document that appears to grasp the complex issue of allyship. Among the rules listed are “Practice Deep Listening and Less Talking;” “Do Your Own Communities’ Work” and “Hold Yourself Accountable”.

In the rule, “Go outside of your comfort zone while staying in your lane,” the authors write:

Pay attention. Don’t hide when it gets messy. We all have a role to play and we will all make mistakes. Accept guidance. Remember this is a movement to awaken compassion. No name calling. “Call people in” rather than calling them out. Give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. We are all sad and scared (or should be). Faith communities can be bridge builders, healers, and witnesses in this movement to make Black and Brown lives matter.

Sadly, T’ruah itself has broken its own rule by releasing this statement. If they truly purport to stand in solidarity with BLM, they cannot publicly “call them out” because their new platform lands outside their comfort zone. If they were to be true to their own articulated values, T’ruah should have reached out to them, engaged with them and tried to understand where they were coming from, thus opening a real dialogue. T’ruah does not give the BLM “the benefit of the doubt” when it issues an immediate counter-statement such as this; tantamount to a group in a position of power saying to an oppressed group, “we will stand in solidarity with you but only on our terms.”

The claim that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinians undeniably pushes all kinds of buttons for many Jews. But there are also Jews and Israelis who feel it is not an inappropriate word to use, particularly in regard to Israel’s regular military assaults against Gaza. Likewise, while the BDS call is extraordinarily controversial for many Jews, there are also Jews who respect it as a legitimate call for nonviolent resistance from over 150 Palestinian civil society organizations. And it is simply not true to claim, as T’ruah does, that “the BDS movement (rejects) Israel’s right to exist.” On the contrary, the goal of the BDS call is equal rights for Palestinians as well as Jews.

But even if T’ruah feels it is wrong for BLM to refer to Israel in this manner, it can’t claim to stand in solidarity with them while publicly calling them out over the parts that make them uncomfortable. Rather, they should hold themselves to their own standard by “calling BLM in,” engaging with them and be “bridge builders” – especially in the places where there is pain or disagreement.

At the end of the day however, I don’t think this is T’ruah’s issue alone – it’s a challenge for the entire progressive Jewish community at large. If we claim to ascribe to a power analysis that views systems of oppression as intersectional and interrelated, we simply constantly cannot make an exception when it comes to Israel. The black community is increasingly finding common cause with Palestinians – and for good reason. Both are oppressed by the same systems, the same weapons, and the same security companies. It is not by coincidence that American police departments around the country are increasingly trained by the Israeli military.

If we truly seek to be to relevant this undeniably growing movement, we need to make these connections as well. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.

“Occupation is Not Our Judaism” – Some Final Thoughts

video by A. Daniel Roth

Even though I’ve been back from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence delegation for almost a week now, I’ll take this opportunity to end this series with some final closing thoughts. There’s so much I wasn’t able to cover – and so much more to say about what I did – but I do at least want to highlight some of my major takeaways from this amazing experience.

To start: I have no doubt in my mind now that a genuine diaspora-based Jewish movement for Palestinian solidarity is rapidly growing. It’s real, it’s broad based and its gaining some serious traction. When I was first invited by CJNV founder Ilana Sumka to join this delegation, I went to their website and read that the trip would include Jews who come from a wide spectrum of organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, Open Hillel, If Not Now and Students for Justice in Palestine. I will admit I was dubious. It was simply unprecedented for a Jewish organization to bring such an ideologically diverse array of Jews together to stand in solidarity with Palestinians.

But I also knew that if anyone could build such a Jewish coalition together, it was an organizer such as Ilana, who invests her head and her heart in creative and inspiring ways. The mission and values of CJNV are powerfully straightforward: the conviction that all individuals are equal based on our shared humanity and therefore have the right to be treated equally under the law; a commitment to principles and practices of nonviolent resistance; and unwavering opposition to Israel’s unjust occupation.

In our group there were obviously real political differences (i.e. BDS, the specific meaning of “occupation” and one state vs. two) but in the end we weren’t there to debate our issues – we were there to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Because of our diversity we had a real strength in numbers; indeed it’s hard to dismiss 40 diaspora Jews openly responding to a call from Palestinians to stand with them in their struggle. It will be even harder next year, when CJNV organizes 200 diaspora Jews to answer the call. I have no doubt in my mind that there will be at least that many participants – if not more.

I also believe that this movement is the real deal because the majority of participants on this delegation were Jewish millennials. I’ve seen this coming for a while now: back in 2010 I wrote that there was a growing generation of young proud Jews who were openly rejecting the Jewish establishment’s orthodoxy on Israel. And I noted that they were “growing in number (and) rapidly finding their voice.”

Well, I’ve believe they’ve found their collective voice. Journalist Peter Beinart, who has also been warning the Jewish establishment about this phenomenon for some time, attended our action and later wrote in Ha’artez that after talking with these young activists, he “realized how formidable a challenge they’re likely to pose to the American Jewish establishment in the years to come.”

Another takeaway from this experience for me was the critical importance of solidarity as a discipline as well as a value. Far too often, leftist activists approach this kind of work using what I would call a “liberal benevolence” paradigm – i.e. helping oppressed people on their own terms rather than taking their lead from those who are most directly affected by this oppression. It was very clear to us through the course of this delegation that the leadership of CJNV had cultivated genuine, longtime relationships with Palestinians activists and Palestinian resistance groups on the ground. And every step of the way, we were reminded that the actions we undertook were at the request of our Palestinian partners.

It was crucial for us to understand that in the end, this is not ultimately our struggle – and that as diaspora Jews we have real power and privilege that we cannot take for granted. On the contrary, we were there to leverage our privilege to support the Palestinian struggle and to shine a light on a system that privileges one group of people over another in such blatant and immoral ways. In Susiya, the only reason the Palestinian villagers could return to visit their original homes was because as Jews, we could purchase tickets to an archaeological park for our entire group. In Hebron, we were well aware that as diaspora Jews, we could garner publicity about Tel Rumeida to an extent that would never be afforded to Palestinians alone. We were also we aware that as diaspora Jews, we were treated far better than the Palestinian activists from Youth Against the Settlements, who were arrested virtually on the spot by the IDF and Israeli police as we continued to work and sing.

It is our hope that through our privilege, we were be able to spotlight the courageous leadership of Palestinian nonviolent leaders such as Aziz and Eid Hathaleen of Umm al-Kheir, Nasser Nawaja of Susiya, Issa Amro of Hebron and Zuheir Elrajabi of Batan al-Hawa and so many others who engage in resistance every single day in their communities. It has been our honor to get to know them, to support their struggle and to do what we can to bring their work to the attention of the world so that many more might stand with them as well.

Yet another gift from this delegation: the opportunity to get to know the Israeli members of the Palestine solidarity community. It is too often said that there is “no longer such a thing as the Israeli left.” While this may be true politically, there is a small but thriving movement of Israeli grassroots activists who actively support the Palestinian struggle and are themselves worthy of our support. I’m referring to groups such as Tayush, All That’s Left, Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence among others, who join direct actions, document abuses, help rebuild homes and provide legal support with their Palestinian partners. These Israeli activists are intensely stigmatized and marginalized by Israeli society – and are too often physically harmed in the process. To my mind, however, they are all that remains of the Jewish ethical soul in Israel. As the far right continues its inexorable political ascendance, I do believe these activists are among only ones left standing between sanity and the abyss. It was such an honor to work alongside them as well.

One final takeaway:

I mentioned in an earlier post that our Cinema Hebron action took place at an old factory owned by Jawad Abu Aisha. The Abu Aisha family is in fact, a venerable family in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. Like many families there, they originally had amicable relations with the Jewish communities up until the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  This relative peace was tragically rent asunder in 1929 when growing Arab-Jewish tensions resulted in the brutal murder of 67 Jews in Hebron. The trauma of this moment remains fixed in the memory of many Jewish Israelis. What is lesser known is that many more Jews would have been killed had they not been saved by their Palestinian neighbors.

The Abu Aisha family were among those neighbors. And to this day they keep a sacred record of their family’s redemptive act in 1929:

The paper that (Muhammad) Abu Aisha keeps in his pocket … is a faded photocopy of a page of “The Hebron Book,” a deluxe album that was published at the start of the 1970s in order to perpetuate the memory of the Jewish community that lived in the town until the massacre in 1929. Even though he does not read Hebrew, he knows very well what is written on the page, an account of those among the Arabs of Hebron who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. At the bottom of the page is a blurred photograph of two men embracing. “This is Ya’akov Ezra and this is my father, Hamed Abu Aisha,” says the elderly man.

As radical Jewish settlers began to move back into the heart of Hebron in the 1980s, the Abu Aisha family, like many other Palestinian families in that area, became targets of harassment and abuse. For at least two decades now the Abu Aisha family lives in what is known as the “caged house” in Tel Rumeida, with iron bars across their windows to protect them from settler violence. Their house and its adjoining properties are considered prime real estate by the extremist settler community who has been gradually encroaching on their property with the tacit permission of the Israeli civil authority.

But as our group worked alongside Palestinians from Tel Rumeida to clear garbage and weeds from the Abu Aisha’s property that Friday morning, I couldn’t help but think of the time not so long ago when the Jews and Palestinians lived together, side by side, not separated by “sterile roads” and caged windows.

And I couldn’t help but think that in some small redemptive way, our action might somehow be bringing Hebron that much closer to such a time once again.


Rooftop Resistance and Street Celebration in Silwan

Sunday, July 17:  We spent most of our day in the Palestinian village of Silwan, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Like Hebron, Silwan is being targeted by extremist settlers who are moving into the heart of their community, displacing residents in the process.

Our visit began at the Ir David (“City of David”) archaeological park. I first visited Ir David in the early 1980s, when it was a relatively small site where civilians could come and sift through the dirt for pot shards. Today, Ir David is nothing short of an archaeological Disneyland – and this is not an exaggeration.

summer2016-landingAs we approached, we walked alongside a slick mural with a David’s Harp mascot. The site itself was massive and felt like a state of the art theme park, packed with families and schoolchildren. Near the ticket booth, we could hear harp music softly playing in the background. On the surface at least, it would appear that this is a place for Israelis of all ages to have fun making Biblical history come alive. But there is a seriously darker side to the history of Ir David.

Ir David is run by Elad, a private settler association that seeks to claim land and create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem. Elad’s founder is David Be’eri, a former deputy commander of an Israeli special forces unit. After starting Elad in 1986, Be’eri targeted his first home in Silwan: pretending to be a tour guide, he collected information about the the owners of the house (the family of Musa El Abassi). He then learned that some members of the Abassi family were living abroad – which meant the property could be confiscated under Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950 (which allowed Israelis to move into homes vacated when Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 Nakba).

Our host was longtime Silwan leader/activist Zuheir Elrajabi. After lunch in the Al Bustan neighborhood, Zuheir took us on a short tour along Silwan’s narrow winding streets. Because of its proximity to Ir David, Al Bustan is a prime target for Elad; residents there have been living in real fear over the “legal” status of their land and property rights. Current plans for the area call for the demolition of 88 homes inhabited by 114 families (1,123 individuals) in order to construct a “King David’s Garden.”

We then walked up to Batan al-Hawa, another Silwan neighborhood targeted area by extremist Jewish settlers. This effort has been organized by Ateret Cohanim, an organization seeking to create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. (Take a close look at the pic below and see if you can spot the home occupied by Jewish settlers):


In some cases, families are evicted for adding on to their homes without a building permit (which are almost never issued to Palestinians). In other cases, Ateret Cohanim does research to see if any of the homes or buildings were owned by Jews prior to 1948; if so, they use legal means to “reclaim” Jewish ownership. (Perversely ironic considering the Absentee Property Law of 1950 invoked in Al Bustan argues exactly the opposite: that Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948 forfeit the right to return to their homes).

Zuheir took us through the increasingly narrow streets of Batan al-Hawa, taking time to show one such home, a building with several units. All have been taken over by Jewish families except for one. The new Jewish residents have put a large metal door in the main entrance so the Palestinian family must ask the Jewish residents to open the door for them each time they need to enter or exit. The small number of settlers hire armed security guards to accompany them wherever they go – during the course of the day it was impossible to ignore these men with their wearing bullet proof vests walking up and down the streets of Silwan.

The situation at another home was even more dismal. The original owners, the Abu Nab family, had lived in the building since 1948, after their family was expelled from their home in present day West Jerusalem. Last year, it was ruled that Jewish settlers could take over the building because it was discovered that a Yemenite Jewish family owned it in the 19th century. As Zuheir showed us the front of the home, a large armored van pulled up and two security guards came around. An ultra-orthodox woman holding a baby with a toddler at her side got quickly out the van and walked quickly into the home with the guards following close by.

Most of the Abu Nab family have left the home except for a remnant that lives in a small structure at the rear of the building. Since that time, the settler family has thrown garbage down on and around their home and knocked their satellite dish off of their roof. In order to enter and exit the building, they must go up a small ladder in the rear of a home two houses away (first pic below), cross the roof of the home next door, then go down a long ladder to the ground where their small house is located (second pic below).



CJNV and All That’s Left had been asked to help the the Abu Nab family and their neighbors to clean up the area around their home – so for the rest of the afternoon we worked with them to haul garbage out of the site under the watchful eyes of the settlers and their security guards. In the clip below, taken and narrated by CJNV staff Shlomo Roth, you’ll get a good idea of how we spent our afternoon:

That evening, we engaged in another form of “Existence is Resistance.” In conversations with Zuheir and other leaders in Silwan, it was determined that we should take the opportunity of our visit to help the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood organize a block party in front of the Abu Nab home. The community felt that a party would be just the thing, given the day to day stress of eviction and dispossession constantly hanging over their heads. It would also give the children of the neighborhood the opportunity to run free and play – something they rarely do because of the narrow streets and intimidating presence of the armed security guards.

So while many of us were helping clean up the Abu Nab home, others from our group helped decorate the street with balloon and signs, chairs and tables. Then, as evening fell, our revels began. (See clip at the top of the post and below):

I think many in our delegation would agree that the Batan al-Hawa block party was one of the emotional high points of a trip that had many such moments. On the one hand it felt like a normal everyday party with children running, laughing and dancing, plenty of food, great music blasting. But during it all I was keenly aware that this “normal” party was nothing of the sort – it was something that rarely, if ever occurs in the oppressed environs of Silwan. Given the injustice inflicted every day on the residents of Silwan, even an ordinary party is itself a form of civil resistance.

About halfway through the party, we saw three men hauling something large wending their way through the crowd. As they got closer I could see it was the broken-off satellite dish we had hauled up out of the garbage piled next to the Abu Nab home. We placed it up against a wall at the end of the block. The dish was now a piece of art. Festively painted with a green and yellow peace sign, it bore the message: “Welcome to Batan al-Hawa”- “We Love Silwan.”