Sermon for Yom Kippur 5778: Another World is Possible – A Jewish View on Police/Prison Abolition

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In 1902, Clarence Darrow delivered a speech to a group of inmates at the Cook County Jail. Never known for mincing his words, he made the following point:

There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now….They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

There’s no record of what the prison administration thought of his remarks, but I think it’s fair to assume they weren’t happy.

Another anecdote, this one more recent: Two years ago, after the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and several Dallas police officers, Fox News hosted a panel discussion on police violence. One of panelists was a young African American activist and rapper named Jessica Disu. The discussion inevitably started to get heated. Disu didn’t mix in for the most part, but when someone accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the death of cops, Disu finally spoke up.

Speaking over the din, she said, “This is the reason our young people are hopeless in America.” Then she added, “Here’s a solution, we need to abolish the police.” The panel quickly descended into pandemonium.

Disu later commented that she had never previously considered herself to be a police abolitionist. But since that evening, she said, abolition has come to be the only way forward that makes sense to her. “It’s more than a repair, she said. “We need something new.”

It’s safe to say that liberal White Americans are starting to struggle with the deep legacy of institutional racism in our country. There seems to be something of an awakening to the ways that racism so painfully intersects with policing and the prison industrial complex. Of course this is an awakening to a reality that marginalized peoples have long known: that the problems of racism and violence are systemic to American society and always have been.

But while increasing numbers of liberal Americans understand this larger system of oppression, we’re nowhere near consensus on what to do about it. However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that most would not call themselves abolitionists – to say that the prison industrial complex is so incorrigibly violent, it needs to be completely dismantled. Most would likely believe such thoughts to be the product of naive, utopian minds.

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore the contemporary movement for police and prison abolition more deeply. I don’t believe that the contemporary abolitionist movement is anywhere near as simplistic as its critics make it out to be. At the very least, I think there’s a need for real debate on this issue. Should we be seeking incremental or fundamental change? Which approach will ultimately be the most effective? What theories of change have historically yielded results? Whether we agree with them or not, abolitionist arguments have an important place in this debate.

I think it is altogether appropriate to explore these questions on Yom Kippur: the day in which we look out across the year to come and vow that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. This is the day that we stand together and swear that we are indeed better than this. This is the day we imagine collectively what it will take to set the world right.

I’m sure many people struggle with the very word “abolition.” When most hear the term they’re likely to think of the 18th-19th century movement to abolish the American slave trade. The end of slavery however, did not signal the end of racist institutions that oppress black and brown people in our country – on the contrary, they have morphed into different more “socially acceptable” systems of oppression. Michelle Alexander put it very well in her book The New Jim Crow:

Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. (p. 21)

As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s much too easy to assume that since we’ve abolished slavery and dismantled Jim Crow, institutional racism is now a thing of the past. Indeed, the statistics show otherwise: 1 out of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime; black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white women; someone who is black and unarmed is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than someone who is white and unarmed; in the federal system black people receive sentences that are 10% longer than white people for the same crimes. The litany of course, goes on and on.

The contemporary abolitionist movement began in the early 1970s and gained steam in the late 1990s, when the activist/scholar Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that coined the term “prison industrial complex.” According to its mission:

Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages … An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Many may be surprised to learn that number of prominent national organizations are avowedly abolitionist. Two years ago, for instance, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution calling for “the dismantling and abolition of all prisons and of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons.” Last year, the Movement for Black Lives released a platform that stated, among other things:

Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.

Over the past decade, Chicago has become an important hub for abolitionist organizing. This is due in no small way to the efforts of organizer/activist Mariame Kaba, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before recently moving back to New York. During her years here, Kaba influenced a generation of young organizers who now lead some of the most important local organizations that protest police brutality and have created new models for community safety and restorative justice.

In an interview two years ago, this is how Mariame Kaba defined abolition:

(W)hen I talk about abolition, it’s not mainly a project of dismantling, though that’s critically important. It’s actually a project of building. It’s a positive project that is intended to show what we believe justice really looks like…For me, abolition involves how we are going to organize ourselves to be safe. And right now we devolve the authority for keeping us safe to the state. If you were to begin a conversation around abolition, the question is, “How would we, as communities, as autonomous spaces, decide what we would do when harm occurs?” We would have to think those things through together. That’s a collective project.

One of the primary goals of the new abolitionist movement is to shine a light on the vast amounts of wealth we spend on policing, prisons and surveillance – and to advocate for a greater investment in our communities. Currently, the United States spends more than $80 billion annually on our criminal justice system. Here in Chicago, we spend $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. Nearly 40% of our city budget is allotted to the Chicago Police Department (compared to around 1% for Chicago Public Schools).

But it’s not just a numbers game. Examining how we use public funds goes to the heart of the question of what actually creates safety. Is it more police or more community investment? Benji Hart, a Chicago abolitionist activist/educator wrote about this powerfully in one of my favorite blog posts on the subject, “You are Already an Abolitionist:”

Last summer, while working as a camp counselor during the week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castle were both shot by law enforcement, I ended up sitting down with a group of almost entirely wealthy, white elementary-aged kids to talk about the police. One of the questions we asked ourselves was why there was so much violence in certain parts of our city, namely on the South and West sides, and not in others. One student suggested that maybe it was because there weren’t enough police to protect those neighborhoods.

We sat on the floor of an arts studio in Lincoln Square, a majority white and very wealthy neighborhood on the North side, in which many of the students lived. I asked them how often, when walking to camp, they had seen police cars patrolling the neighborhood, or stopping people on the street. Almost none of them had. I admitted that I hadn’t, either.

“If there are so few police in this neighborhood,” I asked, “why do we feel safe here?”

It took a moment for the young people to think it through, but they got there on their own: Resources. There was low crime in Lincoln Square because most people there had places to live and good food to eat. There were lots of stores and restaurants, and people could afford to shop and dine there. There were quality schools, libraries, parks and after-school programs, many of them within walking distance from one another. It was access to the basic things people needed, not the presence of police, that made its residents feel secure.

Last week, Tzedek Chicago held an action for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah outside of Rahm Emanuel’s office in City Hall in support of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. This new initiative is protesting the Mayor’s recently unveiled plan to spend $95 million to build a Police and Fire training center in West Garfield Park – a neighborhood that recently closed six schools. The campaign is demanding a redirecting of this $95 million into Chicago’s most marginalized communities. As the campaign’s statement puts it:

Real community safety comes from fully-funded schools and mental health centers, robust after-school and job training programs, and social and economic justice. We want investment in our communities, not expanded resources for police.

While it’s certainly a daunting prospect to organize against a project this massive, it’s important to note that abolitionist organizations have played key roles in some notable political victories over the past several years. We Charge Genocide and Project NIA were integral to the coalition that won a $5.5 million reparations settlement for victims of torture by the Chicago Police Department. Here’s another example: many states across the country use cash bail systems that force poor defendants to remain in jail while awaiting trial – sometimes for months – because they cannot afford to pay their bail. This past summer, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans signed an order which will strengthen the directive to judges to set bonds that defendants are actually able to pay. This victory was due in no small part to the organizing efforts of the Chicago Community Bond Fund – a local organization that raises money for people who cannot afford to pay their own bail. The CCBF and other advocates for the abolition of monetary bond continue to monitor courtrooms to ensure judges are complying with the new law.

Critics of abolition invariably say it’s unrealistic and naive to advocate for something so radical – something we know can never and will never happen. To my mind, however, this claim misses the essential point of this movement. Contemporary abolitionists begin by asking the questions: What is the world we wish to see? How would this world promote real collective safety – through armed policing or community investment? How would it handle transgressive behavior – through restorative or retributive justice? After these questions have been fully explored, local community initiatives are created to demonstrate such a world in action. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of these organizations here in Chicago: the Chicago Childcare Collective, Curt’s Cafe, Circles and Ciphers, the People’s Response Team, the Let Us Breathe Collective and Mothers Against Senseless Killing are just a few examples.

In addition to local initiatives, abolitionist organizations also develop strategies for organizing toward policy change on a wider scale. If you visit the website of the Movement for Black Lives, you will see a plethora of extensive policy recommendations on community control, economic justice, ending the war on black people and more. In the words of the platform: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.”

Abolitionist thinking thus focuses on the world we are trying to create, not merely the individual problems we are trying to solve. For abolitionists, a vision of the world as it should be is always the starting point. And when you think about it, why not? Why not aim for the world that we want rather than the world that we are willing to settle for? If our starting point is “the ideal is not possible” aren’t we automatically rendering it impossible? At this current moment there are forces in our country who have no compunction about abolishing wholesale the institutions that actually protect the public good. If we ever hope to stand them down we’re going to have to be at least as visionary as they are.

Now I realize that there may be some here who aren’t able or ready to go to this place – who feel the concept is just too extreme. And I’m not standing here making a pitch for us to formally become an abolitionist congregation. But I do think these ideas are at the heart of an immensely important debate. And if there is a congregation anywhere in the country that can have this conversation, I believe it’s Tzedek Chicago.

After all, this isn’t only a political issue – it’s a religious one as well. Jewish tradition, like all religions has a great deal to say about “creating the world we all want to see.” Indeed, one of the most important functions of religion is to assert that another world, a better world is possible – and to help us live our lives in such a way that we may ultimately bring it about.

I would suggest that there is a significant tradition of abolitionist thinking in Judaism. The sabbatical and Jubilee years are perhaps the most prime examples, both of which are commandments that come directly from the Torah. The Sabbatical (or “Shemitah”) year is commanded to be observed every seven years, when all debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings are open to the commons and basic staples such as food storage and perennial harvests are freely redistributed and made accessible to all. On the Jubilee (the “Yovel”) year, which comes every fiftieth year, all Israelites who had been enslaved during the previous forty nine years are granted their freedom and any properties purchased during that time are returned to their original owners.

There’s been a great deal of rabbinical commentary over the centuries that attempt to explain how something so economically and socially radical could possibly be have been observed. Whether or not this ever was the case, it’s important to note that these commandments are still read, studied and debated in our tradition’s most sacred text. Moreover, they continue to have political impact centuries after they were written. The Liberty Bell, which became the central symbol of the original American abolitionist movement contains the Biblical commandment for the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” The Jubilee also inspired the debt forgiveness initiative known as Jubilee 2000, which sought to cancel the crippling debts that plague the poorest nations in our world.

I would claim that Shabbat is at heart an abolitionist concept as well. When you think about it, the notion to cease from creative work every seventh day is an exceedingly radical concept. Shabbat essentially commands us to take one day every week to leave the world as we know it and experience the world as it should be. According to traditional liturgy, Shabbat is a day in which there is no “tzarah, ve’yagon, va’anacha” – “distress, pain or mourning.” On the seventh day, the sages teach us, we get to experience a taste of “Olam Ha’ba” – the “world to come.”

In other words, Shabbat is not merely a day of personal rest and replenishment. It’s a day in which we pause from our efforts to change the world so that we may dwell in the world we are praying and working and struggling for: the world as it should be. And when Shabbat ends hopefully we are that much more inspired to make that world a reality.

Just as Shabbat is much more than a long litany of prohibitions, abolitionism is so much more than dismantling of oppressive institutions. In the words of Mariame Kaba, “You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want. The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”

I’d like to end now with my new version of Psalm 92 – the Song for the Day of Shabbat – to give you a sense of how we might understand these values in spiritual context. We’ve already used this Psalm several times at Tzedek Chicago Shabbat services. I offer it to you now in honor of this Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778:

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.
They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.
Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.
See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.
So tonight we raise the cup;
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

May this be a new year in which we find the strength to affirm that another world is possible. May that vision keep us going – and may it inspire us to do what we must to make it so.

Amen.

To be Black and Jewish after Charlottesville: A Guest Post by Lesley Williams

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This is a text of a speech given today by Lesley Williams at a “Call to Renewed Action Against Racism and Neo-Fascism” held by the Resist, Reimagine, Rebuild Coalition of Chicago. Lesley spoke on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace – Chicago, one of the member organizations of the coalition.

I stand here today as a Jew by Choice and the child and grandchild of the Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans fled racist terror in the South only to encounter redlining, discrimination and police violence in the north and midwest.

Like all of you, I have mourned and raged over the overt racism and antisemitism seen in Charlottesville. I have watched in horror as avowed racists defiantly parade in Klan robes and swastikas. I have listened to the anguish of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as they are forced to confront the historical trauma of the Nazi era.

As both a Jew and an African American, I recoil from the white supremacy and antisemitism on display this week. I have been gratified to hear Jewish leaders and organizations call for the destruction of racism, speaking eloquently about the shared history of oppression Jews and African Americans have faced.

Yet, I confess to a certain discomfort in the many appeals to recognize the twin evils of antisemitism and anti black racism in Charlottesville. I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week, and here’s  what I’ve realized: for Jews, Nazi symbols evoke a terrifying, traumatic past. For African Americans, they evoke a terrifying, traumatic, unending present. White Jews may be shocked at this undeniable evidence of US racism; African Americans merely see more of the same. Black people did not need to be reminded by hoods and swastikas that we live in a dangerously racist country.

White Jews are not under the same level of threat as people of color. In short, white Jews need to accept that they are white and that whatever harassments or humiliation they may experience from antisemites, they nevertheless dwell under the all encompassing shelter of white privilege. Police do not murder them in custody, their votes are not systematically undermined; they do not overwhelmingly live in poverty or adjacent to poverty. The two documented lynchings of American Jews, though horrific, pale in comparison to the nearly four thousand lynchings of black men, women and children in US history.  The lifestyle and life expectancy of the average white Jewish American is not materially different from that of the white non Jewish majority; there is no institutional antisemitism.

Furthermore, white America is generally more accepting of discussing and acknowledging the history of anti semitism than they are the currency of anti black racism.

As James Baldwin wrote in a classic 1967 essay:

One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering.

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him.

For white Jewish Americans, the US has always been the Promised Land. Yet African Americans know it is Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Not only do white Jews of good conscience need to acknowledge that they are not the primary victims of white supremacy, they need to look at how their own institutions have not only failed to challenge, but in some cases are openly complicit in its preservation.

For example, the Anti Defamation League, which presents itself as a champion of civil rights and “tolerance” once spied against the NAACP and the African National Congress. A 1993 lawsuit regarding the ADL’s extensive spying on Muslim, Arab, anti-apartheid and other political activists also revealed that the ADL spied on and passed information to South African authorities on African National Congress leader Chris Hani, shortly before his assassination.

As JVP points out in our Deadly Exchange campaign, the ADL, and other Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and Chicago’s own Jewish United Fund  all organize police, ICE and Homeland Security training exchanges in which American and Israeli police officers share tactics of oppression, teaching each other the aggressive, militarized police strategies which have led to the deaths of African Americans like Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Laquan Macdonald; and Palestinians such as Mahmoud Khalaf Lafy, Omar Ahmad Lutfi Khalil, and Siham Rateb Rashid Nimer.

Meanwhile, according to their own tax filings, many cities’ Jewish Federations, including Chicago’s Jewish United Fund contribute generously to groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as leading anti-Muslim extremists,  groups like the Middle East Forum and the Investigative Project on Terror, which laid the intellectual groundwork for Trump’s Muslim Ban. It’s no coincidence that these groups are all tremendously supportive of Israel’s brutal policies toward Palestinians.

All of this is done in the name of Jewish security, either in the US or in Israel. So I ask my white Jewish friends and family: is the perceived safety of people who look like you worth the continued oppression, incarceration and murder of people who look like me?

Last summer when African Americans challenged white America to support the Platform for Black Lives, nearly every Jewish organization in the country condemned its indictment of the genocidal oppression experienced by Palestinians in Israel .None was more critical, dismissive and patronizing than Jonathan Greenblatt, the president of the ADL, who urged African Americans to “keep our eyes on the prize”, and to remember that it is Jews, not African Americans who “know from genocide”.

I hope that the obscenity of Charlottesville will lead all Americans to examine their complicity in tolerating institutional oppression. But in particular, Jewish Voice for Peace calls on our own Jewish community to condemn and disavow our organizational support of racism and Islamophobia, both past and present. We must embrace a vision for safety that does not come at the expense of communities of color. Only then can we truly claim to stand together in genuine, rather than merely symbolic solidarity.

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

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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” – a term that utterly erases the presence of black Jews from our community. Any new anti-racist paradigm we formulate 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.

Amen.

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

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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.

On Passover, Israel and Demographic Threats

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Crossposted with Truthout

The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover is coming to a close, but like many Jews around the world I’m still digesting the myriad questions, answers and discussions that ensued as we retold the biblical story of the Exodus at our seder. While it’s a story our community returns to over and over again, I’m continually astonished at the ways it provides a frame for understanding struggles for liberation past and present.

This year, I’ve been contemplating one aspect of the story in particular: when a new pharaoh arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph.” We immediately learn in no uncertain terms that this new ruler was considerably more xenophobic than his predecessor:

And (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:8-9)

To use contemporary parlance, Pharaoh clearly views the Israelites as a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians.

The demographic threat meme, of course, has been played out countless times since the age of the pharaohs. It has certainly been a deeply woven thread in the fabric of American culture from our very origins. To cite but one example: Centuries before Donald Trump started railing against Mexican “criminals” and “rapists,” Benjamin Franklin wrote a 1751 essay in which he bemoaned the influx of “Palatine Boors” into the colonies who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

So yes, as an American, I can’t read these words from the Exodus story without connecting it to an ignoble aspect of my own country’s legacy — one that is all too real even today.

And as an American Jew, I can’t help but connect it to another country that also purports to act in my name.

Indeed, ever since Israel’s establishment, Zionist leaders knew well that the future Jewish state would only be “viable” if it could create and maintain a demographic Jewish majority in historic Palestine. In the late 19th century, this must surely have seemed like a tall order, since Jews constituted but 2 to 5 percent of the population. By 1947, following decades of Zionist colonization and Jewish immigration, their number had swelled to 32 percent. Under the UN-sponsored partition plan, the percentage of Jews allotted to the new Jewish state would have been 55 percent.

During the 1948 war — known as the War of Independence by Zionists and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) by Palestinians — the issue of demographics was solved through the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and Israel’s refusal to allow them to return. However, the demographic stakes were raised once again in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began a military occupation that exists to this day.

In 2010, Jews officially become a minority population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; around the same time, it was determined that the Jewish majority in Israel proper was slowly diminishing. For some time now, Zionists have been warning that the Palestinians’ birth rate poses a “demographic threat” to the future of the Jewish state.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t only come from Israel’s far right, but from liberal Zionists, who use the demographic argument to advocate for a two-state solution. Witness, for instance, the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.

Leaving aside the issues of whether or not the two-state solution actually is the policyof the Israeli government, let’s unpack this statement for a moment. The liberal Zionist argument for a “democratic Jewish state” is predicated on a view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” As an American, if I referred to any other ethnic group in this country with such a term, I would surely be viewed as a bigot or a racist. But as a Jew, I can refer to Palestinians with this epithet and still remain a member in good standing of the liberal peace camp.

Thus the inherent contradiction of liberal Zionism: democracy and demographic engineering simply do not go hand in hand. At the end of the day, there is nothing liberal about supporting an ethno-national project predicated upon the identity of one group over another. The late Meir Kahane, revered by Israel’s ultra right, loved to make liberal Zionists squirm by repeatedly articulating this point: “A western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.”

Kahane’s solution, of course, was “forced transfer” of the Palestinian population. The current government of Israel is accomplishing this goal through more subtle means:home demolitions, land expropriation and the revocation of Palestinians’ residency and citizenship. In truth, Israel has been dealing with its demographic threat under cover of US support for years, all the while claiming the mantle of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

This, along with its massive settlement expansion has brought Israel’s demographic problem home to roost. The real decision before them is not between a one-state or two-state solution, but between two one-state solutions: an apartheid Jewish state or one state of all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

As I watch this tragic process unfold this Passover, I find myself returning to the universal lesson this festival imparts on the corrupt abuse of state power. Although the Exodus story is considered sacred in Jewish tradition, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary state of Israel must be seen as equivalent to the biblical Israelites.

On the contrary, any people who suffer under oppressive government policies are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that views a people in its midst as a demographic threat can become a Pharaoh.

Standing Down Legal Segregation on Yom Hashoah

bibleinjail21 Today marks Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and as it turns out, this year it falls on a serendipitous milestone: namely the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Although MLK wrote his letter to respond to the reality of Jim Crow in the American South, I do believe his words have much to offer us as we remember those who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II – in particular, King’s insistence on the moral imperative to break unjust laws and the inherent immorality of legal segregation:

(There) are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.

In light of King’s words, it is worth noting that the rise of Nazism in Germany was facilitated by largely “legal” means – through a myriad of  laws and regulations that successfully segregated them from the rest of German society.  King himself pointed this out in his letter when he wrote:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal…” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

In this regard, Dr. King’s insight might well inspire us to commemorate this sacred day by redoubling our resolve to eradicate laws that segregate peoples on the basis of their national, ethnic or religious identities.

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Segregated Shuhada street in Hebron, February 2012 (photo: Hithabrut-Tarabut)

While it pains me to say it, I cannot help but note that the very country that first established Holocaust Remembrance Day itself enforces its own form of legal segregation between Jews and non-Jews. As one Israeli observer wrote in Ha’aretz five years ago, “Segregation of Jews and Arabs in Israel…is almost absolute.” In the West Bank, Jews and non-Jews are segregated by separate legal systems, separate roads, separate transportation systems, and in some cases, separate sidewalks. And in Gaza, Palestinians are segregated from the outside world entirely.

I have no doubt that there will be those who consider it unseemly of me – or worse – to point this out on Yom Hashoah of all days. To this inevitable criticism, I can only respond, how can we purport to take the lessons of the Shoah to heart while ignoring realities such as these? How long will we, as Jews, look way from these unjust laws in Israel that “distort the soul and damage the personality?” On this, of all days, shouldn’t we, as King suggested in his letter, “bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive?”

May the memory of the fallen be for a blessing.

A Rabbi at AFSC: Quaker and Jewish connections – Part 1

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refguee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha'aretz)

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refugee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha’aretz)

(Crossposted with Acting in Faith)

When I tell people that I’ve just started working for the American Friends Service Committee, some will inevitably scratch their heads and ask, “What is a rabbi doing working for a Quaker organization?”

Those who know me well, know enough not to ask. During my twenty-plus years as a congregational rabbi/activist, I’ve often worked alongside AFSC staff and progressive Quakers, particularly on the issue of Mideast peace and justice. I’ve cultivated a wonderful ongoing relationship with the Friends Meeting in my hometown of Evanston and have spoken there on more than one occasion. During the course of my travels throughout the peace and justice activist community in Chicago and beyond, I can say without hesitation that some of my best friends have been Friends.

For those who do ask, I explain that while AFSC is a Quaker organization, it is wonderfully multi-faith in its composition. I’m certainly not the first Jew to work for AFSC (nor am I even the first rabbi – my friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb served as Co-Director of AFSC’s Middle East Program in San Francisco from 2007 to 2009). Since the announcement of my hiring, in fact, I’ve heard from increasing numbers of Jewish friends and colleagues who have told me of their involvement in AFSC in various capacities over the years.

Of course this connection is more than merely anecdotal; there are in fact important historical affinities between Quakers and Jews. During the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, our respective communities have been proportionally well represented in progressive movements of social change, particularly in the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Our faith communities are also historically linked by the heroic efforts of Quakers and the AFSC to help save thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust and to provide relief for scores of Jewish refugees in the war’s aftermath.

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

In more recent years, it would be fair to say that the Quaker-Jewish connection has become somewhat fractured over the Israel-Palestine issue. While this subject deserves consideration in another blog post, I will only say for now that I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those in my community who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. I would add as well that there are increasing numbers of Jews like myself who reject the nationalism/militarism of Zionism in favor of a Jewish vision that promotes peace with justice and full rights for all who live in the land. I do believe that this trend is providing an important new place of connection between Jews and Quakers – particularly among a younger generation of activists and organizers.

Beyond these historical connections, I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring a different form of Quaker-Jewish encounter: namely, the deeper spiritual commonalities between our respective faith traditions themselves. I do believe that this Jewish-Quaker connection transcends simple political affinity. In this regard, I’ve been particularly struck by Jews who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Jewish tradition while at the same time unabashedly embrace Quaker practice and spirituality.

For instance, Claire Gorfinkel, who worked for the AFSC for many years and attends both a Quaker Meeting and a Jewish synagogue, explored this territory memorably in her 2000 Pendle Hill pamphlet, “I Have Always Wanted to be Jewish – And Now Thanks to the Religious Society of Friends I Am.”

For Gorfinkel, the most critical point of commonality between these two faiths lies in their rejection of Divine intermediation as well as their powerful ethical traditions:

For both Quakerism and Judaism, God is directly accessible to the seeker, without need for priests or other intermediaries. God appears in the faces of our community and in the wonders of our natural world.

For both traditions, faith and the words we use are far less important than how we treat one another and our environment. Our human worth is measured in acts of loving kindness, “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with your God.” (p. 31)

More recently, Jonathan Zasloff, a Jewish law professor at UCLA wrote a powerful piece for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal entitled, “Some of My Best Jews are Friends.” In his article, a commentary on Prophetic portion for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Zasloff revealed that he regularly attends a Quaker meeting – and that the practice of silence “has deeply enhanced (his) Jewish practice.”

Contending that “silence and individual spiritual expression” are “absent from modern Judaism,” he suggested “there is no reason why Jews cannot adopt Quaker practice:”

Some form of silent worship has a long tradition in Judaism, one that our people has regrettably allowed to lapse. The Talmudic sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Moses Maimonides) interpreted this as silent motionlessness in order “to settle their minds and quiet their thoughts.”

As a Jew who also finds a comfortable spiritual home in the Quaker community, I’m encouraged and excited by these kinds of connections. In our increasingly multi-faith 21st century, I firmly believe it is time to seek out those places where we might lift up and celebrate our spiritual commonalities rather than simply fall back upon a religious tribalism for its own sake.

As I think more about potential areas of further Jewish – Quaker encounter, I am particularly intrigued by the parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish religious values. Indeed, when I first read AFSC’s booklet “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” I was immediately struck by a myriad of connections – causing me to think more deeply about the similar ways these ideals have been understood and acted upon in unique ways by our respective faith traditions.

As I read through them, I’m struck by a number of questions. As a Jew who has found a comfortable home in the Quaker community, I wonder:

To what extent do these testimonies/values reflect the unique experiences of our respective faith communities?

What is ultimately more important: the uniqueness of our paths or our shared vision of universal peace and justice?

And how might we find the wherewithal, despite our differences, to travel this road together?