Category Archives: Colonialism

Punishing Gaza: When Narratives Collide

I delivered this sermon yesterday at Second Unitarian Universalist Church of Chicago:

When Reverend Jason invited me to give the sermon to you today, I had some idea of what I wanted to talk to you about. My original thought was to address the idea of collective narrative. To explore the stories communities tell about themselves – and the often unintended impact those stories have on our lives and on our world.

I think it’s important to understand the way collective narratives can blind us to the narratives of others. It’s particularly critical for communities of power and privilege to understand how the stories tell about themselves affect their actions toward disenfranchised communities. Or more to the point, the communities they disenfranchise.

I think it’s safe to say that white America is starting to challenge the dominant narratives that are told about the birth of this country – and the harm they continue to cause to this very day. In a very similar way, increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community are now starting to confront the Zionist narrative that has been instilled in us for the past 73 years. Much like the American narrative, it is also rooted in colonialism and racism – i.e., the story of about a nation created on the backs of a dispossessed and disenfranchised people. 

However, given the terrible, tragic events that are still ongoing now in Palestine/Israel, I’ve decided to address this issue in a more immediate way – and a more personal way. In particular, I want to talk to you about Gaza. I’ve chosen this subject because that’s where the greatest and most tragic violence is occurring right now. I also believe Gaza epitomizes the ways Israel’s national narrative has inflicted harm on Palestinians – and how it continues to inflict such unthinkable harm even as we speak.

The subject of Gaza also has a special place in my own heart. In 2008, Israel launched a military operation on Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead” not unlike the one we are witnessing at this very moment. This event became a pivotal turning point in my own relationship to Israel/Palestine – and to Zionism in general.

By the end of this “operation,” the Israeli military killed over 1,300 Palestinians, including 300 children. Beyond my anguish over these horrific casualties, it was the response of many in my Jewish community that shook me to my core. The rationalizations. The moral equivocation. The inability to face with the wider context in which these actions were occurring. The vilification of those – including many reputable human rights organizations – who suggested that Israel’s actions constituted war crimes and even crimes against humanity. 

Then it happened again in 2014: the Israeli military killed over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, 495 of whom were children. And now today: Israel is once again unleashing overwhelming military firepower against a population of 2,000,000 whom they’ve blockaded in a tiny strip of land and who literally have nowhere to run. This is not a difficult moral calculus for me anymore – as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as human being of conscience. 

Like many American Jews, my identity growing up was profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. The redemptive nature of this narrative assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it did for many American Jews of my generation and older.

Politically speaking, I identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I connected in particular with Israel’s Labor Zionist origins and generally aligned myself with positions advocated by the Israeli left and the Israeli peace movement. When it came to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, I’d invariably intone a familiar refrain of liberal Zionists: “It’s complicated.”

2008, however, was a tipping point for me. I read about the bombing of schools, whole families wiped out, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated to me anymore. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.

My relationship to Gaza deepened yet further in 2017, when I visited Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee to meet with our programmatic staff there. I don’t know any other way to say it other than that I now take Gaza very, very personally. I have been indelibly transformed by my experience of there and by the friendships that I cherish to this day. As a result, it has given me an even deeper sensitivity into a narrative about a place that has become hideously twisted, even by the most well-meaning of people.

Too often, I believe, we tend to fetishize Gaza and Gazans, describing them alternatively as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. And since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So for some time now, it’s been something of a personal mission of mine to try and expand the one-dimensional narratives that are routinely told about Gaza. To contextualize Gaza’s history with information that is generally unknown to most of the world but is absolutely critical if we want a deeper understanding of the events currently unfolding there. I also see it as a mission to shine a light on the moral and religious challenge that Gaza presents to the Jewish community – and to all people of conscience. 

First, a brief geography tutorial: what we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, this term historically refers to a much larger territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world and was a major port and an important stop along the spice and incense route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

Of course if folks associate Gaza with anything today, it’s with violence, refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that this is a relatively recent phenomenon in its history. The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages who had been expelled from their homes by Zionist militias. Before the outset of war, the population of this small strip of land numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of this area were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the British mandate.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their own towns and villages through the barbed wire fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher in that narrow corridor. The population of that once sparse territory has now grown to almost 2,000,000 people.

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature.

As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements. One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and he expressed himself himself in his eulogy with remarkable candor:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us?  For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.

It’s now 73 later and Israel continues to rule with a barbed wire fence and the barrel of a gun. Just as importantly, the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors’ desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located – in some cases just a few short kilometers from where currently live. 

As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit there. One afternoon, while we were traveling north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali explained that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948. 

It’s not difficult to grasp the sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Unlike most memorials, which commemorate what was lost and is never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their home cities and villages to be lost at all. On the contrary, I believe these benches testify that these places are still very real to them. And to their faith that they will one day return home.

When we consider the narrative of Gaza, I believe we must keep this critical piece of context in mind: long before there was a Hamas, Palestinians in Gaza have been resisting their oppression – and Israel has been retaliating brutally against their resistance. Of course, when we do the moral calculus, we can argue about the strategic sense and morality of the rockets Hamas fires into Israel – as many Palestinians do.  But if we truly seek to understand Gaza’s narrative, we must honestly ask ourselves – what would we ourselves do in their situation?

As I noted earlier, many white Americans are starting to reckon seriously with the colonial narratives instilled about the birth of this country. The narratives of the powerful and the privileged have great power. But when they collide with the narratives of those they’ve disenfranchised, the impact can sometimes create a spark of transformation – it can indeed, lead to the construction of a new and more just narrative. The Black Lives Matter protests that were born last summer are a powerful example of this phenomenon. I think we’ve all been astonished and inspired by a new narrative struggling to be born in this country.

I fervently believe there is a potential for a similar transformation in Israel/Palestine. It will not happen easily, or painlessly, but I do believe it can happen. In a very real sense, it has to happen. 

May we commit ourselves to this transformation – and may it happen soon in our day. 

On Hanukkah, Let’s Rededicate Our Commitment to Environmental Justice

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TOMERTU / SHUTTERSTOCK

Cross-posted with Truthout

The central story commemorated on Hanukkah comes from books 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tells of a small group of Jews in the land of Israel that fought to liberate their community from the increasingly oppressive reign of the Seleucid empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the empire had imposed their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish community; in 167 BCE, Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice. The Jewish band known as the Maccabees subsequently waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the temple and ultimately, the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth.

The meaning of Hanukkah has historically been understood and interpreted in many different ways by Jewish communities throughout the centuries. For the rabbis of the Talmud, who sought to downplay the militarism and violence of the story, the holiday is emblematic of God’s miraculous power, symbolized famously by the Talmudic legend (quoted above) of a miraculous cruse of oil in the rededicated Temple that lasted for eight days. The Zionist movement and the state of Israel celebrate Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, glorifying the Maccabees’ military struggle for political independence. In many nations throughout the Jewish diaspora, the festival is often understood as an expression of Jewish minority pride and a celebration of religious freedom.

More recently, some American Jewish religious leaders have been reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday of sacred environmental concern, framing the legend of the oil as a lesson about the importance of energy sustainability. Jewish environmental activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for instance, has proposed observing “Eight Days of Environmental Action” during Hanukkah, suggesting that the legend “is a reminder that if we have the courage to change our lifestyles to conserve energy, the miracle of our own creativity will sustain us.” The website of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) now devotes an entire section to “Green Resources for Hanukkah.” The Jewish environmental organization Hazon also offers extensive resources for the holiday, including “10 Ways to Make your Hanukkah More Sustainable.”

While these new approaches are certainly meaningful as far as they go, it is worth questioning why the environmental dimensions of Hanukkah must begin and end with green personal behaviors. Given that the festival celebrates a struggle for liberation, Hanukkah also offers us a powerful opportunity to highlight and celebrate the emergent global movement for environmental justice.

This connection is particularly relevant since this struggle is unfolding in critical ways in the land where the Hanukkah story actually took place. In fact, the state of Israel has a well-documented history of monopolizing and exploiting the natural resources of historic Palestine — all too often at the expense of the Palestinian people themselves. If we are truly serious about celebrating Hanukkah as a “green holiday,” we should also use these eight days to shine a light on the myriad environmental injustices being committed in Israel/Palestine — and further, to rededicate ourselves to the movement for environmental justice there and around the world.

“Green Colonialism” in Israel/Palestine

Environmentalism has always been central to the myth of Zionist pioneers who described themselves as having “greened the barren desert” of Palestine. Like many of my generation who came of age in American Jewish religious schools, I well remember being taught that helping the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant pine trees in Israel was an act of almost sacred significance. Like generations of Hebrew school students before and after us, we were encouraged to regularly put coins in the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes and were given certificates as gifts whenever a tree was planted in our honor or for a special occasion.

The reality beneath this mythos, however, reveals a much more problematic and troubling history. We didn’t learn the crucial colonial goal behind the JNF’s forestation policy throughout Palestine — that the widespread planting of pine groves and forests was instrumental in the dispossession of Palestinians. We certainly didn’t learn about Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF from 1932 to 1948, who was a primary architect of the Zionist policy of Palestinian Arab “transfer,” often advocating for this policy openly and unabashedly.

At a meeting of the Transfer Committee in 1937, for instance, Weitz stated:

The transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.

It is now known that pine forests planted by the JNF were widely used as national and recreational parks to hide the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages and neighborhoods that were depopulated by force in 1948. According to scholars Ilan Pappé and Samer Jaber, “covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible.” The Israeli organization Zochrot estimates that “more than two-thirds of [JNF] forests and sites — 46 out of 68 — conceal or are located on the ruins of Palestinian villages demolished by Israel.”

In a recent conference call sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), journalist/activist Naomi Klein referred to this practice as “green colonialism,” pointing out that “the use of conservation and tree planting and forest protection as a tool of settler colonialism is not unique to Israel” and that “the creation of state parks and national parks (in North America) are seen by Indigenous people in these settler colonial contexts in similar ways.” According to Klein, “there is a long and ongoing history of conservation … where the land is declared a park and the traditional inhabitants and users of the land are locked out.”

The cumulative environmental impact of nonindigenous pine trees throughout historic Palestine has been devasting. European pines, which were consciously planted to evoke the memory of the forests familiar to Zionist settlers, have largely failed to adapt to the local soil, requiring frequent replanting. As they have aged, non-native pines also have demanded more and more water, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, falling pine needles have acidified the soil, inhibiting the growth of native species.

This practice, coupled with the steadily soaring temperatures in the region, has increasingly led to devastating forest fires such as the Carmel wildfire in 2010, estimated to be the worst in Israel’s history. Given its grievous environmental impact, the 2010 fire subsequently precipitated a widespread reassessment in Israel of early Zionist tree-planting policies. In 2011, Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the JNF, grudgingly admitted, “Planting is still important, but in many cases we have to make a kind of change in our consciousness.…We are now building sustainable forestry after these pioneering pines did a wonderful job for the first generation.”

Of course, given the rising threat of the global climate crisis, this admission arrives as too little, too late. Increasingly dangerous conflagrations are now a regular occurrence throughout Israel; this past summer, three simultaneous wildfires necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of residents across the country. This trend is particularly ominous given that this region is among the hardest hit by the climate crisis. At the UN Climate Conference in Madrid this month, the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a report listing a number of devastating projections, including an expected rise in the risk of natural disasters.

“Water Apartheid” in the West Bank

The struggle over water resources is another important example of historic and ongoing climate injustice in Israel/Palestine. Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region, a monopoly the human rights group Al-Haq refers to as “water apartheid.” According to Amnesty International, Palestinian consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is about 70 liters a day per person (well below the 100 liters per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization) whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption is about 300 liters. In some rural communities, Palestinians survive on 20 liters per day.

Those who visit the West Bank cannot help but be struck by the sight of Israeli settlements, with lush, well-watered lawns looming over Palestinian towns and villages surrounded by rocky soil and sparse vegetation. This is largely due to the fact that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the West Bank, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River, which is completely denied to Palestinians.

As a result of this inequitable system, some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water. In towns and villages which are connected to the water network, water rationing is common, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water of often dubious quality at a much higher price. (The Mountain Aquifer, one of the most valuable natural resources in the region, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line, a key factor in Israel’s inexorable annexation of the West Bank.)

Over the years, Israel’s over-pumping of underground aquifers has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and caused saline water intrusion in many areas. The average flow of the Jordan River has been decreasing dramatically and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry run-off that it was declared unsafe for baptism by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2010 (known today as EcoPeace Middle East). The Dead Sea has shrunk into two separate and rapidly evaporating bodies of water, increasingly polluted by Israeli companies that pump out its salts for cosmetic products.

Environmental Injustice in Gaza

When it comes to Gaza, Israel’s crushing 12-year-old blockade has almost completely depleted the supply of drinkable water for the nearly 2,000,000 Palestinians who live in this small strip of land. Gaza’s only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population, and Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. In the meantime, the aquifer has been steadily depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 97 percent of its water has been contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Stringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of its water and sanitation situation. For the past several years, sewage has been flowing into the Mediterranean at a rate of 110 million liters a day. At present, 97 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption and only 10 percent of Gaza’s residents have access to safe drinking water.

However, as is invariably the case with issues of environmental injustice, what goes around comes around. This past June, EcoPeace Middle East reported that the collapsing environmental situation in Gaza was creating a “national security risk” to Israel, warning that “the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to (Israel).” In a particularly perverse example of victim-blaming, the Israeli military recently urged the World Health Organization to condemn the “ecological catastrophe” caused by the burning of tires by Palestinians on the border during the weekly Great March of Return protests.

In addition to water pollution, there have also been reports of rapidly increasing soil contamination due to Israel’s regular military assaults on Gaza. According to a report by the New Weapons Research Group, Israeli bombings in Gaza Strip have left a high concentration of toxic metals, such as tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium and cobalt in the soil. These metals can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious and harmful effects on newly born babies.

Hanukkah and Global Climate Justice

What does this current environmental reality bode for the future of the Jewish state? British journalist Robert Cohen powerfully concludes that the climate crisis, coupled with Israel’s steady over-exploitation of resources, has functionally rendered Zionism “obsolete.”

“How,” writes Cohen, “can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round…? When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land.”

Cohen’s point can certainly be applied to the world at large. The climate crisis clearly knows no borders. But while no one will ultimately be safe from its devastating effects, we can be sure that the more powerful will increasingly seek to safeguard themselves and their interests at all costs at the expense of the less powerful. Such is the harsh reality of “green colonialism”: as the climate crisis renders more and more of the world uninhabitable, we are clearly witnessing increased state efforts at border militarization, population control and the warehousing of humanity.

What then, is to be done? In a recent op-ed for The Nation, journalist Ben Ehrenreich offered this compelling prescription: “it is time to shout, and loudly, that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.… If we are to survive as a species, we must know that no boat can save us except the one we build together.” In her JVP presentation, Naomi Klein echoed this challenge in similarly powerful terms:

What is clear is that the space for humanity to live well is contracting…. So, the core question is what kind of people are we going to be as we live in greater density? And if we look to Israel/Palestine, we see a really terrifying example of how to lose your humanity and how to fail to share land — and the monstrousness it requires to fail to share….

This is a global process that is happening now … so we’re going to have to start practicing solidarity and mutual aid. And we’re going to have to practice love and show each other what love looks like in public more and more. Because a lot of people have lost faith that they can do it.

There can be no better Hanukkah message for the 21st century. Given the realities of our current age, the nationalist dimensions of the holiday are not merely irrelevant, but dangerous. In the words of poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales, “this time it’s all of us or none.” If Hanukkah is to be a true celebration of environmental justice, it must become a “rededication” to fight for a more universal vision of liberation, for a world of solidarity, mutual aid and open borders.

Or to put it another way, the Maccabees’ struggle must now be broadened to represent the universal struggle of all who are committed to showing what love looks like in public, for the sake of all humanity. For the age of global climate crisis, the stakes could not be higher.