Category Archives: Current Events

Unacceptable and Inhumane: A Response to Rabbi Jill Jacobs

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I continue to be troubled by Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ recent Washington Post op-ed, “How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism,” and frankly disappointed to witness how warmly it has been received in progressive Jewish circles. In context and content, I find it to be anything but progressive.

Jacob’s article was written in response to the Israeli military’s killing of over 100 Palestinians in demonstrations in Gaza since March 30, including 14 children, and injured over 3,500 with live fire. Certainly, as the Executive Director of Tru’ah – an American rabbinical organization that seeks to “protect human rights in North America, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” – one might have expected her to follow the lead of other human rights organizations and protest (or even call into question) Israel’s excessive use of force.

On the very same day as Jacobs’ op-ed, for instance, Human Rights Watch called for an international inquiry “into this latest bloodshed,” adding that “these staggering casualty levels (were) neither the result of justifiable force nor of isolated abuses; but foreseeable results of senior Israeli officials’ orders on the use of force.” For its part, Amnesty International called Israel’s actions “an abhorrent violation of international law” and Doctors Without Borders termed them “unacceptable and inhuman.”

Tru’ah itself released a statement about the violence four days earlier, but notably refrained from any criticism of Israel’s behavior. In fact, the statement neglected to even mention the fact that the Israeli military had shot and killed scores of protesters, noting only that Tru’ah was “deeply saddened by the deaths.” It went on to quote a Talmudic commentary in which a commander of King Saul’s forces was criticized for killing a man when he could have easily “hit him in one of his limbs.” (This citation was particularly egregious considering the widespread reports of many Gazans – including children – whose limbs were amputated after being maimed by Israeli gunfire.)

In her op-ed, Jacobs likewise avoided any judgement of Israel’s mass killings, choosing instead to discuss the “rhetorical battle” between Israel advocates and pro-Palestinians activists, analyzing in detail when antisemitism “masquerades as criticism of Israel.” I’m not sure that Jacobs has added anything new to this particular conversation, which has been explored extensively over the past several decades. I personally disagree strongly with several of her specific points and perhaps in a future post I’ll discuss them in greater detail. For now, however, I’m far more troubled that given the outrages of the past few months, the leader of a rabbinical organization committed to human rights is more concerned about the rhetoric of Israel-criticism than Israel’s choice to kill and maim scores of nonviolent protesters with live gunfire.

Indeed, while Jacobs dedicated an entire section of her analysis to “Dismissing the humanity of Israelis,” nowhere did she stop to consider the humanity of the Palestinian people, except to ask when their rhetoric might be considered antisemitic. She made a particular point of singling out Palestinian academic/activist Steven Salaita by name as an antisemite with the flimsiest of evidence – knowing full well the damaging stigma of such an epithet. (I strongly commend Salaita’s eloquent response to Jacobs, in which he addresses her destructive “tone-policing of Palestinians” in the face of their “exclusion and privation.”)

In truth, it has been difficult to avoid the abject dehumanization of Gazans by the Israeli government and Israel advocates these past few months. In statement after statement, Palestinians have all but been blamed for their own mass murder. During the course of these massacres, my Palestinian friends in Gaza have asked me repeatedly: What will it take? What will it take for the world to see us as real, living breathing human beings rather than either incorrigible terrorists or unthinking puppets of Hamas? My friend and colleague Jehad Abusalim, a Gazan who currently works in the Chicago office of the AFSC wrote powerfully about this phenomenon in a recent article for Vox:

The idea of the march has been part of the political discussion in Gaza for years, and I witnessed it evolve. Contrary to Israeli propaganda, which claims that the march is staged by Hamas, participation in the march transcended factional and ideological affinities.

The march was a product of Palestinian civil society efforts. In fact, grassroots organizers, young intellectuals, and activists struggled to renew Gaza’s confidence in peaceful and nonviolent mass mobilization as a tactic that would end their dehumanization by Israel.

Yet despite all these efforts, official Israel and US messaging focuses on few violent manifestations in the march — which amounted to a small group throwing burning tires, Molotov cocktails, and stones, according to the Israeli military — and try to cast the incongruous words of a few marchers as nothing but Hamas propaganda. Such an approach not only dehumanizes Palestinians, it also assumes that they are nothing but mindless pawns of Hamas with no agency over their destiny and lives.

While this victim-blaming may be excruciating however, at least it is consistent. In some ways, articles such as Jacobs are even more troubling: they passively validate this dehumanization by leaving it unchallenged while purporting to occupy a “progressive higher ground.” It’s not uncommon for liberal Zionists to fortify their moral position by stating they are equally criticized by the left and the right. But in the end, this studious avoidance to name oppression out loud only strengthens the “moral claims” of the oppressor.

I’ve long been frustrated at my liberal Zionist colleagues who are more than willing to condemn any number of human rights abuses around the world, yet refuse to apply the same standard when it comes to Israel. It does not befit an organization that purports to uphold human rights to “mourn the deaths” rather than “condemn the killing.” And it is deeply disappointing when the director of that organization responds only by criticizing the rhetoric of those who are justifiably outraged by Israel’s inhumane actions.

Celebrate Passover with Solidarity

Palestinian protesters run during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip

This is the message I sent to congregants of Tzedek Chicago for my weekly email message today:

Dear Haverim,

As I write these words, there are reports that three Palestinian nonviolent protestors have been killed and scores more injured in the second week of protests at the Gaza border. By some perverse serendipity, both last week and this week’s massacres have occurred on Jewish holy days – the start and the end of Passover. For many of us, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to get into the spirit of the festival. How on earth do we remember our ancestors enslavement and celebrate our liberation amidst reports of Israeli snipers shooting down nonviolent protestors behind fences 15 kilometers away? How do we square the lessons of Passover with the Israeli prime minister’s cynical statement: “My respect goes to the Israeli soldiers who are guarding Israel’s borders, allowing Israelis to celebrate the holiday in peace.”

To those who are struggling to celebrate Passover amidst such sacrilege, I’ll quote from Tzedek Chicago’s core values:

We are inspired by prophetic Judaism: our tradition’s sacred imperative to take a stand against the corrupt use of power. We also understand that the Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society… As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”

In other words, we assert the universal meaning of the Exodus story. This sacred narrative is not – and cannot – be about us alone. If we truly hold that God stands with the oppressed and calls out the oppressor, then Passover demands that we stand with the Palestinians of Gaza. Indeed, I wrote as much at the end of Passover 2016:

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.

I respect that the Passover spirit is not coming easily to many of us this year. I can only suggest that the most meaningful way we can observe the holiday – this year and every year – is to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Quakers, Jews and Israel’s BDS Blacklist

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AFSC volunteer Evan Jones meeting with Palestinian refugees, 1949 (photo: AFSC)

Cross-posted with Acting in Faith.

Last Sunday, Israel revealed their list of 20 social justice groups from around the world it was henceforth banning from the country because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. For me, the list represented more than just another news item of the day. As staff person for one organization included on the list – the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) – this news struck home personally as well as professionally

As a rabbi who works for AFSC, I’m proud of the important historical connections between Jewish community and this venerable Quaker organization. As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum itself has noted, AFSC was at the forefront of efforts to help and rescue Jewish refugees after 1938, “ assisting individuals and families in need… helping people flee Nazi Europe, communicate with loved ones, and adjust to life in the United States.”

The USHM has also acknowledged that “the AFSC helped thousands of people in the United States transfer small amounts of money to loved ones in French concentration camps (and helped) hundreds of children, including Jewish refugees and the children of Spanish Republicans, come to the United States under the care of the US Committee for the Care of European Children in 1941–42.”

AFSC became involved with a different group of refugees – the Palestinians – several years later. At the end of 1948, while military hostilities in Palestine were still raging, the UN asked the AFSC to help spearhead the relief effort in Gaza, which was rapidly filling up with Palestinian refugees. Historian Nancy Gallagher has noted refugee relief was not the ultimate goal of their work in Gaza – rather, they “had accepted the invitation to participate in the relief effort with the expectation of assisting in the repatriation and reconciliation process.” (from “Quakers in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Activism,” p. 97)

In March 1949, AFSC Executive Secretary Clarence Pickett offered a six-point plan to solve the refugee problem, urging “a substantial repatriation of Arabs into the State of Israel.” (p. 103) However, when it became clear that there was no international will for a political solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, AFSC formally stated that it wished to withdraw from Gaza, stating that “prolonged direct relief…militates against a swift political settlement of the problem.” (p. 104)

I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those 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. In a recent article for Tablet, for instance, Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, made the spurious accusation that AFSC “has gone from saving Jews to vilifying them,” claiming that AFSC’s experience in Gaza convinced them to “get out of the relief business altogether” in order to promote “progressive Israel-hatred.”

In light of such invective, it’s not surprising to learn that Romirowsky and Jaffe are both professionally connected to the Middle East Forum – a notoriously Islamophobic radical right organization led by Daniel Pipes that has been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beyond the nasty rhetoric however, it bears noting that AFSC has never been solely a relief organization. From its inception 100 years ago in the wake of WW I, it has consistently promoted reconciliation and repatriation alongside direct service to peacefully address conflicts around the world. AFSC’s work in Gaza was/is no exception.

Romirowsky and Jaffe further reveal their prejudiced agenda when they suggest that Palestinian refugees only wanted “to be maintained at someone else’s expense until Israel disappeared.” In fact, the AFSC’s refugee relief efforts in Gaza took place while Palestinians were actively being driven from their homes and were being housed in hastily constructed refugee camps. It is patently outrageous to suggest that they were motivated by anything other than their desire to return to their homes. Under such circumstances, it was not at all unreasonable for the AFSC to advocate for their return and repatriation.

In their article Romirowsky and Jaffe also parrot the Israeli government’s accusation that the BDS movement is “opposed to Israel’s existence.” What they refer to as “the BDS movement” is in fact a response to a call issued by a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies in 2005. The BDS call is a crie de cour from Palestinians to the world to use this time honored nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel to meet three essential demands:

  • To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;
  • to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  • and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemitic “economic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.” The blacklist of organizations is thus only the latest in a long line of draconian, non-democratic responses to this rapidly growing non-violent resistance movement.

As such, AFSC’s support of BDS is fully in keeping with its 100-year-old mission. As their recent organizational statement put it:

All people, including Palestinians, have a right to live in safety and peace and have their human rights respected. For 51 years, Israel has denied Palestinians in the occupied territories their fundamental human rights, in defiance of international law. While Israeli Jews enjoy full civil and political rights, prosperity, and relative security, Palestinians under Israeli control enjoy few or none of those rights or privileges.

The Palestinian BDS call aims at changing this situation, asking the international community to use proven nonviolent social change tactics until equality, freedom from occupation, and recognition of refugees’ right to return are realized. AFSC’s Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel affirm each of these rights. Thus, we have joined others around the world in responding to the Palestinian-led BDS call.  As Palestinians seek to realize their rights and end Israeli oppression, what are the alternatives left to them if we deny them such options?

Quakers pioneered the use of boycotts when they helped lead the “Free Produce Movement,” a boycott of goods produced using slave labor during the 1800s. AFSC has a long history of supporting economic activism, which we view as an appeal to conscience, aimed at raising awareness among those complicit in harmful practices, and as an effective tactic for removing structural support for oppression.

This past October I traveled with other AFSC staff people to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, for meetings with our staff there. Yes, our efforts in Israel/Palestine still continue. While we do not yet know this latest action will impact our work, we are well aware that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been denied entry into the land of their ancestors for decades. The AFSC, like the other organizations on Israel’s odious list, know that peace can only come to this land when the essential injustice that occurred 70 years ago is justly addressed, and the human rights of all are recognized and respected.

Apocalyptic Extremism: No Longer a Laughing Matter

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photo credit: Getty Images

In my previous post, I explored how Zionism has historically fed off of anti-Semites and anti-Semitic regimes to justify the need for a Jewish state. In this post, I’d like to discuss a phenomenon that has even more ominous resonance for the current political moment: the willingness of political Zionists, Israeli politicians and right wing Israel advocates to court the support of Christian millenarians and apocalyptic extremists.

Some history: In the century after the Protestant reformation, the religious ideology of millenarianism began to spread throughout Europe. Millenarianism took many forms, most of which were rooted in the belief that the physical restoration of the Jews to the land would be a necessary precursor to the apocalypse and the eventual second coming of the Messiah. This religious dogma was eventually brought by English Puritan colonists to North America, where it evolved into present-day Christian Zionism.

It is safe to say that Jewish political Zionism could not have succeeded without the support of Christian millenarians. Reverend William Hechler, a prominent English clergyman who ascribed to eschatological theology and the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel, was a close friend and colleague of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political Zionist movement. Lord Arthur Balfour, who issued the historic Balfour Declaration in 1917 was likewise a Christian Zionist, motivated as much by his religious convictions as by British imperial designs in the Middle East.

Today of course, Christian Zionists are most famously represented by Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest coalition of Evangelical Zionists in the world. Hagee has never made a secret of his apocalyptic religious views. In his 2007 book “Jerusalem Countdown,” he wrote that Armageddon might begin “before this book gets published.” He also claimed The Antichrist “will be the head of the European Union,” and that during the final battle, Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood.” The Jews, however, will survive long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”  In Hagee’s more recent book, “Four Blood Moons,” he wrote: “In these next two years, we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”

While one might expect Jewish leaders to keep their distance from a popular Christian pastor with extremist views such as these, Hagee has been closely embraced by Israeli governments (Netanyahu is a fixture at CUFI conventions), Jewish American politicians (Former Senator Joseph Lieberman has referred to Hagee as a modern-day Moses) and prominent American Jewish leaders (Elie Wiesel once called Hagee “my pastor.”)

CUFI’s Jewish Executive Director, David Brog, clearly serves to give cover to Christian Zionists, painting them as “mainstream” and not nearly as scary as their beliefs would indicate. Following the outcome of the recent election, however, Brog seems to smell blood in the water; he recently announced CUFI’s plans to get “a little more aggressive” in pushing its policies with the Trump administration, where it has clout and connections, particularly with evangelical Vice President Mike Pence.

To put it mildly, Jews should be among the least of those who would seek to find common cause with one such as Mike Pence. In an extremely important piece for the Intercept, last November, reporter Jeremy Scahill convincingly argued that Pence  is “the most powerful Christian supremacist in US history,” concluding:

The implications of a Pence vice presidency are vast. Pence combines the most horrid aspects of Dick Cheney’s worldview with a belief that Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels are not fiction, but an omniscient crystal ball.

It should not come as a surprise that Pence family’s last trip to Israel was funded by, you guessed it, John Hagee. Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana, took the time to meet with Netanyahu during his visit. Now connect those dots to Pence’s meeting with Israeli prime minister during his recent visit to DC. Both Pence and Netanyahu later commented that they met to discuss, among other things, the creation of a “mechanism” that would help the White House and Israel better coordinate construction in the settlements on the West Bank.

When it comes to the Trump administration of course, most of the attention has been directed toward his chief strategist, former Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon. When Bannon’s appointment was announced, there were a variety of responses from the Jewish community, ranging from outrage to support.  For his part, when Netanyahu was asked on 60 Minutes whether or not he was concerned about Bannon, he responded blithely, “I think Mr. Trump and his associates are going to be very strong, not merely in support for the Jewish state, but also in support for the Jewish people.”

While most of the Jewish concern toward Bannon has primarily focused on his alt-right leanings and his personal comments about Jews, less attention has been given to his apocalyptic world view. Strongly influenced by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book “The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny”  Bannon ascribes to the theory that American history has operated in four-stage cycles, moving from major crisis to awakening to major crisis.

Linette Lopez, writing for Business Insider:

According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings that America experienced were the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.

All these were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there’s a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilized.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.

Indeed, Bannon expresses his Fourth Turning-influenced ideas unabashedly. During a 2011 presentation to the Liberty Restoration Foundation, a conservative non-profit, he said:

This is the fourth great crisis in American history. We had the Revolution. We had the Civil War. We had the Great Depression and World War II. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history, and we’re going to be one thing on the other side.

And in a 2014 speech at the Vatican:

We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

In more recent statements Bannon openly posits that this new war will be fought between “the Judeo-Christian West” and a coalition of “jihadist Islamic fascists,” “expansionist China” and “the aristocratic Washington class.”

According to Strauss and Howe’s book, once the defining climax takes place, America will coalesces under one leader — a boomer “Gray Warrior” — who will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy … ” As frightening as it may sound, Bannon seems to have the perfect “Gray Warrior” figure in Donald Trump – a man who he once described as “a blunt instrument for us,” adding,”I don’t know if he really gets it or not.”

While it’s easy to giggle when, Israeli politicians, rabbis and evangelical pastors publicly call Trump the Messiah, it is far less funny when we consider that the chief advisor to the President is a man who may well view him as a “useful idiot Gray Warrior.” Either way, this is what a century-long willingness to collaborate with apocalyptic extremists has wrought. We are now one terrorist attack away from a truly unthinkable scenario. As journalist Murtza Hussain put it: “As tensions rise, Steve Bannon and ISIS get closer to their common goal: civilizational war.”

In the end it is all too easy to accept the support of religious zealots while we patronizingly dismiss their views as harmless. Now that these zealots are literally in the halls of very real power however, I think it’s finally time to take them at their word.

 

 

The Equal Opportunity Hate of White Supremacy

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The Victoria Islamic Center destroyed by fire on Jan. 28, 2017 (Photo: Al Jazeera)

Amidst reports of an alarming uptick of anti-Semitic vandalism and bomb threats against JCCs (and an even more alarming reluctance of our new president to even admit its existence), I can’t help but think of an email exchange I had with my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Lillian three years ago.

Rebecca lives in Malmo, Sweden, a city that has seen its share of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence over the past several years. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a subsequent blog post for Jewschool, she wrote about the trauma of the incident, but also expressed her dismay that American Jewish leaders exploited it to demonize Muslims and exhort Jewish citizens of Malmo to flee to Israel.

Rebecca pointed out that immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil in which women, men and children demonstrated their support for the Jewish community by gathering in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.

Two years later, I wrote to Rebecca and asked her about the latest atmosphere in Malmo. She wrote that the war in Gaza had created an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, but that her interfaith group was “stronger than ever.” She added that the rise of the political far-right was even more concerning, referring to it as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. Rebecca noted that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”

Needless to say, that last line has a troubling resonance when I read it in 2017 – now that a group of “equal opportunity haters” has become firmly ensconced in the White House. But at the same time, I take heart in her description of Malmo’s interfaith solidarity – particularly as I witness a similar kind of solidarity occurring in Trump-era America.

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Anti-semitic vandalism at Loop Synagogue, Feb. 4, 2017 (Photo: NBC Chicago)

Some examples: when earlier this month a mosque in Texas was destroyed by arson, a neighboring synagogue gave them the keys to their facility so they could continue to worship. Here in Chicago, after an incident of anti-Semitic vandalism at the downtown Loop Synagogue, the very first response of public condemnation came from Ahmed Rehab, director of CAIR – Chicago:

Chicago’s Muslim community stands in full solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters as they deal with the trauma of this vile act of hate. No American should have to feel vulnerable and at risk simply due to their religious affiliation.

Unfortunately, we know the feeling all too well as mosque vandalism and burning has spiked recently in the US. We recognize the source of hate as one, and regardless of religious affiliation, we stand together in solidarity against it as one.  An attack on any is an attack on us all. Today, the congregation of this temple are in our thoughts and prayers.

It is worthy of note that the man arrested and charged with this hate crime is a white supremacist who had also menaced Latino members of a church in Pilsen. Following his arrest, one church member reported:

We are a church of Latinos, of immigrants, and we’re just worried and scared, and this guy walks in and he’s alone and asking weird questions. It was just an instinctual thing. We don’t want to turn anybody away, but we felt that something was wrong…He was not there to pray; he was not there to worship God. He was definitely there scouting who we are and what we are about.

The takeway?  As our government – and Israel’s – continue to whip up Islamophobic hatred and brand “Muslim extremism” as the enemy, the true threat before us is the “equal opportunity hate” of white supremacy. And that the only appropriate response is – as ever – solidarity.

Hanukkah, Syria and the Perils of Empire

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A front line in Aleppo, Syria, on December 12, 2012. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

Cross-posted with Truthout

It is a tragic irony that the festival of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient uprising against an oppressive Assyrian ruler, is being observed as we hear the unbearably tragic reports coming from an uprising in modern-day Syria. Though the historical contexts of these two events are centuries apart from one another, I can’t help but ask what lessons the Hanukkah story might bring to bear on the sorrows of contemporary Syria.

Aleppo has just fallen to Syrian government forces after a brutal years-long battle with rebel groups. The carnage in Aleppo is only the latest tragedy in a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and has created millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians. The beginning of the war can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in southern Syria. Government security forces opened fire, killing several protesters. Soon there were nationwide protests demanding the President Assad’s resignation. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

As the violence escalated, the country descended into civil war. Rebel groups were formed to battle Syrian government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. While many committed to the fall of the Assad regime continue to view this war as a revolution against an oppressive ruler, others characterize it as a sectarian civil war between forces that serve as proxies of larger world powers — i.e., Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of certain rebel forces. The crisis is further complicated by the presence of jihadi elements in various rebel groups.

So now to return to my original point: What on earth could this contemporary geopolitical crisis have to do with events that took place in the Assyrian Seleucid empire circa 168 BCE?

Some background: According the Books of the Maccabees, the uprising of the Maccabees began when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea, precipitating a rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, who belonged to a Jewish priestly family from the village of Modi’in. Many contemporary scholars point out that while the Hanukkah story is traditionally considered to be struggle against religious persecution, it was just as much a civil war between the fundamentalist Maccabees and the assimilated Hellenized Jews, with whom Antiochus eventually threw his support. (The Books of the Maccabees are replete with vivid descriptions of the violence committed by Judah Maccabee and his followers against the Hellenized Jewish community, including forced circumcision.)

The rabbis of the Talmud were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees — secular stories of a violent war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was resurrected by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in a military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book “The Jewish State,” Zionist founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!”  Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

In more recent years, however, there has been a reconsideration of the Hanukkah story by many contemporary rabbis, Jewish educators and academics. Typically referred to as “the real story of Hanukkah” some advocates of this new pedagogy assert that the Maccabees were actually a kind of “Jewish Taliban” — and that if they were around today they would not look too kindly on the practice of liberal American Jews.

The evolution of the Maccabean legacy brings to mind the age-old adage, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” While some Jewish observers do not hesitate in referring to them as “religious fanatics,” others insist they were simply “legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do.” In the end, there are no easy answers to this debate. At the very least, we might say that the story of Hanukkah invites us to struggle deeply and honestly with the messy nature of uprising and revolution.

Indeed, perhaps these are the central questions we are asked to confront on Hanukkah. To Zionists who glorify the Maccabees as courageous freedom fighters for national liberation we might well ask: Should not we then view the Palestinians as Maccabees as well? And to those who dismiss the Maccabees as religious extremists, we might pose the challenge: Would we deny them their resistance against an imperialist Seleucid empire that outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death?

I would submit that these kinds of questions are just as germane to the tragic, years-long crisis in present day Syria. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, has committed well-documented atrocities against its civilians as it strikes back against rebel groups. However, these factions have carried out their share of indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well. There has also been fierce sectarian fighting between rebel groups themselves — most notably between Daesh and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The US, along with its Gulf state allies, continue to insist that regime change is the only acceptable outcome to these hostilities. However, as has historically been the case with US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, we know that these interventions invariably lead to more, rather than less instability. Others insist we cannot ignore the fact that this rebellion still constitutes an uprising against a brutal totalitarian dictator. Yet this resistance has become profoundly splintered — and as the US and its allies attempt to support it, they are now utterly unable to distinguish between moderate and jihadist rebel groups.

These are the questions that are resonating for me as I retell the Hanukkah story once again this year. And while I don’t pretend to have conclusive answers, I do have some thoughts I believe we would to well to consider as the crisis in Syria continues on its tragic course:

As citizens of the US, our primary responsibility is to hold our government accountable for its decisions and actions. And we must also hold it accountable for its covert and overt military meddling in Syria at least as far back as 1949 (when the CIA engineered a coup replacing the democratically elected president Shukri-al-Quwatli and replaced him with a dictator — a “convicted swindler” named Husni al-Za’im).

We must also acknowledge that the Obama administration is most certainly not insisting on regime change out of the goodness of its heart and its concern for the welfare of the Syrian people. As ever, it has much more to do with the military designs of Western empire. As journalist/reporter Gareth Porter recently pointed out:

The US decision to support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their ill-conceived plan to overthrow the Assad regime was primarily a function of the primordial interest of the US permanent war state in its regional alliances. The three Sunni allies control US access to the key US military bases in the region, and the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Obama White House were all concerned, above all, with protecting the existing arrangements for the US military posture in the region.

Indeed, our government’s insistence on regime change has motivated the CIA to work with odious allies to help the transfer of weapons to rebel groups about whom they had little, if any knowledge. It also led later to the Pentagon’s decision to provide formal training and arms transfers to these groups. Our meddling with Syria rebel groups has become so confused that we have actually created a situation in which CIA armed militias and Pentagon armed groups are now fighting against one another.

Those of us who are part of the Jewish community must also hold accountable the state to purports to act in our name — and in this regard, it is clear Israel is shamefully exacerbating the Syrian civil war for its own political interests. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is openly supporting Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime, his government is also aiding Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham:

Examining the al-Nusra-Israeli alliance in the region, it’s clear that the bonds between the two parties have been exceedingly close. Israel maintains a border camp for the families of Syrian fighters. Reporters have documented Israeli Defense Forces commandos entering Syrian territory to rendezvous with Syrian rebels. Others have photographed meetings between Israeli military personnel and al-Nusra commanders at the Quneitra Crossing, the ceasefire line that separates the Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan Heights.

In other words, as Americans and as Jews, our community faces a genuine reckoning over our complicity in the tragedy that is befalling Syria.

One final historical note that is particularly relevant to Hanukkah this year: For centuries and until relatively recently, Aleppo was home to one of the most notable and culturally rich Jewish communities in the world. J. Rolando Matalon, rabbi of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — and a descendent of Allepan Jewry — recently wrote this poignant reminiscence:

I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.

One particularly celebrated aspect of Allepan Jewish history dates back to the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This exodus of Sephardic Jews initiated a migration and settlement throughout the Ottoman empire, including Syria. A significant number of exiled Jews were welcomed into Aleppo, and in gratitude they began a ritual of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah — a ritual that Jews of Allepan/Syrian heritage observe even to this day.

This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting an extra candle as well — in protest against those who have been exploiting the violence in Syria for their own cynical gain, in gratitude to those who have opened their homes and communities to receive the uprooted, and in memory of the present-day Syrians who have been killed in this cruel and needless war.

Solidarity in Hevron: Occupation is Not Our Judaism

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I’ll soon be traveling Israel/Palestine this weekend with 40 other Jews from around the world as part of a solidarity delegation to Hebron and the South Hebron Hills sponsored by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. CJNV is a relatively new organization that has been doing important work bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel/Palestine to stand in solidarity with Palestinians in nonviolent actions against the occupation. Last year, CJNV traveled to Tent of Nations (a very special place about which I’ve written many times before) to plant trees to replace the 1,500 fruit bearing trees that had been destroyed by the IDF. More recently the CJNV participated in an action at the World Zionist Congress to protest the complete absence of the occupation from the World Zionist Organization’s agenda.

The name of this new campaign is entitled “Occupation is not our Judaism” and will include work in the village of Susiya (which recently experienced home demolitions that left 26 Palestinians homeless) and planting in the nearby village of Umm Al Khair (see photo above). We’ll also be standing in solidarity with Palestinian residents of the city of Hebron – I’ll be writing more about this aspect of our work in the coming days.

I’ve visited and written about the injustices wrought upon Hevron in posts from past visits – and since that time the situation has only grown more dire. You may have read about the recent visit to Hevron by authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. After their experience there the clearly shaken Chabon was quoted as saying:

(This is) the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life … this is the worst thing I have ever seen, just purely in terms of injustice. If saying that is going to lose me readers, I don’t want those readers. They can go away and never come back.

For more on the daily reality faced by Palestinians in Susiya and the South Hevron Hills, check out the clip below:

Finally, like everyone else in our country I’m following recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, and am mindful that racist state violence is all too brutally real right here at home as well. As I leave, I’m taking to heart the very wise words that my friend, the historian/writer/activist Barbara Ransby has just posted on her Facebook page:

In these difficult and trying times, as we grieve the horrible murders of our people, suffer the skewed media coverage that attempts to relegate our work to the gutter, and witness the backlash that has already begun, our response must be sober and strategic. Fear is understandable. But a fierce fortitude is what is required. And a principled unity is necessary today more than ever.

Whether it’s here or anywhere else in the world, I’m more convinced than ever that my place is to be accountable to those affected by this violence and take our cue from their “fierce fortitude.”

I look forward to sharing my experiences with you in the coming days.