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.
On Yom Kippur, journalist Max Blumenthal delivered this powerful presentation during the afternoon program at Tzedek Chicago, where he discussed what he witnessed in Gaza during Israel’s military onslaught last summer. He wrote about his experiences at length in his recent book, “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.”
Max attended our services for the duration of Yom Kippur and remarked to me on more than one occasion how important it was for him to be invited to speak in a Jewish congregation for the first time.
For my part, I could not think of a more appropriate presentation for the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Please watch and share…
Like you, I’ve been profoundly horrified by the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s ongoing civil war. The reports and images and statistics continue to roll out every day and the sheer level of human displacement is simply staggering to contemplate. Since 2011, over half of that country’s entire population has been uprooted. At present, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another 7 million have been internally displaced. Experts tell us we are currently witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our generation.
The tragic reality of forced migration has been brought home to us dramatically this past summer – but of course, this crisis did not just begin this year and Syria is not the only country in the region affected by this refugee crisis. Scores are also fleeing civil war and violence from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people from these countries tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea – and more than 2,500 died.
And of course this issue is not just limited to the Middle East. It extends to places such as Latin and Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well – and it would be not at all be an exaggeration to suggest that the crisis of forced human migration is reaching epidemic proportions. Just this past June, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees issued a report that concluded that “wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere.”
It is all too easy to numb ourselves to reports such as these – or to simply throw up our hands and chalk it up to the way of the world. But if Yom Kippur is to mean anything, I would suggest it demands that we stand down our overwhelm. To investigate honestly why this kind of human dislocation exists in our world and openly face the ways we are complicit in causing it. And perhaps most importantly to ask: if we are indeed complicit in this crisis, what is our responsibility toward ending it?
There is ample evidence that we as Americans, are deeply complicit in the refugee crises in the Middle East. After all, the US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing – and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
In Iraq, our decade-long war and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and greatly weakened the government. This in turn created a power vacuum that brought al-Qaeda into the country and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have now been displaced because of ISIS.
In Afghanistan, the US occupation continues and we are war escalating the war there, in spite of President Obama’s insistence that it would end by 2014. According to the UN, there are 2.6 million refugees coming out of Afghanistan.
In Libya, the US-led NATO bombing destroyed Qaddafi’s government. At the time, then Secretary of State Clinton joked to a news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.” Shortly after Libya was wracked with chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on rickety smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.
In Yemen, a coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, has been bombarding Yemen for half a year now, causing the deaths of over 4,500 people. We continue to support this coalition, despite the fact that human rights organizations are accusing it of war crimes that include the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says, there are now over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.
And the US is not free of responsibility for the crisis in Syria either. For years now, we have been meddling in that civil war, providing weapons to rebels fighting Assad’s government. But since the rise of ISIS the US has backed away from toppling his regime – and there are now reports that the US and Assad have even reached “an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”
Despite our role in the Syrian civil war, our government is taking in relatively few refugees from that country. Just last Monday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that the US would increase the number of refugees to 100,000 by 2017, saying “This step is in the keeping with America’s best tradition as land of second chances and a beacon of hope.” In reality, however, this number is still a drop in the bucket relative to the dire need – and only an eighth of the number that Germany has pledged to take in this year.
Kerry’s comment, of course, expresses a central aspect of the American mythos – but in truth it is one that flies in the face of history. While we like to think of ourselves “as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” these words mask a darker reality: it is a hope that only exists for some – and it has largely been created at the expense of others. Like many empires before us, our nation was established – upon the systemic dislocation of people who are not included in our “dream.”
If we are to own up to our culpability in today’s crises of forced human migration, we must ultimately reckon with reality behind the very founding of our country. The dark truth is that our country’s birth is inextricably linked to the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples this land. It was, moreover, built upon the backs of slaves who were forcibly removed from their homes and brought to this country in chains. It is, indeed, a history we have yet to collectively own up to as a nation. We have not atoned for this legacy of human dislocation. On the contrary, we continue to rationalize it away behind the myths of American exceptionalism: a dream of hope and opportunity for all.
And there’s no getting around it: those who are not included in this “dream” – the dislocated ones, if you will – are invariably people of color. Whether we’re talking about Native Americans and African Americans, the Latino migrants we imprison and deport, or the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or Yemini refugees of the Middle East. If we are going to reckon with this legacy, we cannot and must not avoid the context of racism that has fueled and perpetuated it.
As a Jew, of course, I think a great deal about our legacy of dislocation. To be sure, for most of our history we have been a migrating people. Our most sacred mythic history describes our ancestors’ travels across the borders of the Ancient Near East and the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. And in a very real sense, our sense of purpose has been honored by our migrations throughout the diaspora – yes, too often forcibly, but always with a sense of spiritual purpose. For centuries, to be a Jew meant to be part of a global peoplehood that located divinity anywhere our travels would take us.
Our sacred tradition demands that we show solidarity with those who wander in search of a home. The most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah, in fact, is the injunction against oppressing the stranger because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And given our history, it’s natural that we should find empathy and common cause with the displaced and uprooted.
However, I do fear that in this day and age of unprecedented Jewish success – and dare I say, Jewish privilege – we are fast losing sight of this sacred imperative. One of my most important teachers in this regard is the writer James Baldwin, who was an unsparingly observer of the race politics in America. In one particularly searing essay, which he wrote in 1967, Baldwin addressed the issue of Jewish “whiteness” and privilege in America. It still resonates painfully to read it today:
It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.
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. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…
For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. 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. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.
In other essays, Baldwin referred to white immigrant success in America as “the price of the ticket” – in other words, the price for Jewish acceptance into white America was the betrayal of the most sacred aspects of our spiritual and historical legacy. We, who were once oppressed wanderers ourselves, have now found a home in America. But in so doing we have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic oppression and dislocation of others.
On Rosh Hashanah I talked about another kind of Jewish deal called Constantinian Judaism – or the fusing of Judaism and state power. And to be sure, if we are to talk about our culpability this Yom Kippur in the crime of forced migration, we cannot avoid reckoning with the devastating impact the establishment of the state of Israel has had on that land’s indigenous people – the Palestinian people.
According to Zionist mythos, the Jewish “return” to land was essentially a “liberation movement.” After years of migration through the diaspora, the Jewish people can finally at long last come home – to be, as the national anthem would have it, “a free people in their own land.”
The use of the term “liberation” movement, of course is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to term Zionism as a settler colonial project with the goal of creating an ethnically Jewish state in a land that already populated by another people. By definition the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine posed an obstacle to the creation of a Jewish state. In order to fulfill its mandate as a political Jewish nation, Israel has had to necessarily view Palestinians as a problem to somehow be dealt with.
Put simply, the impact of Jewish nation-statism on the Palestinian people has been devastating. The establishment of Israel – a nation designed to end our Jewish wanderings – was achieved through the forced dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which were either destroyed completely or occupied by Jewish inhabitants.
In turn, it created what is now the largest single refugee group in the world and our longest running refugee crisis. Millions of Palestinians now live in their own diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes or even set foot in their homeland. Two and a half million live under military occupation in the West Bank where their freedom of movement is drastically curtailed within an extensive regime of checkpoints and heavily militarized border fences. And nearly two million live in Gaza, most of them refugees, literally trapped in an open-air prison where their freedom of movement is denied completely.
This, then, is our complicity – as Americans, as Jews. And so I would suggest, this Yom Kippur, it is our sacred responsibility to openly confess our culpability in this process of uprooting human beings from their homes so that we might find safety, security and privilege in ours. But when then? Is our confession merely an exercise in feeling bad about ourselves, in self-flagellation? As Jay said to us in his sermon last night, “Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?”
According to Jewish law, the first step in teshuvah is simply recognizing that a wrong has been committed and confessing openly to it. This in and of itself is no small thing. I daresay with all of the media attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is precious little, if any, discussion of the ways our nation might be complicit in creating it. And here at home, we are far from a true reckoning over the ways our white supremacist legacy has dislocated Native Americans and people of color in our own country. And needless to say, the Jewish community continually rationalizes away the truth of Israel’s ongoing injustice toward the Palestinian people.
So yes, before we can truly atone, we must first identify the true nature of our wrongdoings and own them – as a community – openly and together. The next step is to make amends – to engage in a process of reparations to effect real transformation and change. But again, the very prospect of this kind of communal transformation feels too overwhelming , too messianic to even contemplate. How do we even begin to collectively repair wrongs of such a magnitude?
I believe the answer, as ever, is very basic. We begin by joining together, by building coalitions, by creating movements. We know that this kind of organizing has the power to effect very real socio-political change in our world. We have seen it happen in countries such as South Africa and Ireland and we’ve seen it here at home – where Chicago became the first city in the country to offer monetary reparations to citizens who were tortured by the police. In this, as in the aforementioned examples, the only way reparations and restorative justice was achieved was by creating grassroots coalitions that leveraged people power to shift political power.
And that is why we’ve prominently identified “solidarity” as one of our congregation’s six core values:
Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. 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. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
How do we effect collective atonement? By realizing that we are not in this alone. By finding common cause with others and marching forward. It is not simple or easy work. It can be discouraging and depleting. It does not always bear fruit right away and it often feels as if we experience more defeats than successes along the way. But like so many, I believe we have no choice but to continue the struggle. And I am eager and excited to begin to create new relationships, to participate as a Jewish voice in growing coalitions, with the myriad of those who share our values. I can’t help but believe these connections will ultimately reveal our true strength.
I’d like to end now with a prayer – I offer it on behalf of refugees and migrants, on behalf of who have been forced to wander in search of a home:
Ruach Kol Chai – Spirit of All that Lives:
Help us. Help us to uphold the values that are so central to who we are: human beings created in the image of God. Help us to find compassion in our hearts and justice in our deeds for all who seek freedom and a better life. May we find the strength to protect and plead the cause of the dislocated and uprooted, the migrant and the refugee.
Guide us. Guide us toward one law. One justice. One human standard of behavior toward all. Move us away from the equivocation that honors the divine image in some but not in others. Let us forever affirm that the justice we purport to hold dear is nothing but a sham if it does not uphold basic human dignity for all who dwell in our midst.
Forgive us. Forgive us for the inhumane manner that in which we too often treat the other. We know, or should, that when it comes to crimes against humanity, some of us may be guilty, but all of us are responsible. Grant us atonement for the misdeeds of exclusion we invariably commit against the most vulnerable members of society: the uprooted and unwanted, the unhoused, the uninsured, the undocumented.
Strengthen us. Strengthen us to find the wherewithal to shine your light into the dark places of our world. Give us ability to uncover those who are hidden from view, locked away, forgotten. Let us never forget that nothing is hidden and no one lost from before you. Embolden us in the knowledge that no one human soul is disposable or replaceable; that we can never, try as we might, uproot another from before your sight.
Remind us. Remind us of our duty to create a just society right here, right now, in our day. Give us the vision of purpose to guard against the complacency of the comfortable – and the resolve in knowing that we cannot put off the cause of justice and freedom for another day. Remind us that the time is now. Now is the moment to create your kingdom here on earth.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be your will. And may it be ours.
And let us say,
I’ve written a new Al Chet prayer that we will be using during Yom Kippur services at Tzedek Chicago. The Al Chet is part of the Vidui – or Confession – in which the congregation stands up and publicly confesses the sins of their community. It is at its core, an open statement of communal complicity.
I’ll say no more because I think the words really do speak for themselves. Feel free to share and use.
We say together:
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha…
(For the wrong we have done before you…)
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for forgetting that we were all once strangers in a strange land;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for preferring militarized fences to open borders.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for supporting trade policies and murderous regimes that uproot people, families and communities;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for drawing lines and turning away those who come to our country seeking a better life.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for demonizing migrants as threats to be feared;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for labeling human beings as “illegal.”
וְעַל כֻּלָּם אֱלוֹהַּ סְלִיחוֹת סְלַח לָנוּ, מְחַל לָנוּ כַּפֶּר לַנוּ
Ve’al kulam eloha selichot selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
(For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement.)
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for internalizing and assenting to racist ideologies;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for allowing oppressive systems to continue unchecked.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for our complicity in regularly profiling, incarcerating and murdering people of color;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for denying fair housing, public schools and greater opportunity to our black and brown communities.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for dehumanizing, excluding and murdering gay, lesbian, trans and queer people;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for shaming and stigmatizing the infirm, the mentally and physically disabled, and the elderly.
וְעַל כֻּלָּם אֱלוֹהַּ סְלִיחוֹת סְלַח לָנוּ, מְחַל לָנוּ כַּפֶּר לַנוּ
Ve’al kulam eloha selichot selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
(For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement.)
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for buying into and promoting the ideology of American exceptionalism;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for oppressing other peoples and nations in the name of American power and influence;
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for profiting off of weapons of death and destruction;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for contributing to the increased militarization of our nation and our world.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for expanding our military budget while we cut essential services here at home;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for believing that militarism and violence will ensure our collective security.
וְעַל כֻּלָּם אֱלוֹהַּ סְלִיחוֹת סְלַח לָנוּ, מְחַל לָנוּ כַּפֶּר לַנוּ
Ve’al kulam eloha selichot selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
(For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement.)
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for the destruction of homes, expropriation of land and warehousing of humanity;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for a brutal and crushing military occupation.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for blockading 1.8 million Gazans inside an open air prison;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for repeatedly unleashing devastating military firepower on a population trapped in a tiny strip of land.
Al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for wedding sacred Jewish spiritual tradition to political nationalism and militarism;
Ve’ al chet she’chatanu lifanecha for rationalizing away Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.
Ve’al kulam eloha selichot selach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu.
(For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement.)
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.
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.
I’d like to begin my remarks this morning with a verse from the Torah – it’s one of the central lessons at the heart of the Exodus story. It comes from the Burning Bush episode, when God reveals God’s self to Moses and tells him, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:9)
Now regardless of your theology – or even if you have a theology at all – I think there is a very profound lesson being taught to us by this verse. In a way, it provides us with a kind of physics approach to understanding liberation. Throughout human history, we have seen these moments – the moments when the experience of a community’s oppression reaches a tipping point. They invariably come when a community’s oppression becomes impossible to ignore, when the cry and the outrage becomes too great; when it becomes impossible to look away. It is at these critical moments in which the process of liberation inevitably begins.
I think of this lesson often when I think about the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestinian solidarity movement over the past few years. It is sobering to contemplate, but it’s true: most of the significant periods of growth of our organization have occurred as responses to devastating human tragedy. We all know how JVP has grown so dramatically in the wake of the tragedy of this past summer. I myself became actively involved in JVP following Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2009-09. In truth, the growth of our movement has been exponentially linked to the cries of the oppressed. Perhaps it has ever been thus.
During my remarks to you this morning, I’d like to offer a few brief meditations on how we at JVP might take advantage of this moment – this time which is clearly so critical in the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. Specifically speaking, I want to take my cue from JVP’s recent strategic plan, in which our leadership set our organizational goals for the next 3 to 5 years. I’d like to use two of these formal goals in particular as a frame; and use them to offer you a few thoughts on this critical time for our organization and our movement – and where the journey might lead form here.
I’ll start with Goal #4: “Shifting Culture and Public Discourse:”
Changing the public discourse and shifting cultural understandings of what is happening in Israel/Palestine is a prerequisite for changing policy.
In short, we are attempting to change the narrative on Israel/Palestine. I think we all know how central narrative change is to the process of political transformation. Speaking personally, I know how transformative it was for me to embrace a new narrative on Israel/Palestine – and how absolutely key it was to my participation in this movement. It represented a fundamental shift – it meant abandoning, painfully, the liberal Zionist narrative that had been at the center of my Jewish identity for my entire life.
I’d like to read to you now from a blog post that I wrote on December 28, 2009 – exactly one year after the onset of Israel’s so-called “Operation Cast Lead.” Though I don’t know that I fully appreciated it at the time, this post was ultimately about the transformative power of narrative change:
As I read this post one year later, I remember well the emotions I felt as I wrote it. I also realize what a critical turning point that moment represented for me.
As a Jew, I’ve identified deeply with Israel for my entire life. I first visited the country as a young child and since then I’ve been there more times that I can count. Family members and some of my dearest friends in the world live in Israel.
Ideologically speaking, I’ve regarded Zionism with great pride as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Of course I didn’t deny that this rebirth had come at the expense of another. Of course I recognized that Israel’s creation was bound up with the suffering of the Palestinian people. The situation was, well, it was “complicated.”
Last year, however, I reacted differently. I read of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a 140 square mile patch of land with nowhere to run. In the coming days, I would read about the bombing of schools, whole families being blown to bits, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated at all any more. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.
Of course I think we’d all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is technically complicated. But at the same time I think we all know that at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution. The political situation in Darfur, for instance, is enormously complicated – but these complications certainly haven’t stopped scores of Jews across North America from protesting the human rights injustices being committed there. We do so because we know that underneath all of the geopolitical complexities, oppression is oppression. And as Jews, we know instinctively that our sacred tradition and own tragic history require us to speak out against all oppression committed in our midst.
I’d suggest that if there is anything complicated for us here, it is in possibility that we might in fact have become oppressors ourselves. That is painfully complicated. After all, our Jewish identity has been bound up with the memory of our own persecution for centuries. How on earth can we respond – let alone comprehend – the suggestion that we’ve become our own worst nightmare?
More than anything else, this is was what I was trying to say in that anguished, emotional blog post one year ago: is this what it has come to? Have we come to the point in which Israel can wipe out hundreds of people, whole families, whole neighborhoods and our response as Jews will be to simply rationalize it away? At the very least will we able to stop and question what has brought us to this terrifying point? Have we become unable to recognize persecution for what it really and truly is?
Those who know me (or read my blog) surely know that it has been a painfully challenging year for me. My own relationship to Israel is changing in ways I never could have predicted. Since I started raising questions like those above, I’ve lost some friends and, yes, my congregation has lost some members. If Zionism is the unofficial religion of the contemporary Jewish community then I’m sure there are many who consider me something of an apostate.
But at the same time, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the large number of people I’ve met who’ve been able to engage with these questions openly and honestly, even if they don’t always agree with me. I suppose this is what I decided to do one year ago: to put my faith in our ability to stand down the paralyzing “complexities,” no matter how painful the prospect.
One year later, I still hold tight to this faith.
When I wrote back then that my relationship to Israel had changed in ways I could never have predicted, I was openly acknowledging that my accepted narrative had shifted – and it led to life changes that are still ongoing for me. It certainly transformed the way I saw myself as a Jew and how I would do my work as a congregational rabbi.
But on a deeper sense, I think this narrative change transformed me on what I can only call a spiritually cellular level. It challenged me to reckon with the meaning of solidarity in its truest, most universal form. It reaffirmed that lesson that comes straight from the heart of the Exodus story; the story that teaches God hearkens to the cries of the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And it empowered me to speak my truth in unprecedented ways – as I put it in that blog post, “to stand down the paralyzing ‘complexities,’ now matter how painful the prospect.
I’ve also come to believe that narrative change is not only true on the personal, but on the political level as well. We know from experience that narratives which were formerly unthinkable can eventually become all too politically real. A big part of the challenge is learning how best to articulate our discourse; understanding when, where and in what ways it can be most effective.
The most challenging place to do this narrative changing work, I think we all agree, is within the mainstream Jewish community. And that brings me to Goal #1: “Challenging institutional Jewish communities.” Again I’ll quote:
We are challenging institutional Jewish communities to act on values of justice, and we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
Having made a home in the institutional Jewish community for my entire adult life, I will say that I do believe there is important work to be done in engaging the Jewish establishment on this issue. When I started doing Palestinian solidarity work openly and unabashedly, I had been working in my congregation in Evanston for 10 years. And I take great heart in the fact that for the next 10 years, I was supported by my congregational leadership and by the majority of my congregants, even when many didn’t agree with me.
So yes, I believe there are indeed signs that we are seeing a nascent paradigm shift beginning in the Jewish community on this issue. Open Hillel is providing us with an inspiring important model of how to fight for a wide Jewish communal tent. This past summer, “If Not Now, When” showed us magnificently what principled Jewish communal dissent might look like. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of these initiatives have been organized and led by young people – and this should give us very real hope for the future of this discourse in the American Jewish community.
At the same time, however, I don’t have any illusions about the ability of the Jewish establishment to be pushed to act on values of justice when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I have many rabbinical and Jewish professional colleagues who must remain in the closet about their work with JVP – because to make their affiliation would constitute a very real professional risk. There are actually JVP members at this very gathering who have to wear stickers on their name plates that say “no photos please” for fear that they might endanger or lose their jobs – a reality that should rightly appall each and every one of us.
So at the end of the day, I think we need to be realistic about the challenge before us when we talk about engaging the mainstream Jewish community on the issue of Israel/Palestine. It is and will continue to be a daunting and perilous task. And frankly: on a strategic level we need to be honest about how much time, energy and resources we need to spend trying to engage the Jewish institutional community on this issue.
Actually, when it comes right down to it, I’m much more excited by the second half of this Goal #1: we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
In this regard, I was so pleased and excited to hear Rebecca Vilkomerson talk during the opening plenum – and Cecile Surasky last night – about the ways JVP is creating a new and unprecedented form of Jewish community. For the remainder of my remarks, then, I’d like to explore what a justice-centered Jewish community might actually look like. I’d like to suggest a vision that is fundamentally, perhaps radically different than our customary notions of Jewish community.
I’d like to read an excerpt to you now from a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave three years ago entitled, “Judaism With Tribalism.” Although I did not specifically intend it so at the time, I believe it promotes a vision I believe is deeply relevant to the kind of community we are trying to create here at JVP:
I know personally how hard it is for many of us to challenge our tribal Jewish legacy. But as for me, I believe to my very core that whether we like it or not, our collective future will depend upon building more bridges, and not more walls, between peoples and nations. I believe the most effective way for us to survive – the only way we will bequeath our traditions to the next generation – is to affirm a Judaism that finds sacred meaning in our connection to kol yoshvei tevel – all who dwell on earth.
I also believe this because I know that while Judaism certainly contains tribal and parochial teachings, it also has also a strong tradition of religious humanism – mitzvot that demand we love all our neighbors as ourselves. After all, one of the first – and most powerful – teachings in the Torah is that human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. From the outset we learn that all human beings are equally worthy of respect, dignity and love – and, I would add, equally worthy of one another’s allegiance and loyalty. Moreover, a key rabbinic concept, Kavod HaBriyot, demands that we ensure all people are treated with honor and dignity. In a famous verse from the classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is honored? The one who honors all human beings.”
All are created in God’s image. Honor comes to the one who honors all people. To my mind, these are the strands of Judaism we must seek out and affirm in no uncertain terms. In this day and age, when the fates of all peoples are becoming so very deeply intertwined, I believe we must consider values such as B’tzelem Elohim and Kevod HaBriyot to be among the most sacred of our tradition.
Perhaps we can also take our cue from these values in order to affirm a new kind of tribalism. To forge “tribal” connections with others not simply because they happen to be Jews, but because they share our values of justice and equity. In other words, I believe our ultimate loyalties should lay with the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized – and all who fight on their behalf. Whether they happen to be Jewish or not – why shouldn’t we consider these to be the members of our most cherished tribe?
Here’s a personal example. As a rabbi, I do a great deal of work with clergy, both inside and outside the Jewish community. And over the years I’ve come to notice that the most meaningful and important community work I do is not necessarily exclusively with other rabbis. When it comes to the values I hold most sacred, values of social justice, human rights, community service, I find myself working and finding common cause with clergy of many different faiths. Some may be Jewish, some not, but it in the end it doesn’t really matter. These are the ones I consider to be my primary faith colleagues – my primary clergy community.
In one sense, then, perhaps our most sacred religious values actually compel us to look past the feelings of tribal loyalty. Needless to say, if we are going to do this on a communal scale, it’s going to take a radical shift in consciousness. We’re going to have to step out from behind the walls we’ve built and understand many of our real sisters and brothers have been there all along. And we will have to recognize that in the end, their hopes, their dreams and their suffering are irrevocably connected to ours.
I have no illusions that it would be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed such a call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of antisemitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it is no small matter to go beyond our own fears and feel the pain of the other as our pain as well.
To do this, I believe, we’ll have to construct a distinctly 21st century Torah – one that reflects a world in which the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with other peoples in profound and unprecedented ways. One that lets go of old tribal assumptions and widens the boundaries of our tent in new and creative ways.
Perhaps we can start here: with a reconsideration of the Jewish value Ahavat Yisrael – Love of the Jewish People. What do we really mean when we use this term? Certainly it might mean an abstract sense of connection and kinship with other Jews throughout history and around the world. And it’s true – we do feel a special connection to Jews we meet in unlikely places throughout the world. It is also quite powerful to know that the words we pray and study are the same words have Jews prayed and studied for centuries. But beyond this, what do we mean by Ahavat Yisrael? What does it mean to love a culturally constructed community that includes people with whom we may or may not share basic, fundamental values?
In truth, the definition of who is a Jew has always been disputed – and what we call “the Jewish community” is more diverse and dynamic today than ever before. It is also being increasingly enriched by the participation of many non-Jews who are marrying into the community. So what do we mean when we talk about “Love of the Jewish People” when the very truth of our “peoplehood” is so complex and ever–changing?
I’d like to suggest that a deeper understanding of this value shouldn’t stop at love for just fellow Jews. After all, while the word “Yisrael” does refer to the Jewish People, it also literally means “Wrestles With God.” Seen thus, we might render “Ahavat Yisrael” as “Love for All Who Struggle.” To love all who fight, as we have, for freedom and justice and tolerance in the world. To stand in solidarity with those who struggle against tyranny and are beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed for doing so. To throw our allegiance to those who wrestle deeply for meaning in their lives; who seek to tear down the limits of religious dogma or ideological coercion. These are the members of our tribe – perhaps our most sacred tribe. And whenever we reach out to them and celebrate our inherent connection with one another here, around the world, or throughout history – that is truly when we fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael.
I realize that this new understanding might seem like radical change to many. But in truth, the Jewish world is changing, as it has from time immemorial. The only question before us is: will we have the courage to recognize these changes – and to see in them as a precious opportunity rather than as a threat to be fought at all costs.
Since I am no longer working a congregational rabbi, I am more mindful than ever that JVP is now my primary Jewish community. It is, truly, an unprecedented form of Jewish community: one that is based on the universal ethics of justice and liberation for all, not on the tired tribal boundaries of the past. If we are members of any tribe, it is the one that extends to include those who seek a better and more just world and are willing to work together to make it a reality.
This past summer, like so many of you, I was in deep anguish over the carnage Israel was inflicting on the people of Gaza. My anguish was all the deeper as I realized I was self-censoring my public voice due to the turmoil in my congregation. But if there was one redemptive Jewish moment for me last summer, it was thanks to JVP, when I participated in a Chicago chapter action that disrupted a Jewish Federation fundraiser in support of Israel’s war effort. Similar JVP actions were occurring around the country: which for so many represented critical Jewish voices of conscience during that dark, dark time.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the hotel ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. I will say that attending this event was beyond painful – to witness firsthand an organization that purported to represent my community cheering on Israel’s sickening violence as it was still ongoing. But when my friends finally stood up, pointed their fingers at Rahm Emanuel and Michael Oren and shouted, “We are Jews – Shame on You!” – at those moments, I truly felt that my Jewish soul had been given back to me.
I submit it is moments like these – and so many more – that demonstrate why we are all so proud to be part of this movement. I am so very proud to be standing here with you all. Now let us go together from strength to strength.
I had planned to write this post several months ago, but when circumstances in my personal/professional life recently took a dramatic turn, I took an extended hiatus from blogging. I’m happy to say I’m finally coming up for air – and that readers of this blog can fully expect to see increasing posts in the near future. I’m leading with one that deals with an event from this past summer. Although it deals with news that are now a few months old, I believe it is a story that remains tragically relevant.
Back on August 21, I participated with a small group of activists from Jewish Voice for Peace – Chicago that disrupted a fundraiser sponsored by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF). At the time, Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza was in full swing and the JUF, like many Jewish Federations across the country, was actively raising funds for the war effort.
It is important to note that Jewish Federations are more than merely a network of social service agencies; they seek to serve as the official face of the Jewish community. Given their prominence as community spokespeople, their unquestioning, knee-jerk support of Israel’s policies and actions has been painfully problematic – particularly when it comes to a war as controversial as Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” this past summer.
It is safe to say that increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community were morally repulsed by Israel’s actions during the months of July and August. We understood full well that this military onslaught was a war of choice, not self-defense. We watched as the Israeli military killed 2,100 Palestinians in two months, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians – including 500 children. We listened over and over as the Israeli government and its apologists justified its bloodshed by claiming that Hamas used its civilian population as “human shields” – a false claim that has been repeatedly disproved by human rights observers.
While JUF Chairman Bill Silverstein made the claim at the fund raiser that “world Jewry is standing behind (Israel),” there were, in fact, a myriad of public Jewish protests against Operation Protective Edge throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, Jewish Voice for Peace chapters organized protests in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, and San Diego, among others. In a protest against one prominent corporate enabler of Israel’s war machine, the Seattle chapter of JVP staged a “die in” at Boeing headquarters in Tukwila, WA, temporarily closing the entrance to their facility. Here in Chicago, JVP staged an act of nonviolent civil disobedience inside Boeing’s corporate office, resulting in the arrest of five activists (video here).
In addition, “If Not Now When?,” an inspirational new grassroots initiative spearheaded by young Jews, held public prayer vigils at Jewish communal institutions across the country. INNW’s dramatic inaugural vigil in New York City was held on July 28 in front of the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. After a statement was read, memorial candles) were lit and placed on the ground. Nine activists were arrested during this prayerful act of Jewish civil disobedience (video here). It was my honor to participate in such a vigil here in Chicago, which took place on August 7 in front of the JUF offices downtown (see pic above).
While all these actions differed in approach and tone, together they provide evidence of a growing movement of Jewish conscience against Israeli militarism and the devastating human toll it has exacted in Israel/Palestine. During Israel’s similar military onslaught on Gaza in 2009/09, this movement was barely in its nascent stages; by the summer of 2014 I think it safe to say it found its voice in an immensely powerful way. It was particularly notable that many of them were organized by young Jews in their 20s, reinforcing the findings of an August Gallup poll that found a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 considered Israel’s actions in Gaza to be “unjustified.”
It is also important to note that these protests have been deeply rooted in Jewish values, symbols and liturgy. The JVP Chicago members who organized and carried out the disruption at the JUF fundraiser were most certainly motivated by the sacred Jewish imperatives that exhort us not to stand idly by, to pursue justice, to not follow the multitude to do wrong. And I was particularly proud that our group was multi-generational, ranging in age from 20s to 60s.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the Hilton Towers ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. As you can see from the video clip at the top of this post, there were a series of five disruptions during the course of the evening. The first occurred as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was speaking; two members of our group stood up, held up a banner that read “Shame on Israel,” and repeatedly chanted, “We are Jews, shame on you. Stop killing children now!”
Security grabbed their banner away immediately and they continued chanting as they were escorted from the room. Three other pairs of protesters and an Israeli-American also disrupted speakers at various points during the program. Each time time, the response of the crowd grew angrier – the final pair of activists were physically struck and had water thrown in their faces by attendees. (I myself was eventually asked to leave and was also escorted from the room by security. I can only assume someone from JUF recognized me and outed me to the program staff).
Speaking personally, I will say without hesitation that my participation in this action was a profound, even sacred experience. It took place during a terrible, tragic time in which I, as a Jew, was being implicated in crimes that were being committed by a state purporting to act on behalf of the Jewish people. In my hometown of Chicago, the organization that claimed to represent my community was openly urging on the war effort and was publicly raising funds to support it.
It is difficult to describe the sense of anguish and alienation I felt as I sat in that room, listening to speaker after speaker urge on the war effort without expressing an iota of concern over the scores of innocents that Israel was killing daily. The only mention of the Gazan dead arose when speakers defensively and cynically wielded the canard of “human shields.”
I was sitting directly behind the first pair of disrupters. They stood up just as Rahm Emanuel had announced that he and his wife were pledging $5,000.00 to the JUF’s Israel Emergency Campaign. (Why exactly the mayor of Chicago was so publicly and dramatically taking sides in a international conflict is another troubling question for us to ponder). I must say that when I saw my friends stand up, point their fingers at Emanuel and exclaim “Shame on you!” it truly felt like a redemptive moment. It was if my own soul as a Jew – indeed, as a human being of conscience – had finally been given back its voice.
Following the action, I heard criticisms from some that our disruption ran counter “to the values of dialogue.” If we were looking for convince members of the Jewish community of the worthiness of our cause, we were told, this kind of jingoistic, disruptive sloganeering was just not the way to do it.
Of course such a critique utterly misses the point of our protest. We were not seeking “dialogue” with members of our community; on the contrary, we were protesting war crimes being committed in our name. We certainly did not have any illusions that our action would convert anyone in that ballroom to our cause. Our target audience was not the attendees of the JUF fundraiser – rather, we sought to send a message to the world at large. To state loudly and openly that the entire Jewish community is not, in fact, marching lock step in support of Israel’s war effort.
We also heard the critique that our actions was just downright rude: rude to our civic leaders, rude to the speakers and guests, rude to decorum of this function and rude to the JUF as a whole.
Yes, our action was disruptive – that was, in fact, its point. But if these disruptions felt rude and impolitic, the discomfort felt in that room was beyond miniscule in comparison to the horrors that were being inflicted at that very moment on the people of Gaza. Our protest was at its very core, an act of tochechah (“reproof”), hearkening back to the Biblical dictum “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and incur no sin because of that person” (Leviticus 19:17).
When I think of this kind of criticism, I can’t help but think back to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed a very similar critique leveled at him by liberal clergy who urged him not to “cause tension” through public acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in their city.
As King wrote to his Birmingham colleagues:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
It is now three months since the ceasefire that ended the carnage of that terrible summer. And of course, we have already forgotten about Gaza. With the increasing shortness of our news cycles and attention spans, it has all but disappeared from our view.
But of course, the tragedy continues on. The death and destruction inflicted on the people of that tiny strip of land still reverberates: through pain and agony of the injured and the traumatized and through the grief of so many who lost parents, siblings, children and friends. As a Gazan friend recently told me, no one – no one – in Gaza is untouched by the pain of grief.
As a Jew I will never forget the tragedy of those two months, nor will I remain silent over the crimes that continue to be committed in my name. But I am heartened by those in my community who are increasingly finding the courage of their convictions. It is truly my honor to be counted with the disrupters, the “nonviolent gadflies” who seek to “dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.”