This past Monday it was my honor to give the keynote speech at a dinner sponsored by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The event took place in Detroit during the Presbyterian General Assembly and was attended by longtime Christian peace activists, many of whom have become become my dear friends and colleagues in the growing interfaith movement for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Here is a text of my remarks:
I am humbled and honored to have been asked to speak to you tonight – and I’m particularly moved to look around the room and see so many people who have become my friends and colleagues in this amazing and growing movement that means so much to us all. I’d particularly like to thank (Reverend) Katherine Cunningham (moderator of the IPMN) for being such a gracious host and guide to me during my stay here in Detroit.
I’d like to start by sharing a little bit of my journey and to try to explain how it is that I have come to stand before you today.
In most ways, you might describe me as a pretty average American Jew: I went to a Jewish Community Center pre-school, I grew up in a synagogue, had a Bar Mitzvah and belonged to my Temple Youth group. And like many American Jews, my Jewishness has been indelibly tied up with Israel for my entire life. My Jewish identity has been profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. It is, at its heart, a redemptive narrative – and it has assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it has for many American Jews of my generation and older.
Politically speaking, I’ve identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I’ve long been inspired by Israel’s Labor Zionist origins, and I’ve generally aligned myself with positions advocated Israeli peace movement. I’ve always been very willing to openly criticize the actions of the Israeli government that I believed were counter to the cause of peace. At the same time, however, I generally viewed these kinds of actions as “blemishes” on an otherwise stable democracy and a noble national project. At the end of the day, I understood the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land.
Over the years, however, I confess, I struggled with gnawing doubts over the tenets of my liberal Zionist narrative. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. As an outspoken critic of American militarism, for instance, I would occasionally ask myself why I wasn’t equally as outspoken about Israeli militarism – why I habitually would give a pass to what was, after all, the one of the most militarized countries in the world.
I would also entertain nagging questions about the ethnic nationalism at the heart of Zionism. Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state was bound up with its maintenance of a Jewish majority within its borders. Like many liberal Zionists, I’d often base my arguments for a two state solution by pointing to the population growth of Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the national character of the Jewish state. As an American, I’d never dare describe an ethnic minority in the US as somehow posing a “demographic threat” to our national American character. Why, then, was I so willing to invoke this concept about so freely when it pertained to the Jewish state?
And in the darkest, wee hours of the night, I’d even question the very concept of a Jewish nation-state-ism itself. I’d ask myself, what does it mean to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in a land that has historically been multi-ethnic and multi-religious for centuries? Was it even possible to create a Jewish state that was truly democratic? How could a state define itself as “Jewish” and not view its non-Jewish population, in one way or another, as a problem to be dealt with?
When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my personal political views. Given the ideological centrality of Zionism in the American Jewish community, my questions now carried very real consequences. As I’m sure you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for the state of Israel. Congregational rabbis in particular take a very real professional risk when they criticize Israel publicly. To actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians would be tantamount to communal heresy. So you might say I put those inner questions in a lock box and made a safe and comfortable home in liberal Zionism for the first decade of my rabbinate.
As Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians became more patently oppressive and widespread however, it became increasingly difficult for me to ignore my questions. The breaking point for me occurred in December of 2008, as it did for many American Jews. This was, of course, Israel’s military assault on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead.
I remember reading the news out of Gaza with utter anguish. Like many rabbis, my e-mail inbox filled with official Jewish communal talking points about how to respond to the events in Gaza: “This was about Israel’s security pure and simple.” “Like every nation, Israel had a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens.” “If Hamas hadn’t launched rockets into Israel, they wouldn’t have had to resort to such drastic military measures.”
In the past, I might have dutifully taken these talking points to heart, along with the obligatory apology: “of course we regret the deaths of innocent civilians.” But this time, I responded differently. In spite of my anguish, or perhaps because of it, I finally felt as if I was approaching this issue with something approaching clarity. The magnitude of Israel’s military onslaught was so disproportionate, so outrageous. By the end of Operation Cast Lead, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, 300 of them children. Whole neighborhoods had been reduced to rubble, Gaza’s infrastructure was left in ruins. By contrast, on the Israeli side, 13 people had been killed. Of these, 10 were soldiers, four of whom by friendly fire.
As I read the increasingly tragic news coming out of Gaza, I came to realize this was not about Israel’s security at all. This was about bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. If Israel was truly seeking its security, it was clear to me that it was the kind of security that came from wiping out the other side with the overwhelming strength of its military might. But of course this approach had never and would never bring peace and security to either Israelis or Palestinians.
This is when my paradigm for understanding the Israel/Palestine “conflict” fundamentally shifted. I came to accept that this was not a conflict between two equal sides with claims to the same piece of land. This was about the oppressor and the oppressed.
Although I had always considered myself to be part of the peace camp when it came to Israel – I now came to realize just how hollow it was to invoke the notion of peace without reckoning just as seriously with the concept of justice. I was now ready to accept and to say out loud that Israel’s very founding was irrevocably tied up with a very real injustice to the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this very day. And I knew in my heart that until this injustice was fully faced openly and honestly, there would never truly be peace in this land.
There is much more I could say about my own personal trajectory since that time, but for now, I’ll only say that six years after my break from Liberal Zionism, I have gradually found a home in the growing Palestinian solidarity movement. Much to my surprise and delight, I have found I can actually do this as a Jew. For this I owe a great debt to Jewish Voice for Peace for providing a genuinely Jewish home for those Jews who believe as I do, that Jewish tradition demands that we stand with the oppressed and stand down the oppressor – yes, even when it comes to the state of Israel.
I also continue to serve my congregation in Evanston. That doesn’t mean it has been easy. Needless to say, there are many members of my congregation who do not share my views – and there are some who are deeply pained by my activism. But the fact that I can still remain employed at the congregation that I love and continue to make my home in the Jewish community gives me hope that the parameters of Jewish discourse on this issue are widening in significant ways.
I’m often asked, how can I, as a Jew, take the kind of stands that I do? To this I can only reply: it is because I am a Jew that I take this stand. I believe that standing in solidarity with Palestinians is the most Jewish thing I can do. As a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a human being, I am primarily motivated by the prophetic strains of Jewish tradition. I am driven by religion that speaks hard truth to power. By a faith that holds unmitigated human power to account.
I fervently believe that when religion advocates the cause of the powerless, when it stands with those who are victimized by the powerful, when religion proclaims that God stands with the oppressed and seeks their liberation – this is historically when religion has been at its very best. And conversely, when religion is used to promote empire, when it is used as by the powerful to justify their rule, when it is wedded to militarism, nationalism and political power – this is, tragically, when we witness religion at its worst.
I cannot help but read Jewish tradition with prophetic eyes. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the prophetic line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
Now, there are many who challenge such a religious vision as naive, as over-idealistic, as noble but unrealistic. They tell me it’s all well and good to promote justice, but in the real world “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” In the real world, we need to make hard compromises to achieve peace.
Whenever I hear these kinds of comments, I can’t help but think back to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he addressed the liberal clergy who had told him to stay away from Birmingham and not to rock to boat – and to give them the chance to negotiate with the Jim Crow authorities. I can’t help but think of those who criticized those who advocated for divestment from South African apartheid, who said that such measures would antagonize the apartheid regime and counseled “positive engagement” instead.
In all these cases and so many more, peace was viewed as synonymous with “not disturbing the status quo” and justice was seen as the enemy of the good. But of course, today we now openly venerate these struggles for justice and liberation. And these movements succeeded because they were led by people who understood, as King put it so well in his letter, that “Power is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I’d like to end by addressing another way in which my theological understandings have been impacted by my participation in this movement. I mentioned earlier that I used to understand the essence of this conflict to be a clash between two national movements, each with compelling and valid claims to the same small piece of land. As well meaning as such an understanding might be, the problem with this kind of idea is that it is rooted in the notion that any people or nation can actually “stake a claim” on a piece of land. Such a notion can surely be traced back to the Biblical notion of a God that apportions the land and entitles one people to it. To be sure, this is a zero-sum theological model in which there is only enough room on the land for one people – a people who is, moreover, commanded to take possession of the land by dislodging others.
But when we shift the question from “which people has a right to this land?” to “how do we extend full human and civil rights to all who live on the land?” we discover a decidedly different Biblical vision. We lift up the God who tells us that all humanity is made in the divine image – and that when push comes to shove, the land does not ultimately belong to any of us, but to God and we are all but strangers upon it.
I submit to you that our movement is deeply rooted in this theological vision – one that invokes the God of plenitude, not scarcity. After all, when we define our entitlements to a finite commodity such as land, we only doom ourselves to a future filled with endless upheaval and violence. The Bible describes our lot in this regard only too well.
However, when come to understand that our ultimate entitlement is to a boundless commodity such as human rights and human dignity, we ensure a future of true peace for ourselves and our children. This, I believe, is the Biblical vision we share and to which I know we are all so passionately and fervently committed.
It is my honor to share this vision with all of you – and to help build the movement that will one day make it a reality.