Category Archives: Human Rights

On Marc Ellis, Exile and the Prophetic (or Welcome to the New Diaspora Rabbi Rosen!)

IMG_4236My remarks at a Festshrift in honor of Marc Ellis held at Southern Methodist University, April 14-16, 2018. The gathering included presentations by a number of Marc’s colleagues and friends, including Naim Ateek, Sara Roy, Santiago Slabodsky, Robert O. Smith, Joanne Terrell, Susanne Scholtz, Robert Cohen and Marc’s two sons, Aaron and Isaiah Ellis:

I first learned about Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation” shortly after the first edition was published in 1987. I discovered it quite by accident on the shelf of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College library. Questions abounded: What on earth was Jewish Liberation Theology? And who on earth was Marc Ellis? Like any pretentious young rabbinical student, I thought I knew my contemporary Jewish theologians. Then I saw from the byline that he taught at Maryknoll. Wait, was he even a Jewish theologian?

It took me only a few paragraphs into the book to learn that he was in fact Jewish. As I read on however, it became clear that Marc Ellis was unlike any Jewish theologian I’d ever read. For one thing, he wrote about Palestinians. A lot. He presented Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as theological category. He wrote about the moral cost of Jewish empowerment. He wrote about Jewish collective confession to the Palestinian people. It was radical Jewish theology in every sense of the word.

I wasn’t ready to fully hear what Marc had laid before me at the time. I don’t think I even finished the book. It’s wasn’t for lack of concern for Palestinians – as a liberal Zionist, I had long identified with the Israeli peace movement and had supported Palestinian statehood back when such things were considered beyond the pale by the organized Jewish community. But I would never dare to view Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a theological concern. Like most liberal Zionists, I viewed the peace process in pragmatic terms. I didn’t necessarily support a two state solution for moral reasons – it was all about Israel remaining “Jewish and democratic.” I also don’t think I would have been too comfortable referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “oppression.” Like most liberal Zionists, I would have said it was “complicated,” with enough blame to go around.

Over the years however, I struggled with nagging, gnawing doubts over these talking points. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my political views. As you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for what Marc would later call “Empire Judaism.” Few, if any congregational rabbis would dare cross this line publicly.

I’d been a rabbi for about 10 years when I returned to “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation,” which had just been released in a much-expanded third edition. This time I was ready. I read it cover to cover. And this time, Marc’s unflinching moral clarity made a direct line to my head and my heart. Liberal Jewish thinkers typically treated Israel/Palestine as a complex political issue that needed addressing. Marc, on the other hand stated unabashedly that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians was the issue – the central moral issue facing Jews and Judaism today. All the rest was commentary.

Taking his cue from the Holocaust theologians he analyzed so well in his book, he viewed Jewish empowerment following the Holocaust as a critical turning point in Jewish history. Like them, Marc embraced this empowerment – he had no desire to turn the clock back to an old diaspora of a bygone era. But unlike thinkers such as Irving Greenberg, Richard Rubenstein, et al, he was unwilling to view support for Jewish empowerment – embodied by the state of Israel – as a “sacred Jewish obligation” for the current era. Quite the contrary: if we had any sacred obligation at all, it was to repent and make confession to the Palestinian people for our collective sins against them.

However, there still remained the question: “Who is this guy?” I noticed that he was now teaching at Baylor University and had established its Center for American and Jewish Studies. Of course I understood that someone who espoused ideas such as these wouldn’t necessarily be welcome in Jewish institutional circles – but it was still astonishing to me that his name was not counted among the top Jewish thinkers of our day.

I discovered that he had become quite prolific since the publication of “Theology of Jewish Liberation.” I also discovered that his ideas had deepened and broadened. He had coined terms such as “Constantinian Judaism” and the “Ecumenical Deal.” He wrote extensively about “Jews of Conscience” and the “Jewish Prophetic.” He wrote about the end of ethical Jewish history. As I personally evolved on the issue of Israel/Palestine, Marc’s work became a central guiding force for me. And while I wasn’t always ready to go to the places he did, it was liberating to know there was someone in the Jewish world who was actually saying these words out loud.

More than anyone I had ever encountered, here was someone who embodied the essence of the prophetic. Frankly, liberal Jews had been bandying this word to the point that it has now become an empty cliche. But Marc understood that prophetic meant daring to utter aloud the unutterable. Of course it also meant being regulated to what our Jewish communal gatekeepers considered the fringe of “normative” community.  I was deeply saddened to hear in 2011, that he had been forced out of Baylor – but by then I knew enough to understand why. And though I had never met him, I felt compelled to join the voices who were rallying to his support.

This is what I wrote in my blog at the time:

I first read Professor Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation” as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s – and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time. Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as “unique” and “untouchable” but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.

And yet further: Ellis had the courage to take these ideas to the place that few in the Jewish world were willing to go. If we truly believe in the God of liberation, if our sacred tradition truly demands of us that we stand with the oppressed, then the Jewish people cannot only focus on our own legacy of suffering – we must also come to grips with our own penchant for oppression, particularly when it comes to the actions of the state of Israel. And yes, if we truly believe in the God of liberation this also means that we must ultimately be prepared to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation.

When I first read Ellis’ words, I didn’t know quite what to make of them. They flew so directly in the face of such post-Holocaust theologians as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim – all of whom viewed the Jewish empowerment embodied by the state of Israel in quasi-redemptive terms. And they were certainly at odds with the views of those who tended the gates of the American Jewish community, for whom this sort of critique of Israel was strictly forbidden.

Over the years, however, I’ve found Ellis’ ideas to be increasingly prescient, relevant – and I daresay even liberating. As a rabbi, I’ve come to deeply appreciate his brave willingness to not only ask the hard questions, but to unflinchingly pose the answers as well.

Three years after I wrote those words, I ran into some professional difficulties of my own. Up until that point, the congregation I had served for the past 17 years had found a way to countenance my increasing Palestine solidarity activism. But gradually, perhaps inevitably, discord grew in my congregation. In early 2014, I learned that a small group of members had organized and wrote an open letter to our board demanding that they rein me in. When I spoke out publicly during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, their calls grew even stronger. When I participated in a public disruption at a Chicago Jewish Federation fundraiser for the war effort, the tensions grew yet worse still. Then I was ejected from the Board of Rabbis of Greater Chicago. In the fall of 2014, I made the anguishing decision to resign from my congregation.

It was an enormously painful and traumatic time in my life and for the most part I’ve avoided speaking about it publicly. I’ll just say for now that when all this went down, I didn’t know if I could be a rabbi any more. I didn’t know how I would continue to be Jewish any more.

Less a week later, I learned that Marc had written about my resignation in his column at Mondoweiss. I was astonished – I had no idea he’d even heard of me. But here he was voicing his public approval and support of my actions, and in such classically Marc Ellis fashion:

The Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois is looking for a new rabbi. Rabbi Brant Rosen is moving on. No one who is really going to look Israel in the eye need apply…

The whole thing is sad beyond words – who we have become. Rosen is one of the few rabbis in America with an ethical spine. He’s an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights and co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. I’m not sure what more needs to be said to analyze the situation.

Jewish congregational life, no matter how divided, can’t support Jewish leadership that has the prophetic at its core…Maybe the war in Gaza was the final straw. Rabbi Rosen and his congregation came face to face with the end-times of Jewish history. Rosen stood fast. It seems that Rabbi Rosen’s synagogue leadership blinked. What happened behind the scenes will probably remain secret – except for the voluminous leaks that are part of the vibrancy of congregational life.

Voluntary or forced and probably a combination of the two, Rabbi Rosen has his ticket to ride.

The Jewish rails?

Exile it is Rabbi Rosen! Welcome to the New Diaspora!

Shortly after his post appeared, I spoke with Marc on the phone. At first he was apologetic, hoping that he did not make things even more complicated for me. I reassured him that at that point, nothing could really make things more complicated than they already were. During our long conversation he told me something that he’s told me several times since. He said I needed to grasp how my participation in the Federation disruption was, in fact, contrary to everything I was trained to be in rabbinical school. What rational reason could possibly explain why I did this? For a congregational rabbi to disrupt a room filled with hundreds of Jewish leaders and community members? Why did I do it? How could I possibly explain it rationally?

In a subsequent article, Marc wrote further:

Out of the blue the prophets arise, are shot down, then reappear. It hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. The prophetic is too deeply ingrained in Jewish life to pass quietly into our newly embraced colonial night.

Apparently, synagogues are not for prophets. Those who practice the prophetic and attend synagogue, should take note. Your expulsion is inevitable.

The prophetic was happening, in Evanston of all places. Now Rabbi Rosen is packing his bags. With his conscience intact.

While I realize that Marc was offering out his hand in friendship and support at that moment, I think his gesture went even deeper than that. Though I sense his ideas about the prophetic have been informed by his own personal experience, I don’t think they come from a place of self-aggrandizement. After all, personal and professional banishment is not a pleasant experience. It is anguishing. It is traumatic. It is emotionally wounding. Marc wasn’t simply joking when he wrote, “Welcome to the New Diaspora, Rabbi Rosen!” He was letting me know that he had been there too and that yes, this “New Diaspora” as he called it, could be a brutal place. But he was also reassuring me that despite the trauma I was experiencing, even though I had lost everything I had thought to be Jewish up until then, I needed to understand that I had indeed acted in authentically Jewish fashion.

To hear this from someone I considered to be an intellectual and spiritual mentor meant the world to me. Ultimately it helped me to understand my actions as something other than merely ill-advised career suicide.

Now that I’m a few years removed from that time, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been able to carve out a fairly comfortable corner in the New Diaspora. It is, in fact, a steadily growing corner – and much of this is due to the path Marc has painfully charted. We’re witnessing the growth of what Marc would call a Jewish community of conscience. It is primarily an activist community, expressed through organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace. I daresay those who have found a home in this community owe a significant debt to Marc whether or not they stop to realize it. I’ve tried to do my part in ensuring they know that Marc Ellis is, in no small way, their spiritual forbearer.

At the same time, I am acutely aware that he is not – and does not consider himself – an activist. As one who understands the Jewish prophetic to its core, he does not flinch from critique even of activist Jews of conscience like myself. As you all know, he perfectly willing to call out any behavior or analysis that he feels lacks depth – and the growing Jewish movement of solidarity with Palestinians is not immune from this critique. Like the prophets of old, he has no trouble serving as an equal-opportunity annoyance. Or maybe he just can’t help himself. Either way, Marc’s keen eye keeps us all honest.

In the spring of 2015, in an attempt to create a spiritual home for Jews of Conscience, I founded a congregation, Tzedek Chicago. True to form, Marc greeted this news with a characteristic blend of joy, skepticism, amusement and hope.

Here’s what he wrote in Mondoweiss:

We have arrived at the end of Jewish history and now another, prophetic, opportunity presents itself. Life is strange that way. Why worry about a failed future when the abyss we Jews inhabit is so obvious?

So fare forward, Tzedek Chicago. The deep and treacherous Jewish waters you ply are uncharted.

Or are they? Another way of being Jewish in the world is a return to our prophetic origins.

Yes, I hesitate. Yes, I join. As a witness at the end. With hope that there is more.

In more ways that he knows, he has helped to inspire our new “congregation of the abyss.” So yes, Marc Ellis has become a member of a synagogue. Yes, I am now Marc Ellis’ rabbi.

Last year, Tzedek Chicago brought out Marc to be our congregation’s scholar in residence, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation.” For Marc, it was the opportunity to teach in a Jewish space for the first time in many years. For me, it marked the turning of a significant cycle in my life that began that day in 1988, when I took a book off the shelf of my rabbinical school library, with no way of knowing that it would become a kind of spiritual bellwether for my own journey.

Today we celebrate another important milestone – a long overdue gathering of Marc’s friends, colleagues, students and children. To quote Marc, “the deep and treacherous Jewish waters we ply are uncharted.” But we are charting them together. If we have indeed arrived at the end of Jewish history, I have faith that together we will discover how to begin it anew.

I will end with a quote from Marc’s book – it’s a passage that resonates with deeper meaning each time I return to it:

Prophetic Jewish theology, or a Jewish theology of liberation, seeks to bring to light the hidden and sometimes censored movements of Jewish life. It seeks to express the dissent of those afraid or unable to speak. Ultimately, a Jewish theology of liberation seeks, in concert with others, to weave disparate hopes and aspirations into the very heart of Jewish life.

I can think of no better mission statement for life in the New Diaspora.

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

Seder at the Mountaintop: A Guest Post by Jay Stanton

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Delivered by Rabbinic Intern Jay Stanton at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 4, 2018.

I have been thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today marks 50 years since his assassination, and I have been thinking about how blessed we are by Dr. King. Although his dream of racial equity is not yet realized, King’s vision of a just world and of a beloved community benefits us all. Still on the march to freedom, we shall not be moved. In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

So tonight bothers me. Why are we here? What are we doing here? We could be spending our time in so many immediately effective ways. We could be on the picket line with striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. We could be outside the Israeli Embassy protesting the shooting of unarmed Gazan civilians. We could be praying with our feet. Instead, we’re here, engaged in a ritual that involves praying with our taste buds. Why not abandon the traditional Passover rituals and observe the holiday by working for justice? In familiar words, why is this night different from all other nights?

I found the beginnings of an answer in the speech Dr. King gave the day before he died. Often referred to as the “Mountaintop” or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the remarks he offered on April 3, 1968, on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis are striking (pun intended). The most revisited part chronicles Dr. King’s prophetic sense of his imminent demise. But in the beginning, King imagines the extraordinary opportunity of standing with God.

In Dr. King’s imagination, God offers to take him to any point in time. Martin Luther King says:

I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

Though King’s choice is obvious, his purpose is not. Stopping in liberatory moments where freedom of thought and freedom of action expanded, he brings his listeners on his imagined journey through time. Finally, he arrives at the liberatory moment of the Poor People’s Campaign.

After acknowledging the injustices of his world, King continues:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Dr. King echoes a core aspect of the Passover seder. We say bejol dor vador jayyav adam lir’ot et ‘atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went free from Egypt. This fulfills the verse “You shall tell your child on that day that God freed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

We often take this as an echo of Torah’s most repeated rule. Having been strangers in Egypt, we must be kind to the stranger. But we don’t need a seder to have empathy for the stranger. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have shown that the best way to cultivate empathy is habitual activation of a structure in the brain called the right supermarginal gyrus. We can activate our brain’s empathy structure by focusing on others. Increasing empathy cannot be the effect of telling our story.

Our seder tells us something different, tells us something Dr. King tells us in his Mountaintop speech. For King, humanity is always striving to become free, and God is always liberating the oppressed; today’s freedom marches are the same in sacred time as the Exodus from Egypt. When we see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt, we live in that sacred moment.

Our seder allows us to live through the Exodus mythologically. Then, not only can we have empathy for the oppressed, we can share the joy of redemption and participate in liberation. For those of us currently experiencing oppression, the seder’s ritual journey allows us to memorize a feeling of having been liberated, which we will recognize when we get there.

In his Mountaintop speech, Dr. King details the ways demonstrators remained unfazed by Bull Connor’s violent tactics, stressing that liberation starts in the mind. Tonight, those of us facing oppression remember that Jews observed Passover even while oppressed – in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe and by the double standard of dhimmi status in the Middle East and North Africa. Black Jewish slaves in the American South also observed Passover, even while owned by Jews. (Yes, there were Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners in America – feel free to ask me about it later. Can you imagine slaves serving at a Jewish master’s seder and then holding their own seder during the night?) Tonight, the oppressed among us, and those too oppressed to be here with us, assert that our liberation is God’s objective. Ain’t nobody can turn us ‘round.

For those of us currently experiencing freedom, the seder’s journey cultivates gratitude for our liberation and solidarity with the oppressed. Focusing on the Exodus story allowed Dr. King to emphasize solidarity with the striking workers in Memphis. Desegregation was an important step toward collective freedom for Black Americans, but desegregation did not solve the economic injustices of Black generational poverty and wage discrimination. As King points out in his journey through the history of liberation, our specific liberations, whatever they may be, are only pieces of a greater process of redemption. If we are free while others remain oppressed, we are still living in the bondage of a narrow place.

For most of us in this room, the reality is that we experience both oppression and freedom in different moments and in different ways. Some of us may experience sexual harassment at work but enjoy equal partnership at home. Some of us may be targeted by police because of the color of our skin but know simultaneously that Black is beautiful. Some of us may encounter hate from our family members concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but enjoy the support of our queer beloved community. Some of us may encounter antisemitism from our Congressional candidates or in the newspaper, but benefit from white privilege.

We may be targets of oppression based on class, ability, immigration status, and religious affiliation, to name a few, but none of us are enslaved. We share the freedom of movement that allows us to be in this room tonight. We share the freedoms of religion and free association that allow us to have a seder here tonight. The seder, like our lives, reflects both our oppression and our liberation.

Right now, I invite you to step into this night of transformation. The root of the word “nishtanah” in mah nishtanah is change. What will change on this night, as opposed to other nights? I invite you to open your heart to be transformed by tonight. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you experience sacred time. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you know that you have been liberated. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have gratitude for the freedom you enjoy. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have a sense of history. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you stand on the shoulders of your elders. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you do so in a beloved community. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you are in solidarity with all the oppressed. So that tomorrow, when you take action for justice, you will not be moved.

Once we were slaves. Now we have been freed. How does that change you?

Prayer for the Poor People’s Campaign

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photo: Clayton Patterson

(Delivered at the Poor People’s Campaign Rally for Action, Grace Lutheran Church, Evanston, March 22, 2018.)

Friends, let us bless:

This is a blessing for the ones
who stand up police lines and say:
you may invade our communities,
you may profile and survielle us
you may shoot at our black and brown bodies,
but you will never break us.

This is a blessing for the ones
who lose their homes to predators,
who lose their pensions and healthcare,
while the wealthy grow wealthier
but will never accept that this
is simply the way things must be.

This is a blessing for the ones
who live under the terror
of our drones and our bombs,
whose blood fills the coffers
of our war economy,
whose only consolation is the truth
that while empires may rise,
they are destined to fall.

This is a blessing for the ones
who stand on street corners,
who live in tent encampments
next to luxury condos that soar to the sky
yet refuse to surrender their humanity
to the gears of an inhumane system.

This is a blessing for an earth
that grows more inhabitable by the day
yet is still inhabited by those who struggle
for a planet that will provide a sustainable home
for their children’s children.

This is a blessing for the immigrants
who fear every knock on the door
every cop that pulls them over,
every job application they are handed
yet never give up on the dream
of a better future for themselves
and their families.

So let the justice
that trickles down shallow creeks
roar through the valley and saturate
the dry parched earth,
let it flow relentlessly throughout the land
where life once grew and will grow again.

Let those who cry out in pain
feel strength growing within their broken souls
like green stems shooting through
cracked pavement.

Let us live to see new life spreading
through abandoned streets and
neighborhoods and cities and nations and
let the promise of transformation beckon still
that we might finally take the first
tentative step into this new day, yes
let it be so.

Amen.

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.

This Hanukkah, Light a Candle for Gaza

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Palestinian children do their homework during a power cut in an impoverished area in Gaza City, on September 11, 2017. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images)

Cross-posted with Truthout.

The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish priestly family from the Hasmonean dynasty, over the Seleucid Empire in 2nd century BCE. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees entered the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem and attempted to relight the menorah, there was only enough oil for one day. But when they lit the fire, a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight full days.

What’s the meaning of this simple parable? Some say that the image of increasing light is appropriate to the dark winter season — a time in which many religious traditions celebrate festivals by kindling lights. Others say that this story underscores a powerful political/spiritual truth: Even in the bleakest of times, an oppressed people will somehow find the strength to continue the struggle.

When I light my Hanukkah candles this year, I plan to light an extra one each night for Gaza.

This year marks 10 years since Israel commenced its blockade of Gaza, turning this 140-square-mile strip of land into a virtual open-air prison. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead — a devastating military assault that killed 1,419 (including at least 308 children), wounded over 5,000 more and left more than 20,000 homeless. (The name of the operation, perversely enough, was a reference to a children’s Hanukkah song based on a poem by Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik: “My teacher gave a dreidel to me/A dreidel of cast lead.”)

Two months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). My visit left me with a myriad of impressions and emotions, foremost of which was a sense of awe at the ability of Palestinian Gazans to live with resilience and dignity under the most oppressive of conditions.

This is, of course, not to minimize their trauma nor to tokenize them as victims. A recent, presumably well-meaning article in Ha’aretz did precisely that, interviewing a volunteer psychologist for Physicians for Human Rights, who portrayed Palestinians in Gaza as overwhelmingly obsessed with sex and addicted to behavior-altering drugs. The psychologist claimed that due to Gaza’s devastating conditions, many Palestinians have “lost their humanity” and are unable to “see the other, his pain.” In an important rejoinder to the article, Palestinian activist Nada Elia responded pointedly:

I do not want to minimise the severity of daily life in Gaza. I am someone who has insisted the siege be recognised as genocidal. Nevertheless, I am appalled at the callousness of the interviewer as she asks for an elaboration of how people in Gaza have lost their “internal morality,” their very “humanity”.

I saw a great deal of humanity during my short stay in Gaza. I traveled there to participate in strategic planning meetings with AFSC staff colleagues, to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah, with our Gaza staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us traveled to Gaza to meet with our two full-time staff members there: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on public achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestine Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation — particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt, of course, by the youth of Gaza, who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140-square-mile strip of land.

American Friends Service Committee staff with youth from their Gaza program. (Photo courtesy of Brant Rosen)

AFSC staff with participants from the Palestine Youth Together for Change program

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was 18 years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically with the experiences of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather, it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not merely a youth service project; its ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard, this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance”: initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions; advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention; and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade. The latter program, “Gaza Unlocked,” seeks to educate the public about the reality of the blockade by sharing the stories — and the humanity — of the people who live there.

Here’s a sample of their testimonies:

College graduate Fidaa Zaanin, 27:

This is life. We should not give up. I will maintain my humanity and my dreams despite the siege. I believe in change, if not immediate then with time. I will be an example for my brothers and my sisters and whoever dreams of a future, for they are my hope for the future.

Freelance photographer Ezz Al Zanoon, 24:

We reject the images of us that are being shown to the world. We are humans. We are proud of our humanity. We are proud of our achievements despite the difficult circumstances. No one can achieve what we have done. Despite the blockade, the wars, the structured destructions, we continue to live and fight for a dignified life. We fight against the imposed restrictions, being triggered by our desire for life.

NGO project coordinator Shareef Hamad, 34:

I must challenge this situation. I don’t have any choice. This affects our daily lives and our emotional well-being. We are under all this pressure.

What inspires me is the faith that this situation is not eternal. I can change it or its consequences. I can at least limit its impact on me and those I love. According to history, no oppression lasts forever. This nation deserves better.

During our final night in Gaza, my colleagues and I walked through the streets of Gaza City on our way back from dinner. Because Gaza only receives four hours of electricity a day, the street lights and home windows around us were dark. The only light came from beachfront hotels that had their own generators. We were well aware that we were staying in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. But to paraphrase Shareef Hamad, I am inspired by the faith that no darkness is eternal.

During Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of light that sustains us even when the world is at its darkest. This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting a candle for Gaza.

God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed: A Theology of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

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I delivered the remarks below yesterday during a session at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion in Boston. This panel was originally intended to be an exploratory roundtable entitled “Arguing Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) and Religion,” featuring six presenters to discuss this issue in the spirit of respectful, collegial debate. As the organizers of the program noted, “Rather than demonizing those either for or against BDS, this exploratory session will allow a variety of voices to be heard.”

Late last week, we learned that two anti-BDS panelists and the moderator had withdrawn from the session. One panelist claimed that she did not know who the rest of the panelists would be, specifically objecting to me and Dr. Hatem Bazian of (Zaytuna College and UC Berkeley) being included in the program.

After a hastily organized meeting, the AAR Executive Committee decided to postpone the roundtable, but allowed the room to be available for “information discussion.” At the session I read my original paper; Dr. Bazian and Dr. Zareena Grewal of Yale presented as well. A paper written by Dr. Steven Zunes (University of San Francisco), who was unable to attend, was also presented at the session. 

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 In my remarks to you today, I’d like to address one of the questions originally presented to the panelists of our session:

What, from your perspective, what stands out as a particularly important element of religious ethics and theology that motivates those inspired to take up the cause of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions?

For me, this question leads directly to one of the most important theological teachings of Jewish tradition: God hears and hearkens to the cry of the oppressed.

We first encounter this divine attribute in Genesis 18:20-21, when God says to Abraham:

The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me…

Later, at the outset of the Exodus story, God says to Moses:

Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:9) 

It should be noted that Godly attributes in Jewish tradition are not mere academic concepts – they are nothing short of divine imperatives. God’s ways must be our ways as well. Judaism is replete with references to imitatio dei, including this oft-cited teaching from the Talmud:

Why does it say (Deut. 13: 5): “One should walk after God“? Is it possible to walk after the Divine Presence? Is God not like a consuming fire (ibid., 4:24)? Rather, it means that one should imitate God’s ways. As God clothed Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the ailing (Gen. 18: 1), so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death (Gen. 25: 11), so should we comfort mourners; as God buried Moses (Deut. 34:6), so should we care for the dignity of the dead.

 

(Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).

To this list, we might well add: “As God hears the cry of the oppressed, so should we hear the cry of the oppressed.”

One of my favorite recent teachings on this concept is offered by Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, in his 2009 essay, “Hearing the Cry of the Poor.” Pointing to the well known verse in Exodus 20: “Do not oppress or mistreat the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” Cohen writes:

Many have understood this verse as meaning that the lesson of oppression is compassion. That is, “You Israelites know what it means to be enslaved, oppressed, to be the stranger. Now that you are the dominant group, you must exercise compassion toward those who were like you were. You must exercise the compassion that Pharaoh did not exercise toward you.”

 

This understanding, however, does not take into account verse 22 (“If you do, and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”)

Cohen interprets thus:

On the one hand, God heard the cry of the Israelites, and this led to redemption. On the other hand, Pharaoh did not hear the cry and this led to the devastation of Egypt. The ethical choice is between imitatio dei and imitatio pharaoh. As is the wont of the Biblical authors, these choices bring with them repercussions. Choosing to be like God leads to redemption while choosing to be like Pharaoh leads to death.

Later, noting Nachmanides commentary on this verse, Rabbi Cohen concludes:

The lesson of the slavery and liberation in Egypt is not an exhortation to dwell on shared victimization…It is not the empathy of shared suffering that is at stake here but the certain knowledge that God hears the cries of the oppressed that others choose to ignore – and benefit thereby from their continued exploitation….

 

Nachmanides teaches us that the experience that we share with all marginal, oppressed or exploited people is the possibility of redemption. The Torah puts this starkly, to quote Eldridge Cleaver: “What we’re saying here today is that you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” You can choose to be like God, and hear the cries of the oppressed, or you can choose to be like Pharaoh and ignore those cries. In either event, the oppressed will be redeemed. If, however, the salvation is left to God you will go the way of the Egyptians.

(from “Crisis, Call and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions,” edited by P. Ochs and W. Johnson, pp. 112-114.)

While Rabbi Cohen does not address BDS specifically in his essay, I find his teaching to be directly relevant to our subject. To put it simply, the BDS call is a cry from the oppressed. Will we choose to be like God, and hear the cry of the Palestinian people?

This simple, essential point is too often drowned out by the clamor and din of the hysteria around BDS: its origin point is a call from an oppressed people who are seeking support and solidarity from the international community.

Some critical history: the BDS movement dates back to 2005, when 170 Palestinian civil society organizations came together to strategize at critical political moment. The Oslo peace process had been ongoing for over ten years. During that time – a period ostensibly dedicated to a final status agreement – Israel had expanded its settlement enterprise across the West Bank at a staggering rate. The settler population in the West Bank had doubled – particularly in areas meant to be part of an eventual Palestinian state. Palestinians were being forced into isolated cantons, hemmed in by the barrier wall and checkpoints, increasingly cut off from Israel and each other.

It had become clear to many – certainly to Palestinians – that Israel had no interest in negotiating a viable two state solution. They were extending their control over Palestinian lands and they were doing it with impunity. At the same time, in Israel proper, Palestinians were increasingly deprived of their rights as citizens. Adalah – the Legal Center for Minority rights in Israel had documented over 65 laws that discriminated against Palestinians on the basis of their national belonging. And then there was the question of Palestinian refugees. Since Israel steadfastly refused to even consider negotiating the Palestinian Right of Return, over 7 million Palestinian refugees remained in exile – unable to even set foot in the land in which their ancestors lived.

During the decade following Oslo, no political entity – not the US government, the UN, the governments of the international community, nor the PA itself – were willing or able to hold Israel to account. It was under this context that the leadership of Palestinian civil society came together in 2005 to issue the BDS call. The efforts of the political powers had failed them. Together, they determined that the only way to create the opening for a just solution was to leverage popular support – that is to say, people power.

Thus, a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies made a crie de cour for solidarity and support. They issued a call to the world to use the time honored nonviolent strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to pressure the state of 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 antisemiticeconomic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.”

Why such a strong response? I would suggest it is because Israel knows this is the one arena in which it is the most vulnerable. While it enjoys a distinct advantage on politically and militarily, it now faces the mobilization of a nonviolent popular movement that is holding it to account – and it takes this very seriously. Indeed, BDS is modeled on the similar movement that was mobilized in response to apartheid South Africa. History has proven that this kind of popular resistance can actually work.

Admittedly, the idea of a worldwide boycott of Israel pushes all kinds of Jewish hot buttons. Many, for instance, compare it to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses during the rise of the Third Reich. While I understand the visceral nature of this response, it perversely misrepresents the essential core of the BDS call. In the case of Nazi Germany, a government used boycott as a tool to persecute minority citizens of its own nation. The Palestinian civil society call is a cry from the oppressed themselves for solidarity in the face of state violence. In this regard it is much more comparable to the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the American civil rights movement or the United Farm Workers call for boycott of grape growers in California.

BDS also pushes buttons for those who believe it unfairly singles Israel out. Those who have answered the call by supporting boycott and divestment campaigns are routinely accused of practicing a double standard. “Of all the oppressive regimes throughout the world, Israel is surely not the worst” many critics claim. Thus it is problematic, if not downright antisemitic, to target Israel exclusively with such campaigns.

Here again, the essential nature of the BDS call is being twisted out of context. BDS does not originate in boycott campaigns or divestment resolutions. The BDS call comes from Palestinians themselves. The proper question before us it not “what about these other oppressive regimes?” but rather, “the Palestinian people have issued a call for solidarity and support in the face of very real oppression – will we respond to their call or not?”

There is currently no call comparable to the one that has been issued by Palestinian civil society. If oppressed people anywhere in the world saw fit to issue such a call, it would naturally be worthy of our consideration and support. But the lack of one does not invalidate the worthiness of the call that has been placed before us by the Palestinian people.

Back in 2009, when I was just starting to grapple myself with my own response to this call, I wrote a blog post in which I shared my own nascent thoughts on the subject. Here is how I concluded:

Beyond the fears of BDS articulated by so many in the Jewish communal establishment, I think there’s an even deeper fear for many of us in the Jewish community: the prospect of facing the honest truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

 

For so many painful reasons, it is just so hard for us to see Israel as an oppressor – to admit that despite all of the vulnerability we feel as Jews, the power dynamic is dramatically, overwhelmingly weighted in Israel’s favor.  Though a movement like BDS might feel on a visceral level like just one more example of the world piling on the Jews and Israel, we need to be open to the possibility that it might more accurately be described as the product of a weaker, dispossessed, disempowered people doing what it must to resist oppression.

In the end, I believe this is the real crux of the issue. Many liberals analyze the issue of Israel/Palestine with what I would call a “Conflict Analysis” – that is to say, the tragic collision of two peoples, each of whom have compelling claims to the same piece of land. In this instance, the appropriate response naturally, would be to negotiate a political compromise between the two parties.

Others however, myself included, analyze the issue with an “Oppression Analysis.” In this case, this tragedy was caused by an essential injustice. It occurred as the result of an ethnic national movement that colonized, settled and forcibly seized a land from people who were living there. Indeed, this injustice is not part of history but is ongoing even now. In such a context, the structures that perpetuate this injustice must be recognized and dismantled before any sustainable solution can be reached.

I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.

In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.