Amidst reports of an alarming uptick of anti-Semitic vandalism and bomb threats against JCCs (and an even more alarming reluctance of our new president to even admit its existence), I can’t help but think of an email exchange I had with my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Lillian three years ago.
Rebecca lives in Malmo, Sweden, a city that has seen its share of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence over the past several years. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a subsequent blog post for Jewschool, she wrote about the trauma of the incident, but also expressed her dismay that American Jewish leaders exploited it to demonize Muslims and exhort Jewish citizens of Malmo to flee to Israel.
Rebecca pointed out that immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil in which women, men and children demonstrated their support for the Jewish community by gathering in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.
Two years later, I wrote to Rebecca and asked her about the latest atmosphere in Malmo. She wrote that the war in Gaza had created an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, but that her interfaith group was “stronger than ever.” She added that the rise of the political far-right was even more concerning, referring to it as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. Rebecca noted that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”
Needless to say, that last line has a troubling resonance when I read it in 2017 – now that a group of “equal opportunity haters” has become firmly ensconced in the White House. But at the same time, I take heart in her description of Malmo’s interfaith solidarity – particularly as I witness a similar kind of solidarity occurring in Trump-era America.
Some examples: when earlier this month a mosque in Texas was destroyed by arson, a neighboring synagogue gave them the keys to their facility so they could continue to worship. Here in Chicago, after an incident of anti-Semitic vandalism at the downtown Loop Synagogue, the very first response of public condemnation came from Ahmed Rehab, director of CAIR – Chicago:
Chicago’s Muslim community stands in full solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters as they deal with the trauma of this vile act of hate. No American should have to feel vulnerable and at risk simply due to their religious affiliation.
Unfortunately, we know the feeling all too well as mosque vandalism and burning has spiked recently in the US. We recognize the source of hate as one, and regardless of religious affiliation, we stand together in solidarity against it as one. An attack on any is an attack on us all. Today, the congregation of this temple are in our thoughts and prayers.
It is worthy of note that the man arrested and charged with this hate crime is a white supremacist who had also menaced Latino members of a church in Pilsen. Following his arrest, one church member reported:
We are a church of Latinos, of immigrants, and we’re just worried and scared, and this guy walks in and he’s alone and asking weird questions. It was just an instinctual thing. We don’t want to turn anybody away, but we felt that something was wrong…He was not there to pray; he was not there to worship God. He was definitely there scouting who we are and what we are about.
The takeway? As our government – and Israel’s – continue to whip up Islamophobic hatred and brand “Muslim extremism” as the enemy, the true threat before us is the “equal opportunity hate” of white supremacy. And that the only appropriate response is – as ever – solidarity.
I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:
Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.
“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “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.”
Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”
I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”
I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.
What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.
To quote from their introduction:
We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…
Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”
If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”
Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it? But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)
Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.
Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.
Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.
These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.
There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.
I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)
There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:
With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.
It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:
Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…
We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.
Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.
Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.
So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.
Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.
In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.
Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.
Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:
Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.
So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.
Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.
So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:
1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.
2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.
3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations.” According to some estimates, 10% to 20% of Jews in this country are Jews of color. Estimates of black Jews in the US range from 20,000 to 200,000. And unlike white Jews, Jews of color are impacted by institutional racism. Any new anti-racist paradigm must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.
4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.
After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.
As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”
This is how we explain this particular core value:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.
However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”
It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.
Guest Post: Observations on the Jewish Response to the Movement for Black Lives Platform from a Self Loving Antiracist White JewPosted: August 14, 2016
A guest post from my friend Martin Friedman:
For the purpose of this piece I will be referring to Blacks who are for the most part gentile and white Jews (Jews who have come to get the racial designation of White in the context of the US regardless of self identification).
This particular piece is really written for Jews who have come to be called White. Jews who are also people of color are writing excellent pieces from their unique perspective. I will not attempt to speak from that perspective.
What a(nother) crucial time for relationships between “Blacks” and “Jews”! What will we choose? Will we, as we have done so many times in the past, choose whiteness and the perceived safety that we feel goes with that in the US or will we choose to align ourselves with those that are most oppressed in a given society? This is a very familiar spot for the Ashkenazi (and occasionally Sephardi) Jew who now gets a racial designation as white in the US.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Jewish, in the United States, isn’t a race. It is a culture that includes both spirituality and religion and also includes non religious ways of life. Jewish is also, arguably, an ethnicity based on being a cultural marker that has traveled with us and defined us. In this country Jewish is not a race.
So please, Ashkenazi Jews, just stop saying, “I’m not white. I’m Jewish.” Yes we are Jewish and we will also be assigned a race based on how we are commonly perceived by institutions and systems. How we see ourselves or how we self identify does not matter in this race-constructed and race-constitutionalized country. A Jewish person who is also Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or mixed race will be identified first by their race even as they self identify as a Jew.
OK, let’s get something else out of the way too. I am a self loving Jew (who is also white). I love my Jewishness. I am unapologetically Jewish. So let’s just wipe out the whole, “Oh, he must be a self hating Jew because he isn’t mortally offended that the Movement for Black Lives platform used the terminology of genocidal and apartheid policies in relationship to Israel.” Or, “Oh, we don’t have to listen to Martin because he went to Israel and visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been critical of Israeli policy on his Facebook page”. Not true! On my grand and great grandparents! On my great Aunt Leah from whom I got my middle name. I love my Jewishness! I love the connection I feel to my Eastern European Jewish heritage.
I am also in love with an ideal of Jewishness that isn’t rooted in whiteness and domination. A Jewish ideal of true Tikkun Olam; of Repairing the world. All the world! Not just a world defined by whiteness or Europeanness. Not a world where we get to control the conversation.
The world is broken. Does our refusing to engage with BLM help repair it? Can we repair it if we don’t engage with people who criticize current Israeli policy and US financial and Military support for the government that developed and enforces those policies?
It’s time for White Jews to stop choosing whiteness and align ourselves with those most oppressed in the US because that is what true Jewishness is about. And why wouldn’t we? The point of the Movement for Black Lives Platform was to speak truth to all power, not to use pleasing language. It is our duty to sit across the table from people who have been most oppressed in our country and hear what they have to say about what they perceive to be genocidal policy that’s connected to Institutional, Systemic and Structural Racism in the US.
What are we afraid of? Why are we, of all people, afraid of conversation about oppression? If the policies of the Israeli government really are leading to a fair two or one state solution, why can’t we sit at a table and discuss it? Remember, the one piece of the platform we are so hyped up about is about governmental policy both here and in Israel not about hating or oppressing Jews? Remember that Egypt was mentioned at the same time as Israel? I hope we are not forgetting those things because this is just an easy reason to disengage.
We are a people who have such a long history of debate and multiple interpretations of the same text (or in this case policies) so why are we shutting this conversation down? Because of multigenerational historical trauma from the European Holocaust? All the more reason to sit down with people who have multigenerational historical trauma from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and US chattel slavery. Multigenerational trauma from lynchings and Jim Crow. From a Eugenics narrative that was studied here in the US by German Nazis. My people, we share roots in our historical trauma.
We, White Jews, have confused comfort with safety. And the root of that confusion is the root of the problem, power. Power is defined (by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) as legitimate access to institutions and systems sanctioned by the state. Power that is equivalent to Whiteness. People that have strong access to institutional and systemic power confuse discomfort with safety all the time.
I put forth, vehemently, that the wording of one section of the Movement for Black Lives platform makes us uncomfortable, not unsafe. We must be willing to engage. It’s pure privilege to get to pick and choose when and with whom we engage on this subject. It’s extreme privilege to just say no, I’m done. Extreme privilege to be able to shut someone down.
This is another in a long line of moments in history where we as white Jews get to chose alignment with whiteness or with People of Color. And what’s even crazier this time is that it feels like it’s our Jewishness that is at stake. It’s even crazier because it feels like this is anti Semitism. Again, being anti-Israeli policy and anti-US government policy is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic.
Historically, we’ve chosen the perceived safety of whiteness. Our ability to become fully White was due to governmental policy, the GI bill plus redlining which gave us our whiteness while excluding Blacks and Latinos who such a short time earlier had been our partners and friends. But they couldn’t access it in the same way as we could due to racism.
Yes, many of us were in the civil rights movement. Yes, many of us marched side by side. But we let ourselves get coopted so soon after. We chose whiteness because it got us out of the ghetto (named because of us by the way!) It was our literal ghetto pass. We need to understand that we left our brothers and sisters behind.
What are the costs of choosing Whiteness over Jewishness? One of the costs of our comfort and our privilege is Black and Brown lives. As long as we align ourselves with whiteness we contribute to the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of institutions. Their deaths are part of the the cost of our comfort, safety and privilege.
The other loss is the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. That it means to not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. That it means true Tikkun Olam. We are at such a(nother) crucial time of choice.
Let’s choose our Jewishness over Whiteness this time. Let’s choose life.
The Black Lives Matter movement has just taken a huge and important step. A new coalition called Movement 4 Black Lives recently released “Vision for Black Lives,” a powerful, comprehensive policy statement released by thirty grassroots organizations and endorsed by sixty others.
“Vision for Black Lives” is the product of a collaborative research and writing process that took more than a year by an eight person team – and is intensely relevant to the current political moment. Team member Marbre Stahly-Butts summed up the purpose of the statement this way: Democrats and Republicans are offering anemic solutions to the problems that our communities face… We are seeking transformation, not just tweaks.”
In contrast to the hollow posturing that counts for political discourse in the US, the M4BLM platform offers an important alternative vision: a deep analysis of how systems of oppression intersect and the devastating impact they have on people/communities of color. It’s particularly vital because it doesn’t come from a political party, think tank or special interest lobby, but rather directly from the grassroots communities most impacted by racism and oppression. In so doing, it represents a huge step toward the creation of a real movement for social and political change in our country.
As journalist Collier Myerson recently wrote in Fusion:
This is a really, really big deal. By shedding its previous identity as a largely reactionary, structureless movement, Black Lives Matter seeks to definitively lead the national discussion on the safety, health, and freedom of black people. Painting the movement with a broad brush is a seismic shift. And it’s a shift that Occupy Wall Street never put in motion, a failure which many point to as the reason for the movement’s eventual dissolution. The list of demands set forth by M4BL explicitly unifies organizations across the United States—and though the goals are purposefully lofty, it’s a significant move towards harnessing the power of local groups into something bigger.
Vision for Black Lives has been welcomed enthusiastically by many allies in this growing movement (such as those fighting for immigrant justice for instance). And as for the Jewish communal establishment? For its part, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston angrily “disassociated” itself from the statement, calling it “false” and “malicious”. Why? Because in the midst of this vast and extensive platform, the M4BLM statement referred to Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinian people and expressed its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Actually, I wouldn’t expect anything else from an organization such as the Boston JCRC. Earlier this year, in fact, David Bernstein, the President and CEO of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (the parent organization of JCRCs around the country), wrote an op-ed in which he thoroughly denounced “the solidarity between the Black Lives Matter and Palestine movements” and made a strong pitch for finding allies that will help them drive a wedge into Black-Palestinian solidarity. (Notably the Boston JCRC statement referred to its “friends and neighbors in the African-American community” who share their views on Israel and Zionism.)
I was very disappointed however, to read a statement released by Tru’ah – a progressive rabbinical organization that advocates for human rights that has in the past articulated strong support of BLM. Yet in their immediate response to the M4BLM platform, T’ruah spent almost all of its wordage decrying the genocide reference and BLM’s support for BDS.
Though I have many friends and colleagues in T’ruah whose work I respect greatly, I find this statement much more disturbing than the one released by the Boston JCRC. While the latter group openly vilifies the BLM movement, T’ruah purports to stand in solidarity with them. As opposed to more conservative Jewish establishment institutions, I’ve always had the impression that T’ruah truly “got it” when it came to the BLM movement.
On T’ruah’s website, for instance, you will find a powerful “Prayer for Black Lives Matter“. You will also find a post written by Rabbi Susan Talve and Sarah Barasch-Hagans entitled “10 Rules for Engagement for White Jews Joining the Black Lives Matter Movement,” a smart and insightful document that appears to grasp the complex issue of allyship. Among the rules listed are “Practice Deep Listening and Less Talking;” “Do Your Own Communities’ Work” and “Hold Yourself Accountable”.
In the rule, “Go outside of your comfort zone while staying in your lane,” the authors write:
Pay attention. Don’t hide when it gets messy. We all have a role to play and we will all make mistakes. Accept guidance. Remember this is a movement to awaken compassion. No name calling. “Call people in” rather than calling them out. Give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. We are all sad and scared (or should be). Faith communities can be bridge builders, healers, and witnesses in this movement to make Black and Brown lives matter.
Sadly, T’ruah itself has broken its own rule by releasing this statement. If they truly purport to stand in solidarity with BLM, they cannot publicly “call them out” because their new platform lands outside their comfort zone. If they were to be true to their own articulated values, T’ruah should have reached out to them, engaged with them and tried to understand where they were coming from, thus opening a real dialogue. T’ruah does not give the BLM “the benefit of the doubt” when it issues an immediate counter-statement such as this; tantamount to a group in a position of power saying to an oppressed group, “we will stand in solidarity with you but only on our terms.”
The claim that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinians undeniably pushes all kinds of buttons for many Jews. But there are also Jews and Israelis who feel it is not an inappropriate word to use, particularly in regard to Israel’s regular military assaults against Gaza. Likewise, while the BDS call is extraordinarily controversial for many Jews, there are also Jews who respect it as a legitimate call for nonviolent resistance from over 150 Palestinian civil society organizations. And it is simply not true to claim, as T’ruah does, that “the BDS movement (rejects) Israel’s right to exist.” On the contrary, the goal of the BDS call is equal rights for Palestinians as well as Jews.
But even if T’ruah feels it is wrong for BLM to refer to Israel in this manner, it can’t claim to stand in solidarity with them while publicly calling them out over the parts that make them uncomfortable. Rather, they should hold themselves to their own standard by “calling BLM in,” engaging with them and be “bridge builders” – especially in the places where there is pain or disagreement.
At the end of the day however, I don’t think this is T’ruah’s issue alone – it’s a challenge for the entire progressive Jewish community at large. If we claim to ascribe to a power analysis that views systems of oppression as intersectional and interrelated, we simply constantly cannot make an exception when it comes to Israel. The black community is increasingly finding common cause with Palestinians – and for good reason. Both are oppressed by the same systems, the same weapons, and the same security companies. It is not by coincidence that American police departments around the country are increasingly trained by the Israeli military.
If we truly seek to be to relevant this undeniably growing movement, we need to make these connections as well. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.
During the course of the tragic violence coming out of Jerusalem in the past week, I’ve been reading with familiar frustration the American Jewish establishment’s predictable accusations of “Palestinian incitement.” But I must confess I’m finding the reactions of some liberal Jewish leaders to be even more infuriating.
One prominent rabbi, for instance, who I know personally and would surely describe herself as on the progressive side of the Israeli peace camp, recently wrote this on her Facebook page:
Punching back with violence as a response to violence is the easy reaction. Each side has much to point to on the other side — each claims the mantel of victim, each claims the justice of their violent response. It takes courage to commit to non violence and lasting justice for all.
This is, indeed, the liberal Jewish meme when it comes to these outbreaks of violence in Israel/Palestine: “the level playing field.” According to this narrative, there is violence on both sides and peace will only come when courageous leaders on both sides commit to nonviolence.
The only problem with this narrative of course, is that it utterly ignores the all-pervasive and overwhelming nature of Israeli state violence. And given this structural imbalance of power, it is disingenuous in the extreme to somehow claim that “each side has much to point to on the other side.”
Yes, all violence is ugly and it is tragic – but this violence also exists within a context. Logically and ethically speaking, we simply cannot equate the brutal reality of state violence with the violence of those who resist it.
Yes, it does take “courage to commit to nonviolence and justice for all.” But when a state regularly employs violence to control and dominate another people, it is so very wrong to blithely call for “nonviolence” on all sides when that people inevitably fights back.
Nelson Mandela (once a “terrorist” now a “statesman”) certainly understood this when then South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha offered him the chance to be let out of prison (for the sixth time) if he publicly renounced violence – and Mandela famously responded, “Let him renounce violence.”
And even the most revered nonviolent leader of our day – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – had this to say in 1967 after speaking to the “the desperate, rejected and angry young men” who resorted to violence in America’s black ghettos:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
Yes, those in the Jewish community who purport to support the cause of peace must first reckon with the reality of the context of violence that exists every single day by a people who live under military occupation.
How many liberal Jewish leaders have called for “nonviolence” when last year, one Palestinian was killed by the Israeli military every 4.26 days? How many called for Israeli “nonviolence” last month after the killing of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, an 18 year old Palestinian woman who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in Hebron in what Amnesty International has described as an “extrajudicial execution?” For that matter, how many called for “lasting justice” this last July, when a Palestinian family was burned alive by settlers and the Israeli government stated it “had chosen to prevent legal recourse” even though it knew the identity of the murderers?
Frankly, given this constant and all pervasive context of Israeli state violence, it’s remarkable that these kinds of Palestinian uprisings don’t break out more often than they do. But when they invariably occur, we do the cause of peace no favors when we proclaim that “each side has much to point to on the other side” and call for a renewed commitment to “nonviolence.”
How will we achieve lasting justice for all? To paraphrase the oft-quoted Nelson Mandela: “Let Israel renounce violence.”
One of the most celebrated lines in the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the verse “Hayom Harat Olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.” As you might imagine, these words have an added resonance for me on this particular Rosh Hashanah. Hayom Harat Olam indeed. On this day the world was created – and recreated anew for us all.
As our new congregation celebrates its very first Rosh Hashanah, it is difficult to put into words just how profoundly humbling this moment is for me. At this very moment, we are creating a community out of whole cloth, a fabric of connection out of deeply shared communal values. I am so very grateful to be granted this opportunity and so inspired by the many people who have stepped forward so readily and so eagerly to make Tzedek Chicago a reality.
This Rosh Hashanah, I’m feeling, if you pardon the expression, as if we’re celebrating a New Year on steroids. This is truly a season of newness, of potential, a blank canvas upon which we can throw our deepest hopes and dreams and visions. More than any other Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah is the time in which we proclaim without hesitation that anything is possible in our lives and our world. And I am truly blessed to be sharing it with you.
I’ll be honest with you: I still can’t quite believe that we pulled this off. It was only a short time ago that we even began to think about creating this new congregation. The leadership of Tzedek Chicago began these conversations a few months ago, and we held our first orientation meeting just this last summer. Our start up period has been astonishingly short – but I think I can speak for the entire leadership of Tzedek when I say I’m not surprised by how far we’ve come in this relatively brief period of time. I’ve known in my heart that there is very real need in the world for a congregation such as ours.
We are at heart, a values-based congregation. As the name of our congregation makes clear, our community is deeply informed by the sacred values of social justice. In this regard, the establishment of Tzedek Chicago is a very mindful attempt to create a Jewish spiritual home for those in our community who cherish these values and are seeking a spiritual community in which to express them.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to go to our website and read our six core values carefully. While they are listed separately, I do believe they are part of a larger unified story: a narrative of liberation that runs through the heart of Judaism and Jewish history. It is a narrative rooted in the Exodus story that tells of a God who stands by the oppressed and demands that we do the same. It resonates through the words of Biblical prophets who spoke truth to corrupt power. And it can be found in the courageous example of ancient rabbis who responded to the trauma of exile from the land by creating a global religion with a universal message of healing and hope.
It is particularly relevant to invoke this liberatory narrative on Rosh Hashanah, of all days. Indeed, one of the central themes of this day is the concept of Malchuyot – God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives and our world. Even if you don’t adhere to the literal belief in God as a supernatural King sitting on his throne on high, I believe we have much to learn from this concept. At its core, I would suggest affirming Malchuyot means affirming that there is a Force Yet Greater: greater than Pharoah in Egypt, greater than the mighty Roman empire, greater than the myriad of powerful empires that have oppressed the Jewish people and many so other peoples throughout the world.
I would argue that this sacred conviction has been one of the central driving forces of Jewish tradition throughout the centuries: that it is not by might and not by power – but by God’s spirit that l our world will ultimately be redeemed. I would further argue that this belief in a Power Yet Greater sustained Jewish life in a very real way during some very dark periods of our history. After all, the Jewish people are still here, even after far mightier empires have come and gone. It might well be said that this allegiance to a Power Yet Greater is the force that keeps alive the hopes of all peoples who have lived with the reality of dislocation and oppression.
I will submit to you, however, that we have tragically betrayed this Jewish narrative of liberation in our own day. With the onset of modernity, we have largely surrendered the ideal of “not by might and not by power” through a kind of Faustian bargain with might and power. We now embrace a new narrative – one that responds to trauma not with a message of healing and hope, but by placing our faith in humanly wielded power. Our new narrative teaches that the pain of our Jewish past will inevitably become our future unless we embrace the ways of power and privilege; nationalism and militarism.
Historically speaking, we know what can happen when religion has been used to justify the aims of empire. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Constantinian religion, in reference to the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century began the process of making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In that one critically historic moment, what had previously been a small and persecuted religious community in the first century after Jesus, became a religion of state power. We know the rest. The Jewish people in particular know all too well the sorrows that inevitably ensued from Christianity’s bargain with empire.
In our own day, however, the Jewish people have made a similar kind of tragic bargain. Jewish theologian and thinker Marc Ellis has coined a term for it: “Constantinian Judaism.” With the onset of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel, Judaism has now itself become wedded to empire. The unavoidable focal point of Jewish life is now a Jewish nation-state that venerates Jewish power, Jewish militarism and Jewish privilege. Although Israel was established through a mythology of Jewish liberation and a “return to the land,” it has done so on the backs of that land’s indigenous inhabitants. The unavoidable truth is that the Jewish nation state has come into existence – and is continuing to justify its existence – through the oppression of the Palestinian people.
It is difficult to underestimate the extent to which Jewish life now centers on the rationalization and perpetuation of this new Jewish narrative, this new deal with empire. As Marc Ellis points out, we American Jews are deeply implicated in this new Constatinian Judaism:
(The) Jewish establishments in America and Israel have made their own empire deal. Jews are blessed in America. America blesses Israel. What is good for one is good for the other. For the protection American foreign policy offers Israel, Jews offer their support to the American government. (“Future of the Prophetic,” p. 36)
This new narrative has also become an indelible part of American synagogue life. There are so many examples I could point to. Here in Chicago, almost every synagogue has a sign in front with American and Israeli flags that proclaim, “We Stand With Israel.” Congregational religious schools and Jewish camps routinely cite “cultivating a connection to Israel” as an essential part of their curriculum. Perhaps most symbolically telling: it has become standard in most American synagogues to place a US and Israeli flag on either side of the Aron Kodesh.
In other words, in our most sacred Jewish spaces, we are literally bowing down to physical symbols of national power. This is a powerful demonstration of how completely this new narrative has taken hold of post-Holocaust Jewish identity. To my mind, it is nothing short of idolatry – and our inability to recognize it as such shows just how deeply we have bought into a religious mindset that radically values physical power over spiritual power.
So yes, Tzedek Chicago makes a point of stating the following in one of our six congregational core values:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
We reject any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land, recognizing that it has historically been considered sacred by many faiths and home to a variety of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. In our advocacy and activism, we oppose Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and seek a future that includes full civil and human rights for all who live in the land – Jews and non-Jews alike.
With these words, we are intentionally standing down the new Jewish narrative. I know full well what it means to do this. I certainly have no illusions how a Jewish congregation describing itself as “non-Zionist” and openly protests “Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people” will be received by the Jewish establishment. Given centrality of Zionism and Israel advocacy in Jewish communal life, Tzedek Chicago is clearly a dissident congregation in the Jewish world.
I do believe, however, that we must make room in our community for Jews whose values dissent from what the communal establishment deems “mainstream.” It bears noting that dissent has historically occupied a venerable and even sacred place in Jewish life. (It also bears noting that Zionism itself was once a dissident movement in Jewish life.) Our congregation consciously and proudly seeks to lift up this dissident legacy – one that has long been central to Jewish tradition itself in so many critical ways.
After all, we are not promoting dissent for its own sake. We are seeking to reclaim a sacred legacy – a liberatory narrative that has long been indigenous to Jewish life. But I want to underscore – this is not simply a nostalgic exercise in venerating the past. Jewish life in the 21st century is radically different than any in which we have lived before. We live in a global world in which we are connected to individuals, nations and cultures, in unprecedented ways. Having just come out of the ghetto, we have no desire to build new ghettos of our own making. To quote our core values once more:
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our religious services and educational programs promote a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. In our activism, we advocate for a world beyond borders and reject the view that any one people, ethnic group or nation is entitled to any part of our world more than any other.
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.”
As I said at the outset, I do believe there are many out there who are thirsting for a Jewish community that espouses values such as these. At the same time, however, I am all too mindful that Tzedek Chicago is not for everyone. But that’s OK. In fact, I think, that’s how it should be.
I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.
The reason for this, I believe, is that the overwhelming number of American liberal synagogues simply don’t view political action as part of their mission. Many will articulate a commitment to Tikkun Olam, or “repair of the world,” but whenever this term is invoked, it invariably refers to direct service projects such as soup kitchens or coat drives for the homeless. Now there is of course, a dire need to support service work – particularly in a day and age when our social safety net is under constant and unceasing attack. As you know, here at Tzedek Chicago we are coordinating a High Holiday food drive in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository – and we thank you for your support of this sacred effort.
But while every religious community should and must engage in service work, we must also ask: what does it mean to ignore the wider context of this reality? What does it mean to do direct service to people in need without directly addressing the political conditions that creates these needs in the first place?
In truth, most liberal congregations are not designed to make waves. They might connect their Jewish identities to political action – they might invoke Jewish community support of the civil rights movement for instance – but when pushed to take a stand on the real political issues of our day, they ultimately fall back on “being inclusive” of the diversity of opinions in the congregation. They won’t mix religion with politics – the notable exception being, naturally, support and advocacy for the state of Israel.
So yes, you might say Tzedek Chicago isn’t really an inclusive congregation. We’re a intentional community driven by very specific values. We’re a community bound by the conviction that a Jewish congregation should be more than simply a fee for service institution for the Jewish middle and upper middle class. We hold that a synagogue should not merely comfort the afflicted, but also afflict the comfortable. We understand that a congregation should not only be about personal transformation, but socio-political transformation as well.
There has been a fair amount of press about our new congregation of late – and one of my favorite lines came from one of our detractors who was quoted as saying about us, “Statistically speaking, they don’t exist.” Now that may actually be true. There aren’t really congregations such as ours in the Jewish world. But I can’t help but be deeply gratified at how far we’ve come in such an astonishingly amount short time. By the growing numbers of people who have formally joined us as members; including many who are joining a Jewish congregation for the very first time in their lives. And by those who have stepped forward to volunteer considerable time and energy on our behalf.
And I will say moreover, that ever since our announcement, I’ve been hearing consistently from people all over the country who have told me they wish that something like Tzedek existed in their community. So while we might not statistically exist in the institutional sense, I believe we are very much alive out there in the borderlands of Jewish life. I just know in my heart that there is a place for a Jewish congregation such as ours. And while we are starting off modestly, mindful of our capacity, of what we are able and not able to do during this first year of our existence, I do believe the response we’ve received thus far indicates that the time has truly arrived for a congregation such as Tzedek Chicago.
And finally, on a personal note, I want to express once more how blessed I feel that I have been granted such an opportunity at this point in my life and my career. I am so very grateful and excited to be embarking on a journey such as this with all of you and many more who will be joining us as we make our way. I know it will be a complex and challenging journey in many ways. We’ve set our sights high and it goes without saying that we will be learning together as we go.
To be sure, it is not easy to do this kind of work. It is challenging, it is painful, it can often mean being alienated or isolated from family and friends, from the larger community. But for so many of us, we don’t have a choice but to do this work – and we know that we will ultimately find the strength to continue this work through the sacred relationships we cultivate along the way. In the end, this is a journey we have no choice but to take – and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather take it with than all of you. Speaking for myself and the leadership of Tzedek Chicago, thank you for putting your faith in us and in one another. Wherever our steps may lead us, I know we will be going from strength to strength.
And finally, please join me in expressing gratitude at having been sustained long enough to reach this incredible new season together:
Holy One of Blessing, your presence fills creation, you have given us life, sustained us and brought us all to this very sacred time together.