Category Archives: Judaism

After Pittsburgh, We Can No Longer Cry Wolf on “Campus Anti-Semitism”

Cross-posted with Truthout  (UPDATED)

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MARK DIXON / FLICKR

If the charge of antisemitism becomes a tactic to suppress open criticism and debate on the State of Israel, its practices of dispossession and occupation, its founding and the ongoing implications of that founding for Palestinians, then it will lose its claim to truth…Who will believe the charge when it is used to name and oppose the rising forms of fascism or actual ideologies bound up with its actual toxicity?

– Judith Butler, “On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice”

The tragic killing of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday has created a painful reckoning over the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the US. If there was ever any question about the threat white nationalism poses to the Jewish community, there can be no doubt after this attack, which some are calling the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in American history.

But if we are to truly respond to this resurgence, we must take pains to analyze anti-Semitism for what it is and what it is not. This is particularly important in the face of Israeli politicians and Israel advocacy organizations that are currently muddling the definition of anti-Semitism for cynical political gain.

One stark and egregious example of this occurred the day after the massacre, when Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the US, conflated neo-Nazi Jew-hatred with what he described as anti-Semitism of the “radical left” found on college campuses:

One of the big forces in college campuses today is anti-Semitism. And those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis, on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left. We have to stand against anti-Semitism whether it comes from the right or whether it comes from the left.

While it is important to acknowledge that truly anti-Semitic ideas that paint Jews as rich, conspiratorial “globalists” are occasionally parroted on the left as well as on the right, Dermer is not talking about real anti-Semitism within leftist communities; rather, he is disingenuously seeking to cast all Palestine solidarity activism as necessarily anti-Semitic.

While some Jewish college students may feel discomfort when confronted by a strong criticism of Israel by Palestine solidarity activists, this does not mean that criticisms of Israel are by definition anti-Semitic. This claim blithely conflates the state of Israel with all Jews and ignores the historic reality that there have always been Jews who have criticized Israel’s oppression of Palestinians – and have even opposed the very premise of an ethnically Jewish nation-state itself.  In truth, there is a significant and growing percentage of Jews actively participating in Palestine solidarity campaigns who are not motivated by “Jewish self-hatred” but by the deeply held Jewish values of justice and the dignity for all.

The attempt to conflate criticisms of Israel on the left with bigoted anti-Semitism on the right is a tactic that has long been employed by the Israeli government and professional Israel advocacy organizations. Now that we are coming face to face with the deadly truth of neo-Nazi anti-Semitism in our country, however, it is becoming increasingly clear how their tactic not only enables violence toward Palestinians, but also puts Jews at greater peril by ignoring the resurgence of alt-right rhetoric and violence against them.

Unfortunately, there is every sign that Israel advocacy organizations are doubling down on this tactic. This past week, the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law in conjunction with Hasbara Fellowships ( a pro-Israel campus advocacy organization) announced the launching of its so-called “Jigsaw Initiative,” described as an “unprecedented pilot program to train law students and combat and prevent insurgent anti-Semitism.”

In a press release, Brandeis Center President and General Counsel Alyza B. Lewin stated:

As the tragic and horrific events in Pittsburgh made abundantly clear, anti-Semitism is escalating at an alarming rate in the US…We must reverse this rising trend of anti-Semitism and ethnic racism, and there is no substitute for legal action. By properly training a select team of law students to work with undergraduates and utilize specific tools and strategy, we can begin to take the tide in this battle.

While Lewin didn’t mention it in her statement, the “anti-Semitism” the Brandeis Center seeks to fight legally has nothing to do with white supremacist Jew-hatred. In fact, the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law is an organization which, despite its lofty universalist name, has dedicated itself almost exclusively to fighting public criticism of Israel by branding critics as “anti-Semitic.” Over the years, the Brandeis Center and other Israel advocacy organizations had tried and failed to prosecute campus anti-Semitism cases through the Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a provision that was originally used during the 1960s to desegregate schools in the South.

The Brandeis Center was founded in 2012 by Kenneth L. Marcus, a far-right ideologue who has a history of abusing civil rights law to further a conservative political agenda and suppress college activists’ criticism of Israel. During his tenure as head of the US Commission on Civil Rights under George W. Bush, he oversaw the publication of a report backing the dismantling of affirmative action in law schools and argued against universities’ use of race-neutral criteria to achieve diversity. He also opposed a proposal to expand the scope of the US Commission on Civil Rights to investigate violations of LGBTQ rights and broader human rights.

Last year, Trump announced Marcus’ nomination to be the new head of the Education Office’s Civil Rights. During his confirmation hearings last year, hundreds of civil rights organizations and academics expressed their opposition to Marcus’ appointment. Despite widespread concern, Marcus was eventually confirmed by a narrow 50-46 Senate vote — and since then it was only a matter of time until he used the power of his new office to quash criticism of Israel on college campuses. One month later, Marcus and the Office of Civil Rights announced they would be reopening a seven-year-old case brought by a Zionist group against Rutgers University, saying the Obama administration, in closing the case, ignored evidence that suggested the school allowed a hostile environment for Jewish students.

Marcus also did not waste any time in announcing his support for the reintroduction of the Congressional Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. While the title of this legislation suggests a sensible government attempt to raise the public consciousness, this bill has zero to do with combating actual anti-Semitism. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has a long and somewhat tortured history. In December 2016, the Senate passed the first version of this bill quickly, unanimously and without debate. Introduced by Senators Bob Casey and Tom Scott, the bill purports to address claims of anti-Semitism on college campuses as “civil rights violations.”

For many, most troubling aspects of the bill came from the way it defined anti-Semitism itself:

For purposes of this Act, the term ‘‘definition of anti-Semitism’’’—

(1) includes the definition of anti-Semitism set forth by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism of the Department of State in the Fact Sheet issued on June 8, 2010, as adapted from the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (now known as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights); and

(2) includes the examples set forth under the headings ‘‘Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism’’ and ‘‘What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?’’ of the Fact Sheet.

Both the State Department and the “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” fact sheets contain definitions of Anti-Semitism that include such vague criteria as “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel” — broad and vague language that would allow virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as anti-Semitic.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act was pushed through the Senate despite the strong opposition of numerous civil rights and free speech advocacy groups. Following its passage, the ACLU released a statement warning that the bill “poses a serious threat to the First Amendment free speech rights of those on campus who may hold certain political views,” adding that they were confident that Senators “must have been unaware of the unconstitutional implications of the only operative provision of the bill.”

The House soon introduced its own version of the bill, but despite furious lobbying by Israel advocacy groups, it failed to pass before Congress wrapped up its 2016 legislative session. Not surprisingly, Congress re-introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in June 2018.  Shortly after, in an August letter obtained by The New York Times, Marcus notified the Zionist Organization of America that the Office of Civil Rights would put the full force of his government office behind the State Department definition of Anti-Semitism.

Clearly, the effects of this new inquisition on the Palestine solidarity movement on campus — and the cause of free speech in general — are potentially devastating. At the same time, many are warning this legislation will do meaningful damage to the cause to fight the very real threat of Trump-era anti-Semitism in the US.

In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee during its debate over the original Antisemitism Awareness Act, Holocaust historian Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University openly stated that the supporters of the bill were “motivated less by an actual threat facing American or world Jewry than they are part of a persistent campaign to thwart debates, scholarly research, and political activism that is critical of the State of Israel.”

He went on to point out that despite widely reported “depictions of rampant anti-Semitism… in the press,” a Stanford University study reported that they do not represent the “actual experiences” of Jewish students at the campus level. They discovered that campus life is neither threatening nor alarmist. “In general,” noted Trachtenberg, “students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, feeling comfortable as Jews on their campuses.”

It is also worth noting that like all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is most dangerous and deadly when it is enabled and supported by state power. In the US, the anti-Semitism that fits this description is the “alt-right” anti-Semitism enabled and emboldened by a Trump administration that clearly views this movement as an essential part of its base. We would do well to view legislation such as the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act as a form of state-sponsored oppression inasmuch as it unfairly targets an oppressed group and its allies for exercising their constitutional rights of free speech.

While this misguided focus commits a very real injustice to the cause of Palestinian human rights, it will also make it more difficult to identify and combat the real threat of anti-Semitism in our midst today. If there was ever any doubt, it should have been made abundantly clear last summer in Charlottesville, when neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” while others stood across from a local synagogue armed with semi-automatic rifles shouting “There’s the synagogue!” and “Sieg Heil!”

Following the tragic Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of course, there can no longer be any doubt that old-style anti-Semitism is real and deadly in the United States. While our government uses spurious claims of anti-Semitism to suppress criticism of Israel on college campuses, real anti-Semites have gunned down 11 Jewish worshippers in their synagogue. It’s long past time to put to rest the equation of “far right and far left anti-Semitism” for cynical political gain.

The stakes are simply far too high.

Responding to Anti-Semitic Violence With Solidarity’s Sacred Power

Crossposted at Truthout

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photo via Getty images

Like so many, when I first heard the news of the horrific shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday, I went immediately to the news and could not turn away. The initial reports were sketchy and inconclusive. Eventually it became clear that the outcome was as horrible as we could possibly have feared. 11 Shabbat worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue have been killed. Six people wounded.

Then, like so many, I sought any information I could find about the alleged shooter. I learned that he was a white supremacist named Robert Bowers and that among other things, he had a particular fixation with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the venerable Jewish organization that works to aid and resettle refugees from Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Apparently HIAS had recently sponsored a National Refugee Shabbat as “a moment for congregations, organizations, and individuals around the country to create a Shabbat experience dedicated to refugees.” Bowers posted the list of participating congregations on Gab, an alt-right social media site, with the words: “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”

Bowers also reposted another white supremacist’s post that read: “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!! Stop the kikes then Worry About the Muslims!” Finally, he wrote this ominous post: “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Shortly after, he entered Tree of Life Synagogue armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns.

For those trying to make sense of this senseless moment, two things seem immediately clear. One is that the growth of far-right white supremacy (not so-called “Muslim extremism,” the fear of which is stoked by racism and xenophobia) is the most significant threat to Jewish safety and security in the US. Another is that many white supremacists view both Jews and Muslims as a threat to their “way of life” in the United States.

Moreover, we know that Jews of color; Jews with disabilities; trans, queer and nonbinary Jews; Jewish immigrants and Jews from other marginalized groups are targeted in multiple ways, as overt white supremacist violence festers around the country.

What then, might be the appropriate response this terrible tragedy? I would suggest that the answer, as ever, is solidarity.

What might this solidarity look like? Here’s an example: In September 2017, protests filled the streets of St. Louis after a white former city policeman, Jason Stockley, was found not guilty of the first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black 24-year-old whom he shot to death on December 20, 2011. The St. Louis police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators retreated to Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, which opened its doors to the protesters. (The police actually followed them and surrounded the synagogue. During the standoff, a surge of anti-Semitic statements trended on Twitter under the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue.)

Another example: last year, a 27-year-old man entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire on a room filled with Muslim worshippers, killing six men and wounding another 16. The following week, Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue, organized an action in which multi-faith groups formed protective circles around at least half a dozen mosques. It was inspired by the “Ring of Peace” created by about 1,000 Muslims around an Oslo synagogue in 2015, following a string of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

Returning to the current moment: Very soon after the news of the shooting broke, Muslim organizations and organizations led by other communities targeted by white supremacist violence responded with fundraisers for the victims and their families. And I was heartened to read on Sunday about an interfaith candlelight vigil of solidarity with Tree of Life Congregation that took place last night in downtown Chicago. Among the primary sponsors: the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Here is how the vigil was described:

Join an interfaith, inter-community vigil of solidarity in memory of the fallen members of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and those killed in Kentucky earlier this week. Anti-Semitism can have no home in America. We must call it out directly as well as speaking out against homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and bigotry of all forms. Join us to mourn, pray, and stand in solidarity.

Yes, among the many important takeaways from this terrible, tragic moment is the simple truth that we must never underestimate the sacred power of solidarity. Moments such as these must remind all targeted minorities that we are always stronger when we resist together.

My New Chapbook: “Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy”

fullsizeoutput_32I’m thrilled to announce that my new chapbook, “Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy” has just been published by my congregation, Tzedek Chicago.

I’ve been writing original prayers for some time now and I’ve used many of my prayers in a variety of worship settings. This new collection offers a sample of my efforts: new versions of traditional prayers for holidays, re-imagined Psalms and wholly original prayers for new occasions (such as my “Jewish Confession for Nakba Day”). It also includes “A Lamentation for Gaza,” a prayer I wrote for the festival of Tisha B’Av 2014, which occurred during Israel’s devastating military assault of that year.

I fervently believe that the function of prayer is not simply to worship but to challenge, to provoke, to motivate action and to transform the world around us. To this end, I’ve purposely designed this anthology to be read and appreciated by a wide readership. I hope and trust you will find this collection meaningful – even if you are not Jewish or do not not consider yourself a particularly “prayer-ful” person.

At the moment, “Songs After the Revolution” is available exclusively through the Tzedek Chicago website. 100% of the proceeds from sales will benefit the congregation.

Click here to order.

A Yom Kippur Martyrology Service for Gaza

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This Yom Kippur Martyrology ritual was written by Tzedek Chicago rabbinic intern May Ye and myself and was used in observance of our Yom Kippur service last week.

Reader: It is traditional at the end of the Yom Kippur morning service to read a Martyrology that describes the executions of ten leading rabbis, including Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael, who were brutally executed by the Roman Empire. This liturgy is included to honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the cause of “Kiddush Hashem” – the sanctification of God’s name.

At Tzedek Chicago, we devote the Yom Kippur Martyrology to honor specific individuals throughout the world who have given their lives for the cause of liberation. As we do, we ask ourselves honestly: what have we done to prove ourselves worthy of their profound sacrifices? And what kinds of sacrifices will we be willing to make in the coming year to ensure they did not die in vain?

This year, we will dedicate our Martyrology service to the Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed by the Israeli military during the Great Return March. This nonviolent demonstration began last spring with a simple question: “What would happen if thousands of Gazans, most of them refugees, attempted to peacefully cross the fence that separated them from their ancestral lands?”

Since the first day of the march last spring, demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders.

Reader: The words of Ahmed Abu Artemi, one of the organizers of the Great Return March:

“On that day in December, as I watched the birds fly over the border I could not cross, I found myself thinking how much smarter birds and animals are than people; they harmonize with nature instead of erecting walls. Later that day, I wondered on Facebook what would happen if a man acted like a bird and crossed that fence. ‘Why would Israeli soldiers shoot at him as if he is committing a crime?’ I wrote. My only thought was to reach the trees, sit there and then come back…

What has happened since we started the Great Return March is both what I hoped and expected — and not. It was not a surprise that Israel responded to our march with deadly violence. But I had not expected this level of cruelty. On the other hand, I was heartened by the commitment to nonviolence among most of my own people.

We have come together, chanting and singing a lullaby we’ve all longed for— ‘We will return’ bringing all that we have left to offer in an attempt to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice.”

Reader: The words of Khuloud Suliman, a 23 year old woman who studies English language and literature at the Islamic University of Gaza:

“My hometown is Al-Jiyya, which means ‘delightful place full of flowers and trees.’ It is very near here, just 20 km from Gaza City. When I get close to the northern border of Gaza, I can see the village. Yet I cannot go there. I am not allowed to touch the sand and smell the fragrance of citrus fruit, figs and grapes. I cannot walk in the valley that separated my village into two halves, and that filled with rain in winter.

Can you imagine how I feel when this image comes to my mind? I feel hatred toward the Israeli occupation and the settlers who live in the land from which my ancestors were expelled. Every day, mum tells me about it and my yearning for the village begins to invade my heart. I do not have even one picture of my village, so I Googled its name, hoping to find some images. But, unfortunately, I found only pictures of the Israeli settlement that replaced it. When I see other countries where the residents live in peace and comfort, I think of the situation here and ask myself, ‘Will I even be alive when we can return to our cities? Will I ever be able to enjoy a homeland like everyone else?’”

Reader: We will now learn about four of the almost 170 Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli military since the Great March of Return began last spring. After each of the readings, we invite you to join us in singing a niggun adapted from the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. It was sung as protesters were being taken to jail and was also uses as a method by prisoners to learn the names of others in the cells.

After each reading, we will insert the name of that Palestinian martyr into the niggun.

Reader: Tahrir Mahmoud Wahba, 18 years old.

Tahrir, a deaf and mute teen, was shot and killed while participating in the Great March of Return. He died of his wounds on April 1 in a village east of Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Gaza strip.TahreerAbuSibla (1)

After he died, Tahrir’s mother told the press,

“My son cannot speak or hear, and I frequently tried to prevent him from protesting near the border area. But he would get angry, and would shake his head, refusing to stay home, and insisting on being part of the struggle.”

 

We sing: Tahrir, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Reader: Yasser Mortaja, 31 years old.

One of Gaza’s best known photo/video journalists, Yasser was killed on April 1 by IsraeliYaser Murtaja forces who shot him in his abdomen – below his ‘PRESS’ flack jacket – while he was out covering the border protest in East Khan Younis.

Shortly before he died, Yassar posted this tweet: “I wish I could take this picture from the air. My name is Yasser. I am 30 years old. I live in Gaza. I have never travelled.” Yassar’s mother said: ” I was sad he wanted to leave Gaza Strip. Now he’s left Gaza for the sky,”

We sing: Yasser, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Reader: Razan al-Najjar, 21 years old.

Razan was a volunteer paramedic who was shot and killed on June 1 near Khan Younisrazan_orjwan (1) while wearing her white medic’s uniform. She had been less than 100 yards from the fence bandaging a man who was struck by a tear gas canister.

Razan wanted to prove that women were able to play an active role in the struggle. During an interview last May, she said, “Being a medic is not only a job for a man. It’s for women, too. Women are often judged. But society has to accept us. If they don’t want to accept us by choice, they will be forced to accept us. Because we have more strength than any man.”

We sing: Razan, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Reader: Mohammad Na’im Hamada, 30 years old.

HamadaAMohammad was shot with live fire east of Gaza City. He was rushed to a Palestinian hospital and his condition apparently witnessed a brief partial recovery.

A few days before his death he celebrated his daughter’s sixth birthday from his hospital bed, but his condition deteriorated and he later died from his wounds.

We sing: Mohammad, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Atoning for Gaza: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

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One year ago, on the morning after Yom Kippur, I traveled to Palestine in my capacity as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee. Among other things, my trip included several days with our staff in Gaza.

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, at the onset of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. The AFSC agreed, believing their service to the new refugees would be temporary. But when it became clear Israel had no desire or intention to let Palestinian refugees return to their homes, the organization’s General Secretary Clarence Pickett, told the UN that they could not in good conscience enable the situation, insisting that there must be a political solution to the crisis. Shortly after, the UN created UNRWA (The United Nations Relief Works Agency), the organization that has served the needs of Palestinian refugees ever since. AFSC has, however, retained its programmatic presence throughout Israel/Palestine to this very day.

As you might expect, I came away from this experience with a myriad of feelings and emotions, most of which continue to resonate powerfully for me even one year later. First and foremost, I’ve been transformed by the collegial and personal relationships I created with our staff and the Palestinian Gazans we met there. I remain moved by the efforts of so many people creating communities of dignity and purpose, doing their best to live their lives with something approaching normalcy while they are so utterly choked off from the world outside. While they cannot access the most basic necessities of life. While they are literally waiting for the next bomb to fall.

Since that time, of course, much has happened in Gaza. They’ve initiated the Great Return March, a popular protest action which has taken place weekly along their eastern border with Israel. Since the first day of the march last spring, the mostly nonviolent demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders. Over the summer, Israel has also bombarded Gaza with its most sustained military assault since 2014, destroying numerous civilian targets, including the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center in Gaza City.

I’ve written a great deal about Gaza over the years, most of it in the form of commentary and political debate. As you know, I certainly have my own strong opinions – and I’ve engaged in my share of spitting matches on this issue over the years. And I will admit I’m tempted, given the events of this past year, to give an angry political sermon about Gaza. But I’m going to resist the temptation.

I do believe these debates are important as far as they go – but only up to a point. For one thing, it seems to me, these arguments too often end up fetishizing Gaza and Gazans, describing them either as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. Since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling and the bullets flying, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So today, I’m going to try to do my best not to give that sermon. Instead, I’d like to offer you some thoughts and impressions based on my own experiences and on my growing personal relationship with Gazans. I’d also like share a little bit of Gaza’s culture and history with you. Information is virtually unknown to most of the world but is I believe, critical if we want to understand Gaza in a three dimensional, non-objectified way. And finally, apropos of this Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what I believe is the moral and religious challenge Gaza presents to us Jews, as Americans and as people of conscience.

I’ll begin with a little geography. What we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, is was historically actually part of a much larger Gazan territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world – difficult to imagine given Gaza’s current state of economic and social isolation. But once upon a time, Gaza was a major port and an important stop along the Spice and Incense Route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

While this is literally ancient history now, it has left a cultural impact on Gaza that continues to this day. One example that was very obvious to me during my stay last year was the unique nature of Gazan cuisine. Anyone who knows Gaza knows that the food in this region is filled with distinctive flavors and spices that are dramatically different from other regional forms of Palestinian food. One common example is Gazan tahini, which is made from roasted sesame seeds, making it a dark shade of red. Gazan food is also typically made with chiles, eastern spices like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and lots of dill.

For more on this subject, I strongly recommend reading “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila El-Hadad and Maggie Schmitt – a cookbook that offers local recipes, placing them in the context of Gaza’s cultural history and politics. The authors point out that since the strong majority of Palestinians living in Gaza today are refugees from other parts of Palestine, other regional Palestinian foods have been introduced into their culinary mix. And the authors point out that many Gazan fast food joints serve Israeli-style food such as schnitzel, which was brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants.

As the authors write:

Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Because their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.

When most people think of Gaza of course, they don’t think of trade routes or cuisine; if they associate Gaza with anything at all, it’s refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that the creation of these camps is a very recent phenomenon in its history. As I mentioned earlier, Gaza was historically a much larger district in historic Palestine. Under Ottoman and the British mandate for instance, the Gaza District included what would later become the Israeli cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi, among others.

The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee. Before the outset of war, the population of this small region numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of the strip were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the mandate period.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their towns and villages through the fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher in that narrow corridor. The numbers of that once sparse territory has grown to a population today of almost 2,000,000 people.

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature. As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements.

One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and during his eulogy he expressed himself with brutal and unexpected honesty:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.

When I read Dayan’s comments today, I find them to be unbearably tragic – particularly when you consider how much time has elapsed since they were spoken. We have only to change the number of years in Dayan’s speech and the leave the rest intact: “For seventy years they’ve sat in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.”

It’s clear that the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located, in some cases just a few miles from where currently live. As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit to Gaza last year. One afternoon, as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali translated the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948.

It’s not difficult to grasp the sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Unlike most memorials, which commemorate what was lost and is never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their home cities and villages to be lost at all. On the contrary, I believe these benches testify that these places are still very real to them. And to their faith that they will one day return home.

In the end my trip to Gaza affected me in ways I could not predict at the time. Most importantly, for lack of a better term, I find I’m taking the issue much more personally. When Israel drops bombs on Gaza, I invariably get a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and immediately send emails to my colleagues and friends to check on their welfare. When a young Gazan is killed during the weekly Return March demonstrations, it’s not unusual for me to read a grief stricken testimony on social media by a friend, or friend of a friend. I increasingly hear their stories of their loved ones whose visas were denied or who cannot travel to access proper health care – and increasingly, I find myself taking their stories to heart.

Of course, I also take it personally when I hear so many in the Jewish community rationalizing this oppression away or worse – blaming Gazans for their own misery. When Israel was bombarding Gaza with bombs this past July, for instance, I recalled the fall of 2014 and how the American Jewish communal establishment characterized Israel’s war as a moral and religious imperative. In their view, the leadership in Gaza posed nothing short of an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people – and in the wake of the Holocaust, ensuring Jewish survival is the most sacrosanct commandment of our time.

In early August of that year, Elie Wiesel wrote a public statement that was published as a paid ad in many prominent newspapers, including the New York Times. It was entitled “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” Wiesel’s words, I think, are a perfect representation of the ways the Jewish communal establishment framed the religious challenge of Gaza:

More than three thousand years ago, Abraham had two children. One son had been sent into the wilderness and was in danger of dying. God saved him with water from a spring. The other son was bound, his throat about to be cut by his own father. But God stayed the knife. Both sons – Ishmael and Isaac – received promises that they would father great nations.

With these narratives, monotheism and western civilization begin. And the Canaanite practices of child sacrifice to Moloch are forever left behind by the descendants of Abraham.

Except they are not.

In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.

What we are suffering through today is not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian. Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.

I remember when I first read these words. I remember how deeply, how viscerally, I reacted to them – particularly while I had been reading day after about Gazan children like the four Bakr boys, who were shot down not as “human shields” but while they were playing soccer on the beach one morning. I remember how desperately I wished there were other Jews or Jewish communities ready to provide an alternative religious understanding of what was going on in Gaza.

There was only one religious response to Wiesel I recall reading at the time. It came from scholar and theologian Marc Ellis, who addressed Wiesel’s statement head on:

The problem is the news that keeps coming from Israel. Israel’s bombing of residential areas, hospitals and UN schools and shelters is international news. In Gaza, even after Israel’s proclaimed “withdrawal,” the death toll mounts. Among the dead are children sacrificed for Israel’s obvious goal – to deny Palestinians statehood, their political and human rights, which include the right to resist occupation.

The question for Elie Wiesel and the Jewish establishment is not about Abraham’s binding of Isaac – a treasure trove for interpreters of all types – but how many Palestinian children in Gaza will be sacrificed on the altar of Israel’s national security.

If God stayed Abraham’s knife, who will stay Israel’s?

“If God stayed Abraham’s knife, who will stay Israel’s?” This, to me is as profound an articulation of the moral and religious challenge presented to us by Gaza as we are likely to find. And I simply cannot understand how Jewish communities can gather for Yom Kippur every year without even thinking to consider this question. This is after all, the season of our cheshbon nefesh – our moral accountability. On Yom Kippur we are asked to come together and dig deep as a community to search our collective soul and confess our collective sins. How many synagogues will include confessions for what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere?

On Yom Kippur we chant over and over an annual liturgy that literally asks “who shall live and who shall die,” while the people of Gaza ask themselves that question every waking day. In a very real sense, Israel is playing God with the people of Gaza. Who shall live and who shall die? In the end, it is not God but Apache helicopters and drone fire that will provide the answers to that question. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to change the Une’taneh Tokef prayer to read, “Who will we kill and who will we spare?”

On Yom Kippur we gather to confess our sins and vow to do teshuvah – to actively repair what we have broken in the past year. But if we do believe that Israel is oppressing Gazans and Palestinians in our name, how can this day have any meaning for us at all? How can it be anything but an empty ritual? If we do believe this day still has religious relevance for us, what are we ready to do to make this teshuvah we speak of real?

My friend and colleague Jehad Abusalim was born in Gaza and is now earning his Phd from NYU. This past year he joined the Chicago staff of AFSC to work on our campaign “Gaza Unlocked.” I’d like to end with his words, because like so many of the Gazans I’ve come to know, he presents us with a question that highlights what I believe is the current religious challenge of Yom Kippur:

Our message is that we are human beings. Despite 70 years of exile, 50 years of occupation, and 11 years of a blockade, we still can carry signs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English that say, “We are not coming to fight — we are coming to return to our lands!” Gazans who saw wars and blood, who lost relatives to graves and prisons, who have four hours of electricity, who are besieged and tired — these Gazans still have faith that the international community cares. Will the rest of humanity hear them?

On Yom Kippur we plead to God, “Shema Koleynu” – “Hear our voice!” The people of Gaza – indeed all Palestinians – are calling out to us “Shema Koleynu!” Are we ready to their prayer? And if we are, what will we do to ensure our Yom Kippur prayers have not been made in vain?

G’mar Hatimah Tovah – may this be the year we write the people of Gaza into the Book of Life.

 

Our Wayward and Defiant Children

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My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, we read:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So what is this, some kind of sick joke?

In fairness, it should be noted that many classical Jewish commentators have properly recoiled from these infamous verses. In a well-known Talmudic passage, R. Judah and R. Simeon went as far as to claim that this law was never actually enacted, stating, “There never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son. (BT Sanhedrin 71a)

Why then, you might ask, was this law included in the Torah? Rabbis Judah and Simeon cryptically respond: “Seek and you shall find reward” – a comment commonly understood to mean parents should study this passage and be appropriately scared enough to set their children on the right path.

In this Talmudic understanding, then, the commandment of the wayward and defiant son thus seems to serve as a kind of parental shock therapy. Whether or not we find this advice “rewarding,” I do think that these Torah verses reflect every parent’s deepest insecurities – and society’s latent fear that it might somehow lose control of its children.

When I think of this week’s Torah portion, I can’t help but think of our own city of Chicago, where the police’s customary response to youth violence too often, is more violence. As Tamar Manasseh, founder of the local South Side organization Mother’s Against Senseless Killings recently wrote:

Putting more police on the streets or sending in the National Guard will not solve the scourge of gun violence in our communities. There will be no reduction in crime; in reality, nothing will be reduced except the number of people who are left in these neighborhoods. That’s what happens when you eliminate schools and allow food deserts to exist: People who can afford to move will do so, and the people left behind will be over-policed.

“Seek and you shall find reward.” Or, as Tamar so wisely noted,

It’s time to invest in our public schools, in job creation and in training programs to give back hope to people who have so little of it left. Chicago’s ghettos are in dire need of repair; they can be healed only when our politicians pursue policies that will raise our communities up instead of keeping us under the heel of the police.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Gaza and the High Holidays

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My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

Yesterday I read a devastating blog post by Abdalrahim Alfarra, a Palestinian Gazan activist who wrote about his cousin Ali Firwana, who was recently was shot and paralyzed at the Great March of Return.

One passage in particular continues to haunt me:

At the protest, we found the usual: tear gas canisters falling thickly, leaving us barely able to breathe or talk; ambulances and paramedics fanning out everywhere; and the sound of live bullets whizzing past.

The sound of a bullet elicits contradictory feelings. All of us know that it will hit someone. But if we hear it, we are safe, just like when we hear shelling it means it has exploded but not on us.

It’s a powerful a description as we might find of what it must be like for unarmed demonstrators to experience an overwhelming military assault such as this. But it also made me think of something else.

We’ve just begun Elul – the month that precedes the Jewish New Year. Among other things, this the season in which we begin to contemplate the randomness and fragility of our world. We look ahead to a year to come and ask with uncertainty: “Who shall live and who shall die?” I can’t think of a more gut-wrenching expression of this question than the testimony of this young Palestinian man. And I can’t think of a more critical collective moral imperative for the Jewish people than the crimes Israel is committing against Palestinians in Gaza.

Alfarra concludes his post with these words:

Ali requires further surgery. He is still hoping to move his legs again. He is still hoping to defy the treacherous bullet fired by a heartless sniper, and a world that answers Israel’s crimes with shocking silence.

When Jewish congregation gather next month for the High Holidays, it is safe to say many will “answer Israel’s crimes with shocking silence.” Others will actually attempt to justify Israel’s criminal assaults on Palestinians in Gaza. I’m proud to be part of a congregation that will choose a different way:

For blockading 1.8 millon Gazans inside an open air prison; and for unleashing devastating firepower on a population trapped in a tiny strip of land.

For wedding sacred Jewish tradition to political nationalism and militarism; and for rationalizing away Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement.

May our prayers inspire us to hasten the day in which all Gazans and Palestinians are free.