Category Archives: American Jewish Community

“Confessing Sins on Stolen Ground” – A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5780

photo credit: AP/World Wide

If you visit the website of The Great Synagogue, one of the largest and oldest Jewish congregations in Sydney, Australia, you’ll find the following statement at the bottom of their home page:

Our Synagogue stands on the traditional lands of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. We acknowledge and give thanks to the Elders and Traditional Custodians who have cared for this land for thousands of years. May we walk with care on this land which has provided a home for our Jewish community.

We offer respect to the descendants of the first peoples whose presence and cultures are vital to the nation we share.

Land Acknowledgements such as these are fairly common in Australia, where it’s customary for government institutions and organizations to honor the significance of specific lands to Aboriginal peoples. Though I’d known about this custom in Australia, I was still surprised to read the Great Synagogue’s statement.  I’d never heard of a synagogue making a public land acknowledgement before. 

I wondered if there were other Jewish institutions that did likewise. So I surfed a bit more through the internet and discovered that indeed, Temple Har Zion of Thornhill, Ontario also had a land acknowledgment on its site, and that they read it regularly during Shabbat services. Their statement concludes this way:

As Jews and as a community, may we always strive to fulfill our Jewish value of Tzedek Tirdof– the pursuit of justice in our society.

I think it’s significant that the practice of Land Acknowledgement has not become a cultural norm in the United States, where the existence of native peoples is not a particularly important or relevant issue. Otherwise enlightened Americans will assume the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples in this country is somehow complete, blind to the reality that there are five million native Americans and 570 federally recognized tribes that still exist in the US. Well meaning liberals will routinely refer to the United States as “a nation of immigrants,” despite the fact that there were indigenous peoples who lived in this land long before colonists and immigrants arrived – and whose descendants are still very much alive today. 

After reading about these two congregations, it occurred to me that this level of sensitivity is absent in the American Jewish community as well. And since that time, I’ve been thinking about the unique responsibility of religious communities in colonized countries to this issue. After all, how can we purport to stay true to the sacred imperative of justice if we remain silent? What does it say about the sanctity of our prayers if we routinely gather to pray on stolen land – and fail to even acknowledge this fact? 

At the very least it feels absolutely appropriate to this Day of Atonement. Shouldn’t we consider it deeply problematic to confess sins on colonized ground without naming the very sin of colonization itself? Without a thought to the original sin of our country: the genocide and dispossesion of Native Americans? 

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what our colonial legacy demands of us. I’d like to offer some thoughts about our connection as Jews to the history of colonialism and what it might suggest for the Jewish community of today. I’d like to ask: If we do choose to reckon with the history and ongoing oppression of native peoples in this country, what would such a reckoning look like? How might it impact our communal life and our sacred tradition? Are there ways that we, at Tzedek Chicago, could model what it means to be a decolonizing Jewish congregation? 

Before I address this issue, however, I want to make it clear that I’m not an expert on the issue of colonialism or the history of indigenous nations. In many ways, my own learning and understanding of this subject is a work in progress. The thoughts I offer you today are ultimately a reflection of my own questions and struggle with this very fraught and painful issue. I’m raising these questions with you this Yom Kippur in the spirit of the season, in the hope that we might find a way to struggle with them together. 

I also want to say up front that I offer these thoughts as non-indigenous person for whom decolonization is essentially a form of solidarity. This means I understand that the objects of this oppression are the only ones who can dictate the terms of their struggle. So even as I offer these thoughts on decolonization here today, I’m well aware that this term means something very different for the colonized: it is quite literally a struggle for their survival on every level. Whatever we might think about this issue, we must ultimately take our cue from the ones most directly impacted by this oppression. 

So let me start with this statement: as a descendent of European immigrants to this country, I must face the fact that I am a colonizer. I am in fact, a settler. If I am to face the truth of colonization seriously, I can’t see how I can honestly come to any other conclusion. 

Of course, as a Jew, I know full well that my people has its own long history of oppression and dispossession. But I’m also well aware that I enjoy significant privilege in this country – and that this privilege was created in no small measure on the backs of the indigenous people of this land. Now I realize that playing “who was oppressed more” is a fruitless and dangerous game to play and I’m not going to engage in it here. But I do think it’s important to examine the unique historical contexts of oppressed peoples – to understand how these oppressions often interact and sometimes even collide with one another. 

It’s important to note that historically, anti-Jewish oppression has not taken the form of colonization per se, but of forced migration. In this regard, I’d argue that the Jewish people have never truly been indigenous to any one particular area or region of the world. While there are many different definitions of indigeneity, I particularly appreciate one that was articulated to me recently by the Jewish poet and writer Aurora Levins Morales. To be part of an indigenous people, Aurora explained, means “to live in one particular place or ecosystem for a prolonged period of time, to plant cultural roots there, and to develop a sense of communal accountability to this ecosystem.”

It is painfully true that the Jewish people have been dispossessed from many different lands and nations over the centuries. We’ve been flung far and wide, as Aurora puts it, like “wind blown seeds,” putting down roots – often significantly deep roots – in a myriad of places throughout the diaspora. It’s extremely important to add, however, that this painful process of rooting and uprooting is not the whole of what it means to be Jewish. Yes, the trauma of dispossession is an indelible part of our historical experience, but so is our resilience, our ability to adapt, to create new homes and new cultures in wild variety of different ecosystems throughout the world. As I put in a sermon three years ago: “Jewish tradition as we know it could never have existed without the Diaspora…the myriad of lands in which we have lived have provided the fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity.”

As American Jews, our presence on this land is particularly complicated. Most Jews came to North America as immigrants, whether they were forced from their homes or whether they seeking greater opportunity. But is also true that some Jews arrived here during the colonial era. In the 17th and 18th centuries for instance, American colonists included Spanish and Portuguese Jews, many of whom were descendants from Jews who were persecuted during the Inquisition. During the third wave of Jewish immigration to the US, most came here fleeing violence and pogroms in Eastern Europe, and later, of course, in the wake of the Shoah. To add to these complexities, today’s American Jewish community also includes Jews of color, many of whom, as a result of conversion and intermarriage, are descended from indigenous peoples who have their own history of colonization and enslavement themselves.

And to make things even more complicated than that, the American Jewish community, like so many other sub-communities in this country, has made its home on land that was colonized and stolen from others. 

Of course, if we are going to reckon with what it means to be Jewish in the 21th century, we have to confront the painful legacy of Zionism: a European movement that colonized historic Palestine, dispossessed hundreds of thousands of indigenous inhabitants, creating what is now the largest refugee population in the world. 

While some in the Jewish community refer to Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” I believe this term is profoundly problematic. Generally speaking, national liberation movements are independence struggles waged by indigenous peoples against imperial, colonizing powers. For its part, Political Zionism was a movement in which European Jews traveled to Palestine to build colonies, with the intention of eventually creating an ethnically Jewish nation state – against the will of the non-Jewish Arabs who were already living there. 

There is a term for this phenomenon: “settler colonialism.”  Unlike traditional colonialism, in which a world power colonizes a particular land in order to exploit its resources and strengthen its own geopolitical dominance, settler colonialism refers to movements that colonize a land in order to create a new society made up of one particular group of people. In the case of traditional colonialism, native populations are subjugated by the dominant power as a form of essential labor. In the case of settler colonialism, native inhabitants are considered to be demographic threats to the dominant group – whose very existence on the land is viewed as a problem.

As someone who was raised to embrace the Zionist narrative as a central part of my Jewish identity, I used to react defensively to the suggestion that Israel’s birth was a product of colonialism – that Zionism was not in fact a national liberation movement but rather a colonial enterprise in its own right. That our so-called “liberation” had actually come to pass through the dispossession of indigenous people. Those of us who have made this shift know all too well the painful sense of betrayal that comes with it – that there is something essentially toxic at the root of everything we’ve been taught to hold sacred about our history. 

But in the end, is this really any different from the national narrative we Americans teach ourselves about the birth of this country? After all, what is our American liberation myth, if not a glorification of colonists rebelling against the mother state to establish a new nation on the backs of people of the indigenous people of this land? 

When I speak publicly about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, I will be sometimes be challenged by someone in the audience who will say to me something to the effect of: “You criticize Israel so much, but is it really any different from what the US has done to its native population?” Even though I think these questioners generally pose this as a kind of “gotcha” question, I do think there’s a very important challenge at its core. 

The answer, of course, is: “You are absolutely right. There is really no difference at all.” If we are going to call out Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, we must also be prepared to call out our nation’s treatment of its indigenous people as well.  Those of us who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people cannot view Zionist colonialism in a vacuum. In the end both are part of the same systems of colonial domination and oppression – and in the end, we must be prepared to call them both out with equal vigor. 

So how do we create a new sacred narrative as American Jews – one that rejects the glorification of our colonial legacy? What could a decolonized Jewish community possibly look like? Again, while I’m only beginning to struggle with these questions, I’d like to offer a few thoughts:

• The first step, it seems to me, is to do the inner work to decolonize our minds. We must challenge the assumptions ingrained within us by our colonial culture. Jews of European ancestry much reckon with the fact that we are settlers, no matter how our ancestors may have arrived at these shores. 

• Our communities must center the experience of Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. As part of this centering work, we must stand down the narrative that the American Jewish experience is only about immigration and opportunity.

• American Jewish communities must learn about the history of the lands upon which we make their homes and the indigenous peoples who are historically connected to the lands. We must take care not to appropriate their cultures and sacred traditions. We must learn about them as living, breathing peoples and cultures and not as idealized objects or stereotypes. We must prioritize the creation of accountable relationships to the native peoples and groups who are our neighbors. 

• It’s high time that American Jewish community followed the example of our Australian and Canadian counterparts and being to make land acknowledgments a regular part of our communal life. At the same time however, we cannot assume such statements somehow will solve the problem or absolve us of our guilt. As our Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us, confessional prayers themselves are not enough. Teshuvah – genuine repentance – can only be made real if words are followed by transformative action. 

• Since indigeneity is marked by a deep sense of accountability to the land upon which native peoples live, communities that seek to decolonize themselves must cultivate genuine ecological accountability to local and global ecosystems. In short, we cannot decolonize ourselves if we fail to respect and honor the land upon which we build our homes and communities. (For more on this subject, please refer to my Rosh Hashanah sermon.)

As you might expect, I hope that Tzedek Chicago can explore together what it means to be a decolonizing Jewish community. And while I’m on the subject, I want to put in a plug for our upcoming Sukkot program next week. As Sukkot coincides this year with Indigenous People’s Day, Tzedek Chicago is partnering with Chi-Nations Youth Council for a Sukkot meal and celebration at the Chi-Nations garden and wigwam. For this program, we’re also partnering with Aurora Levins Morales as part of our participation in her Rimonim liturgy project – a newly created network of Jewish congregations and communities committed to the development of new liturgies that reflect decolonized, diasporic, justice-based values.

And on that note, I’d like to conclude my remarks to you today with a prayer that Aurora wrote specially for Tzedek Chicago. It’s a land acknowledgment that uses the Ve’ahavta liturgy to express our commitment and responsibility to the lands of this particular region – and to honor the native peoples who consider it sacred. We’ll be using it this Sukkot, but I’d like to read it for the very first time now, on this Day of Atonement.

May these words help us acknowledge, as a community, the sacred ground upon which we stand. May they inspire us to work toward a future of restoration and justice for all who dwell on earth:

There is no earth but this earth and we are its children.  The earth is our home, and there is only one.  The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.

The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.

We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.   

The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath.  Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.

Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day.  Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming.  Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us.  Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love.

Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill.

Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.

So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing.  Let nothing stand in your way.  Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing. 

Amen.

Israel and North America: A Tale of Two Judaisms

Nur Shlapobersky / Never Again Action

Observers have long suggested that two radically different visions of Judaism are currently unfolding in the contemporary world: one in Israel and the other in North America. While this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, I can’t recall a time in which there were both so fully on display as they were last Sunday during the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av – when two very different Jewish communities observed the day in dramatically different fashion.

Tisha B’Av (literally “the 9th of the month of Av”) is a Jewish fast day of quasi-mourning that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to chanting from the Book of Lamentations, Tisha B’Av contains prayers that yearn for the restoration of the Temple. But while traditionally religious Jews characteristically view this mythic restoration in the context of a far-off messianic age, there is a rapidly growing extremist movement in Israel that has been calling for the literal rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Temple movement also advocates the destruction of Muslim shrines – an act that would undeniably result in a violent cataclysm of unthinkable proportions.

Last Sunday, the Temple Mount became a flash point for violence on the day of Tisha B’Av – which happened this year to coincide with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In anticipation of the day, Temple movement leaders were pushing hard on the Israeli government to upend the status quo and allow them to worship on the site (which is ruled off limits to Jews by Jewish law – and thus the state of Israel.) Eventually, the political pressure from the Temple movement and far-right Israeli politicians caused Prime Minister Netanyahu to cave and allow the extremist worshippers to enter the Temple Mount. In midst of election season, Netanyahu is loath to alienate the extreme rightist voters he has been desperately trying to court.

Thus, on Sunday morning. Temple movement worshippers gathered on the Temple Mount. Later that morning, violence erupted after Muslim worshipers finished their prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. According to reports, police forces fired stun grenades and tear gas canisters after, they claimed, “worshipers began hurling objects at officers and yelling ‘nationalistic remarks.'” The Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 Palestinians were wounded in the clashes, with 15 evacuated to nearby hospitals. The police reported that seven people were arrested.

This then, was how Tisha B’Av was celebrated in Israel this year: a politically emboldened group of Jewish zealots was given license by the Israeli government to provoke violence on a site considered holy by both Jews and Muslims.

(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Now compare this with Tisha B’Av in the United States, when thousands of American Jews attended immigration protests and vigils in over 60 cities, organized by a broad network of Jewish groups, including Never Again Action, T’ruah, Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and and Economic Justice, and a myriad of local immigrant justice organizations.

At one of the more substantive actions, more than 1,000 demonstrators sat down in an Amazon store in NYC to protest Amazon’s technology contract with ICE. 40 protesters took arrest, including numerous local area rabbis.  In downtown Los Angeles, members of Southern California’s Jewish community and other immigrant rights advocates held a “Close the Camps” rally at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Here in Illinois, it was my honor to be among the 250 Jews and allies gathered at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee for a Tisha B’Av ceremony that included the chanting from Lamentations, and the recitation of prayers, songs and personal testimonies.

It’s not an understatement to suggest that the nascent Jewish resistance movement embodied by Never Again Action is one of the most remarkable and significant religious-political developments in American Jewish life in generations, as Allison Kaplan Sommer recently pointed out in a feature for Ha’aretz:

Never Again Action’s emergence highlights a growing trend: progressive young American Jews interested in political activism while clearly identifying themselves as Jews – in causes that have no direct link to Judaism. They wear T-shirts with Jewish slogans, sing Hebrew songs and in some cases even conduct prayer wearing kippot and tallit.

Critically, Sommer noted, “the issues that energize such leftist activists have nothing to do with Israel,” adding that “Israel has become a topic that divides their community rather than uniting it, depleting people rather than energizing them.”

I’d suggest that last week’s Tisha B’Av events demonstrated an even deeper dichotomy between these two communities. In Israel, the day was commemorated through a distinctly land-focused, land-centric style of Judaism that ultimately resulted in violence on the Temple Mount. Zionism after all, is an ideology that views the return to the land in real terms, and redemption is not envisioned in a far-off messianic age but through the real time settling of Jews in the land – an act that resulted, and continues to result, in the violent displacement of the Palestinian people.

Given this land-centric focus, it was really only a matter of time before Tisha B’Av became an occasion for viewing the destruction of the Temple as a historic loss that could only be redeemed through its literal rebuilding. It’s particularly notable that the Temple movement, once considered a fringe movement in Israel, is rapidly ascending in political power and is increasingly considered to be an important political bloc by the government of Israel .

By comparison, the diaspora movement of Jewish resistance currently emerging throughout North America regards the destruction of the Temple in mythic – not literal – terms. Note for instance, this pointed description of the Tisha B’Av vigil at the Illinois detention center, taken from its Facebook event page:

Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day that honors and mourns the brokenness, loss, and shattered ideals in whose shadow we live every day, symbolized by the destruction of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

This Tisha b’Av we’ll mourn the brokenness of a nation that hunts down, detains and deports immigrants, separates families, cages children and turns away asylum seekers. We will also explore our communal culpability in this tragedy and ask honestly: how do we stand down this causeless hatred?

Here, the destruction of the Temple is not regarded as a literal tragedy/loss, but a mythic moment of brokenness that is embodied by the chronically broken world in which we live. According to this view, redemption occurs not through the quasi-pagan deification of bricks and mortar but through sacred actions of resistance to injustice and oppression. Could there be any greater demonstration of the radical dichotomy between these two fundamentally divergent spiritual approaches?

There is, of course, a much simpler way to describe the difference between these two Tisha B’Av moments: one the one hand, redemption occurs through the physical power of the state while on the other, redemption occurs through resistance to that power. 

Postscript: as of this writing we are receiving news that an ICE police guard has driven a truck into a peaceful crowd of Never Again protesters at a detention center in Rhode Island. 

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our day. 

AOC is Right: Trump is Running Concentration Camps on the Border

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Insider the Homestead Concentration Camp, Homestead, FL.

(Cross-posted with Newsweek)

Last December, I was arrested on the border in San Diego while standing with faith leaders to protest, among other things, Trump’s unlawful incarceration of immigrants. My experiences on the border and at immigrant detention centers in my home state of Illinois have left me with no doubt whatsoever that our nation is warehousing humanity in concentration camps—and that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correct when she refers to them by this term.

As a rabbi, I am compelled to act on behalf of immigrants because my religious faith and historical legacy demands that I do so. And I’m not alone: most American Jews embrace progressive values of social justice—and understand that we ourselves have a history of oppression at the hands of state violence.

Yesterday, AOC stirred something of a hornet’s nest when she retweeted an article in Esquire by an expert on immigrant detention who characterized Trump’s immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps.” Almost immediately, some Republican politicians, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York pounced, claiming AOC’s “regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.”

It is deeply problematic, highly partisan—and historically incorrect—to declare that the use of “concentration camps” is to be constrained to the limits of “Holocaust terminology” (itself hardly an academic term.) As scholar Jonathan Katz recently pointed out in the LA Times, the term “was invented by a Spanish official …during Cuba’s 1895 independence war.” FDR, notably, also used the term in reference to his Executive Order to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. And enough people have pointed out in recent days the usage of the term by the British suppressing the Boer rebellion in South Africa for it to be elaborated on here.

We Jews do not own this term. But in fact, I would argue it is imperative that we Jews use this term whenever these dreadful facilities are imposed on groups of people other than ourselves. History has shown us that the concentration of humanity into forced detention invariably leads entire societies to exceedingly dark places. This practice did not begin with Nazi policies against European Jewry—nor did it end there.

The same is true of AOC’s impassioned and all-too familiar call, “Never again.” As a rabbi, a Jew and a person of conscience, allow me to put it as plainly as I can: AOC’s use of this phrase was altogether appropriate. I do not and cannot view this call as “Holocaust terminology.” On the contrary: “Never Again” means never again for anyone, or else it doesn’t mean anything at all.

The fact that we are even debating these terms shows just how twisted the conversation has become. Rather than parsing the words of a human rights champion like AOC for petty political gain, these politicians and Jewish leaders should be directing their criticism where it truly belongs: at a morally depraved national policy that parses out access to human rights according to origin and ethnicity, tears apart families, and cages children in, yes, concentration camps.

Confessions of a Wicked Child: A Passover Reflection by Jay Stanton

1930sArnold Eagle.jpegHere are the remarks that Jay Stanton offered at Tzedek Chicago’s Passover seder last night. Jay was formerly Tzedek’s rabbinical intern – and I’m delighted to announce we’ve just hired him to be part of our staff for the coming year:

In a traditional seder, four children are described: a wise child, who likes learning all the ins and outs of Jewish law, a wicked child, who pokes fun at the whole idea of a seder, a simple child who seeks basic information, and a child who does not know how to ask.  These archetypical children help us explore what it means to fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children about the Exodus from Egypt.

I have a confession to make; I am a wicked child.  Of course, there are the ways society and the Jewish community in general have cast me as the wicked child: being queer and trans and supporting Palestinian rights not least among them.  But I’m also a self-identified wicked child. I am personality-wise and ethically the kind of person that voices my disapproval of standard approaches and doesn’t care what you think of me in response.  I’m a contrarian by nature, and I like asking difficult questions. Last year at this time, I asked all of us what we were doing here when we could be somewhere else doing something to make the world better.  And here we are this year, doing this peculiar ritual yet again.

I’m a wicked child.  I want to know what this means to you and why you think this is the way we should celebrate liberation.  Wouldn’t it be better to hear directly from people who have escaped modern slavery and to have real conversations about global abolition of slavery and how to establish reparations to address the ongoing legacies of slavery in America?  Plus, the Exodus never happened; the seder is an exercise in remembering alternative facts, which is to say lies.

I told you I’m a wicked child.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one here.  Despair not! Wicked children are valued by Jewish tradition.  Because the Talmud values contrarians. Because the seder itself values the wicked child.  After their question, “What does this ritual mean to you?”, the wicked child is not sent to bed without their supper.  Instead, the parent responds in kind.

“This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.  For me, and not for you, because if you had been there, you would not have gone free.”  It’s a contrarian response, not a real argument. In our Exodus narrative, more people than the Israelites left Egypt together.  In Hebrew this is called ‘erev rav, translated as a very diverse group or coalition.  I imagine the wicked children marched out of Egypt as part of the liberation coalition, where they found ample opportunity to critique the choices of the liberatory leaders, like leading the group directly to a body of water while being chased by the Egyptian military.  Maybe a frustrated wicked child yelled at Moses, “What are you going to do now? Hold up your staff and just wait for God?!”

Voices of critique and dissent have pushed our conversation toward progress, inclusion, and more ethical behavior for thousands of years.  They are enshrined in Talmud and indeed in the Haggadah. Judaism is enriched, not threatened, by a multiplicity of opinions and approaches.

To put it differently, the vital role of wicked children in our Passover seder exemplifies spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom, one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values, is more than active inclusion of atheists, agnostics, and non-Jews in our midst.  It is an affirmation of the ‘erev rav as a diverse, universalist community, and it is an elevation of critique from an obstacle to overcome to a necessary part of collective liberation.  We not only allow the wicked child to derail the Passover seder, we need them. Judaism needs its wicked children.

Just as political freedom provides a check against political tyranny, spiritual freedom provides a check against spiritual tyranny.  Both human and so-called divine spiritual authority have tendencies toward the coercive and oppressive. We could dismiss this problem as one that only affects the religious right. However, we are also at risk of spiritual tyranny here at Tzedek Chicago. We could give too much power to our spiritual leader and follow Brant even if and when he’s wrong, but spiritual freedom gives every one of us the tools to speak up if Brant starts leading us down the wrong path.  We are a community for people who share Tzedek’s specific values, and we say freely that people who object to them can find other Jewish communities. There’s not much distance between that and establishing some kind of review committee to determine whether you faithfully adhere to every line of each of our core values in every aspect of your life. Don’t worry; we’re not going to establish an Inquisition. Spiritual freedom ensures we are universalist not only in our outcomes but also in our process. When our leaders are wrong or when we feel excluded, we get to speak up and remain wicked children at the table.

As a wicked child, I wonder how the rest of the wicked child Passover conversation goes.  If I were continuing it, I would caution the parent, saying “Now you sound like the oppressor.  Do you want to be like Pharaoh?!”

Mah ha’avodah hazot lakhem?  What does this ritual mean to you?

Toward Shabbat Solidarity with Gaza

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Tzedakah saves from death. (Proverbs 10:2)

For religious Jews, Friday is typically devoted to spiritual and practical preparation for the Sabbath. Those who are traditionally observant will spend the morning and afternoon doing their shopping, housecleaning and cooking for Shabbat before sundown. Before Shabbat worship, there is a preliminary service known as Kabbalat Shabbat: a series of Psalms and prayers of welcome that serve as a spiritual precursor to the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. As any Shabbat observant Jew will attest, the sense of spiritual preparation and anticipation that takes place on Friday is deeply imbedded in the sacred rhythm of the Jewish week.

Speaking personally, this sacred rhythm has been disrupted – perhaps even profaned – for me for almost a year now. That is because every Friday afternoon, my news feed is regularly filled with reports of Palestinian civilians killed and maimed by the Israeli military during the protests taking place during the Great March of Return.

Every Erev Shabbat, as I prepare for the most sacred day of the week, I invariably learn that Gazans – including young adults and children – have been shot down by Israeli bullets as they protest hundreds of meters from the Gaza border fences. As of January 2019, Israeli soldiers have killed over 250 people and injured 23,000. Among the injured, many are grievously wounded; the Washington Post recently reported that doctors in Gaza are often unable to deal with such traumatic injuries because  Israel’s crushing blockade has left hospitals “overwhelmed and understaffed.”

Of course there is rarely a mention of these weekly events in the mainstream media – and when there is, news reports often treat the Palestinian demonstrators as the instigators of “violent clashes.” For its part, the Jewish communal establishment greets these crimes with silence at best and justification at worst – as if it is perfectly justifiable to regularly shoot down unarmed protesters with live gunfire.

I sometimes wonder if there are other Jews out there like me, whose personal preparation for Shabbat is regularly violated by the events transpiring every Friday afternoon along the Gaza border. Who approach Shabbat with an increasing sense of dread, often followed by anguish at the news of Gazans killed and injured by a military that acts in the name of the Jewish people. Who ask: how can we possibly prepare for this sacred weekly occasion as a Jewish army shoots down unarmed civilians for their “crime” of protesting for their human rights?

I have to believe there are other Jews for whom these weekly massacres at the Gaza border represent not only a human rights concern by an inherently spiritual violation and a profound moral/religious challenge. I would go as far as to say it is an aveirah – a religious transgression – for Jews to greet Shabbat without some kind of meaningful acknowledgement of what has been transpiring every week at the Gaza border.

What might this acknowledgement look like? A few thoughts occur to me: Since mourning rituals are traditionally lifted on Shabbat, we might pause before Shabbat candle lighting and mention the names of those who may have been killed or wounded in that week’s protest. Another idea: as it is traditional to give tzedekah before Friday night candle lighting by placing coins in a pushke – a tzedakah collection box – we could make giving tzedakah to a Gazan relief organization part of our weekly preparation for Shabbat. Such organizations might include the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), Doctors with Borders, or American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA).

In the Talmud, there is a famous rabbinic discussion of the line from Proverbs, “Tzedakah saves from death.” According to the plainest meaning of this verse, this means simply that charity has the very real potential to save lives. This kind of attitude, however, represents the noblesse oblige approach to giving: i.e., that those who have more have the responsibility to give to those who are less fortunate than they.

Such a view betrays the very meaning of the word “tzedakah,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice.” Indeed, if tzedakah has the force of justice behind it, then it cannot simply be left to the whims and choices of those who might be feeling “charitable.” It is rather, an obligation for all people to right the wrongs that abound in our world. All the more so in the case of Gaza, which is not so much humanitarian crisis as an injustice created by one powerful nation state that seeks to control a population by blockading it inside a virtual open air prison.

I have no illusions that giving tzedakah at the onset of Shabbat will on its own save the people of Gaza. And I do not want to endorse it as a kind of “indulgence” to assuage the guilt of those who don’t want to enter into Shabbat burdened by the thought of this terrible and ongoing human tragedy. Rather, I’m suggesting this new weekly practice as a way to do the work of justice as a regular discipline – and to make our final act of the week an act of solidarity with a people who are suffering from injustice committed by those purporting to be acting in our name.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s make justice for Gaza part of our weekly regimen as we prepare for Shabbat. May this act of conscience contribute all the more to Kedushat Hayom (“the holiness of the day”). And may we emerge from this day of renewal that much more inspired to fight for a world in which justice is extended to all who dwell upon it.

On Hanukkah, Let’s Challenge Militarized Security Responses to Anti-Semitism

Cross-posted with Truthout

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(photo credit: Newsweek)

Amid the swirl of responses to the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October was the New York Post report of a Colorado gun shop owner named Mel “Dragonman,” who publicly offered free guns, ammo and firearms training to congregational rabbis. According to the report, responses to his offer were “mixed.” One congregant appreciated the dealer’s intentions but added “arming people is … not part of the solution.” Another answered that while she was fine with the idea, she drew the line at the prospect of her rabbi carrying an AR-15 during services.

While this story is obviously a cheap tabloid throwaway on the surface, it does reflect a serious and increasing intra-communal conversation over the security of synagogues and Jewish institutions post-Pittsburgh. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that the Tree of Life massacre is causing an American Jewish reckoning over the threat of anti-Semitic violence with a gravity we have not seen in generations.

According to press reports, increasing numbers of synagogues have already hired armed guards or are seriously considering doing so. The New York Post reports, “Rabbi Gary Moskowitz, a former cop who founded a group called the International Security Coalition of Clergy, said he has been inundated with more than 150 calls from ‘scared’ rabbis, congregants and non-Jews who want guns or self-defense training, which includes learning how to hurl weights and tomahawk axes.” The rabbi of a prominent Kansas City congregation explained his decision to hire an armed guard thus: “You have to be vigilant all the time, unfortunately. That’s just part of what it means to be a congregation at this moment in history.”

Other synagogues and organizations, however, are resisting the urge to resort to armed security, citing an unwillingness to let “fear-mongering” and “trauma-triggering” (embodied by Trump’s commentthat an armed guard could have prevented the tragedy) dictate their approach to their own communal security. As New York-based organization Jews For Economic and Racial Justice (JFREJ) responded in its statement:

We know that antisemitism is a pillar of white supremacy, and that as white supremacy rears its head more brazenly, so does antisemitism. In recognizing the very real need for safety in synagogues and Jewish communal spaces, we must be skeptical of calls made by Trump and others to increase police presence in our community spaces.

This issue is also fraught because the American Jewish community is more diverse than many often assume — and vulnerable minority groups within the Jewish community members are openly expressing their fears that an increased police presence or hired security would cause them to feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own houses of worship. This fall — even before the Tree of Life tragedy — one synagogue president wrote about this very issue after his synagogue board discussed congregational security during the High Holidays:

Not only do we believe that public or private police won’t keep us safe, we decided that these kinds of security measures could very possibly hurt our community in grave ways. Our congregants include people of color, trans and gender non-conforming folk, queers and their families, peace activists and others who have all been targets of police and state violence…. The risk to individuals and the fabric of our congregation outweighs any potential benefit.

In a widely read article following the attack, Bentley Addison expressed his personal feelings about the impact an armed police presence would have on him as a Black American Jew, pointing out that “with police officers in synagogues, Black Jews and Jews of Color won’t feel safer at all.” Addison concluded forcefully that, following Pittsburgh, congregations should “prioritize the safety of all Jews.”

As a result, some congregations and Jewish organizations are promoting decidedly different models of communal security. For instance, JFREJ, in partnership with Jewish congregations and organizations and allies in the New York City police accountability movement, recently released a “Commit to the Community Safety Pledge” in which Jewish institutions can commit to “develop a community safety plan that aims to honor all who come through our doors.” The text of the pledge further notes:

People targeted by state-enforced violence in our country have had to do this work for centuries, and we are grateful to learn from the wisdom they’ve developed. The strategies include interfaith collaboration and crisis de-escalation, as well as long-term interventions such as creating alternative safety teams, rapid response networks, and broader cultural education around antisemitism and white supremacy.

In a similar vein, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Deputy Director Stefanie Fox has stated that the organization is exploring the possibility of establishing an “interfaith security coalition” in which different faith communities would band together to protect each other’s worship spaces. “If we’re doing the work to deepen our practice and skills around safety outside of policing, that capacity can and should serve not only our Jewish communities but also our interfaith partners in the crosshairs of white nationalist and state violence,” Fox said.

On a strictly practical level, Jewish institutions are actively considering institutional safety strategies such as evacuation plans that have the potential to save lives more effectively than police or armed guards. They also stress the need for these plans to be collectively developed and shared and not simply left to “trained professionals.” As one Jewish organizational consultant recently put it, Jewish synagogue security functions should be “de-siloed,” advising that “safety and security needs to be shared by clergy, operations staff, those responsible for community engagement as well as lay leaders.”

For contemporary Jews of course, this conversation is nothing new. In the post-Holocaust world, the issue of Jewish safety and security is complex and fraught — particularly with the establishment of a Jewish nation-state whose very raison d’etre is to safeguard Jewish lives. In many ways, it might be claimed that Israel itself embodies Trump’s response to the Pittsburgh shooting: that the only true form of protection comes from the barrel of a gun.

However, the 70-year history of the state of Israel has demonstrated the fatal fallacy of this response. In the 21st century, the state founded with the ostensible mission of ensuring Jewish security has ironically become the one place in the world where Jews feel the most unsafe: an over-militarized garrison state that is literally building higher and higher walls between itself and its “enemies.” And of course, the establishment and maintenance of an ethnically Jewish nation state has created an even more unsafe environment for the millions of non-Jews who happen to live there.

On a final note, it’s worth noting that this current conversation is taking place as the Jewish festival of Hanukkah approaches. For many, this holiday is a celebration of Jewish armed might against the anti-Semitic persecution of the Assyrian Seleucid Empire in 168 BCE. This is largely due to the influence of its observance in Israel, where this relatively minor Jewish festival has been transformed into a celebration of military might by Zionist founders who identified with the Hanukkah story’s central characters, the Maccabees — the priestly Jewish clan whose military victory over the Assyrians resulted in the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and a brief period of Jewish independence.

However, while many might reflexively accept Israel’s framing of the Maccabee narrative, the history of Hanukkah is not nearly as simple as this version might indicate. As it would turn out, the Jewish commonwealth established by the Maccabees (known as the Hasmonean Kingdom) quickly became corrupt, oppressing its own Jewish citizens and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than 100 years.

The Talmudic rabbis who developed classical Jewish tradition as we know it were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers, and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees (which was never canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible). In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts,” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

In the end, it’s altogether appropriate that this current Jewish communal conversation about the true nature of Jewish safety and security is taking place as the holiday of Hanukkah approaches. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, American Jews find themselves considering these age-old questions anew: How will we respond to those who seek to do us harm? Can we depend upon the physical force of state security to save us? Or will we answer with a deeper vision of communal security — that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe?

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.