Category Archives: Judaism

Songs at the Sea

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Based on Exodus 15:1-18

As the waters parted before them
they sang their songs of praise:

Some sang to the one who
shattered Pharaoh’s army
with a mighty right hand,
some sang to the god of their ancestors
who remained faithful to them
and them alone.

Others sang to the one
who redeems the oppressed
so that the world may know of his might:
who is like you god of war,
consuming the enemy like straw
incinerated with one awesome
mighty blast from on high?

Some sang a hymn of praise
to the god of vengeance
who shamed the Egyptians
hurling them all like stones
into the heart of the churning sea;

while still others sang out with hope
that the peoples of the land
would now melt away
as god’s people went forth
to dispossess them.

As they marched on, their voices joined
into one feverish song;
a tuneless wordless howl
echoing on through the depths,
yet too laden with fear to rise
to the source of their liberation.

This is How You Will Restore the Temple

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A new rendering of Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Prophetic reading for the Sabbath of Hanukkah)

Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
all along.

Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.

Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.

Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
only debasement
and desecration
at your hand.

Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high
that can never be destroyed.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.

This Hanukkah, Light a Candle for Gaza

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

Cross-posted with Truthout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a sample of their testimonies:

College graduate Fidaa Zaanin, 27:

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

Freelance photographer Ezz Al Zanoon, 24:

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

NGO project coordinator Shareef Hamad, 34:

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

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

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

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

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

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In response to Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol, Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “Jerusalem has been the focus of our hopes, our dreams, our prayers for three millennia.” Very true – however for centuries these prayers were irrevocably bound up with the coming of the messiah.

Apart from all of the political analyses about this latest maneuver, this point bears repeating: Zionism has always been, in its way, a kind of false messiah.

I’m not the first to point this out. Back in 1928 for instance, the venerable Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem commented:

The messianic phraseology of Zionism, especially in its decisive moments, is not the least of those Sabbatian temptations which could bring disaster to the renewal of Judaism.

I genuinely believe that the disaster Scholem wrote of has already come to pass. This zealous drive for political sovereignty and control over Jerusalem as the “eternal undivided capitol of the Jewish people” is a form of idolatry that has all but highjacked a venerable spiritual tradition. Now I fear a much more cataclysmic disaster is waiting in the wings.

Scholem’s comment about Sabbatianism is instructive in this regard. Shabbatai Tzvi after all, was a false messiah who gained a tremendous Jewish following in the 17th century. His claim to be the chosen one that would lead the Jews back to their sovereign homeland caused so much upheaval that he was forced on pain of death to convert to Islam by the Sultan. His apostasy caused massive disillusionment and schisms that throughout the Jewish world.

Shabbatai Tzvi was very much a product of his time. He arose during a period in a period in the 1600s when a Puritan form of millenarianism was sweeping Europe. Coming primarily out of England, this ideology predicted that the Jewish people would literally return to establish a sovereign state in their Biblical homeland – an event that would bring about the apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ. If this ideology sounds familiar to you, this is the very same millenarianism that is espoused by American Christian Zionists today. It was indeed brought to our shores by Puritan colonists.

It is safe to say that Jewish political Zionism could not have succeeded without the support of Christian millenarians. Reverend William Hechler, a prominent English clergyman who ascribed to eschatological theology and the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel, was a close friend and colleague of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political Zionist movement. Lord Arthur Balfour, who issued the historic Balfour Declaration in 1917 was likewise a Christian Zionist, motivated as much by his religious convictions as by British imperial designs in the Middle East.

Today of course, Christian Zionists are most famously represented by Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest coalition of Evangelical Zionists in the world. Hagee has never made a secret of his apocalyptic religious views. In his 2007 book “Jerusalem Countdown,” he wrote that Armageddon might begin “before this book gets published.” He also claimed The Antichrist “will be the head of the European Union,” and that during the final battle, Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood.” The Jews, however, will survive long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”  In Hagee’s more recent book, “Four Blood Moons,” he wrote: “In these next two years, we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”

While one might expect Jewish leaders to keep their distance from a popular Christian pastor with extremist views such as these, Hagee has been closely embraced by Israeli governments (Netanyahu is a fixture at CUFI conventions), Jewish American politicians (Former Senator Joseph Lieberman has referred to Hagee as a modern-day Moses) and prominent American Jewish leaders (Elie Wiesel once called Hagee “my pastor.”)

CUFI’s Jewish Executive Director, David Brog, clearly serves to give cover to Christian Zionists, painting them as “mainstream” and not nearly as scary as their beliefs would indicate. Following the outcome of the recent election, however, Brog seems to smell blood in the water; he recently announced CUFI’s plans to get “a little more aggressive” in pushing its policies with the Trump administration, where it has clout and connections, particularly with evangelical Vice President Mike Pence.

To put it mildly, Jews should be among the least of those who would seek to find common cause with one such as Mike Pence. In an extremely important piece for the Intercept, last year, reporter Jeremy Scahill convincingly argued that Pence  is “the most powerful Christian supremacist in US history,” concluding:

The implications of a Pence vice presidency are vast. Pence combines the most horrid aspects of Dick Cheney’s worldview with a belief that Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels are not fiction, but an omniscient crystal ball.

It should not come as a surprise that Pence family’s last trip to Israel was funded by, you guessed it, John Hagee. Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana, took the time to meet with Netanyahu during his visit.

Now connect those dots to the announcement yesterday. Did you notice whose smug face was peering over Trump’s shoulder?

Beware the false messiahs. And pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).

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

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

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

 

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

Cohen interprets thus:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;
  • to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  • and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemiticeconomic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubling Down in Hebron: A Torah Teaching

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The Torah portion for next Shabbat, Chayei Sarah (Genesis 21:1-25:18) begins with a complex description of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his wife Sarah – a site that eventually becomes the familial burial plot for the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

The name “Machpelah” literally means “the doubled one” for reasons that are not entirely clear. According the Midrashic legend, Adam and Eve were the first to be buried there. In a Talmudic debate (Eruvin 53a), Rav suggests the cave had two levels, while Rabbi Shmuel says it contained tombs in pairs. Abahu comments that anyone buried in the cave had a double portion in the world to come.

But there is a more compelling reason why this site might be called “the doubled one.” It has literally functioned for centuries as both a synagogue and a mosque.

Called Ma’arat Machpelah by Jews and Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi by Muslims, members of both faiths worship on opposite sides of the large interior space. Today of course, this synagogue/mosque sits atop a virtual powder keg. After 1994, when a Jewish extremist settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered twenty nine Muslims engaged in prayer in Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the interior was divided by a wall, with two completely separate entrances for Muslims and Jews.

This “doubling” eventually extended to grip the entire city of Hebron. Following the massacre, the IDF imposed increasing curfews and restriction of movement on the Palestinian population. In 1996, as part of the Oslo agreement, Hebron was divided into two sections: H1 and H2. H1 is locally governed by the Palestinian Authority and is home to approximately 120,000 Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in H2 along under the control of the Israeli military, who are charged with the protection of 600 Jewish settlers who have aggressively moved into the city center. Since the Second Intifada, Israel increased their security crackdown on this part of the city, blocking off major streets to Palestinians – most notably the main commercial road, Shehadah Street. (The army refers to them as “sterile roads”).

Virtually every Palestinian shop in H2 has been closed and their doors welded shut by the army. Because the Palestinian residents of Shehadah St. are not allowed to walk on the road, they must enter and exit through the rear of homes because they cannot leave their own front doors. Because of these measures – and the ongoing harassment and violence at the hands of Jewish settlers – what was once the busting commercial center of Hebron has become a ghost town. 42% of its Palestinian homes are empty and 70% of its Palestinian business have been shut down.

Many right wing Jews will claim that this Torah portion – which painstakingly reports Abraham’s negotiations for the cave – is the Jewish people’s “deed of sale” to this site. I would counter that the very attitude that regards a sacred religious text as a literal “deed of sale” explains in no small way how we arrived at this fearful moment.

I’d also suggest that the true power of this portion comes later – following the death of Abraham – when we read: “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre.” (Genesis 25:9)

I can’t help but think this short verse says all that needs to be said about that godforsaken cave. It’s long past time to bury the dead and get on with living.

Sermon for Yom Kippur 5778: Another World is Possible – A Jewish View on Police/Prison Abolition

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In 1902, Clarence Darrow delivered a speech to a group of inmates at the Cook County Jail. Never known for mincing his words, he made the following point:

There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now….They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

There’s no record of what the prison administration thought of his remarks, but I think it’s fair to assume they weren’t happy.

Another anecdote, this one more recent: Two years ago, after the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and several Dallas police officers, Fox News hosted a panel discussion on police violence. One of panelists was a young African American activist and rapper named Jessica Disu. The discussion inevitably started to get heated. Disu didn’t mix in for the most part, but when someone accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the death of cops, Disu finally spoke up.

Speaking over the din, she said, “This is the reason our young people are hopeless in America.” Then she added, “Here’s a solution, we need to abolish the police.” The panel quickly descended into pandemonium.

Disu later commented that she had never previously considered herself to be a police abolitionist. But since that evening, she said, abolition has come to be the only way forward that makes sense to her. “It’s more than a repair, she said. “We need something new.”

It’s safe to say that liberal White Americans are starting to struggle with the deep legacy of institutional racism in our country. There seems to be something of an awakening to the ways that racism so painfully intersects with policing and the prison industrial complex. Of course this is an awakening to a reality that marginalized peoples have long known: that the problems of racism and violence are systemic to American society and always have been.

But while increasing numbers of liberal Americans understand this larger system of oppression, we’re nowhere near consensus on what to do about it. However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that most would not call themselves abolitionists – to say that the prison industrial complex is so incorrigibly violent, it needs to be completely dismantled. Most would likely believe such thoughts to be the product of naive, utopian minds.

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore the contemporary movement for police and prison abolition more deeply. I don’t believe that the contemporary abolitionist movement is anywhere near as simplistic as its critics make it out to be. At the very least, I think there’s a need for real debate on this issue. Should we be seeking incremental or fundamental change? Which approach will ultimately be the most effective? What theories of change have historically yielded results? Whether we agree with them or not, abolitionist arguments have an important place in this debate.

I think it is altogether appropriate to explore these questions on Yom Kippur: the day in which we look out across the year to come and vow that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. This is the day that we stand together and swear that we are indeed better than this. This is the day we imagine collectively what it will take to set the world right.

I’m sure many people struggle with the very word “abolition.” When most hear the term they’re likely to think of the 18th-19th century movement to abolish the American slave trade. The end of slavery however, did not signal the end of racist institutions that oppress black and brown people in our country – on the contrary, they have morphed into different more “socially acceptable” systems of oppression. Michelle Alexander put it very well in her book The New Jim Crow:

Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. (p. 21)

As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s much too easy to assume that since we’ve abolished slavery and dismantled Jim Crow, institutional racism is now a thing of the past. Indeed, the statistics show otherwise: 1 out of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime; black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white women; someone who is black and unarmed is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than someone who is white and unarmed; in the federal system black people receive sentences that are 10% longer than white people for the same crimes. The litany of course, goes on and on.

The contemporary abolitionist movement began in the early 1970s and gained steam in the late 1990s, when the activist/scholar Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that coined the term “prison industrial complex.” According to its mission:

Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages … An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Many may be surprised to learn that number of prominent national organizations are avowedly abolitionist. Two years ago, for instance, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution calling for “the dismantling and abolition of all prisons and of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons.” Last year, the Movement for Black Lives released a platform that stated, among other things:

Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.

Over the past decade, Chicago has become an important hub for abolitionist organizing. This is due in no small way to the efforts of organizer/activist Mariame Kaba, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before recently moving back to New York. During her years here, Kaba influenced a generation of young organizers who now lead some of the most important local organizations that protest police brutality and have created new models for community safety and restorative justice.

In an interview two years ago, this is how Mariame Kaba defined abolition:

(W)hen I talk about abolition, it’s not mainly a project of dismantling, though that’s critically important. It’s actually a project of building. It’s a positive project that is intended to show what we believe justice really looks like…For me, abolition involves how we are going to organize ourselves to be safe. And right now we devolve the authority for keeping us safe to the state. If you were to begin a conversation around abolition, the question is, “How would we, as communities, as autonomous spaces, decide what we would do when harm occurs?” We would have to think those things through together. That’s a collective project.

One of the primary goals of the new abolitionist movement is to shine a light on the vast amounts of wealth we spend on policing, prisons and surveillance – and to advocate for a greater investment in our communities. Currently, the United States spends more than $80 billion annually on our criminal justice system. Here in Chicago, we spend $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. Nearly 40% of our city budget is allotted to the Chicago Police Department (compared to around 1% for Chicago Public Schools).

But it’s not just a numbers game. Examining how we use public funds goes to the heart of the question of what actually creates safety. Is it more police or more community investment? Benji Hart, a Chicago abolitionist activist/educator wrote about this powerfully in one of my favorite blog posts on the subject, “You are Already an Abolitionist:”

Last summer, while working as a camp counselor during the week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castle were both shot by law enforcement, I ended up sitting down with a group of almost entirely wealthy, white elementary-aged kids to talk about the police. One of the questions we asked ourselves was why there was so much violence in certain parts of our city, namely on the South and West sides, and not in others. One student suggested that maybe it was because there weren’t enough police to protect those neighborhoods.

We sat on the floor of an arts studio in Lincoln Square, a majority white and very wealthy neighborhood on the North side, in which many of the students lived. I asked them how often, when walking to camp, they had seen police cars patrolling the neighborhood, or stopping people on the street. Almost none of them had. I admitted that I hadn’t, either.

“If there are so few police in this neighborhood,” I asked, “why do we feel safe here?”

It took a moment for the young people to think it through, but they got there on their own: Resources. There was low crime in Lincoln Square because most people there had places to live and good food to eat. There were lots of stores and restaurants, and people could afford to shop and dine there. There were quality schools, libraries, parks and after-school programs, many of them within walking distance from one another. It was access to the basic things people needed, not the presence of police, that made its residents feel secure.

Last week, Tzedek Chicago held an action for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah outside of Rahm Emanuel’s office in City Hall in support of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. This new initiative is protesting the Mayor’s recently unveiled plan to spend $95 million to build a Police and Fire training center in West Garfield Park – a neighborhood that recently closed six schools. The campaign is demanding a redirecting of this $95 million into Chicago’s most marginalized communities. As the campaign’s statement puts it:

Real community safety comes from fully-funded schools and mental health centers, robust after-school and job training programs, and social and economic justice. We want investment in our communities, not expanded resources for police.

While it’s certainly a daunting prospect to organize against a project this massive, it’s important to note that abolitionist organizations have played key roles in some notable political victories over the past several years. We Charge Genocide and Project NIA were integral to the coalition that won a $5.5 million reparations settlement for victims of torture by the Chicago Police Department. Here’s another example: many states across the country use cash bail systems that force poor defendants to remain in jail while awaiting trial – sometimes for months – because they cannot afford to pay their bail. This past summer, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans signed an order which will strengthen the directive to judges to set bonds that defendants are actually able to pay. This victory was due in no small part to the organizing efforts of the Chicago Community Bond Fund – a local organization that raises money for people who cannot afford to pay their own bail. The CCBF and other advocates for the abolition of monetary bond continue to monitor courtrooms to ensure judges are complying with the new law.

Critics of abolition invariably say it’s unrealistic and naive to advocate for something so radical – something we know can never and will never happen. To my mind, however, this claim misses the essential point of this movement. Contemporary abolitionists begin by asking the questions: What is the world we wish to see? How would this world promote real collective safety – through armed policing or community investment? How would it handle transgressive behavior – through restorative or retributive justice? After these questions have been fully explored, local community initiatives are created to demonstrate such a world in action. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of these organizations here in Chicago: the Chicago Childcare Collective, Curt’s Cafe, Circles and Ciphers, the People’s Response Team, the Let Us Breathe Collective and Mothers Against Senseless Killing are just a few examples.

In addition to local initiatives, abolitionist organizations also develop strategies for organizing toward policy change on a wider scale. If you visit the website of the Movement for Black Lives, you will see a plethora of extensive policy recommendations on community control, economic justice, ending the war on black people and more. In the words of the platform: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.”

Abolitionist thinking thus focuses on the world we are trying to create, not merely the individual problems we are trying to solve. For abolitionists, a vision of the world as it should be is always the starting point. And when you think about it, why not? Why not aim for the world that we want rather than the world that we are willing to settle for? If our starting point is “the ideal is not possible” aren’t we automatically rendering it impossible? At this current moment there are forces in our country who have no compunction about abolishing wholesale the institutions that actually protect the public good. If we ever hope to stand them down we’re going to have to be at least as visionary as they are.

Now I realize that there may be some here who aren’t able or ready to go to this place – who feel the concept is just too extreme. And I’m not standing here making a pitch for us to formally become an abolitionist congregation. But I do think these ideas are at the heart of an immensely important debate. And if there is a congregation anywhere in the country that can have this conversation, I believe it’s Tzedek Chicago.

After all, this isn’t only a political issue – it’s a religious one as well. Jewish tradition, like all religions has a great deal to say about “creating the world we all want to see.” Indeed, one of the most important functions of religion is to assert that another world, a better world is possible – and to help us live our lives in such a way that we may ultimately bring it about.

I would suggest that there is a significant tradition of abolitionist thinking in Judaism. The sabbatical and Jubilee years are perhaps the most prime examples, both of which are commandments that come directly from the Torah. The Sabbatical (or “Shemitah”) year is commanded to be observed every seven years, when all debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings are open to the commons and basic staples such as food storage and perennial harvests are freely redistributed and made accessible to all. On the Jubilee (the “Yovel”) year, which comes every fiftieth year, all Israelites who had been enslaved during the previous forty nine years are granted their freedom and any properties purchased during that time are returned to their original owners.

There’s been a great deal of rabbinical commentary over the centuries that attempt to explain how something so economically and socially radical could possibly be have been observed. Whether or not this ever was the case, it’s important to note that these commandments are still read, studied and debated in our tradition’s most sacred text. Moreover, they continue to have political impact centuries after they were written. The Liberty Bell, which became the central symbol of the original American abolitionist movement contains the Biblical commandment for the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” The Jubilee also inspired the debt forgiveness initiative known as Jubilee 2000, which sought to cancel the crippling debts that plague the poorest nations in our world.

I would claim that Shabbat is at heart an abolitionist concept as well. When you think about it, the notion to cease from creative work every seventh day is an exceedingly radical concept. Shabbat essentially commands us to take one day every week to leave the world as we know it and experience the world as it should be. According to traditional liturgy, Shabbat is a day in which there is no “tzarah, ve’yagon, va’anacha” – “distress, pain or mourning.” On the seventh day, the sages teach us, we get to experience a taste of “Olam Ha’ba” – the “world to come.”

In other words, Shabbat is not merely a day of personal rest and replenishment. It’s a day in which we pause from our efforts to change the world so that we may dwell in the world we are praying and working and struggling for: the world as it should be. And when Shabbat ends hopefully we are that much more inspired to make that world a reality.

Just as Shabbat is much more than a long litany of prohibitions, abolitionism is so much more than dismantling of oppressive institutions. In the words of Mariame Kaba, “You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want. The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”

I’d like to end now with my new version of Psalm 92 – the Song for the Day of Shabbat – to give you a sense of how we might understand these values in spiritual context. We’ve already used this Psalm several times at Tzedek Chicago Shabbat services. I offer it to you now in honor of this Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778:

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.
They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.
Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.
See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.
So tonight we raise the cup;
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

May this be a new year in which we find the strength to affirm that another world is possible. May that vision keep us going – and may it inspire us to do what we must to make it so.

Amen.