I’m sure many have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why on earth the government of Israel and so many staunch Zionists are just fine with the election of Donald Trump – the darling of the anti-Semitic alt-right. The answer however, is really pretty straightforward: this is nothing new. Zionism has had a cozy, if somewhat Faustian relationship with anti-Semitism since its very origins.
The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl never made a secret of his belief that his new movement would have to depend upon anti-Semitism and anti-Semites in order to create a Jewish state. In his pamphlet, “The Jewish State,” he suggested raising money for the effort by means of a “direct subscription,” adding that “not only poor Jews but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them would subscribe a small amount to this fund.”
In his diary, he was even blunter:
The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.
True to form, in 1903 Herzl met with the Russian minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, an infamous anti-Semite who encouraged the Kishinev pogroms that very same year. Plehve’s reply: as long as the Zionists encouraged emigration of Jews from Russia, the Russian authorities would not disturb them.
This Zionist strategy was also central to the diplomatic process that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour famously announced that his government “view(ed) with favor the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Although Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well-known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people. When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”
In this regard, it is worth noting that the sole Jewish member of British government, Edwin Montagu, strongly objected to the Balfour Declaration, submitting a memorandum to the British cabinet in August 1917 that resonates with haunting prescience today:
I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for Anti-Semites in every country in the world…When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants…
When the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world’s Ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine.
The most troubling example of Zionist association with anti-Semitism occurred in 1933, when the Jewish Agency struck a deal with the Nazis’ Economic Ministry known as the Ha’avrah (Transfer) agreement. Breaking the international Jewish boycott, the Zionist movement negotiated with Nazi Germany in order to facilitate the transfer of German Jews and their property to Palestine.
In an essay for Yad Vashem’s Shoah Resource Center, Israeli historian Y’faat Weiss pointed out that the Nazi regime’s participation in the agreement was motivated both by a fear of the boycott and its desire to rid Germany of its Jews. While it is clear that this deal occurred in the context of very real persecution, history has not been kind to the legacy of the Ha’avrah agreement. As Weiss herself noted:
In retrospect, and in view of what we know about the annihilation of European Jewry, these relations between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany seem especially problematic.
It is not difficult to understand why, on a practical level, the Zionist movement would find a perverse kind of common cause with anti-Semitic regimes. As a form of ethnic nationalism, Zionism has always been dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic majority of Jews in the land. It makes sense that Zionists have been willing to deal with nations that were more than happy to rid themselves of their Jews in order that they maintain their own national ethnic homogeneity.
But it has been a Faustian bargain. From its very origins, Zionism has necessarily fed off the existence of anti-Semites to justify the need for a Jewish state. Even more tragically, as Edwin Montagu predicted, Jewish ethnic nationalism did indeed result in a “population in Palestine driving out its inhabitants.”
Fast-forward to present day and the rise of an alt-right movement promoting a new form of white ethnic nationalism that takes its cue from Israel. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer claims he doesn’t hate Jews, but in fact admires them. He openly says he merely wants for “his people” what Zionism offers the Jewish people. But of course, Spencer’s “genteel white supremacy” is nothing but a fig leaf for the age old desire of anti-semites to create Jew-free nations.
As journalist Betsy Woodruff correctly observed in the Daily Beast:
White supremacists, alt-right leaders argue, think white people are the best race. The alt-right doesn’t necessarily think that, they say; instead, they say they just want white people to have their own homeland.
With no Jews.
(Alt-right leader Richard) Spencer in particular fixates on the homeland idea.
The alt-right needs to aspire to something, even if that dream won’t come true in his lifetime—and that means they should aim to build an ethno-state for just whites. And Spencer made it clear that white-only means Jews aren’t invited. They have their own identity, and it isn’t white-slash-European, and that’s that.
“Jews are Jews,” he said.
As troubling as this all may sound, political Zionism has made another, even darker sort of Faustian bargain – namely with Christian Millenarians and End-of-Days extremists. In the era of Trump, this is a relationship that should concern us deeply.
I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.
Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.
Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.
Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.
This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.
Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.
Today, the JNF website tells us:
This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.
Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.
According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.
So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.
Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.
As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”
This is how we explain this particular core value:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.
However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”
It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.
Sunday, July 17: We spent most of our day in the Palestinian village of Silwan, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Like Hebron, Silwan is being targeted by extremist settlers who are moving into the heart of their community, displacing residents in the process.
Our visit began at the Ir David (“City of David”) archaeological park. I first visited Ir David in the early 1980s, when it was a relatively small site where civilians could come and sift through the dirt for pot shards. Today, Ir David is nothing short of an archaeological Disneyland – and this is not an exaggeration.
As we approached, we walked alongside a slick mural with a David’s Harp mascot. The site itself was massive and felt like a state of the art theme park, packed with families and schoolchildren. Near the ticket booth, we could hear harp music softly playing in the background. On the surface at least, it would appear that this is a place for Israelis of all ages to have fun making Biblical history come alive. But there is a seriously darker side to the history of Ir David.
Ir David is run by Elad, a private settler association that seeks to claim land and create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem. Elad’s founder is David Be’eri, a former deputy commander of an Israeli special forces unit. After starting Elad in 1986, Be’eri targeted his first home in Silwan: pretending to be a tour guide, he collected information about the the owners of the house (the family of Musa El Abassi). He then learned that some members of the Abassi family were living abroad – which meant the property could be confiscated under Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950 (which allowed Israelis to move into homes vacated when Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 Nakba).
Our host was longtime Silwan leader/activist Zuheir Elrajabi. After lunch in the Al Bustan neighborhood, Zuheir took us on a short tour along Silwan’s narrow winding streets. Because of its proximity to Ir David, Al Bustan is a prime target for Elad; residents there have been living in real fear over the “legal” status of their land and property rights. Current plans for the area call for the demolition of 88 homes inhabited by 114 families (1,123 individuals) in order to construct a “King David’s Garden.”
We then walked up to Batan al-Hawa, another Silwan neighborhood targeted area by extremist Jewish settlers. This effort has been organized by Ateret Cohanim, an organization seeking to create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. (Take a close look at the pic below and see if you can spot the home occupied by Jewish settlers):
In some cases, families are evicted for adding on to their homes without a building permit (which are almost never issued to Palestinians). In other cases, Ateret Cohanim does research to see if any of the homes or buildings were owned by Jews prior to 1948; if so, they use legal means to “reclaim” Jewish ownership. (Perversely ironic considering the Absentee Property Law of 1950 invoked in Al Bustan argues exactly the opposite: that Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948 forfeit the right to return to their homes).
Zuheir took us through the increasingly narrow streets of Batan al-Hawa, taking time to show one such home, a building with several units. All have been taken over by Jewish families except for one. The new Jewish residents have put a large metal door in the main entrance so the Palestinian family must ask the Jewish residents to open the door for them each time they need to enter or exit. The small number of settlers hire armed security guards to accompany them wherever they go – during the course of the day it was impossible to ignore these men with their wearing bullet proof vests walking up and down the streets of Silwan.
The situation at another home was even more dismal. The original owners, the Abu Nab family, had lived in the building since 1948, after their family was expelled from their home in present day West Jerusalem. Last year, it was ruled that Jewish settlers could take over the building because it was discovered that a Yemenite Jewish family owned it in the 19th century. As Zuheir showed us the front of the home, a large armored van pulled up and two security guards came around. An ultra-orthodox woman holding a baby with a toddler at her side got quickly out the van and walked quickly into the home with the guards following close by.
Most of the Abu Nab family have left the home except for a remnant that lives in a small structure at the rear of the building. Since that time, the settler family has thrown garbage down on and around their home and knocked their satellite dish off of their roof. In order to enter and exit the building, they must go up a small ladder in the rear of a home two houses away (first pic below), cross the roof of the home next door, then go down a long ladder to the ground where their small house is located (second pic below).
CJNV and All That’s Left had been asked to help the the Abu Nab family and their neighbors to clean up the area around their home – so for the rest of the afternoon we worked with them to haul garbage out of the site under the watchful eyes of the settlers and their security guards. In the clip below, taken and narrated by CJNV staff Shlomo Roth, you’ll get a good idea of how we spent our afternoon:
That evening, we engaged in another form of “Existence is Resistance.” In conversations with Zuheir and other leaders in Silwan, it was determined that we should take the opportunity of our visit to help the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood organize a block party in front of the Abu Nab home. The community felt that a party would be just the thing, given the day to day stress of eviction and dispossession constantly hanging over their heads. It would also give the children of the neighborhood the opportunity to run free and play – something they rarely do because of the narrow streets and intimidating presence of the armed security guards.
So while many of us were helping clean up the Abu Nab home, others from our group helped decorate the street with balloon and signs, chairs and tables. Then, as evening fell, our revels began. (See clip at the top of the post and below):
I think many in our delegation would agree that the Batan al-Hawa block party was one of the emotional high points of a trip that had many such moments. On the one hand it felt like a normal everyday party with children running, laughing and dancing, plenty of food, great music blasting. But during it all I was keenly aware that this “normal” party was nothing of the sort – it was something that rarely, if ever occurs in the oppressed environs of Silwan. Given the injustice inflicted every day on the residents of Silwan, even an ordinary party is itself a form of civil resistance.
About halfway through the party, we saw three men hauling something large wending their way through the crowd. As they got closer I could see it was the broken-off satellite dish we had hauled up out of the garbage piled next to the Abu Nab home. We placed it up against a wall at the end of the block. The dish was now a piece of art. Festively painted with a green and yellow peace sign, it bore the message: “Welcome to Batan al-Hawa”- “We Love Silwan.”
Looking up from the barley harvest
they heard the sounds, like the blaring of trumpets
echoing across the hills.
Thick smoke rose up like smoke from a kiln
and then they saw the thunder,
fire sparking and flashing
as mortar shells fell from the sky.
The orders came in:
we have set bounds for the village
take care not to cross it
lest you be put to death.
They were sent out on the third day
and headed east into the hills
to the place where the Moabites once lived.
While back home, the unharvested barley
scattered like dry grass in the wind
and homes toppled into piles of stone.
Those were the days
the judges ceased to judge.
Is Zionism “settler colonialism?” It’s an important question that is increasingly invoked in public debates over Israel/Palestine – and BDS in particular.
While I personally do believe Israel to be a settler colonial state, I think it’s critical to understand what we mean when we use this term, what it means in the context of Israel/Palestine, and its implications for the wider struggle against systems of oppression in the US and throughout the world.
Let’s start with the definition itself. Many people use the term “settler colonialism” and “colonialism” interchangeably, but they are not in fact the same thing. Colonialism is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker peoples or areas.” Historically speaking, it generally refers to specific European imperial powers during a period that lasted from the 16th to mid-20th centuries.
“Settler colonialism,” is a different concept, as Professor of Anthropology Tate A. LeFevre explains:
Though often conflated with colonialism more generally, settler colonialism is a distinct imperial formation. Both colonialism and settler colonialism are premised on exogenous domination, but only settler colonialism seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers (usually from the colonial metropole). This new society needs land, and so settler colonialism depends primarily on access to territory. Britain, for example, implemented the doctrine of “terra nullius” (“land belonging to no one”) to claim sovereignty over Australia. The entire continent was thereby declared legally uninhabited, despite millennia of Aboriginal occupation.
In other words, while colonialism typically refers to events, settler-colonialism is viewed as an ongoing process. Professor LeFevre puts it this way: “Settler colonialism is premised on occupation and the elimination of the native population, while colonialism is primarily about conquest.”
Given this definition, the claim that Zionism is a form of settler colonialism it is not at all inappropriate and certainly not anti-Semitic (as some of the more vociferous Israel advocates will often claim).
There is, for instance, a striking similarity between the British colonial concept of “terra nullius” and the early Zionist slogan, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” This is not say that Zionists viewed the land as literally empty – they most certainly recognized the existence of an Arab population in Palestine. It does mean, however, that they did not always factor its indigenous inhabitants into their equations – and when they did, it was invariably as a problem to be dealt with.
The father of modern Zionism made this clear in his diary when he wrote of Palestinian Arabs:
We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries whilst denying it any employment in our own country.
David Ben-Gurion expressed similar intentions in a 1937 letter to his son Amos (who was critical of his father’s intention to support the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan):
My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning…
The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.
We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy– agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defense force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.
Thanks to Israeli historians such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Ilan Pappe, we now know that the creation of Israel was accomplished through “some other means.” More recently, journalist Avi Shavit recently made reference to this ignoble history in his book, “My Promised Land.” The most chilling chapter (which was reprinted in the New Yorker magazine) describes in detail the depopulation of the Palestinian village of Lydda.
Even more chilling are Shavit’s musings on the meaning of this tragic event:
Looking straight ahead at Lydda, I wonder if peace is possible. Our side is clear: we had to come into the Lydda Valley and we had to take the Lydda Valley. There is no other home for us, and there was no other way. But the Arabs’ side, the Palestinian side, is equally clear: they cannot forget Lydda and they cannot forgive us for Lydda. You can argue that it is not the occupation of 1967 that is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the tragedy of 1948. It’s not only the settlements that are an obstacle to peace but the Palestinians’ yearning to return, one way or another, to Lydda and to dozens of other towns and villages that vanished during one cataclysmic year. But the Jewish State cannot let them return.
Many who reject the “Zionism as Settler Colonialism” label often argue that this claim ignores the historic and Biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land – and that Jews are its “true indigenous people” who have been longing for a return and restoration to their ancient homeland for centuries.
Leaving aside the use of a profoundly ahistorical document such as the Bible as justification for the establishment for a modern Jewish nation state, let’s look more closely at the Zionist claim of Jewish indigeneity to the land.
It is certainly true following the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE and the spread of the Jewish people throughout the diaspora, Jewish tradition continued to maintain an important attachment to the land of Israel. Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”) is a central subject in many sacred Jewish texts and numerous traditional Jewish prayers express a longing for a return of the Jewish people to the land. It is also true that there have been small Jewish communities in historic Palestine throughout the ages and that pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael was considered to be a mitzvah (“or sacred commandment”.)
However, it is important to note that the Jewish attachment to this land has traditionally been expressed as an inherently religious connection. From its very beginnings, Judaism has spiritualized the concept of the land. Moreover, throughout the centuries, rabbinical authorities strictly prohibited an en masse return to the land in order to establish a Third Jewish Commonwealth. Such an act was viewed as an anathema – a profane forcing of God’s hand. The restoration of the Jewish People to the land would only occur with the coming of the Messiah and the onset of the Messianic Era.
It is against this context that we must understand Zionism as a modern political movement, arising in the 19th century as an explicit rejection of Jewish tradition. While Judaism was a diaspora-based religion that taught God could be found anywhere in the world, Zionism preached “shlilat hagalut” (“negation of the diaspora”), advocating for a literal return to the land in order to establish a modern Jewish nation state. Influenced by the European nationalisms of its day, Zionism sought to create a new kind of Judaism and indeed, a new kind of Jew.
This radical revisioning of Jewish life and culture in many ways represents the exact opposite of indigeneity. Indigenous peoples by definition maintain unique cultural and linguistic practices distinctive to their presence in a particular land. Zionism created a completely new Hebraic Jewish culture – one that was deeply influenced by a European Ashkenazic ethos and transplanted into the Middle East. To be clear: this is not to say that Jews have no connection to this land and no right to live there, only that the claim of Jewish indigeneity is ideological, rather than factual – and that this claim has had a devastating impact on the actual indigenous people of this land.
Other critics of the settler colonialist label point out that there is no such thing as a discrete “Zionism;” that this movement was historically made up of many different Zionisms, not all of which shared the same political goals. There were, for instance, cultural Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am who did not share Herzl’s desire of a Jewish political state but rather advocated for a gradual colonization of Palestine that would make it the center of a Jewish cultural renaissance. There also Zionists such as Judah Magnes and Hannah Arendt, who believed in the creation of a bi-national Jewish/Arab state in Palestine.
These variants of Zionism represent an important fact of history. But it is also true that they are precisely that: part of the historical past. If Magnes or Arendt were living today, they would surely be considered “anti-Zionist”. In the end, the form of Zionism that ultimately triumphed was the political Zionism advocated by those who sought to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine. And it was this Zionism that aimed to solve the problem of Palestine’s indigenous population “through some other means” – that is, by means of settler colonialism.
In one of the most comprehensive treatments I’ve yet read on this subject, Bennett Muraskin writes:
Zionism is described by its supporters as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, but it must be recognized that until the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the land it sought to liberate had a minority of Jews, consisting mainly of recent Europeans immigrants living under the protection of an imperial power. When the British turned against the Jewish colony, the Zionists succeeded in liberating themselves, but in the war it fought with the Palestinian Arabs and Arab armies, the Zionists dispossessed the native population.
In this sense, Israel is a colonial settler state.
Muraskin, however, then goes on to list the ways that make Israel different from other settler colonial states. His intention, I assume, is to leave open the possibility that it somehow isn’t. This equivocal attitude is obvious from the outset – Muraskin’s article is actually entitled “Is Israel a Colonial Settler State? Perhaps but with Lots of Provisos.”
In the end, however, I believe these “provisos” only demonstrate that Zionism represents but one form of settler colonialism. One obvious difference is that Israel was created by what began as a small movement, not an existing colonial power such as Great Britain, France or Belgium. However it is also true that Israel could never have been created without the help of great world powers (Britain and later the US) who supported the creation of the Jewish state because it advanced their own imperial agendas. James Baldwin put it very aptly in 1979: he state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests.”
In the end, this insight explains why the debate over this term is more than just academic or semantical. Israel’s oppressive policies against the Palestinians do not exist in a vacuum. They are but part of a larger hegemonic system of white supremacy and institutionalized racism that exists in the US and throughout the world.
As Professor LeFevre writes, “Settler colonialism does not really ever ‘end.’” Perhaps the first step in that direction is to call it out for what it really and truly is.
Like you, I’ve been profoundly horrified by the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s ongoing civil war. The reports and images and statistics continue to roll out every day and the sheer level of human displacement is simply staggering to contemplate. Since 2011, over half of that country’s entire population has been uprooted. At present, there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another 7 million have been internally displaced. Experts tell us we are currently witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our generation.
The tragic reality of forced migration has been brought home to us dramatically this past summer – but of course, this crisis did not just begin this year and Syria is not the only country in the region affected by this refugee crisis. Scores are also fleeing civil war and violence from countries such as Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people from these countries tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. According the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea – and more than 2,500 died.
And of course this issue is not just limited to the Middle East. It extends to places such as Latin and Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa as well – and it would be not at all be an exaggeration to suggest that the crisis of forced human migration is reaching epidemic proportions. Just this past June, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees issued a report that concluded that “wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere.”
It is all too easy to numb ourselves to reports such as these – or to simply throw up our hands and chalk it up to the way of the world. But if Yom Kippur is to mean anything, I would suggest it demands that we stand down our overwhelm. To investigate honestly why this kind of human dislocation exists in our world and openly face the ways we are complicit in causing it. And perhaps most importantly to ask: if we are indeed complicit in this crisis, what is our responsibility toward ending it?
There is ample evidence that we as Americans, are deeply complicit in the refugee crises in the Middle East. After all, the US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing – and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
In Iraq, our decade-long war and occupation resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and greatly weakened the government. This in turn created a power vacuum that brought al-Qaeda into the country and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have now been displaced because of ISIS.
In Afghanistan, the US occupation continues and we are war escalating the war there, in spite of President Obama’s insistence that it would end by 2014. According to the UN, there are 2.6 million refugees coming out of Afghanistan.
In Libya, the US-led NATO bombing destroyed Qaddafi’s government. At the time, then Secretary of State Clinton joked to a news reporter, “We came, we saw, he died.” Shortly after Libya was wracked with chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on rickety smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.
In Yemen, a coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, has been bombarding Yemen for half a year now, causing the deaths of over 4,500 people. We continue to support this coalition, despite the fact that human rights organizations are accusing it of war crimes that include the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says, there are now over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.
And the US is not free of responsibility for the crisis in Syria either. For years now, we have been meddling in that civil war, providing weapons to rebels fighting Assad’s government. But since the rise of ISIS the US has backed away from toppling his regime – and there are now reports that the US and Assad have even reached “an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”
Despite our role in the Syrian civil war, our government is taking in relatively few refugees from that country. Just last Monday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that the US would increase the number of refugees to 100,000 by 2017, saying “This step is in the keeping with America’s best tradition as land of second chances and a beacon of hope.” In reality, however, this number is still a drop in the bucket relative to the dire need – and only an eighth of the number that Germany has pledged to take in this year.
Kerry’s comment, of course, expresses a central aspect of the American mythos – but in truth it is one that flies in the face of history. While we like to think of ourselves “as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” these words mask a darker reality: it is a hope that only exists for some – and it has largely been created at the expense of others. Like many empires before us, our nation was established – upon the systemic dislocation of people who are not included in our “dream.”
If we are to own up to our culpability in today’s crises of forced human migration, we must ultimately reckon with reality behind the very founding of our country. The dark truth is that our country’s birth is inextricably linked to the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples this land. It was, moreover, built upon the backs of slaves who were forcibly removed from their homes and brought to this country in chains. It is, indeed, a history we have yet to collectively own up to as a nation. We have not atoned for this legacy of human dislocation. On the contrary, we continue to rationalize it away behind the myths of American exceptionalism: a dream of hope and opportunity for all.
And there’s no getting around it: those who are not included in this “dream” – the dislocated ones, if you will – are invariably people of color. Whether we’re talking about Native Americans and African Americans, the Latino migrants we imprison and deport, or the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani or Yemini refugees of the Middle East. If we are going to reckon with this legacy, we cannot and must not avoid the context of racism that has fueled and perpetuated it.
As a Jew, of course, I think a great deal about our legacy of dislocation. To be sure, for most of our history we have been a migrating people. Our most sacred mythic history describes our ancestors’ travels across the borders of the Ancient Near East and the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. And in a very real sense, our sense of purpose has been honored by our migrations throughout the diaspora – yes, too often forcibly, but always with a sense of spiritual purpose. For centuries, to be a Jew meant to be part of a global peoplehood that located divinity anywhere our travels would take us.
Our sacred tradition demands that we show solidarity with those who wander in search of a home. The most oft-repeated commandment in the Torah, in fact, is the injunction against oppressing the stranger because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And given our history, it’s natural that we should find empathy and common cause with the displaced and uprooted.
However, I do fear that in this day and age of unprecedented Jewish success – and dare I say, Jewish privilege – we are fast losing sight of this sacred imperative. One of my most important teachers in this regard is the writer James Baldwin, who was an unsparingly observer of the race politics in America. In one particularly searing essay, which he wrote in 1967, Baldwin addressed the issue of Jewish “whiteness” and privilege in America. It still resonates painfully to read it today:
It is galling to be told by a Jew whom you know to be exploiting you that he cannot possibly be doing what you know he is doing because he is a Jew. It is bitter to watch the Jewish storekeeper locking up his store for the night, and going home. Going, with your money in his pocket, to a clean neighborhood, miles from you, which you will not be allowed to enter. Nor can it help the relationship between most Negroes and most Jews when part of this money is donated to civil rights. In the light of what is now known as the white backlash, this money can be looked on as conscience money merely, as money given to keep the Negro happy in his place, and out of white neighborhoods.
One does not wish, in short, to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering. It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is…
For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised, here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.
In other essays, Baldwin referred to white immigrant success in America as “the price of the ticket” – in other words, the price for Jewish acceptance into white America was the betrayal of the most sacred aspects of our spiritual and historical legacy. We, who were once oppressed wanderers ourselves, have now found a home in America. But in so doing we have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic oppression and dislocation of others.
On Rosh Hashanah I talked about another kind of Jewish deal called Constantinian Judaism – or the fusing of Judaism and state power. And to be sure, if we are to talk about our culpability this Yom Kippur in the crime of forced migration, we cannot avoid reckoning with the devastating impact the establishment of the state of Israel has had on that land’s indigenous people – the Palestinian people.
According to Zionist mythos, the Jewish “return” to land was essentially a “liberation movement.” After years of migration through the diaspora, the Jewish people can finally at long last come home – to be, as the national anthem would have it, “a free people in their own land.”
The use of the term “liberation” movement, of course is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to term Zionism as a settler colonial project with the goal of creating an ethnically Jewish state in a land that already populated by another people. By definition the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine posed an obstacle to the creation of a Jewish state. In order to fulfill its mandate as a political Jewish nation, Israel has had to necessarily view Palestinians as a problem to somehow be dealt with.
Put simply, the impact of Jewish nation-statism on the Palestinian people has been devastating. The establishment of Israel – a nation designed to end our Jewish wanderings – was achieved through the forced dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, which were either destroyed completely or occupied by Jewish inhabitants.
In turn, it created what is now the largest single refugee group in the world and our longest running refugee crisis. Millions of Palestinians now live in their own diaspora, forbidden to return to their homes or even set foot in their homeland. Two and a half million live under military occupation in the West Bank where their freedom of movement is drastically curtailed within an extensive regime of checkpoints and heavily militarized border fences. And nearly two million live in Gaza, most of them refugees, literally trapped in an open-air prison where their freedom of movement is denied completely.
This, then, is our complicity – as Americans, as Jews. And so I would suggest, this Yom Kippur, it is our sacred responsibility to openly confess our culpability in this process of uprooting human beings from their homes so that we might find safety, security and privilege in ours. But when then? Is our confession merely an exercise in feeling bad about ourselves, in self-flagellation? As Jay said to us in his sermon last night, “Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?”
According to Jewish law, the first step in teshuvah is simply recognizing that a wrong has been committed and confessing openly to it. This in and of itself is no small thing. I daresay with all of the media attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, there is precious little, if any, discussion of the ways our nation might be complicit in creating it. And here at home, we are far from a true reckoning over the ways our white supremacist legacy has dislocated Native Americans and people of color in our own country. And needless to say, the Jewish community continually rationalizes away the truth of Israel’s ongoing injustice toward the Palestinian people.
So yes, before we can truly atone, we must first identify the true nature of our wrongdoings and own them – as a community – openly and together. The next step is to make amends – to engage in a process of reparations to effect real transformation and change. But again, the very prospect of this kind of communal transformation feels too overwhelming , too messianic to even contemplate. How do we even begin to collectively repair wrongs of such a magnitude?
I believe the answer, as ever, is very basic. We begin by joining together, by building coalitions, by creating movements. We know that this kind of organizing has the power to effect very real socio-political change in our world. We have seen it happen in countries such as South Africa and Ireland and we’ve seen it here at home – where Chicago became the first city in the country to offer monetary reparations to citizens who were tortured by the police. In this, as in the aforementioned examples, the only way reparations and restorative justice was achieved was by creating grassroots coalitions that leveraged people power to shift political power.
And that is why we’ve prominently identified “solidarity” as one of our congregation’s six core values:
Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
How do we effect collective atonement? By realizing that we are not in this alone. By finding common cause with others and marching forward. It is not simple or easy work. It can be discouraging and depleting. It does not always bear fruit right away and it often feels as if we experience more defeats than successes along the way. But like so many, I believe we have no choice but to continue the struggle. And I am eager and excited to begin to create new relationships, to participate as a Jewish voice in growing coalitions, with the myriad of those who share our values. I can’t help but believe these connections will ultimately reveal our true strength.
I’d like to end now with a prayer – I offer it on behalf of refugees and migrants, on behalf of who have been forced to wander in search of a home:
Ruach Kol Chai – Spirit of All that Lives:
Help us. Help us to uphold the values that are so central to who we are: human beings created in the image of God. Help us to find compassion in our hearts and justice in our deeds for all who seek freedom and a better life. May we find the strength to protect and plead the cause of the dislocated and uprooted, the migrant and the refugee.
Guide us. Guide us toward one law. One justice. One human standard of behavior toward all. Move us away from the equivocation that honors the divine image in some but not in others. Let us forever affirm that the justice we purport to hold dear is nothing but a sham if it does not uphold basic human dignity for all who dwell in our midst.
Forgive us. Forgive us for the inhumane manner that in which we too often treat the other. We know, or should, that when it comes to crimes against humanity, some of us may be guilty, but all of us are responsible. Grant us atonement for the misdeeds of exclusion we invariably commit against the most vulnerable members of society: the uprooted and unwanted, the unhoused, the uninsured, the undocumented.
Strengthen us. Strengthen us to find the wherewithal to shine your light into the dark places of our world. Give us ability to uncover those who are hidden from view, locked away, forgotten. Let us never forget that nothing is hidden and no one lost from before you. Embolden us in the knowledge that no one human soul is disposable or replaceable; that we can never, try as we might, uproot another from before your sight.
Remind us. Remind us of our duty to create a just society right here, right now, in our day. Give us the vision of purpose to guard against the complacency of the comfortable – and the resolve in knowing that we cannot put off the cause of justice and freedom for another day. Remind us that the time is now. Now is the moment to create your kingdom here on earth.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be your will. And may it be ours.
And let us say,