Category Archives: Nakba

On Avodah and Anna Rajagopal: Is there a place for anti-Zionist Jews in our community?

Photo Credit: Very Good Light

The Jewish communal war on its own continues.

Last week, I was saddened to read that Anna Rajagopal (they/her), a Jewish activist and senior at Rice University, had been fired by Avodah: Jewish Service Corps after having just been hired as a Social Media Assistant. Their action followed – and seemed to be a result of – a relentless online campaign by the astroturf organization, StopAntisemitism.org, who demonized Anna as a “rabid antisemite” and urged its followers to deluge Avodah with demands to fire them.

After firing Anna, Avodah understandably received strong criticism from progressive Jewish quarters. In response, the organization then released its own statement on Twitter, insisting that they “did not and do not make decisions in response to actions or demands of any external group and … did not and do not make personnel decisions based on an individual’s politics related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Their statement also purported to stand in solidarity with Anna in the face of the horrid online attacks against them:

We’re angry & disgusted to witness this individual be subjected to vile racism, misogyny & even questioning of their Judaism. We condemn the demonizing & disparaging of anyone-especially the targeting Jews of Color who experience this type of hate & questioning regularly. We take seriously our commitment to Jewish pluralism and continue to work to ensure a respectful community for all.

Avodah’s claim that they did not fire Anna because of their views was contradicted in a leaked email from Avodah CEO Cheryl Cook, who wrote to a supporter, “We don’t believe (Anna’s) publicly-shared values align with ours, and we are parting ways.” Factoring in the fact that Cook is currently running for political office in Brooklyn, it seems fairly clear that Avodah did indeed “make a decision based on an individual’s politics on Israel/Palestine” – and that they did indeed capitulate to “the demands of an outside group.”

The issue in question centered on Anna’s use of strong, often scathing rhetoric as they criticized Israel and Zionism on social media. In this regard, their firing was similar to an incident that occurred almost exactly a year ago, when a Hebrew school teacher was fired from a Reform synagogue in Westchester, NY for publicly criticizing Israel’s “settler colonial violence” and referring to themself as an anti-Zionist. This most recent instance was particularly troubling, however, because Avodah is an Jewish institution whose primary focus is social justice.

Even more egregiously, the organization has now handed a victory to a new, privately-funded movement that seeks to promote a distinctly Islamophobic, anti-Palestinian narrative on antisemitism. Indeed, while StopAntisemitism.com describes itself on its website as a “grassroots watchdog organization,” it does not have non-profit status or a board of directors – and the source of its funding is exceedingly opaque. We do know that StopAntisemitism.com is a front project for Liora Rez, a right-wing Jewish activist and former social media influencer. Though her website claims SA.com was born “in response to increasing antisemitic violence and sentiment across the United States” her “Antisemite of the Week” list actually contains very few neo-Nazis or white nationalists. It is filled almost exclusively with Muslims, Palestinians and Palestinian solidarity activists – as well as popular celebrities such as Dua Lipa and Trevor Noah and, naturally, Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

As with previous attacks on individuals, StopAntisemitism.com’s campaign against Anna was exceedingly vile, giving rise to a torrent of toxic Twitter attacks questioning their status as a Jew (they are a convert to Judaism) as well as racist comments targeting them as a Jew of color. (Many of these horrid slurs still remain on Avodah’s comment board and Twitter feed.) This entire ordeal has understandably taken a huge emotional toll on Anna, who tweeted last Friday, “This week has been the most unimaginable hell possible. Being 21 years old and the incessant target of both right-wing extremists as well as institutional, racist abuse at the hands of grown adults…”

Anna’s firing is particularly painful when you consider just a few days earlier, Avodah publicly celebrated them thus: “We’ve got a new member of #TeamAvodah… Join us in welcoming Anna as our social media assistant! They’re joining us from Houston & have a background in digital literacy and advocacy, perfect for their role’s focus on racial justice and our Jews of Color Bayit.” By subsequently capitulating to StopAntisemitism.com’s toxic campaign, however, Avodah has effectively validated the very worst prejudices in our community against Jews of color and Jews by choice.

In some ways this episode illuminates the razor thin tightrope that many liberal Jewish organizations are walking as they reach out to younger generations of Jews who don’t toe the Jewish communal party line on Israel/Palestine. It’s worth noting that even as Avodah seeks to position itself on the Jewish vanguard of social justice, it also receives funding from the Schusterman Family Philanthropies, which also funds die-hard Zionist projects such as Birthright Israel and the Israel on Campus Coalition. 

Avodah’s precarious position was dramatically underscored last year when 274 program participants and alumni sent a letter to Avodah leadership, calling on the organization to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, commit to Nakba education, support bills that would block or restrict military aid to Israel and end “official and unofficial gag rules that prevent corps members and staff from speaking freely about their support for BDS and Palestinian liberation.” To date, however, the organization has chosen not to take a public stand on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

In the end, Avodah’s action just further reinforces the line that there is no simply place for Jewish anti-Zionists like Anna Rajagopal in the Jewish institutional world. I’ve personally talked with several young people who have lost their jobs in the Jewish community in similar ways to Anna – and a number of others who feel they must stifle their moral/political convictions for fear of being fired. I truly believe these are among our brightest, critically thinking, and devoted members of our community – and that by excluding them, the Jewish communal establishment is only further hastening its irrelevance to the next generation of Jews.

As Rabbi Amy Bardack wrote in a powerful article for eJewishPhilanthropy.com earlier this year:

Our institutions have to wrestle with the reality that increasing numbers of passionate Jews do not support the State of Israel. Is it in our best long-term interest to be welcoming to everyone but them? I propose that we spend less time labeling all anti-Zionist Jews as antisemitic, and more time figuring out how to be truly inclusive. 

I stand with Anna Rajgopal and all of the young anti-Zionist Jews who are, whether the Jewish establishment gatekeepers like it or not, the future of our community.

Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Nakba: Jewish Religious Responses

“I Don’t Think I Can Celebrate this Holiday Anymore.”

As a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I remember Yom Ha’atzmaut as the one day every year in which our city’s Jewish community would turn out en masse in celebration. I have vivid memories of our marching through the sidewalks of West LA, waving our Israeli flags, ending with a picnic at Rancho Park. As in many US cities, Yom Ha’atzmaut was the  “go-to” day for expressing our Jewish communal pride.

In addition to this annual event, I also remember regularly celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious festival on the Jewish holiday calendar. Every year, usually on the closest Shabbat to May 15, our Reform Temple would acknowledge the occasion with special prayers and songs – including the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. In short, Yom Ha’atzmaut was not only an occasion to express our Jewish communal solidarity with the state of Israel – it was a day we invested with sacred meaning. When I became a rabbi many years later, I accepted it as common practice to acknowledge Yom Ha’atzmaut in this manner.

Over the years, however, as my own relationship to Israel and Zionism changed, I found the religious observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut increasingly problematic, even painful. In a 2009 blog post, I shared my struggle publicly:

I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.

By this point I had come to believe that Yom Ha’atzmaut was a paradigmatic of a deeper moral problem: that the creation of a Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that was in fact still ongoing. I could no longer regard it as something to celebrate, let alone invest with religious meaning.

“May Our Eyes See the Complete Redemption of Israel”

The creation of a Jewish religious holiday by government legislation is, needless to say, unprecedented in Jewish history. Its origins date back to the period immediately following Israel’s birth, when the Knesset officially established the 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar1 as its permanent date. At the time, Knesset members were unanimous that this holiday should have “traditional Jewish significance” and the new government subsequently created a committee to consult with Israel’s new Chief Rabbis in order to determine the precise nature of its religious observance.2 In a subsequent letter to their Rabbinate council, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel framed the day as a celebration of divine deliverance and redemption:

The fundamental turning point in God’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel.3

Over the next few months, Israeli religious authorities held extensive debates over how the new holiday should be acknowledged liturgically. Many of these questions focused on the recitation of Hallel – a series of Psalms of praise traditionally added to the morning worship service for festivals. The first formal Jewish liturgy developed specifically for Yom Ha’atzmaut was a new version of  Al Hanisim (“For the Miracles”), a traditional prayer recited on the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah praising God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies. While it was not approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and did not gain universal acceptance upon its introduction, the practice of reciting Al Hanisim on Yom Ha’atzmaut has since grown in popularity and the prayer has appeared in many different forms throughout the decades.

The first Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut was written in 1949 by Biblical and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Ezra Zion Melamed and later published by the Kibbutz Hadati (the Religious Kibbutz Movement):

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this season.

You, O God, awakened the heart of our fathers to return to the mountain of Your inheritance, to settle there and to rebuild it from the ruins, and its land. And when an evil regime stood over us and shut the gates of our land to our brethren who were fleeing from the sword of a cruel enemy, and they sent them back in ships to the islands of the sea and to distant shores, You in Your might toppled his throne and freed the land from his hand. And when enemies rose against us and plotted to destroy us, You in your might sent upon them fear and panic, and they abandoned all their goods, and fled in confusion and haste beyond the borders of our land. 

And when seven nations rose up against us to conquer our land and to make us as bonded servants, You in Your mercies stood by the right hand of the Israel Defense Army and delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to expand the boundaries of our settlement, and to bring our brethren up from the concentration camps.

For all this we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head; and on this, our day of festivity and joy, we stretch our hands before You and beseech pray on behalf of our dispersed brethren and say: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy habitation, and may they dwell there in peace and calm and tranquility and security. Expand the borders of our land as You promised our forefathers, to give to their seed from the River Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt. Build your holy city Jerusalem, capital of Israel, and reestablish there your Temple as in the days of Solomon. And as we have merited to see the beginning of our redemption and the liberation of our souls, so may we live and may our eyes see the complete redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen! 4

Using unabashedly Biblical language, this new prayer rendered the Zionist colonization of Palestine as an “awakening” and “return” to the Jewish peoples’ “inheritance.” The British Mandatory authorities were referred to as “an evil regime.” The Zionist militias’ dispossession of Palestinians from their homes (still ongoing at the time of its writing in the spring of 1949), was ascribed to divine intervention, using imagery that evoked the conquest of the Biblical Canaanites. Similar framing was used to describe the Arab armies that joined the war in 1949; the term “seven nations” was a pointed reference to the Canaanite nations dispossessed from the land by the Biblical Israelites in the book of Joshua.5

The final stanza of the prayer contained a reference to kibbutz galuyot (the “ingathering of the exiles”), God’s promise to return the Israelites to their land following the Babylonian exile.6 The term was used here according to the tenets of religious Zionism, which viewed the establishment of a Jewish state in the land as a necessary precursor to the coming of the messiah.7 The prayer concludes by looking forward to a return to the widest Biblical borders of Israel (from the Euphrates to the Nile) and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“To Serve God in the Joy of Victory”

In due time, American Jewish denominations would formally adopt the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday as well. The Conservative movement included its own version of Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its 1961 Weekday Prayerbook8 and later in its 1985 prayer book Siddur Sim Shalom:

In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time when our people took root in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land, together with seven neighboring nations, sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day.9

While considerably shorter than the original version, the Conservative movement Al Hanisim retains many of its central themes – particularly the Biblical concept of return and kibbutz galuyot. It also deletes the dated references to British Mandate authorities, firmly identifying Palestinians (“enemies from within the land”) and “seven neighboring nations” as the primary enemies of the Jewish people.

Given the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment, it’s not difficult to understand why Al Hanisim became a popular prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut. The traditional version for Purim recalls the account in the Book of Esther in which ancient Persia “rose up against them and sought to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all of the Jews, young and old…” On Hanukkah, the prayer extols how God “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure…” In a sense, the Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut combines both of these narratives. Indeed, Israel’s “miraculous” victory over its Arab foes would become central to Zionist mythology following 1948 – and even more so after the Six Day War in 1967.

While the American Reform movement did not originally include prayers for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its Union Prayer Book (almost certainly due to that denomination’s historically anti-Zionist orientation), the Central Conference of American Rabbis eventually established Yom Ha’atzmaut as “a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism” in 1970. Five years later, the movement’s prayer book, “Gates of Prayer” included an extensive service for the holiday, including a partial Hallel.10 The most recent Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah (2007), contains a seven-candle lighting ceremony for Yom Ha’atzmaut, featuring a variety of prayers, poems and songs (including Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem). The service also references kibbutz galuyot with this passage from the Biblical book of Jeremiah 23:3, 8: “And Myself will gather the remnants of the flock from all the lands…And I will bring them back to their pasture. And they will dwell upon their own soil.” 11

The Reconstructionist movement prayer book, Kol Haneshama includes a similar Yom Ha’atzmaut service12 that includes Hatikvah as well as the famous “valley of the dry bones” prophecy from Ezekiel 37:13-14. Here, Israel’s founding is juxtaposed with God’s promise to “resurrect” and restore the Israelites to the land of Israel following their exile in Babylonia: “Behold, I am opening your graves, and I shall raise you up from where you lie, my people, and shall bring you to the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am The Eternal One, I who open up your graves and raise you up, my people, from your place of burial!” 13

In addition to these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies, many prominent American Jewish scholars and leaders frame the day as a sanctification of sovereign state power. In his popular book “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests, “as our religious perspective on Israel deepens, Yom Ha’atzmaut will become more and more a reflection of a vision rather than the simple birthday party of a nation.” 14

For Strassfeld, that vision involves a dialectic between the “Torah of Sinai” and the “Torah of Jerusalem.” The former, he posits, reflects the revelation that “took place outside of the land of Israel at Sinai” that has become “familiar to us as the life of our people during the 2,000 years of the Diaspora.” The latter emphasizes “sovereignty and independence” and “finds its symbols in the place itself – the site of the ancient temple of sacrifices and the political capital of King David.” 15 As Strassfeld explains:

We need both, for with only Israel and its Torah, it would be easy to make an idolatry of nationalism. We would end up reveling in earth, blood, and power. But with only the Torah of Sinai, we could continue to revel in abstractness and powerlessness, constructing worlds, as the Talmud does, made of oxen that fall into pits and gore each other.16

In his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg goes even farther, suggesting that Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates “a new Exodus” and represents “a call to power to end the tradition of suffering, to serve God in the joy of victory.” 17 Noting Israel’s early tradition of military parades on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Greenberg writes,

Diaspora Jews who still live with the ideals and illusions of powerlessness are often embarrassed by this phenomenon. Yet a military parade is a most appropriate symbol for an era whose central theme, set in motion by the Holocaust and the creation of the state, is the emergence of Jews from powerlessness.18

Among other things, these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies and commentaries attest to the deep influence of Religious Zionist ideology on American Jewish life. It is indeed troubling to consider: the prayers of every American Jewish denomination frame Israel’s military dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in the context of holy war and ascribe explicitly messianic meaning to Zionist colonization of the land.

Thus, to return to the questions I asked in my 2009 blog post, I ask again: how should we reckon with the knowledge that Jewish communities the world over offer prayers of joy and praise that essentially celebrate the Palestinian people’s collective tragedy? Might it be possible, to use Edward Said’s term, to view Zionism from “the standpoint of its victims?” If so, what might a Jewish ritual acknowledgement of this event actually look like? 

“Beyond Fear and Omnipotence, Beyond Innocence and Militarism”

American Jews – and young American Jews in particular – are starting to ask this very question. In 2013 New Voices, a journal published by the Jewish Student Press Service, published an article that featured Jewish student essays debating whether to “celebrate, commemorate or mourn” on Yom Ha’atzmaut. More recently, the relatively mainstream Jewish newspaper, the Forward featured a debate between two of its regular columnists entitled “Should American Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut?” As one writer observed:

It seems to me that the elevation of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the level of a religious holiday…is an attempt not to provide American Jews with holidays that celebrate our identities as we are, but to construct our identities politically.

As well, some liberal quarters of the American Jewish community now make a point of acknowledging the Nakba in relation to Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Reconstructionist volume, “Guide to Jewish Practice: Shabbat and Holidays,” for instance, includes the following commentary:

The creation of Israel came with a real cost of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being displaced from their homes. Yom Ha’atzmaut may be a joyous day for us, but the Nakba reminds us that this joy, as on Passover, has its limits.19

Similarly, in 2015, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, led a session for American rabbis entitled, “Yom Ha’atzmaut: Between Redemption and Nakba.” In his session he noted that the increasing awareness of the Nakba means that Israelis and Jewish Zionists can no longer “control the narrative” of Israel’s establishment, adding tellingly: “If we have to ‘sell’ and get people excited about the redemption narrative, we have to make room for the fact that ‘something happened.’”

In the end, however, these mild interventions fail to address the heart of the conceptual/ethical issue at hand, as they ultimately seek to strengthen and uphold the Jewish redemption narrative. Is it possible to commemorate this occasion with a fundamentally different Jewish narrative? One that stands down this redemptive view of militarism and state power?

In my own search for answers to this question, the work of several Jewish scholars has become particularly important to me. One such figure is Marc Ellis who has written extensively about the theological dynamics of Jewish empowerment in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel:

In the formation, sustenance and expansion of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity has likewise been actively employed, indeed has been militarized and, yes, infected with atrocity. Because once religion and identity become accomplices to atrocity it must disguise that atrocity and twist it to conform to an innocence and redemption that is now visited, as a form of oppression, on the Other, in this case the Palestinian people.

For Ellis, the onset of Jewish state power has resulted in an era of “Constantinian Judaism,” comparable to the elevation of Christianity to the religion of empire in the 4th century. In the current age, Ellis suggests, “dissenting Jews must learn how to practice their Judaism in the shadow of Constantinian Judaism.” 20 He refers to these dissenting Jews as “Jews of Conscience” who, he writes, “are fighting a high stakes battle against the final Jewish assimilation to unjust power which, in their view, articulated in overt Jewish language or not, signals the end of Jewish history.”

Likewise, Sara Roy, whose work has detailed the devastating effect of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza on Palestinians, has written, in an essay entitled “A Jewish Plea:”

I have come to accept that Jewish power and sovereignty and Jewish ethics and spiritual integrity are, in the absence of reform, incompatible, unable to coexist or be reconciled. For if speaking out against the wanton murder of children is considered an act of disloyalty and betrayal rather than a legitimate act of dissent, and where dissent is so ineffective and reviled, a choice is ultimately forced upon us between Zionism and Judaism.

Roy then asks, powerfully:

As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane, something that still eludes us? How do we move beyond fear and omnipotence, beyond innocence and militarism, to envision something different, even if uncertain?

“A Full Accounting of the Wrongdoing that was Committed in Our Name.”

In response to challenges such as these, we are now witnessing the tentative emergence of new alternative approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba Day as an occasion for reckoning and remembrance rather than joy and celebration. One such example is the “Joint Nakba Remembrance Ceremony,” an annual gathering sponsored by the Israeli organization Combatants for Peace and co-sponsored by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. According to organizers, this ceremony seeks

to bring attention to the Nakba and acknowledge the great pain it brings, through the understanding of the Nakba’s importance in the Palestinian collective memory and in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ceremony’s message is that we must face our past with honesty, integrity, and empathy in order to bring a future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides.

My own synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, has been exploring ways to develop a Jewish observance of Nakba Day with a service of combining prayer, readings, poetry and survivor testimonies. Here, for instance, is my “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day,” which I wrote to be a centerpiece of our ritual:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:

show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,

guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,

Amen.

In this prayer, I use the Hebrew word “teshuvah” according to two of its meanings: both “return” and “repentance.” The first half of the prayer acknowledges the historical reality of the Nakba. The phrase “gather them from the four corners of the earth” is an explicit reference to kibbutz galuyot – “the ingathering of the exiled,” applying it here to the Palestinian right of return. The second half of the prayer uses the word teshuvah/repentance in the context of the collective Jewish responsibility to confess Jewish complicity in the depopulation, destruction and replacement of Palestine, looking forward to a future of “reparation and reconciliation.”

It should be noted that as as Jewish community in the diaspora, our service differs in crucial ways from the Israeli-Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Ceremony noted above. For Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in a Jewish nation-state, the vision of a “future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides” has a very specific political meaning. For Jews who seek liberation in a diasporic context, this goal must necessarily exist within the vision of a greater transformation.

In the end, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. From a Jewish diasporist perspective, the aspiration for a just future in Israel/Palestine cannot help but be bound up with the prophetic vision of justice and liberation for marginalized and colonized communities everywhere.

In the words of scholar Susannah Heschel:

The diasporic position … is the condition for the prophetic: standing at the boundaries between society and the reins of governance, the prophet demands justice from the governing, while giving voice to the unheard who suffer at the hands of the regime.

My own personal struggle with the legacy of Yom Ha’atzmaut has led me to explorations I could never have imagined when I wrote that blog post in 2009. While these new Jewish approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut are obviously in a nascent stage, we may reasonably expect them to develop and evolve, particularly as demographic studies of the American Jewish community indicate an increasing detachment of American Jewish connection to the state of Israel. As the Forward article cited above notes: “When you interview young American Jews who disaffiliate, the politics of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations come up as a major reason why.”

As the American Jewish community continues to transform, we can only hope we will witness the further transformation of this festival as well: from a day celebrating political nationalism and colonial dispossession to a Jewish observance rooted in solidarity, memory and repentance.

 Footnotes:

1 This day corresponded to May 15, 1948 – the date the state of Israel was declared one year earlier. As Yom Ha’atzmaut is determined according to the lunar Jewish calendar, it falls on different days during the months of April or May.

2  Katz, Shmuel, “Establishing a Holiday: The Chief Rabbinate and Yom HaAtzma’ut,” in The Koren Mahzor for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016  p. 188.

3 IBID, p. 190.

4 Seder Tefillot le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, 2nd edition, Tel Aviv: Hotza’at Ha-kibbutz ha-Dati, 1969, p. 101, (translation mine).

5 There were actually five – not seven – Arab nations involved in the 1948-49 war. The number seven seems to be used here to directly equate them with the seven Biblical Canaanite nations.

6  See Deuteronomy 30:1-5, Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 29:14 and Ezekiel 20:41-42. Kibbutz galuyot would later come to be understood in messianic terms – see for instance, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1-2.

7 This precept is also cited in the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel,” written in 1948 by Israel’s Chief Rabbis, which described the establishment of the state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

8 Weekday Prayer Book, New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1961, pp.64-65.

9 Siddur Sim Shalom, Harlow, Jules, ed., New York: Rabbinical Assembly/United Synagogue of America, 1985, p. 183.

10 Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Stern, Chaim, ed., New York: CCAR Press, 1975, pp. 590-611.

11 Mishkan T’filah: Services for Shabbat, Frishman, Elyse D., ed., New York: CCAR Press,  2007, p. 542.

12 Kol Haneshamah: Limot Hol, Teutsch, David, ed., Pennsylvania: The Reconstructionist Press. 1996, pp. 456-471.

13  IBID, p. 460.

14  Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 66.

15  IBID, p. 65.

16  IBID

17  Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, New York: Summit Books, p. 387.

18  IBID 396.

19  A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 2: Shabbat and Holidays, Pennsylvania: RRC Press, 2014, p. 693.

20 Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Theology of Liberation, 3rd expanded edition, Waco:Baylor University Press, 2004, p. 206.

“Israeli Apartheid and the Path to Teshuvah” – A Statement by the JVP Rabbinical Council

An Open Letter to the Jewish Community from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

We, the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, stand by the recent reports which use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli rule over Palestinians. The past year’s reports by B’tselem, Human Rights Watch and now Amnesty International contain well-documented evidence describing how the State of Israel maintains a system of identity-baseddomination over Palestinians. This detailed evidence demonstrates the systemic and shocking human rights violations and extreme violence and cruelty unleashed upon Palestinians living both under Israeli military and civil jurisdiction. 

Rabbi Brian Walt, one of the signers of this letter, grew up in South Africa under Apartheid. He writes: “The finding that Israel is an Apartheid state is shocking to me – and it should be to every Jew and person of conscience.  Instead of demonizing these human rights organizations, we who care about our Jewish ethical and spiritual heritage must grapple with the harsh and deadly reality documented in these three reports.” 

As people deeply committed to Jewish life and culture, we believe Jews should read these reports in the spirit of prophetic witness and atonement, like the texts we read on Yom Kippur, which challenge us to turn from violence and break the bonds of oppression so a new dawn can burst forth. Many of us have witnessed these realities on the ground for decades. The reports confirm what Palestinians have been telling us all along: Israel’s system of control is based on the idea of Jewish supremacy. 

It is with deep sorrow that we once again witness leadership in Jewish institutional life ignore, dismiss or condemn the reports as antisemitic. On the day of the public release of Amnesty International’s report, leaders of the Reform movement issued an email calling on Reform rabbis and member congregations to condemn the report, claiming the decades-long research was “replete with discredited and inaccurate allegations, including a deeply wrong accusation of apartheid.”  

Denial is a common response that surfaces when we are asked to face difficult realities that upend deeply held views. However, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detail at length how Israel’s systemic policies, rooted in racism, have brought suffering to millions of Palestinian lives. Shouldn’t these claims cause us to at least read the reports and hear the direct testimony of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians?

We believe that we must face the moral challenge that these reports present to us. As Hillel said, “Go study!” We call on all people of conscience, including Jewish people in our communities, to read the reports carefully. Secondly, we call on the leaders of the Jewish community, rabbinic and lay, to facilitate open discussion on the reports, including inviting representatives of the organizations to talk about the report in your community and to answer questions.  We also encourage rabbis and leaders to facilitate open and respectful dialogue and debate in our communities about the issues raised in these reports.  We cannot work for healing justice if we live in denial of the reality Palestinians have been facing every day since 1948.

As Jews of conscience, Israel’s system of apartheid has created a moral emergency for us. We cannot turn away. Instead, we long for the kinds of conversation which accurately reflect the reality on the ground, a reality that B’Tselem calls Jewish Supremacy. The conclusion reached by these three well-respected human rights organizations that Israeli governance fits within the international definition of apartheid is a renewed calls to people of conscience. We must examine how the claims of these reports reveal the ways we are complicit in sustaining Israeli apartheid, and commit to repair for the systemic injustice choking Palestinian lives. May our study lead to active repair of the harms of apartheid. This is the only path to teshuvah.

– The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Amnesty International’s Apartheid Report: Parsing the Jewish Communal Outrage

photo: The Guardian

When Amnesty International announced the release of a 278 page report entitled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians,” you could already sense the storm clouds gathering. Even before it was actually released, the Israeli government publicly asked Amnesty to withdraw it, calling it “false, biased and antisemitic.” A group of six American Jewish organizations launched their own preemptive strike, claiming that the report was “unbalanced, inaccurate, and incomplete,” seeking only “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

When the storm finally broke on February 2, it didn’t take long for the outrage to come raining down. US politicians from both sides of the aisle issued fierce condemnations (DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, called it “baseless”, “biased” and “steeped in antisemitism.”) The Jewish institutional establishment likewise let loose: the Anti-Defamation League pronounced it “hateful,” inaccurate” and “irresponsible;” the American Jewish Committee called the report “a canard” and a “libel;” and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, claimed the report sought “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”

The three of the major American Jewish religious denominations piled on as well: the Union for Reform Judaism expressed its “profound disappointment and explicit condemnation” of the report; the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism labeled it “outrageously dishonest” and “deceitful;” and the Orthodox Union condemned the report as an “ideologically driven polemic.” (As of this writing, the Reconstructionist movement has yet to release a statement.)

It’s doubtful that the authors of these terse and hastily released statements actually read the report, which is nearly 300 pages and took four years to research and publish. And not surprisingly, none of the statements directly addressed the specific findings of the report beyond the use of “A” word. Rather, they rolled out their tired and increasingly desperate-sounding pro-Israel talking points: that such claims “demonized” the state of Israel, that Israel is a thriving democracy that gives equal rights to its Palestinian citizens and that criticism of Israel only serves to inflame antisemitism against Jews.

By contrast, statements from Liberal Zionist organizations were less harsh, admitting the reality of Israel’s human rights abuses even as they disagreed with the report’s use of the term “apartheid.” J Street threaded the needle very carefully, affirming that “Israel as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people is historically just and necessary” while calling out Israel’s “deepening de facto annexation of the territory it has occupied since 1967.” When it came to the report itself, however, J Street declined to “endorse its findings or the recommendations.”  

The response released by Tru’ah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights condemned “the very real human rights abuses that Palestinians face every day,” but objected to “many of the report’s assertions, language choices, assumptions, and conclusions.” (They remained notably silent on the specifics of their objections.) In the end, Tru’ah’s true agenda was revealed by their call for a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution: an argument for essentially maintaining the status quo even as Israel’s human rights abuses continue unabated on the ground.

It’s worth noting that while both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem released similar reports on Israeli apartheid last year, neither inspired the same level of collective vehemence as the Amnesty report. This is likely because as one of the most prominent and well-known human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty’s report makes it that much more acceptable to isolate Israel as an apartheid state. Israel and its supporters know full well that Amnesty’s use of a term such as this can move Israel more quickly down the road to international pariah status.

This report also differs from previous reports in terms of its conclusions, particularly its explicit support of Palestinian refugees right of return. And while it does not openly endorse BDS, the report does call on governments and regional actors to “immediately suspend the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer, including transit and trans- shipment to Israel of all weapons, munitions and other military and security equipment, including the provision of training and other military and security assistance.” It likewise encourages them to “institute and enforce a ban on products from Israeli settlements in (their) markets and “regulate companies domiciled in (their) jurisdiction in a manner to prohibit companies’ operation in settlements or trade in settlements goods”

In the end, human rights reports alone cannot themselves hold Israel accountable. They can, however, create space to make it more acceptable to publicly acknowledge the systemic roots of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. As journalist Maureen Murphy wrote in her excellent piece, What Makes Amnesty’s Apartheid Report Different?: “Amnesty’s report is a strong indicator that an analysis beyond the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is becoming mainstream.”

In the meantime, I hope that anyone concerned with justice in Israel/Palestine will do what the organizations above cynically failed to do: read, consider, discuss and share the content of this important and groundbreaking report.

A Jewish Congregation Considers Affirming Anti-Zionism as a Core Value

At our December 2021 meeting, board of my congregation, Tzedek Chicago, voted unanimously to recommend amending our core values statement to state explicitly that anti-Zionism (rather than “non-Zionism”) should be articulated as one of our core values.

Recognizing the significance of such a step, the board also agreed unanimously that this decision should be processed, discussed and ultimately put to a membership vote. To this end, Tzedek Chicago is holding a series of town hall meetings and will send out an online ballot to members in March.

Here, below, is the text of a Q/A that the Tzedek board drafted and sent out to its members to explain its decision:

Why did Tzedek Chicago originally include “Non-Zionism” as part of our core values?

When our congregation was established in 2015, our founders developed a set of core values to provide the ideological foundation for our congregational life. In our final values statement, we included the following words in the section entitled, “A Judaism Beyond Nationalism”:

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.

From the outset, our founders made a conscious decision to state that Tzedek Chicago would not be a Zionist congregation. Most Jewish congregations in North America are Zionist by default. Among other things, Tzedek Chicago was created to provide a Jewish congregational community for those who did not identify as Zionists—and who did not want to belong to congregations that celebrated Zionism as a necessary aspect of Jewish life.

Why is the board recommending the change from Non-Zionist” to Anti-Zionist?

Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsionhome demolitionland expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In its 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored; on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

What about the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism?

While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are antisemites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish). Since the founding of the Zionist movement in the 19th century, there has always been active Jewish opposition to Zionism.

While Jewish anti-Zionists are still a minority in the Jewish community today, their numbers have been increasing, particularly among those under 30 years of age. Not coincidentally, we are witnessing increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism. There have also been public calls to categorize anti-Zionist Jews as “Un-Jews” and “Jews in name only.” Given the tenor of the current moment, we believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is all the more critical.

Anti-Zionist” describes what we oppose—but what are we positively advocating for?

While we affirm that Tzedek Chicago is an anti-Zionist congregation, that is not all we are. This value is but one aspect of a larger vision we refer to in our core values statement as a “Judaism Beyond Borders.” Central to this vision is an affirmation of the diaspora as the fertile ground from which Jewish spiritual creativity has flourished for centuries. Indeed, Jewish life has historically taken root, adapted and blossomed in many lands throughout the world. At Tzedek Chicago we seek to develop and celebrate a diasporic consciousness that joyfully views the entire world as our homeland.

Moving away from a Judaism that looks to Israel as its fully realized home releases us into rich imaginings of what the World to Come might look like, where it might be, and how we might go about inhabiting it now. This creative windfall can infuse our communal practices, rituals, and liturgy. We also believe that Jewish diasporic consciousness has the real potential to help us reach a deeper solidarity with those who have been historically colonized and oppressed. As we state in our core values:

We understand that our Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society. In our educational programs, celebrations and liturgy, we emphasize the Torah’s repeated teachings to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor.

Does Tzedek Chicago expect every member to personally adhere to this new position?

As is the case with all of our core values, this position is not an ideological “litmus test” for membership at Tzedek Chicago. It is, rather, part of our collective vision as a religious community. We understand that every individual member of our congregation will struggle with these issues and must come to their own personal conclusions. The main question for all of Tzedek’s members is not “must I personally accept every one of these core values?” but rather, “given these values, is this a congregation that I would like to support and to which I would like to belong?”

What will this decision mean for our congregation going forward?

We believe the core value of anti-Zionism will open up many important opportunities for our community. It will guide us in the programs we develop, the Jewish spiritual life we create, the coalitions we join and the public positions we take. In a larger sense, we believe this decision will create space for other Jewish congregations to take a similar stand—to join us in imagining and building a Jewish future beyond Zionism.

In the end, we are advocating for this congregational decision in the hopes that it may further catalyze Jewish participation in the worldwide movement to dismantle all systems of racism and oppression. May it happen בִּמְהֵרָה בְּיָמֵינוּ—bimheira beyameinu—soon in our own day.

Building a Global Congregation of Conscience: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5782

As many of you know, in January of 2020 it was my great honor to become Tzedek Chicago’s full-time rabbi. Among my first orders of business at the time was to find an office and a more suitable facility for our congregation. As it turned out, my search didn’t last too long. Soon enough, along with the rest of the world Tzedek had to hunker down and make our home in the land of Zoom. 

We weren’t at all sure what to expect in this strange new virtual world, but we certainly weren’t prepared for what happened next. In a word, we grew. We grew from two Shabbat services a month to weekly services, Torah studies, festival services and family programs. We instituted a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering as a check-in for our members. We also held increasing numbers of adult educational opportunities and concerts. The pandemic truly transformed the life of our congregation in astonishing and unexpected ways.

It didn’t take us long to figure out why. It was a time of profound social isolation. We all felt it palpably, some of us more than others. The world craved connection – and in this strange new world, religious congregations had a particularly crucial role to play. Like so many other houses of worship, Tzedek served as a sacred virtual space where we could regularly gather and overcome our increasing separateness from one another. 

But there was another way Tzedek grew as well: we grew geographically. Almost overnight, we gained regular members and attendees from around the country and around the world: from Canada, the UK, Germany and New Zealand, among many other places. Again, it didn’t take long to understand why. We’d always drawn our members from a wide swath of the Chicagoland area and even some surrounding states. We were never strictly a local congregation; from the very beginning we’ve been a community bound together by our convictions. 

Those of us who founded Tzedek Chicago were very clear on this point: we really weren’t interested in creating another liberal Jewish congregation. We wanted to build a congregation on a foundation of core values. We emphasized “standing with the oppressed and calling out the oppressor.” We took “a stand against colonialism and militarism, especially when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.” We made a particular point of disavowing Zionism, stating that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this day.”

When we founded Tzedek, we drafted our core values even before we recruited a single member of our congregation. We wanted to make sure that those who joined us would join because they sought a Jewish community that shared their values. We just knew that there was a significant and growing constituency for the vision of Judaism we sought to promote. 

It’s been so gratifying to see how our faith has been validated these past six years. Speaking personally, it’s been a blessing for me. When I left my former congregation, I really never thought I’d work as a congregational rabbi again. I’m so grateful that Tzedek has given me this opportunity – and I’ve never, ever taken it for granted. 

Over the years, I’ve received regular emails from folks from across the country and around the world asking if there was a congregation like Tzedek in their home communities. I’d almost always have to say no, I didn’t think there was. But starting in 2020, of course, that question became moot. We became a global congregation in ways we never could have dreamed. As the world opens up (may it happen soon in our day!) we’ll certainly reinstitute more in-person services and programs. But our congregational leadership has made it clear that going forward, we’ll continue to be a primarily virtual congregation. The pandemic has changed us indelibly – and we welcome this change. We’re excited by the prospect of broadening our membership even further around the world to include anyone and everyone who shares our particular vision of Jewish community. 

While I’m on the subject of vision, I’d like to return for a moment to our core values, and why they continue to be so critical – perhaps now more than ever. I mentioned that when we drafted our values, we wanted to be explicit about the fact that we weren’t Zionist. Unlike other congregations, we weren’t praying for a “just peace” or “coexistence” between both sides. We didn’t claim that our members held “a variety of views” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We stated quite explicitly that we opposed the very concept of Jewish nation-statism. On that point we were, and continue to be, unequivocal. 

We weren’t the first progressive congregation to take this stance, but we were certainly among the very few. Over the past few years, the numbers of non and anti-Zionist communities has grown to a certain extent. Not long after our founding, Jewish Voice for Peace created a Havurah Network for spiritual communities such as ours, and we’ve been a proud, participating member of the network from the very beginning. Still, I confess to some disappointment that there still aren’t more congregations willing to take this kind of a public stand.

There’s no question that the narrative on Israel/Palestine is changing. Last May, the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, released the results of a poll in which 34% of US Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 20% said they preferred “establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.” As you might expect, when these findings are narrowed down to Jews under 40, they skew significantly higher. 

It’s clearly getting harder and harder to ignore what Zionism has wrought. This past year was also the occasion of a report from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem entitled, “This is Apartheid: A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The report ended with these astonishing, unprecedented words:

As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot…Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.

Tragically, last year was also the occasion of yet another devastating military assault on Gaza, killing 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. As with past Israeli attacks on Gaza, I found those weeks in May to be utterly unbearable. The massive loss of life. Entire families wiped out. Scores of Palestinians left grievously wounded and homeless. On top of that, of course, there was the appalling response of the Jewish community. Not just the organized Jewish community, whose craven support of Israel we’ve come to expect, but the so-called liberal, progressive Jewish community, who reacted to this moral outrage with equivocation – responding to war crimes committed in their name with rationalizations and hand wringing; with “yes, buts” or “both sides-isms.” 

When we openly state that our congregation is not Zionist, that’s more than mere semantics. It is a statement that the Judaism we lift up will not and cannot include apartheid, settler colonialism and militarism. This is not merely a political position – it’s a spiritual statement of conscience about what it means to be Jewish and what kinds of Jewish communities we seek to create. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that among all the issues that divide the Jewish community today, the role of Zionism is far and away the most critical. Can we truly imagine any other ideological divide that is more important – more morally consequential – than this? 

Lately, we’ve been hearing news of fairly prominent congregations that promote an “open tent” approach when it comes to Zionism – i.e., congregations that openly make room for the views of non and anti-Zionists along with liberal Zionists in their communities. As welcome as such a development is, however, I have to ask myself, is this so-called open-tent ultimately tenable? Is it sustainable? Is it even desirable: to build congregational communities in which members have such fundamentally different moral approaches to being Jewish? In which some congregational members cherish and celebrate Israel, while others view it as an apartheid, settler colonial state? However well meaning, I cannot view this as anything other than an untenable, unbridgeable divide. 

In my very first sermon for Tzedek Chicago, I said the following:

I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.

Six years later, I feel this even more strongly: too often, liberal Jewish congregations wield the word “inclusion” to provide them with convenient cover for taking a stand. But sooner or later, there’s a point in which the value of inclusion must give way to moral conviction. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to come clean about what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm, what kind of Jewish spiritual communities we seek to build. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Tzedek, a Jewish home in which I can speak my truth as a rabbi unabashedly and without compromise. I hope and trust it’s a community where you can openly express your most consequential Jewish truths as well. 

On Kol Nidre, we affirm the vows we make that we know we will not or cannot fulfill in the coming year. This Kol Nidre – and every Kol Nidre – let us also affirm the vows on which we will not and cannot compromise. Let us affirm that our Judaism does not depend upon the dispossession of others, but on the liberation of all. Let us continue building our congregation into a global community that is the living breathing embodiment of this vow. 

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we all go from strength to strength in the coming year and beyond.

Punishing Gaza: When Narratives Collide

I delivered this sermon yesterday at Second Unitarian Universalist Church of Chicago:

When Reverend Jason invited me to give the sermon to you today, I had some idea of what I wanted to talk to you about. My original thought was to address the idea of collective narrative. To explore the stories communities tell about themselves – and the often unintended impact those stories have on our lives and on our world.

I think it’s important to understand the way collective narratives can blind us to the narratives of others. It’s particularly critical for communities of power and privilege to understand how the stories tell about themselves affect their actions toward disenfranchised communities. Or more to the point, the communities they disenfranchise.

I think it’s safe to say that white America is starting to challenge the dominant narratives that are told about the birth of this country – and the harm they continue to cause to this very day. In a very similar way, increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community are now starting to confront the Zionist narrative that has been instilled in us for the past 73 years. Much like the American narrative, it is also rooted in colonialism and racism – i.e., the story of about a nation created on the backs of a dispossessed and disenfranchised people. 

However, given the terrible, tragic events that are still ongoing now in Palestine/Israel, I’ve decided to address this issue in a more immediate way – and a more personal way. In particular, I want to talk to you about Gaza. I’ve chosen this subject because that’s where the greatest and most tragic violence is occurring right now. I also believe Gaza epitomizes the ways Israel’s national narrative has inflicted harm on Palestinians – and how it continues to inflict such unthinkable harm even as we speak.

The subject of Gaza also has a special place in my own heart. In 2008, Israel launched a military operation on Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead” not unlike the one we are witnessing at this very moment. This event became a pivotal turning point in my own relationship to Israel/Palestine – and to Zionism in general.

By the end of this “operation,” the Israeli military killed over 1,300 Palestinians, including 300 children. Beyond my anguish over these horrific casualties, it was the response of many in my Jewish community that shook me to my core. The rationalizations. The moral equivocation. The inability to face with the wider context in which these actions were occurring. The vilification of those – including many reputable human rights organizations – who suggested that Israel’s actions constituted war crimes and even crimes against humanity. 

Then it happened again in 2014: the Israeli military killed over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, 495 of whom were children. And now today: Israel is once again unleashing overwhelming military firepower against a population of 2,000,000 whom they’ve blockaded in a tiny strip of land and who literally have nowhere to run. This is not a difficult moral calculus for me anymore – as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as human being of conscience. 

Like many American Jews, my identity growing up was profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. The redemptive nature of this narrative assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it did for many American Jews of my generation and older.

Politically speaking, I identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I connected in particular with Israel’s Labor Zionist origins and generally aligned myself with positions advocated by the Israeli left and the Israeli peace movement. When it came to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, I’d invariably intone a familiar refrain of liberal Zionists: “It’s complicated.”

2008, however, was a tipping point for me. I read about the bombing of schools, whole families wiped out, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated to me anymore. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.

My relationship to Gaza deepened yet further in 2017, when I visited Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee to meet with our programmatic staff there. I don’t know any other way to say it other than that I now take Gaza very, very personally. I have been indelibly transformed by my experience of there and by the friendships that I cherish to this day. As a result, it has given me an even deeper sensitivity into a narrative about a place that has become hideously twisted, even by the most well-meaning of people.

Too often, I believe, we tend to fetishize Gaza and Gazans, describing them alternatively as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. And since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So for some time now, it’s been something of a personal mission of mine to try and expand the one-dimensional narratives that are routinely told about Gaza. To contextualize Gaza’s history with information that is generally unknown to most of the world but is absolutely critical if we want a deeper understanding of the events currently unfolding there. I also see it as a mission to shine a light on the moral and religious challenge that Gaza presents to the Jewish community – and to all people of conscience. 

First, a brief geography tutorial: what we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, this term historically refers to a much larger territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world and was a major port and an important stop along the spice and incense route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

Of course if folks associate Gaza with anything today, it’s with violence, refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that this is a relatively recent phenomenon in its history. The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages who had been expelled from their homes by Zionist militias. Before the outset of war, the population of this small strip of land numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of this area were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the British mandate.

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

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature.

As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements. One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and he expressed himself himself in his eulogy with remarkable candor:

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

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

It’s now 73 later and Israel continues to rule with a barbed wire fence and the barrel of a gun. Just as importantly, the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors’ desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located – in some cases just a few short kilometers from where currently live. 

As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit there. One afternoon, while we were traveling north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali explained that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948. 

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

When we consider the narrative of Gaza, I believe we must keep this critical piece of context in mind: long before there was a Hamas, Palestinians in Gaza have been resisting their oppression – and Israel has been retaliating brutally against their resistance. Of course, when we do the moral calculus, we can argue about the strategic sense and morality of the rockets Hamas fires into Israel – as many Palestinians do.  But if we truly seek to understand Gaza’s narrative, we must honestly ask ourselves – what would we ourselves do in their situation?

As I noted earlier, many white Americans are starting to reckon seriously with the colonial narratives instilled about the birth of this country. The narratives of the powerful and the privileged have great power. But when they collide with the narratives of those they’ve disenfranchised, the impact can sometimes create a spark of transformation – it can indeed, lead to the construction of a new and more just narrative. The Black Lives Matter protests that were born last summer are a powerful example of this phenomenon. I think we’ve all been astonished and inspired by a new narrative struggling to be born in this country.

I fervently believe there is a potential for a similar transformation in Israel/Palestine. It will not happen easily, or painlessly, but I do believe it can happen. In a very real sense, it has to happen. 

May we commit ourselves to this transformation – and may it happen soon in our day. 

Peter Beinart Crosses Over: On Game Changers and Historic Injustices

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photo: Flash90

It’s fair to say that Peter Beinart’s recent article for Jewish Currents, in which he publicly announced his abandonment of the two-state solution, represents something of a milestone in American discourse on Israel-Palestine. As a well-known political thinker and commentator, Beinart’s ideas carry a great deal of weight in the liberal Jewish establishment. His 2010 article in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” and his subsequent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” were widely read and touted as critical cautionary manifestos for the American Jewish community. For years he has positioned himself on the left edge of the Liberal Zionist camp, and has regularly sounded warnings about the increasingly illiberal nature of Israel’s actions. It is thus hugely significant that he has now officially crossed a red line (his term) by so publicly and openly declaring the two-state solution to be dead.

Indeed, many are saying that his article is a game changer. Mondoweiss editor Phil Weiss, pointing to Beinart’s “prominent stature in liberal Jewish communal life,” wrote that he now  “joins a list of liberal Zionists who have abandoned the two-state solution,” predicting that “his joining that list means it is only going to grow.” Liberal commentators are likewise singing its praises;` the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg called it “brave and persuasive” and Vox editor Matt Yglesias claimed it has now “widened the boundaries what is acceptable on Israel/Palestine.”

In his Jewish Currents article, (which the New York Times published today in a much shortened version under the headline, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State“), Beinart begins by describing how central Zionism has been to his Jewish identity. With sadness, he notes that “with each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank.” He continues:

The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.

Beinart does not formally break with Zionism, however. He claims that the “essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel,” but rather, “a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world.” Unfortunately, Beinart writes, such a “Jewish home” is impossible under the classic two-state solution model, which he now declares “dead” because it “requires subjugating another people.” It’s time, he says, to explore new one-state options, “from a confederation to a binational state.”

To drive his point home, Beinart invokes the history of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, in 70 CE, changed the paradigmatic nature of Judaism itself from animal sacrifice to prayer/study after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. So too, Beinart writes, “our task in this moment is to imagine a new Jewish identity, one that no longer equates Palestinian equality with Jewish genocide. One that sees Palestinian liberation as integral to our own.”

Beinart then goes on to write a long, impassioned and impressively researched essay on how this new one-state paradigm might be realized, quoting a number of Palestinian activists and thinkers including Ali Abunimah, Walid Khalidi, Edward Said and Yousef Munayyer. He ends up advocating for a binational state using Belgium and Northern Ireland as potential models: a “democratic Israel-Palestine” that would ” protect not merely individual rights but national rights as well,”

He concludes his essay with this moving paragraph:

Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nissan, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead. 

I agree with those who believe that this article is powerful and significant. It may well represent a tipping point – and to the extent that his primary audience is his fellow Liberal Zionists, this is all to the good. But without denying what Beinart’s article represents, I remain troubled by his essential analysis. In the end, I believe the very framing of his essay ultimately compromises his brave vision of “a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.”

Beinart’s article is at its heart a political argument. And as such, it locates the central issue of the “conflict” as the failures of the peace process, which he largely places at the door of successive Israeli governments. However, while the injustices of the peace process were undeniable, nowhere does Beinart mention a deeper and more fundamental injustice: i.e., the Nakba itself. In fact, throughout this long and powerfully argued manifesto, Beinart never once states that Jewish statehood resulted in the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people – a dispossession that is in fact ongoing even now.

In a very telling sentence, Beinart writes “averting a future in which oppression degenerates into ethnic cleansing requires a vision that can inspire not just Palestinians, but the world.” Whether inadvertently or not, he treats ethnic cleansing as something we must forestall in the future, not something that has been very much ongoing since 1948. And therein lies the problem: such an attitude betrays a mindset that views this issue as a political conflict to be solved, not a moral injustice to be confronted. 

In the end, however, both of these things are intrinsically connected. There can be no political solution without a restorative/reparative process through which Israel ends its oppression of the Palestinian people and formally admits to the historic wrongs it has committed against them. For a contemporary model, we have to look no farther than South Africa and the creation its Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It would have been unthinkable to pretend apartheid could have been dismantled without such a process. And while it was by no means perfect or completely successful, South African leaders understood that there would never been any hope for reconciliation if white South Africans did not engage in some form of political confession and repair.

I am struck that Beinart chose to end his article with poetic images of reconciliation, in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis mourn the dead of the Nakba and the Holocaust respectively. But it is deeply problematic to leap to such a vision without honoring the difficult and painful process of restorative justice that would make it at all possible. Even more problematic is Beinart’s juxtaposition of the Nakba – a wrong perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians – with the Holocaust: a wrong committed against European Jewry that had nothing to do with the Palestinian people. To be sure, the legacy of the Holocaust is a complex and painful one – but it is difficult in the extreme to share Beinart’s hope in this restorative vision if he is unable to admit the need for a restorative process at all.

I know that for Liberal Zionists, defining Israel’s birth with the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of another people is very likely a bridge too far. It might well be that Beinart made a conscious calculation that if he was to reach his desired audience, he would not be able to go there in this particular essay. But in the end, if there is to be a just and sustainable peace in Israel/Palestine, this essential injustice will sooner or later have to be confronted.

In the end, Liberal Zionists will not only have to give up on the two-state solution, but on the myth of innocence at the heart of political Zionism itself. I’m not sure that this is a place Liberal Zionists, including Beinart, will ever be able to go – but if and when that happens, what a brave step that would be.

On Hanukkah, Let’s Rededicate Our Commitment to Environmental Justice

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TOMERTU / SHUTTERSTOCK

Cross-posted with Truthout

The central story commemorated on Hanukkah comes from books 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tells of a small group of Jews in the land of Israel that fought to liberate their community from the increasingly oppressive reign of the Seleucid empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the empire had imposed their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish community; in 167 BCE, Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice. The Jewish band known as the Maccabees subsequently waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the temple and ultimately, the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth.

The meaning of Hanukkah has historically been understood and interpreted in many different ways by Jewish communities throughout the centuries. For the rabbis of the Talmud, who sought to downplay the militarism and violence of the story, the holiday is emblematic of God’s miraculous power, symbolized famously by the Talmudic legend (quoted above) of a miraculous cruse of oil in the rededicated Temple that lasted for eight days. The Zionist movement and the state of Israel celebrate Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, glorifying the Maccabees’ military struggle for political independence. In many nations throughout the Jewish diaspora, the festival is often understood as an expression of Jewish minority pride and a celebration of religious freedom.

More recently, some American Jewish religious leaders have been reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday of sacred environmental concern, framing the legend of the oil as a lesson about the importance of energy sustainability. Jewish environmental activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for instance, has proposed observing “Eight Days of Environmental Action” during Hanukkah, suggesting that the legend “is a reminder that if we have the courage to change our lifestyles to conserve energy, the miracle of our own creativity will sustain us.” The website of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) now devotes an entire section to “Green Resources for Hanukkah.” The Jewish environmental organization Hazon also offers extensive resources for the holiday, including “10 Ways to Make your Hanukkah More Sustainable.”

While these new approaches are certainly meaningful as far as they go, it is worth questioning why the environmental dimensions of Hanukkah must begin and end with green personal behaviors. Given that the festival celebrates a struggle for liberation, Hanukkah also offers us a powerful opportunity to highlight and celebrate the emergent global movement for environmental justice.

This connection is particularly relevant since this struggle is unfolding in critical ways in the land where the Hanukkah story actually took place. In fact, the state of Israel has a well-documented history of monopolizing and exploiting the natural resources of historic Palestine — all too often at the expense of the Palestinian people themselves. If we are truly serious about celebrating Hanukkah as a “green holiday,” we should also use these eight days to shine a light on the myriad environmental injustices being committed in Israel/Palestine — and further, to rededicate ourselves to the movement for environmental justice there and around the world.

“Green Colonialism” in Israel/Palestine

Environmentalism has always been central to the myth of Zionist pioneers who described themselves as having “greened the barren desert” of Palestine. Like many of my generation who came of age in American Jewish religious schools, I well remember being taught that helping the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant pine trees in Israel was an act of almost sacred significance. Like generations of Hebrew school students before and after us, we were encouraged to regularly put coins in the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes and were given certificates as gifts whenever a tree was planted in our honor or for a special occasion.

The reality beneath this mythos, however, reveals a much more problematic and troubling history. We didn’t learn the crucial colonial goal behind the JNF’s forestation policy throughout Palestine — that the widespread planting of pine groves and forests was instrumental in the dispossession of Palestinians. We certainly didn’t learn about Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF from 1932 to 1948, who was a primary architect of the Zionist policy of Palestinian Arab “transfer,” often advocating for this policy openly and unabashedly.

At a meeting of the Transfer Committee in 1937, for instance, Weitz stated:

The transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.

It is now known that pine forests planted by the JNF were widely used as national and recreational parks to hide the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages and neighborhoods that were depopulated by force in 1948. According to scholars Ilan Pappé and Samer Jaber, “covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible.” The Israeli organization Zochrot estimates that “more than two-thirds of [JNF] forests and sites — 46 out of 68 — conceal or are located on the ruins of Palestinian villages demolished by Israel.”

In a recent conference call sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), journalist/activist Naomi Klein referred to this practice as “green colonialism,” pointing out that “the use of conservation and tree planting and forest protection as a tool of settler colonialism is not unique to Israel” and that “the creation of state parks and national parks (in North America) are seen by Indigenous people in these settler colonial contexts in similar ways.” According to Klein, “there is a long and ongoing history of conservation … where the land is declared a park and the traditional inhabitants and users of the land are locked out.”

The cumulative environmental impact of nonindigenous pine trees throughout historic Palestine has been devasting. European pines, which were consciously planted to evoke the memory of the forests familiar to Zionist settlers, have largely failed to adapt to the local soil, requiring frequent replanting. As they have aged, non-native pines also have demanded more and more water, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, falling pine needles have acidified the soil, inhibiting the growth of native species.

This practice, coupled with the steadily soaring temperatures in the region, has increasingly led to devastating forest fires such as the Carmel wildfire in 2010, estimated to be the worst in Israel’s history. Given its grievous environmental impact, the 2010 fire subsequently precipitated a widespread reassessment in Israel of early Zionist tree-planting policies. In 2011, Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the JNF, grudgingly admitted, “Planting is still important, but in many cases we have to make a kind of change in our consciousness.…We are now building sustainable forestry after these pioneering pines did a wonderful job for the first generation.”

Of course, given the rising threat of the global climate crisis, this admission arrives as too little, too late. Increasingly dangerous conflagrations are now a regular occurrence throughout Israel; this past summer, three simultaneous wildfires necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of residents across the country. This trend is particularly ominous given that this region is among the hardest hit by the climate crisis. At the UN Climate Conference in Madrid this month, the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a report listing a number of devastating projections, including an expected rise in the risk of natural disasters.

“Water Apartheid” in the West Bank

The struggle over water resources is another important example of historic and ongoing climate injustice in Israel/Palestine. Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region, a monopoly the human rights group Al-Haq refers to as “water apartheid.” According to Amnesty International, Palestinian consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is about 70 liters a day per person (well below the 100 liters per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization) whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption is about 300 liters. In some rural communities, Palestinians survive on 20 liters per day.

Those who visit the West Bank cannot help but be struck by the sight of Israeli settlements, with lush, well-watered lawns looming over Palestinian towns and villages surrounded by rocky soil and sparse vegetation. This is largely due to the fact that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the West Bank, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River, which is completely denied to Palestinians.

As a result of this inequitable system, some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water. In towns and villages which are connected to the water network, water rationing is common, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water of often dubious quality at a much higher price. (The Mountain Aquifer, one of the most valuable natural resources in the region, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line, a key factor in Israel’s inexorable annexation of the West Bank.)

Over the years, Israel’s over-pumping of underground aquifers has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and caused saline water intrusion in many areas. The average flow of the Jordan River has been decreasing dramatically and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry run-off that it was declared unsafe for baptism by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2010 (known today as EcoPeace Middle East). The Dead Sea has shrunk into two separate and rapidly evaporating bodies of water, increasingly polluted by Israeli companies that pump out its salts for cosmetic products.

Environmental Injustice in Gaza

When it comes to Gaza, Israel’s crushing 12-year-old blockade has almost completely depleted the supply of drinkable water for the nearly 2,000,000 Palestinians who live in this small strip of land. Gaza’s only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population, and Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. In the meantime, the aquifer has been steadily depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 97 percent of its water has been contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Stringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of its water and sanitation situation. For the past several years, sewage has been flowing into the Mediterranean at a rate of 110 million liters a day. At present, 97 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption and only 10 percent of Gaza’s residents have access to safe drinking water.

However, as is invariably the case with issues of environmental injustice, what goes around comes around. This past June, EcoPeace Middle East reported that the collapsing environmental situation in Gaza was creating a “national security risk” to Israel, warning that “the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to (Israel).” In a particularly perverse example of victim-blaming, the Israeli military recently urged the World Health Organization to condemn the “ecological catastrophe” caused by the burning of tires by Palestinians on the border during the weekly Great March of Return protests.

In addition to water pollution, there have also been reports of rapidly increasing soil contamination due to Israel’s regular military assaults on Gaza. According to a report by the New Weapons Research Group, Israeli bombings in Gaza Strip have left a high concentration of toxic metals, such as tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium and cobalt in the soil. These metals can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious and harmful effects on newly born babies.

Hanukkah and Global Climate Justice

What does this current environmental reality bode for the future of the Jewish state? British journalist Robert Cohen powerfully concludes that the climate crisis, coupled with Israel’s steady over-exploitation of resources, has functionally rendered Zionism “obsolete.”

“How,” writes Cohen, “can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round…? When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land.”

Cohen’s point can certainly be applied to the world at large. The climate crisis clearly knows no borders. But while no one will ultimately be safe from its devastating effects, we can be sure that the more powerful will increasingly seek to safeguard themselves and their interests at all costs at the expense of the less powerful. Such is the harsh reality of “green colonialism”: as the climate crisis renders more and more of the world uninhabitable, we are clearly witnessing increased state efforts at border militarization, population control and the warehousing of humanity.

What then, is to be done? In a recent op-ed for The Nation, journalist Ben Ehrenreich offered this compelling prescription: “it is time to shout, and loudly, that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.… If we are to survive as a species, we must know that no boat can save us except the one we build together.” In her JVP presentation, Naomi Klein echoed this challenge in similarly powerful terms:

What is clear is that the space for humanity to live well is contracting…. So, the core question is what kind of people are we going to be as we live in greater density? And if we look to Israel/Palestine, we see a really terrifying example of how to lose your humanity and how to fail to share land — and the monstrousness it requires to fail to share….

This is a global process that is happening now … so we’re going to have to start practicing solidarity and mutual aid. And we’re going to have to practice love and show each other what love looks like in public more and more. Because a lot of people have lost faith that they can do it.

There can be no better Hanukkah message for the 21st century. Given the realities of our current age, the nationalist dimensions of the holiday are not merely irrelevant, but dangerous. In the words of poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales, “this time it’s all of us or none.” If Hanukkah is to be a true celebration of environmental justice, it must become a “rededication” to fight for a more universal vision of liberation, for a world of solidarity, mutual aid and open borders.

Or to put it another way, the Maccabees’ struggle must now be broadened to represent the universal struggle of all who are committed to showing what love looks like in public, for the sake of all humanity. For the age of global climate crisis, the stakes could not be higher.

Israel and North America: A Tale of Two Judaisms

Nur Shlapobersky / Never Again Action

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

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

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

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

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

(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our day.