Category Archives: Nonviolence

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. 

Playing Politics with Human Rights: Thoughts on the Recent Anti-BDS House Bill

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photo: Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor

Last Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass an anti-BDS bill with the strong support of progressive democrats (including “squad” member Ayanna Pressley). I know there are many who are asking how and why did this happen? As I see it, the answer, as always, is pure politics.

Just a bit of history: the genesis of the bill known as H. Res. 246 dates back to the AIPAC convention last March, when a number of liberal Jewish groups, including  J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and Reconstructing Judaism (my own denomination), met informally to give their preliminary approval to this prospective bill. As they saw it, this was a strategic move. The bill was designed to give cover to liberal Democrats who had previously voted against anti-constitutional bills that virtually criminalized BDS. This new bill would allow them to vote on the record for a non-binding bill that criticized BDS without curtailing freedom of speech or labeling it as antisemitic. It would also give Democrats aligned with liberal Zionist groups the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the two state solution.

Like I said, pure politics.

Still, no matter how much liberal Democrats might rationalize their support for H. Res. 246, (Rep. Pressley explained on Twitter that her vote affirmed to her “constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist”) no amount of explaining can wash away the fact that this resolution is a cynical political move that unfairly and incorrectly attacks a genuinely non-violent movement for human rights – and will do little to advance the cause of real justice in Israel/Palestine.

Just a few responses to the actual text of the resolution:

• While the resolution mentions “rising anti-Semitism,” it is completely silent on anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia. Even the simple term “occupation” is nowhere to be found.

• The resolution claims that the BDS “seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world.” In fact, this is not the goal of BDS; the very suggestion reduces the entire movement to an essentially nefarious aim. Rather, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS advocates for non-violent economic activism as a tactic toward three rights-based goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

• The resolution claims that BDS “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations.” The three goals of BDS above are not “concessions” – they are basic rights enshrined in international law that have been patently ignored or denied in previous negotiations. There is nothing in the BDS call that “rejects negotiations.”

• The resolution quotes BDS leader Omar Barghouti (who addressed Tzedek Chicago on the eve of Passover this year) thus: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” While this quote is genuine, it crucially omits the first part of his statement: “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”

Here, Barghouti calls into question whether an exclusively Jewish state – as opposed to one state of all its citizens – can ever be truly democratic. This is an important question that deserves genuine consideration and debate. This egregiously truncated quote, however, only serves to imply Barghouti and the BDS movement seeks nothing more than the “destruction of the Jewish state.”

• The resolution states that the BDS movement ” targets … individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel.” This is a false and spurious accusation that the resolution offers with no evidence whatsoever. The targets of BDS campaigns have always been institutions, not individuals. (The government of Israel and Israel advocacy organizations, however, routinely target individuals with blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission and by barring entry of Palestine solidarity activists into the country.)

• The resolution states “BDS does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” There is no universal consensus that self-determination for any group of people must ipso facto mean the establishment of an independent nation state on a particular piece of land. Self-determination goes by many definitions and takes many forms. There are millions of Jews around the world who are happy to enjoy individual self determination in the nations in which they live. (It’s also worth noting that the Israeli government recently passed a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel.)

• The resolution states that BDS “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel.” Here again, the resolution is putting out a damaging claim without offering any evidence whatsoever. What can be stated however, is that however uncomfortable some Jewish students may be made to feel by pro-divestment campaigns on their campuses, pro-Israel activist students enjoy significant support from college and university administrations. By contrast, Palestine solidarity activists (including many Jewish students) experience routine suppression of their freedom of speech. Palestine Legal reports that “seventy-six percent of the incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related” and that they “responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine activists, double the number from 2017.”

• The resolution states “in contrast to protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change, the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel is not about promoting coexistence, civil rights, and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of the country and its people.” To this, I can only say, see bullet point #2 above. In fact, the BDS call is actually very much akin to “protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change.” Nowhere does it “delegitimize” the state of Israel. Anyone who take the time to read the actual call will see it focuses exclusively on the basic, essential rights that Israel routinely denies Palestinians.

To this final point, it was quite sobering to contemplate that on the very day that the House voted to condemn a nonviolent Palestinian call for human rights, House members were notably silent in response to Israel’s massive demolition of homes in East Jerusalem that took place at the very same moment.

In the end, despite the cynical politics behind this particular bill, I cannot personally view this as merely a political issue alone. As a Jew and a person of faith, I view the BDS call as nothing short of a religious imperative. I said as much in an address I was honored to deliver at the American Academy of Religion two years ago:

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

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

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

Blessed are the ones who hearken to the cry of the oppressed.

Olives and Maror: A Seder Supplement in Honor of the Great Return March

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photo: AP

Here is an excerpt from my new Passover seder supplement, “Olives and Maror – The Great Return March:”

And so, on this night of Passover we affirm: we cannot gather to tell the Exodus story without acknowledging the liberation narrative that is currently unfolding at the Gaza border. We affirm further: if we remember our own persecution yet fail to call out Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people, our seder will not be complete.

We now combine maror and olives, to acknowledge the bitterness of lives lost and dreams denied – together with the eternal hope of justice and return. Let us redouble our resolve to do our part to make these hopes and dreams a reality bimeirah be’yamneinu – speedily and in our own day.

Click here for the entire supplement to print out and read at your seder table this year. (Click here, here, here and here for supplements I’ve written in previous years.)

I Witnessed the Horror of Border Militarization, and Vow to Fight It

Cross-posted with Truthout

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Interfaith clergy lead demonstrators through Border Field State Park en route to the San Diego – Tijuana border (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)

I‘ve just returned from the San Diego-Tijuana border where I had the honor of participating in “Love Knows No Borders” — an interfaith action sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and co-sponsored by a myriad of faith organizations from across the country. As a staffer for AFSC and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (one of the many co-sponsoring organizations), I took a special pride in this interfaith mobilization, in which more than 400 people from across the country gathered to take a moral stand against our nation’s sacrilegious immigration system. I’m particularly gratified that the extensive media from our action could shine a light on the brutal reality at our increasingly militarized southern border.

The date of the action (December 10) was symbolically chosen to take place on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and served as the kick off to a nationwide week of action that will conclude on December 18, International Migrant’s Day. The action set three basic demands before the US government: to respect people’s human right to migrate, to end the militarization of border communities, and to end the detention and deportation of immigrants.

Over the course of this past weekend, hundreds of participants streamed into San Diego for orientation and training. To conclude our preparation and as a precursor to the upcoming action, an interfaith service was held in the packed sanctuary of University Christian Church. As one of the Jewish leaders of the service, I noted that it was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah and invited the Jewish members of our delegation up to sing the blessings.

Before the lighting, I explained that the final night of Hanukkah is the night in which our light shines the brightest, and I pointed out the wonderful confluence of this Jewish festival with our interfaith action the following day. Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ leader and prominent social justice activist, delivered one of the most powerful messages of the evening, properly placing the issue of immigrant justice within the context of US white supremacy. (You can find the Facebook Live video of the service here. The Hanukkah lighting begins at the 24:30 mark; Rev. Blackmon’s remarks begin at 1:19:16.)

Arrests at the Border

The next morning, we gathered at AFSC’s San Diego office and left in buses to Border Field State Park, located just north of the border with Tijuana. After a press conference, we marched west down the trail to the beach, then turned south and approached the border fence, which snaked across the beach and jutted several hundred feet into the water. As we got closer, we could see a tangle of barbed concertina wire laid out in front of the fence. Behind the wire stood a phalanx of heavily armed border patrol.

When we reached the edge of the wire, some of the clergy formed a semi-circle and offered blessings for the migrants. As the prayers were spoken aloud, border patrol officers used a megaphone to inform us that we were trespassing on federal property and that we needed to move to the back of the wire. I recited the Priestly Benediction in Hebrew and English (“May God bless you and keep you …”), doing my best to articulate the prayer between the voices of border patrol barking out orders (a ceremonial first for me).

When our blessings were over, we went back to the other side of the barbed wire and those of us in front formed a line directly facing the guards. A border patrol officer repeatedly told us to leave, adding that he did not want any violence — an ironic statement considering that he and the rest of the riot-gear clad border patrol officers wielded automatic weapons in front of our faces. We began to chant freedom chants and held the line, even as the border patrol officers inched forward and started to push us back.

While we were careful not to touch any officers, we continued to hold the line as the border patrol pushed us forward. Eventually, protesters who did not yield were grabbed, pulled to the border patrol’s side of the line and arrested. Most men were thrown to the ground and held down with their faces in the sand while their hands were bound together with plastic ties; women were generally allowed to kneel before they were led away from the beach to waiting border patrol vans

As I continued to hold the line on the far west end of the front line, I noticed a commotion at the other end: Officers had broken through the line and were chasing protesters down the beach. I saw one of our protest organizers, AFSC staffer Matt Leber, roughly thrown to the ground by at least five or six border patrol officers, handcuffed and led away. While Leber did not intend to take an arrest, this kind of intentional targeting of organizers is a common law enforcement tactic.

In this video taken of the incident you can see Leber (wearing the red T-shirt and backpack) guiding the protest when he is suddenly attacked, unprovoked, by the border patrol, who lunge at him and yank off his backpack. You can also see AFSC staffer Jacob Flowers (wearing the yellow vest) being thrown to the ground.

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Border patrol officers arrest AFSC staffer Matt Leber (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)

Shortly after Leber’s arrest, I dropped to my knees and was grabbed and pinned down by two border patrol officers. When it became clear that I wasn’t resisting, they allowed me to stand of my own accord and led me to the line of arrested protesters who were arrayed along a fence, waiting to be placed into vans.

According to the border patrol, 32 of us were arrested. We don’t currently have an exact arrest count, but it seems that most of us were charged with the misdemeanor of “nonconformity to the orders of a Federal Law Enforcement officer.” When a day went by with no further word about Leber, AFSC released a statement calling for his immediate release. To our collective relief, he was eventually let out of the Metropolitan Correction Center on Tuesday afternoon.

The True Meaning of Border Militarization

During our debrief, many noted the ferocity of the border guard’s response to our prayerful, nonviolent demonstration. Many of us — in particular the white, privileged members of our delegation — agreed that we had gained a deeper sense of empathy and solidarity with our migrant neighbors, a stronger understanding of the toxic effects of militarization on our border communities, and a more profound conviction than ever that we must all fight for a nation that receives immigrants with open hearts and open doors.

This experience also served to demonstrate what “militarization of the border” truly means. My friend and fellow Jewish Voice for Peace member Elaine Waxman put it well when she wrote about our experience on her Facebook page:

What has stuck with me most in the last 24 hours is a deeply uncomfortable sense of what that border surely looks like when the witnesses are gone, the journalists are not taking pictures, and the encounters are with migrants instead of documented (and often white) community leaders. Because what we saw yesterday looks like a police state.

Indeed, when we stood up to the line of armed border patrol officers, I couldn’t help but flash back to my very similar experience in a direct action with Youth Against Settlements during the summer of 2006 in Hebron. In both cases we faced heavily armed soldiers, the loud screaming of orders, and the use of the threat of violence to intimidate and deter those who do not yield to state control.

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Clergy demonstrators hold the line at the San Diego – Tijuana border fence. (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)

I also noticed another, more specific similarity between these two experiences. When I stood in front of the border guards on the beach, I noticed familiar tear gas canisters belted across their chests. I’d seen the same on soldiers throughout the West Bank and Gaza: silver cylinders with blue writing manufactured by Combined Tactical Systems in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.

Seeing those same canisters at the US-Mexico border reminded me of the multiple intersections between systems of state violence and corporate profit – and of the need for a movement that will expose and dismantle them once and for all.

A Yom Kippur Martyrology Service for Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader: Tahrir Mahmoud Wahba, 18 years old.

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

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

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

 

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

Reader: Yasser Mortaja, 31 years old.

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

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

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

Reader: Razan al-Najjar, 21 years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atoning for Gaza: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the authors write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except they are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Rabbi Andy Bachman’s Public Congratulations to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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Dear Rabbi Bachman,

While I share your admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District, I am dismayed by the heavy-handed way you chose to convey your congratulations. I’m referring to your open letter to her (Jewish Journal, 7/4/18) in which you expressed your concern that her public statements about Israel and Palestine indicated a “less than nuanced perspective” and invited her to join you on a tour of the region.

While you did not identify which of her public statements you were referring to, I can only assume you meant this recent tweet, which she posted in response to Israel’s violent military response to Palestinian protesters in Gaza:

This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.

In a subsequent interview with the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, Ocasio-Cortez clarified the motivation behind her statement:

I think I was primarily compelled (to speak out) on moral grounds because I could only imagine if 60 people were shot and killed in Ferguson or if 60 people were shot and killed in the West Virginia teachers’ strikes. The idea that we are not supposed to talk about people dying when they are engaging in political expression just really moved me.

Again, I can only assume these were comments to which you referred. Her tweet was quoted and commented upon extensively in the Jewish press. As far as I can tell, she has made no other public statements on this issue,

Was it her use of the word “massacre” that bothered you? It is admittedly a strong word, but I’m not sure it is inappropriate under the circumstances. Since the weekly protestsbegan in late March, the Israeli military has responded by shooting live ammunition directly into crowds of largely nonviolent protesters nearly 1,000 meters away. To date, over 140 Palestinians have been killed and more than 15,000 have been injured. Almost all causalities have been civilians, of whom at least 1,200 were children treated in hospitals.

Amnesty International has called these killings “murderous,” calling upon “governments worldwide to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel following the country’s disproportionate response.” According to AI’s report:

In most of the fatal cases…victims were shot in the upper body, including the head and the chest, some from behind. Eyewitness testimonies, video and photographic evidence suggest that many were deliberately killed or injured while posing no immediate threat to the Israeli soldiers.

For its part, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has referred to Israel’s actions as “criminal” and has publicly called upon soldiers to refuse to open fire on demonstrators in Gaza. Noting that it is a criminal offense to obey patently illegal orders, B’Tselem stated that “as long as soldiers in the field continue to receive orders to use live fire against unarmed civilians, they are duty-bound to refuse to comply.”

Given the findings and public statements of these respected human right organizations, I’m curious what in Ocasio-Cortez’s words you found to be “less than nuanced.” I’m sure you would agree that state violence directed at unarmed protesters should be called out as such. I was struck that in your letter you chose not to identify who actually did the killing and who was actually killed in Gaza, describing the events passively as “recent violence and tragic deaths.” To my mind, this is the kind of “nuance” that ultimately drains all moral context from the facts on the ground.

I’m also troubled that you chose not to respond to her actual words, opting instead to give her a tutorial on the history of Zionism, the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of Israel and the importance of a two-state solution. You are certainly welcome to your opinions, but I don’t understand what they have to do with her comments or why, under the circumstances, you felt she should take them to heart.

As a public figure, Ocasio-Cortez responded to clear human rights abuses in a forthright and courageous manner. She deserved much more than a condescending lecture and a personal invitation to your own “nuanced” tour of Israel/Palestine.