Crossposted with Truthout
The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover is coming to a close, but like many Jews around the world I’m still digesting the myriad questions, answers and discussions that ensued as we retold the biblical story of the Exodus at our seder. While it’s a story our community returns to over and over again, I’m continually astonished at the ways it provides a frame for understanding struggles for liberation past and present.
This year, I’ve been contemplating one aspect of the story in particular: when a new pharaoh arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph.” We immediately learn in no uncertain terms that this new ruler was considerably more xenophobic than his predecessor:
And (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:8-9)
To use contemporary parlance, Pharaoh clearly views the Israelites as a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians.
The demographic threat meme, of course, has been played out countless times since the age of the pharaohs. It has certainly been a deeply woven thread in the fabric of American culture from our very origins. To cite but one example: Centuries before Donald Trump started railing against Mexican “criminals” and “rapists,” Benjamin Franklin wrote a 1751 essay in which he bemoaned the influx of “Palatine Boors” into the colonies who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”
So yes, as an American, I can’t read these words from the Exodus story without connecting it to an ignoble aspect of my own country’s legacy — one that is all too real even today.
And as an American Jew, I can’t help but connect it to another country that also purports to act in my name.
Indeed, ever since Israel’s establishment, Zionist leaders knew well that the future Jewish state would only be “viable” if it could create and maintain a demographic Jewish majority in historic Palestine. In the late 19th century, this must surely have seemed like a tall order, since Jews constituted but 2 to 5 percent of the population. By 1947, following decades of Zionist colonization and Jewish immigration, their number had swelled to 32 percent. Under the UN-sponsored partition plan, the percentage of Jews allotted to the new Jewish state would have been 55 percent.
During the 1948 war — known as the War of Independence by Zionists and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) by Palestinians — the issue of demographics was solved through the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and Israel’s refusal to allow them to return. However, the demographic stakes were raised once again in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began a military occupation that exists to this day.
In 2010, Jews officially become a minority population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; around the same time, it was determined that the Jewish majority in Israel proper was slowly diminishing. For some time now, Zionists have been warning that the Palestinians’ birth rate poses a “demographic threat” to the future of the Jewish state.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t only come from Israel’s far right, but from liberal Zionists, who use the demographic argument to advocate for a two-state solution. Witness, for instance, the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:
When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.
Leaving aside the issues of whether or not the two-state solution actually is the policyof the Israeli government, let’s unpack this statement for a moment. The liberal Zionist argument for a “democratic Jewish state” is predicated on a view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” As an American, if I referred to any other ethnic group in this country with such a term, I would surely be viewed as a bigot or a racist. But as a Jew, I can refer to Palestinians with this epithet and still remain a member in good standing of the liberal peace camp.
Thus the inherent contradiction of liberal Zionism: democracy and demographic engineering simply do not go hand in hand. At the end of the day, there is nothing liberal about supporting an ethno-national project predicated upon the identity of one group over another. The late Meir Kahane, revered by Israel’s ultra right, loved to make liberal Zionists squirm by repeatedly articulating this point: “A western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.”
Kahane’s solution, of course, was “forced transfer” of the Palestinian population. The current government of Israel is accomplishing this goal through more subtle means:home demolitions, land expropriation and the revocation of Palestinians’ residency and citizenship. In truth, Israel has been dealing with its demographic threat under cover of US support for years, all the while claiming the mantle of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
This, along with its massive settlement expansion has brought Israel’s demographic problem home to roost. The real decision before them is not between a one-state or two-state solution, but between two one-state solutions: an apartheid Jewish state or one state of all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
As I watch this tragic process unfold this Passover, I find myself returning to the universal lesson this festival imparts on the corrupt abuse of state power. Although the Exodus story is considered sacred in Jewish tradition, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary state of Israel must be seen as equivalent to the biblical Israelites.
On the contrary, any people who suffer under oppressive government policies are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that views a people in its midst as a demographic threat can become a Pharaoh.
Your child will ask
why do we observe this festival?
And you will answer
it is because of what God did for us
when we were set free from the land of Egypt.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might hold tightly
to the pain of our enslavement
with a mighty hand?
And you will answer
we were set free from Egypt
that we might release our pain
by reaching with an outstretched arm
to all who struggle for freedom.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
because we are God’s chosen people?
And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
so that we will finally come to learn
all who are oppressed
are God’s chosen.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might conquer and settle
a land inhabited by others?
And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
that we might open wide the doors
Let all who are dispossessed return home.
Let all who wander find welcome at the table.
Let all who hunger for liberation
come and eat.
Here is the letter I included in my weekly Friday e-mail to my congregants at Tzedek Chicago:
One week ago, Tzedek Chicago cancelled its regularly scheduled Shabbat service in order to attend the Trump protest that was being held outside the UIC Pavilion. It just felt as if this was just too critical a moment to let pass by, particularly for a congregation committed to social justice and anti-racism. As I wrote to you in last week’s email: “Clearly this is not the most conventional way to greet Shabbat. Nevertheless, I do believe – and trust you will agree – that this is where we need to be.”
In the end, about twenty Tzedek members attended the event – and I think all who were there would agree with me that I say it was one of the most powerful Shabbat moments we have ever experienced.
When we arrived there was still a very long line of people waiting to get into the arena. We couldn’t help but notice that the attendees were exceedingly diverse: there were people wearing Trump swag along with women in hijabs, men and women cheering for Trump alongside African Americans wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts. While it was clearly a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere, there was was no physical violence we could see among those waiting in line.
When we crossed the street to where the protest was being held, we were swept into a huge sea of people that was quickly being cordoned off by a massive police presence. As the crowd grew, it grew more difficult to keep our contingent together – and eventually we were separated into groups. A variety of different speakers took the microphone and led chants as those attending the rally continued to file into the pavilion.
While the majority of protestors seemed to be of college age, it was clearly an ethnically diverse crowd. It also quickly became evident that this protest was not just about Donald Trump. As Tzedek member Liz Rose subsequently wrote in her post for the blog Mondoweiss:
People came primarily to protest Trump, of course. But they were trying to draw attention to other pertinent issues as well (issues which might only worsen if Trump is elected). The diverse crowd was a convergence of these frustrations. Some protesters carried signs calling for Anita Alvarez to leave Chicago with Trump (Alvarez is the District Attorney who waited a year before bringing murder charges against the officer in the Laquan McDonald case). Many Chicago public school teachers were at the rally, wearing the red t-shirts that marked the 2012 strike (the Chicago Teachers’ Union is currently prepared to strike again if an agreement cannot be reached regarding their contract). Black Lives Matter signs and t-shirts were seen throughout the crowds as well, joined by chanting of the now-famous phrase…A scattering of signs showing solidarity with Palestine could be seen throughout the rally.
When word spread through the crowd that Trump had cancelled his event, we were quite simply, dumbstruck. None of us expected this to happen, nor did we ever believe it to be the goal of the protest. At any rate, our shock soon turned to joy and celebration when we realized that together, we had managed to keep the world’s most public purveyor of hate speech from speaking in Chicago.
After celebrating the moment, a group of us walked over to a nearby park and made kiddush and motzi together. It was, as I has suspected it would be, a Shabbat like no other.
Many of us had friends who were on the inside of the pavilion who told us later that there was no real violence in the arena either. Contrary to news reports, the attendees waited together fairly quietly until it was officially announced that the rally was being cancelled. At that point, anti-Trump protestors started cheering and celebrating. This precipitated some scuffling, pushing and shoving in some parts of the arena. But as my friends all reported to me, there was nothing they would describe as “violence.”
In fact, considering that this protest had no clear leaders or organizers, the level of restraint we witnessed outside was quite remarkable – which is why I was truly dismayed to see our protest portrayed as a violent melee in news reports. That is, alas, the power of our 24 hour media. (I couldn’t help but notice that TV reports on the protest repeated the same one or two clips of pushing and shoving over and over.)
I do believe that the media’s characterization of these events follows a common narrative – one that repeatedly portrays street as protesters disruptive trouble makers who are only interested in shutting down freedom of speech. (Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement surely know this media narrative all to well.) In fact, as any who have attended such protests in Chicago will attest, the overwhelming majority of these protests are nonviolent actions organized to raise a collective voice against racism and injustice.
I’m also struck by those who claim that these kinds of protests infringe on “freedom of speech.” It’s a curious use of the term. The First Amendment of the Constitution, in fact, is intended to be a restriction on the government’s ability to prohibit the public from exercising their freedom of speech. That certainly does not apply in this case. If Freedom of Speech has any relevance to this particular situation at all, it is that “we the people” had exercised our right to freely assemble and protest. (There are, however, laws that prohibit hate speech – laws that might certainly apply to one such as Trump.)
I can’t vouch for what might have happened at rallies in other cities, but I suspect the protesters were nowhere near as violent as the media (and Trump) would have us believe. As a result, some on the left are counseling passivity and quiet is the best course of action in response to a “bigot and bully” such as Trump.
I disagree. Generations from now, we will be asked where we were during Trump’s toxic Presidential campaign. I’m proud to say we were among those who stood up and kept him from spreading his hate in our city.
During the course of the tragic violence coming out of Jerusalem in the past week, I’ve been reading with familiar frustration the American Jewish establishment’s predictable accusations of “Palestinian incitement.” But I must confess I’m finding the reactions of some liberal Jewish leaders to be even more infuriating.
One prominent rabbi, for instance, who I know personally and would surely describe herself as on the progressive side of the Israeli peace camp, recently wrote this on her Facebook page:
Punching back with violence as a response to violence is the easy reaction. Each side has much to point to on the other side — each claims the mantel of victim, each claims the justice of their violent response. It takes courage to commit to non violence and lasting justice for all.
This is, indeed, the liberal Jewish meme when it comes to these outbreaks of violence in Israel/Palestine: “the level playing field.” According to this narrative, there is violence on both sides and peace will only come when courageous leaders on both sides commit to nonviolence.
The only problem with this narrative of course, is that it utterly ignores the all-pervasive and overwhelming nature of Israeli state violence. And given this structural imbalance of power, it is disingenuous in the extreme to somehow claim that “each side has much to point to on the other side.”
Yes, all violence is ugly and it is tragic – but this violence also exists within a context. Logically and ethically speaking, we simply cannot equate the brutal reality of state violence with the violence of those who resist it.
Yes, it does take “courage to commit to nonviolence and justice for all.” But when a state regularly employs violence to control and dominate another people, it is so very wrong to blithely call for “nonviolence” on all sides when that people inevitably fights back.
Nelson Mandela (once a “terrorist” now a “statesman”) certainly understood this when then South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha offered him the chance to be let out of prison (for the sixth time) if he publicly renounced violence – and Mandela famously responded, “Let him renounce violence.”
And even the most revered nonviolent leader of our day – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – had this to say in 1967 after speaking to the “the desperate, rejected and angry young men” who resorted to violence in America’s black ghettos:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
Yes, those in the Jewish community who purport to support the cause of peace must first reckon with the reality of the context of violence that exists every single day by a people who live under military occupation.
How many liberal Jewish leaders have called for “nonviolence” when last year, one Palestinian was killed by the Israeli military every 4.26 days? How many called for Israeli “nonviolence” last month after the killing of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, an 18 year old Palestinian woman who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in Hebron in what Amnesty International has described as an “extrajudicial execution?” For that matter, how many called for “lasting justice” this last July, when a Palestinian family was burned alive by settlers and the Israeli government stated it “had chosen to prevent legal recourse” even though it knew the identity of the murderers?
Frankly, given this constant and all pervasive context of Israeli state violence, it’s remarkable that these kinds of Palestinian uprisings don’t break out more often than they do. But when they invariably occur, we do the cause of peace no favors when we proclaim that “each side has much to point to on the other side” and call for a renewed commitment to “nonviolence.”
How will we achieve lasting justice for all? To paraphrase the oft-quoted Nelson Mandela: “Let Israel renounce violence.”
I’m honored and very, very excited to announce the creation of a new Jewish congregation: Tzedek Chicago. We recently held our launch program in our new home at Luther Memorial Church in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago – and I’m sure all who were present would agree there was a joyous excitement in the room as we shared our vision for our new congregation.
We’ll continue to reach out to potential members during the course of the summer and will officially kick off our religious programmatic calendar with High Holiday services this fall. I will be serving as the spiritual leader of Tzedek Chicago on a part time basis while continuing in my full time position as the Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee. I feel blessed indeed to be returning to congregational life in addition to my important work at AFSC, which has itself become a meaningful professional, spiritual and political home for me in so many ways.
How to describe our new congregation? Let me begin by sharing our core values with you:
…a Judaism beyond borders:
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our community promotes a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. Membership is not restricted to Jews or those who are partnered with Jews; our community welcomes all who share our values.
We advocate for a world beyond borders and reject the view that any one people, ethnic group or nation is entitled to any part of our world more than any other. Guided by the values in Jewish tradition that bids us to care for the earth that we share with all peoples and all life, we promote personal behaviors and public policies that will ensure preservation of our planet’s natural resources and its survival for future generations.
…a Judaism of solidarity:
We are inspired by prophetic Judaism: our tradition’s sacred imperative to take a stand against the corrupt use of power. We also understand that the 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. We emphasize the Torah’s repeated teachings to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor.
We actively pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
…a Judaism of nonviolence:
We honor those aspects of our tradition that promote peace and reject the pursuit of war as a solution to our conflicts. We openly disavow those aspects of our religion – and all religions – that promote violence, intolerance and xenophobia.
Our activism is based upon a vision of shared security for the world; we support the practices of nonviolence, civil resistance, diplomacy and human engagement. We take a stand against militarism and colonialism, particularly when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.
We oppose all forms of communal, family and interpersonal violence and support organizations working to strengthen community health, and peaceful, supportive coexistence. In all aspects of our communal life, we expect our members to treat each other with respect, engagement, and openness to the differences among us.
…a Judaism of spiritual freedom:
We promote spiritual exploration and encourage our members’ diverse beliefs. Some of our members adhere to more traditional views of the divine while others view God as a human expression of our highest, most transcendent aspirations. Others do not define themselves as religious, but identify with the humanist and cultural aspects of Jewish tradition.
We honor the inherent integrity of all faith traditions and reject all forms of religious exceptionalism. We actively partner with other faith communities in ways that celebrate our shared values and common humanity. In our activism, we actively work for religious freedom in our country and throughout the world.
…a Judaism of equity
In accordance with Torah’s imperative that there should be no needy among us, we work in solidarity with those who assert that poverty has no place in a civilized and moral society – and that all people have the right to safe food and water, safe living spaces, health care and education.
We are committed to transparent and egalitarian governance and decision-making in our congregational life. We value the contributions of all members equally, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, wealth or social standing.
…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.
We reject any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land, recognizing that it has historically been considered sacred by many faiths and home to a variety of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. We oppose Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and seek a future that includes full civil and human rights for all who live in the land – Jews and non-Jews alike.
I’m leading with this list because Tzedek Chicago is first and foremost a values-based community. What we do will be deeply informed by the values that drive us. By establishing this new congregation, we are very consciously attempting to create a Jewish spiritual home for the growing numbers of American Jews who cherish these values and seek a spiritual community in which to express them.
I’ve served as a congregational rabbi in liberal Jewish congregations for most of my adult life. And while I have found this work to be professionally meaningful and spiritually nourishing in its own right, I am now eager to explore a fundamentally different approach to Jewish congregational life. In particular, I’m interested in building an intentional Jewish community that views the pursuit of social justice as its central driving force.
I realize of course, that by espousing values such as these, our new congregation crosses any number of the contemporary Jewish community’s red lines. I certainly have no illusions how a Jewish congregation describing itself as “non-Zionist” and openly protests “Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people” will be received by the Jewish establishment. Given centrality of Zionism and Israel advocacy in Jewish communal life, it would be fair to say that Tzedek Chicago is very much a dissident congregation in the Jewish world.
I do believe, however, that we must make room in our community for Jews whose values dissent from what the communal establishment deems “mainstream.” It bears noting that dissent has historically occupied a venerable and even sacred place in Jewish life. Our congregation consciously and proudly seeks to lift up this dissident legacy – one which has long been indigenous to Jewish tradition itself in so many critical ways.
Indeed, the values I’ve listed above reflect a distinct liberatory narrative that runs through the heart of Judaism and Jewish history. It is a narrative rooted in the Exodus story that tells of a God who stands by the oppressed and demands that we do the same. It resonates through the words of Biblical prophets who spoke dangerous truths to power. It can be found in the courageous example of ancient rabbis who responded to the trauma of exile at the hands of the world’s mightiest empire by creating a religion with a universal message of healing and hope.
Among other things, the founding of Tzedek Chicago is an attempt to reclaim this Jewish narrative of liberation. As such, it reflects our desire to stand down a decidedly different Jewish narrative that has taken hold of the Jewish community since the end of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel – one that teaches that traumas of the past will inevitably become our future unless the Jewish people embraces the ways of empire, nationalism, physical might and militarism.
There is clearly much more to say about this phenomenon (and those who have followed this blog surely know that I’ve had a great deal to say about it over the years.) For now I’ll only add this: there are increasing numbers who believe this new Jewish narrative represents a betrayal of our most sacred legacy – and who seek to place solidarity, liberation and justice back on the Jewish agenda.
A few more specifics about our new congregation:
– In addition to major holidays, we will be holding two Shabbat programs per month – one on Friday evening and one on Saturday morning.
– We have intentionally kept our annual dues affordable – at $150.00 per member – so that the baseline expectation for full membership can be accessible to as many as possible.
– We will provide children’s programming during the course of the year. We will not be establishing a formal religious school at the outset because we believe it should emerge organically out of the community we create (and not vice versa).
– Rather than engage in social justice activism, our community will focus on organizing to help build movements for social change. To this end, we will participate actively in the growing grassroots solidarity movement that is organizing for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. We will also participate in Chicago’s rich and venerable organizing tradition by partnering with local community groups working for justice.
Needless to say, I will be posting about the work of our new community over the coming months and years. If our values and vision resonate with you please join us. You can visit our website here and our Facebook page here. If you have questions, feel free to email us at email@example.com
Finally, as I am filled with awe and gratitude to have reached this moment, I can only conclude with:
Source of all that lives and all that is:
We are so very grateful that you have given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this very sacred new beginning.
Last night I appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” with my friend and colleague Rabbi Andrea London to discuss the issue of Israel/Palestine in the wake of Netanyahu’s re-election. Andrea spoke to the J Street position while I represented the Jewish Voice for Peace point of view. Although the station tried repeatedly to find a local rabbi to represent the AIPAC line, none were willing to participate. I’m sad to report that several of the rabbis contacted cited my presence on the panel as the reason for their refusal.
On the other hand, I was so heartened that Andrea and I were able to model a principled and respectful Jewish communal debate on this issue and I was so grateful for her willingness to engage. Click here to watch.
I’d like to begin my remarks this morning with a verse from the Torah – it’s one of the central lessons at the heart of the Exodus story. It comes from the Burning Bush episode, when God reveals God’s self to Moses and tells him, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:9)
Now regardless of your theology – or even if you have a theology at all – I think there is a very profound lesson being taught to us by this verse. In a way, it provides us with a kind of physics approach to understanding liberation. Throughout human history, we have seen these moments – the moments when the experience of a community’s oppression reaches a tipping point. They invariably come when a community’s oppression becomes impossible to ignore, when the cry and the outrage becomes too great; when it becomes impossible to look away. It is at these critical moments in which the process of liberation inevitably begins.
I think of this lesson often when I think about the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestinian solidarity movement over the past few years. It is sobering to contemplate, but it’s true: most of the significant periods of growth of our organization have occurred as responses to devastating human tragedy. We all know how JVP has grown so dramatically in the wake of the tragedy of this past summer. I myself became actively involved in JVP following Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2009-09. In truth, the growth of our movement has been exponentially linked to the cries of the oppressed. Perhaps it has ever been thus.
During my remarks to you this morning, I’d like to offer a few brief meditations on how we at JVP might take advantage of this moment – this time which is clearly so critical in the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. Specifically speaking, I want to take my cue from JVP’s recent strategic plan, in which our leadership set our organizational goals for the next 3 to 5 years. I’d like to use two of these formal goals in particular as a frame; and use them to offer you a few thoughts on this critical time for our organization and our movement – and where the journey might lead form here.
I’ll start with Goal #4: “Shifting Culture and Public Discourse:”
Changing the public discourse and shifting cultural understandings of what is happening in Israel/Palestine is a prerequisite for changing policy.
In short, we are attempting to change the narrative on Israel/Palestine. I think we all know how central narrative change is to the process of political transformation. Speaking personally, I know how transformative it was for me to embrace a new narrative on Israel/Palestine – and how absolutely key it was to my participation in this movement. It represented a fundamental shift – it meant abandoning, painfully, the liberal Zionist narrative that had been at the center of my Jewish identity for my entire life.
I’d like to read to you now from a blog post that I wrote on December 28, 2009 – exactly one year after the onset of Israel’s so-called “Operation Cast Lead.” Though I don’t know that I fully appreciated it at the time, this post was ultimately about the transformative power of narrative change:
As I read this post one year later, I remember well the emotions I felt as I wrote it. I also realize what a critical turning point that moment represented for me.
As a Jew, I’ve identified deeply with Israel for my entire life. I first visited the country as a young child and since then I’ve been there more times that I can count. Family members and some of my dearest friends in the world live in Israel.
Ideologically speaking, I’ve regarded Zionism with great pride as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Of course I didn’t deny that this rebirth had come at the expense of another. Of course I recognized that Israel’s creation was bound up with the suffering of the Palestinian people. The situation was, well, it was “complicated.”
Last year, however, I reacted differently. I read of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a 140 square mile patch of land with nowhere to run. In the coming days, I would read about the bombing of schools, whole families being blown to bits, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated at all any more. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.
Of course I think we’d all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is technically complicated. But at the same time I think we all know that at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution. The political situation in Darfur, for instance, is enormously complicated – but these complications certainly haven’t stopped scores of Jews across North America from protesting the human rights injustices being committed there. We do so because we know that underneath all of the geopolitical complexities, oppression is oppression. And as Jews, we know instinctively that our sacred tradition and own tragic history require us to speak out against all oppression committed in our midst.
I’d suggest that if there is anything complicated for us here, it is in possibility that we might in fact have become oppressors ourselves. That is painfully complicated. After all, our Jewish identity has been bound up with the memory of our own persecution for centuries. How on earth can we respond – let alone comprehend – the suggestion that we’ve become our own worst nightmare?
More than anything else, this is was what I was trying to say in that anguished, emotional blog post one year ago: is this what it has come to? Have we come to the point in which Israel can wipe out hundreds of people, whole families, whole neighborhoods and our response as Jews will be to simply rationalize it away? At the very least will we able to stop and question what has brought us to this terrifying point? Have we become unable to recognize persecution for what it really and truly is?
Those who know me (or read my blog) surely know that it has been a painfully challenging year for me. My own relationship to Israel is changing in ways I never could have predicted. Since I started raising questions like those above, I’ve lost some friends and, yes, my congregation has lost some members. If Zionism is the unofficial religion of the contemporary Jewish community then I’m sure there are many who consider me something of an apostate.
But at the same time, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the large number of people I’ve met who’ve been able to engage with these questions openly and honestly, even if they don’t always agree with me. I suppose this is what I decided to do one year ago: to put my faith in our ability to stand down the paralyzing “complexities,” no matter how painful the prospect.
One year later, I still hold tight to this faith.
When I wrote back then that my relationship to Israel had changed in ways I could never have predicted, I was openly acknowledging that my accepted narrative had shifted – and it led to life changes that are still ongoing for me. It certainly transformed the way I saw myself as a Jew and how I would do my work as a congregational rabbi.
But on a deeper sense, I think this narrative change transformed me on what I can only call a spiritually cellular level. It challenged me to reckon with the meaning of solidarity in its truest, most universal form. It reaffirmed that lesson that comes straight from the heart of the Exodus story; the story that teaches God hearkens to the cries of the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And it empowered me to speak my truth in unprecedented ways – as I put it in that blog post, “to stand down the paralyzing ‘complexities,’ now matter how painful the prospect.
I’ve also come to believe that narrative change is not only true on the personal, but on the political level as well. We know from experience that narratives which were formerly unthinkable can eventually become all too politically real. A big part of the challenge is learning how best to articulate our discourse; understanding when, where and in what ways it can be most effective.
The most challenging place to do this narrative changing work, I think we all agree, is within the mainstream Jewish community. And that brings me to Goal #1: “Challenging institutional Jewish communities.” Again I’ll quote:
We are challenging institutional Jewish communities to act on values of justice, and we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
Having made a home in the institutional Jewish community for my entire adult life, I will say that I do believe there is important work to be done in engaging the Jewish establishment on this issue. When I started doing Palestinian solidarity work openly and unabashedly, I had been working in my congregation in Evanston for 10 years. And I take great heart in the fact that for the next 10 years, I was supported by my congregational leadership and by the majority of my congregants, even when many didn’t agree with me.
So yes, I believe there are indeed signs that we are seeing a nascent paradigm shift beginning in the Jewish community on this issue. Open Hillel is providing us with an inspiring important model of how to fight for a wide Jewish communal tent. This past summer, “If Not Now, When” showed us magnificently what principled Jewish communal dissent might look like. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of these initiatives have been organized and led by young people – and this should give us very real hope for the future of this discourse in the American Jewish community.
At the same time, however, I don’t have any illusions about the ability of the Jewish establishment to be pushed to act on values of justice when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I have many rabbinical and Jewish professional colleagues who must remain in the closet about their work with JVP – because to make their affiliation would constitute a very real professional risk. There are actually JVP members at this very gathering who have to wear stickers on their name plates that say “no photos please” for fear that they might endanger or lose their jobs – a reality that should rightly appall each and every one of us.
So at the end of the day, I think we need to be realistic about the challenge before us when we talk about engaging the mainstream Jewish community on the issue of Israel/Palestine. It is and will continue to be a daunting and perilous task. And frankly: on a strategic level we need to be honest about how much time, energy and resources we need to spend trying to engage the Jewish institutional community on this issue.
Actually, when it comes right down to it, I’m much more excited by the second half of this Goal #1: we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.
In this regard, I was so pleased and excited to hear Rebecca Vilkomerson talk during the opening plenum – and Cecile Surasky last night – about the ways JVP is creating a new and unprecedented form of Jewish community. For the remainder of my remarks, then, I’d like to explore what a justice-centered Jewish community might actually look like. I’d like to suggest a vision that is fundamentally, perhaps radically different than our customary notions of Jewish community.
I’d like to read an excerpt to you now from a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave three years ago entitled, “Judaism With Tribalism.” Although I did not specifically intend it so at the time, I believe it promotes a vision I believe is deeply relevant to the kind of community we are trying to create here at JVP:
I know personally how hard it is for many of us to challenge our tribal Jewish legacy. But as for me, I believe to my very core that whether we like it or not, our collective future will depend upon building more bridges, and not more walls, between peoples and nations. I believe the most effective way for us to survive – the only way we will bequeath our traditions to the next generation – is to affirm a Judaism that finds sacred meaning in our connection to kol yoshvei tevel – all who dwell on earth.
I also believe this because I know that while Judaism certainly contains tribal and parochial teachings, it also has also a strong tradition of religious humanism – mitzvot that demand we love all our neighbors as ourselves. After all, one of the first – and most powerful – teachings in the Torah is that human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. From the outset we learn that all human beings are equally worthy of respect, dignity and love – and, I would add, equally worthy of one another’s allegiance and loyalty. Moreover, a key rabbinic concept, Kavod HaBriyot, demands that we ensure all people are treated with honor and dignity. In a famous verse from the classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is honored? The one who honors all human beings.”
All are created in God’s image. Honor comes to the one who honors all people. To my mind, these are the strands of Judaism we must seek out and affirm in no uncertain terms. In this day and age, when the fates of all peoples are becoming so very deeply intertwined, I believe we must consider values such as B’tzelem Elohim and Kevod HaBriyot to be among the most sacred of our tradition.
Perhaps we can also take our cue from these values in order to affirm a new kind of tribalism. To forge “tribal” connections with others not simply because they happen to be Jews, but because they share our values of justice and equity. In other words, I believe our ultimate loyalties should lay with the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized – and all who fight on their behalf. Whether they happen to be Jewish or not – why shouldn’t we consider these to be the members of our most cherished tribe?
Here’s a personal example. As a rabbi, I do a great deal of work with clergy, both inside and outside the Jewish community. And over the years I’ve come to notice that the most meaningful and important community work I do is not necessarily exclusively with other rabbis. When it comes to the values I hold most sacred, values of social justice, human rights, community service, I find myself working and finding common cause with clergy of many different faiths. Some may be Jewish, some not, but it in the end it doesn’t really matter. These are the ones I consider to be my primary faith colleagues – my primary clergy community.
In one sense, then, perhaps our most sacred religious values actually compel us to look past the feelings of tribal loyalty. Needless to say, if we are going to do this on a communal scale, it’s going to take a radical shift in consciousness. We’re going to have to step out from behind the walls we’ve built and understand many of our real sisters and brothers have been there all along. And we will have to recognize that in the end, their hopes, their dreams and their suffering are irrevocably connected to ours.
I have no illusions that it would be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed such a call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of antisemitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it is no small matter to go beyond our own fears and feel the pain of the other as our pain as well.
To do this, I believe, we’ll have to construct a distinctly 21st century Torah – one that reflects a world in which the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with other peoples in profound and unprecedented ways. One that lets go of old tribal assumptions and widens the boundaries of our tent in new and creative ways.
Perhaps we can start here: with a reconsideration of the Jewish value Ahavat Yisrael – Love of the Jewish People. What do we really mean when we use this term? Certainly it might mean an abstract sense of connection and kinship with other Jews throughout history and around the world. And it’s true – we do feel a special connection to Jews we meet in unlikely places throughout the world. It is also quite powerful to know that the words we pray and study are the same words have Jews prayed and studied for centuries. But beyond this, what do we mean by Ahavat Yisrael? What does it mean to love a culturally constructed community that includes people with whom we may or may not share basic, fundamental values?
In truth, the definition of who is a Jew has always been disputed – and what we call “the Jewish community” is more diverse and dynamic today than ever before. It is also being increasingly enriched by the participation of many non-Jews who are marrying into the community. So what do we mean when we talk about “Love of the Jewish People” when the very truth of our “peoplehood” is so complex and ever–changing?
I’d like to suggest that a deeper understanding of this value shouldn’t stop at love for just fellow Jews. After all, while the word “Yisrael” does refer to the Jewish People, it also literally means “Wrestles With God.” Seen thus, we might render “Ahavat Yisrael” as “Love for All Who Struggle.” To love all who fight, as we have, for freedom and justice and tolerance in the world. To stand in solidarity with those who struggle against tyranny and are beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed for doing so. To throw our allegiance to those who wrestle deeply for meaning in their lives; who seek to tear down the limits of religious dogma or ideological coercion. These are the members of our tribe – perhaps our most sacred tribe. And whenever we reach out to them and celebrate our inherent connection with one another here, around the world, or throughout history – that is truly when we fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael.
I realize that this new understanding might seem like radical change to many. But in truth, the Jewish world is changing, as it has from time immemorial. The only question before us is: will we have the courage to recognize these changes – and to see in them as a precious opportunity rather than as a threat to be fought at all costs.
Since I am no longer working a congregational rabbi, I am more mindful than ever that JVP is now my primary Jewish community. It is, truly, an unprecedented form of Jewish community: one that is based on the universal ethics of justice and liberation for all, not on the tired tribal boundaries of the past. If we are members of any tribe, it is the one that extends to include those who seek a better and more just world and are willing to work together to make it a reality.
This past summer, like so many of you, I was in deep anguish over the carnage Israel was inflicting on the people of Gaza. My anguish was all the deeper as I realized I was self-censoring my public voice due to the turmoil in my congregation. But if there was one redemptive Jewish moment for me last summer, it was thanks to JVP, when I participated in a Chicago chapter action that disrupted a Jewish Federation fundraiser in support of Israel’s war effort. Similar JVP actions were occurring around the country: which for so many represented critical Jewish voices of conscience during that dark, dark time.
While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the hotel ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. I will say that attending this event was beyond painful – to witness firsthand an organization that purported to represent my community cheering on Israel’s sickening violence as it was still ongoing. But when my friends finally stood up, pointed their fingers at Rahm Emanuel and Michael Oren and shouted, “We are Jews – Shame on You!” – at those moments, I truly felt that my Jewish soul had been given back to me.
I submit it is moments like these – and so many more – that demonstrate why we are all so proud to be part of this movement. I am so very proud to be standing here with you all. Now let us go together from strength to strength.