I’m very happy to announce that the 2nd edition of my book, Wrestling in the Daylight, has just been published by Just World Books. This new edition changes the overall context of the book considerably: while the first edition of Wrestling is a record of a congregational rabbi who charted a path into Palestinian solidarity, the second edition includes two new chapters that bring the book up to date, reflecting my decision to leave full-time congregational work. You can purchase the book here. For a sneak preview, I’ve posted the new Preface below.
As always I’m enormously grateful to Helena Cobban and the good folks at Just World Books for their encouragement and support. I’ll be doing book readings around Chicago and the US, so please check the JWB event calendar over the next few weeks to see if/when I’ll be coming to your town.
When I wrote the posts presented in the first edition of Wrestling in the Daylight, I hoped they might somehow help widen the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the American Jewish community. In the five years since that edition was published, I’m encouraged to be able to say this discourse has indeed widened in significant ways.
To cite just a few examples: Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that openly supports Palestinian human rights and endorses the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), has experienced explosive growth in the past several years and has become a force to be reckoned with by the Jewish community. Open Hillel, an initiative initiated by Jewish college students to “promote pluralism and open discourse on Israel/Palestine and beyond” is increasingly active in campuses across the country. Another rapidly growing organization created by young Jews, IfNotNow, is challenging American Jewish communal support of Israel’s occupation through public acts of civil disobedience.
I do believe we are witnessing the growth of a very real Jewish movement of resistance to the status quo in the American Jewish community and Israel. Led largely by a younger generation, it is openly challenging Israel’s brutal occupation and in some cases, even the very premise of Zionism itself. Notably, it is growing and thriving outside the mainstream Jewish institutional world, finding common cause with other movements (i.e. Black Lives Matter) that struggle against systems of oppression.
As I write these words, Israel is currently ruled by the most right wing government in its history and is doubling down on its brutal occupation. In Europe, extreme nationalist parties are on the rise, and in the United States, the so-called “alt-right” has become politically normalized following the election of Donald Trump. White liberal Americans have suddenly been forced to confront the reality of institutional oppression that has been long familiar to black and brown people, gay, lesbian, queer and trans people, undocumented people and First Nation peoples – as well those who live at the intersection of those identities.
If my participation in the Palestine solidarity movement has taught me anything over the past several years, it is that the fight for justice in Palestine is inseparable from the fight for justice in Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock and too many other places around the world. If I have any hope at all in this fearful political moment, it comes from all that I’ve learned from those who live every day with the reality of institutional oppression and the allies and accomplices who stand in solidarity with them. I take heart in the knowledge that there is an active Jewish presence within this new movement of resistance – and I’m immensely proud to be part of it.
This second edition of Wrestling in the Daylight contains a few editorial changes and updates the book with two new chapters: “Toward a New Model of Interfaith Relations” and “Tzedek Chicago.” The former chapter also contains some posts and comments that were written during “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s military assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014. Later that year I decided to resign from my congregation to devote myself to activism full time. In 2015, I founded a new non-Zionist congregation, Tzedek Chicago.
As it has turned out, Wrestling in the Daylight is now bookended by two ruinous “operations” waged by Israel against Gaza. Nearly ten years since the first words of this book were written, two million Palestinians (the majority of them children) remain imprisoned in a tiny strip of land, subjected to increasingly subhuman conditions and regular onslaughts at the hands of the Israeli military. If the past is any indication, it is only a matter of time before Israel launches its next assault.
It is our collective shame that the world allows this outrage to continue—and it is to the people of Gaza that I now dedicate this book.
Take a look at the short video that the liberal Zionist organization Ameinu recently posted on its Facebook page. Entitled, “Why Israel’s survival as a Jewish state is now in danger,” the clip essentially makes the familiar argument for maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in order to ensure Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
While there’s nothing particularly new in the video that hasn’t been argued by liberal Zionists for the past twenty years, I was intrigued by the following quote from the opening narrative:
What makes Britain British? Is it the London Bridge? Or the people driving over it? And Italy: is it the pizza, or the people eating it? What about Israel? What makes it a Jewish state? Is it its geographical shape? Its landmarks? Like any country, what makes Israel a Jewish state, and what guarantees that it will remain one, is that the overwhelming majority of its residents are Jewish.
It’s a fascinating way to frame the issue. It also betrays the inherent contradiction at the heart of liberal Zionism.
From a national identity point of view, Israel simply isn’t comparable to Britain or Italy (or the US for that matter). The latter countries have civic national identities; that is to say, they are defined by a sense of common citizenship. Britain is not British because it maintains a demographic majority of one specific religious or ethnic identity. It sounds obvious, but it bears noting in this context: one can belong to the British nation and be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu as well. That is because the British people are bound together as citizens of the British nation.
Israel, on the other hand, is not a state of all its citizens. It is rather, a state for only some of its citizens – namely Jews. This is because the purpose of the Zionist enterprise is to create a state for the Jewish people.
In fact, there is actually no such thing as an Israeli “nationality” according to Israeli law. Unlike Britain and Italy and other Western democracies, Israel actually maintains a legal distinction between citizens (ezrachim in Hebrew) and nationals (le’umim). In theory at least, all Israeli citizens have equal rights – but only Jewish citizens can be considered nationals.
There are indeed non-Jewish citizens of Israel – they make up roughly 20% of the population. But because these citizens are not nationals, they are subjected to extensive discrimination within Israeli society. (According to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, there are more than 50 Israeli laws that “directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life.”)
The liberal Zionist trope advocated by the Ameinu clip claims that the demographic threat posed by Palestinians began in 1967, when Israel “conquered several areas of land” and was faced with a “rapidly growing Arab population that never wanted to live in a Jewish state.”
The real problem, however, is not the Palestinian birth rate in the West Bank. The problem lies with the very notion of a state predicated on the identity of one particular people in a land that has always been multi-religious and multi-ethnic.
This is why the concept of liberal Zionism is ultimately an oxymoron. There is nothing liberal about a nation state that predicates its national character upon – and grants full citizenship to – one particular group of people.
In other words, the problem is not “the Occupation.” The problem, quite simply, is Zionism.
In a recent op-ed for the Forward, Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner expressed unease at the prospect of synagogues getting involved in growing Sanctuary Movement. “Unease” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt upon reading it.
The crux of Eisner’s argument: this “nascent movement of churches, mosques and synagogues to become sanctuaries, to aid and house undocumented immigrants (represents) a further politicization of religious life.”
While I appreciate and even admire the moral compulsion of synagogues willing to go so far as to break the law in this particular case, what about others? What about the houses of worship that have politics I don’t agree with — the ones that exhibit an equal moral passion to, in their words, protect the unborn? Or resist accommodating trans people? Or same-sex marriage?
In other words, Eisner believes it is problematic for progressive houses of worship to engage in acts of civil disobedience in the furtherance of justice because conservative faith communities might well use the same tactics for their own causes.
Eisner’s argument against religiously-motivated civil disobedience is essentially an argument for neutrality. I can’t help but wonder how she would have responded when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, led a religious call for civil rights in this country. Would she have felt stymied by the masses of southern whites in states that actively resisted federal laws against segregation and voter suppression? Would she have likewise counseled King to “consider the consequences?”
Of course, we cherish the separation between church and state. At the same time, however, religious life in this country has always been “politicized” – and progressives need not hesitate in celebrating this fact. If religion hadn’t been politicized, we wouldn’t have had the abolitionist movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement or the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s. Each and every one of these movements helped to further the cause of justice and equity in this country – and thank God for that (pun intended).
Eisner correctly observes that “(religion) has flourished in America because it is independent from the state, and able to serve as a prophetic voice against government corruption and cruelty.” But her logic fails her when she concludes, “that standing comes from respecting the law and working within the system.” On the contrary, prophets were not particularly well-known for “working within the system.” As Thoreau, Ghandi, King, Mandela and others have taught us, civil disobedience is a tactic rooted in the conviction that there are laws that need to be broken. It does not purport to merely protest unjust systems but to dismantle them.
In this regard, Eisner’s hypothetical citation of those who engage in civil disobedience to “resist accommodating trans people or same sex marriage” is little more than a red herring. In such instances, civil disobedience would be used in order to maintain the unjust systems that exclude and oppress vulnerable minorities in this country. The sanctuary movement, on the other hand, seeks to dismantle an unjust immigration system that literally treats human beings as illegal, rips families apart, and often sends people back into countries of origin where they will face certain persecution or death.
When Eisner writes that she would feel “more comfortable about the sanctuary movement if it had a specific policy aim,” she betrays an egregious blindness to our current political moment. In Trump’s America, the goal of sanctuary is not political immigration reform, but triage. In my work supervising immigrant justice programs at the American Friends Service Committee throughout the Midwest, I can attest that the threats facing undocumented immigrants in our country have reached emergency levels. While Eisner frets that “resistance from a few renegade churches and synagogues may only alienate…reasonable Americans,” she might do better to worry about the fates of individuals and families who are living with the daily fear of incarceration and deportation.
When I read Eisner’s words, I couldn’t help but think back to the liberal clergy to whom MLK addressed his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: well-meaning religious leaders who “appealed to white and negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and good sense.” In response to them, King famously wrote:
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The laws that oppress undocumented immigrants in the US are degrading and unjust – and will become even more so very soon. If we want to be on the right side of history, it’s time for our synagogues to find the courage of their convictions and get “politicized.”
In my previous post, I explored how Zionism has historically fed off of anti-Semites and anti-Semitic regimes to justify the need for a Jewish state. In this post, I’d like to discuss a phenomenon that has even more ominous resonance for the current political moment: the willingness of political Zionists, Israeli politicians and right wing Israel advocates to court the support of Christian millenarians and apocalyptic extremists.
Some history: In the century after the Protestant reformation, the religious ideology of millenarianism began to spread throughout Europe. Millenarianism took many forms, most of which were rooted in the belief that the physical restoration of the Jews to the land would be a necessary precursor to the apocalypse and the eventual second coming of the Messiah. This religious dogma was eventually brought by English Puritan colonists to North America, where it evolved into present-day Christian Zionism.
It is safe to say that Jewish political Zionism could not have succeeded without the support of Christian millenarians. Reverend William Hechler, a prominent English clergyman who ascribed to eschatological theology and the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel, was a close friend and colleague of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political Zionist movement. Lord Arthur Balfour, who issued the historic Balfour Declaration in 1917 was likewise a Christian Zionist, motivated as much by his religious convictions as by British imperial designs in the Middle East.
Today of course, Christian Zionists are most famously represented by Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest coalition of Evangelical Zionists in the world. Hagee has never made a secret of his apocalyptic religious views. In his 2007 book “Jerusalem Countdown,” he wrote that Armageddon might begin “before this book gets published.” He also claimed The Antichrist “will be the head of the European Union,” and that during the final battle, Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood.” The Jews, however, will survive long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.” In Hagee’s more recent book, “Four Blood Moons,” he wrote: “In these next two years, we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”
While one might expect Jewish leaders to keep their distance from a popular Christian pastor with extremist views such as these, Hagee has been closely embraced by Israeli governments (Netanyahu is a fixture at CUFI conventions), Jewish American politicians (Former Senator Joseph Lieberman has referred to Hagee as a modern-day Moses) and prominent American Jewish leaders (Elie Wiesel once called Hagee “my pastor.”)
CUFI’s Jewish Executive Director, David Brog, clearly serves to give cover to Christian Zionists, painting them as “mainstream” and not nearly as scary as their beliefs would indicate. Following the outcome of the recent election, however, Brog seems to smell blood in the water; he recently announced CUFI’s plans to get “a little more aggressive” in pushing its policies with the Trump administration, where it has clout and connections, particularly with evangelical Vice President Mike Pence.
To put it mildly, Jews should be among the least of those who would seek to find common cause with one such as Mike Pence. In an extremely important piece for the Intercept, last November, reporter Jeremy Scahill convincingly argued that Pence is “the most powerful Christian supremacist in US history,” concluding:
The implications of a Pence vice presidency are vast. Pence combines the most horrid aspects of Dick Cheney’s worldview with a belief that Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels are not fiction, but an omniscient crystal ball.
It should not come as a surprise that Pence family’s last trip to Israel was funded by, you guessed it, John Hagee. Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana, took the time to meet with Netanyahu during his visit. Now connect those dots to Pence’s meeting with Israeli prime minister during his recent visit to DC. Both Pence and Netanyahu later commented that they met to discuss, among other things, the creation of a “mechanism” that would help the White House and Israel better coordinate construction in the settlements on the West Bank.
When it comes to the Trump administration of course, most of the attention has been directed toward his chief strategist, former Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon. When Bannon’s appointment was announced, there were a variety of responses from the Jewish community, ranging from outrage to support. For his part, when Netanyahu was asked on 60 Minutes whether or not he was concerned about Bannon, he responded blithely, “I think Mr. Trump and his associates are going to be very strong, not merely in support for the Jewish state, but also in support for the Jewish people.”
According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings that America experienced were the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.
All these were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there’s a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilized.
This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.
Indeed, Bannon expresses his Fourth Turning-influenced ideas unabashedly. During a 2011 presentation to the Liberty Restoration Foundation, a conservative non-profit, he said:
This is the fourth great crisis in American history. We had the Revolution. We had the Civil War. We had the Great Depression and World War II. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history, and we’re going to be one thing on the other side.
We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
In more recent statements Bannon openly posits that this new war will be fought between “the Judeo-Christian West” and a coalition of “jihadist Islamic fascists,” “expansionist China” and “the aristocratic Washington class.”
According to Strauss and Howe’s book, once the defining climax takes place, America will coalesces under one leader — a boomer “Gray Warrior” — who will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy … ” As frightening as it may sound, Bannon seems to have the perfect “Gray Warrior” figure in Donald Trump – a man who he once described as “a blunt instrument for us,” adding,”I don’t know if he really gets it or not.”
While it’s easy to giggle when, Israeli politicians, rabbis and evangelical pastors publicly call Trump the Messiah, it is far less funny when we consider that the chief advisor to the President is a man who may well view him as a “useful idiot Gray Warrior.” Either way, this is what a century-long willingness to collaborate with apocalyptic extremists has wrought. We are now one terrorist attack away from a truly unthinkable scenario. As journalist Murtza Hussain put it: “As tensions rise, Steve Bannon and ISIS get closer to their common goal: civilizational war.”
In the end it is all too easy to accept the support of religious zealots while we patronizingly dismiss their views as harmless. Now that these zealots are literally in the halls of very real power however, I think it’s finally time to take them at their word.
I’m sure many have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why on earth the government of Israel and so many staunch Zionists are just fine with the election of Donald Trump – the darling of the anti-Semitic alt-right. The answer however, is really pretty straightforward: this is nothing new. Zionism has had a cozy, if somewhat Faustian relationship with anti-Semitism since its very origins.
The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl never made a secret of his belief that his new movement would have to depend upon anti-Semitism and anti-Semites in order to create a Jewish state. In his pamphlet, “The Jewish State,” he suggested raising money for the effort by means of a “direct subscription,” adding that “not only poor Jews but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them would subscribe a small amount to this fund.”
The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.
True to form, in 1903 Herzl met with the Russian minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, an infamous anti-Semite who encouraged the Kishinev pogroms that very same year. Plehve’s reply: as long as the Zionists encouraged emigration of Jews from Russia, the Russian authorities would not disturb them.
This Zionist strategy was also central to the diplomatic process that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour famously announced that his government “view(ed) with favor the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Although Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well-known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people. When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”
In this regard, it is worth noting that the sole Jewish member of British government, Edwin Montagu, strongly objected to the Balfour Declaration, submitting a memorandum to the British cabinet in August 1917 that resonates with haunting prescience today:
I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for Anti-Semites in every country in the world…When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants…
When the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world’s Ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine.
The most troubling example of Zionist association with anti-Semitism occurred in 1933, when the Jewish Agency struck a deal with the Nazis’ Economic Ministry known as the Ha’avrah (Transfer) agreement. Breaking the international Jewish boycott, the Zionist movement negotiated with Nazi Germany in order to facilitate the transfer of German Jews and their property to Palestine.
In an essay for Yad Vashem’s Shoah Resource Center, Israeli historian Y’faat Weiss pointed out that the Nazi regime’s participation in the agreement was motivated both by a fear of the boycott and its desire to rid Germany of its Jews. While it is clear that this deal occurred in the context of very real persecution, history has not been kind to the legacy of the Ha’avrah agreement. As Weiss herself noted:
In retrospect, and in view of what we know about the annihilation of European Jewry, these relations between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany seem especially problematic.
It is not difficult to understand why, on a practical level, the Zionist movement would find a perverse kind of common cause with anti-Semitic regimes. As a form of ethnic nationalism, Zionism has always been dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic majority of Jews in the land. It makes sense that Zionists have been willing to deal with nations that were more than happy to rid themselves of their Jews in order that they maintain their own national ethnic homogeneity.
But it has been a Faustian bargain. From its very origins, Zionism has necessarily fed off the existence of anti-Semites to justify the need for a Jewish state. Even more tragically, as Edwin Montagu predicted, Jewish ethnic nationalism did indeed result in a “population in Palestine driving out its inhabitants.”
Fast-forward to present day and the rise of an alt-right movement promoting a new form of white ethnic nationalism that takes its cue from Israel. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer claims he doesn’t hate Jews, but in fact admires them. He openly says he merely wants for “his people” what Zionism offers the Jewish people. But of course, Spencer’s “genteel white supremacy” is nothing but a fig leaf for the age old desire of anti-semites to create Jew-free nations.
White supremacists, alt-right leaders argue, think white people are the best race. The alt-right doesn’t necessarily think that, they say; instead, they say they just want white people to have their own homeland.
With no Jews.
(Alt-right leader Richard) Spencer in particular fixates on the homeland idea.
The alt-right needs to aspire to something, even if that dream won’t come true in his lifetime—and that means they should aim to build an ethno-state for just whites. And Spencer made it clear that white-only means Jews aren’t invited. They have their own identity, and it isn’t white-slash-European, and that’s that.
“Jews are Jews,” he said.
As troubling as this all may sound, political Zionism has made another, even darker sort of Faustian bargain – namely with Christian Millenarians and End-of-Days extremists. In the era of Trump, this is a relationship that should concern us deeply.
It is a tragic irony that the festival of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient uprising against an oppressive Assyrian ruler, is being observed as we hear the unbearably tragic reports coming from an uprising in modern-day Syria. Though the historical contexts of these two events are centuries apart from one another, I can’t help but ask what lessons the Hanukkah story might bring to bear on the sorrows of contemporary Syria.
Aleppo has just fallen to Syrian government forces after a brutal years-long battle with rebel groups. The carnage in Aleppo is only the latest tragedy in a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and has created millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians. The beginning of the war can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in southern Syria. Government security forces opened fire, killing several protesters. Soon there were nationwide protests demanding the President Assad’s resignation. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.
As the violence escalated, the country descended into civil war. Rebel groups were formed to battle Syrian government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. While many committed to the fall of the Assad regime continue to view this war as a revolution against an oppressive ruler, others characterize it as a sectarian civil war between forces that serve as proxies of larger world powers — i.e., Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of certain rebel forces. The crisis is further complicated by the presence of jihadi elements in various rebel groups.
So now to return to my original point: What on earth could this contemporary geopolitical crisis have to do with events that took place in the Assyrian Seleucid empire circa 168 BCE?
Some background: According the Books of the Maccabees, the uprising of the Maccabees began when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea, precipitating a rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, who belonged to a Jewish priestly family from the village of Modi’in. Many contemporary scholars point out that while the Hanukkah story is traditionally considered to be struggle against religious persecution, it was just as much a civil war between the fundamentalist Maccabees and the assimilated Hellenized Jews, with whom Antiochus eventually threw his support. (The Books of the Maccabees are replete with vivid descriptions of the violence committed by Judah Maccabee and his followers against the Hellenized Jewish community, including forced circumcision.)
The rabbis of the Talmud were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees — secular stories of a violent war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.
Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was resurrected by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in a military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book “The Jewish State,” Zionist founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!” Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.
In more recent years, however, there has been a reconsideration of the Hanukkah story by many contemporary rabbis, Jewish educators and academics. Typically referred to as “the real story of Hanukkah” some advocates of this new pedagogy assert that the Maccabees were actually a kind of “Jewish Taliban” — and that if they were around today they would not look too kindly on the practice of liberal American Jews.
The evolution of the Maccabean legacy brings to mind the age-old adage, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” While some Jewish observers do not hesitate in referring to them as “religious fanatics,” others insist they were simply “legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do.” In the end, there are no easy answers to this debate. At the very least, we might say that the story of Hanukkah invites us to struggle deeply and honestly with the messy nature of uprising and revolution.
Indeed, perhaps these are the central questions we are asked to confront on Hanukkah. To Zionists who glorify the Maccabees as courageous freedom fighters for national liberation we might well ask: Should not we then view the Palestinians as Maccabees as well? And to those who dismiss the Maccabees as religious extremists, we might pose the challenge: Would we deny them their resistance against an imperialist Seleucid empire that outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death?
I would submit that these kinds of questions are just as germane to the tragic, years-long crisis in present day Syria. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, has committed well-documented atrocities against its civilians as it strikes back against rebel groups. However, these factions have carried out their share of indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well. There has also been fierce sectarian fighting between rebel groups themselves — most notably between Daesh and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The US, along with its Gulf state allies, continue to insist that regime change is the only acceptable outcome to these hostilities. However, as has historically been the case with US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, we know that these interventions invariably lead to more, rather than less instability. Others insist we cannot ignore the fact that this rebellion still constitutes an uprising against a brutal totalitarian dictator. Yet this resistance has become profoundly splintered — and as the US and its allies attempt to support it, they are now utterly unable to distinguish between moderate and jihadist rebel groups.
These are the questions that are resonating for me as I retell the Hanukkah story once again this year. And while I don’t pretend to have conclusive answers, I do have some thoughts I believe we would to well to consider as the crisis in Syria continues on its tragic course:
As citizens of the US, our primary responsibility is to hold our government accountable for its decisions and actions. And we must also hold it accountable for its covert and overt military meddling in Syria at least as far back as 1949 (when the CIA engineered a coup replacing the democratically elected president Shukri-al-Quwatli and replaced him with a dictator — a “convicted swindler” named Husni al-Za’im).
We must also acknowledge that the Obama administration is most certainly not insisting on regime change out of the goodness of its heart and its concern for the welfare of the Syrian people. As ever, it has much more to do with the military designs of Western empire. As journalist/reporter Gareth Porter recently pointed out:
The US decision to support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their ill-conceived plan to overthrow the Assad regime was primarily a function of the primordial interest of the US permanent war state in its regional alliances. The three Sunni allies control US access to the key US military bases in the region, and the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Obama White House were all concerned, above all, with protecting the existing arrangements for the US military posture in the region.
Indeed, our government’s insistence on regime change has motivated the CIA to work with odious allies to help the transfer of weapons to rebel groups about whom they had little, if any knowledge. It also led later to the Pentagon’s decision to provide formal training and arms transfers to these groups. Our meddling with Syria rebel groups has become so confused that we have actually created a situation in which CIA armed militias and Pentagon armed groups are now fighting against one another.
Those of us who are part of the Jewish community must also hold accountable the state to purports to act in our name — and in this regard, it is clear Israel is shamefully exacerbating the Syrian civil war for its own political interests. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is openly supporting Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime, his government is also aiding Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham:
Examining the al-Nusra-Israeli alliance in the region, it’s clear that the bonds between the two parties have been exceedingly close. Israel maintains a border camp for the families of Syrian fighters. Reporters have documented Israeli Defense Forces commandos entering Syrian territory to rendezvous with Syrian rebels. Others have photographed meetings between Israeli military personnel and al-Nusra commanders at the Quneitra Crossing, the ceasefire line that separates the Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan Heights.
In other words, as Americans and as Jews, our community faces a genuine reckoning over our complicity in the tragedy that is befalling Syria.
One final historical note that is particularly relevant to Hanukkah this year: For centuries and until relatively recently, Aleppo was home to one of the most notable and culturally rich Jewish communities in the world. J. Rolando Matalon, rabbi of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — and a descendent of Allepan Jewry — recently wrote this poignant reminiscence:
I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.
One particularly celebrated aspect of Allepan Jewish history dates back to the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This exodus of Sephardic Jews initiated a migration and settlement throughout the Ottoman empire, including Syria. A significant number of exiled Jews were welcomed into Aleppo, and in gratitude they began a ritual of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah — a ritual that Jews of Allepan/Syrian heritage observe even to this day.
This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting an extra candle as well — in protest against those who have been exploiting the violence in Syria for their own cynical gain, in gratitude to those who have opened their homes and communities to receive the uprooted, and in memory of the present-day Syrians who have been killed in this cruel and needless war.
For the purpose of this piece I will be referring to Blacks who are for the most part gentile and white Jews (Jews who have come to get the racial designation of White in the context of the US regardless of self identification).
This particular piece is really written for Jews who have come to be called White. Jews who are also people of color are writing excellent pieces from their unique perspective. I will not attempt to speak from that perspective.
What a(nother) crucial time for relationships between “Blacks” and “Jews”! What will we choose? Will we, as we have done so many times in the past, choose whiteness and the perceived safety that we feel goes with that in the US or will we choose to align ourselves with those that are most oppressed in a given society? This is a very familiar spot for the Ashkenazi (and occasionally Sephardi) Jew who now gets a racial designation as white in the US.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Jewish, in the United States, isn’t a race. It is a culture that includes both spirituality and religion and also includes non religious ways of life. Jewish is also, arguably, an ethnicity based on being a cultural marker that has traveled with us and defined us. In this country Jewish is not a race.
So please, Ashkenazi Jews, just stop saying, “I’m not white. I’m Jewish.” Yes we are Jewish and we will also be assigned a race based on how we are commonly perceived by institutions and systems. How we see ourselves or how we self identify does not matter in this race-constructed and race-constitutionalized country. A Jewish person who is also Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or mixed race will be identified first by their race even as they self identify as a Jew.
OK, let’s get something else out of the way too. I am a self loving Jew (who is also white). I love my Jewishness. I am unapologetically Jewish. So let’s just wipe out the whole, “Oh, he must be a self hating Jew because he isn’t mortally offended that the Movement for Black Lives platform used the terminology of genocidal and apartheid policies in relationship to Israel.” Or, “Oh, we don’t have to listen to Martin because he went to Israel and visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has been critical of Israeli policy on his Facebook page”. Not true! On my grand and great grandparents! On my great Aunt Leah from whom I got my middle name. I love my Jewishness! I love the connection I feel to my Eastern European Jewish heritage.
I am also in love with an ideal of Jewishness that isn’t rooted in whiteness and domination. A Jewish ideal of true Tikkun Olam; of Repairing the world. All the world! Not just a world defined by whiteness or Europeanness. Not a world where we get to control the conversation.
The world is broken. Does our refusing to engage with BLM help repair it? Can we repair it if we don’t engage with people who criticize current Israeli policy and US financial and Military support for the government that developed and enforces those policies?
It’s time for White Jews to stop choosing whiteness and align ourselves with those most oppressed in the US because that is what true Jewishness is about. And why wouldn’t we? The point of the Movement for Black Lives Platform was to speak truth to all power, not to use pleasing language. It is our duty to sit across the table from people who have been most oppressed in our country and hear what they have to say about what they perceive to be genocidal policy that’s connected to Institutional, Systemic and Structural Racism in the US.
What are we afraid of? Why are we, of all people, afraid of conversation about oppression? If the policies of the Israeli government really are leading to a fair two or one state solution, why can’t we sit at a table and discuss it? Remember, the one piece of the platform we are so hyped up about is about governmental policy both here and in Israel not about hating or oppressing Jews? Remember that Egypt was mentioned at the same time as Israel? I hope we are not forgetting those things because this is just an easy reason to disengage.
We are a people who have such a long history of debate and multiple interpretations of the same text (or in this case policies) so why are we shutting this conversation down? Because of multigenerational historical trauma from the European Holocaust? All the more reason to sit down with people who have multigenerational historical trauma from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and US chattel slavery. Multigenerational trauma from lynchings and Jim Crow. From a Eugenics narrative that was studied here in the US by German Nazis. My people, we share roots in our historical trauma.
We, White Jews, have confused comfort with safety. And the root of that confusion is the root of the problem, power. Power is defined (by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) as legitimate access to institutions and systems sanctioned by the state. Power that is equivalent to Whiteness. People that have strong access to institutional and systemic power confuse discomfort with safety all the time.
I put forth, vehemently, that the wording of one section of the Movement for Black Lives platform makes us uncomfortable, not unsafe. We must be willing to engage. It’s pure privilege to get to pick and choose when and with whom we engage on this subject. It’s extreme privilege to just say no, I’m done. Extreme privilege to be able to shut someone down.
This is another in a long line of moments in history where we as white Jews get to chose alignment with whiteness or with People of Color. And what’s even crazier this time is that it feels like it’s our Jewishness that is at stake. It’s even crazier because it feels like this is anti Semitism. Again, being anti-Israeli policy and anti-US government policy is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic.
Historically, we’ve chosen the perceived safety of whiteness. Our ability to become fully White was due to governmental policy, the GI bill plus redlining which gave us our whiteness while excluding Blacks and Latinos who such a short time earlier had been our partners and friends. But they couldn’t access it in the same way as we could due to racism.
Yes, many of us were in the civil rights movement. Yes, many of us marched side by side. But we let ourselves get coopted so soon after. We chose whiteness because it got us out of the ghetto (named because of us by the way!) It was our literal ghetto pass. We need to understand that we left our brothers and sisters behind.
What are the costs of choosing Whiteness over Jewishness? One of the costs of our comfort and our privilege is Black and Brown lives. As long as we align ourselves with whiteness we contribute to the deaths of Black and Brown people at the hands of institutions. Their deaths are part of the the cost of our comfort, safety and privilege.
The other loss is the loss of what it really means to be Jewish. That it means to not stand idly by our neighbor’s blood. That it means true Tikkun Olam. We are at such a(nother) crucial time of choice.
Let’s choose our Jewishness over Whiteness this time. Let’s choose life.