I’ve just finished “Fight for the Health of Your Community” – a new collection of Passover seder readings I wrote for members of my congregation. I’m happy to share them with the wider world as well – and sincerely hope you’ll find them helpful if you are holding/attending a seder this year.
It goes without saying that this year is a Passover like no other. As I wrote in the opening reading:
Before we raise the cup to another Passover, we must acknowledge that this night is very different from all other nights. In this extraordinary moment of global pandemic, we are literally dwelling in the “narrow place” of social separation. Thus, we come to the very first question of the evening: how on earth do we fulfill the mitzvah to observe the Passover seder? Where do we even begin?
Since the dictates of social separation render the group seders impossible, many families and groups are already planning to hold theirs’ via Zoom or other web-based platforms. There are already many online guides with tips on web-based seders that you may find useful. While I personally believe that there is no one perfect approach, I do recommend that seder leaders familiarize themselves with their specific online platform and to keep things simple and doable.
I want to stress that this particular resource is not a haggadah – and is not designed to be used in its entirety. I strongly agree with one online guide when it points out: “the seder should not be dominated by making connections of the virus to the Exodus story but it does need to be addressed in some capacity.” In this collection I’ve written one reading for each section of the seder and recommend picking and choosing the one/s you find most meaningful. While the extent to which COVID-19 is addressed will vary, I believe the most successful seders will be the ones that view the Exodus narrative as a spiritual frame to contextualize this unprecedented moment.
I wish you and those you love a happy, healthy and liberating Pesach. May we all make our way through this fearful moment together. And as I write here, “May this time of brokenness lead to a deeper solidarity between all who are ready to fight for a better world.”
One of the signature moments on Rosh Hashanah is the sentence traditionally proclaimed after the shofar is sounded: “Hayom Harat Olam” (“Today is the birthday of the world.”) On Rosh Hashanah, tradition tells us, we celebrate a world reborn, joyfully acknowledging the order and balance of God’s creation and the awesome power embedded deep within it. What better way to celebrate the potential for our own renewal in the year ahead than by looking to a world that renews itself every year according to the sacred rhythms of birth and rebirth?
While I personally find this idea to be among the most profound of this season, I’ll confess, I’ve been struggling with it in recent years. With the hard reality of the global climate crisis hitting home deeper and deeper every year, I find myself asking, what does it mean to gather every Rosh Hashanah to reaffirm creation even as we are literally undoing it? How can we honestly celebrate the power embedded in God’s world, even as human power is steadily destroying it? Even as the world is literally on fire? To be completely honest, in this era of global climate crisis, I’m not sure the traditional understanding of Rosh Hashanah really makes much sense any more.
And it is indeed a crisis. Many are suggesting, in fact, that we’ve moved beyond crisis and have entered the category of emergency. And we can’t say we haven’t been warned. As far back as 1992, 1700 scientists around the world issued a famous statement called a “warning to humanity,” declaring that we were on a “collision course” with the natural world if we did not “fundamentally change” the way we lived upon it.
More than 25 year later, almost all of their chilling predictions are now in full swing. Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued the first in a series of three reports that describe in vivid detail the effects of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world. The first of three reports, which came out last October, warned that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels. If we go up even half a degree beyond this, we will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.
However, this was not merely a prediction: the report made it clear that this crisis was already well underway. The world is currently 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The average global temperature for 2015–2019 is already the hottest of any five-year period on record. The Amazon rainforest, even as I speak now, is still burning. It’s been estimated that we’ve already lost 50% of the planet’s biodiversity in the past four decades. 20% of the earth’s coral reefs have died. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost three trillion tons of ice in the last 25 years. In roughly that same amount of time, the rate of global ocean warming has doubled. Many, if not most, of these losses are irreversible.
And these losses are increasing exponentially.
Every new half degree will cause rapidly increasing and irreversible chain
reactions: growing species extinction, greater food insecurity, the
disappearance of coastal cities and island nations, increased migration and
social conflict, more wildfires and hurricanes, the destruction of polar ice,
the loss of entire ecosystems.
It’s important to note however, that the IPCC report did not conclude that all is lost. The scientists repeatedly stressed that it was still possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. But they also made it clear it will take a radical global effort to achieve this goal. Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group put it this way: “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.”
Unprecedented indeed. Given our voracious dependance upon fossil fuels – and the economic interests in the companies that produce them – the hard truth is that we have only twelve years to reverse the growth of global capitalism itself. This is not a radical statement – I’d argue it’s actually quite reasonable under the circumstances. Those who dismiss advocate structural proposals such as the Green New Deal as naive, “pie in the sky” ideas routinely miss this one essential point: we need radical solutions if we are to take on the unfettered economic greed that has brought us to this terrifying moment in human history.
Now I know that many, if not most of you have heard these facts and figures before. But even so, as I pondered what to talk about this Rosh Hashanah, it felt enormously important to me that the findings of the IPCC report be spoken out loud. We need to say them out loud. Otherwise, I’m really not sure if the rest of our prayers really make much sense.
I realize how depressing, how enormous – how terrifying – it is to
contemplate all of this. But as we gather for Rosh Hashanah, I really can’t
think of a more important issue for us to talk about. And so this
morning, I’d like to push a brief pause on our celebration of creation’s power
and face the ways we are willfully degrading that power. I’d like to offer a
few thoughts on how we might reframe our understanding of this crisis so that
we might avoid the inevitable overwhelm, paralysis and despair that comes with
it. Ultimately, I suppose, what I’d really like to do is offer a measure of
hope in the face of an increasingly hopeless reality. To take our cue from the
new year and imagine a world reborn – so that we might feel that much more
ready to go forth and actually make it so.
When most of us confront the overwhelming reality of the global
climate crisis, I think we tend to do what comes naturally: we compartmentalize
it. We silo it into its own separate category the way we do with so many other
complex social issues. We view it as one issue among many in the desperate hope
that if we isolate it, we might be able to find a way to somehow address
But in truth, the climate crisis isn’t one issue. In fact, I would say it is in many ways the issue. It’s the one universal issue that connects all others. The changes we are causing to the earth’s temperatures have direct causal relationships to immigration, to human rights, to poverty, to housing, to war, to so many examples of social and political upheaval worldwide.
So yes, addressing this crisis means we must advocate for policies that will keep global temperatures from reaching the 1.5 mark. But it cannot only mean that. It must also mean that we must stand with the scores of people around the world who are already suffering from the effects of the climate crisis. In the end, there is really no contradiction between working for justice and climate activism. They are, in fact, intimately intertwined.
We know full well that the primary brunt of the
global climate crisis is being borne by the poor and communities of color. It
has been estimated that the global climate crisis could push more than 120
million more people into poverty by 2030. Even if we do manage to increase to
only 1.5 degrees by 2100, extreme temperatures in the global south will leave
disadvantaged populations increasingly food insecure, with less incomes and
worsening health. Increasing numbers of people will have to make the agonizing
choice between starvation or migration.
Here in the US, we can see the connection between the climate crisis and structural racism all too well. Polluting facilities are routinely built in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which means that people with marginalized identities experience more asthma, a greater likelihood of heart attacks and premature death. The disadvantages that come with those health issues create a cycle of poverty and lack of access to opportunity for people of color and the poor in the United States.
It’s a sad irony that the ones least responsible
for the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of it – and have the least
capacity to protect themselves. This phenomenon has been referred to as
“environmental racism” or “climate apartheid” – in which the wealthy have the
means to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is
left to fend for itself.
We witnessed climate apartheid in full swing when the devastating Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas earlier this month. In advance of the hurricane, the ultra-wealthy homeowners on Abaco Island hired local workers to board up their vacation houses, while they escaped to their primary homes in the US or Europe. The Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club hired a private security team, equipped with helicopters and assault rifles, to protect their property. The rest of the island’s residents, made up mostly of undocumented Haitians, had nowhere to go and had to ride out the storm in shanty towns and church shelters. Within hours, the community was almost completely flattened. Dozens of poor residents were killed and thousands more are still missing.
As Jews, we need to acknowledge that climate apartheid is deeply enmeshed throughout Israel/Palestine as well. Since the Middle East is among the hardest hit by global warming, the issue of justice in Israel/Palestine is directly related to the control of water resources – and Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region. The so-called Mountain Aquifer, the most critical water source in Israel/Palestine, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line. This goes a long way to explain why Israel has not and likely will never give up the West Bank – as doing so would mean surrendering its most valuable water source.
The environmental situation in Gaza is even more dire, due largely to Israel’s crushing blockade. At present, 97% of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption, and only 10% of Gaza’s two million people have access to safe drinking water. As a result of Israel’s regular military assaults, 110 million liters of raw and untreated sewage are pouring directly into the Mediterranean every day, creating a massive sanitation crisis.
But, as is invariably the case in all forms of climate apartheid, what goes around comes around. This past June, Ha’aretz reported on the effects of Gaza’s toxic pollution on Israel. The headline read: “Collapsing Environmental State of Gaza Poses Threat to Israel’s National Security, Report Warns.” Tellingly, even as it maintains total control over natural resources, Israel cannot escape the devastating impact of the growing climate crisis.
My friend and colleague, Robert Cohen, a writer and blogger from the UK, recently wrote a post in which he argued that “the climate emergency makes Zionism obsolete.” In it, he made this very compelling argument:
How can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round. In a region already fraught with conflict, climate analysts expect temperature rise to have a multiplier effect that exacerbates and accelerates wars and mass migrations. Promoting Zionism starts to look like an invitation to Jews to jump from the metaphorical frying pan into the literal fire.
When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land. Climate change is staunchly apolitical, ahistorical and agnostic.
Of course, climate change won’t make antisemitism go away. But like much else that’s wrong and unfair about the world, the Climate Emergency compels us to look at things differently, consider the root causes, and understand the interconnectedness of injustice. As well as terrible threats, climate change forces upon us the possibility of a profound ethical revolution.
I believe Robert hits the nail on the head with this analysis. In
a way, the Israel/Palestine issue is a microcosm of a much larger, universal
issue. In the face of global climate crisis, nationalism will not save us.
Stronger borders will not save us. Sooner or later this crisis will come for us
all. In the meantime, however, we can be sure that those who have more power
will do everything they can to protect themselves from its effects until the
very bitter end – at the expense of everyone else.
This is where, as Robert Cohen puts it, the “profound ethical
revolution” comes in. Yes, to address the climate crisis, we must be advocating
for policies and practices that decrease our global carbon output – but it must
mean standing in solidarity with those most affected by the crisis as well. There
can be no separation between the two. And in this regard, we all have a part to
The first step, I believe, is to resist the temptation toward
overwhelm and despair. This is, quite frankly, a luxury we cannot afford. While
it can be tempting to adopt a fatalistic, “all is lost” attitude, we would do
well to remind ourselves that some of the most committed, inspired climate
activists are those who are most directly affected by it. If they have
not succumbed to despair, than neither can we.
In fact, the movement for climate justice is being led by members of indigenous nations worldwide. This past April in Brazil, an estimated 4,000 indigenous peoples from various tribes gathered for three days in that nation’s capital to protest for their rights, demonstrate their traditions and confront congressional leaders. This nonviolent mobilization, called Free Land Camp, has taken place every year since 2004 and is organized by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil — an alliance of indigenous communities and organizations from several regions of the country.
Closer to home, the resistance by at Standing Rock has been at the vanguard of the fight for climate justice in this country. And as this movement is increasingly youth led, we need to be lifting up the work of indigenous youth activists – young people such as 15 year old Autumn Peltier, of the Wiik-wem-koong First Nation in Northern Ontario who recently spoke at the UN and 19 year old Naelyn Pike, of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona, who had this to say in her speech at a youth leadership gathering in 2017:
I’m saying no! And many people, millions of people in this world, are saying no! We have so many sacred lands that are going to be desecrated, so many fights to protect Chaco Canyon, to protect Bears Ears, to protect Indigenous land, food, water, the right to live, our identity. We’re fighting against so many pipelines. And the thing is that these generations behind us had told us this prophecy.
But there’s another prophecy: That the youth is going to stand. And that’s us today. That’s us here and now.
In addition to Indigenous-led movements, there are any number of growing climate justice movements that deserve our attention and support – and I know many in this room have long been active in these efforts: the Sunrise Movement, the Climate Strike, +350 and Extinction Rebellion, to name a few. And as I mentioned earlier, given everything that is at stake, we need to wage an all-out political fight against the economic interests that make greater profit through increased greenhouse gas emissions. In this country, this fight is primarily being waged nationally via the Green New Deal, but it is also being fought on state and local levels as well. As I said before, there is a part we can all play. The main thing is to connect the dots, to understand that the climate crisis is at heart a justice issue – and that all struggles for justice are ultimately bound up with the movement to roll back the climate crisis.
So what can Rosh Hashanah mean at this moment in human history, in this unprecedented time when the very future of our world is literally hanging in the balance? I want to suggest that we can no longer celebrate the new year – the birthday of the world – without explicitly spelling out what is at stake. Yes, it is a day of hope, but this hope must be celebrated together with a hard and sober realism.
We know that the task ahead of us will be
daunting. We know that some of the effects of climate
change can yet be turned back. But we also know that some of the damage we’ve
inflicted upon the earth is permanent. We do have a window of time in which we
can stop or decrease global temperatures, but it will take a Herculean
world-wide effort to achieve this. We’ve been told by scientists that we have
12 years before the social and economic fabric we take for granted starts to
unravel beyond the point of no return. We need to admit this and say it out
loud if these New Year’s rituals are to retain any meaning for us whatsoever
In the end, it may well be that the High Holidays will hold more
meaning than ever before. After all, when the new year is through, when we move
toward Yom Kippur, our prayers will literally evoke a world that hangs in the
balance. We will ask “who shall live and who shall die?” We will plead to be
written into the Book of Life. We will ask ourselves honestly, how can we
change our ways to ensure it shall be so? It seems to me that these prayers
have never had more universal, global meaning than right now.
One of the things I love most about Judaism and Jewish culture in
general, is that it invites us to work toward the world to come, the world as
it should be. Yes, this work can be a struggle, but it can also be filled with
joy and celebration. And there are yet times during the struggle when we create
a microcosm – when we get a glimpse of the world to come. These moments remind
us we must continue to live with a spirit of joyous resistance, even if we know
full well that world we seek may never be at hand.
How do we possibly do this? How do we find the strength to fight a fight we know we may not win? And to so joyfully? Let me share with you the words of indigenous activist and organizer, Kelly Hayes, who offers us as eloquent a manifesto for the new year as I can imagine:
I would prefer to win, but struggle is about much more than winning. It always has been. And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world? And what will you say to the people you love, when time runs out? If it comes to that, I plan on being able to tell them I did everything I could, but I’m not resigning myself to anything and neither should you. Adapt, prepare, and take the damage done seriously, but never stop fighting. Václav Havel once said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” I live in that certainty every day. Because while these death-making systems exist both outside and inside of us, so do our dreams, so long as we are fighting for them. And my dreams are worth fighting for. I bet yours are too.
This new year, let us commit to fight like hell for the world of
our dreams, for a world reborn anew. Let us fight with joy, commitment and
solidarity, knowing full well that this is a fight for the survival of the
world as we know it. And let us fight not with the certainty that we will
ultimately be victorious, but with the faith that it is worth waging no matter
Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be our will this new year – and every new year from this time forward.
If ever there was a moment of clarity for us, it’s now.
As we witness and grieve the carnage of two back-to-back mass shootings, we cannot afford to ignore the clear signs that the ascendance of white supremacy in our nation is all too real. 2018 saw a national increase in hate crimes, with nearly all extremist homicides carried out by the far right. Last May, the head of the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit, Michael McGarrity, testified to Congress that the bureau was investigating about 850 cases of domestic terrorism. Read this again: 850. We know conclusively that white nationalist extremists have killed more people in the United States than any other category of domestic extremists since September 11, 2001.
Many of these crimes might seem different on the surface: When a white supremacist killed nine Bible study students at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC, the victims were African-American; when eleven worshippers were gunned down by a white supremacist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the targets were Jews; the white supremacist who killed 20 at an El Paso mall last Saturday was gunning for Latinix immigrants, according to his manifesto. And within 24 hours another mass shooting occurred in Ohio, the motivation of which is still unclear as of this writing.
We can’t deny the influence of one massacre on another. One empowered white male with guns is invariably followed by another. Indeed, the manifesto attributed to the El Paso gunman is clearly inspired by the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto, which promoted a white supremacist theory called “the great replacement”—an ideology that claims elites in Europe have been working to replace white Europeans with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. This is akin to the “white genocide” theory affirmed by the Pittsburgh shooter.
The needs of this moment could not be clearer. The time has come for a structural intervention. We should rightly expect every branch of government to take clear and unmistakable actions to halt the growth of white supremacy in our nation. We must demand of every politician, every media figure, every pundit and faith leader to name and call out this toxic racism wherever it may come from, including—especially—when it comes from the White House.
It can no longer be up for debate whether or not our president is emboldening this rise in white supremacy and the increase in mass shootings. He is. There is no way to question this in good faith. The same person who inspired a crowd to chant “send her back” to Somalian-American Representative Ilhan Omar, the same person whose tweets are increasingly racist, the same person who welcomes white supremacists to the White House, is more than a part—a huge part—of the problem. He is the catalyst to much of this violence.
But this is also a time of action—a time to stand up and reach out to those who are being targeted. And those of us who are members of these targeted minorities must stand in common cause and solidarity with one another. For instance, as a Jew, I cannot begin to say how heartened and supported I felt when, in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I learned that the Muslim American community responded immediately by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the families of the victims.
I am likewise proud of the work of Never Again Action, a new Jewish network working with local allies around the country to organize actions of civil disobedience at ICE detention centers. History will judge how we responded in this time, and we are now well past the wake-up call. We must prioritize the fight against white supremacy in this country and beyond.
This weekend will mark the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (the “ninth of the month of Av”)—a fast day that mourns the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, symbolized by the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One of the central lessons of this day is that the Temple was not destroyed by any external enemy, but by the sinat chinam—“baseless hatred”—that ultimately destroyed the Jewish community from within.
This Tisha B’Av, I am all too aware of the toxic sinat chinam of white supremacy that is so clearly on the rise, corroding our nation and our global community. At the same time, I cannot but redouble my commitment to the growing diverse social justice movement in all its forms, welcoming and uniting our struggles, mourning our loses and striving to protect one another, over and over again.
During this horrible, clarifying moment, I take heart in the sacred power of solidarity.
Last December, I was arrested on the border in San Diego while standing with faith leaders to protest, among other things, Trump’s unlawful incarceration of immigrants. My experiences on the border and at immigrant detention centers in my home state of Illinois have left me with no doubt whatsoever that our nation is warehousing humanity in concentration camps—and that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correct when she refers to them by this term.
As a rabbi, I am compelled to act on behalf of immigrants because my religious faith and historical legacy demands that I do so. And I’m not alone: most American Jews embrace progressive values of social justice—and understand that we ourselves have a history of oppression at the hands of state violence.
Yesterday, AOC stirred something of a hornet’s nest when she retweeted an article in Esquire by an expert on immigrant detention who characterized Trump’s immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps.” Almost immediately, some Republican politicians, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York pounced, claiming AOC’s “regrettable use of Holocaust terminology to describe these contemporary concerns diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis to eradicate the Jewish people.”
It is deeply problematic, highly partisan—and historically incorrect—to declare that the use of “concentration camps” is to be constrained to the limits of “Holocaust terminology” (itself hardly an academic term.) As scholar Jonathan Katz recently pointed out in the LA Times, the term “was invented by a Spanish official …during Cuba’s 1895 independence war.” FDR, notably, also used the term in reference to his Executive Order to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. And enough people have pointed out in recent days the usage of the term by the British suppressing the Boer rebellion in South Africa for it to be elaborated on here.
We Jews do not own this term. But in fact, I would argue it is imperative that we Jews use this term whenever these dreadful facilities are imposed on groups of people other than ourselves. History has shown us that the concentration of humanity into forced detention invariably leads entire societies to exceedingly dark places. This practice did not begin with Nazi policies against European Jewry—nor did it end there.
The same is true of AOC’s impassioned and all-too familiar call, “Never again.” As a rabbi, a Jew and a person of conscience, allow me to put it as plainly as I can: AOC’s use of this phrase was altogether appropriate. I do not and cannot view this call as “Holocaust terminology.” On the contrary: “Never Again” means never again for anyone, or else it doesn’t mean anything at all.
The fact that we are even debating these terms shows just how twisted the conversation has become. Rather than parsing the words of a human rights champion like AOC for petty political gain, these politicians and Jewish leaders should be directing their criticism where it truly belongs: at a morally depraved national policy that parses out access to human rights according to origin and ethnicity, tears apart families, and cages children in, yes, concentration camps.
The Jewish interwebs have been abuzz regarding Yair Rosenberg’s December 17 Tablet article in which he criticized the New York Times Book Review for its interview with Alice Walker. In last Sunday’s “By the Book” column, the Times asked Walker what books she had on her nightstand; among those she cited was a book by British antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke entitled, “And the Truth Shall Set You Free.” Walker commented, “In (his) books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.”
In his article, Rosenberg listed a litany of odious excerpts from Icke’s book, including his praise of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” his claims that the B’nai B’rith was behind the slave trade and his belief that the Rothschilds bankrolled Adolf Hitler. He also offered a long list of the numerous times Walker has endorsed Ickes’ ideas, including her posting of his video interview (now blocked by YouTube) with Infowars’ Alex Jones, of which she wrote:
I like these two because they’re real, and sometimes Alex Jones is a bit crazy; many Aquarians are. Icke only appears crazy to people who don’t appreciate the stubbornness required when one is called to a duty it is impossible to evade.
Rosenberg also posted in full, a deeply disturbing poem written by Walker in 2017 entitled “It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud.” This excerpt should give you a good idea about the tone and substance of Walker’s piece:
For a more in depth study
I recommend starting with YouTube. Simply follow the trail of “The
Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness.
I will sadly confess that I was unaware of Alice Walker’s history of antisemitic attitudes, even though this was apparently common knowledge among many on the left. During the Twitter eruption that followed Rosenberg’s piece for instance, Roxane Gay commented:
Those of us who were hearing of Walker’s antisemitic proclivities for the first time were particularly saddened to learn that this eloquent champion of anti-racism had been expressing such poisonous ideas toward Jews and Judaism. Journalist/filmmaker Rebecca Pierce spoke for many of us when she tweeted this response:
In his article, Rosenberg made mention of Walker’s anti-Israel politics, challenging “the progressive left” to call out antisemitism that is “presented in the righteous guise of ‘anti-Zionism.’” Although I don’t share Rosenberg’s conservative Israel politics, I accept his challenge. And yes, it’s painfully true that Walker’s Talmud poem egregiously cites Jewish religious tradition as the root cause of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians (as well as American police brutality, mass incarceration and “war in general”):
For the study of Israel, of Gaza, of Palestine,
Of the bombed out cities of the Middle East,
Of the creeping Palestination
Of our police, streets, and prisons
Of war in general,
It is our duty, I believe, to study The Talmud.
It is within this book that,
I believe, we will find answers
To some of the questions
That most perplex us.
Walker’s claim that the Talmud is “evil” and “poisonous” – a common antisemitic trope – is worth unpacking here. First of all, what is referred to as “The Talmud” is actually a vast corpus of Jewish civil and ritual law mixed with freewheeling legend and Biblical commentary composed between 200 and 500 CE. Though it is one of Jewish tradition’s foundational texts, Talmudic literature is not, to put it mildly, immediately accessible to the untrained reader. It’s typically studied by traditional Jews in the rarified world of schools known as yeshivot, where students’ primary focus is on the unique pedagogy of Talmudic argumentation.
Like all forms of religious literature, Talmudic tradition expresses a wide spectrum of ideas and attitudes. The contemporary reader would likely find its content to be alternately inscrutable, inspiring, challenging, archaic – and yes, at times even repugnant. It contains passages for example, that are profoundly misogynistic. And as Walker pointed out in her poem, it also contains occasional material that is decidedly anti-Gentile, including a notorious passage that depicts Jesus condemned to suffer in hell in a vat of burning excrement. (Yep, it’s true.) There are also texts that unabashedly claim Jewish lives must take precedence over non-Jewish lives – an idea that was also advocated centuries later by Moses Maimonides.
These texts are undeniably, inexcusably offensive and they must be called out, full stop. At the same time however, it is exceedingly disingenuous to judge a religion on the basis of its most problematic pronouncements. This attitude simplistically accepts these texts at face value, devoid of any context or historical background. It also ignores the fact that almost all faith traditions address the offensive, archaic or inconsistent elements in their sacred literature through the use of hermeneutics – that is, principles and methods that help readers understand their meaning in ever-changing societal contexts.
How for instance, might a contemporary religious feminist read and understand a blatantly misogynist Talmudic text? In an article entitled “When Sages are Wrong: Misogyny in Talmud,” Dr, Ruhama Weiss, of Hebrew Union College offers one hermeneutical approach:
(These Talmudic traditions) caused me a powerful disturbance. They forced me to think and react; to think about mechanisms of power and control and about the ability to be free from them. To make an effort to find and highlight additional voices, earlier voices, buried and hidden in misogynist rabbinic discussions.
Most importantly, these difficult sources teach me a lesson in modesty; from them I learn that unequally talented and wise people with good intentions can bequeath to subsequent generations difficult and bad traditions. I see the moral blind spots of my ancestors, and I am obligated to examine my own moral blind spots. Bad and disturbing sources make me think.
Indeed, this same hermeneutic method can be applied to Talmud’s xenophobic, anti-Gentile content as well. That is to say, these texts can challenge us to see “the moral blind spots of our ancestors and thus to examine our own moral blind spots.” They can help us confront “mechanisms of power and control” and contemplate the ways we might be able to “free ourselves of them.” These bad and disturbing sources can “make us think.”
Of course there are those who will read the texts of their faith through a more literal, fundamentalist hermeneutic. In such cases, it is up to those who cherish their religious tradition and the value of human rights for all to challenge such interpretations, particularly when the lines between church and state power become increasingly blurred.
On the subject of state power, I must add that I find it exceedingly problematic when folks criticize Talmudic tradition for its xenophobic attitudes without acknowledging the fundamentally anti-Jewish attitudes that are embedded deep within Christian religious tradition. It’s also important to note that antisemitic church teachings were historically used to inspire centuries of anti-Jewish persecution throughout Christian Europe, while the Talmud was written and compiled in a context of Jewish political powerlessness.
Today, in this relatively new era of Jewish power, it is certainly important to remain vigilant over the ways Jewish tradition is used to justify the oppression of Palestinians. Indeed, since the establishment of the State of Israel, this subject has been intensely debated throughout Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. As I write these words in fact, I’m recalling a blog post I wrote back in 2009 about then Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces Avichai Rontzki, who made a comment, based on Jewish religious texts, that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned”:
How will we, as Jews, respond to the potential growth of Jewish Holy War ideology within the ranks of the Israeli military? How do we feel about Israeli military generals holding forth on the religious laws of warfare? Most Americans would likely agree that in general, mixing religion and war is a profoundly perilous endeavor. Should we really be so surprised that things are now coming to this?
I do not ask these questions out of a desire to be inflammatory. I ask them only because I believe we need to discuss them honestly and openly – and because these kinds of painful questions have for too long been dismissed and marginalized by the “mainstream” Jewish establishment.
In the end, every faith tradition has its good, bad and ugly. And in the end, I would submit that the proper way to confront these toxic texts is for people of faith to own the all of their religious heritage – and to grapple with it seriously, honestly and openly. And while we’re at it, it’s generally a good rule of thumb to avoid using the bad, ugly stuff in any religion’s textual tradition to make sweeping historical or political claims about that religion and/or the folks who adhere to it.
What is not at all helpful is for people such as Alice Walker to cherry-pick and decontextualize quotes from one particular religious tradition and warn that its “poison” is “winding its way into our collective consciousness.”
Like many of my friends who are just now learning about her adherence to antisemitic tropes, I fervently hope she will come to understand, as Rebecca Pierce put it, that the attitudes she endorses “are part of the same white supremacist power structure she so deftly fought through her written work in the past.”
Interfaith clergy lead demonstrators through Border Field State Park en route to the San Diego – Tijuana border (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)
I‘ve just returned from the San Diego-Tijuana border where I had the honor of participating in “Love Knows No Borders” — an interfaith action sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and co-sponsored by a myriad of faith organizations from across the country. As a staffer for AFSC and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (one of the many co-sponsoring organizations), I took a special pride in this interfaith mobilization, in which more than 400 people from across the country gathered to take a moral stand against our nation’s sacrilegious immigration system. I’m particularly gratified that the extensive media from our action could shine a light on the brutal reality at our increasingly militarized southern border.
The date of the action (December 10) was symbolically chosen to take place on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and served as the kick off to a nationwide week of action that will conclude on December 18, International Migrant’s Day. The action set three basic demands before the US government: to respect people’s human right to migrate, to end the militarization of border communities, and to end the detention and deportation of immigrants.
Over the course of this past weekend, hundreds of participants streamed into San Diego for orientation and training. To conclude our preparation and as a precursor to the upcoming action, an interfaith service was held in the packed sanctuary of University Christian Church. As one of the Jewish leaders of the service, I noted that it was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah and invited the Jewish members of our delegation up to sing the blessings.
Before the lighting, I explained that the final night of Hanukkah is the night in which our light shines the brightest, and I pointed out the wonderful confluence of this Jewish festival with our interfaith action the following day. Rev. Traci Blackmon, a United Church of Christ leader and prominent social justice activist, delivered one of the most powerful messages of the evening, properly placing the issue of immigrant justice within the context of US white supremacy. (You can find the Facebook Live video of the service here. The Hanukkah lighting begins at the 24:30 mark; Rev. Blackmon’s remarks begin at 1:19:16.)
Arrests at the Border
The next morning, we gathered at AFSC’s San Diego office and left in buses to Border Field State Park, located just north of the border with Tijuana. After a press conference, we marched west down the trail to the beach, then turned south and approached the border fence, which snaked across the beach and jutted several hundred feet into the water. As we got closer, we could see a tangle of barbed concertina wire laid out in front of the fence. Behind the wire stood a phalanx of heavily armed border patrol.
When we reached the edge of the wire, some of the clergy formed a semi-circle and offered blessings for the migrants. As the prayers were spoken aloud, border patrol officers used a megaphone to inform us that we were trespassing on federal property and that we needed to move to the back of the wire. I recited the Priestly Benediction in Hebrew and English (“May God bless you and keep you …”), doing my best to articulate the prayer between the voices of border patrol barking out orders (a ceremonial first for me).
When our blessings were over, we went back to the other side of the barbed wire and those of us in front formed a line directly facing the guards. A border patrol officer repeatedly told us to leave, adding that he did not want any violence — an ironic statement considering that he and the rest of the riot-gear clad border patrol officers wielded automatic weapons in front of our faces. We began to chant freedom chants and held the line, even as the border patrol officers inched forward and started to push us back.
While we were careful not to touch any officers, we continued to hold the line as the border patrol pushed us forward. Eventually, protesters who did not yield were grabbed, pulled to the border patrol’s side of the line and arrested. Most men were thrown to the ground and held down with their faces in the sand while their hands were bound together with plastic ties; women were generally allowed to kneel before they were led away from the beach to waiting border patrol vans
As I continued to hold the line on the far west end of the front line, I noticed a commotion at the other end: Officers had broken through the line and were chasing protesters down the beach. I saw one of our protest organizers, AFSC staffer Matt Leber, roughly thrown to the ground by at least five or six border patrol officers, handcuffed and led away. While Leber did not intend to take an arrest, this kind of intentional targeting of organizers is a common law enforcement tactic.
In this video taken of the incident you can see Leber (wearing the red T-shirt and backpack) guiding the protest when he is suddenly attacked, unprovoked, by the border patrol, who lunge at him and yank off his backpack. You can also see AFSC staffer Jacob Flowers (wearing the yellow vest) being thrown to the ground.
Border patrol officers arrest AFSC staffer Matt Leber (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)
Shortly after Leber’s arrest, I dropped to my knees and was grabbed and pinned down by two border patrol officers. When it became clear that I wasn’t resisting, they allowed me to stand of my own accord and led me to the line of arrested protesters who were arrayed along a fence, waiting to be placed into vans.
According to the border patrol, 32 of us were arrested. We don’t currently have an exact arrest count, but it seems that most of us were charged with the misdemeanor of “nonconformity to the orders of a Federal Law Enforcement officer.” When a day went by with no further word about Leber, AFSC released a statement calling for his immediate release. To our collective relief, he was eventually let out of the Metropolitan Correction Center on Tuesday afternoon.
The True Meaning of Border Militarization
During our debrief, many noted the ferocity of the border guard’s response to our prayerful, nonviolent demonstration. Many of us — in particular the white, privileged members of our delegation — agreed that we had gained a deeper sense of empathy and solidarity with our migrant neighbors, a stronger understanding of the toxic effects of militarization on our border communities, and a more profound conviction than ever that we must all fight for a nation that receives immigrants with open hearts and open doors.
This experience also served to demonstrate what “militarization of the border” truly means. My friend and fellow Jewish Voice for Peace member Elaine Waxman put it well when she wrote about our experience on her Facebook page:
What has stuck with me most in the last 24 hours is a deeply uncomfortable sense of what that border surely looks like when the witnesses are gone, the journalists are not taking pictures, and the encounters are with migrants instead of documented (and often white) community leaders. Because what we saw yesterday looks like a police state.
Indeed, when we stood up to the line of armed border patrol officers, I couldn’t help but flash back to my very similar experience in a direct action with Youth Against Settlements during the summer of 2006 in Hebron. In both cases we faced heavily armed soldiers, the loud screaming of orders, and the use of the threat of violence to intimidate and deter those who do not yield to state control.
Clergy demonstrators hold the line at the San Diego – Tijuana border fence. (photo: Steve Pavey, Hope in Focus, stevepavey.com)
I also noticed another, more specific similarity between these two experiences. When I stood in front of the border guards on the beach, I noticed familiar tear gas canisters belted across their chests. I’d seen the same on soldiers throughout the West Bank and Gaza: silver cylinders with blue writing manufactured by Combined Tactical Systems in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
Seeing those same canisters at the US-Mexico border reminded me of the multiple intersections between systems of state violence and corporate profit – and of the need for a movement that will expose and dismantle them once and for all.
If the charge of antisemitism becomes a tactic to suppress open criticism and debate on the State of Israel, its practices of dispossession and occupation, its founding and the ongoing implications of that founding for Palestinians, then it will lose its claim to truth…Who will believe the charge when it is used to name and oppose the rising forms of fascism or actual ideologies bound up with its actual toxicity?
– Judith Butler, “On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice”
The tragic killing of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue last Saturday has created a painful reckoning over the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the US. If there was ever any question about the threat white nationalism poses to the Jewish community, there can be no doubt after this attack, which some are calling the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in American history.
But if we are to truly respond to this resurgence, we must take pains to analyze anti-Semitism for what it is and what it is not. This is particularly important in the face of Israeli politicians and Israel advocacy organizations that are currently muddling the definition of anti-Semitism for cynical political gain.
One stark and egregious example of this occurred the day after the massacre, when Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the US, conflated neo-Nazi Jew-hatred with what he described as anti-Semitism of the “radical left” found on college campuses:
One of the big forces in college campuses today is anti-Semitism. And those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis, on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left. We have to stand against anti-Semitism whether it comes from the right or whether it comes from the left.
While it is important to acknowledge that truly anti-Semitic ideas that paint Jews as rich, conspiratorial “globalists” are occasionally parroted on the left as well as on the right, Dermer is not talking about real anti-Semitism within leftist communities; rather, he is disingenuously seeking to cast all Palestine solidarity activism as necessarily anti-Semitic.
While some Jewish college students may feel discomfort when confronted by a strong criticism of Israel by Palestine solidarity activists, this does not mean that criticisms of Israel are by definition anti-Semitic. This claim blithely conflates the state of Israel with all Jews and ignores the historic reality that there have always been Jews who have criticized Israel’s oppression of Palestinians – and have even opposed the very premise of an ethnically Jewish nation-state itself. In truth, there is a significant and growing percentage of Jews actively participating in Palestine solidarity campaigns who are not motivated by “Jewish self-hatred” but by the deeply held Jewish values of justice and the dignity for all.
The attempt to conflate criticisms of Israel on the left with bigoted anti-Semitism on the right is a tactic that has long been employed by the Israeli government and professional Israel advocacy organizations. Now that we are coming face to face with the deadly truth of neo-Nazi anti-Semitism in our country, however, it is becoming increasingly clear how their tactic not only enables violence toward Palestinians, but also puts Jews at greater peril by ignoring the resurgence of alt-right rhetoric and violence against them.
Unfortunately, there is every sign that Israel advocacy organizations are doubling down on this tactic. This past week, the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law in conjunction with Hasbara Fellowships ( a pro-Israel campus advocacy organization) announced the launching of its so-called “Jigsaw Initiative,” described as an “unprecedented pilot program to train law students and combat and prevent insurgent anti-Semitism.”
In a press release, Brandeis Center President and General Counsel Alyza B. Lewin stated:
As the tragic and horrific events in Pittsburgh made abundantly clear, anti-Semitism is escalating at an alarming rate in the US…We must reverse this rising trend of anti-Semitism and ethnic racism, and there is no substitute for legal action. By properly training a select team of law students to work with undergraduates and utilize specific tools and strategy, we can begin to take the tide in this battle.
While Lewin didn’t mention it in her statement, the “anti-Semitism” the Brandeis Center seeks to fight legally has nothing to do with white supremacist Jew-hatred. In fact, the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law is an organization which, despite its lofty universalist name, has dedicated itself almost exclusively to fighting public criticism of Israel by branding critics as “anti-Semitic.” Over the years, the Brandeis Center and other Israel advocacy organizations had tried and failed to prosecute campus anti-Semitism cases through the Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a provision that was originally used during the 1960s to desegregate schools in the South.
The Brandeis Center was founded in 2012 by Kenneth L. Marcus, a far-right ideologue who has a history of abusing civil rights law to further a conservative political agenda and suppress college activists’ criticism of Israel. During his tenure as head of the US Commission on Civil Rights under George W. Bush, he oversaw the publication of a report backing the dismantling of affirmative action in law schools and argued against universities’ use of race-neutral criteria to achieve diversity. He also opposed a proposal to expand the scope of the US Commission on Civil Rights to investigate violations of LGBTQ rights and broader human rights.
Last year, Trump announced Marcus’ nomination to be the new head of the Education Office’s Civil Rights. During his confirmation hearings last year, hundreds of civil rights organizations and academics expressed their opposition to Marcus’ appointment. Despite widespread concern, Marcus was eventually confirmed by a narrow 50-46 Senate vote — and since then it was only a matter of time until he used the power of his new office to quash criticism of Israel on college campuses. One month later, Marcus and the Office of Civil Rights announced they would be reopening a seven-year-old case brought by a Zionist group against Rutgers University, saying the Obama administration, in closing the case, ignored evidence that suggested the school allowed a hostile environment for Jewish students.
Marcus also did not waste any time in announcing his support for the reintroduction of the Congressional Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. While the title of this legislation suggests a sensible government attempt to raise the public consciousness, this bill has zero to do with combating actual anti-Semitism. Quite the contrary, in fact.
The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act has a long and somewhat tortured history. In December 2016, the Senate passed the first version of this bill quickly, unanimously and without debate. Introduced by Senators Bob Casey and Tom Scott, the bill purports to address claims of anti-Semitism on college campuses as “civil rights violations.”
For many, most troubling aspects of the bill came from the way it defined anti-Semitism itself:
For purposes of this Act, the term ‘‘definition of anti-Semitism’’’—
(1) includes the definition of anti-Semitism set forth by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism of the Department of State in the Fact Sheet issued on June 8, 2010, as adapted from the Working Definition of Anti-Semitism of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (now known as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights); and
(2) includes the examples set forth under the headings ‘‘Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism’’ and ‘‘What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?’’ of the Fact Sheet.
Both the State Department and the “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” fact sheets contain definitions of Anti-Semitism that include such vague criteria as “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel” — broad and vague language that would allow virtually any criticism of Israel to be labeled as anti-Semitic.
The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act was pushed through the Senate despite the strong opposition of numerous civil rights and free speech advocacy groups. Following its passage, the ACLU released a statement warning that the bill “poses a serious threat to the First Amendment free speech rights of those on campus who may hold certain political views,” adding that they were confident that Senators “must have been unaware of the unconstitutional implications of the only operative provision of the bill.”
The House soon introduced its own version of the bill, but despite furious lobbying by Israel advocacy groups, it failed to pass before Congress wrapped up its 2016 legislative session. Not surprisingly, Congress re-introduced the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in June 2018. Shortly after, in an August letter obtained by The New York Times, Marcus notified the Zionist Organization of America that the Office of Civil Rights would put the full force of his government office behind the State Department definition of Anti-Semitism.
Clearly, the effects of this new inquisition on the Palestine solidarity movement on campus — and the cause of free speech in general — are potentially devastating. At the same time, many are warning this legislation will do meaningful damage to the cause to fight the very real threat of Trump-era anti-Semitism in the US.
In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee during its debate over the original Antisemitism Awareness Act, Holocaust historian Barry Trachtenberg of Wake Forest University openly stated that the supporters of the bill were “motivated less by an actual threat facing American or world Jewry than they are part of a persistent campaign to thwart debates, scholarly research, and political activism that is critical of the State of Israel.”
He went on to point out that despite widely reported “depictions of rampant anti-Semitism… in the press,” a Stanford University study reported that they do not represent the “actual experiences” of Jewish students at the campus level. They discovered that campus life is neither threatening nor alarmist. “In general,” noted Trachtenberg, “students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, feeling comfortable as Jews on their campuses.”
It is also worth noting that like all forms of racism, anti-Semitism is most dangerous and deadly when it is enabled and supported by state power. In the US, the anti-Semitism that fits this description is the “alt-right” anti-Semitism enabled and emboldened by a Trump administration that clearly views this movement as an essential part of its base. We would do well to view legislation such as the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act as a form of state-sponsored oppression inasmuch as it unfairly targets an oppressed group and its allies for exercising their constitutional rights of free speech.
While this misguided focus commits a very real injustice to the cause of Palestinian human rights, it will also make it more difficult to identify and combat the real threat of anti-Semitism in our midst today. If there was ever any doubt, it should have been made abundantly clear last summer in Charlottesville, when neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville with torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” while others stood across from a local synagogue armed with semi-automatic rifles shouting “There’s the synagogue!” and “Sieg Heil!”
Following the tragic Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of course, there can no longer be any doubt that old-style anti-Semitism is real and deadly in the United States. While our government uses spurious claims of anti-Semitism to suppress criticism of Israel on college campuses, real anti-Semites have gunned down 11 Jewish worshippers in their synagogue. It’s long past time to put to rest the equation of “far right and far left anti-Semitism” for cynical political gain.