Seaside Memory in Gaza

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Memorials take many forms – some are grand and iconic like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC while others exude power through their very simplicity.

Here’s an example of the latter category:

During my trip Gaza last month, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches placed along the beachfront as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City. As we drove by, I noticed that some benches were empty; on another, a sole person sat gazing out to sea and another was filled with what seemed like an entire family. My AFSC colleague Ali Albari noted the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town that was forcibly depopulated by Zionist militias in 1948/49.

The majority of the almost 2,000,000 residents of Gaza are in fact, refugees – Palestinians who had originally lived in the central and northern regions of the country. After their dispossession they were herded into refugee camps in Gaza, fully expecting to return to their homes after the armistice. Now, almost seventy years later, they are still waiting.

It’s not difficult to grasp their sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Clearly, they have not forgotten.

Unlike most memorials, which commemorate that which was lost and never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their homes to be lost to them at all. On the contrary, I these benches testify to their faith that they will one day return.

(Thanks to Ali Albari for translating.)

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Safad (Safed)

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Jenin

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Hifa’ (Haifa)

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Bir Saba’ (Be’er Sheva)

 

Overcoming Isolation in Gaza: A Report Back

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Gaza City, 10/8/17. The Bakr children were killed on this beach by Israeli military forces on 7/16/14.

I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.

For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us spent two days in Gaza, hosted by the two full-time members of the Gaza staff: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

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AFSC Israel/Palestine staff meeting in Ramallah (with Ali and Firas joining us from Gaza via Skype).

It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.

Quakers have a long history in Israel/Palestine – dating back to before the founding of the state of Israel. The Ramallah Friends School for Girls was founded in 1889, and their School for Boys in 1901. The two schools subsequently merged into one; now well into the 21st century Ramallah Friends remains a important and venerable Palestinian educational institution. (The former head of the school Joyce Aljouny, was recently appointed AFSC’s General Secretary.)

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, immediately following Israel’s founding and the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. Their efforts continued until the United Nations Relief Works Agency started its operations there a year later. Since that time, AFSC has retained its programmatic presence throughout the Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on Public Achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestinian Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation – particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt of course, by the youth of Gaza who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140 square mile strip of land.

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically from the experience of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

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With current participants of AFSC’s Palestinian Youth Together for Change program.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not a merely a youth service project – it’s ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance:” initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade.

There’s so much more I could write about my experiences in Gaza. As I prepare now to head back to the States, I’m struggling to give voice the myriad of emotions that are flooding through me. At the moment, I’m thinking particularly of Ali and Firas, our Gaza staff members, who were not only gracious and wonderful hosts (although they were entirely that); but also talented and visionary organizers who teach us a great deal about how to do this work effectively in the most extreme of circumstances.

Even under the brutality of Israel’s blockade, we could not help but be struck by the beauty of this place and the dignity of its people and culture (which includes, I hasten to add, the deliciousness of its cuisine). As it happened, our visit occurred immediately after the beginning of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by the Egyptian government. Most of the Gazans we spoke to expressed a guarded sense of hope that it might result in some easement of the blockade – particularly in regards to freedom of movement, drinkable water and electrical service. Of course this optimism occurs within a constant context of isolation and vulnerability. The next Israeli military assault is altogether possible at any moment – and every Gazan must contend with this horrible reality every moment of every day.

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Left to right: AFSC staff Jennifer Bing, Lucy Duncan, Erin Polley, Brant Rosen, Mati Gomis-Perez, Aura Kanegis and Firas Ramlawi. Kneeling: Ali Abdel Bari

I’ve posted below some additional pictures (and one video clip) of memorable moments from our visit. My staff colleagues will be writing more about these moments and I will be sure to share their posts here. For now, I’ll end on a note of gratitude: to AFSC for giving me the opportunity to participate in this sacred work; to our gracious hosts in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza; and to my US staff colleagues who are true travel companions in more ways than one.

I took the picture at the top of this post during our final hours in Gaza. As we debriefed on a beautiful morning over coffee at a seaside cafe, three young boys who likely should have been in madrassa came down to the beach to hang out and have fun together. The loveliness of the moment was both very real and very illusory. There was no mistaking the beauty of the place and people with whom we were sharing this moment. At the same time, however, we were aware that we were in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. We were also well aware that not far from the place these boys were standing, Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10), Ahed Atef Bakr (10) and Mohamed Ramez Bakr (11) were murdered by Israeli naval fire while they played soccer on the beach on July 16, 2014.

There can be no illusions where Gaza is concerned. As I leave for home, I’m more convinced than ever that we are all complicit in this cruelty – and that we are the ones who must end it.

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The almost mile-long corridor between the Erez Crossing in Israel and the entrance into Gaza.

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Our meeting with the Gazan Fishermen’s Union. Ali translates the presentations of Zakaria Bakr – chair of the union and uncle of the murdered Bakr boys (Center), and Amjad Shrafi, President of the union (Right). Below: video from our morning excursion with Gazan fishermen:

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At the Rafah crossing, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.

The Real Wall Problem: When Will Diaspora Jews Fight For Palestinians?

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Cross-posted with The Forward.

The North American Jewish establishment is furious with Israel – and has just let loose an astonishing fusillade of collective protest. The President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of an “unconscionable insult” and vowed not to be “still or silent.” The Executive Director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, promised that they “will continue to protest.” The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, was equally direct, saying, “We are going to be assertive in asking what’s next.

What on earth is going on? Has the Jewish institutional community finally broken their abject silence over Israel’s human rights abuses? Are Jewish communal leaders finally finding the courage of their convictions on the issue of Israel/Palestine?

Not so fast. This impressive display of communal indignation was in fact mobilized in response to Netanyahu’s recent announcement that his government was suspending a 2016 agreement that expanded the southern section of the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. This agreement followed years of protest, negotiation and maneuvering, led by the Women of the Wall and liberal Diaspora Jewish organizations seeking a joint prayer space at the Kotel.

Nothing, it seems, lights a fire in the belly of the Diaspora Jewish establishment more viscerally than the cause of liberal Jewish equality in the Jewish state. While Israel’s oppressive occupation now marks its 50th year and the cause of a just peace remains more remote than ever, our Jewish leaders are still more concerned about the rights of Jews than the rights of all who live in the land.

It’s a long-standing double standard –- and in her recent op-ed, “How Bibi Just Gave Liberal Jews the Finger – And What We Can Do About It,” Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner (perhaps unintentionally) cast a telling light on this phenomenon:

Recognize our more progressive, egalitarian form of Judaism, said the Diaspora, and we’ll have your back on military, defense and geopolitical concerns, even if that might violate our liberal values or put us in conflict with natural allies.

Could we ask for a better description of this patently immoral bargain that has long been struck between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community? We will willingly violate our own values for you. Just give liberal Jews rights and we’ll remain silent on your unchecked militarism and oppression of the Palestinian people.

This silence is all the more egregious at the moment, given the humanitarian crisis Israel is currently inflicting on the people of Gaza. Now eleven years into its crushing blockade, the government announced this past month that it will start cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip, a move that could literally cause 21-hour blackouts just as the heat of the summer is gearing up.

Israel is making this latest maneuver in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, who, like Israel, seeks the ouster of Hamas from Gaza. It’s a cynical political ploy that will only harden the resolve of Gaza hardliners. As many have correctly observed, the rise of extremism can be directly tied to Israel’s cruel and draconian policies. In a recent article for the London Review of Books, Harvard scholar Sara Roy made this very point following her recent visit to Gaza:

Person after person told me that growing support for extremist factions in Gaza does not emanate from political or ideological belief – as these factions may claim – but from people’s need to feed their families. Many, perhaps most of the new recruits to Islamic State-affiliated groups are choosing to join because membership guarantees an income. At the same time, Hamas is desperate to secure enough funds to keep paying the salaries of its military wing, the al-Qassem Brigades, which is also reportedly seeing a swelling of its ranks. It seems that unemployed young men in Gaza increasingly face two options: join a military faction or give up.

While these these measures have the stated intention of toppling Hamas, it is much more likely that these measures will only “ignite an already combustible situation” and exacerbate “already-dire humanitarian situation on its doorstep,” as journalist Alex Kane wrote last week.  Indeed, it is difficult even imagine an even greater humanitarian tragedy than the one that currently exists. According to Aimee Shalan, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians:

Surgeries have already been cancelled, and hospitals forced to cut back on essential cleaning and sterilization services. Medical equipment is rapidly degrading due to constant fluctuations in electrical current. Any further cuts to electricity supply in Gaza will therefore have potentially disastrous effects. The lives of patients in intensive care, including approximately 100 babies, will be immediately endangered should supplies dwindle further.

The effect of the Israeli blockade upon children is a particularly tragic aspect of this crisis. Almost 50% of Gaza’s population is 14 or younger. According to UNICEF, the 2014 war took a heavy toll on Gaza’s children: “More than 500 were killed, 3,374 were injured – nearly a third of whom suffer permanent disability – and more than 1,500 were orphaned. Hundreds of thousands were left in trauma.”

I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in liberal Jewish establishment over these cruel human rights abuses? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with Jewish rights in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “liberal” among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance selectively.

Roy, the Harvard scholar, noted that during her visit, she was asked again and again by Gazans: “Why is Gaza being punished in so heartless a manner, and what does Israel truly hope to gain by it?

Will Diaspora Jewish leaders ever find the courage to ask this question out loud?

Haifa, 1948: Sweeping Away the Chametz

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Palestinians fleeing Haifa, April 22, 1948 (Photo: UNRWA)

Rabbi Yehuda said: There is no removal of leaven except by burning; but the Sages maintain: he may also crumble and throw it to the wind or cast it into the sea. (Mishnah Pesachim 2:1)

On the eve of Passover, April 21, 1948,
leaflets and loudspeakers ordered
the 75,000 Palestinian Arabs of Haifa
to send their women and children away,
promising terrible consequences
if these warnings were disregarded.

At 6:30 pm a joint force
of the Haganah and Irgun
known as the Carmeli brigade
opened fire on the lower regions of the city.
The military called this “Operation Biur Chametz,”
which means “Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven” –
a reference to a sacred Jewish tradition,
which commands that leaven
be swept out of Jewish homes
prior to the onset of Passover.

This strange cacophony of loudspeaker voices
and gunfire lasted until midnight.
All night long, panic stricken civilians
fled homes that were in the path
of the Jewish militias heading
into Wadi Nisnsa and the areas
nearest Hadar HaCarmel.

Early on Passover morning,
the Irgun forces were making progress.
(As Menachem Begin, later remembered, they
proceeded to advance through Haifa
like a knife through butter.
The Arabs began fleeing in panic,
shouting “Deir Yassin!”)

By 6:00 am the cacophony had grown
and now included the cries of fleeing families
as well as new loudspeaker voices:
Arab leaders urging residents
to gather in the old marketplace next to the port
and seek shelter until an orderly evacuation by sea
could be organized.

As Passover day unfolded,
Haifa’s market and port
turned into a scene of utter chaos:
children in pajamas,
men in old fashioned nightshirts,
women carrying babies,
running desperately
toward the water.

The Carmeli brigade stationed itself
on the slopes of Mt. Carmel
and launched three inch mortars
on the fleeing crowd below who eventually
broke through the port and tried to climb
aboard the boats moored in the harbor.

One survivor later recalled:
men stepped on their friends
and women on their own children.
The boats in the port were soon filled
with living cargo. The overcrowding
in them was horrible. Many turned over
and sank with all their passengers.

When the week of Passover was concluded,
scores of Palestinians had been killed
and 50,000 expelled from their homes.

The cacophonies have long since receded
and stillness now hovers
over the slopes of Mt. Carmel.
But every Passover, if you listen closely
to the water lapping back and forth
across the the shores of Haifa
you will surely hear a voice
whispering softly:

How can you sing your songs of joy
while my children are drowning?

Hanukkah, Syria and the Perils of Empire

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A front line in Aleppo, Syria, on December 12, 2012. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

Cross-posted with Truthout

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.

Celebrating a New Jewish Diasporism: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

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A synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”

This is how we explain this particular core value:

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.

However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”

It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.

Continue reading

On Passover, Israel and Demographic Threats

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Crossposted with Truthout

The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover is coming to a close, but like many Jews around the world I’m still digesting the myriad questions, answers and discussions that ensued as we retold the biblical story of the Exodus at our seder. While it’s a story our community returns to over and over again, I’m continually astonished at the ways it provides a frame for understanding struggles for liberation past and present.

This year, I’ve been contemplating one aspect of the story in particular: when a new pharaoh arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph.” We immediately learn in no uncertain terms that this new ruler was considerably more xenophobic than his predecessor:

And (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:8-9)

To use contemporary parlance, Pharaoh clearly views the Israelites as a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians.

The demographic threat meme, of course, has been played out countless times since the age of the pharaohs. It has certainly been a deeply woven thread in the fabric of American culture from our very origins. To cite but one example: Centuries before Donald Trump started railing against Mexican “criminals” and “rapists,” Benjamin Franklin wrote a 1751 essay in which he bemoaned the influx of “Palatine Boors” into the colonies who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

So yes, as an American, I can’t read these words from the Exodus story without connecting it to an ignoble aspect of my own country’s legacy — one that is all too real even today.

And as an American Jew, I can’t help but connect it to another country that also purports to act in my name.

Indeed, ever since Israel’s establishment, Zionist leaders knew well that the future Jewish state would only be “viable” if it could create and maintain a demographic Jewish majority in historic Palestine. In the late 19th century, this must surely have seemed like a tall order, since Jews constituted but 2 to 5 percent of the population. By 1947, following decades of Zionist colonization and Jewish immigration, their number had swelled to 32 percent. Under the UN-sponsored partition plan, the percentage of Jews allotted to the new Jewish state would have been 55 percent.

During the 1948 war — known as the War of Independence by Zionists and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) by Palestinians — the issue of demographics was solved through the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and Israel’s refusal to allow them to return. However, the demographic stakes were raised once again in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began a military occupation that exists to this day.

In 2010, Jews officially become a minority population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; around the same time, it was determined that the Jewish majority in Israel proper was slowly diminishing. For some time now, Zionists have been warning that the Palestinians’ birth rate poses a “demographic threat” to the future of the Jewish state.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t only come from Israel’s far right, but from liberal Zionists, who use the demographic argument to advocate for a two-state solution. Witness, for instance, the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.

Leaving aside the issues of whether or not the two-state solution actually is the policyof the Israeli government, let’s unpack this statement for a moment. The liberal Zionist argument for a “democratic Jewish state” is predicated on a view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” As an American, if I referred to any other ethnic group in this country with such a term, I would surely be viewed as a bigot or a racist. But as a Jew, I can refer to Palestinians with this epithet and still remain a member in good standing of the liberal peace camp.

Thus the inherent contradiction of liberal Zionism: democracy and demographic engineering simply do not go hand in hand. At the end of the day, there is nothing liberal about supporting an ethno-national project predicated upon the identity of one group over another. The late Meir Kahane, revered by Israel’s ultra right, loved to make liberal Zionists squirm by repeatedly articulating this point: “A western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.”

Kahane’s solution, of course, was “forced transfer” of the Palestinian population. The current government of Israel is accomplishing this goal through more subtle means:home demolitions, land expropriation and the revocation of Palestinians’ residency and citizenship. In truth, Israel has been dealing with its demographic threat under cover of US support for years, all the while claiming the mantle of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

This, along with its massive settlement expansion has brought Israel’s demographic problem home to roost. The real decision before them is not between a one-state or two-state solution, but between two one-state solutions: an apartheid Jewish state or one state of all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

As I watch this tragic process unfold this Passover, I find myself returning to the universal lesson this festival imparts on the corrupt abuse of state power. Although the Exodus story is considered sacred in Jewish tradition, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary state of Israel must be seen as equivalent to the biblical Israelites.

On the contrary, any people who suffer under oppressive government policies are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that views a people in its midst as a demographic threat can become a Pharaoh.