Now Available: Wrestling in the Daylight 2.0!

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I’m very happy to announce that the 2nd edition of my book, Wrestling in the Daylight, has just been published by Just World Books. This new edition changes the overall context of the book considerably: while the first edition of Wrestling is a record of a congregational rabbi who charted a path into Palestinian solidarity, the second edition includes two new chapters that bring the book up to date, reflecting my decision to leave full-time congregational work. You can purchase the book here. For a sneak preview, I’ve posted the new Preface below.

As always I’m enormously grateful to Helena Cobban and the good folks at Just World Books for their encouragement and support. I’ll be doing book readings around Chicago and the US, so please check the JWB event calendar over the next few weeks to see if/when I’ll be coming to your town.

My official kick-off will take place on Monday evening May 15:  a joint appearance at Chicago’s Volumes Bookcafe with Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh, whose awesome new book, White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine was also recently published by JWB.

Preface to the 2017 Edition

When I wrote the posts presented in the first edition of Wrestling in the Daylight, I hoped they might somehow help widen the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the American Jewish community. In the five years since that edition was published, I’m encouraged to be able to say this discourse has indeed widened in significant ways.

To cite just a few examples: Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that openly supports Palestinian human rights and endorses the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), has experienced explosive growth in the past several years and has become a force to be reckoned with by the Jewish community. Open Hillel, an initiative initiated by Jewish college students to “promote pluralism and open discourse on Israel/Palestine and beyond” is increasingly active in campuses across the country. Another rapidly growing organization created by young Jews, IfNotNow, is challenging American Jewish communal support of Israel’s occupation through public acts of civil disobedience.

I do believe we are witnessing the growth of a very real Jewish movement of resistance to the status quo in the American Jewish community and Israel. Led largely by a younger generation, it is openly challenging Israel’s brutal occupation and in some cases, even the very premise of Zionism itself. Notably, it is growing and thriving outside the mainstream Jewish institutional world, finding common cause with other movements (i.e. Black Lives Matter) that struggle against systems of oppression.

As I write these words, Israel is currently ruled by the most right wing government in its history and is doubling down on its brutal occupation. In Europe, extreme nationalist parties are on the rise, and in the United States, the so-called “alt-right” has become politically normalized following the election of Donald Trump. White liberal Americans have suddenly been forced to confront the reality of institutional oppression that has been long familiar to black and brown people, gay, lesbian, queer and trans people, undocumented people and First Nation peoples – as well those who live at the intersection of those identities.

If my participation in the Palestine solidarity movement has taught me anything over the past several years, it is that the fight for justice in Palestine is inseparable from the fight for justice in Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock and too many other places around the world. If I have any hope at all in this fearful political moment, it comes from all that I’ve learned from those who live every day with the reality of institutional oppression and the allies and accomplices who stand in solidarity with them. I take heart in the knowledge that there is an active Jewish presence within this new movement of resistance – and I’m immensely proud to be part of it.

This second edition of Wrestling in the Daylight contains a few editorial changes and updates the book with two new chapters: “Toward a New Model of Interfaith Relations” and “Tzedek Chicago.” The former chapter also contains some posts and comments that were written during “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s military assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014. Later that year I decided to resign from my congregation to devote myself to activism full time. In 2015, I founded a new non-Zionist congregation, Tzedek Chicago.

As it has turned out, Wrestling in the Daylight is now bookended by two ruinous “operations” waged by Israel against Gaza. Nearly ten years since the first words of this book were written, two million Palestinians (the majority of them children) remain imprisoned in a tiny strip of land, subjected to increasingly subhuman conditions and regular onslaughts at the hands of the Israeli military. If the past is any indication, it is only a matter of time before Israel launches its next assault.

It is our collective shame that the world allows this outrage to continue—and it is to the people of Gaza that I now dedicate this book.


All Pharaoh’s Must Fall: A Passover Reflection on Sean Spicer

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(Crossposted with Truthout)

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler, because, “Even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” He later added the “clarification” that “[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”

There are so many things that are so horribly wrong about Spicer’s comments, it’s difficult to know where to start. I’ll limit myself to four points (and I’m not even going to touch his inscrutable reference to “Holocaust centers”):

#1: Our own allies have used US-supplied chemical weapons.

During its 2008-2009 military assault on Gaza, Israel dropped white phosphorous – a chemical that burns flesh down to the bone and can cause fatal damage to the liver, kidneys and the heart – on densely populated civilian centers.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) later issued a 71-page report, “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” which provided numerous “witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property.”

Israel initially denied its use of white phosphorous, but when faced with overwhelming evidence, it admitted it did indeed deploy this chemical, claiming it only used it as a smokescreen to protect its troops. This statement, too, was false. HRW’s Fred Abrahams pointed out:

In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops. It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died.

HRW also noted that “all of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time.”

More recently, it was reported that Saudi Arabia appears to be using US-supplied white phosphorous in its war on Yemen. When asked about this, the State Department responded that it was “aware of these reports” and is “looking into them.”

#2: Spicer doesn’t seem to believe that Jews were Germany’s “own people.”

Whether consciously or not, when Spicer noted that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people,” he was suggesting that the 200,000 German Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were not Germany’s “own.” This is a time-honored anti-Semitic trope that stigmatizes Jews as alien elements in the nations in which they live.

It is also a meme that Donald Trump and his followers openly apply to immigrants, Muslims, people of color and any other group they deem “un-American.” As Michael Daly correctly observed in the Daily Beast:

When the Trumpians tell us that the president is only fulfilling his promises to The American People and doing what The American People want in the interest of The American People, you can be sure that they meant it in the same sense that Hitler spoke of The German People.

#3: We’ve heard this before.

Even if we chalk up Spicer’s comments to ignorance, this kind of insensitivity is part of a growing pattern of disturbing dog whistles Trump has repeatedly been sounding in relation to American Jews: his appointment of “alt-rightist” Steve Bannon as a close White House advisor; his reluctance to disavow his support from full-bore white supremacists, such as David Duke and Richard Spencer; his use of an anti-Semitic image in his campaign; his International Holocaust Day statement that made no mention of Jews; and his use of the “America First” slogan, which has historically anti-Semitic roots.

Some were hoping that given Trump’s fraught relationship with the American Jewish community, he would at least attend the White House Passover Seder, as Obama did on each of the eight years of his presidency. Alas, neither Trump, nor his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, chose to attend. (He did, however, issue a tweet wishing a happy Passover “to everyone celebrating.”)

#4: On Passover?!

Yes, it certainly added insult to injury that Spicer made these comments on the first day of Passover. However, let’s choose to make this a teachable moment. After all, one of the central themes of the Exodus story that is read on Passover is the danger of the Pharaohs who use xenophobia to single out Jews and other minorities for oppression.

So let’s take heart from the lesson that Exodus teaches us. As poet Kevin Coval so aptly puts it in his poem “all the pharaohs must fall”:

wake in this new day
look around
neighbors are allies
we don’t have to compete with
we can ally and fight with them
there are more of us
who don’t drill or bomb or legislate
more of us who 3rd shift and wash dishes
more of us who forge papers and sneak over fences
more of us worried about unlawful arrests
and whose worry arrests in the night without sleep

wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
just
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall


The Book of Esther (Subversive Edition)

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Detail of a Megillah (Scroll of Esther) from 19th century France

“Rava said: ‘It is one’s duty to make oneself fragrant with wine on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.'”

– Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b

Now it came to pass in the days of King Ahasuerus,
(this is Ahasuerus who reigned
over the great Persian empire in 486 BCE)
that the King made a feast unto all the men of his kingdom
and Vashti the Queen held a feast for the women.

On the seventh day,
when the heart of the King was merry with wine,
he demanded that Vashti the Queen dance before him
wearing nothing but her royal crown.
But Vashti refused to come at the King’s command.

Thereupon the King asked his wise men,
“What shall we do to the Queen Vashti;
she has disobeyed an order of King Ahasuerus!”
Their answer: “Vashti has not merely insulted the King,
but all the people of Persia.”

The King’s men went to summon the Queen,
but she was nowhere to be found.
Some say she was executed,
others say she was imprisoned,
still others say she fled the empire.

The legends of her fearlessness however,
are told yet to this day.
(On many a moonlit night, they say,
Vashti’s songs and laughter can be heard
ringing out across the shores of the Southern Persian Sea).

The King sent out a royal command
Throughout all the provinces of his kingdom,
to all the maidens of the land:
Come to the palace!
The one that most pleases the King
shall replace Vashti as Queen.

Now the Jews had lived in Persia for a century –
ever since the Great Destruction
and they enjoyed freedom and prosperity
throughout the land.

In those days there was a certain Jew,
whose name was Mordechai.
Although he lacked for nothing,
he could not find peace,
for the memory of his ancestors’ exile
burned within him
like a fire that raged without end.

Mordechai’s niece Esther
decided that she would go the King’s palace.
When she told Mordechai, he smiled within.
“If Esther does indeed become Queen,” he thought to himself,
“I may finally avenge the wrongs done to my ancestors
and bring ruin upon the people of Persia.”

When Esther went into the King’s house
King Ahasuerus proclaimed:
“This one shall be my Queen.
Together we shall rule over all Persia.”

When Mordechai learned his niece
would soon be crowned as Queen,
he said to her:

“This is just the moment
for which we have waiting!
You must tell me everything
you hear from the King’s palace
so that we may move against it.

For we know it is but a matter of time
before the Persian empire makes good
on its plans to destroy our people.
Be true to your kin!
Who knows, maybe you have been made Queen
for such as time as this?”

But Esther said to Mordechai,
“This I will not do, for Persia is our home.
We dwell here in security and enjoy
a bounty of blessings in this land.
If I were as to do as you instruct me,
it would bring hatred and retaliation
against the Jewish people.”

And so Esther married King Ahasuerus
and joined him in his palace.
Esther did not hide her Jewish identity
from the King or anyone else who lived in the land.
The Jews of Persia rejoiced –
for although many of their kin
had held high and respected positions
in the King’s court,
they were proud that one of their own
had become Queen of all Persia!

Sometime later,
Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite
to a place of highest honor in his court.
Though the Jews had been taught
to fear his ancestors,
Haman was a man of compassion and wisdom,
held in great esteem by all who know him.

When Mordechai learned of Haman’s rise
in the King’s court
he was filled with loathing and dread.
He gathered with four conspirators
and together they plotted Haman’s downfall
by striking a mighty blow against his people.

After a time, the King’s ardor for Esther waned
and soon she came to learn
that she was but one of the kings many consorts.
When Ahasuerus saw her face fall he said to her:
“Why are you downcast? Many are my wives,
but only one is my Queen.”

Esther did not remain sad for long.
She and Haman came to know
and trust one another
and soon they became lovers.
When night fell they would steal away to his bed
while the King was fast asleep
in the chambers of his concubines.

In due time, one of Mordechai’s co-conspirators
came to regret the terrible plans they had made,
and he requested an audience with the Queen.
Bowing low to Esther, he said,

“Please forgive me, your highness,
for I have committed a grievous wrong.
Mordechai has set a terrible plot in motion:
In one day, on the thirteenth day
of the twelfth month of Adar,
he plans to murder Haman while he worships.
None will be spared and all who are gathered in prayer
with him will be slain.”

That evening, Esther lay awake
with great anguish.
If she remained silent, she would allow
the death of many innocents
and the Jews of Persia would be in grave danger.
But could she betray her own kin?
If she told the King of Mordechai’s plot
he would most certainly be put to death.

With morning soon to break
Esther finally knew what she must do.
Leaving the palace quietly before dawn,
she rode to Mordechai’s home
and told him thus:

“I know what you have planned,
so hear me now:
Although you are my own flesh and blood,
I am prepared to tell the king
of your evil plot.
If you attack Haman and his people,
you will bring nothing but bloodshed and sorrow
to our people and all of Persia as well.”

Then coming closer she said to him:

“We are Jews, but Persia is our home.
As a Jew, as a Persian, and as your Queen:
I swear that as I stand here before you now,
I will turn you in before I allow you
to bring ruin upon us all.”

Thereupon Esther returned to the palace
as the sun rose on the thirteenth of Adar.

That morning, Esther woke with a start
because Haman had already left
for his morning prayers.
When he returned, she she gave thanks to God
for she knew that Mordechai had turned away
from his wicked plan.

As Esther embraced her love, she marveled
at how quickly her sorrow had turned to joy
her fear into power,
her anguish into hope.

(So may it be for us
and for all who dwell on earth).


Apocalyptic Extremism: No Longer a Laughing Matter

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photo credit: Getty Images

In my previous post, I explored how Zionism has historically fed off of anti-Semites and anti-Semitic regimes to justify the need for a Jewish state. In this post, I’d like to discuss a phenomenon that has even more ominous resonance for the current political moment: the willingness of political Zionists, Israeli politicians and right wing Israel advocates to court the support of Christian millenarians and apocalyptic extremists.

Some history: In the century after the Protestant reformation, the religious ideology of millenarianism began to spread throughout Europe. Millenarianism took many forms, most of which were rooted in the belief that the physical restoration of the Jews to the land would be a necessary precursor to the apocalypse and the eventual second coming of the Messiah. This religious dogma was eventually brought by English Puritan colonists to North America, where it evolved into present-day Christian Zionism.

It is safe to say that Jewish political Zionism could not have succeeded without the support of Christian millenarians. Reverend William Hechler, a prominent English clergyman who ascribed to eschatological theology and the restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel, was a close friend and colleague of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the political Zionist movement. Lord Arthur Balfour, who issued the historic Balfour Declaration in 1917 was likewise a Christian Zionist, motivated as much by his religious convictions as by British imperial designs in the Middle East.

Today of course, Christian Zionists are most famously represented by Pastor John Hagee and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest coalition of Evangelical Zionists in the world. Hagee has never made a secret of his apocalyptic religious views. In his 2007 book “Jerusalem Countdown,” he wrote that Armageddon might begin “before this book gets published.” He also claimed The Antichrist “will be the head of the European Union,” and that during the final battle, Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood.” The Jews, however, will survive long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”  In Hagee’s more recent book, “Four Blood Moons,” he wrote: “In these next two years, we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”

While one might expect Jewish leaders to keep their distance from a popular Christian pastor with extremist views such as these, Hagee has been closely embraced by Israeli governments (Netanyahu is a fixture at CUFI conventions), Jewish American politicians (Former Senator Joseph Lieberman has referred to Hagee as a modern-day Moses) and prominent American Jewish leaders (Elie Wiesel once called Hagee “my pastor.”)

CUFI’s Jewish Executive Director, David Brog, clearly serves to give cover to Christian Zionists, painting them as “mainstream” and not nearly as scary as their beliefs would indicate. Following the outcome of the recent election, however, Brog seems to smell blood in the water; he recently announced CUFI’s plans to get “a little more aggressive” in pushing its policies with the Trump administration, where it has clout and connections, particularly with evangelical Vice President Mike Pence.

To put it mildly, Jews should be among the least of those who would seek to find common cause with one such as Mike Pence. In an extremely important piece for the Intercept, last November, reporter Jeremy Scahill convincingly argued that Pence  is “the most powerful Christian supremacist in US history,” concluding:

The implications of a Pence vice presidency are vast. Pence combines the most horrid aspects of Dick Cheney’s worldview with a belief that Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” novels are not fiction, but an omniscient crystal ball.

It should not come as a surprise that Pence family’s last trip to Israel was funded by, you guessed it, John Hagee. Pence, who was then the governor of Indiana, took the time to meet with Netanyahu during his visit. Now connect those dots to Pence’s meeting with Israeli prime minister during his recent visit to DC. Both Pence and Netanyahu later commented that they met to discuss, among other things, the creation of a “mechanism” that would help the White House and Israel better coordinate construction in the settlements on the West Bank.

When it comes to the Trump administration of course, most of the attention has been directed toward his chief strategist, former Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon. When Bannon’s appointment was announced, there were a variety of responses from the Jewish community, ranging from outrage to support.  For his part, when Netanyahu was asked on 60 Minutes whether or not he was concerned about Bannon, he responded blithely, “I think Mr. Trump and his associates are going to be very strong, not merely in support for the Jewish state, but also in support for the Jewish people.”

While most of the Jewish concern toward Bannon has primarily focused on his alt-right leanings and his personal comments about Jews, less attention has been given to his apocalyptic world view. Strongly influenced by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book “The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny”  Bannon ascribes to the theory that American history has operated in four-stage cycles, moving from major crisis to awakening to major crisis.

Linette Lopez, writing for Business Insider:

According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings that America experienced were the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.

All these were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there’s a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilized.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.

Indeed, Bannon expresses his Fourth Turning-influenced ideas unabashedly. During a 2011 presentation to the Liberty Restoration Foundation, a conservative non-profit, he said:

This is the fourth great crisis in American history. We had the Revolution. We had the Civil War. We had the Great Depression and World War II. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history, and we’re going to be one thing on the other side.

And in a 2014 speech at the Vatican:

We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

In more recent statements Bannon openly posits that this new war will be fought between “the Judeo-Christian West” and a coalition of “jihadist Islamic fascists,” “expansionist China” and “the aristocratic Washington class.”

According to Strauss and Howe’s book, once the defining climax takes place, America will coalesces under one leader — a boomer “Gray Warrior” — who will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy … ” As frightening as it may sound, Bannon seems to have the perfect “Gray Warrior” figure in Donald Trump – a man who he once described as “a blunt instrument for us,” adding,”I don’t know if he really gets it or not.”

While it’s easy to giggle when, Israeli politicians, rabbis and evangelical pastors publicly call Trump the Messiah, it is far less funny when we consider that the chief advisor to the President is a man who may well view him as a “useful idiot Gray Warrior.” Either way, this is what a century-long willingness to collaborate with apocalyptic extremists has wrought. We are now one terrorist attack away from a truly unthinkable scenario. As journalist Murtza Hussain put it: “As tensions rise, Steve Bannon and ISIS get closer to their common goal: civilizational war.”

In the end it is all too easy to accept the support of religious zealots while we patronizingly dismiss their views as harmless. Now that these zealots are literally in the halls of very real power however, I think it’s finally time to take them at their word.

 

 


The Equal Opportunity Hate of White Supremacy

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The Victoria Islamic Center destroyed by fire on Jan. 28, 2017 (Photo: Al Jazeera)

Amidst reports of an alarming uptick of anti-Semitic vandalism and bomb threats against JCCs (and an even more alarming reluctance of our new president to even admit its existence), I can’t help but think of an email exchange I had with my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Lillian three years ago.

Rebecca lives in Malmo, Sweden, a city that has seen its share of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence over the past several years. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a subsequent blog post for Jewschool, she wrote about the trauma of the incident, but also expressed her dismay that American Jewish leaders exploited it to demonize Muslims and exhort Jewish citizens of Malmo to flee to Israel.

Rebecca pointed out that immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil in which women, men and children demonstrated their support for the Jewish community by gathering in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.

Two years later, I wrote to Rebecca and asked her about the latest atmosphere in Malmo. She wrote that the war in Gaza had created an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, but that her interfaith group was “stronger than ever.” She added that the rise of the political far-right was even more concerning, referring to it as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. Rebecca noted that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”

Needless to say, that last line has a troubling resonance when I read it in 2017 – now that a group of “equal opportunity haters” has become firmly ensconced in the White House. But at the same time, I take heart in her description of Malmo’s interfaith solidarity – particularly as I witness a similar kind of solidarity occurring in Trump-era America.

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Anti-semitic vandalism at Loop Synagogue, Feb. 4, 2017 (Photo: NBC Chicago)

Some examples: when earlier this month a mosque in Texas was destroyed by arson, a neighboring synagogue gave them the keys to their facility so they could continue to worship. Here in Chicago, after an incident of anti-Semitic vandalism at the downtown Loop Synagogue, the very first response of public condemnation came from Ahmed Rehab, director of CAIR – Chicago:

Chicago’s Muslim community stands in full solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters as they deal with the trauma of this vile act of hate. No American should have to feel vulnerable and at risk simply due to their religious affiliation.

Unfortunately, we know the feeling all too well as mosque vandalism and burning has spiked recently in the US. We recognize the source of hate as one, and regardless of religious affiliation, we stand together in solidarity against it as one.  An attack on any is an attack on us all. Today, the congregation of this temple are in our thoughts and prayers.

It is worthy of note that the man arrested and charged with this hate crime is a white supremacist who had also menaced Latino members of a church in Pilsen. Following his arrest, one church member reported:

We are a church of Latinos, of immigrants, and we’re just worried and scared, and this guy walks in and he’s alone and asking weird questions. It was just an instinctual thing. We don’t want to turn anybody away, but we felt that something was wrong…He was not there to pray; he was not there to worship God. He was definitely there scouting who we are and what we are about.

The takeway?  As our government – and Israel’s – continue to whip up Islamophobic hatred and brand “Muslim extremism” as the enemy, the true threat before us is the “equal opportunity hate” of white supremacy. And that the only appropriate response is – as ever – solidarity.


Reconstructionism without Zionism: A Guest Post by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert

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Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism

This guest post was written by my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, currently a Professor of Religion at Temple University. Rebecca was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1976 and served on the college faculty and administration for several years thereafter. She is one of our most important scholars of Reconstructionist Judaism and is the co-author, with Rabbi Jacob Staub, of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach – widely considered to be the definitive primer on Reconstructionism. Rebecca is the author of many other books and articles on Jewish history as well as religion and feminism, sexuality, and gender.

Rebecca wrote this essay as an answer to the question, “Can one be a Reconstructionist if one is not a Zionist?” Needless to say, as a non-Zionist Reconstructionist, this question has been posed to me a myriad of times, both from within and outside our movement. I am enormously grateful to Rebecca for this important response, which I believe deserves a readership far beyond Reconstructionist and Jewish circles.

When I was challenged with the question “Can there be Reconstructionism without (or against) Zionism?” I didn’t take it lightly. Zionism was central to Mordecai Kaplan’s philosophy of Judaism and has been an unquestioned pillar of the movement that developed from his teachings. But careful reflection on the contemporary state of both Reconstructionism and Zionism makes questioning that equivalence not only plausible but also necessary from my point of view. Zionism, unquestioned in the vast majority of the Jewish communal world, has come under deep scrutiny by the rest of the globe, including in the state of Israel. If concerns about Zionism could be examined anywhere in the Jewish community, Reconstructionist Judaism, with its history of taking courageous stances on difficult issues, should be the place. I would like to suggest that there can be Reconstructionism without Zionism, based both on my reading of Kaplan’s ideas about the topic and my own personal experience as a Reconstructionist.

How does one decide to identify as a Reconstructionist, and what does that identification mean today? Belonging to and participating in Reconstructionist organizations and communities is one means by which one can claim connection, and that is certainly where I begin. But is it only about belonging? Another connection is aligning one’s thinking with that of Reconstructionism’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan. Since its inception, being guided by Kaplan’s philosophy has been central to the Reconstructionist project (although Kaplan himself was most dubious about a movement dedicated to his ideas). Over time, however, the relationship to Kaplan’s ideas has changed. For example, Kaplan absolutely rejected the idea of the Jews as a Chosen People, removing all references to the concept from the liturgy he created. Today the Reconstructionist prayer book includes references to chosenness as an alternative option for prayer. Kaplan also had little knowledge of or interest in including Jews who felt disenfranchised (Jews of color, with disabilities, or who identified as LGBT). Today including those groups is a hallmark of Reconstructionist communities. Kaplan never imagined patrilineal descent and firmly believed in endogamy; today Reconstructionists welcome interfaith families and are very open minded on the question of Jewish belonging. Kaplan’s early followers were interested primarily in an intellectual approach to Jewish life. Today spirituality that is focused primarily on each person’s relationship to God flourishes in Reconstructionist circles.

Yet I would argue that despite these changes, the Reconstructionist movement is still Kaplanian. I myself remain a Reconstructionist not only through association with its organizations but because the movement still operates as Kaplan suggested would be necessary to keep Jewish life robust. First, Kaplan was committed to the evolving nature of Jewish civilization. This understanding that Judaism would change and new meanings would be created in every generation is Reconstructionism’s cardinal principle. Like Moses not recognizing the Bet Midrash of Rabbi Akiba, Kaplan might not recognize the priorities of the Reconstructionist movement as it has evolved in this generation. But the process of reconstruction as he outlined it demands an acceptance of those changes. All liberal Jews acknowledge that things change; Reconstructionism is predicated on embracing those changes. Kaplan also provided the means through which we are to go about making those changes (reconstruction, if you will) that he called “transvaluation.” Transvaluing was Kaplan’s term for investing Jewish concepts and practices that were not inherently sensible or appealing to his generation with new meanings. But he was also of the mind that some of the concepts were no longer ethical or viable. These ideas, like chosenness, could not be transvalued and would have to be set aside. The Reconstructionist movement, in following these principles through the process of values based decision-making, discussion and debate, remains under Kaplan’s influence no matter what the results of those conversations turn out to be. And Reconstructionist communities don’t all agree about those results, nor do they have to. The commitment is to the process and to welcoming a diversity of opinion.

Reconstructionism without Zionism in Theory

In that spirit, I would like to subject Zionism to this process, first looking at how the concept evolved in Kaplan’s thinking and then examining whether what it means today still comports with the best values of what Kaplan defined as ethical nationhood.

In the early twentieth century Zionism was not popular among American Jews, but Kaplan was among those American Jewish thinkers who early on embraced the idea of a national home in Palestine. Influenced by Ahad Ha-am, Kaplan saw in the creation of Jewish settlements in Palestine a potential for the renaissance of Jewish culture, language, literature, and art that would revitalize Jewish civilization. He saw the creation of a homeland in Palestine as part of his larger project—a reconceptualization of nationalism as ethical nationhood. Kaplan’s ultimate dream was a reconstitution of a trans-national Jewish people that would be a model for a different kind of world: based not on territorially or ethnically based sovereign states, but on national groups built on ethics and a mingling together of multiple cultures.

Unlike Herzl and his followers, Kaplan’s Zionism was not focused on an ingathering of Jews as a means to protect them from persecution, but part of his plan to revitalize Jewish civilization. Kaplan adamantly disagreed with political Zionists’ concept of sh’lilat ha-galut (negation of the diaspora) and the idea that all Jews should live together in one ethnonational territory based on ethno-cultural uniformity. In Judaism as a Civilization, he asserted, “The restoration of the Jews to national status will contribute to, rather than detract from, international-mindedness.” (p. 241) He envisioned a world congress of Jews, who, dispersed throughout the nations of the world, would create a new model of ethical nationhood based on trans-national reciprocity. He was not interested in a sovereign Jewish nation that would be like other nations, but believed that a new concept of nationhood would transform the world’s sovereign nations and, in particular, make American democracy effective for all its citizens through this example of stateless nationhood exemplified by the Jewish people. He wanted America to truly be a nation that fully accepted all of the different national groups in its midst. He was also concerned that the Jewish home in Palestine be a place where the non-Jewish population’s “claims and interests were carefully safe-guarded; and in the mandate for Palestine ample provision is made against any possible violation of the rights of the non-Jewish population.”1  Or so he believed would be the case.

Kaplan was not the only American or European Zionist who put forth ideas that did not involve establishing a sovereign Jewish state.2  But any variety of Zionism that was not based on the model of statehood became irrelevant after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The language of nationhood that Kaplan used to describe the international Jewish collective could no longer be differentiated from statehood. As a result Kaplan began to use the term peoplehood to describe the transnational spiritual and cultural unity of the Jews, and continued to insist passionately on the value and importance of the diaspora in its reciprocal relations with the state, in respectful disagreement with the efforts of Israel’s leaders to renounce any version of Zionism that did not insist exclusively upon Aliyah. Kaplan’s later writings all made clear that in his vision the establishment of the state was not Zionism’s end, but merely the first step in promoting the transnational people that was his ultimate goal.3  As (Recontructionst Rabbi) David Teutsch reflected, “the Israel of our reality is often in shocking tension with the Zionism of our dreams.”4

But in Reconstructionist circles, as in the wider Jewish community, Kaplan’s dream of worldwide Jewish nationhood beyond the established state has been put aside. Zionism today is only a code word for what Israel’s founders proclaimed it to be: support for the sovereign state. As Reconstructionists we must accept this reality as part of our belief that concepts and words evolve based on the needs and values of contemporary Jews. But the process of evolving also demands that we analyze whether this definition of Zionism meets our highest values. Does this transvaluing work, or must we reject the term? While for the majority of Reconstructionist Jews it probably meets that test, I am part of a minority for whom it does not. The tension between the reality of Israel and the Zion of our dreams is too great to allow for me to claim that these words are equivalent.

Reconstructionism without Zionism in practice

To be fair, I did not start out as a Zionist. I grew up in a secular Jewish home in the 1950s and 60s where my only knowledge of Israel was based on a report I wrote for my 7th grade Social Studies class. Neither Israel (nor the Holocaust for that matter) was part of the curriculum of the classical Reform synagogue I attended. It was a Christian friend who took me to a rally during the Six Day War that made me think more about my relationship to the state. Reading Martin Buber that summer convinced me that the kibbutz, at least, conformed to my ideal of how I-Thou relationships could be realized in community. Eager to learn more, I spent my junior year in college at Hebrew University in 1969-1970. The American Friends of Hebrew University, much like Birthright today, provided this free educational experience with the hope that it would make me love Israel and want to live there. And there was much that I loved–the beauty of the cities and towns I lived in and traveled to; the experience of being immersed in Jewish history and culture, of living in Jewish time and space. But it became clearer and clearer to me that I was not at home in Israel. I didn’t appreciate the assumption that as a Jew that was where I belonged. The young men with guns in the street made me uncomfortable. My American friends who were raised as Zionists seemed hopelessly naïve to me. And I had a real problem with the way Arabs (Jewish and not) were treated, and was appalled by the cavalier attitudes towards the refugee camps in Gaza we were taken to see for a reason I have yet to fathom. Ironically, I learned about Reconstructionism in Israel that year. A friend recommended Judaism as a Civilization as an alternative view; it was a panacea for me. Kaplan’s commitment to creating a viable American Judaism was exactly what I was looking for.

In rabbinical school in the 1970s I would probably still have called myself a non-Zionist if it had been possible. But by that point in time, Judaism equaled Zionism and not to call oneself a Zionist was simply unimaginable, so a Zionist I became, at least nominally. Immersed in that world, to contemplate that, as the enemies of Israel believed, “Zionism was racism” was beyond my comprehension. I was enraged by the Palestinian professor who taught in my Ph.D. program who would not allow Jewish students in his class because of his anger at Israel. But I always assumed the occupation would end, and Israel would make peace with the Palestinians and give them back the lands they began to occupy in 1967. To that end, I became a nominal supporter of groups like Breira, New Jewish Agenda, and Women in Black, but I did not get involved. The 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila changed that for me. I began to speak publicly about Israel’s complicity and power in the region; I began to feel an even deeper alienation and anger. From there I have never turned back. When the government of Israel acceded to the idea of creating a Palestinian state I was hopeful, but soon realized that would never come to pass as the reality of a greater Israel soon superseded it. While liberal Jews still cling to the idea of a two-state solution, and the image of Israel as a democracy, it became clearer and clearer to me that the majority of Israelis and the elected government of Israel favored the one-state solution that exists today, a theocracy in which anyone who is not Jewish is a second class citizen at best, and, at worst, a prisoner. This is the reality of the sovereign state of Israel. I still hope for a time when Israel/Palestine is transformed into a place where everyone can live in peace, where Jewish people and Jewish culture thrive alongside the region’s other peoples and cultures; much like what I believe Kaplan envisioned and what he meant by Zionism.

At this point in time, however, hoping is not enough. Zionism that is defined by support for the state of Israel (even when the support claims to be progressive and includes a call for the occupation to end and a commitment to a two-state solution) is not ethical nationhood. It can’t be transvalued while Israel continues to oppress the Palestinian population. I respect both the progressive Reconstructionist Zionists who believe that things will get better, even as I fail to understand how they can still assert that Israel is a democracy and not a theocracy. I also respect the Reconstructionist non-Zionists who are now focused on building an American Judaism and do not engage with Israel; Kaplan’s passion to create a vibrant Jewish life here is what attracted me to the movement in the first place. But progressive Zionism and even the non-Zionist option is no longer, for me, sufficient. The political Zionism that won the day in 1948 has destroyed the lives of generations of Palestinians, disregarded their attachment to the land, and disrespected their history and culture. It is not a viable option for me to support it.

Today I believe that to uphold Reconstructionist values I must stand, as a Jew, in solidarity with Palestinians and work with Jewish Voice for Peace to support non-violent Palestinian tactics of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction that, we hope, will persuade Israel to end the occupation. In the current climate in the Jewish world that makes me an anti-Zionist. But in my mind, it makes me, finally, a Zionist who is working for the Zion that Kaplan envisioned.
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1. Judaism as a Civilization, 277. That is not to say that Kaplan did not share the prejudices of his colonial counterparts; in the same sentence he commented on “the political immaturity of its [Palestine’s] inhabitants” and the “civilizing” impact of European immigrants.

2. See Noam Pianko, Zionism: The Roads Not Taken Rawidowicz, Kaplan, Kahn (Indiana University Press, 2010) for a full exploration of the varieties of pre-state Zionism that were popular.

3. Religion of Ethical Nationhood. 132

4. “Israel and the Diaspora: A Reconstructionist Reconsideration of Zionism” The Reconstructionist (Spring 1988) 50.


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.