Recommitting to Solidarity in the Face of White Supremacy: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5778

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Members of Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue, form a protective circle around the Imdadul mosque on February 3, 2017, following an Islamophobic shooting at a mosque in Quebec City.  (Photo: Bernard Weil / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Crossposted with Truthout.

When Temple Beth Israel — a large Reform synagogue in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia — opened for Shabbat morning services on August 12, 2017, its congregants had ample reason to be terrified. Prior to the “Unite the Right” rally held in town by white supremacists and neo-Nazis that weekend, some neo-Nazi websites had posted calls to burn down their synagogue.The members of Beth Israel decided to go ahead with services, but they removed their Torah scrolls just to be safe.

When services began, they noticed three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from their synagogue. Throughout the morning, growing numbers of neo-Nazis gathered outside their building. Worshippers heard people shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” and chanting, “Sieg Heil!” At the end of services, they had to leave in groups through a side door.

Of course, this story did not occur in a vacuum. It was but a part of a larger outrage that unfolded in Charlottesville that day, and part of a still larger outrage has been unfolding in our country since November. I think it’s safe to say that many Americans have learned some very hard truths about their country since the elections last fall. Many — particularly white liberals — are asking out loud: Where did all of this come from? Didn’t we make so much progress during the Obama years? Can there really be that many people in this country who would vote for an out-and-out xenophobe who unabashedly encourages white supremacists as his political base? Is this really America?

Yes, this is America. White supremacy — something many assumed was relegated to an ignoble period of American history — is, and has always been, very real in this country. Now white supremacists and neo-Nazis are in the streets — and they are being emboldened and encouraged by the president of the United States.

While this new political landscape may feel surreal, I believe this is actually a clarifying moment. Aspects of our national life that have remained subterranean for far too long are now being brought out into the light. We’re being brought face to face with systems and forces that many of us assumed were long dead; that we either couldn’t see or chose not to see. Following the election of Trump many have commented that it feels like we are living through a bad dream. I would claim the opposite. I would say that many of us are finally waking up to real life — a reality that, particularly for the most marginalized among us, never went away.

It is certainly a profoundly clarifying moment for American Jews. With this resurgence of white supremacist anti-Semitism, it would have been reasonable to expect a deafening outcry from the American Jewish establishment. But that, in fact, has not been the case. When Trump appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon to a senior White House position, there was nary an outcry from mainstream Jewish organizations. The Zionist Organization of America actually invited Bannon to speak at its annual gala.

Israel’s response to this political moment is no less illuminating. During a huge spike in anti-Semitic vandalism and threats against Jewish institutions immediately after the elections, it wasn’t only Trump that had to be goaded into making a statement — the Israeli government itself remained shockingly silent. This same government that never misses an opportunity to condemn anti-Semitic acts by Muslim extremists seemed utterly unperturbed that over 100 Jewish institutions had received bomb threats or that Jewish cemeteries were desecrated across the country. (More than 500 headstones were knocked down at one Jewish cemetery alone in Philadelphia.) And when neo-Nazis with tiki torches rallied in Charlottesville proclaiming “Jews will not replace us,” it took Prime Minister Netanyahu three days to respond with a mild tweet. Israel’s Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, whom one would assume should be concerned with anti-Semitism anywhere in the Diaspora, had this to say:

We view ourselves as having a certain degree of responsibility for every Jew in the world, just for being Jewish, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the sovereign nation to defend its citizens.

This is a clarifying moment if ever there was one. Support for Israel and its policies trumps everything — yes, including white supremacist Jew hatred. Just this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu said this about Trump’s speech at the UN:

I’ve been ambassador to the United Nations, and I’m a long-serving Israeli prime minister, so I’ve listened to countless speeches in this hall. But I can say this — none were bolder, none were more courageous and forthright than the one delivered by President Trump today.

Why would the Israeli Prime Minister call a president who panders to anti-Semitic white supremacists “brave” and “courageous?” Because Trump pledged his support to Israel. Because he called the Iran nuclear deal an “embarrassment.” Because he vowed American support to allies who are “working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists.”

Historically speaking, this isn’t the first time that Zionists have cozied up to anti-Semites in order to gain their political support. Zionism has long depended on anti-Semites to validate its very existence. This Faustian bargain was struck as far back as the 19th century, when Zionist leader Theodor Herzl met with the Russian minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, an infamous anti-Semite who encouraged the Kishinev pogroms that very same year. Plehve pledged that as long as the Zionists encouraged emigration of Jews from Russia, the Russian authorities would not disturb them.

This Zionist strategy was also central to the diplomatic process that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced his government’s support for “the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” Although Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people. When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that Israeli leaders are loath to condemn the rise of white supremacy. After all, they have a different enemy they want to sell to us. They want us to buy their Islamophobic narrative that “radical Muslim extremism” is the most serious threat to the world today. And you can be sure they view Palestinians as an integral part of this threat.

We cannot underestimate how important this narrative is to Israel’s foreign policy — indeed, to its own sense of validation in the international community. Netanyahu is so committed to this idea in fact, that two years ago he actually went as far as to blame Palestinians for starting the Holocaust itself. In a speech to the Zionist Congress, he claimed that in 1941, the Palestinian Grand Mufti convinced Hitler to launch a campaign of extermination against European Jewry at a time when Hitler only wanted to expel them. This ludicrous historical falsehood was so over the top that a German government spokesperson eventually released a statement that essentially said, “No, that’s not true. Actually, the Holocaust was our fault.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is pursuing an alliance with the anti-Semitic populist Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán. When Netanyahu recently traveled to Hungary to meet with Orbán, leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community publicly criticized Netanyahu, accusing him of “betrayal.”

If there was ever any doubt about the profound threat that white supremacy poses to us all, we’d best be ready to grasp it now. White supremacy is not a thing of the past and it’s not merely the domain of extremists. It has also been a central guiding principle of Western foreign policy for almost a century. To those who claim that so-called Islamic extremism is the greatest threat to world peace today, we would do well to respond that the US military has invaded, occupied and/or bombed 14 Muslim-majority countries since 1980 alone — and this excludes coups against democratically elected governments, torture, and imprisonment of Muslims with no charges. Racism and Islamophobia inform our nation’s military interventions in ways that are obvious to most of the world, even if they aren’t to us. It is disingenuous to even begin to consider the issue of radical Islamic violence until we begin to reckon with the ways we wield our overwhelming military power abroad.

So, as we observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, where are we supposed to go from here? I would suggest that the answer, as ever, is solidarity.

Let’s return to the horrid events at Temple Beth Israel in Charlottesville. As it turned out, the local police didn’t show up to protect the synagogue that Shabbat — but many community members did. The synagogue’s president later noted that several non-Jews attended services as an act of solidarity — and that at least a dozen strangers stopped by that morning asking if congregants wanted them to stand with their congregation.

Another example: Last February, when Chicago’s Loop Synagogue was vandalized with broken windows and swastikas by someone who was later discovered to be a local white supremacist, the very first statement of solidarity came from the Chicago office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Their executive director, Ahmed Rehab, said:

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.

Here’s another example: last Friday, protests filled the streets of St. Louis after a white former city policeman, Jason Stockley, was found not guilty of the first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black 24-year-old whom he shot to death on December 20, 2011. The St. Louis police eventually used tear gas and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. Some of the demonstrators retreated to Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, which opened its doors to the protesters. The police actually followed them and surrounded the synagogue. During the standoff, a surge of anti-Semitic statements trended on Twitter under the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue. (Yes, this actually happened last week, though it was not widely covered by the mainstream media.)

Just one more example: last January, a 27-year year-old man entered a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire on a room filled with Muslim worshippers, killing six men and wounding another 16. The following week, Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue organized an action in which multifaith groups formed protective circles around at least half a dozen mosques. It was inspired by the “Ring of Peace” created by about 1,000 Muslims around an Oslo synagogue in 2015, following a string of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe.

This must be our response to white supremacy: that a threat to any one of us is a threat to all. That we are stronger together. This is the movement we need to build.

However, even as we make this commitment to one another, we cannot assume that oppression impacts all of us equally. This point was made very powerfully in a recent blog post by Mimi Arbeit, a white Jewish educator/scientist/activist from Charlottesville, so I’ll quote her directly:

Jews should be fighting Nazis. And — at the same time — we White-presenting White-privileged Jews need to understand that we are fighting Nazis in the US within the very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism. I have been face to face with Nazis and yes I see the swastikas and I see the anti-semitic signs and I hear the taunts and I respect the fear of the synagogue in downtown Charlottesville — AND please believe me when I say that they are coming for Black people first. It is Black people who the Nazis are seeking out, Black neighborhoods that are being targeted, anti-Black terrorism that is being perpetrated. So. Jews need to be fighting Nazis in this moment. And. At the same time. If we are fighting Nazis expecting them to look like German anti-Semitic prototypes, we will be betraying ourselves and our comrades of color. We need to fight Nazis in the US within the context of US anti-Black racism. We need to be anti-fascist and anti-racist with every breath, with every step.

To this I would only add that when it comes to state violence, it is people of color — particularly Black Americans — who are primarily targeted. While white Jews understandably feel vulnerable at this particular moment, we still dwell under an “all encompassing shelter of white privilege.” We will never succeed in building a true movement of solidarity unless we reckon honestly with the “very real context of centuries of anti-Black racism.”

I’ve said a great deal about clarity here, but I don’t want to underestimate in any way the challenges that lay before us. I realize this kind of “clarity” can feel brutal — like a harsh light that reflexively causes us to close our eyes tightly. On the other hand, I know there are many who have had their eyes wide open to these issues for quite some time now. Either way, we can’t afford to look away much longer. We can’t allow ourselves the luxury to grieve over dreams lost — particularly the ones that were really more illusions than dreams in the first place.

On Rosh Hashanah, the gates are open wide. This is the time of year we are asked to look deep within, unflinchingly, so that we might discern the right way forward. We can no longer put off the work we know we must do, no matter how daunting or overwhelming it might feel. But at the same time, we can only greet the New Year together. We cannot do it alone. Our liturgy is incorrigibly first person, plural — today we vow to set our lives and our world right, and we make this vow alongside one another.

So here we are. We’ve just said goodbye to one horrid year. The gates are opening before us. Let’s take each other’s hands and walk through them together.

Shanah Tovah.

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.

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.

Why Should European Jews Move to Israel? Israel is Already Europe

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There has been a great deal of press devoted to the Israeli government’s efforts to convince European Jewry to escape anti-semitism and flee for their lives to Israel. Leading the charge is Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who commented thus following the attack on a Copenhagen synagogue this past weekend:

Jews were killed on European land just because they were Jewish. This wave of attacks will continue. I say to the Jews of Europe – Israel is your home.

I can’t help but be struck a certain absurdity at the heart of Netanyahu’s invitation. Why should European Jews move to Israel? After all, it could be compellingly argued that Israel is already a European nation.

Israel was, after all, born of a distinctly European ideology; indeed, the roots of political Zionism are buried firmly in the soil of 19th century European nationalism and colonialism. Zionist figures from Theodor Herzl (whose novel “Altnueland” imagined the Jewish state in Palestine à la 19th century Vienna) to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who infamously described Israel as “a villa in the jungle,” have fancied the Israel as a European style nation-state outpost in an otherwise uncivil Middle East.

This socio-cultural legacy is manifest in a variety of ways. It’s enormously telling, for instance, that Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that chooses to compete in the annual Eurovision Song Contest, as well as the European soccer and basketball championships. At the end of the day, though Israel and the EU may experience their fair share of political tensions, Israel is a European country at heart in so many tangible and intangible ways.

Israel has been also proving itself all-too European in a decidedly different way: through the the nationalist racism that plagues its civic life. To cite but one example, Israel has its own brand of European-style racist soccer hooligans who cheer on their teams by violently attacking minorities in the streets.

From March 2012:

Hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem supporters assaulted Arab cleaning personnel at the capital’s Malha shopping center on Monday, in what was said to be one of Jerusalem’s biggest-ever ethnic clashes. “It was a mass lynching attempt,” said Mohammed Yusuf, a team leader for Or-Orly cleaning services.

Despite CCTV footage of the events, no one was arrested. Jerusalem police said that is because no complaint was filed. Witnesses said that after a soccer game in the nearby Teddy Stadium, hundreds of mostly teenage supporters flooded into the shopping center, hurling racial abuse at Arab workers and customers and chanting anti-Arab slogans, and filled the food hall on the second floor.

Or witness this horrid incident from this past summer:

Earlier this week, Israeli authorities arrested six men in connection with the ghastly killing of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khieder, who, according to reports, was forced into a car and then beaten and burned to death…

Initial reports suggested that some of the suspects in Abu Khieder’s killing were connected to La Familia, a notorious wing of soccer fans connected to Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s more prominent soccer clubs. La Familia… has come to define the club to outside observers as a bastion of xenophobia and racism in Israel.

But it’s not only soccer hooligans. Believe it or not, this is an actual report from Ha’aretz last summer:

Some of the right-wing protesters who beat leftist demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Saturday night wore T-shirts bearing a neo-Nazi symbol, photos and videos show.

As shown on journalist Tal Schneider’s Hebrew-language blog, some of the right-wingers wore T-shirts bearing the slogan “Good night left side.”

Neo-Nazis in Europe wear shirts with this phrase, which accompanies an image of a man attacking a left-wing activist, denoted by a star or anarchy symbol…The emblem and slogan are a response to the original left-wing counterpart: “Good night white pride.”

While this kind of street racism is deeply disturbing, it is, of course, the legislated variety that is traditionally the most dangerous. As I wrote this past October in addressing the recent rise of European anti-semitism,

As troubling it is to read of shootings and firebombings, I believe we should be far more disturbed when we hear reports of far-right and even neo-Nazi candidates being elected into Parliaments throughout Europe.

So too we should be equally as troubled by the increasing numbers of high ranking racist Israeli politicians who incite violence against Israel’s African immigrants, call for the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel out of the country, or introduce legislation that effectively force non-Jews out of its political life.

The legislation I’m speaking of, by the way, was not introduced by a fringe Knesset minister – it Is advocated by none other than the Prime Minister of Israel himself, who is currently attempting to change Israel’s Basic Laws to legally define Israel as “the national state of the Jewish people.” As Netanyahu explained it, Israel “is the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people.”

Statements like this make it clear that Israel is not merely a European-style nation – it is a nation that dances with some of the darkest aspects of European ethnic nationalism: i.e., a nation founded exclusively upon the identity of one group and that ipso facto treats its non-majority population as other.

In this regard, we might say that Israel’s commitment to democracy measures up quite poorly against many Western European countries. Just compare Netanyahu’s comments above to the recent statement by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, that “A Jew who leaves France is a piece of France that is gone.” Or to the remarks made by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt this past Monday following the Copenhagen synagogue attack:

I want to make very clear that the Jewish community has been in this country for centuries… They belong in Denmark. They’re part of the Danish community and we wouldn’t be the same without the Jewish community.

Before we judge European countries to harshly for this recent rise in anti-semitism, consider this: could you possibly imagine Netanyahu – or any Israeli Prime Minister, for that matter – saying this following the immolation-murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khieder:

I want to make very clear that the Palestinian community has been in this country for centuries… They belong in Israel. They’re part of the Israeli community and we wouldn’t be the same without the Palestinian community.

Let’s be clear. Those European Jews who do in fact pack up and move to Israel are not simply fleeing anti-semitism to find safe haven in the Jewish state. They are moving to a ethnocractic nation-state that is coaxing them to its shores because it needs them to stand down the non-Jewish “demographic threat.”

And in so doing they are, in a very real way, opting into the power and privilege that comes with being the majority oppressor class in a different kind of European country.

Anti-Semitic Violence in Copenhagen: Responding With Solidarity, Not Cynicism

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Another week, another tragic hate crime – this time in Copenhagen, in which a gunman attacked a cultural center during a program on freedom of expression, killing 55 year old film director Finn Nørgaard, then shortly thereafter shot and killed Dan Uzan, 37, who was guarding a synagogue during a Bat Mitzvah celebration. Three police officers were wounded during the first attack and two during the second. The gunman, whose identity has not yet been made public, was reportedly “on the radar” of Danish intelligence services and may have been “inspired by militant Islamist propaganda.”

There was a chilling similarity between this attack and a murderous incident in a Parisian kosher market in which four Jewish hostages – Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen and Francois-Michel Saada – were brutally executed. I use the word chilling because I know all too well that incidents such as these conjure up our worst fears about Jewish life in Europe.

Alas, there are many in the Jewish community who are more than willing to respond to these kinds of attacks by cynically playing on those fears. None more so that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who, in the wake of the Paris killings exhorted French Jews to flee Europe and immigrate to Israel:

To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home…This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder at the twisted logic of Netanyahu’s invitation: telling the Jews of France to flee their homes to the safety and security of a over-militarized Jewish garrison state in the Middle East, where just last summer Israeli citizens spent day after day running for their lives to bomb shelters?

And on still more twisted level, I couldn’t help but note how Netanyahu’s attitude toward Europe ironically plays into the designs of the worst European anti-Semites. Ha’aretz bureau chief Chemi Shalev nailed it perfectly with this tweet:

Call for mass Jewish emigration helps terrorists finish the job started by Nazis and Vichy: making France Judenrein.

Following the Paris attacks, I was enormously heartened by the strong response of French Jewry to Netanyahu’s heavy-handed overtures. After he spoke at a Paris synagogue, he was forced to stand by awkwardly when the congregation spontaneously burst into the French national anthem. He was also dressed down by Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association, who said in an interview:

Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are. The reality is that a large majority of European Jews do not plan to emigrate to Israel. The Israeli government must recognize this reality… and cease this Pavlovian reaction every time Jews in Europe are attacked.

Netanyahu clearly has not gotten the message. Following yesterday’s attacks in Copenhagen, he’s played the same cynical card, calling for “massive immigration” and making a thinly reference to the Holocaust by telling Danish Jews:

Jews were killed on European land just because they were Jewish. This wave of attacks will continue. I say to the Jews of Europe – Israel is your home.

Again, it seems European Jewry is having none of it. Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior has said today that he was “disappointed” in Netanyahu’s remarks, adding “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel.”

No, the answer to European anti-Semitism is most decidedly not to adopt a Zionist victim mentality and urge the poor Jews of Europe to flee for their lives. Quite the opposite.

I said as much during my sermon this last Yom Kippur:

What should be our response as we read these reports of rising European anti-Semitism? I would suggest that the answer is not to put our faith in nationalism and militarism to keep the Jewish people safe. I believe our first response should be to understand that anti-Semitism is but one form of racism and prejudice – and as such it is no different than the intolerance that is directed toward any people or group in the world who are perceived as “other.” The appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to recede behind higher walls or build stronger weapons, but rather to find common cause and solidarity with all who are being targeted in this way. To publicly affirm that the well-being of the Jewish people is irrevocably connected to the well-being of every group victimized by racism.

From Paris to Chapel Hill to Copenhagen: the answer, as ever, is to redouble our efforts toward solidarity, democracy, and pluralism no matter where we happen to live.

Murder in Chapel Hill: This Was Not About Parking and Why That Matters

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There has been so much – far too much – media discussion as to whether or not the tragic murder of three Muslim-American students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, was a hate crime or merely a parking dispute. During the course of this open conversation, some very well-meaning people have asked, why does it matter if Craig Stephen Hicks killed these three young people because they were Muslim? Hate is hate. Regardless of the murderers specific motivation, three infinitely precious lives have been snuffed out forever.

That is the kind of comment that can only be made by someone who has never felt discriminated against or targeted because of the group to which he/she belongs.

Why does it matter? Because too often, these kinds of crimes are not simply random acts of hate. They are part of a larger pattern. And unless we recognize these patterns and do what we can to address their root causes, these tragedies are surely destined to recur again and again.

Unless one is part of a group that has been historically targeted by hate and intolerance, it is difficult to fully understand the sense of vulnerability that comes from being singled out in this way. As a Jew, I completely understand the feelings of Muslims the world over who saw nothing random about this act – and are deeply galled by the suggestion that this was caused by nothing more than a parking dispute. Such an experience is born from living within a legacy of hate being directed toward one’s people over and over again.

As the Muslim-American journalist Deanna Othman wrote powerfully in today’s Chicago Tribune:

You ask yourself: Are we destined to remain “otherized,” categorically excluded, alienated and repelled from the very society in which we live? Must we constantly assert our Americanness and prove our loyalty, only to be demonized, vilified and caricatured by our media?

It is exhausting to feel compelled to constantly validate your identity. Must Muslims be paragons of excellence, lest there be a motive found for their murder other than sheer hatred? Littering? Running a stop sign? Being too loud?

Existing?

I frankly wish that the media would focus less on the tortured psyche of Craig Stephen Hicks and much more on the truths expressed by the words above. The real question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not this was about parking spaces but rather how we will address the rising culture of Islamophobia in this country so that there will be less crimes such as this in our future?

While we’re at it, I would suggest avoiding the well-meaning but ultimately empty bromides that point out it doesn’t really matter why Hicks pulled the trigger. It does matter. It matters profoundly.

The Varieties of Palestinian Resistance: Some Final Thoughts

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Demonstration in Al Ma’asra (left to right: Estee Chandler, Lynn Pollack, me)

I’ve been home for a few days now and am sorting through a myriad of emotions and experiences from our delegation to the West Bank and Israel. I’m not sure I will do them all justice, but I know I promised some concluding thoughts, so here goes:

The essential mission of our delegation of American Jews and Palestinians was to show solidarity with the burgeoning Palestinian popular resistance movement to the Israeli occupation. We wanted to experience this movement first hand: to live in their homes, to meet with their rank and file as well as their leaders, to march together with them in their weekly demonstration.

In the end, we did all this and more. During the course of our short sojourn, we created new friendships and connections with fellow activists on the ground – and we also strengthened our relationships with one another all the more. I do believe this kind of joint Jewish/Palestinian delegation is a model that can and should be emulated. If the goal is a better future for Jews and Palestinians, I believe it makes eminent sense to travel toward it together.

One of the most important lessons we learned on our trip is that Palestinian resistance is a multifaceted phenomenon.  Thanks to the images relentlessly portrayed by the mainstream media, too many in the West assume Palestinian resistance exclusively takes the form of armed resistance.  But in fact we we discovered (and I hope my blog posts reflected) the Palestinian people have been resisting decades of injustice through a myriad of means: through cultural expression, through education, through familial ties, through remembrance and through nonviolent direction action, to name but a few.

This point was underlined powerfully by Palestinian academic and activist Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, with whom we met in Bethlehem.  Dr. Qumsiyeh, who is well known in the Palestinian civil society world (and the author of the recent book, “Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment“) pointed out to us that in fact, Palestinian popular resistance long predated the establishment of the State of Israel. (One such example he cited was the Arab Palestinian Women’s Union, founded in Jerusalem in 1921, a proto-feminist group that protested against British support of the Zionist colonization of the Palestine – but also advocated for a myriad of women’s issues such as family planning, forced marriage, etc.)

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Left to right: Aaron Cahan, Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Dima Budron (at Bethlehem University)

I’ve long believed that the current incarnation of the Palestinian popular resistance is eminently worthy of our attention and support – and I was so grateful for this opportunity to experience it and write about it from within. Too often we hear the oft-repeated shibboleths: “the Palestinians want to push the Jews into the sea,”  “Palestinians are terrorists” and “where are the Palestinian Ghandis?” I hope that my last several posts have helped you to understand the fallacies of knee-jerk comments such as these.

Where are the Palestinian Ghandis?  We met them over and over again: in Bil’in, in Nabi Saleh, in Bethlehem, in Ramallah and so many places in between. Granted, this movement currently lacks a singular unifying leader – and on this issue, Dr. Qumsiyeh made an important point.  He told us he once heard a presentation by a prominent biographer of MLK, who was asked if the American civil rights movement would have existed if Dr. King had never been born. The biographer had no doubt that it would have, pointing out that leaders do not create movements – but rather, it is movements that create leaders. We can only hope that sooner than later, this will be the case regarding the Palestinian popular resistance as well.

This is not to underestimate the daunting challenges facing this movement. A number of Palestinian activists spoke to us about their hope for a “Global Intifada” – a worldwide movement that might leverage a variety of tactics of nonviolent resistance in popular support of justice for the Palestinians. While this movement is indeed taking shape, Iyad Burnat, Bassem Tamimi and others made it clear to us that they have no illusions. Yes, the weekly demonstrations continue, but they still occur in only semi-coordinated fashion in isolated villages throughout the West Bank. Popular movement leaders are struggling in so many ways to maintain momentum and morale, given that the ongoing reality of these Palestinian communities remains so oppressive and so dire.

downloadAnd it is an oppression we saw for ourselves quite literally on a daily basis.  It is difficult to do justice to the stifling atmosphere in these West Bank communities that are struggling so hard to live a semblance of normalcy amid the separation wall, the checkpoints, the ever-growing settlements, the night raids and the tear gas.  As we saw for ourselves, their very steadfastness represents their purest form of resistance.  As it is written in various points along the separation wall: “To Exist is to Resist.”

I want to thank my colleagues and on this delegation, who have become dear friends all the more. My love and respect to Shafic Budron, Dima Budron, Rich Cahan, Aaron Cahan, Estee Chandler, Lisa Kosowski, Lynn Pollack, Emman Randazzo, Isobel Randazzo, Kalman Resnick. Stay tuned for their guest posts yet to come. Although I will let their words speak for themselves, I think I can safely say we are united in our conviction that this was only the beginning of a much, much longer journey.

To be continued…

Demand Justice for Alex Odeh: 28 Years Later

I remember well the murder of Alex Odeh.

It occurred exactly 28 years ago today in Orange County, CA. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I followed the case closely. Odeh, a young Palestinian American who served as the West Coast director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was killed when a bomb ripped through his second story office in Santa Ana. I recall reading that Odeh was a gentle family man and political moderate who called for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. I also remember reading that the FBI suspected three members of the Jewish Defense League, a radical Jewish hate group – and that all three had fled to Israel.

It is now 28 year years later and no one has been arrested for the murder of Alex Odeh – even though the FBI has long suspected the identity of his killers.  Sad to say, I admit I wouldn’t be thinking of Alex Odeh today had I not received this petition just sent out by Jewish Voice for Peace, calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to hold his murderers accountable.

For more information about the Alex Odeh case, click on the clip above. I also recommend this extensive piece by Erik Skindrud from 2006 which, among other things, points out the hypocrisy of our nation’s selective “War on Terror:”

According to an internal FBI memo made public in 1987, the agency made multiple requests to Israel for cooperation in solving Odeh’s murder. Israel has refused repeatedly, although the details of the behind-doors discussions have never been released. This is despite the fact that (the suspects) have been tried and convicted of other bombings and shootings in the U.S. and the West Bank.

The contradiction is more than boggling in the post-9/11 world, where the U.S. government’s vow to take action against states that harbor terrorists is repeated regularly. Writing in 2003 about the Odeh killing and several similar incidents, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley called the failure “a glaring double standard applied to Arab Americans and Muslims that can be neither denied nor defended.”

Blowing the Whistle: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

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I’m sure many of you remember the story of John Walker Lindh, a young American citizen who converted to Islam as a teenager and eventually went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Lindh was captured by the US military in November 2001 and was eventually brought back to the US to stand trial.  It was the Justice Department’s first high-profile case in the post-9/11 war on terror.

While many are familiar with the story of the so-called “American Taliban,” I’m sure far fewer know the story of a woman named Jesselyn Radack, who was a legal advisor to the Justice Department at the time.  Shortly after Lindh was arrested, Radack received a call from an FBI attorney, who asked her about the ethics of interrogating Lindh without a lawyer present, specifically mentioning that Lindh’s father had retained counsel for his son. Radack told the FBI that under no circumstances could Lindh be interviewed without his lawyer present.

In spite of her clear response – and numerous follow-up emails to that effect – John Walker Lindh was subsequently interrogated without counsel. Attorney General John Ashcroft then held a press conference where he stated, bald-faced, “The subject here is entitled to choose his own lawyer and to our knowledge has not chosen a lawyer at this time.”  It was clear to Jesselyn Raddack that Ashcroft and the Justice Department had lied to the American public about its legal handling of John Walker Lindh.

Around this time, Radack discovered the emails she had written to the FBI – emails that explicitly spelled out Lindh’s rights – had disappeared from the Justice Department office files.  When she realized what was going on, she resigned her post. To her mind, something very, very wrong was going on and she refused to be party to it.

When Lindh’s initial hearing began, it became clear to Radack that none of her emails had been presented to the judge on the case – communications that were clearly germane to Lindh’s defense.  Now Radack was now faced with an even more powerful ethical decision.  She could do nothing, which would in effect continue the cover-up, or she could blow the whistle on the Justice Department.

So in June of 2002, three weeks before Lindh’s hearing was to take place, Jesselyn Radack downloaded the emails from her personal files and sent them to Newsweek magazine. Her revelation of the Justice Department’s malfeasance had a powerful impact on the government’s case.  Although he originally faced three life sentences, Lindh eventually plea-bargained to 20 years in prison without possibility of parole.

For her part, Radack’s whistleblowing came at a huge price, as she knew it would.  The Justice Department subsequently brought a criminal case against her, although she was never told for what she was being investigated or for what she might be charged.  She also lost her new job at a private law firm after her former government employers put pressure on her partners.   The Justice Department then referred her for discipline to her bar associations, effectively rendering her unemployable. As a final insult, she was placed on the national “no-fly” list.

The criminal case against Radack was later dropped without explanation and she was eventually removed from the no-fly list, but the damage to her career and her livelihood was permanent.  Her experience obviously cost her any future in government, but in the end it led her to a different calling.  Radack now devotes her life to defending whistleblowers at the Government Accountability Project.

I first learned about Jesselyn Radack’s story when I read an article she wrote about it in, of all places, Reform Judaism magazine.  In the article Radack, who is an active member of the Jewish community, wrote openly and passionately about the Jewish values that lay behind her actions. She quoted her adult Bat Mitzvah Torah portion: “Lo ti’eh aharay rabim” – “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do wrong” (Exodus 22:3) – a dictum she says has motivated her ethical decision-making ever since.

Here’s what Radack had to say in the conclusion of the article:

People also ask me if this experience has engendered a crisis of faith. On the contrary, Judaism has helped me get through this difficult period. My (rabbis have) been sympathetic and supportive. I have also drawn strength from the writings of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who taught me that God did not cause my suffering and could not prevent it.  Rabbi Kushner’s re-interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve teaches that the ability to choose between right and wrong is what makes us human. God does not interfere with that choice. But God can give us the strength of character we need to handle the consequences.

I chose my conscience over my career and take pride in having spoken truth to power.

I remember reading that article back in 2006 – and in particular I remember being deeply affected by the religious and moral convictions that motivated her actions.  On a personal level, I’d always been a strong advocate of whistleblowers and the value of government transparency.  But I don’t think I had ever truly thought about the act of whistleblowing in the context of Jewish values until I read Jesselyn Radack’s words in Reform Judaism magazine that day.

Since that time, I’ve thought a great deal about this issue.  And so this morning I’d like to take some time to discuss the subject of whistleblowing – a subject that has been in the media spotlight a great deal this past year.  I’d like to explore the issues raised by the more well-known whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden – and others who are not as well known but whose actions are just as worthy of our attention.  Most of all, I want to share with you why I believe whistleblowing is not only a critically important American value, but a deeply sacred Jewish value as well – one that challenges us particularly as we gather now for the New Year.

I’ve often been struck that while government whistleblowers are often excoriated as unpatriotic at best and traitors at worst, the practice of whistleblowing is in fact rooted in American values. Our founding fathers fervently believed, and wrote repeatedly, that democracy is strengthened when it is transparent – and that government can only be truly accountable when it ensures an informed citizenry.  As John Adams famously wrote:

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge … But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

True whistleblowing is not a traitorous act, though I think many governments would love their citizens to believe so.  Whistleblowers are not employed by enemy nations – by definition they act individually and out of their own conscience. And while they do break laws, they do so not for personal gain but for the greater good. They do so to assert that no one – not even the most powerful of governments – are above the law.

In their defense, governments will invariably claim that secrecy is essential to “national security.”  On the face of it, it’s difficult defense to for us to refute.  After all, every nation’s primary duty is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens – it would be naive and in fact dangerous to try to claim otherwise.  But it would be equally naive to assume that when our government acts in secrecy, it must somehow be doing so for reasons of legitimate national security.  History has taught us repeatedly that governments will invariably use secrecy to cover up their own illegitimate actions – actions that will often end up betraying the very well-being and security of their own citizens.

Possibly the most famous whistleblower in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, has written extensively and eloquently on this subject and about the process he went through that ultimately led to his revelation of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Ellsberg was a former marine who joined the Pentagon in 1964 and later worked for the RAND Corporation.  Like almost all whistleblowers, he was originally among the “true faithful” – a patriotic American who believed that the US could and should be a force for good in the world.  But as his government career progressed, he harbored profound inner doubts as he became privy to the highest decision making institutions during the buildup of Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg had first hand knowledge that leaders at the highest levels of government knew from early on that the Vietnam war could never be won and yet insisted otherwise to the Congress and the American public. Moreover, they continued to escalate a war they knew was doomed, knowing full well their actions would lead to more American deaths overseas.

When Ellsberg went public with the Pentagon Papers, he went up against a powerful bureaucracy and government culture of secrecy. As a former insider, he had a first row seat at a massive act of government malfeasance, but he also was constrained by a deep-seated mentality that considered the telling of secrets to be a traitorous act.  It’s no coincidence that most whistleblowers begin as patriotic insiders. But ironically enough, it’s the same motivation that initially drives them to serve their country that eventually drives them to bring the truth of their government’s wrongdoing into the light of day.

It is, of course, an act that carries with it a huge cost.  When whistleblowers decide to go public, they know full well it is an act that will cost them their jobs and their livelihoods.  They know they will likely be publicly vilified, their personal lives dissected, their reputations slandered.  And of course, they also know they will likely endure prison time, be forced to go underground or live in exile.

Whistleblowers are indeed lightning rods – and governments count on this.  That’s why, I believe, we invariably focus more attention on the whistleblowers themselves than the actual crimes they reveal. That’s why, for instance, I believe we’re hearing so much bandied about regarding Chelsea Manning’s personal life and emotional struggles.  Our leaders and the media would much rather we focus on Manning personally. As long as we do so, we’re given a pass on the disturbing information Manning brought to light – and we don’t have to confront the truths of our nation’s crimes in Iraq, in Guantanamo and around the world.

Among Manning’s many revelations through Wikileaks is the now infamous video taken from an Apache helicopter in 2007, in which Americans soldiers shot and killed eleven individuals, including two Reuters reporters, in the streets of New Baghdad.  When a van arrived to help the injured, the soldiers fired upon it as well, seriously injuring two children. As you watch the video, you can hear the voices of American soldiers urging each other on, joking about the dead and dying. At one point a soldier laughs when Humvee runs over a dead body lying in the street.

I remember watching this video when it was released in 2010. I posted and wrote strongly about it on my blog at the time. It was deeply and profoundly horrifying to see the dark reality of our military actions in Iraq in such a graphic and brazen manner.  But I remember well being so grateful that this video had been brought out into the light of day.

As it turned out, however, Manning was not the only member of the military who recoiled from this particular action.  An American infantryman named Ethan McCord rescued the two children from the shot-up van – and after the video was released, McCord publicly thanked Manning for bringing it to light.

McCord later criticized the media for going into great and often lurid detail about Manning’s gender identity issues while utterly ignoring the devastating significance of his revelations.  In a letter to the editor of New York Magazine, McCord wrote the following:

By focusing so heavily on Manning’s private life (the article) removes politics from a story that has everything to do with politics. The important public issues wrapped up with PFC Manning’s case include: transparency in government; the Obama Administration’s unprecedented pursuit of whistle-blowers; accountability of government and military in shaping and carrying out foreign policy; war crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks documents… and more.

McCord then ended his letter with these words:

If PFC Manning did what he is accused of, he is a hero of mine, not because he’s perfect or because he’s never struggled with personal or family relationships –most of us do – but because in the midst of it all he had the courage to act on his conscience.

Chelsea Manning has paid a profound price for blowing the whistle on the actions of the American military.  After her arrest, she was put in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for nine months, forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets and restricted from physical recreation or access to a television or newspaper. Manning’s punishment was later condemned as “excessive” by a military judge and “torture” by the UN. And of course, Manning has now been sentenced and faces an additional 35 years in prison.

As for the soldiers responsible for the attack in the video?  The US military conducted its own investigation of the incident and eventually cleared everyone involved of wrongdoing. To date, no one has ever been held accountable – for these or for any of the numerous disturbing revelations Manning has brought to light.

I don’t think I could put it any better than the ACLU when it made this statement following Manning’s sentencing:

When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day for asking the hard questions, it’s well worth asking: who has committed the greater crime? The government that breaks the law and covers its actions up under the pretense of national security, or the single individual that breaks the law in order that these crimes might be brought out into the light?

It’s well worth asking why?  Why is Chelsea Manning facing thirty five years in prison for revealing the disturbing truths about our government’s actions in Iraq while the very leaders who deceived us into that war have yet to be made to account for their actions?

And why, for that matter, has Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance on American citizens, been forced to live in exile in Russia while our Director of National Intelligence can deny the facts Snowden brought to light under oath and still remain in his job?

I believe Jewish tradition demands that we ask these kinds of questions. After all, asking hard questions to powerful leaders is a time-honored Jewish value that dates all the way back to the days of the Prophets.  The Prophets were, in fact, the whistleblowers of their day. Just like our present day examples, they too spoke truth to power; they too sought to publicly reveal political corruption and hypocrisy of the governments of their time; and they too were hounded and persecuted by the powers that be for their truth-telling.

I’ve said and written often that I believe the prophetic stream in Judaism to be the most important – and in many ways the most sacred – of our tradition. As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to government power. I believe that the Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision that says there is a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the mighty Roman empire and the myriad of powerful empires that have come and gone since.

As Jews, we know all too well that powerful nations and empires have historically exploited fear in order to increase their control at home and abroad. To be sure, it’s when times are fearful that we need these kinds of truth tellers the most.  In today’s post 9/11 world, I think it’s fair to say that levels of our government’s control – and the secrecy it employs to cover it up – go deeper than anything we witnessed even at the height of the Cold War.

Indeed, over the past decade, we’ve created a national security bureaucracy that many believe has evolved into a juggernaut with a life of its own. As one important Washington Post investigative article concluded:

The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rein in Washington’s culture of secrecy that has grown so significantly during our nation’s so-called War on Terror.  While we can argue about whether or not he’s been successful in this regard, it cannot be denied that Obama has become he most aggressive president in American history when it comes to whistleblowers.

Until this administration, only three government whistleblowers (including Daniel Ellsberg) had ever been charged by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Under Obama, the Justice Department has brought charges against eight individuals – more than all previous American presidents combined.  His administration’s actions drive home the reality that this issue is not really about left or right.  It is about government – and in particular, large powerful governments such as ours, that will invariably abuse their power and act to cover up their abuses.

To quote another great American truth teller, the venerable investigative journalist Izzy Stone,  “All governments lie.”   Stone didn’t mean this to be a criticism of government itself – on the contrary, he wrote endlessly about the critical role governments must play in creating ordered and just societies.  He simply meant that there will always be a gap between what a government does and what it says it is doing. And that as citizens, we simply cannot sit back and assume governments will voluntarily rein in their abuse of power or hold themselves to account.

That, quite frankly, is our job. And that is why whistleblowers are so critical and why I believe they are worthy of our gratitude and support. They represent, in a sense, the final defense of an informed citizenry. They are the ones who are willing, at great personal sacrifice, to hold the most powerful people and institutions in the world accountable.

I know that all citizens want to trust their governments. We all want to believe our governments have our best interests at heart and will act to keep us safe – particularly in fearful times such as these.  But as fearful as we are, we would do we to ask whether increased militarism abroad and the narrowing of our civil liberties here at home will truly bring us security in the end.

As for me, I tend to agree with Daniel Ellsberg, who recently wrote: “One of the lessons of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts just as power corrupts.”  Today, as in years past, we owe a profound debt to those who courageous enough to tear down the shrouds of secrecy, often at enormous personal cost, so that we may all find our way to a future of true security – not a false sense of security in which the powerful hide behind higher and higher walls but a real security based upon leaders and citizens are truly accountable to one another.

After all, isn’t that really what our sacred day today is all about? When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we are, in a sense, “blowing the whistle.”  The Shofar represents, among other things, an act of revelation. When the shofar is sounded, we bring all the secrets of the past year out of the shadows. We announce our readiness to shine light into the dark places of our souls and all the actions for which we are accountable.  We do this because we know, deep down that secrecy corrupts the soul – and that true security, true liberation, can only come from living lives of transparency and openness.

I do believe what is true for our national soul is true for our individual souls as well.  Up until now, I’ve been specifically addressing the topic of government whistleblowers, but of course, whistleblowing takes many forms – it comes in may shapes and sizes. You might say that each of us is presented the opportunity to be a whistleblower in ways large and small each and every day. Every day, each of us is challenged by the Torah demonstrated to us so eloquently by Jesselyn Radack: “Do not follow the multitude to do wrong.”

Indeed, in the coming year, each of us will inevitably be faced with the challenge to speak out or remain silent. To remain in the darkness, in a place or secrecy and shame, or to shine a light into the dark places that we might all find our way forward together.  This New Year, I hope we can all find the means to be truth tellers in our own right, to find the courage to speak where there is only silence.  And to wrestle honestly with the questions: what is the world in which we truly seek to live?  Where, in the end, will we find true security? And what will we be willing to do about it?

Baruch ma’avir afeilah u’meivi orah – Blessed is the one who removes the darkness and brings light.

Amen.