God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed: A Theology of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

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I delivered the remarks below yesterday during a session at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion in Boston. This panel was originally intended to be an exploratory roundtable entitled “Arguing Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) and Religion,” featuring six presenters to discuss this issue in the spirit of respectful, collegial debate. As the organizers of the program noted, “Rather than demonizing those either for or against BDS, this exploratory session will allow a variety of voices to be heard.”

Late last week, we learned that two anti-BDS panelists and the moderator had withdrawn from the session. One panelist claimed that she did not know who the rest of the panelists would be, specifically objecting to me and Dr. Hatem Bazian of (Zaytuna College and UC Berkeley) being included in the program.

After a hastily organized meeting, the AAR Executive Committee decided to postpone the roundtable, but allowed the room to be available for “information discussion.” At the session I read my original paper; Dr. Bazian and Dr. Zareena Grewal of Yale presented as well. A paper written by Dr. Steven Zunes (University of San Francisco), who was unable to attend, was also presented at the session. 

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 In my remarks to you today, I’d like to address one of the questions originally presented to the panelists of our session:

What, from your perspective, what stands out as a particularly important element of religious ethics and theology that motivates those inspired to take up the cause of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions?

For me, this question leads directly to one of the most important theological teachings of Jewish tradition: God hears and hearkens to the cry of the oppressed.

We first encounter this divine attribute in Genesis 18:20-21, when God says to Abraham:

The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me…

Later, at the outset of the Exodus story, God says to Moses:

Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:9) 

It should be noted that Godly attributes in Jewish tradition are not mere academic concepts – they are nothing short of divine imperatives. God’s ways must be our ways as well. Judaism is replete with references to imitatio dei, including this oft-cited teaching from the Talmud:

Why does it say (Deut. 13: 5): “One should walk after God“? Is it possible to walk after the Divine Presence? Is God not like a consuming fire (ibid., 4:24)? Rather, it means that one should imitate God’s ways. As God clothed Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), so should we clothe the naked; as God visited the ailing (Gen. 18: 1), so should we visit the sick; as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death (Gen. 25: 11), so should we comfort mourners; as God buried Moses (Deut. 34:6), so should we care for the dignity of the dead.

 

(Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a).

To this list, we might well add: “As God hears the cry of the oppressed, so should we hear the cry of the oppressed.”

One of my favorite recent teachings on this concept is offered by Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, in his 2009 essay, “Hearing the Cry of the Poor.” Pointing to the well known verse in Exodus 20: “Do not oppress or mistreat the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” Cohen writes:

Many have understood this verse as meaning that the lesson of oppression is compassion. That is, “You Israelites know what it means to be enslaved, oppressed, to be the stranger. Now that you are the dominant group, you must exercise compassion toward those who were like you were. You must exercise the compassion that Pharaoh did not exercise toward you.”

 

This understanding, however, does not take into account verse 22 (“If you do, and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”)

Cohen interprets thus:

On the one hand, God heard the cry of the Israelites, and this led to redemption. On the other hand, Pharaoh did not hear the cry and this led to the devastation of Egypt. The ethical choice is between imitatio dei and imitatio pharaoh. As is the wont of the Biblical authors, these choices bring with them repercussions. Choosing to be like God leads to redemption while choosing to be like Pharaoh leads to death.

Later, noting Nachmanides commentary on this verse, Rabbi Cohen concludes:

The lesson of the slavery and liberation in Egypt is not an exhortation to dwell on shared victimization…It is not the empathy of shared suffering that is at stake here but the certain knowledge that God hears the cries of the oppressed that others choose to ignore – and benefit thereby from their continued exploitation….

 

Nachmanides teaches us that the experience that we share with all marginal, oppressed or exploited people is the possibility of redemption. The Torah puts this starkly, to quote Eldridge Cleaver: “What we’re saying here today is that you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” You can choose to be like God, and hear the cries of the oppressed, or you can choose to be like Pharaoh and ignore those cries. In either event, the oppressed will be redeemed. If, however, the salvation is left to God you will go the way of the Egyptians.

(from “Crisis, Call and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions,” edited by P. Ochs and W. Johnson, pp. 112-114.)

While Rabbi Cohen does not address BDS specifically in his essay, I find his teaching to be directly relevant to our subject. To put it simply, the BDS call is a cry from the oppressed. Will we choose to be like God, and hear the cry of the Palestinian people?

This simple, essential point is too often drowned out by the clamor and din of the hysteria around BDS: its origin point is a call from an oppressed people who are seeking support and solidarity from the international community.

Some critical history: the BDS movement dates back to 2005, when 170 Palestinian civil society organizations came together to strategize at critical political moment. The Oslo peace process had been ongoing for over ten years. During that time – a period ostensibly dedicated to a final status agreement – Israel had expanded its settlement enterprise across the West Bank at a staggering rate. The settler population in the West Bank had doubled – particularly in areas meant to be part of an eventual Palestinian state. Palestinians were being forced into isolated cantons, hemmed in by the barrier wall and checkpoints, increasingly cut off from Israel and each other.

It had become clear to many – certainly to Palestinians – that Israel had no interest in negotiating a viable two state solution. They were extending their control over Palestinian lands and they were doing it with impunity. At the same time, in Israel proper, Palestinians were increasingly deprived of their rights as citizens. Adalah – the Legal Center for Minority rights in Israel had documented over 65 laws that discriminated against Palestinians on the basis of their national belonging. And then there was the question of Palestinian refugees. Since Israel steadfastly refused to even consider negotiating the Palestinian Right of Return, over 7 million Palestinian refugees remained in exile – unable to even set foot in the land in which their ancestors lived.

During the decade following Oslo, no political entity – not the US government, the UN, the governments of the international community, nor the PA itself – were willing or able to hold Israel to account. It was under this context that the leadership of Palestinian civil society came together in 2005 to issue the BDS call. The efforts of the political powers had failed them. Together, they determined that the only way to create the opening for a just solution was to leverage popular support – that is to say, people power.

Thus, a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies made a crie de cour for solidarity and support. They issued a call to the world to use the time honored nonviolent strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to pressure the state of Israel to meet three essential demands:

  • To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;
  • to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  • and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemiticeconomic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.”

Why such a strong response? I would suggest it is because Israel knows this is the one arena in which it is the most vulnerable. While it enjoys a distinct advantage on politically and militarily, it now faces the mobilization of a nonviolent popular movement that is holding it to account – and it takes this very seriously. Indeed, BDS is modeled on the similar movement that was mobilized in response to apartheid South Africa. History has proven that this kind of popular resistance can actually work.

Admittedly, the idea of a worldwide boycott of Israel pushes all kinds of Jewish hot buttons. Many, for instance, compare it to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses during the rise of the Third Reich. While I understand the visceral nature of this response, it perversely misrepresents the essential core of the BDS call. In the case of Nazi Germany, a government used boycott as a tool to persecute minority citizens of its own nation. The Palestinian civil society call is a cry from the oppressed themselves for solidarity in the face of state violence. In this regard it is much more comparable to the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the American civil rights movement or the United Farm Workers call for boycott of grape growers in California.

BDS also pushes buttons for those who believe it unfairly singles Israel out. Those who have answered the call by supporting boycott and divestment campaigns are routinely accused of practicing a double standard. “Of all the oppressive regimes throughout the world, Israel is surely not the worst, many critics claim.” Thus it is problematic, if not downright antisemitic, to target Israel exclusively with such campaigns.

Here again, the essential nature of the BDS call is being twisted out of context. BDS does not originate in boycott campaigns or divestment resolutions. The BDS call comes from Palestinians themselves. The proper question before us it not “what about these other oppressive regimes?” but rather, “the Palestinian people have issued a call for solidarity and support in the face of very real oppression – will we respond to their call or not?”

There is currently no call comparable to the one that has been issued by Palestinian civil society. If oppressed people anywhere in the world saw fit to issue such a call, it would naturally be worthy of our consideration and support. But the lack of one does not invalidate the worthiness of the call that has been placed before us by the Palestinian people.

Back in 2009, when I was just starting to grapple myself with my own response to this call, I wrote a blog post in which I shared my own nascent thoughts on the subject. Here is how I concluded:

Beyond the fears of BDS articulated by so many in the Jewish communal establishment, I think there’s an even deeper fear for many of us in the Jewish community: the prospect of facing the honest truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

 

For so many painful reasons, it is just so hard for us to see Israel as an oppressor – to admit that despite all of the vulnerability we feel as Jews, the power dynamic is dramatically, overwhelmingly weighted in Israel’s favor.  Though a movement like BDS might feel on a visceral level like just one more example of the world piling on the Jews and Israel, we need to be open to the possibility that it might more accurately be described as the product of a weaker, dispossessed, disempowered people doing what it must to resist oppression.

In the end, I believe this is the real crux of the issue. Many liberals analyze the issue of Israel/Palestine with what I would call a “Conflict Analysis” – that is to say, the tragic collision of two peoples, each of whom have compelling claims to the same piece of land. In this instance, the appropriate response naturally, would be to negotiate a political compromise between the two parties.

Others however, myself included, analyze the issue with an “Oppression Analysis.” In this case, this tragedy was caused by an essential injustice. It occurred as the result of an ethnic national movement that colonized, settled and forcibly seized a land from people who were living there. Indeed, this injustice is not part of history but is ongoing even now. As we speak, Israel is colonizing, settling and forcibly seizing land from Palestinians who call that land home.

I realize there may be some in this room who cannot bear to hear me say these words, but I – and increasing numbers of people around the world – believe them to be true, no matter how painful it feels to hear them. Israel is oppressing Palestinians. And when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression – yes sometimes violently.

In this case, however, a nonviolent call for popular resistance has been placed before us. Thus, for those of us that believe God hears the cry of the oppressed and demands that we do the same, the BDS call represents a direct challenge to our faith. Will we be like God, and hearken to their cries, or will we be like Pharaoh and ignore them?

As a Jew, as an American, as a person of conscience, I would suggest this call presents us with nothing less than the most consequential spiritual challenge of our time.

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.

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

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Cross-posted with The Forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haifa, 1948: Sweeping Away the Chametz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Support the Palestinian Right of Return

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(Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activeststills.org)

If there’s one thing that virtually all Zionists can agree upon, from the political right to left and everywhere in between, it is their abject unwillingness to accept the Palestinian right of return.

There is an almost visceral quality to this rejection, which is invariably presented as an existential necessity, rather than a political argument. Read here, for instance, the comments of the relatively moderate Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi:

The right of return is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic assault: Overwhelmed with bitter Palestinian refugees raised on hatred, the Jewish state would implode.

Amos Oz, poet laureate of the Israeli peace movement, used identical rhetoric in a 2013 NY Times interview:

The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.

Since Palestinian civil society issued its call for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, which includes the goal of “respecting, protecting and promoting” the Palestinian right of return, many now claim that supporting BDS – a nonviolent call for equality, freedom and human rights – is itself tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. The progressive American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart has written versions of this position repeatedly over the years:

(BDS) calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.

Conveniently lost amidst all the rhetoric, however, is the fact that the right of return is a legitimately claimed right that is enshrined in international law. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Beinart’s point actually makes it very clear: the choice we ultimately face is one between a Jewish state vs. international law, justice and human rights for all.

“The Old will Die and the Young will Forget”

Between November 1947 and October 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes by Jewish militias, an event Israel refers to as the War of Independence and Palestinians call collectively the Nakba (“catastrophe”). In December of 1948, as Palestinian refugees languished in camps waiting to return to their homes, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 by a majority of 34 countries, including the United States.

Article 11 of the resolution stated:

Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity.

The government of the newly declared state of Israel, however, refused to allow dislocated Palestinians to return to their homes. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed, many of which had new Jewish settlements built upon them. In towns and cities, new Jewish immigrants moved into empty Palestinian houses that had been appropriated by Israel. And to this day, “the earliest practical date” for the return of Palestinians to their homes remains unrealized.

According to the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, there are currently 7.9 million Palestinian refugees worldwide – the largest refugee population in the world. Yet almost 70 years later, the Palestinian people continue to hold their right of return as sacrosanct – as both a  collective dream and as an inalienable right.  At the same time, virtually all Israelis and Israel advocates have dismissed the right of return as a pipe dream – a political non-starter that will never come to pass.

“The old will die and the young will forget.” This quote is often attributed  David Ben-Gurion, who reportedly made it while commenting on the future of Palestinian refugees. While there is no documentary evidence that Ben-Gurion actually uttered these words, it is clear that the prediction has not come to pass. Quite the contrary: the children and grandchildren of the 1948 refugees have not forgotten. If anything, the right of return has become an increasingly indelible aspect of Palestinian culture, famously represented by the original keys to homes in Palestine which are passed down from one family generation to the next.

As for me, I can state openly and unabashedly that I support the Palestinian people’s right of return. I believe it is their inalienable right – not a “euphemism” or cynical political ploy that can be wished, threatened or rationalized away. And I do believe that there will never be a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians until Israel honestly faces the injustices it has perpetrated against the Palestinian people and honors the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

“The Jewish Character of the State”

To those who claim that the return of refugees would “imperil the Jewish character of the state of Israel,” I would respond that there is a serious problem when the character of a country is dependent upon the denial of basic human rights to an entire people. When we speak of the “Jewish character of the state,” we should be clear on what we actually mean: a form of ethnic nationalism that necessarily privileges Jews over non-Jews.

In order to maintain this national character, Israel has created a system that allows any Jew in the world to become an immediate citizen of the Jewish state upon arrival – while millions of people who actually lived in the land (or have ancestors who did) are unable to set literally foot there for no other reason than they are not Jews. The bottom line: the Palestinian right of return raises the prospect of one democratic state of all its citizens – which for Israelis and Israel advocates means “the dismantling of the Jewish state.”

The real reason so many Zionists treat the Palestinian right of return as a non-starter is that it shines a bright light on the inner paradoxes of Zionism itself. Israel’s identity as a Jewish state has always been dependent upon its ability to maintain a demographic majority of Jews in the land. This ipso facto presents the presence of non-Jews in the land as a problem to be dealt with. While this problem appeared to be “solved” following the Nakba, seven decades later it remains as intractable as ever.

Liberal Zionists have attempted to resolve this problem by advocating a peace process that would result in a negotiated settlement for a two state solution. These negotiations have failed for many reasons, not least of which has been Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank. Another critical reason has been Israel’s adamant refusal to even consider the Palestinian right of return during negotiations. Their consistent treatment of this right as a non-starter doomed the various iterations of the peace process over the years. For as many have pointed out, the right of return is not a right that can be negotiated collectively – it belongs to each and every individual Palestinian refugee.

“They Would Throw Us Into the Sea”

Many Zionists articulate the fear that a return of refugees would existentially endanger the Jews of Israel. Upon their return, the argument goes, “Palestinian refugees raised on hatred” would undoubtedly throw the Jews into the sea.

This is a patently racist argument that essentializes Palestinians as incorrigibly violent. In the end, we cannot honestly discuss Palestinian violence against Israel without recognizing the context of the daily violence in which Palestinians have been living for almost seven decades. Palestinian violence is not a product of their upbringing – it is a response to Israel’s violent expulsion of their families from their homes and the violence of brutal, ongoing oppression.

I have no doubt that there will be those who will respond to me by saying it’s all well and good for me to preach to Israelis that they must live side by side with Palestinians from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, when it is the Israelis who will have to live with the consequences. It’s a fair question – and in good Jewish fashion I’ll answer it with another question: what will ensure the long term safety of both peoples: the  continuance of an oppressive status quo that will only guarantee a future of violence or an process of authentic reparation and repatriation as well as mutually agreed upon guarantees of security for Israelis and Palestinians?

Obviously we are a long way from an “honestly negotiated settlement.” But before we even get to the practical considerations of how the Palestinian right of return might be implemented, that right must first be acknowledged and honored on its own merits. We cannot yet say how this right will be practically realized – this can only come through mutual agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But in the meantime, the Palestinian right of return cannot be summarily dismissed by shrugging our shoulders and assuming “all nations are created this way.”

What would it look like in a practical sense? The general parameters are actually fairly straightforward: those who choose to remain in the Palestinian diaspora would remain. Those who choose to return would be repatriated to their homes. Where not possible, there would be a negotiated settlement with those individual refugee families or with a collective body they each agree represents them.

Over the past few years, the organizations Zochrot and Badil have done valuable work envisioning ways that the Palestinian right of return might be implemented. As they note in their preliminary report:

(This) project builds on the deep respect in international law for the right of return,1 and its widespread affirmation as the only acceptable durable solution, and starts to address how refugees will return to properties and homes from which they were forcibly displaced, and how such a return can be implemented in a practical, fair, and efficient manner that protects the legitimate interests of all stakeholders involved.

I wish all Jews could read this report, even those who might not be ready to go to such places as yet. For myself, I find it to be extremely liberating to participate in this kind of visioning. Once we grasp that the inner paradox that a Jewish state can only be achieved by violating the rights of another people, we may well come to understand that the right of return does not mean the “dismantling of the Jewish state” – rather, it leads us to a place where are free to envision a future of equity, justice, return and reconciliation.

“Exchange of Populations”

Many who reject the Palestinian right of return make a kind of “tit for tat” argument between the Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the 856,000 Jews of Arab countries who were either expelled, immigrated or brought to Israel around the same time. It is not uncommon for Israel advocates to equate the two, and claim that the events of 1948 resulted in an “exchange of populations.”

It’s a spurious argument on several levels. In the first place, while the actions of the governments of Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Syria cannot be excused for their violence against their Jewish populations, Jews from Arab countries (or Mizrahi Jews) did not become refugees – they were absorbed into Israel and became citizens, fulfilling the state’s demographic need for a Jewish majority.  Palestinians experienced the exact opposite: in 1948 they were forced from their homes and turned into refugees.

Moreover, the two expulsions did not occur at the same time. The Jews from Iraq and other Arab countries occurred after the Nakba and both occurred under very different circumstances. There is absolutely no documentary evidence to prove Israeli leadership intended an “exchange of populations” when they made the decision to prevent expelled Palestinians from returning to their homes.

Another important difference: while the right of return is almost universally cherished by all Palestinians, there is no equivalent call for return from Mizrahi Jews. If anything, the lion’s share of Mizrahi protest has been directed toward discriminatory treatment at the hands of Israel’s Askenazic elite and its erasure of their Arab cultural identity. Throughout the years, in fact there have been a number of Arab Jewish movements of solidarity with Palestinian Arabs, from the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1960s and 70s to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition that formed in the 1990s, to the current efforts of Mizrahi activists who are seeking to join the Arab Joint List party in the Knesset.

Ironically enough, it was recently reported that the calls to define Mizrahi Jews as “refugees,” have now been taken up by the Israeli government, presumably in order to somehow politically equate them with Palestinian refugees. By so doing, however, this cynical maneuver actually contradicts a central Zionist dictum: that all Jews are welcome and to become citizens of the Jewish state. It’s also profoundly insulting to Mizrahi Jews themselves, as scholar Zachary Smith explains:

Mizrahi Jews came sometimes of their own free will and sometimes not of their own free will—a clear distinction in a complex history of Jewish immigration to Israel.
Mizrahim were, for the most part, individual agents and actors making decisions about Zionism and Israel. Denying them this Zionist impulse does not just hurt Mizrahi collective identity by portraying them as helpless. It also hurts Israel, because refugees, as is apparent in the Palestinian case, demand to return home.

No, history cannot be turned back, but Israelis and Palestinians can go forward together. The repatriation of refugees is not a pipe dream – it is a very real and practical concept for which we have ample historical precedent. The real question is not whether or not return is possible. It is rather: does Israel have the political and moral will to own the injustice it inflicted (and continues to inflict) on the Palestinian people and accept their inherent right to return to their homes?

As for me, I believe this acceptance is the necessary first step toward a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

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.

The Cry of the Canaanites: A New Passover Seder Supplement

 

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Here is the introduction to my new Passover seder supplement, “The Cry of the Canaanites.” Click here for the entire text to print out and read at your seder table this year. (Click here, here and here for supplements I’ve written in previous years):

After singing Dayenu, we say:

Our telling of the Exodus story is not yet complete. It is not “dayenu” – it is not enough for us – to sing joyfully of the Israelites entrance into the Promised Land without noting that this promise came with a command: to dispossess and annihilate the indigenous inhabitants of Canaan:

So the trumpets were sounded, and when they army heard the sound, they raised a great shout, and the wall collapsed. The army advanced on the city, every man straight ahead, and they captured it. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city; both man and woman, young and old, as well as the cattle, the sheep and the donkeys, with the edge of the sword.

(Joshua 6:20-21)

As difficult as it may be to read such as these in our most sacred text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that the conquest tradition of the Bible has inspired centuries of colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the world. It has also been used in various ways by early Zionist ideologues, the political founders of the state of Israel and by the present day religious settler movement.

Therefore, we cannot continue with our seder until we honestly face – and disavow – the immoral conquest tradition that is embedded within our Exodus story. We now take this time to read and discuss the teachings of three liberation theologians: one Native American, one African American and one Palestinian. As we consider their challenge to us, let us ask one another: how will we hearken to the cry of Canaanites past and present? Are we ready to admit our complicity in their dispossession? Can we transform the dream of a Promised Land into the reality of a land that is truly promised to all?