Category Archives: Zionism

Israel and North America: A Tale of Two Judaisms

Nur Shlapobersky / Never Again Action

Observers have long suggested that two radically different visions of Judaism are currently unfolding in the contemporary world: one in Israel and the other in North America. While this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, I can’t recall a time in which there were both so fully on display as they were last Sunday during the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av – when two very different Jewish communities observed the day in dramatically different fashion.

Tisha B’Av (literally “the 9th of the month of Av”) is a Jewish fast day of quasi-mourning that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to chanting from the Book of Lamentations, Tisha B’Av contains prayers that yearn for the restoration of the Temple. But while traditionally religious Jews characteristically view this mythic restoration in the context of a far-off messianic age, there is a rapidly growing extremist movement in Israel that has been calling for the literal rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Temple movement also advocates the destruction of Muslim shrines – an act that would undeniably result in a violent cataclysm of unthinkable proportions.

Last Sunday, the Temple Mount became a flash point for violence on the day of Tisha B’Av – which happened this year to coincide with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In anticipation of the day, Temple movement leaders were pushing hard on the Israeli government to upend the status quo and allow them to worship on the site (which is ruled off limits to Jews by Jewish law – and thus the state of Israel.) Eventually, the political pressure from the Temple movement and far-right Israeli politicians caused Prime Minister Netanyahu to cave and allow the extremist worshippers to enter the Temple Mount. In midst of election season, Netanyahu is loath to alienate the extreme rightist voters he has been desperately trying to court.

Thus, on Sunday morning. Temple movement worshippers gathered on the Temple Mount. Later that morning, violence erupted after Muslim worshipers finished their prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. According to reports, police forces fired stun grenades and tear gas canisters after, they claimed, “worshipers began hurling objects at officers and yelling ‘nationalistic remarks.'” The Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 Palestinians were wounded in the clashes, with 15 evacuated to nearby hospitals. The police reported that seven people were arrested.

This then, was how Tisha B’Av was celebrated in Israel this year: a politically emboldened group of Jewish zealots was given license by the Israeli government to provoke violence on a site considered holy by both Jews and Muslims.

(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Now compare this with Tisha B’Av in the United States, when thousands of American Jews attended immigration protests and vigils in over 60 cities, organized by a broad network of Jewish groups, including Never Again Action, T’ruah, Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and and Economic Justice, and a myriad of local immigrant justice organizations.

At one of the more substantive actions, more than 1,000 demonstrators sat down in an Amazon store in NYC to protest Amazon’s technology contract with ICE. 40 protesters took arrest, including numerous local area rabbis.  In downtown Los Angeles, members of Southern California’s Jewish community and other immigrant rights advocates held a “Close the Camps” rally at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Here in Illinois, it was my honor to be among the 250 Jews and allies gathered at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee for a Tisha B’Av ceremony that included the chanting from Lamentations, and the recitation of prayers, songs and personal testimonies.

It’s not an understatement to suggest that the nascent Jewish resistance movement embodied by Never Again Action is one of the most remarkable and significant religious-political developments in American Jewish life in generations, as Allison Kaplan Sommer recently pointed out in a feature for Ha’aretz:

Never Again Action’s emergence highlights a growing trend: progressive young American Jews interested in political activism while clearly identifying themselves as Jews – in causes that have no direct link to Judaism. They wear T-shirts with Jewish slogans, sing Hebrew songs and in some cases even conduct prayer wearing kippot and tallit.

Critically, Sommer noted, “the issues that energize such leftist activists have nothing to do with Israel,” adding that “Israel has become a topic that divides their community rather than uniting it, depleting people rather than energizing them.”

I’d suggest that last week’s Tisha B’Av events demonstrated an even deeper dichotomy between these two communities. In Israel, the day was commemorated through a distinctly land-focused, land-centric style of Judaism that ultimately resulted in violence on the Temple Mount. Zionism after all, is an ideology that views the return to the land in real terms, and redemption is not envisioned in a far-off messianic age but through the real time settling of Jews in the land – an act that resulted, and continues to result, in the violent displacement of the Palestinian people.

Given this land-centric focus, it was really only a matter of time before Tisha B’Av became an occasion for viewing the destruction of the Temple as a historic loss that could only be redeemed through its literal rebuilding. It’s particularly notable that the Temple movement, once considered a fringe movement in Israel, is rapidly ascending in political power and is increasingly considered to be an important political bloc by the government of Israel .

By comparison, the diaspora movement of Jewish resistance currently emerging throughout North America regards the destruction of the Temple in mythic – not literal – terms. Note for instance, this pointed description of the Tisha B’Av vigil at the Illinois detention center, taken from its Facebook event page:

Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day that honors and mourns the brokenness, loss, and shattered ideals in whose shadow we live every day, symbolized by the destruction of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

This Tisha b’Av we’ll mourn the brokenness of a nation that hunts down, detains and deports immigrants, separates families, cages children and turns away asylum seekers. We will also explore our communal culpability in this tragedy and ask honestly: how do we stand down this causeless hatred?

Here, the destruction of the Temple is not regarded as a literal tragedy/loss, but a mythic moment of brokenness that is embodied by the chronically broken world in which we live. According to this view, redemption occurs not through the quasi-pagan deification of bricks and mortar but through sacred actions of resistance to injustice and oppression. Could there be any greater demonstration of the radical dichotomy between these two fundamentally divergent spiritual approaches?

There is, of course, a much simpler way to describe the difference between these two Tisha B’Av moments: one the one hand, redemption occurs through the physical power of the state while on the other, redemption occurs through resistance to that power. 

Postscript: as of this writing we are receiving news that an ICE police guard has driven a truck into a peaceful crowd of Never Again protesters at a detention center in Rhode Island. 

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our day. 

Playing Politics with Human Rights: Thoughts on the Recent Anti-BDS House Bill

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photo: Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor

Last Tuesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass an anti-BDS bill with the strong support of progressive democrats (including “squad” member Ayanna Pressley). I know there are many who are asking how and why did this happen? As I see it, the answer, as always, is pure politics.

Just a bit of history: the genesis of the bill known as H. Res. 246 dates back to the AIPAC convention last March, when a number of liberal Jewish groups, including  J Street, Ameinu, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners for Progressive Israel and Reconstructing Judaism (my own denomination), met informally to give their preliminary approval to this prospective bill. As they saw it, this was a strategic move. The bill was designed to give cover to liberal Democrats who had previously voted against anti-constitutional bills that virtually criminalized BDS. This new bill would allow them to vote on the record for a non-binding bill that criticized BDS without curtailing freedom of speech or labeling it as antisemitic. It would also give Democrats aligned with liberal Zionist groups the opportunity to reaffirm their support for the two state solution.

Like I said, pure politics.

Still, no matter how much liberal Democrats might rationalize their support for H. Res. 246, (Rep. Pressley explained on Twitter that her vote affirmed to her “constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist”) no amount of explaining can wash away the fact that this resolution is a cynical political move that unfairly and incorrectly attacks a genuinely non-violent movement for human rights – and will do little to advance the cause of real justice in Israel/Palestine.

Just a few responses to the actual text of the resolution:

• While the resolution mentions “rising anti-Semitism,” it is completely silent on anti-Palestinian oppression and the threat of Islamophobia. Even the simple term “occupation” is nowhere to be found.

• The resolution claims that the BDS “seeks to exclude the State of Israel and the Israeli people from the economic, cultural, and academic life of the rest of the world.” In fact, this is not the goal of BDS; the very suggestion reduces the entire movement to an essentially nefarious aim. Rather, the Palestinian civil society call for BDS advocates for non-violent economic activism as a tactic toward three rights-based goals: an end to the occupation, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a recognition of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

• The resolution claims that BDS “undermines the possibility for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demanding concessions of one party alone and encouraging the Palestinians to reject negotiations.” The three goals of BDS above are not “concessions” – they are basic rights enshrined in international law that have been patently ignored or denied in previous negotiations. There is nothing in the BDS call that “rejects negotiations.”

• The resolution quotes BDS leader Omar Barghouti (who addressed Tzedek Chicago on the eve of Passover this year) thus: “We oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” While this quote is genuine, it crucially omits the first part of his statement: “A Jewish state cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be opposed categorically, as we would opposed a Muslim state or a Christian state or any kind of exclusionary state…”

Here, Barghouti calls into question whether an exclusively Jewish state – as opposed to one state of all its citizens – can ever be truly democratic. This is an important question that deserves genuine consideration and debate. This egregiously truncated quote, however, only serves to imply Barghouti and the BDS movement seeks nothing more than the “destruction of the Jewish state.”

• The resolution states that the BDS movement ” targets … individual Israeli citizens of all political persuasions, religions, and ethnicities, and in some cases even Jews of other nationalities who support Israel.” This is a false and spurious accusation that the resolution offers with no evidence whatsoever. The targets of BDS campaigns have always been institutions, not individuals. (The government of Israel and Israel advocacy organizations, however, routinely target individuals with blacklisting websites such as Canary Mission and by barring entry of Palestine solidarity activists into the country.)

• The resolution states “BDS does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” There is no universal consensus that self-determination for any group of people must ipso facto mean the establishment of an independent nation state on a particular piece of land. Self-determination goes by many definitions and takes many forms. There are millions of Jews around the world who are happy to enjoy individual self determination in the nations in which they live. (It’s also worth noting that the Israeli government recently passed a law declaring that only Jews have a right to self-determination in Israel.)

• The resolution states that BDS “leads to the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and others who support Israel.” Here again, the resolution is putting out a damaging claim without offering any evidence whatsoever. What can be stated however, is that however uncomfortable some Jewish students may be made to feel by pro-divestment campaigns on their campuses, pro-Israel activist students enjoy significant support from college and university administrations. By contrast, Palestine solidarity activists (including many Jewish students) experience routine suppression of their freedom of speech. Palestine Legal reports that “seventy-six percent of the incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related” and that they “responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine activists, double the number from 2017.”

• The resolution states “in contrast to protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change, the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement targeting Israel is not about promoting coexistence, civil rights, and political reconciliation but about questioning and undermining the very legitimacy of the country and its people.” To this, I can only say, see bullet point #2 above. In fact, the BDS call is actually very much akin to “protest movements that have sought racial justice and social change.” Nowhere does it “delegitimize” the state of Israel. Anyone who take the time to read the actual call will see it focuses exclusively on the basic, essential rights that Israel routinely denies Palestinians.

To this final point, it was quite sobering to contemplate that on the very day that the House voted to condemn a nonviolent Palestinian call for human rights, House members were notably silent in response to Israel’s massive demolition of homes in East Jerusalem that took place at the very same moment.

In the end, despite the cynical politics behind this particular bill, I cannot personally view this as merely a political issue alone. As a Jew and a person of faith, I view the BDS call as nothing short of a religious imperative. I said as much in an address I was honored to deliver at the American Academy of Religion two years ago:

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.

Blessed are the ones who hearken to the cry of the oppressed.

When Secular Israelis Claim “God Gave This Land to Us”

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(photo: AP video)

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, created something of viral sensation last week when, during a speech in the Security Council, he dramatically brandished a Bible and declared “This is the deed to our land.”

He then continued:

From the book of Genesis; to the Jewish exodus from Egypt; to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; to the gates of Canaan; and to the realization of God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel; the Bible paints a consistent picture. The entire history of our people, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael, begins right here.

Danon’s use of an ancient religious text as justification for the State of Israel’s right to the land was likely an astonishing moment for many. What on earth was a secular Israeli doing lecturing the UN on “God’s covenant in the Holy Land of Israel?” For those familiar with Zionist pedagogy however, his comments were neither unusual nor unprecedented.

When I heard about Danon’s Biblical tutorial, I immediately recalled a famous story about a 1937 meeting between David Ben-Gurion and Lord Peel, who was then heading the British Royal Peel Commission of Inquiry into the potential partition of Mandate Palestine. According to the story, Lord Peel asked Ben-Gurion where he was born and Ben-Gurion replied that he was from Plonsk, Poland. Lord Peel responded that the Arab leaders with whom he had met were all born in Palestine and most of the Jewish leaders were from Eastern Europe. Peel noted that the Arab people had a kushan (Ottoman land deed) that entitled them to the land – and asked Ben-Gurion if he also had a document that proved the land belonged to him.

At that point, Ben-Gurion became aware of the Bible upon which he had just sworn as a commission witness. He grabbed it, held it up and exclaimed, “Here is your kushan. It is the world’s most highly respected book and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land!”

This phenomenon – that of otherwise secular Israeli Jews proclaiming “God gave this land to us” – is not particularly uncommon. It is actually rooted in the unique form of nationalist ideology that gave rise the state of Israel. If we are to grasp this mentality properly then, we must first understand the early ideological trends that motivated Israel’s original settlers and eventual founders.

Many scholars have pointed out that Zionists – particularly those from Russia and Poland – were markedly influenced by the ideas of European Romantic nationalism (also known as “ethnic nationalism,” “organic nationalism” or “integral nationalism”) an intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th century. The early seeds of this ideology were planted in the ideas of Rousseau, Hegel and particularly the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who posited that “each nation is separate, distinguished by climate, education, custom, tradition, and heredity.”

These ideas were a powerful part of the ideological fabric of 19th century Europe from which Zionism emerged. In his book “The Founding Myths of Israel,” Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell notes that “Herder’s thinking had tremendous importance in Eastern Europe” during the 19th century and that these ideas were formative for important Labor Zionists such as A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson and David Ben-Gurion. Sternhell’s work compellingly demonstrates how otherwise secular socialists could espouse an ideology that articulated a deeply spiritual – and at times almost mystical connection of the Jewish people to land, history, language and ritual:

A cultural-organic conception of the nation necessarily included religion, which it saw as an inseparable part of national identity. This was the case in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, in France and Spain. French integral nationalism was no less Catholic than Polish nationalism, and religion played the same role in it as it did in Poland or Romania. It was a focus of unity and identity, over and beyond social divisions. In integral nationalism religion had a social function, unconnected with its metaphysical content. Generally, it was a religion without God; in order to fulfill its function as a unifying force, religion required only external symbols, not inner content (p. 56, emphasis mine.)

In other words, the settlers and eventual founders of the Jewish state instrumentalized religion, emphasizing its social function to unify the people under one national identity. Indeed, the idea of a “religion without God” can be clearly discerned in the words of many pivotal Zionists. Thus Gordon, the father of Labor Zionism, could in one breath excoriate traditional Judaism with incredible vehemence while claiming that “the greatness of nationalism is its cosmic dimension” (p. 62). Sternhell also describes the venerable Labor Zionist figure, Berl Katznelson, as “a kind of secular rabbi whose strength lay in a direct contact with a sect of believers” (p. 135).

As my anecdote above demonstrates, Ben-Gurion’s world view was also deeply motivated by this mindset. Decades after lifting a Bible before Lord Peel, Ben-Gurion famously convened a study group of archeologists, academics and military officers to read and discuss the Biblical book of Joshua. It was well known that Joshua, which describes the Israelite conquest of Canaan in vivid detail, was Ben-Gurion’s favorite book of the Bible. In keeping with the ways of Romantic nationalists, he considered the Bible to be the Jewish people’s “national epic,” connecting them to a glorious ancient past as well as the a justification for their contemporary settlement of the land.

As American scholar Rachel Haverlock has noted:

Similar to other national movements, Zionism appealed to the glories of an ancient past and brought biblical words and phrases into spoken Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible served as a linguistic source and literary template in the prestate Yishuv and early decades of the State of Israel…

Ben-Gurion saw the biblical war narrative as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying myth of national identity. Not only could modern Israelis relate to the processes of conquest and settlement, but through the prism of Joshua they could also understand them as reenactments of the biblical past (“The Joshua Generation: Conquest and the Promised Land ” p. 309.)

The use of the Bible as national epic was not the exclusive provenance of Labor Zionists. Zeev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism (the ideology of the present-day Likud party) wrote the 1927 novel, “Samson the Nazirite,” which portrays Samson as a Jewish national hero. Though Jabotinsky was a passionate opponent of Labor Zionism, he and his socialist Zionist compatriots clearly shared a deep attachment to the trappings of Romantic nationalism.

Since the founding of the state (when the Bible was invoked in its Declaration of Independence), these romantic mythic narratives have since exerted an indelible hold over Israeli socio-political culture. Well before Danon’s UN pronouncement one could choose from a myriad of examples. To offer but one more: Netanyahu’s 2015 speech before Congress, in which invoked the Biblical book of Esther to drive home the “threat” of present day Iran to the state of Israel. (“Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”)

With the political ascendency of the settler movement, it might be said that the Romantic nationalism Israel’s of socialist founders has found common cause with religious Zionists who use the Bible to make unabashedly fundamentalist claims on the land. Thus, an extreme nationalist Israeli politician like Ayelet Shaked can be accurately described as “a secular woman from left-leaning Tel Aviv (who has) become the most successful spokesperson for the religious-nationalist party and the settlement movement it strongly supports.” In a sense, we might say that the trajectory of contemporary Zionism has hopelessly conflated secular nationalism and religious ideology into one Biblically-based claim to historic Palestine.

In the end, however, whether it is used by Labor Zionists, Revisionist Zionists or right wing West Bank settlers, the use of the Bible as the “Jewish people’s deed of sale” to the land of Israel represents a radical break with Jewish history, throughout which Jews regarded this text as a religious – not a political – document. It is also a profoundly fraught enterprise, particularly when you consider that the Zionist national epic includes God’s command in the book of Joshua for the Israelites to take the land by force and dispossess its Canaanite residents.

In an era that is currently witnessing the rise of romantic/ethnic (read “white”) nationalism throughout the world once more, it is critical that nations honestly assess what it is that truly binds them together. Is it one people’s “organic right” to a particular land or a commitment to the individual rights of all who dwell upon it?

 

Confessions of a Wicked Child: A Passover Reflection by Jay Stanton

1930sArnold Eagle.jpegHere are the remarks that Jay Stanton offered at Tzedek Chicago’s Passover seder last night. Jay was formerly Tzedek’s rabbinical intern – and I’m delighted to announce we’ve just hired him to be part of our staff for the coming year:

In a traditional seder, four children are described: a wise child, who likes learning all the ins and outs of Jewish law, a wicked child, who pokes fun at the whole idea of a seder, a simple child who seeks basic information, and a child who does not know how to ask.  These archetypical children help us explore what it means to fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children about the Exodus from Egypt.

I have a confession to make; I am a wicked child.  Of course, there are the ways society and the Jewish community in general have cast me as the wicked child: being queer and trans and supporting Palestinian rights not least among them.  But I’m also a self-identified wicked child. I am personality-wise and ethically the kind of person that voices my disapproval of standard approaches and doesn’t care what you think of me in response.  I’m a contrarian by nature, and I like asking difficult questions. Last year at this time, I asked all of us what we were doing here when we could be somewhere else doing something to make the world better.  And here we are this year, doing this peculiar ritual yet again.

I’m a wicked child.  I want to know what this means to you and why you think this is the way we should celebrate liberation.  Wouldn’t it be better to hear directly from people who have escaped modern slavery and to have real conversations about global abolition of slavery and how to establish reparations to address the ongoing legacies of slavery in America?  Plus, the Exodus never happened; the seder is an exercise in remembering alternative facts, which is to say lies.

I told you I’m a wicked child.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one here.  Despair not! Wicked children are valued by Jewish tradition.  Because the Talmud values contrarians. Because the seder itself values the wicked child.  After their question, “What does this ritual mean to you?”, the wicked child is not sent to bed without their supper.  Instead, the parent responds in kind.

“This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.  For me, and not for you, because if you had been there, you would not have gone free.”  It’s a contrarian response, not a real argument. In our Exodus narrative, more people than the Israelites left Egypt together.  In Hebrew this is called ‘erev rav, translated as a very diverse group or coalition.  I imagine the wicked children marched out of Egypt as part of the liberation coalition, where they found ample opportunity to critique the choices of the liberatory leaders, like leading the group directly to a body of water while being chased by the Egyptian military.  Maybe a frustrated wicked child yelled at Moses, “What are you going to do now? Hold up your staff and just wait for God?!”

Voices of critique and dissent have pushed our conversation toward progress, inclusion, and more ethical behavior for thousands of years.  They are enshrined in Talmud and indeed in the Haggadah. Judaism is enriched, not threatened, by a multiplicity of opinions and approaches.

To put it differently, the vital role of wicked children in our Passover seder exemplifies spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom, one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values, is more than active inclusion of atheists, agnostics, and non-Jews in our midst.  It is an affirmation of the ‘erev rav as a diverse, universalist community, and it is an elevation of critique from an obstacle to overcome to a necessary part of collective liberation.  We not only allow the wicked child to derail the Passover seder, we need them. Judaism needs its wicked children.

Just as political freedom provides a check against political tyranny, spiritual freedom provides a check against spiritual tyranny.  Both human and so-called divine spiritual authority have tendencies toward the coercive and oppressive. We could dismiss this problem as one that only affects the religious right. However, we are also at risk of spiritual tyranny here at Tzedek Chicago. We could give too much power to our spiritual leader and follow Brant even if and when he’s wrong, but spiritual freedom gives every one of us the tools to speak up if Brant starts leading us down the wrong path.  We are a community for people who share Tzedek’s specific values, and we say freely that people who object to them can find other Jewish communities. There’s not much distance between that and establishing some kind of review committee to determine whether you faithfully adhere to every line of each of our core values in every aspect of your life. Don’t worry; we’re not going to establish an Inquisition. Spiritual freedom ensures we are universalist not only in our outcomes but also in our process. When our leaders are wrong or when we feel excluded, we get to speak up and remain wicked children at the table.

As a wicked child, I wonder how the rest of the wicked child Passover conversation goes.  If I were continuing it, I would caution the parent, saying “Now you sound like the oppressor.  Do you want to be like Pharaoh?!”

Mah ha’avodah hazot lakhem?  What does this ritual mean to you?

Psalm 126: Dream of Return

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photo credit Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

March 30, 2019

Even as bullets hit bodies
their dream of return rose
up to the heavens
like black tire smoke curling
dancing then disappearing
into a warm spring sky.

And in that instant
their cries of pain transformed
into songs of joy and peals of laughter
yes in one fleeting moment
the tear gas lifted and they knew
they were going home.

They will return.
Like water flowing back
down parched river beds
like seeds blossoming into life
out of the hard dry ground
like rusted locks
clicked open by ancient keys
they will return.

To Safad to Hifa to Lydda
to al-Majdal to Ashdud
to al-Ramla and Bir Saba
they will return.

Though the thick dark smoke
obscures our vision today
we who have known dreaming
must surely know
that those who choke on their own tears
will return to harvest their fields
once again.

On Alice Walker and Antisemitism

American Masters - Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth

The Jewish interwebs have been abuzz regarding Yair Rosenberg’s December 17 Tablet article in which he criticized the New York Times Book Review for its interview with Alice Walker. In last Sunday’s “By the Book” column, the Times asked Walker what books she had on her nightstand; among those she cited was a book by British antisemitic conspiracy theorist David Icke entitled, “And the Truth Shall Set You Free.” Walker commented, “In (his) books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.”

In his article, Rosenberg listed a litany of odious excerpts from Icke’s book, including his praise of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” his claims that the B’nai B’rith was behind the slave trade and his belief that the Rothschilds bankrolled Adolf Hitler. He also offered a long list of the numerous times Walker has endorsed Ickes’ ideas, including her posting of his video interview (now blocked by YouTube) with Infowars’ Alex Jones, of which she wrote:

I like these two because they’re real, and sometimes Alex Jones is a bit crazy; many Aquarians are. Icke only appears crazy to people who don’t appreciate the stubbornness required when one is called to a duty it is impossible to evade.

Rosenberg also posted in full, a deeply disturbing poem written by Walker in 2017 entitled “It is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud.” This excerpt should give you a good idea about the tone and substance of Walker’s piece:

For a more in depth study
I recommend starting with YouTube. Simply follow the trail of “The
Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness.

I will sadly confess that I was unaware of Alice Walker’s history of antisemitic attitudes, even though this was apparently common knowledge among many on the left. During the Twitter eruption that followed Rosenberg’s piece for instance, Roxane Gay commented:

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Those of us who were hearing of Walker’s antisemitic proclivities for the first time were particularly saddened to learn that this eloquent champion of anti-racism had been expressing such poisonous ideas toward Jews and Judaism. Journalist/filmmaker Rebecca Pierce spoke for many of us when she tweeted this response:

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In his article, Rosenberg made mention of Walker’s anti-Israel politics, challenging “the progressive left” to call out antisemitism that is “presented in the righteous guise of ‘anti-Zionism.’” Although I don’t share Rosenberg’s conservative Israel politics, I accept his challenge. And yes, it’s painfully true that Walker’s Talmud poem egregiously cites Jewish religious tradition as the root cause of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians (as well as American police brutality, mass incarceration and “war in general”):

For the study of Israel, of Gaza, of Palestine,
Of the bombed out cities of the Middle East,
Of the creeping Palestination
Of our police, streets, and prisons
In America,
Of war in general,
It is our duty, I believe, to study The Talmud.
It is within this book that,
I believe, we will find answers
To some of the questions
That most perplex us.

Walker’s claim that the Talmud is “evil” and “poisonous” – a common antisemitic trope – is worth unpacking here. First of all, what is referred to as “The Talmud” is actually a vast corpus of Jewish civil and ritual law mixed with freewheeling legend and Biblical commentary composed between 200 and 500 CE. Though it is one of Jewish tradition’s foundational texts, Talmudic literature is not, to put it mildly, immediately accessible to the untrained reader. It’s typically studied by traditional Jews in the rarified world of schools known as yeshivot, where students’ primary focus is on the unique pedagogy of Talmudic argumentation.

Like all forms of religious literature, Talmudic tradition expresses a wide spectrum of ideas and attitudes. The contemporary reader would likely find its content to be alternately inscrutable, inspiring, challenging, archaic – and yes, at times even repugnant. It contains passages for example, that are profoundly misogynistic. And as Walker pointed out in her poem, it also contains occasional material that is decidedly anti-Gentile, including a notorious passage that depicts Jesus condemned to suffer in hell in a vat of burning excrement. (Yep, it’s true.) There are also texts that unabashedly claim Jewish lives must take precedence over non-Jewish lives – an idea that was also advocated centuries later by Moses Maimonides.

These texts are undeniably, inexcusably offensive and they must be called out, full stop. At the same time however, it is exceedingly disingenuous to judge a religion on the basis of its most problematic pronouncements. This attitude simplistically accepts these texts at face value, devoid of any context or historical background. It also ignores the fact that almost all faith traditions address the offensive, archaic or inconsistent elements in their sacred literature through the use of hermeneutics – that is, principles and methods that help readers understand their meaning in ever-changing societal contexts.

How for instance, might a contemporary religious feminist read and understand a blatantly misogynist Talmudic text? In an article entitled “When Sages are Wrong: Misogyny in Talmud,” Dr, Ruhama Weiss, of Hebrew Union College offers one hermeneutical approach:

(These Talmudic traditions) caused me a powerful disturbance. They forced me to think and react; to think about mechanisms of power and control and about the ability to be free from them. To make an effort to find and highlight additional voices, earlier voices, buried and hidden in misogynist rabbinic discussions.

Most importantly, these difficult sources teach me a lesson in modesty; from them I learn that unequally talented and wise people with good intentions can bequeath to subsequent generations difficult and bad traditions. I see the moral blind spots of my ancestors, and I am obligated to examine my own moral blind spots. Bad and disturbing sources make me think.

Indeed, this same hermeneutic method can be applied to Talmud’s xenophobic, anti-Gentile content as well. That is to say, these texts can challenge us to see “the moral blind spots of our ancestors and thus to examine our own moral blind spots.” They can help us confront “mechanisms of power and control” and contemplate the ways we might be able to “free ourselves of them.” These bad and disturbing sources can “make us think.”

Of course there are those who will read the texts of their faith through a more literal, fundamentalist hermeneutic. In such cases, it is up to those who cherish their religious tradition and the value of human rights for all to challenge such interpretations, particularly when the lines between church and state power become increasingly blurred.

On the subject of state power, I must add that I find it exceedingly problematic when folks criticize Talmudic tradition for its xenophobic attitudes without acknowledging the fundamentally anti-Jewish attitudes that are embedded deep within Christian religious tradition. It’s also important to note that antisemitic church teachings were historically used to inspire centuries of anti-Jewish persecution throughout Christian Europe, while the Talmud was written and compiled in a context of Jewish political powerlessness.

Today, in this relatively new era of Jewish power, it is certainly important to remain vigilant over the ways Jewish tradition is used to justify the oppression of Palestinians. Indeed, since the establishment of the State of Israel, this subject has been intensely debated throughout Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. As I write these words in fact, I’m recalling a blog post I wrote back in 2009 about then Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces Avichai Rontzki, who made a comment, based on Jewish religious texts, that soldiers who “show mercy” toward the enemy in wartime will be “damned”:

How will we, as Jews, respond to the potential growth of Jewish Holy War ideology within the ranks of the Israeli military?  How do we  feel about Israeli military generals holding forth on the religious laws of warfare? Most Americans would likely agree that in general, mixing religion and war is a profoundly perilous endeavor.  Should we really be so surprised that things are now coming to this?

I do not ask these questions out of a desire to be inflammatory. I ask them only because I believe we need to discuss them honestly and openly – and because these kinds of painful questions have for too long been dismissed and marginalized by the “mainstream” Jewish establishment.

In the end, every faith tradition has its good, bad and ugly. And in the end, I would submit that the proper way to confront these toxic texts is for people of faith to own the all of their religious heritage – and to grapple with it seriously, honestly and openly. And while we’re at it, it’s generally a good rule of thumb to avoid using the bad, ugly stuff in any religion’s textual tradition to make sweeping historical or political claims about that religion and/or the folks who adhere to it.

What is not at all helpful is for people such as Alice Walker to cherry-pick and decontextualize quotes from one particular religious tradition and warn that its “poison” is “winding its way into our collective consciousness.”

Like many of my friends who are just now learning about her adherence to antisemitic tropes, I fervently hope she will come to understand, as Rebecca Pierce put it, that the attitudes she endorses “are part of the same white supremacist power structure she so deftly fought through her written work in the past.”

 

War on Gaza is Inevitable Because it Benefits Israel: A Rabbinic Response

Mideast Israel Palestinians

In her recent op-ed “War Must Never Be Inevitable, Even Between Israel and Hamas,” (Ha’aretz, 11/12/18) Rabbi Jill Jacobs suggests a Jewish religious frame for “avoiding a deadly escalation of violence” between Israel and Gaza. While her attempt to offer hope in the midst of a profoundly hopeless situation is laudable, her analysis suffers from fundamental flaws that ultimately muddle the moral/political context of this tragic crisis.

Jacobs bases her argument on a teshuvah (legal opinion) issued by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy, who forcefully advocated for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt on the eve of the Camp David Accords. Jacobs applies his message to today’s current reality, observing that Halevy’s position “represented a courageous act of religious leadership at a time when most of the religious right opposed the agreement…” There is however, a critical difference between the reality facing Israel and Egypt in 1978 and the one in which Israel and Gaza finds itself today.

When he wrote those words, Halevy was addressing a situation of relative parity between two major nation states, each of whom maintained significant military power. Only a few years earlier, they had been engaged in what we might call a conventional war that eventually drew to a military stalemate. In other words, the Israel-Egypt negotiations emerged out of a balance of power that played out on a level playing field in which two regional powers found it in their respective national interests to make peace instead of war.

But there is no level playing field when it comes to Israel and Gaza. This is not a pairing of two equal sovereign powers, but rather of vast inequity where one power maintains almost complete control over a people it has dispossessed and occupied. Israel enjoys an immense power advantage over Gaza – and it has wielded it mercilessly throughout the years. For over a decade now, Israel has maintained a crushing blockade, turning a 140-square-mile strip of land into a virtual open-air prison. While Jacobs does briefly refer to the blockade, she does so in counterpoint to the equal “blame” borne by Hamas, as if this constituted in any way a balanced conflict.

Jacobs also uses the pedagogy of “both sides” when it comes to direct military violence, claiming that “Hamas bears significant blame for ongoing flare ups at the border” and noting that “firing rockets into civilian areas constitutes a human rights violation.” Again, this frame completely decontextualizes the historical reality in Gaza, a strip of land that was filled with refugees Israel dispossessed from their homes in 1948/49 and whose right to return they have denied ever since. It also ignores the research that convincingly demonstrates the violence in Gaza consistently flares up when Israel – not Hamas – has broken cease fires. (This was indeed the case this past week, when its covert operation “went bad,” leaving seven Palestinians dead.)

Moreover, the devastating series of military operations Israel has launched on Gaza over the past decade cannot rationally be viewed as “conventional wars.” On the contrary: these regular assaults have pitted the world’s most powerful military against small militias that wield crude and largely ineffective missiles and an imprisoned civilian population that literally has nowhere to run.

If there were any doubt, the statistics should make the disproportionate devastation abundantly clear. During “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, the Israeli military killed at least 2,104 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. 11,000 were wounded, including 3,000 children. 20,000 homes were destroyed and up to 500,000 residents displaced. By contrast, during the same military operation, six Israeli civilians, one migrant worker and 66 Israeli soldiers were killed.

Jacobs writes that “avoiding a descent into violence will require Israeli political leaders to loosen the closure of Gaza” and to “provide humanitarian relief.” In fact, an end to the violence will only occur when Israel ends its brutal blockade of Gaza, full stop. By using this “noblesse oblige” approach, Jacobs only continues to normalize the inherent inequity of this conflict.

After “loosening the closure,” Jacobs writes optimistically, Israel should “take the leap of faith necessary to negotiate a long-term agreement with sworn enemies.” Of course in order for this to happen, the US government would have to serve as an honest broker. The Carter administration played just such a role the Camp David Accords of 1978, because it – along with Israel and Egypt – deemed a peace treaty as in its own strategic self-interest. This is decidedly not the case today. On the contrary, the US and Israel both consider Hamas to be a “terrorist organization” and a proxy of Iran. Given the current geopolitical reality, it is the height of naïveté to assume either power would view comprehensive negotiations with Hamas in its national or regional self-interest.

Quoting Halevy further, Jacobs writes: “Just as for a generation, we carried out wars with
strength and might, God will bless us now that we will also know how to make peace.” It’s a powerful statement, but it offers no insight into how a nation should know when to stop making war and start making peace. Indeed, the government of Israel has continued to carry out wars against Hamas with “strength and might,” offering no indication it would consider otherwise. And why should it? It oppresses the people of Gaza with impunity – and with the full support of the world’s largest superpower.

Yes, as Jacobs points out, “Israeli communities on the border should not have to live in fear of rocket fire or arson or need to race their children into shelters night after night,” but in reality, Israel has long calculated that this is the price it is willing to pay for maintaining its strategic military edge over the Palestinian people. There is also ample evidence that Israel benefits economically from keeping Gaza on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe and from using Gaza as a laboratory in which it can test its latest military hardware.

In the end, this is where Jacobs’ analysis ultimately fails. Notwithstanding her romantic notion that “Zionism has always meant doing the impossible,” historically speaking sovereign nations have always decided to make peace when it benefits them more than waging war – and Israel has been no different in this regard. However, when it comes to conflicts between oppressor and oppressed, powerful nations don’t tend to give up their power unless they are forced to do so. And so it is in the case of Israel’s oppression of Gazans – and of Palestinians at large.

With apologies to Rabbi Halevy, I’d suggest the ancient wisdom of the Talmud would serve us better when it comes to the tragic reality facing Israel and Gaza: “Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel said, ‘three things preserve the world: truth, justice, and peace.’” (Avot 1:18)

In other words, true peace will not come when Israel deigns to negotiate a treaty, but when it is held to account by movements and nations who push them to recognize that peace without justice is no peace at all.