Hanukkah, Syria and the Perils of Empire

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

Cross-posted with Truthout

It is a tragic irony that the festival of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday that commemorates an ancient uprising against an oppressive Assyrian ruler, is being observed as we hear the unbearably tragic reports coming from an uprising in modern-day Syria. Though the historical contexts of these two events are centuries apart from one another, I can’t help but ask what lessons the Hanukkah story might bring to bear on the sorrows of contemporary Syria.

Aleppo has just fallen to Syrian government forces after a brutal years-long battle with rebel groups. The carnage in Aleppo is only the latest tragedy in a war that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and has created millions of refugees and internally displaced Syrians. The beginning of the war can be traced back to the Arab Spring of 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in southern Syria. Government security forces opened fire, killing several protesters. Soon there were nationwide protests demanding the President Assad’s resignation. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country.

As the violence escalated, the country descended into civil war. Rebel groups were formed to battle Syrian government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. While many committed to the fall of the Assad regime continue to view this war as a revolution against an oppressive ruler, others characterize it as a sectarian civil war between forces that serve as proxies of larger world powers — i.e., Russia and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of certain rebel forces. The crisis is further complicated by the presence of jihadi elements in various rebel groups.

So now to return to my original point: What on earth could this contemporary geopolitical crisis have to do with events that took place in the Assyrian Seleucid empire circa 168 BCE?

Some background: According the Books of the Maccabees, the uprising of the Maccabees began when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion in Judea, precipitating a rebellion led by Judah Maccabee, who belonged to a Jewish priestly family from the village of Modi’in. Many contemporary scholars point out that while the Hanukkah story is traditionally considered to be struggle against religious persecution, it was just as much a civil war between the fundamentalist Maccabees and the assimilated Hellenized Jews, with whom Antiochus eventually threw his support. (The Books of the Maccabees are replete with vivid descriptions of the violence committed by Judah Maccabee and his followers against the Hellenized Jewish community, including forced circumcision.)

The rabbis of the Talmud were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees — secular stories of a violent war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was resurrected by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in a military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book “The Jewish State,” Zionist founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!”  Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

In more recent years, however, there has been a reconsideration of the Hanukkah story by many contemporary rabbis, Jewish educators and academics. Typically referred to as “the real story of Hanukkah” some advocates of this new pedagogy assert that the Maccabees were actually a kind of “Jewish Taliban” — and that if they were around today they would not look too kindly on the practice of liberal American Jews.

The evolution of the Maccabean legacy brings to mind the age-old adage, “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” While some Jewish observers do not hesitate in referring to them as “religious fanatics,” others insist they were simply “legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do.” In the end, there are no easy answers to this debate. At the very least, we might say that the story of Hanukkah invites us to struggle deeply and honestly with the messy nature of uprising and revolution.

Indeed, perhaps these are the central questions we are asked to confront on Hanukkah. To Zionists who glorify the Maccabees as courageous freedom fighters for national liberation we might well ask: Should not we then view the Palestinians as Maccabees as well? And to those who dismiss the Maccabees as religious extremists, we might pose the challenge: Would we deny them their resistance against an imperialist Seleucid empire that outlawed the practice of Judaism on pain of death?

I would submit that these kinds of questions are just as germane to the tragic, years-long crisis in present day Syria. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, has committed well-documented atrocities against its civilians as it strikes back against rebel groups. However, these factions have carried out their share of indiscriminate attacks on civilians as well. There has also been fierce sectarian fighting between rebel groups themselves — most notably between Daesh and Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The US, along with its Gulf state allies, continue to insist that regime change is the only acceptable outcome to these hostilities. However, as has historically been the case with US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, we know that these interventions invariably lead to more, rather than less instability. Others insist we cannot ignore the fact that this rebellion still constitutes an uprising against a brutal totalitarian dictator. Yet this resistance has become profoundly splintered — and as the US and its allies attempt to support it, they are now utterly unable to distinguish between moderate and jihadist rebel groups.

These are the questions that are resonating for me as I retell the Hanukkah story once again this year. And while I don’t pretend to have conclusive answers, I do have some thoughts I believe we would to well to consider as the crisis in Syria continues on its tragic course:

As citizens of the US, our primary responsibility is to hold our government accountable for its decisions and actions. And we must also hold it accountable for its covert and overt military meddling in Syria at least as far back as 1949 (when the CIA engineered a coup replacing the democratically elected president Shukri-al-Quwatli and replaced him with a dictator — a “convicted swindler” named Husni al-Za’im).

We must also acknowledge that the Obama administration is most certainly not insisting on regime change out of the goodness of its heart and its concern for the welfare of the Syrian people. As ever, it has much more to do with the military designs of Western empire. As journalist/reporter Gareth Porter recently pointed out:

The US decision to support Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in their ill-conceived plan to overthrow the Assad regime was primarily a function of the primordial interest of the US permanent war state in its regional alliances. The three Sunni allies control US access to the key US military bases in the region, and the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department and the Obama White House were all concerned, above all, with protecting the existing arrangements for the US military posture in the region.

Indeed, our government’s insistence on regime change has motivated the CIA to work with odious allies to help the transfer of weapons to rebel groups about whom they had little, if any knowledge. It also led later to the Pentagon’s decision to provide formal training and arms transfers to these groups. Our meddling with Syria rebel groups has become so confused that we have actually created a situation in which CIA armed militias and Pentagon armed groups are now fighting against one another.

Those of us who are part of the Jewish community must also hold accountable the state to purports to act in our name — and in this regard, it is clear Israel is shamefully exacerbating the Syrian civil war for its own political interests. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is openly supporting Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime, his government is also aiding Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham:

Examining the al-Nusra-Israeli alliance in the region, it’s clear that the bonds between the two parties have been exceedingly close. Israel maintains a border camp for the families of Syrian fighters. Reporters have documented Israeli Defense Forces commandos entering Syrian territory to rendezvous with Syrian rebels. Others have photographed meetings between Israeli military personnel and al-Nusra commanders at the Quneitra Crossing, the ceasefire line that separates the Syrian-controlled territory and the Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan Heights.

In other words, as Americans and as Jews, our community faces a genuine reckoning over our complicity in the tragedy that is befalling Syria.

One final historical note that is particularly relevant to Hanukkah this year: For centuries and until relatively recently, Aleppo was home to one of the most notable and culturally rich Jewish communities in the world. J. Rolando Matalon, rabbi of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — and a descendent of Allepan Jewry — recently wrote this poignant reminiscence:

I grew up in Buenos Aires amidst a community of Syrian Jews. My grandparents had left Aleppo decades earlier, but Aleppo never left them. Our lives were infused with Aleppo’s sumptuous tastes and smells, with its music, its language, its social norms, and the memory of its streets and glorious synagogues. Aleppo was to us simultaneously remote and intimately close, exotic and familiar.

One particularly celebrated aspect of Allepan Jewish history dates back to the 15th century, when the Jews of Spain were expelled following the Alhambra Decree of 1492. This exodus of Sephardic Jews initiated a migration and settlement throughout the Ottoman empire, including Syria. A significant number of exiled Jews were welcomed into Aleppo, and in gratitude they began a ritual of lighting an extra candle on Hanukkah — a ritual that Jews of Allepan/Syrian heritage observe even to this day.

This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting an extra candle as well — in protest against those who have been exploiting the violence in Syria for their own cynical gain, in gratitude to those who have opened their homes and communities to receive the uprooted, and in memory of the present-day Syrians who have been killed in this cruel and needless war.


Anti-Racism as a Sacred Jewish Value: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5777

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I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:

Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.

“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.”

Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”

I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”

I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.

I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.

What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.

To quote from their introduction:

We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…

Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.

This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”

Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it?  But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)

Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.

Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.

Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.

These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.

There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.

I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)

There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:

With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.

It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:

Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…

We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.

Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.

Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.

So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.

Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.

In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.

Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.

Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:

Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.

So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.

Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.

So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:

1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.

2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.

3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations.” According to some estimates, 10% to 20% of Jews in this country are Jews of color. Estimates of black Jews in the US range from 20,000 to 200,000. And unlike white Jews, Jews of color are impacted by institutional racism. Any new anti-racist paradigm must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.

4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.

After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.

May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.

Amen.


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

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A synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

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

This is how we explain this particular core value:

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »


Jewish Solidarity with Black Lives Matter: We Can’t Have it Both Ways

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The Black Lives Matter movement has just taken a huge and important step. A new coalition called Movement 4 Black Lives recently released “Vision for Black Lives,” a powerful, comprehensive policy statement released by thirty grassroots organizations and endorsed by sixty others.

“Vision for Black Lives” is the product of a collaborative research and writing process that took more than a year by an eight person team – and is intensely relevant to the current political moment.  Team member Marbre Stahly-Butts summed up the purpose of the statement this way: “Democrats and Republicans are offering anemic solutions to the problems that our communities face… We are seeking transformation, not just tweaks.”

In contrast to the hollow posturing that counts for political discourse in the US, the M4BLM platform offers an important alternative vision: a deep analysis of how systems of oppression intersect and the devastating impact they have on people/communities of color. It’s particularly vital because it doesn’t come from a political party, think tank or special interest lobby, but rather directly from the grassroots communities most impacted by racism and oppression. In so doing, it represents a huge step toward the creation of a real movement for social and political change in our country.

As journalist Collier Myerson recently wrote in Fusion:

This is a really, really big deal. By shedding its previous identity as a largely reactionary, structureless movement, Black Lives Matter seeks to definitively lead the national discussion on the safety, health, and freedom of black people. Painting the movement with a broad brush is a seismic shift. And it’s a shift that Occupy Wall Street never put in motion, a failure which many point to as the reason for the movement’s eventual dissolution. The list of demands set forth by M4BL explicitly unifies organizations across the United States—and though the goals are purposefully lofty, it’s a significant move towards harnessing the power of local groups into something bigger.

Vision for Black Lives has been welcomed enthusiastically by many allies in this growing movement (such as those fighting for immigrant justice for instance). And as for the Jewish communal establishment?  For its part, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston angrily “disassociated” itself from the statement, calling it “false” and “malicious”. Why?  Because in the midst of this vast and extensive platform, the M4BLM statement referred to Israel’s “genocide” against the Palestinian people and expressed its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Actually, I wouldn’t expect anything else from an organization such as the Boston JCRC. Earlier this year, in fact, David Bernstein, the President and CEO of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (the parent organization of JCRCs around the country), wrote an op-ed in which he thoroughly denounced “the solidarity between the Black Lives Matter and Palestine movements” and made a strong pitch for finding allies that will help them drive a wedge into Black-Palestinian solidarity. (Notably the Boston JCRC statement referred to its “friends and neighbors in the African-American community” who share their views on Israel and Zionism.)

I was very disappointed however, to read a statement released by Tru’ah – a progressive rabbinical organization that advocates for human rights that has in the past articulated strong support of BLM. Yet in their immediate response to the M4BLM platform, T’ruah spent almost all of its wordage decrying the genocide reference and BLM’s support for BDS.

Though I have many friends and colleagues in T’ruah whose work I respect greatly, I find this statement much more disturbing than the one released by the Boston JCRC. While the latter group openly vilifies the BLM movement, T’ruah purports to stand in solidarity with them. As opposed to more conservative Jewish establishment institutions, I’ve always had the impression that T’ruah truly “got it” when it came to the BLM movement.

On T’ruah’s website, for instance, you will find a powerful “Prayer for Black Lives Matter“. You will also find a post written by Rabbi Susan Talve and Sarah Barasch-Hagans entitled “10 Rules for Engagement for White Jews Joining the Black Lives Matter Movement,” a smart and insightful document that appears to grasp the complex issue of allyship. Among the rules listed are “Practice Deep Listening and Less Talking;” “Do Your Own Communities’ Work” and “Hold Yourself Accountable”.

In the rule, “Go outside of your comfort zone while staying in your lane,” the authors write:

Pay attention. Don’t hide when it gets messy. We all have a role to play and we will all make mistakes. Accept guidance. Remember this is a movement to awaken compassion. No name calling. “Call people in” rather than calling them out. Give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. We are all sad and scared (or should be). Faith communities can be bridge builders, healers, and witnesses in this movement to make Black and Brown lives matter.

Sadly, T’ruah itself has broken its own rule by releasing this statement. If they truly purport to stand in solidarity with BLM, they cannot publicly “call them out” because their new platform lands outside their comfort zone. If they were to be true to their own articulated values, T’ruah should have reached out to them, engaged with them and tried to understand where they were coming from, thus opening a real dialogue. T’ruah does not give the BLM “the benefit of the doubt” when it issues an immediate counter-statement such as this; tantamount to a group in a position of power saying to an oppressed group, “we will stand in solidarity with you but only on our terms.”

The claim that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinians undeniably pushes all kinds of buttons for many Jews. But there are also Jews and Israelis who feel it is not an inappropriate word to use, particularly in regard to Israel’s regular military assaults against Gaza. Likewise, while the BDS call is extraordinarily controversial for many Jews, there are also Jews who respect it as a legitimate call for nonviolent resistance from over 150 Palestinian civil society organizations. And it is simply not true to claim, as T’ruah does, that “the BDS movement (rejects) Israel’s right to exist.” On the contrary, the goal of the BDS call is equal rights for Palestinians as well as Jews.

But even if T’ruah feels it is wrong for BLM to refer to Israel in this manner, it can’t claim to stand in solidarity with them while publicly calling them out over the parts that make them uncomfortable. Rather, they should hold themselves to their own standard by “calling BLM in,” engaging with them and be “bridge builders” – especially in the places where there is pain or disagreement.

At the end of the day however, I don’t think this is T’ruah’s issue alone – it’s a challenge for the entire progressive Jewish community at large. If we claim to ascribe to a power analysis that views systems of oppression as intersectional and interrelated, we simply constantly cannot make an exception when it comes to Israel. The black community is increasingly finding common cause with Palestinians – and for good reason. Both are oppressed by the same systems, the same weapons, and the same security companies. It is not by coincidence that American police departments around the country are increasingly trained by the Israeli military.

If we truly seek to be to relevant this undeniably growing movement, we need to make these connections as well. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.


The People of Susiya Return

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photo: Shlomo Roth

This morning the Palestinians of Susiya returned to their original home, if only for a brief moment.

Khirbet Susiya is a village in the South Hebron Hills where until recently, Palestinians lived for at least a century. The people of Susiya originally lived in caves and maintained a simple agrarian life, cultivating fields and shepherding their flocks. Everything changed when Israel began to archaeologically excavate their land in the 1970s, eventually uncovering an ancient synagogue underneath a mosque on the land. In 1983 a new Jewish settlement, also called Susiya was established nearby. In 1986, Israel expelled Palestinian villagers and expropriated their land. They moved to an area close to the settlement of Susiya and the original site of the village; in 1991 they were expelled from this site as well. They eventually went to live elsewhere on their cultivated farmland, where they still live today.

The people of Susiya have been engaged in a constant fight to remain on their land where, like the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir, they under the constant threat of demolition and expulsion. Their struggle has gained the attention of solidarity activists in Israel and around the world – and their cause has now even reached the EU and the US State Department.

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The Juedeo-centric sign at the entrance to the archaeological park.

This morning, our delegation went to Susiya to help them briefly return to the site of their original homes. It is now located in an archaeological park; as is the case in so many other sites around the country Israel uses archaeology to lay claim to the land – and highlight its Jewish history in a manner that erases the memory of any people who might have lived there before.

Today’s action was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence along with the Israeli anti-occupation collective, All That’s Left.  The plan was fairly simple. We met the villagers in Susiya and walked down the road to the entrance of the archaeological park. We then bought tickets for Jews and Palestinians alike and just entered the site.

At least three generations were represented, including adults and elders who remembered their life before the expulsion as well as children who were seeing their families’ original home for the very first time. The children ran ahead immediately, peering down into wells, running up and down the stairs of the ruins. It’s hard to describe the emotions we felt as we watched parents and grandparents showing their children their place where they played as when they were young.

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We gathered at the site of the synagogue and heard from village leaders who told us stories about their life in their village before the expulsion. In the picture above you can see Nasser Nawaja (in the blue shirt) and his father and mother speaking to our group, with CJNV leader Isaac Kates Rose interpreting their words for us. We also heard from Fatma Nawaja, who related to us in depth her memories of when Israeli archaeologists first came to their village. At first their relations were quite friendly she said, and they would often offer the workers food and drink. They had no idea, said Fatma, that this project would one day cause them to be expelled them from their homes.

She also told us about the village midwife Haji Sara, who delivered many of the young people who were present at our gathering. Haji Sara was no longer alive, but Fatma made a point of telling us how much this moment would have meant to her. Later, when we toured the site, we were shown the cave that was Haji Sara’s home (below). It is now used to house a multi-media presentation on the archeological site.

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While we were fully prepared for the IDF to interrupt our visit (and had a nonviolent contingency plan in place), thankfully this did not occur. It was truly a blessing to be able to experience this visit without the traumatic presence of soldiers to remind the villagers of the brutal reality of their life under occupation. As it turned out, as we walked back to Susiya, we saw a green bus filled with soldiers roaring toward the archaeological park. About ten minutes later it passed us, heading back in the opposite direction. (Mission accomplished).

It seemed to me that there was something very Jewish about this witness of the exiled returning to their homes. Of course I was also aware that it was our own Jewish privilege in an ethnocentric nation-state that allowed this to brief return to happen at all. We can only hope that this moment offered us all a glimpse of a future when all Palestinians will be able to return to their homes

Tomorrow we’re going back to Hebron, then back to Susiya for Shabbat. I will be reporting on something very special in my next post.

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Umm al-Kheir: Rebuilding Beauty out of Destruction

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Today we spent a second morning/afternoon in Umm al-Kheir. While one half of our group continued to clear the field for zatar planting, the rest of us went to the other side of the village to rebuild one of the thirty five homes that was destroyed this past April.

Our group was led by a village leader named Eid Suleiman Hathaleen, who did his best to explain the complex, Kafka-esque bureaucracy behind the IDF’s practice of home demolitions and land confiscation. The IDF’s Civil Authority relies on an arcane mix of land laws from the Ottoman, British and/or Jordanian administrations – the three legal systems that once governed what is called today the West Bank. One such law states that those who claim rights in rocky land must prove that they cultivated at least 50 percent of the entire parcel – otherwise, the entire parcel will be deemed state land and Palestinians will be left with no rights whatsoever. For this reason, we are helping the villagers expand their tillable land.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir purchased their land from the Palestinian town of Yatta over 6o years ago after their expulsion from the Arad region of the Negev desert. In the picture below Eid and his father Suleiman Hathaleen the patriarch of village, shows us the original document that gives his family their rights to the land.

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Despite their clear legal right, Eid and his fellow villagers are constantly on the verge of eviction and the regular reality of home and structure demolitions. The Civil Authority can demolish homes and structures for any number of reasons: it can claim the area to be a military “firing zone,” it will deem a house over 35 meters to be unlawfully high, or it might respond with demolition orders for any structure based on complaints from settlers.

The neighboring settlement of Carmel has lodged several such complaints against the people of Umm al-Kheir; once, for instance they sued the village over the smell of manure, which resulted the demolitions of their chicken coops and sheep/goat pens. Perhaps the most bizarre complaint occurred over the aroma of baking bread from the village’s communal taboun (oven). Yes, they were actually forced to go to court to keep the Israeli army from demolishing their stove.

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The infamous taboun of Umm al-Kheir

As we prepared to our work rebuilding the home, Eid explained that it was being constructed in different location than the original since demolition orders still apply to any homes or structures built on the same sites. By rebuilding in another spot, the entire bureaucratic process would have to be started from the beginning, and could take up to a year or more to be completed.

There are several new temporary structures donated by the European Union in different locations throughout the village. They are simple metal boxes, essentially four walls without floors. Our job was to take the rubble from the demolished homes and haul them to the new sites to create a floor for one of the new structures. In the picture below, a few of us are shoveling rubble into wheelbarrows to bring over the new home. The picture beneath it shows the final product of our work – not a complete floor yet, but hopefully a good start:

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On our way back to the fields, Eid took us on a short detour to show us his art studio. Among other things, Eid is a talented self-taught artist who makes miniature trucks, bulldozers and helicopters from scraps he finds from his village, most of them from demolished structures (see pic below). As he explained it to us, these models (which are so intricate that the steering wheels of the vehicles actually move their tires) constitute a form of artistic resistance – i.e. making something constructive out of acts of destruction. There is of course a profound irony that Eid creates for instance, the very Caterpillar bulldozers that regularly come to destroy his village. Of course this is an intrinsic part of his artistic intention. (You can see more of Eid’s work, contact him or order items from his website here).

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Our group then returned to newly cleared field to plant hundreds of zatar plants (pic at the top of this post). While summer is not the traditional time for planting, it was important for the people of Umm al-Kheir to get the plants into the ground as soon as possible for the above mentioned legal reasons. After the planting, the villagers quickly installed irrigation pipes to keep the ground well watered.

I’m sure that some reading these words might be asking why they are working so hard to rebuild homes or sow plants that were all too likely to be demolished or uprooted by the IDF?  The answer of course, is that this work is a very disciplined and steadfast form of resistance. The goal of Israel’s draconian military/legal bureaucracy is ultimately to make things so intolerable for the people of Umm al-Kheir – and so many other Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank – that they will eventually be driven from their homes. However, it is all too clear to us that their connection to their land, their homes and their communities is unshakeable. As Sulieman Hathaleen, the patriarch of Umm al-Kheir recently said to a reporter,

We went through so many catastrophes: 1948, 1967 and now the settlements, which have taken most of our land. They left us with nothing. And now they want to expel us. But we will not leave.

I believe him.

After lunch, we traveled to Hebron to tour Area H2 with a guide from the Israeli organization, Breaking the Silence. I’ve written about Hebron and BTS several times before (here and here, for instance.) For now I will only say that the situation in Hebron is even more appalling than ever – if such a thing is even possible. After the tour however, we met with Palestinian non-violent activist Issa Amro (below), the inspiring founder of direct action group Youth Against the Settlements. YAS is truly one of the bright lights in the dark reality that is Hebron and is becoming most well known for its Open Shehudeh Street campaign.

I will have more to say about Hebron, Issa and Youth Against the Settlements in future posts.  Stay tuned.

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On Passover, Israel and Demographic Threats

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Crossposted with Truthout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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