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Gaza

Posted by rabbibrian on November 18, 2012

I am just horrified by the latest Israeli assault on Gaza.   This attack by one of the most powerful armies in the world against a people living in the most densely populated area in the world is a moral outrage.  It is just sickening to hear our President offering his full support for the right of Israel to “defend itself” by dropping bombs on a civilian population that is living under Israeli siege.  Will this assault provide security for the residents of Israel?    Statements by rabbis, Jewish leaders and Jewish organizations expressing their unconditional support for this assault are also frightening. Have these leaders and organizations seen the photos of the eleventh month old Palestinian child killed in this attack?  How will the death of this infant and over 30 Palestinian civilians, so far, ensure the safety of Israelis?  Rabbi Yoffie, the former leader of Reform Jews, calls on progressive Jews to support the war but most progressive Jews understand that this war is totally immoral and we will do everything we can to end it.

The inhabitants of Gaza are mostly refugees and descendants of refugees from the Nakba of 1947-49.  They will continue to launch rockets against Israel as long as they live under siege and as long as the human rights of the Palestinian people are denied.   The only real way to end this cycle of violence is through a political negotiation that ensures the human rights of all, Israeli Jews and Palestinians.   Israel has avoided such a resolution to the conflict from before the creation of the State.

The Zionist movement made a decision  before the creation of the State of Israel   to impose its will on the Palestinian people, to expel as many of them as possible, to wipe out their villages, to steal their land, and to establish an exclusively Jewish state on the ruins of their villages.  It also decided not to allow any of the 750,000 refugees to return and has refused even to acknowledge the reality of their expulsion. Since 1967 Israel has continued the policy of the Nakba on the West Bank.   The goal of the systematic discrimination and oppression of Palestinians on the West Bank is to encourage them to leave.  The explicit transfer of the Palestinian population on the land that became the State of Israel in 1948 continues with the policy of silent transfer of Palestinians on the West Bank from 1967 till today.

Two years ago, on one of the Fast for Gaza conference calls,  a guest from the Israeli organization, Gisha, suggested that the reality in Gaza is what Israel is planning for the West Bank: isolating the maximum number of Palestinians in the minimum amount of space, totally controlled by Israel but with minimum Israeli responsibility.  Maximum control, minimal responsibility.  Israel claims it withdrew from Gaza and it assumes no responsibility for its inhabitants,  ignoring the siege that they have imposed on Gaza transforming it into an open air prison.

This latest military assault can only be understood in the the context of Israeli policy from 1947.

It is time for us to call on our President to end his support for this immoral military assault that is only made possible by American military support.  It is time for us to go to the streets to demand an end to US support for the war.

Please read my colleague, Rabbi Brant Rosen’s powerful post.  Four years ago we co-founded Taanit Tzedek-Jewish Fast for Gaza in response to Operation Cast Lead.  Now we are witness to another ferocious Israeli assault.  Until Israel acknowledges the Nakba and addresses the underlying legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people,  the the cycle of violence will continue with tragic loss of life for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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We are Building Up a New World: Civil Rights Delegation on the West Bank

Posted by rabbibrian on November 5, 2012

Dorothy Cotton with Israeli and Palestinian Activists
Photo: Rev. Osagyefo Sekou

We are Building Up a New World

 We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world,

We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.

Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,

Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.

This is one of the many songs I sang as I led a remarkable delegation of US Civil Rights movement leaders, young human rights leaders, prominent Black academics and educators and several Jewish activists that traveled through the West Bank two weeks ago.

Our delegation was a project of the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an organization dedicated to human rights education and to building a global human rights community. Dorothy Cotton served as the Director of Education of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and was the only woman on the executive staff.  She led the Citizenship Education Program that empowered the disenfranchised to exercise their rights as citizens.

The goals of this historic delegation were:

- to create and build an ongoing relationship between leaders of the US civil rights movement and the leaders of the growing Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement on the West Bank and their Israeli allies;

- to increase the visibility of this movement in the US and internationally;

- to learn from one another about nonviolence, effective solidarity and social transformation;

- and to educate Americans about the role the United States plays in supporting the status quo on the West Bank.

Our delegation spent two weeks on the West Bank.  We visited three Palestinian villages – Budrus, Bilin, Nabi Saleh – that have engaged for many years in a popular nonviolent struggle to reclaim land expropriated by the Israeli military.  We met several young Palestinians who are building the Coalition for Dignity, a grassroots, youth- led nonviolent movement.

And we met Israeli allies who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolent movement and who work in their own society to end militarism and human rights violations against Palestinians.  We learned from many Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent activists about their work, their vision and their dreams.

In short, our delegation saw and learned about realities that the overwhelming number of visitors to Israel never see or hear.

Singing was an essential part of the spiritual and political life of our trip.  Dorothy has a beautiful spirit, a powerful voice, and loves to sing.  Throughout the delegation, she always reminded us that singing was a critical tool for energizing the civil rights movement.  She told me,

“We had songs for different occasions. We sang at mass meetings, and we sang at funerals … We sang, ‘I am going to do what the Spirit says do’ and our singing inspired us to do just that.”

And so our new civil rights delegation sang as we traveled through the West Bank.  Singing was just one powerful way in which our delegation made a connection between the Black-led struggle for civil rights in the US and the Palestinian struggle for justice, peace and security for all.

This, for instance, is the song we sang at the grave of a young man in Budrus who was killed in a nonviolent demonstration to protest the confiscation of his village’s land:

Come By here my Lord, come by here.

For our brother, my Lord, come by here.

For his courage my Lord, come by here.

 Standing around the grave, delegates spontaneously composed the lyrics. It felt like we were praying, acknowledging the courage and the profound cost that the struggle for freedom demands.

We sang before we joined the weekly nonviolent demonstration in Nabi Saleh, another village on the West Bank fighting to reclaim their land.   The residents of the village had made special signs composed of quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King in honor of our visit.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” read one of the signs.

And we sang:

Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.

Keep on walking, keep on talking, marching down to freedom land.

We sang to express our appreciation and to provide support after hearing activists tell us their stories – Palestinians and Israelis who told us of their amazing work and the toll it has taken on their lives, and sometimes even their spirits and souls.  One such occasion was after Israeli activist Gabi Laski told us of her work to defend children from villages like Nabi Saleh who are arrested at night.

 We’re going to keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, keep on marching forward, never turning back, never turning back.

We sang after standing next to the thirty foot high Separation Wall in Jerusalem dividing a Palestinian neighborhood in two.  And we sang on the bus as we went through a checkpoint on our way to the airport at the end of our trip, encouraged by our Palestinian guide to keep singing even when the soldier boarded our bus.  (Our bus was pulled aside for a security check because it was a Palestinian bus while Israeli buses and motorists were waved through the checkpoint).

We returned to the United States both inspired and disturbed by our experience.  We were inspired by the determination, vision and commitment of so many Palestinians and their Israeli allies, working tirelessly day after day, year after year, often at great personal and communal cost, for justice, freedom and equality for all.  Now that we are home, we look forward to sharing the stories and vision of these courageous civil rights activists with our friends and communities.

But our trip was not simply inspiring.  It was profoundly disturbing to witness the harsh realities of life on the West Bank that are so invisible to the discourse in America.  Every day we saw and heard about a systematic denial of human rights in countless ways: land confiscation, extensive restrictions on movement, humiliation at check points, home demolition, the arrest of children, the revocation of residency permits and many other violations.

The delegates were profoundly shocked. Several American civil rights veterans  commented that the discrimination, humiliation and injustice they witnessed was “frighteningly familiar.”

While we were on the West Bank the two presidential candidates tried to outdo one another in their public declarations of support for Israel in the final presidential debate.  They mentioned Israel 31 times with only one passing reference to Palestinians.  The contrast between American policy and what we witnessed is stark.  Now that we have returned, we are determined to share this disturbing reality with our communities; to challenge the ways in which our country funds, provides diplomatic cover, and enables these injustices.

I have visited the West Bank before but never for more than a day or two, and almost always with progressive Israeli groups.  On this visit, however, we spent virtually all out time in the West Bank – on the other side of the Separation Wall.  For me personally, it was a transformative experience.  It was a privilege to travel with such a special group of people and to see the profound impact of our delegation on the activists that we met.

Before we left on our journey, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Vincent Harding, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, a person with a long history of involvement in the struggle for freedom and a very close life-long connection to Jewish teachers, fellow travelers and co-workers.  Dr. Harding talked about “encouragement” as one of his primary goals for the trip.  I was struck by the word and the simple power of his intention.  He wanted to meet activists on the West Bank and to “encourage” them.

And that is exactly what happened. The people we met commented how encouraged they felt by meeting people who had spent their entire lives fighting for freedom in the US.  Dr. Harding and others would repeatedly ask all our presenters to tell us about themselves, their families and what motivated them to do what they were doing.

He and others always shared how much he appreciated their work and how important it was for all of us and for our collective future.  After hearing an inspiring talk by Fadi Quran, one of the young leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement, Dr. Harding said, “Fadi, I want to tell you how proud I am and how grateful I am for you, and want to encourage you to keep on going.”

It felt like we were building a new world.  On the very first day of our trip, Dorothy Cotton sang and danced with three women activists, Israeli and Palestinian, who had spoken to us. It was a joy to see the profound gift she was giving them and that they were giving her in return. Those who had spent their lives building a new world in America were creating a relationship with those who were building a new world in Israel/Palestine.

Towards the end of the trip we realized that we were just beginning to build a new world in another way by creating a new possibility for the relationship between Jews and Blacks in our own country.   Historically, Israeli policy has been a source of tension between the African American and Jewish communities.  While many African Americans on the delegation have deep and positive connections to Jews, it is often difficult for Blacks and Jews to have honest conversations about Israel.

There were eight Jews on this delegation.  On this trip we joined together as a group of Blacks, Jews, Christians and people with varied faith commitments, united in our commitment to nonviolence and our dedication to justice, freedom and equality in Israel/Palestine, in our own country, and around the world.  We are renewing an alliance between Blacks and Jews, an alliance rooted in our shared values.

We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world,

We are building up a new world, builders must be strong.

 Courage brothers don’t be weary, courage sisters don’t be weary,

Courage people don’t be weary, though the road be long.

 

 

For more articles about the trip, check the DCI blog and the postings by Alice Rothchild, one of the delegates here.

 

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Op-ed in Haaretz: Christian leaders cannot be cowed into silence over Israel’s abuses of human rights

Posted by rabbibrian on October 31, 2012

Haaretz has just published an op-ed that I wrote about the courageous decision by several Christian churches calling on the US to condition aid to Israel on compliance with American law.  You will find a copy of the article below.  Feel free to share with others and I would value hearing your response.  

I hope to write more about the extraordinary trip to the West Bank with civil and human rights leaders that I refer to in the article.  We returned a week ago from a two week trip to the West Bank.  It was an extraordinary trip with an inspiring group of moral heroes, people who have spent years working nonviolently for justice and freedom.  It was such a privilege to be travelling with people like Vincent Harding and Dorothy Cotton.   It was also the first time in my life that I have spent more than a day or two on the West Bank.  Living with people under military occupation was disturbing and eye opening.  We met so many inspiring Palestinian nonviolent activists who have been working for years to achieve justice and dignity.  Witnessing the encounter between them and the African Americans on our delegation who have been long time freedom activists was truly a blessing. 

Here is the link.    (You may need a subscription to open this link.)
 
 
Here is a copy of the article: 
 

Christian leaders cannot be cowed into silence over Israel’s abuses of human rights

Eric Yoffie’s criticism of the Protestant churches’ letter to Congress is misplaced: The price of ‘interfaith dialogue’ cannot be silenced by Christian leaders on Israel’s human rights violations, evidence of which I saw firsthand in a recent visit to the West Bank.

By Rabbi Brian Walt | Oct.31, 2012 | 5:54 PM |  7

In his recent Haaretz op-ed, “Heading toward an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants,” my colleague, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, sharply criticized the recent letter to Congress by leaders of Protestant churches that called for U.S. military aid to Israel to be contingent on Israeli compliance with American law. Nowhere in his article, however, did Yoffie mention the central concern of the Christian leaders’ letter: the overwhelming evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Israeli military against Palestinians.

Over the past two weeks, I had the privilege of leading an interfaith delegation including several leaders of the civil rights movement, younger civil and human rights leaders, Christian clergy, academics, and several Jews, on a two-week trip to the West Bank.

We were all shocked by the widespread human rights violations that we saw with our own eyes and that we heard about from both Palestinians and Israelis. Several black members of our group, including those who participated actively in the civil rights movement, remarked that what they saw on the West Bank was “frighteningly familiar” to their own experience, a systemic pattern of discrimination that privileged one group (in this case, Jews) and denigrated another (Palestinians).

Together we walked down Shuhadah Street in Hebron, a street restricted to Jews and foreigners where Hebron’s Palestinians are mostly not allowed to walk, even those Palestinians who own houses or stores on the street. This street was once the center of a bustling Palestinian city. Now the area is a ghost town with all the Palestinian stores shut down by the Israeli military.

We visited several villages on the West Bank whose land has been expropriated by the Israeli government and where their nonviolent protests against this injustice are met with rubber bullets and tear gas (we saw with our own eyes many empty canisters of tear gas made in the U.S.). We witnessed a demonstration in Nabi Saleh, watching soldiers in armored cars launch tear gas and shoot rubber bullets against children who were throwing stones. In this village, soldiers routinely enter homes in the middle of the night to arrest children, who are handcuffed and blindfolded, and taken to interrogation without the right to the presence of a parent or of consultation with a lawyer. The shocking abuse of children that we heard about from several sources, including Israeli lawyers, was particularly disturbing.

Our delegation also saw the rubble of Palestinian houses demolished by the Israeli authorities and waited in long lines at check points as Jewish motorists were waved through or passed unimpeded through special settler checkpoints.

We met with a young Palestinian man who played the part of Martin Luther King Jr. in a play about Dr. King’s life written by one of the people on our trip. This young man (like over 140,000 other West Bank Palestinians) has lost his residency rights as he went to Europe to study acting. Despite the fact that his family has lived in Jerusalem for generations, he is now unable to live in the city in which he was born. Yet I, or any other Jew, could become a citizen of Israel overnight and live in Jerusalem while enjoying many privileges available only to Jews.

Every day we were on the West Bank, we saw this pattern of discrimination: a systemic privileging of one ethnic group over another. Every day we heard about egregious human rights violations: Administrative detainees held in prison for years without any right to due process (a Palestinian due to talk to our group about prisoners was arrested two days before the presentation and is still in prison), massive land confiscation, separate roads and grave restrictions on movement.

As the Christian leaders’ letter indicated, all the violations we witnessed are made possible by unconditional American aid, in violation of American law. Rabbi Yoffie predicted that this statement may cause “an irreparable rift between U.S. Jews and Protestants.” It may be more accurate to say it may cause a rift between the American Jewish establishment and the Christian leaders who have until now been cowed with the warning that the price for “interfaith dialogue” is silence on Israel’s human rights violations.

But after these past several weeks, as I read the courageous Christian leaders’ letter and stood side-by-side with my interfaith colleagues on this remarkable delegation, I sense a new form of interfaith cooperation – one based in our mutual sacred imperative to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Rabbi Brian Walt is the Palestinian/Israeli Nonviolence Project Fellow of the Dorothy Cotton Institute. He was the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America from 2003-2008.

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Israeli court rejects claim of Israeli responsibility in death of Rachel Corrie

Posted by rabbibrian on August 28, 2012

Today the Israeli court dismissed any responsibility by the State of Israel for the death of Rachel Corrie. More than two years ago I spent a day in the courtroom at the Corrie trial. Today’s verdict is not surprising. It was clear two years ago that the court had no interest in a fair examination of the evidence.

I wrote then: “I left the courtroom after the most effective lesson I could imagine on military investigations. All the problems one would imagine could be part of a military investigation of an incident in which it is involved were so obvious in that courtroom. When the military investigates itself – in any country – it has a vested interest in the outcome and the investigation will always be suspect. In this case it had overwhelming interest in making sure the outcome didn’t point to any responsibility on the part of the I.D.F.”

This military investigation,  like all the military investigations of the egregious violations during Operation Cast Lead, and all israeli military investigations of violations on the West Bank, should not be taken seriously. They are part of the apparatus of the Israeli state, justifying its actions. Cindy Corrie described today’s verdict well. “This was a bad day not only for our family but a bad day for human rights, for humanity, for the rule of law and also for the country of Israel.”

You can read my blog post from two years ago here.

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Israeli Court rejects any responsibility by Israel in death of Rachel Corrie

Posted by rabbibrian on August 28, 2012

rabbibrian:

Today the Israeli court dismissed any responsibility by the State of Israel for the death of Rachel Corrie.
More than two years ago I spent a day in the courtroom at the Corrie trial. Today’s verdict is not surprising. It was clear two years ago that the court had no interest in a fair examination of the evidence. I wrote then:
“I left the courtroom after the most effective lesson I could imagine on military investigations. All the problems one would imagine could be part of a military investigation of an incident in which it is involved were so obvious in that courtroom. When the military investigates itself – in any country – it has a vested interest in the outcome and the investigation will always be suspect. In this case it had overwhelming interest in making sure the outcome didn’t point to any responsibility on the part of the I.D.F.”

This military investigation like all the military investigations of the egregious violations during Operation Cast Lead and all israeli military investigations of violations on the West Bank should not be taken seriously. They are part of the apparatus of the Israeli state, justifying its actions.

Cindy Corrie described today’s verdict well.

“This was a bad day not only for our family but a bad day for human rights, for humanity, for the rule of law and also for the country of Israel.”

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/161824/israel-court-dismisses-rachel-corrie-suit/#ixzz24qL2UDY6

Originally posted on Rabbibrian's Blog:

Outside the Courtroom in Haifa with Craig and Cindy Corrie

On Tuesday this week, exactly seven years ago, Rachel Corrie, an ideallistic young woman and human rights activist from Olympia, Washington, was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to protect the home of Dr. Nasrallah, a pharmacist, and his family in Rafah, Gaza, from demolition.  Yesterday, I spent the morning in a small courtroom in the District Court in Haifa, sitting next to the Corrie family, Cindy and Craig, Rachel’s parents, and her sister, Susan, in the hearing of their civil suit against the State of Israel.   First, we listened to the cross-examination by the State’s lawyers of one of Rachel’s fellow activists, who was with her on that day. Following this, Husein Abu Husein, the Corrie’s lawyer,  cross-examined Elad (a pseudonym to protect his identity), an Israeli man, one of the three people who conducted the Israeli military investigation into Rachel’s death.   What emerged from…

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Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism: A Personal Spiritual Ethical Journey

Posted by rabbibrian on May 16, 2012

A month ago, I was invited by American Jews for a Just Peace to give a talk in Boston in memory of Hilda Silverman z’l, a friend, congregant and passionate advocate for justice for Palestinians.  In honor of Hilda, I wrote a talk that described my journey from liberal Zionist to a belief in a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism.  The talk is long but it describes the journey as well as paying tribute to one very courageous and visionary friend.  I welcome comments and responses.  

“Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism:

A Personal Spiritual/Ethical Journey”

Talk in memory of Hilda Silverman z’l

Boston April 17,2012

Hilda Silverman was a personal friend and congregant of Rabbi Walt’s congregation (Mishkan Shalom) when she lived in Philadelphia.   In honor of her, Rabbi Walt will reflect on his own journey as a long-time progressive Zionist to a belief in a Judaism and American Jewish identity that rejects Zionism and support for the State of Israel as its core belief.  He will discuss how non-Orthodox Jewish movements – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist  - adopted Zionism as the foundation of American liberal Jewish identity, corrupting the prophetic and ethical values of Judaism.  How do we reclaim a vibrant, progressive, non-Zionist Jewish identity that is connected to the Jewish community in Israel but not to unconditional support for Zionism and the State of Israel?  

Part 1: Hilda z’l

Thank you so much for inviting me to give this lecture in memory of Hilda Silverman z’l, a dear friend, congregant, teacher and comrade.  Hilda, as many of you know, was a very passionate, articulate and relentless advocate for justice, particularly for Palestinians.  Passion for justice was core of her Jewish identity.  The Torah commands: Justice, Justice, shall you pursue! Hilda’s tireless pursuit of justice is reflected in the Torah’s repetition: Justice, (Yes!) Justice shall you pursue!

For Hilda, as for most liberal Jews, this commitment to justice was based not only on Jewish text but also in Jewish history, in the experience of Jews as victims of injustice.  We must never do to others what was done to us.  In the words of the Torah: “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” For Hilda, solidarity with the oppressed, with those who are treated unjustly, was what it meant to be a Jew.

Hilda saw the discrimination and oppression of Palestinians was the most urgent and pressing moral Jewish issue.  Every day she challenged the high wall, a “Separation Barrier”, a “Mechitza” that many progressive and liberal American Jews involved in many different justice issues build around the issue of Palestinian human rights.  American Jews have a proud legacy of challenging discrimination in America in housing, education, voting rights and every form of human and civil rights, yet are often silent about the systematic denial of precisely these same rights to Palestinians by Israel.  (I wonder how many synagogue and family seders were held 10 days ago where rights for women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, the poor and many others were mentioned but not a word about the violation of Palestinian human rights.)

For Hilda the issue of Palestine was the issue on which the integrity of the Jewish ethical tradition and the Jewish legacy rested.  And, it wasn’t just the silence that was so disturbing, but the silence is acccompanied by the massive and effective support of the American Jewish community for Israel and the profound influence of the American Jewish community in ensuring massive American military, political and diplomatic support for Israel that enables the oppression of the Palestinian people.  As Hilda met Palestinians and encountered Palestinian suffering, the role of her community, so committed on issues of justice in America, while at the same time enablers of the oppression of Palestinians, pained her so deeply and inspired her to act fearlessly.  She angered many with her relentless insistence that this issue must be confronted and for this we are all so indebted to her.

Hilda and I met in Philadelphia in the 1980′s, I think in the Philadelphia chapter of New Jewish Agenda.  Then I was a rabbinical student and Middle East Peace activist training to become a social justice rabbi anchored in the prophetic tradition of Judaism.

Hilda read everything she could put her hands on about the Palestinians. She would send me long handwriten notes suggesting I read photocopied articles that she enclosed on the history of the conflict and on the disturbing realities of the Occupation.  She invited Palestinian speakers and arranged educational events.  She opened my eyes to realities that I wanted to deny. She was always ahead of me, understanding realities that it took me years to acknowledge.   She understood how important and painful it was for us to step beyond the comfort of denial.

In my first congregation, she helped me put together a unique adult education series on Israel: Hearing Both Sides that included speakers such as Rashid Khalidi, Afif Sefieh, Meron Bevenisti and several prominent Israelis.  At the time there was an Israeli ban on speaking to anyone associated with the P.L.O and yet Afif Sefieh who devoted his life to representing the P.L.O. was welcomed into our little synagogue.

In 1987, my  Yom Kippur sermon,  A Generation of Occupation, discussing the corrosive moral effects of twenty years of Occupation on Jews and Judaism. cost me my first position as a congregational rabbi.  When we founded Mishkan Shalom, an explicitly activist congregation with a commitment to support to justice and peace in Israel/Palestine, Hilda joined the congregation.   I think it was the first time she became a  member of a congregation.  I will always remember the first Hannukah service in our congregation that Hilda planned honoring Human Rights Day and the first anniversary of the intifadeh.

Hilda moved to Boston but we kept in touch and later when I helped found Rabbis for Human Rights North America we reconnected.  Hilda always was a devoted and passionate supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights, particularly the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman with whom she had a close relationship.  She always helped bring him to different communities.

Hilda was my teacher and friend and a very important part of my own spiritual/ethical journey that I want to share tonight.   As I said, she was always ahead of me.    My talk, “Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity without Zionism: A Personal Spiritual/Ethical Journey” is a way of honoring and thanking her.  It is also a way of sharing publicly in a comprehensive way an important transformation that I have undergone in my understanding of the conflict and of my activism in the past two to three years.

My talk will be divided into three parts:

1. Zionism

2. Judaism

3. Privilege, Power and Solidarity

1. Zionism

I grew up in a fiercely and passionately Zionist family and community in South Africa and have been a progressive, liberal Zionist for most of my life.  The schools I attended as a child were Weizmann and Herzlia, named after the two Zionist leaders.  I was part of Habonim, a Zionist youth movement, and spent three months in Israel in 1967 following the 67 War.  I love Hebrew language and culture.  In 1969 one of the highlights of my life was meeting David Ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel, and representing South Africa in the International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem on Israel Independence Day.    I made aliya after high school, and studied in the regular program with Israelis at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  While I returned to South Africa in 1972, liberal Zionism and a deep connection to Israel remained  a core part my Judaism and Jewish identity. (My great grandfather, Avraham Zeev, after whom I am named, is buried on Mount of Olives.  According to family legend he made aliya to Israel in 1926, a few days after his daughter asked if she could go to a store with a non Jewish friend on Shabbat!)

Liberal Zionism

Liberal Zionism meant that I believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would provide a desparately needed safe haven for Jews around the world,  a state that would be a cultural center for the Jewish People, and a state that would reflect the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.  After centuries of victimization, the creation of a Jewish state would afford Jews an opportunity to test our values: not do unto others as was done to us.   The Jewish State would treat all with dignity, equality and respect.  In the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the state will be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

This was the Zionist vision that I learned as a child, that was the ethos of Habonim, my Zionist youth movement, that inspired me to make aliya, and that inspired my involvement over the past three decades in Breira, New Jewish Agenda, Tikkun , Rabbis for Human Rights, Americans for Peace Now, the Shalom Center, and many related organizations.  Athough these organizations are to the left of the mainstream American Jewish community they all share a progressive/liberal Zionist vision, deeply attached to the Jewish state, while viewing the oppression of Palestinians, the Occupation and the settlement policy as deviations from the true intent of Zionism and a violation of the core values of Judaism.

Public Letter to Netanyahu

One of the very first public acts of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America was a public letter in 2004 to Prime Minister Netanyahu from over 400 rabbis protesting the arrest of Rabbi Arik Ascherman for blocking a bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home.  The letter articulated our Zionism.

We wrote: “We are concerned about the decision to prosecute our colleague who has devoted his life to Israel and to the Zionist vision of building and sustaining a Jewish State that exemplifies the values of compassion and justice.  Rabbi Ascherman has dedicated his career to protecting the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and his Zionist and Jewish commitments inspire thousands of Jews in Israel and abroad.  ……..  For us and for many Jews in our communities the work of Rabbi for Human Rights represents the Jewish moral conscience. We express our love and commitment for Israel by supporting that work. To silence it is to push us away from the Israel we love.”

For many years I expressed my love and commitment to Israel by supporting the work of Rabbis for Human Rights and other Israeli Human Rights and peace organizations as they embodied the Israel that I believed in and loved.

Over time, engagement with these organizations also led to a transformation in my own relationship to Zionism and my understanding of the relationship between Zionism and Judaism.   This transformation came to a head in 2008.

Home Demolition:

As part of my involvement with these organizations, particularly Rabbis for Human Rights in the 1990′s and first decade of this century, I got to see some very disturbing realities most Jews and Israelis choose not to see.

As Rabbis for Human Rights worked very closely with the Israel Commmittee against Home Demolition, in the 1990′s I witnessed or visited several demolished Palestinian homes.  The memory and visual images of these experiences live within me, in my body and soul.

I remember standing on the site of a recently demolished Palestinian home seeing the childrens toys lying in the rubble and a small one person tent next to the demolished home where the father of the family now lived.  The experience shook me to my core.  What does it mean for me to believe in a Jewish state that demolishes Palestinian homes using bulldozers to destroy everything including the toys of children, while it builds and subsidizes thousands of homes for Jews, homes that house among others, friends of mine who make aliya from America?  How can I understand this reality as a Jew?   Is this the Jewish state I believe in and support?   As a supporter of Israel, a Zionist, am I implicated in this evil act?   What is the appropriate response?

These questions haunted me every time.  On one visit to Israel a small group of rabbis participated in rebuilding a demolished home.  While we were there some of us slept in a home threatened with imminent demolition.  Later in the day as we watched the demolition trucks, police and ambulance make their rounds demolishing various Palestinian “illegal” structures, we actually saw the home being demolished.  First, dozens of Israeli soldiers and police cut off access to the village, then we saw the bulldozers do their dirty work while the homeowners were wailing, the neighbors standing in shock and awe.  It is is a scene that I will never forget.    I was proud that Rabbi Arik Ascherman wearing a kippah was present protesting the demolition but the questions remained.   Do I still believe in Zionism?  Can I still be  a Zionist?  A Jew?

As a person who had grown up in South Africa under Apartheid, these acts of discrimination were very  evocative of scenes from my childhood.    Evictions was one of the brutal realities of Apartheid, part of my reality as a chid.

Over the years as I saw more and more horrifying basic violations of human rights: massive tracts of stolen Palestinian land on which settlements were built, trees uprooted and burned by settlers, homes in Silwan taken over by settlers in the middle of the night who are then protected by the Israeli army.  Each time the question of Zionism came up.  These demolitions, settlements, violent disposession of Palestinian homes were not “rogue” acts, the Israeli state with all its military might enabled and supported these actions.   Because of my deep connection to Israel, to my friends, to Israeli culture, to what Israel meant to me and the Jewish people,  it was hard for me to even think of relinquishing my Zionism.  It was so much part of me and my connection to my community.

In 2008 it came to a head.

In honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of Rabbis for Human Rights, I planned and led a Rabbis for Human Rights trip to Israel and the West Bank entitled Planting Justice. This solidarity mission to Israel and the West Bank was part of a campaign to support the efforts of Rabbis for Human Rights and all those in Israel working to fulfill the dream of an Israel that upholds equality and justice for all -Jews and Arabs alike.

On the trip:

We visited an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev where Palestinians have lived since 1948 without any services, while over the same period of time countless Jewish towns, and villages have been created.  There are over 150 such unrecognized villages in Israel of Palestinians displaced in the 48 war.  While the Bedouin village was still unrecognized 60 years after the founding of the Israel, the government was advancing plans to  “Judaize” the Negev.

We witnessed the humiliation of Palestinians waiting  for hours early in the morning at a checkpoint and then processed like a group of animals.

We replanted olive trees on Palestinian land, uprooted by Jewish settlers with the full protection of the Israeli army.  The trees were undoubtedly uprooted again within days after our visit.   The tract of land adjacent to where we planted the trees had been stolen from a Palestinian who took the case to the Supreme Court with the aid of Israeli human rights organizations.  Despite a ruling in his favor several years ago, the land had still not been returned to him.

Hebron

And, for me this was the clincher a deserted street restricted to Jews, in the middle of Hebron, passing by Palestinian homes where the residents are not allowed to walk on the street in front of their homes.  When Michael Manikin, our guide, mentioned that this was a Jews only street and showed us the apartments where Palestinians climb over the roof and then down a ladder to go to the store, the supermarket, the hospital, something in me had changed.  Sadness and rage overwhelmed me.   I realized that this was in some ways worse than what I had witnessed as a child in South Africa.  Whenever I would compare my experience on the West Bank with my experience during Apartheid, Jews would get very angry.  For many years I knew I should never use the A (Apartheid) word.  At that moment I broke down crying and made a pledge that I would never again censor myself.  I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment when I crossed over.

There was no word that accurately describes what we had experienced on this 12 day trip on both sides of Green Line other than systemic racism.   I finally had to admit to myself what I had known for a long time but was too scared to acknowledge: political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethno-nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews.  As such political Zionism violates everything I believe about Judaism.  While there was  desperate need in the 1940′s to provide a safe haven for Jews, and this need won over most of the Jewish world and the Western world to support the Zionist movement, the Holocaust can in in no way justify or excuse the systemic racism that was and remains an integral part of Zionism.

In the past I believed that the discrimination I saw: the demolished homes, the uprooted trees, the stolen land were an aberration of the Zionist vision. I came to understand that all of these were not mistakes nor a blemishes on a dream,  they were all the logical outcome of Zionism.

As a Jew I believe in the inherent dignity of every human being.  As  a Jew I believe that justice is the core commandment of our tradition.  As a Jew I believe that we are commanded to be advocates for the poor, the oppressed the marginalized.   Zionism and the daily reality in Israel violated each of these core values.  And, I could no longer be a Zionist.   I will always be a person with deep and profound connection to Israel and my friends and family there, but I was no longer a Zionist

I came to understand that the democratic Jewish state is an illusion. There is no democratic Jewish state nor will there ever be.  Israel will either be a Jewish state or a democratic state. A Jewish state by definition privileges Jews and cannot be democratic.  Israel is a  democratic state for Jews and a Jewish state for Arabs.   It is true that Palestinians who live within Israel have the franchise but they are do not have eqaul rights in many different ways, nor could they ever be full and equal citizens of a Jewish state.

And there was another profound change in my thinking.  I also came to understand that there was a direct line between the formation of Israel in 1948 and the Occupation.  Just as I thought that the human rights violations were blemishes on an otherwise inspiring vision, I, like many liberal Zionists saw the Occupation as the issue. The problem were the right wing settlers and the settlements.  Like most liberal Zionists, I ignored the Nakhba and the direct connection between the Nakhba and the Occupation.   Without knowing it at the time, this confrontation with the Nakhba began at that meeting with Ben Gurion when I was in high school.

Ben Gurion in South Africa

When Ben Gurion visited South Africa in 1979 he was asked at a meeting of the counsellors of the Zionist youth movements about charges that in 1948, Palestinians were expelled from their homes.  Red in his face, banging on the table, he adamantly asserted that not one Palestinian was expelled.  The opposite: We pleaded with the Arabs to stay and promised them security but they followed the Mufti of Jerusalem who encouraged them to drive the Jews into the sea.  This story is still told to explain the exodus of over 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

For a few years I believed this standard and still prevalent untruth.  We now know conclusively that this story is simply not true.  Not only were Palestinians expelled from many villages and towns, often with great brutality,  but Ben Gurion himself gave the order for some of  these expulsions.  He one of the architects of the policy of transfer.  The debate still rages about exacty what happened in each village but there is overwhelming evidence that most of the Palestinians left because of actions of the Israeli forces.

The expulsion of over 600,000 Palestinians some of whom left out of fear and most because they were expelled, and the refusal to allow them to return to their homes as required by United Nations Resolution was also a logical outcome of Zionism.  Removing or transferring them was essential to create a “democratic” Jewish state.   Ben Gurion understood this and he was one of the architects of this policy.   The Jewish state could only claim to be democratic if it had a minority of citizens that are not Jewish. Demography, not democracy is the driver.    Zionism has always had the goal of control over the maximum amount of land with the minimum number of Arabs.  Demography has always been the main rationale for Israeli policy.  It was the policy in 1948 and it has been the same policy on the West Bank since 1967.  The Occupation is simply the continuation of the same Zionist goals that led to the Nakhba.     

As a liberal Zionist, we never talked much about the Nakhba.  We never paid attention to  the over 400 Palestinian villages that were razed to the ground, their names erased and replaced by Jewish towns, villages and kibbutzim with Hebrew names.   When I made aliya to a kibbutz in 1970, I simply had no idea that most kibbutzim were built on the ruins of Palestinian villages.  Last year as I was thinking about this I looked up my kibbutz and with the aid of Google in a few minutes I found a photo of the Palestinian village on which it was built.

In 2010, my family spent five months in Israel  in Katamon, a neighborhood with many Anglo immigrants to Israel.  As I walked around the neighborhood I wondered who lived in all these beautiful Arab homes before 48 and where were they now.  In 2009, I was in Bethlehem and when some Palestinian friends and I made our way back to Jerusalem, one of them told me that her home was in Katamon!  There will be no reconciliation without an acknowledgement of the dispossession of the Palestinians.

It is true that what happened in Israel was no different from what the colonialists did in North America and Africa and around the world.  What is different is that the Nakhba is ongoing.  The Occupation, the stealing of Palestinian land, the creation of settlements,  the demolition of Arab villages in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere are a continuation of the Nakhba.  It is a systematic policy by which Israel creates facts on the ground that will make life difficult for Palestinians thereby encouraging or precipitating a voluntary “transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank. And the policy has met with success.  According to the Civil Administration about a quarter million Palestinians voluntarily left the West Bank between 200-2007.

Palestinian Residency:

Another dramatic example of this policy are the regulations that revoke Palestinian residency for Palestinians who leave the country for a few years.  By the time of the Oslo accords, Israel had revoked the residency of 140,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.

Gideon Levy writes:  “In other words 14% of West Bank residents who dared to go abroad had their right to return to Israel and live here denied forever. In other words, they were expelled from their land and their homes.  In other words: ethnic cleansing.”

He writes; “Anyone who says “it’s not apartheid” is invited to reply: Why is an Israeli allowed to leave his country for the rest of his life, and nobody suggests that his citizenship be revoked, while a Palestinian, a native son, is not allowed to do so? Why is an Israeli allowed to marry a foreigner and receive a residency permit for her, while a Palestinian is not allowed to marry his former neighbor who lives in Jordan? Isn’t that apartheid?  Over the years I have documented endless pitiful tragedies of families that were torn apart, whose sons and daughters were not permitted to live in the West Bank or Gaza due to draconian rules – for Palestinians only.”

Israel recognizes that many Palestinians will not leave but it hopes to contain them in four disconnected Palestinian cantons over which it will exert maximum control and have minimal responsibility.  This is the situtation Israel has created in Gaza and this is the intention for the West Bank.  This is exactly what was called a Bantustan in South Africa, an area where Blacks seemingly had indepdence and autonomy but in fact were totally controlled by the White South African government.

Zionism has become a movement that displaces Palestinians and privileges Jews. The problem here is much deeper than demography; it is a problem of ethics.  Political Zionism contradicts what we hold as the sacred values of Judaism and the lessons of Jewish history.  Judaism has been fused with Zionism and we need a Judaism and Jewish identity without political Zionism.


2. Judaism and Zionism

Prior to the 1940′s there was a vigorous debate about Zionism and Judaism.  Within the Zionist movement there was a small but influential group of very prominent leaders – Buber, Magnes and others –  that understood that imposing our will on the Palestinians would create an unending cycle of violence and violate our deepest values as Jews. There were vigorous debates about Zionism and a division between political Zionists and cultural Zionists.   Most Jews were not Zionists.   The Holocaust transformed the Jewish world and Zionism won the sympathy of the world.

Today 60 years later there is almost no distinction made between Zionism and Judaism.  Zionism has become the religion of American Jews.  Even the Reform movement, the most liberal of the movements with a proud commitment to social justice and  which prior to 1948 was opposed to Zionism, has made Zionism a core tenet of Judaism.

I was recently preparing a Shabbat morning service for Tikkun v’Or the Reform congregation in Ithaca.  As I reviewed the service in Mishkan Tefila, the new Reform prayerbook, I came across the prayer for light that preceeds the recitation of the Shma.

“Shine a new light upon Zion, that we may all swiftly be privileged to bask in its radiance.

Blessed are You, God, Creator of the Light”

My eyes were drawn to a commentary on the bottom of the page by my colleague, Rabbi David Ellenson, the President of Hebrew Union College, the Rabbinical School of Reform rabbis.

He writes:

“Classical Reform prayerbook authors in the Diaspora consistently omitted this line with its mention of Zion from the liturgy because of their opposition to Jewish nationalism (Zionism).  With the restoration of this passage to our new prayerbook, the Reform movement consciously affirms its devotion to the modern State of Israel and signals its recognition of the religious significance of the reborn Jewish commonwealth”

In his brief comment, Rabbi Ellenson describes the transformation in the Reform movement’s relationship to Zionism in the mid 20th century.  In the first half of the 20th century only a minority of the world’s Jews were supporters of Zionism. The Reform movement actively opposed Zionism as antithetical to the core values of Reform Judaism dedicated to a form of Judaism that would allow Jews to uphold our tradition while fully participating in American society.  Since the Holocaust there has been a complete reversal.  with Reform Judaism not only affirms its devotion to Israel but ascribes to the State of Israel religious significance.

What does it mean to ascribe to a political state that is predicated on privileging a particular ethnic group, religious significance? How can American Jews who firmly advocate separation of Church and State  ascribe religious significance to a Jewish State?  Do we believe in a separation of religion and state in America but not in Israel?

The idea that the State of Israel has religious significance is shared by all the movements of Judaism except for some sectors of the ultra Orthodox.  The formulation that is most widely accepted is that Israel is of the flowering of our redemption.  of redemption, the beginning of the messianic age “Reishit tzmichat geulateynu”

Last year there was  some controversy in the Reform movement when Rabbi  Rick Jacobs was chosen to replace Rabbi Eric Yoffie as the the head of the Reform movement.  To allay the fears of those who were afraid of Rabbi Jacobs’ support for J Street and the New Israel Fund, my colleague Rabbi Peter Knobel defended Jacobs as a “staunch Zionist.”

He wrote in Haaretz:

“This is not just a reflection of Rabbi Jacobs’ personal views, for this staunch Zionism and support for Israel are enshrined in Reform Judaism – and in the hearts of most of our more than 1.5 million Jews. For us Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is not only a national celebration but a religious one as well.  [We have enriched our ritual life with new observances and liturgy rooted in our commitment to Israel. The Israeli Reform siddur, “Avodah Shebalev,” has a special Amidah and Kiddush for Independence Day. The new North American Reform siddur, “Mishkan Tefillah,” has a special service for Yom Ha’atzmaut, which uses the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a sacred text.”

“We believe that the renewal and perpetuation of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael is a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity. While that day of redemption remains but a distant yearning, we express the fervent hope that Medinat Yisrael, living in peace with its neighbors, will hasten the redemption of Am Yisrael, and the fulfillment of our messianic dream of universal peace under the sovereignty of God.”

What does he mean?   Is the existence and perpetuation of a Jewish State, one that was created by dispossessing the Palestinian people, one that is has imposed the longest military occupation in human history is a “necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and all humanity?”

What is the relationship between these inspiring words and the Jewish soldiers who invaded a Palestinian home last night to arrest Palestinian children?  Or to Palestinian children who are imprisoned in Israel?  Or to the villagers of El Arakib whose village has been destroyed several times over the past year?

Tragically, Zionism has become the primary religious commitment for most liberal Jews, more important than any other commandment or ethical concern. As a rabbi one can say almost anything one wants about the most sacred traditions and rituals of the Jewish people but if one criticizes Israel, one could quite easily lose your job.

Birthright

In response to concern about Jewish continuity, the Jewish community has invested millions of dollars in Birthright, free trips to Israel.  Instead of building a vibrant Jewish life here in America and/or creating programs in which our children could engage meaningfully in spiritually engaging/justice related projects we take our children to Israel on “birthright”   What is their birthright?  Do they as Jewish children growing up in security and with much privilege here in America, have a right that comes to them because they were born Jewish of a free trip to a country where Palestinians who lived there for centuries were expelled and not allowed to return and where the process of dispossession of the Palestinians is an ongoing project day by day?

This fusion of Judaism with the interests of that nation state is a tragedy for Judaism.  Judaism is a religion.  Zionism is a political movement associated with a particular nation state. And we need to separate the two, to create daylight between Judaism and Zionism.

We are all indebted to Mark Ellis who coined the term
“Constantinian Judaism” comparing the fusion of Judaism and Zionism to the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Christianity by becoming the religion of the empire, assumed the role of legitimating the actions of the empire.  A religion that is based on the teachings of a radical prophet who taught a message of love, justice and peace was wedded to the needs and brutality of an empire.  Similarly, Judaism with its profound commitment to the human dignity of all, to freedom and to justice, is now wedded of the actions of the Israeli government.

Diaspora Judaism

We need to return to the vibrant debates about the Jewish future that existed prior to 1940.  We need to reclaim with pride the history of Diaspora Judaism, a Judaism that was attached to Spirit and community, not to political power.  We need to affirm the value of  life in Diaspora, living alongside and in relationship with people of other faiths and ethnicities.  We need the wisdom of two thousand years of Jews living in Diaspora creating community and surviving despite victimization.  The Zionists portray Jewish life in the Diaspora in shameful terms, as weak, effeminate, shameful. Living in Diaspora offers us many blessings.

We need to envision an Israel that is a state for all it’s citizens, a true democracy. We need to reclaim Judaism as a source of ultimate values not as the cheerleader for a nation state.  Judaism is an ethical system that can and offer us wisdom about how to use power ethically.

Cast a New light upon Zion and may we all be privileged to bask in that light.

We truly need a new light with which to see Zion and it must be a a light that all can bask in.


Part 3: Solidarity, Privilege and Transformation

In his recent book, The Crisis of Judaism, Peter Beinart has pointed out the contradiction between the story of victimisation that is told almost exclusively by mainstrem Jewish leaders and the reality of Jewish privilege and power.  Jews in America, Israel and around the world have significant power and privilege.   We were victims and have been victimized but thankfully in our world Jews are no longer victims.  The challenge we face is how to live Jewishly with power and privilege.   How do we respond ethically to our power and privilege.

I believe the answer to this question lies in the concept of solidarity. Judaism calls us to be in solidarity with those who are the victims of injustice.  The God of Judaism is the God who cares about the oppressed  Oseh mishpat la’ashukim.  Our God is the God who brings people out of slavery, poverty, injustice.

The Jewish response to privilege and power is to stand in solidarity with all who are seeking justice for all.  In our time, this includes standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice and equal rights.    As Americans we have a direct responsibility for the oppression of the Palestinian people – we make it possible.

Hilda followed a path of solidarity.  As a Jew she was in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice just as she was in solidarity with the struggle of African Americans, Black South Africans, the people of Haiti and Central America.  She understood far earlier than many that this issue, the Palestinian issue, was a Jewish issue, one for which she and we are accountable.

There is a growing movement of Jews who, as Jews, support the Palestinian struggle for justice.  They can be found in American Jews for a Just Peace, in Jewish Voice for Peace, in J Street, in Students for Justice in Palestine, in the US Campaign to end the Occupation and in the B.D.S. movement.  Every person, every Jew will have to make a choice about how we can best support the struggle for justice.

Every day the Nakhba continues.  Every day land is expropriated, Palestinians are imprisoned, brutalised.  Every day our precious Jewish tradition is used to justify this oppression.

For those of us, like Hilda, for whom Judaism is essentially about justice, who have deep love for Jewish culture, we need to join in the task of reclaiming a new Judaism without Zionism.  It will require vision, courage and the ability to endure many difficult and painful conversations.  There are many who want to silence this new movement by name calling and intimidation.

Hilda was one person who continued despite the name calling.  She developed a community of resistance, a commumnity of Jews, Palestinians, and people of many faiths and ethnicities tied together in a shared commitment to justice. There is no better way for us to honor her memory than by travelling beyond our comfortable assumptions and choosing how we may be part of the growing movement for justice.

May her soul live on in us.

A Sheynem Dank/ Todah Rabba/Shukran/ Thank You

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Why I support B.D.S. and the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian and Methodist Church

Posted by rabbibrian on April 3, 2012

A few weeks ago I was engaged in an email conversation with some rabbinic colleagues about the Presbyterian Church and B.D.S.  The questions was asked: “Why does the Presbyterian church care about B.D.S. against Israel?  Why not China?”

I wrote the following response:

There are many reasons why the Presbyterian church supports the Palestinian call for B.D.S. some of which have been eloquently articulated in the email conversation today.  What I need to remember is that B.D.S. is not a Presbyterian initiative, it is a nonviolent Palestinian initiative to end the Occupation.   It is the Palestinians who have singled out Israel for B.D.S, very appropriately, as Israel is the occupying power for the past four decades.  It is also incredibly inspiring that their strategy to achieve justice is nonviolent and that they have appealed for support from others.  We all understand why the Palestinians have not focussed on terrible and unjust human rights violations in China, or in the U.S. for that matter!  They have a very pressing issue much closer to home: the Occupation.

Now the question is why we, or the Presbyterians, would choose to join the Palestinian call.

I support their call because I support the struggle of oppressed peoples for justice.  As a person of privilege, I regard it is a religious obligation to be in solidarity with those struggling for justice.  It is my responsibility to support those who are struggling for justice and to support their efforts.

So why here and not China, or Tibet, or Sudan, or America?

Why I choose to focus my energies here is that I feel a direct responsibility as an American and as a Jew for the oppression of the Palestinian people.  I identify as a Jew and I live in America.  As a Jew,  it is a state that claims to be acting in my name that has oppressed the Palestinians for decades.  As an American, it is my country that is funding, arming, supporting, defending Israeli oppression.  As a rabbi, it is my community and it’s rabbinic and lay leadership that is a (the?) major player in ensuring the unquestioning support of the American government for Israeli policy.  For all these reasons I have a direct responsibility to challenge those who support the oppression of the Palestinian people.   Silence is complicity with those committing the  injustice.

No people with privilege and power, starting with Pharaoh, and probably even before Pharaoh, have given up power without facing some cost.  B.D.S., hopefully will inflict a cost to Israel for continuing the Occupation.  Without anything to lose, there is no reason in the world why the Israeli government will end the Occupation.   The support of the American Jewish community (including, maybe especially, liberal Jews) and the American government ensures that there is no cost to the homes that are demolished, to the suffering of the thousands of administrative detainees, to the stealing of land, the daily humiliation and many other scandalous injustices that happen everyday.   B.D.S. offers some counter force to the overwhelming power of the State of Israel.

Many of you know me and of my experience growing up in South Africa.  The international campaign against Apartheid played a very important role in ending Apartheid.  As a kid it was painful to live in a country that was a pariah in the world. Yet, as a person who abhorred Apartheid, I supported the international campaign against Apartheid wholeheartedly.  I was grateful that there were people in the world who were standing up for a just South Africa as it was only with justice that there would be security for me as a white child.  I also knew that there was no chance that the powerful Apartheid government with its army would voluntarily end the oppression of Black South Africans.  I would like to believe that Israel will voluntarily begin to dismantle the systemic discrimination against Palestinians, but I know there is no chance that it will be the first entity in human history to relinquish unjust power voluntarily.

Lastly, it is difficult for me as a Jew who has many Israeli friends and many positive connections to Israel and to Jewish culture to support B.D.S.  I choose to be in solidarity with the Palestinian call despite these feelings, as it is the only effective nonviolent way to end the horror that is unfolding in Israel/Palestine.  I see nothing else that in any way empowers me as an American and a Jew to challenge the injustice in Israel. When I was a kid I thought I would be more secure in a democratic, just South Africa.  I think this is true here as well.  In the long run, I will be more secure as a Jew and as human being when there is justice for the Palestinians.

As regards why the Presbyterians have taken this on others have already pointed to several compelling reasons: Palestinian Christians, their connection to Israel and I am sure there are many others.  I attended the launch of the Kairos document calling for B..D.S. which took place in a Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem!   While the reasons of the Presbyterians are interesting, much more interesting is why we feel compelled to take this on.

And in regard to China, America and other countries where there are injustices, I feel compelled to act as well but I must say that this struggle feels like mine in a deeper way.

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Rabbis support Church Divestment from Israel’s Occupation

Posted by rabbibrian on April 2, 2012

Mainstream Jewish organizations, often supported or even led by liberal rabbis, devote extraordinary amounts of time, money and energy in trying to silence any church group that targets companies that profit from the Occupation.  Just last week I got a letter from my colleague, Rabbi Steven Gutow, head of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, urging all rabbis to sign a letter addressed to the Methodists and Presbyterians to urge them not to support divestment from companies that profit from the Occupation.  

I am very proud to be part of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council that has just written a letter of support to the Methodists and Presbyterians in solidarity with their principled action to end Israel’s Occupation.  I encourage you to support this effort.

Here is our letter along with a very short video.    

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Taanit Tzedek and Jewish Voice for Peace Call for One Day Fast in Solidarity with Khader Adnan.

Posted by rabbibrian on February 16, 2012

Background:

Khader Adnan is one of thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.  Adnan who is an administrative detainee, can be held indefinitely without any charges being brought against him or the right to defend himself in a court of law.  He is in the 61st day of a hunger strike and could die at at any time.

Call for One Day Fast in Solidarity with Khader Adanan

Jewish Voice for Peace and Ta’anit Tzedek: Jewish Fast for Gaza  are calling for a one day fast (from sunrise to sunset) on Friday, February 17, 2012  in solidarity with Khader Adanan, who today is in his 61st day of a hunger strike.

Khader began his hunger strike on December 18th, 2011 after he was arrested  in a nighttime Israeli military raid on his home in the West Bank village of Arraba. Since his arrest, Khader has been held in “administrative detention”–without trial or charges against him.  It has been reported that he is affiliated with Islamic Jihad, but no evidence of that affiliation has been presented.  Regardless of his political beliefs, administrative detention and the interrogations which sparked his hunger strike are entirely unacceptable according to international law.

His hunger strike is intended as a symbolic challenge to the Israeli government and military, as we learn from a letter from his prison cell in Israel’s Ramleh military hospital: “I hereby assert that I am confronting the occupiers not for my own sake as an individual, but for the sake of thousands of prisoners who are being deprived of their simplest human rights while the world and international community look on.”

Khader, 33, is  a father of two from the village of Arraba in the Jenin district. His wife is pregnant with their third child. Prior to his arrest, Adnan worked as a baker while studying for a master’s degree in economics at the Bir Zeit University.

Khader is chained to his hospital bed by Israeli authorities. An Israeli military judge denied his appeal challenging his administrative detention, essentially sentencing him to death.  Israel has ignored the pleas of numerous human rights agencies, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to either “charge or release” Adnan.

Khader Adnan is but one of thousands of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons.  According to a January 1, 2012 report by Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support organization, there are currently 4417 Palestinians held as political prisoners in Israel jails, 310 of whom are being held in administrative detention without trial or formal charge.

This Friday, the people of Bil’in, together with their Israeli and international supporters, will participate in a demonstration marking seven years of resistance to the Wall, settlements and Occupation. The gathering will be dedicated to Khader Adnan.

Jewish Voice for Peace and Ta’anit Tzedek stand with the people of Bil’in and all those who work tirelessly for peace with justice in Israel/Palestine. We are calling on all our friends and colleagues in this movement to join us in a one day fast this Friday in solidarity with Khader Adnan.

May his sacrifice not be in vain. May we all live to see the day in which human rights, civil rights and equality are enjoyed by all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine. May we work to make it so.

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On White Privilege and Solidarity: A Talk I gave in Ithaca today

Posted by rabbibrian on January 16, 2012

Talk for MLK Lunch in Ithaca, NY

Monday January 16, 2012

Fulfilling the Dream: On Privilege and Solidarity

Introduction:

It is such an honor to speak to you on this sacred day honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest prophetic figures of all time.   Thank you especially to Marcia Fort, the extraordinary executive director of GIAC, and to Ellen Baer and the planning committee. 

For the past year and a half, I have come to Ithaca once a month to serve Congregation Tikkun v’Or and I am struck by the large number of people in this wonderful town engaged in the holy work of social justice/tikkun Olam, repair of the World.  I have already had the privilege of meeting so many extraordinary and inspiring local activists.  Social Justice/Tikkun Olam/Repair of the World is the core religious vision and commitment of our congregation, Tikkun v’Or, and it is such an honor to speak to you today as their rabbi. 

Marcia asked me to reflect on what I have learned in my life about working to end racism and how we might strengthen the anti-racism work in this community.  In my talk today I hope to distill what I have learned from my own life experience, from the teachings of Dr. King and how this may relate to Ithaca, all in 20 minutes!   

Privilege

When I reflect about what I have learned from my life about working to end racism in South Africa, Israel and America, I am profoundly aware that I speak from the vantage point of a person that has enjoyed economic, racial and ethnic privilege.  I was born into racial privilege in South Africa, I enjoyed ethnic privilege as a Jew in Israel, and for the past thirty-five years I have benefited as a white from racial privilege in America.  The lessons I have to teach about ending racism are rooted in this experience of privilege.

I grew up in Sea Point, a gorgeous suburb of Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in Apartheid South Africa.  My entire community was white: my friends, my family, my teachers, and my neighborhood.   Black and Brown people were those who served us.  The closest person of color I knew as a child and teenager was Myrtle Cupido, the domestic worker in our home.  The Black children I saw in my neighborhood wore tattered clothes, often had no shoes and called me “Baas” master, as did their parents.  A brutal system of institutionalized racism divided us into Whites and Blacks, us and them, the privileged and the oppressed.

From the earliest time I can remember this reality troubled me greatly.  It violated my sense of fairness and justice.  It violated the religious values I learned in my Jewish day school about the imperative to honor the dignity of all human beings.  No less than 36 times the Torah referred to the experience of the Israelites in Egypt: “You shall not oppress the other as you know the soul of the other for you were the other in the Land of Egypt.”   My reality in Apartheid South Africa was in stark contrast to the story of my people as victims of anti-Semitism ending in the Holocaust. Never Again! was what I was taught.  As Jews we thought of ourselves as victims, and yet I was a white Jew with privilege, part of a vicious and brutal system of racism that killed, oppressed and destroyed human beings.

I felt guilty and ashamed about the way my community mistreated and exploited Blacks. One of the most painful events of my childhood was seeing my own father, a good man who taught me to respect all human beings, humiliate the black workers in his store with callous, racist disrespect.   I felt pride in the Jews who courageously opposed Apartheid in disproportionate numbers and troubled by the way most of our community enjoyed the material blessings of our privileged status and worse, accepted, willingly or unwillingly, the racism of Apartheid.

Despite the material comfort of my racial privilege, I felt profound despair and enormous fear. There was no good outcome that I could envision. Either this violent and unjust system of racial oppression would continue or, like most other whites, I thought Black South Africans would rise up and kill us all.

The question of how to respond as a person of privilege to injustice is one that I experienced not only as a child in South Africa, but also one I have wrestled with in Israel and here in America.   It is Dr. King and the vision of the Civil Rights movement that provided me with an answer to the question. 

Beloved Community

Dr. King made it clear the struggle was not against whites, it was about creating a loving and just community, a Beloved community, where everyone is given dignity, equality and love.   For Dr. King it was not about an “us” and a “them”, it was about building a community of love and justice for all, here in America and in the world as a whole.

Dr. King understood the deep connection between love and justice: 

He taught: “Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.   Love at it’s best is justice concretized.”  The beloved community is a community of love that joins together to concretize justice.  In this community all were welcome, black and white, privileged and oppressed. 

As a white South African I made a choice to join the struggle for a democratic South Africa, as a Jew I choose to support equal rights of all who live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and as a white person in America for the past 37 years, I choose to support human rights including economic rights for all.

As a person of privilege, I have chosen to take responsibility to unlearn my own prejudice and racism.  I have chosen to educate my own community about our prejudices, about the effect of our actions and our silence on our fellow human beings, and about the consequences our failure to live up to our own religious and human values.

I have chosen to use the benefits of my privilege to serve justice for all. .

I have chosen to follow the lead of those who are oppressed, to respond to their request for support. 

These choices in response to my own privilege are not an expression of guilt, but rather a joyful choice that has allowed me to break the isolation, disconnection and fear that are an integral part of living with privilege. It has allowed me to live my highest ideals. 

There are also some costs to such a decision by a person of privilege.  There are people in one’s community who will resist any questioning of the status quo and may view one as a traitor to one’s racial or ethnic group.  This experience is difficult and painful and often the major deterrent to people of privilege challenging injustice.

When I emigrated from South Africa, first to Israel and then to America I had idealized images of both countries.  I naively thought that I was moving to countries with much greater freedom and equality than in South Africa.   In Israel I had to confront the dispossession of the Palestinians and the systemic discrimination against Palestinians both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories.  And in America I had to confront the engrained institutionalized racism of this country.

Racism in America

It took me a long time to understand how racism works in America.   In South Africa the racism was vicious and it was public and clear.  Over the years I have come to understand that racism in America even after the Civil Rights movement is every bit as vicious as the racism of Apartheid yet it is veiled and/or denied.  

Citizenship Exam and the Havurah

Two particular moments of revelation in this regard:

When I took my citizenship exam in Philadelphia, my lawyer (having a lawyer was itself a benefit of my economic and racial privilege) pointed out that there were two rooms, one where most or all of the people would become citizens and the other across the hall where people would be denied.   The room I was in was overwhelmingly white and the room across the hallway was predominantly people of color.  There were no signs “whites only” like in South Africa, yet there could have been.

Another story: I was part of a havurah, a counter- cultural, progressive Jewish religious fellowship.  I still remember the day on which I discovered by chance that an apartment block, where many of my friends who were members of the havurah lived, did not rent apartments to Blacks.  It was such a shock.  I naively thought that such a thing was impossible.  In South Africa the racism was blatant, clear, public and ugly but here in America it was hidden with euphemisms and in code.    

Institutionalized Racism

Institutionalized racial oppression in America is hidden and all whites benefit from that racial oppression.   All whites in America enjoy white privilege.  As a white person in America my chances of being stopped by a police officer for a drug check is three times less than that of a African American, I have much less chance of being incarcerated, of being poor, of facing blatant prejudice, of receiving good schooling or of facing housing discrimination.  As a white person the chances are that I will have access to more wealth.  As a person with racial privilege, the most basic responsibility is not to collude in the pretense that this racial privilege doesn’t exist.  Acknowledging the privilege is the first essential step. 

This is not a question of guilt.   People of privilege are not guilty.  We did not create the system that gives us unearned advantages but we do have a choice whether we pretend such a system doesn’t exist and whether we join in Beloved community with all who are seeking a society of equity and justice.  This is what solidarity is about and this is what I am called to do as a white person living in a racist society.

As a religious Jew, the image of Rabbi Abram Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Selma is one of the most powerful and inspiring visual images. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel became friends and when Dr. King asked his friend to come to march with him in Selma, Rabbi Heschel had to make a choice.   He made a choice to go, to risk injury, to be in solidarity with his friend and the struggle of the Civil Rights movement.  He made a choice for justice.  I believe that this is the fundamental choice we all need to make.  We need to join together to transform our society.  

The Civil Rights movement ended the denial of voting rights and other basic rights to African Americans.   Dr. King’s vision was far deeper than just ending racial discrimination.  Dr. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to “save the soul of America.”

In his courageous address, A Time to Break Silence, at the Riverside Church Dr. King said:     

“For it’s very survival’s stake, America must reexamine the old presuppositions and release itself from the many things that for centuries have been held sacred.  For the evils of racism, poverty, and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born.  Our economy must become more person centered than property and profit centered.  Our government must depend more on its moral power that on it’s military power.

Let us therefore not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all existing values of American society.  Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new vision of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness

This is Dr. King’s prophetic vision. This is his challenge to us.  We can choose to join together across economic, racial and cultural lines to build a country with a people centered, sustainable peace economy.

And we can join together across race, culture and economic class, to do this here in Ithaca.   At the breakfast on Saturday, Marcia Forte referred to the bumper sticker that reads: “Ithaca 10 square miles surrounded by reality.”   She reminded us that Ithaca is ten square miles of reality.

Ithaca is a very special place with amazing people and it also reflects the racial and economic inequity in America as a whole.   Could we join together in Ithaca co created the community that Dr. King envisioned? What would it take to end poverty in Ithaca?  What would it take to end racism in Ithaca?  What would it take to create a sustainable economy that protects our environment and provides for everyone? 

There are so many exciting projects in this community that are beginning to address this exciting and challenging task: The Building Bridges project, Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Talking Circles and many others.   As a newcomer and a person who doesn’t live in the town, I don’t know all the wonderful initiatives.  

Today each of us is called to make a deeper commitment to building a loving, just and sustainable community here in Ithaca.   Each of us is called to build relationships across culture, race, class and faith.   Each and every one of us has an important contribution we can make to build the Beloved community. 

We have an opportunity to build on the extraordinary courage of people in our own country in the Occupy Movement and in the Arab world engaged in nonviolent resistance demanding freedom and justice.   How can Ithaca strengthen the Occupy movement and ensure that America is on the side of those in the streets of America and the Arab world demanding justice?

What better way to honor the extraordinary vision of love and justice envisioned by Dr. King?

As he said:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.   I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.  I believe that what self-centered people have torn down, people other-centered can build.  I still believe we shall overcome.”

May we all pray with our feet, our minds, our hearts.  May the Source of love and justice bless our efforts. 

Thank You

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