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Gaza: A Lament

Posted by rabbibrian on July 23, 2014

In two weeks time on Tisha B’Av (9th of the Jewish month of Av), Jews will read the Book of Lamentations, a bitter lament about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago.  Over the past few weeks, I have felt a lament welling up inside my broken heart.  Eicha/How? or Alas! is the first word of the book of Lamentations.  How have we, as Jews, come to the point where the state that claims to be acting in the name of our people and our ethical and historical legacy has killed, as of today, over 650 Palestinians, the majority of them innocent civilians, 160 of them children?  How do we, as Jews, face ourselves as we see the bodies of entire families in body bags, often just plastic bags, human beings that have been killed by jet fighters, tanks and navy ships of the fourth strongest military force in the world acting in the name of the Jewish people?  How do we face ourselves as we see people fleeing on carts and by foot, images that remind us of Jews in earlier times fleeing for their lives, trying to find shelter somewhere from the barrage of armaments unleashed against them on all sides?

The answer that is repeated over and over again is that Israel has the right to defend itself against the rockets launched into Israel.   Over 1,500 rockets have been launched  into Israel, killing, as of this date, 2 people.  The rockets are a terrifying attack on civilians and any country has the obligation and right to defend itself against such an attack.  Every day Israelis hear sirens and scurry to shelters and safe spaces. Everyone, especially the children, are traumatized by living with this threat of imminent danger.

However, focusing exclusively on Israel’s right to defend itself against the rockets, avoids looking at the root causes of this assault. The rockets are the desperate, and thankfully, mostly ineffective, response of an occupied people who have been subjected to an Israeli siege for the past 7 years.  It is an act of desperate resistance by a people who live in the “largest open air prison in the world.”

The bottom line is that this is not a war of defense.  This assault is a war of choice by Israel with the goal of maintaining the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza and no matter how brutal, it will not bring safety and security to Israel.  The only path to safety and security is a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that ends the occupation of the West Bank and siege on Gaza, something Israel has steadfastly rejected.  Just a few days ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated that Israel would never withdraw from the West Bank and never allow the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Since before the founding of the State of Israel, Israel has believed that the Palestinian claim to their homes and homeland can be defeated by military might.  This has been the underlying reason for all of Israel’s wars.   In 1956, in a famous eulogy by General Moshe Dayan for a young kibbutznik named Ro’i Rotenberg, killed by Gazans who had crossed over the border into Israel, Dayan articulated this position.

“Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us?  For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water.”

It is this same belief that underlies this latest assault on Gaza, a territory that has been under Israeli siege for 8 years and has been brutally attacked three times in the past six years. It is not a coincidence that the majority of Gazan residents are refugees or the children and grandchildren of refugees from the 1948 war.  There is no military solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The only solution is a negotiated settlement.

Again, so what about the rockets?

Israel has the right to defend itself.  I have compassion for the fear of the Israelis and all those traumatized by the rockets and the sirens.  Twice in my life I have been in Israel during the time when we had to run to shelters because of rockets; during the Gulf War and another a month before the Israeli assault in 2008 (Operation Cast Lead).  I know in my bones how terrifying it is to hear those sirens and to run for cover.

However, I believe there is no moral equivalence between the firing of rockets by Hamas and other militants in Gaza and the Israeli assault.  Gaza is a land and people living under Israeli siege since 2007.  There is a myth that Israel “withdrew” from Gaza and allowed the Gazans freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Israel withdrew their settlements from Gaza in 2005 and the military force that protected them, in 2007 they placed a blockade on almost all exports and imports and on the movement of almost all Gazans.

Sara Roy, an economist at Harvard, has documented how the siege has impoverished the people of Gaza creating an entire population that is dependent on aid and has no means to develop its economy.  For a time, the Israelis even put Gazan’s on a “diet” controlling the amount of food they allowed into Gaza according to the number of calories that they deemed each Gazan would need.  There is no equivalence between the resistance of the occupied, which is an internationally recognized human right, and the assault of the occupier, the fourth strongest military on the planet.  While the Israelis are certainly suffering profound losses in this conflict, they are ultimately the occupier and oppressor.

There is also abundant evidence that this current war in Gaza is a war of choice. The prominent Jewish journalist, J.J. Goldberg, a life-long committed Zionist, recently wrote an article in the Jewish Forward describing how Israel used the kidnapping of the three teenagers to launch an attack on Hamas on the West Bank. Fearing the Palestinian unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas established after the failure of the peace process, Israel manipulated the kidnapping to launch an attack on Hamas. Israel knew the teenagers had been killed yet it hid that truth and launched a “Bring our Boys Home” campaign all over the world.  It launched an assault on Hamas on the West Bank arresting many of its leaders who had been freed in the exchange for Gilad Shalit, attacking its institutions on the West Bank and killing six Palestinian leaders.  For the most part Hamas had maintained the ceasefire agreement of 2012 and Israel violated it.

There were no rockets from Gaza until these unprovoked attacks on Hamas by Israel even though there was, and still is, no evidence that the kidnapping was the work of Hamas.   You may also want to read the article by my colleague, Rabbi Brant Rosen and the article by M.J. Rosenberg who at one time worked for AIPAC.

Rosenberg writes:


Listening to Netanyahu’s defenders in the media (and that is pretty much all you get as objective reporters are yanked off the air), I’m struck by how Americans are indoctrinated into ignoring the most significant fact about Gaza.


It is under Israeli occupation (now called blockade) and has been since 1967.

That is the cause of the “war.” Yes, Israel has the “right” to defend itself but Palestinians have the “right” to resist occupation. Those conflicting rights are leading to perdition and, in my opinion, the loss of the Israel many of us have loved and identified with our entire lives.

The oft-proclaimed Gaza withdrawal was a fraud. Although Israel pulled the settlers out, it has maintained a blockade of Gaza ever since, blocking its air, sea, and land borders, locking its people in a giant prison.

I wish we could say, “this is not our problem, let the Israelis and the Palestinians sort it out.” Unfortunately, it is directly our problem as it is our government that provides the military, diplomatic and financial support for Israel. And it is my community, the Jewish community that plays a major role in ensuring the unconditional support of our country for Israeli government.  Two days ago, the Senate voted unanimously (including the most liberal Senators including mine, Senator Elizabeth Warren) for an AIPAC sponsored resolution in support of Israel’s actions without a single reference to the suffering of the Palestinians!   As Americans and as Jews, we are directly complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians.

So where are the prophetic voices in the Israel and in the Jewish community?

There are very some brave Israelis who have demonstrated against the assault. They are the moral heroes fighting for the soul of our people.  They have been attacked physically by thugs incited by Netanyahu and other members of the government, the same thugs who roam the streets looking for Arabs they can attack.  You can read Rabbi Rosen’s blog post on this frightening phenomenon here.

And, in America, I am so pleased to be part of Jewish Voice for Peace and of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council.  JVP is a bold and clear Jewish voice standing up against the Israeli assault and calling for a negotiated settlement that is based on equality, dignity and justice for all, Israelis and Palestinians. Yesterday, several JVP members,  including our visionary and courageous executive director, Rebecca Vilkomersen, were arrested in an act of civil disobedience in the Friends of the Israel Defense Force offices in New York.   You can view the action here.  Their courage is a source of inspiration at this dark time.  There are many Jews out there who know in their very bones that the State of Israel is betraying what they hold most dear about our legacy and increasing numbers of us are willing to say “not in my name!”

The prophets teach us that the only source of security is justice and love.  The prophets of our time are not to be found in the mainstream Jewish community, they are to be found on the streets of America and the streets of Israel.  At great cost, they courageously speak truth to power, calling for a negotiated settlement to the conflict  based on justice, dignity and love for everyone who lives in Israel/Palestine.  It is ultimately the only way both Israelis and Palestinians will find security.

Every day brings another horrifying series of images and reports about the suffering in Gaza. Today was another such day.  Every day also brings images of people in our country, in Israel and around the world, protesting the Israeli assault.

May the ceasefire come soon, a true ceasefire that brings an end to the siege on Gaza and a real commitment by Israel to negotiate an end the occupation, the settlement program and the siege of Gaza.  If the at the end of these hostilities there is no real negotiation, we will be back at the same point one, two, or three years from now, when Israel will again “mow the lawn.”

May our lament turn into a commitment to bring pressure to bear on Israel to turn from the suicidal path it has chosen.


Posted in Gaza, Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, Settlements, U.S. Middle East Policy | 14 Comments »

An Open Letter to our Rabbinical Colleagues

Posted by rabbibrian on April 15, 2011

An Open Letter to Our Rabbinical Colleagues

Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Brian Walt

This past week, rabbis across the country received a request from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to sign a public rabbinic letter to Congress that urged our Representatives and Senators not to cut any foreign aid to Israel as part of the FY2012 budget. The request was co-signed by the rabbinical leaders of four major American Jewish denominations.

As rabbis who received these appeals for our endorsement, we would like to voice our respectful but strong disagreement to the letter. We take particular issue with the statement:

As Jews we are committed to the vision of the Prophets and Jewish sages who considered the pursuit of peace a religious obligation. Foreign Aid to Israel is an essential way that we can fulfill our obligation to “seek peace and pursue it.”

We certainly agree that the pursuit of peace is our primary religious obligation.  Our tradition emphasizes that we should not only seek peace but pursue it actively.  However we cannot affirm that three billion dollars of annual and unconditional aid – mainly in the form of military aid – in any way fulfills the religious obligation of pursuing peace.

This aid provides Israel with military hardware that it uses to maintain its Occupation and to expand settlements on Palestinian land. It provides American bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes. It provides tear gas that is regularly shot by the IDF at nonviolent Palestinian protesters. It also provided the Apache helicopters that dropped tons of bombs on civilian populations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, as well as the white phosphorus that Israel dropped on Gazan civilians, causing grievous burns to their bodies – including the bodies of children.

In light of Israel’s past and continuing military actions, how can we possibly affirm that our continued unconditional aid fulfills the sacred obligation of pursuing peace?

We also take exception to this assertion:

U.S. foreign aid reaffirms our commitment to a democratic ally in the Middle East and gives Israel the military edge to maintain its security and the economic stability to pursue peace.

In fact our ally, the Netanyahu administration, has even rebuffed mild pressure from the US government to comply with the longstanding US position against new settlements in the West Bank. If we believe that any peaceful settlement requires the end of the Occupation and Israel’s settlement policy, how will massive and unconditional foreign aid – and the support of hundreds of rabbis for this aid – promote a negotiated peaceful settlement of the conflict?

An Israeli government that continues to settle occupied territory with impunity will not change its policy as long as it is guaranteed three billion dollars a year.  With every other ally, our government pursues a time-honored diplomatic policy that uses “sticks” as well as “carrots.” We believe the cause of peace would be better served by conditioning support to Israel on its adherence to American and Jewish values of equality and justice.

We are also mindful that the Arab world itself feels under assault by the US when it witnesses Palestinians regularly assaulted with American-made weapons. With the vast and important changes currently underway in the Middle East, we are deeply troubled by the message that this policy sends to Arab citizens who themselves are struggling for freedom and justice.

We know that many of our colleagues who have signed this statement have taken courageous public stands condemning Israel’s human rights abuses in the past. We also know it is enormously challenging to publicly take exception to our country’s aid policy to Israel. Nonetheless, we respectfully urge our our colleagues to consider the deeper implications represented by their support of this letter.

Unconditional aid to Israel may ensure Israel’s continued military dominance, but will it truly fulfill our religious obligation to pursue peace?

In Shalom,

Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Brian Walt

Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis | 7 Comments »

Beyond Liberal Zionism

Posted by rabbibrian on February 7, 2011

In 1987, I delivered a Yom Kippur sermon, “A Generation of Occupation,” about the corrosive moral effects of twenty years of Occupation on Jews and Judaism. This sermon cost me my first position as a congregational rabbi. Back then, as a liberal Zionist, I saw the injustice to Palestinians within Israel and under Occupation as moral perversions of the progressive Zionist vision — “warts” that needed correction.

Over the twenty-three years since then, I have seen many disturbing instances of blatant discrimination against Palestinians and my view has fundamentally changed. I have seen a Palestinian home being demolished and have stood on the demolished ruins of Palestinian homes. I have walked down streets restricted to Jews in what was once a bustling Palestinian neighborhood. I have replanted trees uprooted by settlers knowing they would be uprooted again. These and many more disturbing personal encounters with discrimination led me to the painful understanding that political Zionism, at its core, is a discriminatory ethnic nationalism that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews.

This is an excerpt from an article of mine, Reflections of a Liberal Zionist, just published by Tikkun magazine.  To mark their 25th anniversary, Tikkun asked many of their authors to share a short article about their thinking and social activism that was most relevant to the next generation and to Tikkun‘s goal of helping heal, repair, and transform the world.  In Reflections of a Liberal Zionist I articulated very briefly how my own faith as liberal Zionist/Jew has been transformed over the past 23 years since I gave that Yom Kippur sermon.

The critique of liberal Zionism is painful as from the time I was very young I have seen myself as a progressive Zionist/Jew.  It was the world I lived in and defined the work that I did.  In many ways it still is.  Many dear colleagues, friends and family are dedicated liberal /progressive Zionists.   I also have such a deep spiritual and emotional connection to Israel and my many friends there.   Most of my colleagues and friends don’t see the contradiction that I believe lies at the heart of liberal Zionism and the impossible goal of building a democratic Jewish state.  They also don’t agree that some of the actions of  liberal Zionist/Jewish organizations prolong the injustice in Israel/Palestine at the same time as claiming to be clearly opposed to this injustice.  It is my hope that the article opens a dialogue and conversation and I invite your response or questions.  You can read the complete article here.  I also recommend the many important articles published as part of the 25th anniversary of Tikkun.  Tikkun has been an important part of my own journey and understanding and I encourage you to subscribe and support the magazine.

Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis | 16 Comments »

American Jews and Israel: A Yom Kippur Sermon

Posted by rabbibrian on September 21, 2010

Here is an excerpt from a Yom Kippur sermon on American Jews and Israel that I gave at Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca New York.  I have just taken a position as part-time rabbi at this congregation.  Please feel free to share the sermon with others and I welcome your response.  May it be a year of justice, compassion and peace.

Increasingly we, liberal American Jews find ourselves in an agonizing conflict between our loyalty to the Jewish people, our wish to support Israel, and our concern and/or our opposition to the disturbing trends in Israeli society and the policies and  actions of the Israeli government. Liberal Jews are increasingly troubled about Israeli policies and actions.  It is painful, sometimes even unbearable, for us to listen to the stories like the demolition of the two Palestinian villages that I described.   It is very painful for me to talk about them.

The conflict for us is between core values   We believe in human rights, in open debate, in democracy.   They are the very values we hold dear in relation to our own country and every other country in the world.  We criticize our own country’s profound racism, prejudice, inequality, and militarism.  And, we are proud of the role many American Jews played in the civil rights struggle, in the peace movement, as advocates for justice on many issues.

If you want to read the entire text of the sermon, here it is:

I want to start my sermon with a kavvanah (spiritual intention) of two quotes, one from the Psalms and the other from Arundhati Roy a contemporary Indian writer.

First, Arundhati Roy: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.  And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.  There is no innocence.  Either way you are accountable.”

The Psalms:

L’maan achai v’reyai adaberah na shalom bach.

L’maan beyt Adonai eloheynu avaksha tov lach.

For the sake of my brothers, my sisters and friends

I will speak of peace.

For the sake of this planet, the House of God, may I seek  goodness and blessing for all.

Ir Amim

During our stay in Israel this year, we took two tours with Ir Amim (City of Nations), a non-profit Israeli organization that educates the public about the reality in Jerusalem.  The first tour was in English and included many people from around the world; the second was in Hebrew and we were the only foreigners.

On both trips, we saw with our own eyes the huge Jewish neighborhoods that have been built since 1967 that encircle East/Arab Jerusalem: from Pisgat Ze’ev in the North to Gilo and Har Homa in the South.  We saw bypass roads for Jews and a special underground road for Palestinians.  We saw the huge Separation Wall.  Most shocking, we saw armed Jewish enclaves in the middle of  Palestinian neighborhoods such as the Ras El Amud, Sheikh Jarrah, Mt. Olives, Jabal Mukabber and others.  These settlers receive full support from the Israeli government.  We drove by the expanding settlement created in Ras El Amud that is sponsored by Irving Moskowitz, an American Jewish millionaire.  The tours were educational, enlightening — and devastating.

After seeing the reality on the ground, the Israelis on the second tour were all very disheartened; a sense of hopelessness and despair was palpable in the bus.  One man was particularly distressed.  “What is the solution?” he demanded of our tour guide. Our guide, who had retired after serving many years as a police officer in Jerusalem, insisted that his task was to show us the reality on the ground, not to suggest a solution.  Agitated, the man  turned to his fellow passengers with the same question.  “What do you  think? What is the solution?”  What emerged was amazing.  They all agreed that the only hope was intervention by the United States and the international community.  To our astonishment, this group of Israelis all agreed that the only possibility for a resolution was if America put pressure on Israel to relinquish the settlements and to make a peace agreement based on territorial compromise.

For us, as American Jews, it was an enlightening moment.  We were close to the end of our stay in Jerusalem and the new American Administration had made the most serious effort yet to do just that, to insist that Israel end all settlement activity. Yet, in response to outrage and massive pressure from the America Jewish community and the Israel lobby, the  Administration had backtracked and agreed to a temporary partial freeze on settlements that will end in eight days’ time.

Biden’s visit

In March, Israel welcomed Vice President Biden’s visit with the announcement of new construction in one of the very settlements we had seen on our trip.  “Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is our capital,” Prime Minister Netanyahu told the cheering crowd at the AIPAC conference, forgetting to point out that close to 40% of the residents of Jerusalem are Palestinian and that, while vast new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem had been built encircling Arab/East Jerusalem, not one new Palestinian neighborhood had been built and Palestinians are routinely are denied new building permits.

Many of us were so hopeful to see the new Administration push for a complete freeze on settlement activity, the most basic change needed for any serious negotiation.  When the administration backtracked again, it illuminated just how powerful an influence the American Jewish community – our community – has on U.S. policy on Israel.  It is our relationship to Israel as American Jews that I want to explore today.

Peter Beinart

In June, Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic, a magazine with a centrist to right wing perspective on Israel, wrote an article entitled, “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books that stirred controversy and an important ongoing debate in the Jewish world.

Beinart argued that  “for several decades the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Beinart pointed out  that the mainstream Jewish organizations base their argument for American support for Israel on the idea that Israel is a democracy that shares American values. Then the Jewish establishment ignores or downplays the disturbing long-term anti-democratic trends in Israeli society and silences those in America who speak about them.

Beinart pointed to many indications of this anti-democratic trend in Israeli society. Among them:

* The most extreme right wing government in Israel’s history

* An intolerant settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy as well as the army

* An ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, and a large Russian immigrant community (Both these communities are particularly prone to anti-Arab racism.)

* A poll that shows that  56% of Jewish Israeli high school students and more than 80% of religious high school students would deny Israeli Arabs (i.e. Palestinian citizens of Israel) the right to be elected to the Knesset

* Another poll that indicates that  53% of Israeli Jews, and 77% of those from the former Soviet Union, support encouraging Israeli Arabs to leave the country.

* A  coordinated public attack led by members of the ruling coalition against Israeli human rights organizations as traitors to Israel

* A shocking insensitivity to Palestinian suffering

The very week last month that Beinart spoke at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Israeli bulldozers had just demolished the houses of the villagers in El Farsiya in the Jordan Valley.

This demolition was the second time that Israel had carried out a demolition in this village.  Beinart pointed out that American Jewish leadership would never mention this incident.

Israel has four times destroyed a Bedouin village of El Arakib.  The initial demolition was carried out by a force of hundreds of police officers and soldiers. Just this week, immediately after Rosh Hashana, Israel demolished this village for a fifth time.  Once the villagers are moved from their village, the Jewish National  Fund will plant a forest on the location. Several other Jewish National Fund parks have been built on the ruins of former Palestinian villages in Israel once their inhabitants were expelled.

Beinart pointed out that American Jewish leaders would never address the issue of what happened in El Farsiya or El Arakib and many other villages as a challenge to Israeli democracy.  Worse, they may defend the actions.

Stifling Debate

Leaders of our community go further.  They stifle open debate on any anti-democratic actions by Israel – like  these demolitions — by calling those who raise these issues in America and in Israel “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.” even though this means calling thousands of American Jews and thousands of Israelis “anti-Semitic.”   They have also launched a concerted public attack on the most respected international human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others, labeling them also anti-Israel.  Beinart argues that this uncritical support for Israel and the stifling of open debate  has led to the distancing of young liberal American Jews from Zionism and Israel.  “Fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists, few and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal,” he wrote.

Beinart, who is father of two young children and a devoted member of an Orthodox synagogue, focuses on alienation of young liberal Jews from Israel and Zionism.

He is talking about our children and grandchildren and he is talking about us.   Increasingly we, liberal American Jews find ourselves in an agonizing conflict between our loyalty to the Jewish people, our wish to support Israel, and our concern and/or our opposition to the disturbing trends in Israeli society and the policies and  actions of the Israeli government. Liberal Jews are increasingly troubled about Israeli policies and actions.  It is painful, sometimes even unbearable, for us to listen to the stories like the demolition of the two Palestinian villages that I described.   It is very painful for me to talk about them.

The conflict for us is between core values   We believe in human rights, in open debate, in democracy.   They are the very values we hold dear in relation to our own country and every other country in the world.  We criticize our own country’s profound racism, prejudice, inequality, and militarism.  And, we are proud of the role many American Jews played in the civil rights struggle, in the peace movement, as advocates for justice on many issues.

For us, the very core of Judaism is:

pursuit of justice (Justice, justice shall you pursue!),

equal human rights for all (God created Adam/human beings in God’s image)

and the pursuit of peace (Seek Peace and Pursue It!)

How can we uphold these core values of our faith in our own country and everywhere else in the world,  but not in Israel?  How can we turn our eyes and not face the painful reality of the oppression of Palestinians in Israel?  How can we be appropriately vocal about Sudan, China, Burma, Zimbabwe, but silent about Israel? Aren’t we responsible first to deal with injustice for which we are directly responsible?

How do we respond to Israeli attitudes, policies and actions that violate what we believe to be the core tenets of our faith?  Israel claims to act in the name of the entire Jewish people. Is it acting in our name when it demolishes Palestinian villages?  Many of us have enormous grief about what has become of Israel.  If we speak about this publicly. will we be called anti-Semitic by fellow Jews?  And we feel an inner tug of disloyalty to our people when we criticize.


Many liberal Jews – and many rabbis — have been cowed into silence by overwhelming pressure from mainstream Jewish leaders.   Over the past year in addition to calling critics “self hating,” or “Israel-bashing,”  the Jewish establishment has come up with a new term “delegitimation” or “delegitmization”, to silence this criticism .

Just before Rosh Hashana, I saw a glossy brochure for a conference on “War by other means: The Global Campaign to Delegitimize Israel.”  The conference will be held at Boston University in October, sponsored by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting.

While there are people and groups in the world who want to delegitimize and destroy Israel, CAMERA and other conservative groups use the term “delegitmization”  to cover a broad spectrum of critics of Israeli policy. Rather than focus on global and Jewish concern about Israeli policy that has led to a rise of anti-Semitism in several countries–  including our own — the leaders of Israel and of the American Jewish community want to deflect any legitimate criticism and debate by labeling all efforts to challenge Israeli policy as “delegitimizing Israel.”  It is just the latest strategy to silence the debate.  It is Israel’s illegitimate and immoral policies that lead to the “delegitimization” of Israel.

Change in America

Beinart’s article is significant because it is written by a well- known and well-respected young Jewish intellectual and because it is part of a broader change in the debate about Israel in American society.

Over the past few years, more and more Americans have dared to face the wrath of the powerful Israel lobby by raising these issues in the public realm.  They have been vilified by Jewish leaders, yet they have courageously created an environment where questions that were previously silenced are now part of the debate.  Several books have opened the debate and the Internet has played a major role.  Progressive Israeli and American bloggers tell the story of Palestinian suffering and of anti-democratic actions by Israel on a daily basis.  These reports are painful to read and profoundly disturbing. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the attack on the flotilla and other actions by Israel have also shocked many in America.

These bloggers also write daily about the efforts of the American Jewish Community, the Israel lobby and the Israeli government to stifle debate in America and about the lack of reporting on issues relating to Palestinian suffering in the mainstream press.

This change has lead to an increasingly open debate in America about Israel policy: on university campuses, in churches and some synagogues, in the press and on the Internet.   American can no longer hide from this reality, nor should we.

How do we, as liberal Jews, respond to this debate?

Beinart: Two forms of Zionism

In his article Beinart argues that there are two versions of Zionism: There is a Zionism that, in response to persecution of Jews, believes that the entire world is against us and that our only option is to exercise our Jewish solidarity and power.

And there is a liberal, humanistic Zionism that is “gasping for air” in Israel today.  It is a Zionism that understands, in Beinart’s words, that “the best way to memorialize Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.” He believes that it is this form of Zionism that will inspire our children and is worth fighting for.

The young Israelis who protest weekly at Sheikh Jarah, the Jerusalem neighborhood where Jewish settlers have displaced Palestinian residents. give voice to this Zionism as do the many peace and human rights groups in Israel.

Beinart writes: “What if we told the next generation of Jews that it faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?  What if we shared an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what israel risks becoming and in love with what it still could be”?

Beinart’s article is courageous and important to all Jews concerned about Judaism and the future of Jewish values.  Many of us are profoundly concerned about what Israel is becoming and we should all be in love with what it still could be. It is vitally important for us to support courageous Israelis of all kinds who are fighting for a just Israel.  We need to teach our communities about these efforts, take Jews to Israel to meet progressive Israelis and invite them into our communities.  For the Jewish identity of our children, we need to find a way for them to connect to progressive Jewish culture in Israel and to progressive groups that uphold our core beliefs.  We also need to  make sure that when they go to Israel they also see the Palestinian reality and meet Palestinians who are working for peace.  This is the best chance we have to foster a positive and hopeful connection to Israel. This has been the focus of my work for the past three decades and it continues to be one essential part of what we need to do.

Jews and American Policy

And we need to go beyond this.  We live in America and it is as American citizens that we need to act. The United States government provides more aid to Israel than to any other country on earth and yet our government has allowed Israel to settle half a million people on the West Bank and rarely intervenes when Israel engages in egregious discrimination such as the fifth demolition of the village of El Arakib just a few days ago.  Our government always provides diplomatic cover for Israel as it did after Operation Cast Lead and the Flotilla incident.

It is time for turn our moral angst about Israeli policy to ending the suffering of the victims.  It is time for us to address the direct and indirect responsibility that we have as American Jews for the discrimination and suffering of Palestinians.   As the Obama administration pushes Israel, it will face huge resistance from the mainstream Jewish community, the Israeli lobby and many members of Congress.

The House in Silwan

Last year I told the story of standing on the ruins of a  demolished Palestinian home in Silwan and listening to residents talk about their children who had been arrested in the middle of the night for throwing stones at the bulldozers that destroyed the house.  I turned to my colleague in Rabbis for Human Rights and said, “I can’t bear to hear the story anymore, you see many such incidents how do you stand it?  He turned to me and looked me in the eye and said,”How do I stand it?  How do you stand it?  You pay for it!

He told me that a representative of the American consulate had been present at the demolition, that America apparently didn’t have the power to stop an action of blatant housing discrimination that would horrify most liberal Americans including, maybe especially, liberal American Jews.  Liberal American Jews have played a major role in the struggle to provide equal housing opportunity in America.

Yes, we pay for it and the United States covers for Israeli discrimination and all the injustice that Beinart describes in  his article.  And the leadership of American Jewry, including many rabbis and even some of the leaders of the Reform movement, are vocal advocates ensuring that the U.S. defends Israel when it commits human rights violations. This was clear after Operation Cast Lead, in the vicious vilification of Judge Goldstone and in the response to the attack on the flotilla.   This direct role the U.S. policy has in supporting the Occupation became  clear to me on that visit to Silwan and it became particularly clear during our most recent stay in Israel.

From our vantage point of  living in Jerusalem, I could see the direct effects of American Jews’ support for the policies of the Israeli government.  Every day the Israeli government acts to further settle the West Bank, to dispossess Palestinians from their homes, to steal more Palestinian land, to squeeze them into smaller and smaller pieces of land.  Every day these actions make a peace between the Palestinians and Israelis less likely.   The silence of the American government along with the massive support that America gives to Israel is what makes this all possible.  Without this support Israel could never continue these policies.  At any point, if America were to act on our basic principles and insist that Israel as a democracy stop wholesale ethnic discrimination against Palestinians, it would stop, or at a minimum there would be a profound change.

Those Israelis on our bus were right.  Without American support Israel would not have been able to masively expand settlements: without significant and serious American pressure there is no hope for a solution.  All of it is financed and supported by American government and it is our community, the American Jewish community, that plays a major role in securing the support of the United States and in silencing the debate about American policy in our country.  Israel relies on the American Jewish community and the Israel lobby to maintain the consistent overwhelming and blind support of the U.S. Congress.

As I watched this in Jerusalem, it became clear to me that I needed to act as an American citizen to call on my government to hold Israel accountable.  We liberal Jews have been relatively quiet; some of us have supported Israeli peace groups, but we have not been as active in regard to American foreign policy.  Many liberal Jews even  join in the silencing of dissent in America.  When churches in America discuss taking a position on Israeli policy — as the Presbyterians did this summer — the mainstream Jewish community mobilizes its leaders and rabbis to warn our non-Jewish friends that taking action on Israel will threaten Christian-Jewish relations and that their action is anti Semitic.

As a liberal American Jew, I want to join with other American citizens calling for a more moral and responsible American policy in regard to Israel.   Of course, Israel is entitled to security, our people feel vulnerable and we too have suffered, but our suffering in the past does not give us any right to inflict suffering on another people.  The message of our Torah is the opposite: that our suffering should sensitize us to the suffering of others. I am a supporter of the Israeli peace groups but I now see myself as a American Jew with a responsibility to demand that my government  intervene to uphold the core values of our faith by insisting that Israel end the violation of human rights, end the settlement policy,  and make real commitment to justice for the Palestinians.

For too long have we been vocal about human rights violations everywhere in the world but silent when Palestinian homes are demolished or when Palestinians are thrown out of their homes and replaced by extremist right wing Jewish settlers who are protected fully by the Israeli government, army and police and supported by our money and political support.

How can we hold up one standard in America and another in Israel?   What we believe must happen here in America is what should happen in Israel.  It is not complicated.

American Jews are beginning to take action.

A few years ago, J Street was formed as an alternative to the Israeli lobby.  J Street defines its mission as pro-Israel and pro-peace and supports efforts by the President and the Congress to pressure Israel and the Palestinians toward a two state peace settlement.  It is an organization that  challenges the power the Israel lobby has over Congress and  it works to open debate in the Jewish community.  It supports members of Congress and candidates who are pro-peace.  In February, J Street will be holding a conference and I would encourage those of you who are interested to attend.  I believe there have also been efforts to establish a local chapter here in Ithaca.

Another Jewish organization that has been active in regard to U.S. policy for many years is Jewish Voice for Peace.  While J Street is an explicitly Zionist organization, Jewish Voice for Peace includes Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, as well as many non-Jewish Americans.   JVP advocates for peace achieved through justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.  JVP seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East.  It is a strong and consistent voice calling for a U.S. policy that promotes democracy and human rights.  Again, I believe there is an effort to establish a local chapter of JVP here in Ithaca.

Palestinian civil society has called for a global non-violent movement – B.D.S.: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to end the Israeli policy of oppression and discrimination against their people.   Many Americans, including many American Jews, are involved in this effort.  We often criticize Palestinians for violent resistance. BDS is a totally nonviolent effort to end oppression.  Going as far back as the Exodus from Egypt, there is no example in human history of a political system where a privileged group gives up its privilege without enormous pressure.  And in Israel, there is no incentive to give it up.  Why would the settlers living in beautiful homes with exquisite views on the West Bank give up this privilege without any pressure to do so (and with full funding from the U.S.)

The B.D.S. movement makes many Jews anxious.  There are many legitimate concerns in our community, especially about the academic or cultural boycott, that must be discussed. I hope that we will have a chance to do so in this community.  The Israeli government and some  in the Jewish community have decided to draw a red line, putting anyone who supports B.D.S. beyond the pale.  This is a huge mistake.   While we may oppose specific boycotts like the academic boycott or cultural boycott, many Israelis support a boycott of products produced on the West Bank.   Just this past week, Israeli actors and directors decided to boycott the new publicly funded theater in Ariel on the West Bank.  Their action is supported by 100 American playwrights including Tony Kushner, Cynthia Nixon, and Theodore Bikel.  Does this make Theodore Bikel beyond the pale?  Does it put all the Israeli actors and directors beyond the pale?  This is definitely a profoundly challenging issue but the way to deal with it is not by calling those who advocate B.D.S. traitors.  Enough of name calling. It is time for an open discussion.

And this brings me to our congregation.

We are a diverse congregation with many different relationships to Israel.  Some of us have never even visited Israel.  For some of us, like myself, Israel is a central part of my identity as a Jew.  Some of us have family in Israel.  And all of us feel a special connection to that land. Facing these questions is challenging.

I urge you as individuals and as a community to be concerned “at what Israel risks becoming and in love with what it still could be.”  What happens in Israel affects and will continue to affect all Jews.

There are many different ways to take action.  We don’t all have to do the same thing.

We have started by holding listening circles and we need to continue listening and  learning.  I personally am especially grateful to those members of the congregation who disagree with my position but have been prepared to listen.  I look forward to listening carefully to opposing points of view and to a continued respectful and sometimes difficult conversation.

We need to go beyond just listening.  We also need to take action, whether it be to challenge the the Reform leadership as our Board recently did, to support J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, Taanit Tzedek, Americans for Peace, Israeli peace or human rights groups to name just a few possibilities.

“You don’t live here, you don’t understand”

We can no longer be silenced by those who say, “What right do you have to criticize Israel, you don’t live there, you don’t have to pay the price for the consequences of your actions”?

Yes, we don’t live there and the citizens of Israel must decide their own future.  Our responsibility is for the role our own government and our own community plays in Israel.

Whether we like it or not, as Americans we are directly involved in Israel.  The question is how we will be involved — as those who uncritically support Israeli policy or those who call on our government to advocate for the same values we support here in America and to support those in Israel who are upholding those values? I trust that this community will be a space of open debate on these issues and a community that will act to promote justice, compassion and equity in America, in Israel and throughout the world.

Lastly, this sermon not really about Zionism or Israel but about Judaism.  What kind of Judaism will we support: a Judaism that is based on universal human values or a Judaism that privileges the rights of Jews above the rights of other people?  Reform Judaism has a proud history of upholding the prophetic vision of Judaism with the core values of justice and compassion for all human beings.  What’s at stake in the issues I have raised this morning is our religious faith and legacy.  The stakes could not be higher.

I want to end with the same kavvanah with which I began:

Arundhati Roy writes: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.  And once you’ve seen it,  keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.  There is no innocence.  Either way you are accountable.”

We have both seen and heard and we are accountable.

L’maan achai v’reyai adaberah na shalom bach.

L’maan beyt Adonai eloheynu avaksha tov lach.

For the sake of my brothers, my sisters and friends

I will speak of peace

For the sake of this planet, the House of God, may I seek  goodness and blessing to all.

May the Source of Life bless us with the strength to seek peace for all our brothers and sisters, for Israeli Jews and for Palestinians.

For the sake of this planet, the House of God, may we seek goodness and blessing for all.

I wish you and your families a year of blessing and joy.

May we all write and seal ourselves in the book of life, blessing — and peace.

Shana Tova.

Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, Settlements, U.S. Middle East Policy | 25 Comments »

On Rabbinic Integrity: “Principles, truth and justice before ethnic or group loyalty”

Posted by rabbibrian on July 23, 2010

Now that the official Israeli response has confirmed several of the most shocking events described in the Goldstone report, Allister Sparks, a prominent South African journalist, has publicly challenged members of the South African Jewish community and Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, in particular,  to apologize for their public attack on Judge Goldstone. (The American Jewish leadership and community was as vicious in its attack on Judge Goldstone.)

Israel’s report confirms several of the egregious moral violations described in the Report including a lethal attack on a mosque during a prayer service, on a house where a family with 100 members was hiding on the orders of Israel Defense Force, and the killing of a Palestinian holding a white flag by an Israeli marksmen.

Sparks writes, “For Judge Richard Goldstone, particularly, this is a personal vindication, for he was excoriated by leading members of the local Jewish community for chairing the commission.  He was told his commission’s findings were lies; that he was naive and gullible for accepting the version of events given by terrorists; and that, since he is a Jew, he was a traitor to his people.

His critics were given support by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who chastised Goldstone for “doing great damage to the state of Israel”. He should have recused himself instead, Goldstein said, and taken no part in the investigating mission.

I have had difficulty understanding what the chief rabbi meant by this.

Goldstein is a trained lawyer as well as a rabbi. Did he mean that no Jew, however professionally disciplined — and Judge Goldstone’s legal reputation is among the highest in the world — can be objective when it comes to a matter involving Israel?

And if so, does that involve Jews individually or collectively as well, or just the interests of the state of Israel? Or did he mean that it is a Jewish person’s inherent duty either to set aside his professional ethics and find in favour of the state of Israel regardless of the merits of a case or, if that is unacceptable, to recuse himself? But that for a Jew to find against Israel is traitorous?

What are the moral priorities being expressed here?

We are not dealing with an ordinary individual in this matter, but with the head of a major religion in a multiracial, multireligious and constitutionally secular state.

We secularists need to know what a religious leader in our community means when he seeks to impose such an ethical dictum on a prominent member of his faith — someone who was a founding father of our Constitutional Court and an interpreter of our infinitely important national constitution in this new democracy.”

As a rabbi and an ex-South African, I find Sparks’ challenge particularly important.  When I interviewed Judge Goldstone, I asked him about those who claim claimed he was a “traitor to his people.”   He responded by referring to his experience as a white person during Apartheid.  In words that reminded me of my own experience, he said that during Apartheid all white critics of Apartheid were called traitors and were attacked mercilessly, sometimes physically.  He and many other courageous whites acted on their conscience, despite these charges of disloyalty to one’s race/group.

Sparks points to the inspiring example one such white South African, Rev. Beyers Naude, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, who publicly stated that Apartheid was a flagrant moral violation of the core ethic of Christianity.  He was persecuted for his stand by the government and suffered vicious attack from members of his community church, but he stood firm.  I was a young Jewish student at the University of Cape Town at the time and I was so inspired by Naude who after being expelled from his church, founded the Christian Institute to  explore Christian values in an Apartheid Society.  I still have copies of their publications on my bookshelves, all of which explore Christian values in relation to a series of issues: education, workers rights, medical care and other topics.  Each publication examines how the inequality, discrimination and injustice in the particular area violates core Christian values.

Sparks comments:

I attended the Dutch Reformed Church service in Linden, Johannesburg, at which Naude had to respond to the church leaders’ demand that he choose between the church’s doctrine of support for Apartheid and his commitment to the nonracial Christian Institute he had founded.

So I ask the chief rabbi that same question today: what is your choice? Then, at the level of plain human decency, don’t you think, Chief Rabbi Goldstein and those members of the Orthodox Jewish community and the South African Zionist Federation whom you lead, that you owe Judge Goldstone an apology? A public, abject apology.”

In other words, Naude was forced to choose between his moral principles and his loyalty to his own people and their church.

I heard Naude announce his decision that memorable day before the glitterati of Afrikaner nationalism in the packed pews before him. Smilingly, boldly, he told them simply: “I choose God before man.”

In other words, principles, truth and justice before ethnic or group loyalty. It was the defining moment of that great man’s life.

Over the past years and especially over the past few months I have had conversations with many of my rabbinic colleagues about the challenge of speaking truthfully about Israeli policy.  Most American liberal rabbis carefully choose what we say about Israel as we know that speaking truthfully could mean the loss of our jobs and income.  While many of us speak out on some issues, we all are also silent about issues that call for truth-telling.   Understandably, and sadly, many of us join in campaigns of our communities to support Israeli government policies that we know violate core Jewish values, the values that are the reason we became rabbis in the first place.  We feel torn between loyalty to our people and loyalty to the values of our tradition” or as Beyers Naude put it, between God and Man.

I, like all rabbis, face this dilemma all the time.   Do I tell the truth and face the vicious attacks from others about “treason” or tribal disloyalty?  On what issues will I speak out and on what issues will I be silent?  What will be the cost be for me, for my family, for my ability to function as a rabbi?  At what point does my silence entail the abdication of the very essence of what it means to be a rabbi.

Thank you Allister Sparks, for posing the question to the Chief Rabbi and raising this difficult and important question for me, all rabbis and Jews.  And thank you again, to Judge Goldstone for courageously putting moral (for me, religious) values above loyalty to any state, tribe or community.  You challenge and inspire us all.

For an analysis of the official Israeli response to the Goldstone Report I recommend the blog post of Magnes Zionist.

Posted in Goldstone Report, Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Rabbis | 4 Comments »

Dershowitz, Goldstone, Israel and South Africa

Posted by rabbibrian on May 12, 2010

My colleague, Rabbi Brant Rosen, has just published a important response on Huffington Post to a series of articles by Alan Dershowitz over the last few weeks.  I recommend his article highly and encourage you to share it with others.

When a Jew starts to accuse rabbis of blood libel; when an American shouts “McCarthyism” at an American magazine editor whose life is dedicated to dialogue; when a professional, highly experienced lawyer accuses a world-renown jurist of “evil,” equating him with the Nazi “Angel of Death,” and uses Star Wars terminology against a legitimate, widely-supported political lobbying group – well, it adds up, and it indicates one thing: Desperation.

Alan Dershowitz, and many of Jewish America’s leading conservative lights, have seen the writing on the wall, and it frightens them. Their brand of Jewish chauvinism is fading from the world, and they are justifiably frightened that a different approach to both Israel and Jewish life is taking hold among American Jews.

Read the complete article here.

As an ex-South African, it was so distressing to see the latest attack by the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, on Judge Goldstone’s history as a judge during the Apartheid years. This latest attack celebrated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and American Israeli apologists, is particularly odious as it is launched by Israelis who either ignored or supported Apartheid.   I recommend reading this important article, Glass Stones, Glass Houses, by Sasha Polakow-Suransky that highlights the hypocrisy of this latest attack:

Goldstone’s apartheid-era judicial rulings are undoubtedly a blot on his record, but his critics never mention the crucial part he played in shepherding South Africa through its democratic transition and warding off violent threats to a peaceful transfer of power — a role that led Nelson Mandela to embrace him and appoint him to the country’s highest court.

More importantly, Ayalon’s and Rivlin’s moralism conveniently ignores Israel’s history of arming the apartheid regime from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. By serving as South Africa’s primary and most reliable arms supplier during a period of violent internal repression and external aggression, Israel’s government did far more to aid the apartheid regime than Goldstone ever did (emphasis mine).

In 1986 I was in my first pulpit and I remember the revelations about Israel’s role in supporting Apartheid.  In my rabbinic office I had publications and statements from several Jewish organizations denying the charges of Israel’s close ties to the Apartheid government.  When I think of that time it is so similar to the current campaign to deny the Goldstone Report.  I was younger then and was shocked that the mainstream Jewish organizations had lied, calling those who wrote about the relationship anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and worse.  Now it all seems very familiar.

The only reason that Yediot Achronot, the Israeli government and Israeli apologists are focused on this story is another cynical effort to avoid facing the allegations in the Goldstone Report.  Even if Judge Goldstone was a pro-Apartheid judge, which he wasn’t in any way, the reports don’t alter the shocking moral violations by Israel detailed in the Goldstone Report.  The same Israeli apologists and Jewish organizations who lied then about the relationship between Israel and South Africa are the ones attacking Goldstone now.

As Rabbi Rosen wrote:

It’s time for Jewish leaders in Israel, America, and around the world to grapple with the difficult truths of Israel’s occupation and its treatment of the Palestinian people – rather than launching personal attacks against the messengers with whom they don’t happen to agree.

Posted in Gaza, Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis | 6 Comments »

Two Visits to Hebron

Posted by rabbibrian on January 13, 2010

A week ago I moved to Jerusalem for the next five months.  Over this perios of time I hope to share ocassional posts about my experience here.  This is the first.

In November 2008, I organized a tour of Hebron with Shovrim Shtika (Soldiers Breaking the Silence) that challenged my core beliefs. On Monday I visited Hebron again this time joining a Health  Human Rights Project delegation.

On my first visit over a year ago, we walked down Shuhadeh Street and saw the deserted part of the Old City of Hebron, with a line of Palestinians stores that were forcibly closed by the Israeli military.  This area of the city,  that once bustled with life and was home home to 30,000 Palestinians,  was now almost a ghost town.  The streets were empty, the stores were bolted shut, many with Jewish stars and other graffiti smeared in black paint on the metal doors.  In some of the houses that were still occupied children peered at us from a porch totally enclosed by a metal grate to protect them against objects hurled at them by the settlers.

The Israeli military had designated the street we were walking a “sterile street,” a street on which only Jews can walk!  The Palestinians who lived on the street could not leave their homes through their front doors which were also bolted by the Israeli military.

The physical experience of walking down that “sterile street” shocked me to my core.   This town is deserted, the Palestinians are not allowed to walk on their own street because a few hundred very religious (“religious”?) Jews, supported by the overwhelming power of the Israeli military, have created several settlements in the heart of a Palestinian city.

As an ex-South African, I could not help but think about Apartheid.  Apartheid was a travesty, a huge crime committed against millions of people, yet even under Apartheid, there were no “sterile streets.”  The experience made me confront the fact that this ethnic discrimination and brutality was being done not only  in the name of Judaism, by religious Jews, inspired by Jewish sources, texts and beliefs; but it was also made possible and fully supported by Israel, the state that speaks in the name of the Jewish people.  The walk down that street, a little more than a year ago, changed my life.   Having seen with my own eyes the effects of the discrimination, having walked with my own legs down that street, I could no longer avoid confronting the racism that was at the core of  Israeli government policy, at the heart of Zionism, and in parts of my own religious tradition.  I could no longer just ignore, avoid or easily reinterpret those ideas in our the sacred texts that inspired these settlers: the ideas of a Promised Land, an exclusive covenant and about destroying the peoples of the Land of Canaan.  I could also no longer ignore the privileging of the rights of Jews over the rights of non-Jews that was at the core of Zionism.

Michael Manikin, our tour leader and one of the founders of Shovrim Shtika, Soldiers Breaking the Silence, pointed out that Hebron was no different from all the other settlements on the West Bank.   The entire settlement project is based on the fundamental belief that the rights and lives of Jews are more important than those of the Palestinians.  For him as a religious Jew, this reality was far more than just a political issue, it was a profound spiritual issue, that challenged the core of his beliefs.   His Judaism was not about discrimination, it was about justice and equity.  His courageous work in Shovrim Shtika was a spiritual witness and an inspiration to me.

Two days ago I went to Hebron again and this time the tour leader was Hisham Sharabati, a Palestinian human rights activist and journalist, who was born in 1967 and  has lived under the Occupation in Hebron all his life.

We met in an open space in the town with alleyways leading into the market on all sides.  Most of the stores around us and in the streets were closed.  Hisham told us that 512 Palestinian stores have been closed by the Israeli military “to protect the security of the settlers” and countless others are closed because the of the devastating economic consequences of living under Occupation.  The stores that are forcibly closed are marked with red or black dots.

As we stood in that open space in front of us there was a metal gate and huge concrete blocks, guarded by Israeli soldiers heavily laden with military gear often with their hands on their guns ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.

On several of the nearby roofs there were Israeli military posts.   Towering above the Palestinian homes was a Yeshivah  with the words from the Torah “Kiryat Arba is Hebron.”  The settlers derive their legitimation directly from our sacred text.

We met for lunch in what was once a store front and home but like so many others was now empty.   As Hisham told us his story he mentioned that Israeli soldiers routinely walk through the town in groups their hands on their guns and stop Palestinians, often young boys, asking for their identity cards.  They then often force the children to stand against a wall with their hands above their heads while they pat them down, sometimes they take them off for interrogation.  Sometimes it is a few minutes of humiliation, other times it may last a few hours.  As he is talking, he points out that behind us the soldiers have just stopped a group of kids.  We go to watch this scene, as these soldiers in the most advanced military gear, take the identity cards of three kids and then take them one by one behind the metal gate, force them to stand against the wall and  pat them down.  It feels like a game of cops and robbers, but this is serious.

I notice that I feel ashamed.   I am a rabbi.   These soldiers are acting in the name of the Jewish state to protect some religious Jewish settlers.  What is my connection to them as a Jew?  What is my responsibility for this violation?  Why am I and my community so complacent in the face of this urgent moral crisis that threatens the very core of our spiritual tradition and is causing so much suffering to so many people?  Yes, many of us oppose the Occupation but do we really act as if it is a mater of critical moral urgency?  Do we act as if it is a matter of life and death?

Later in the day as we were walking through the market we saw another group of soldiers who had three young boys pinned against the wall with their hands above the heads.  This time the soldiers were aggressive and I saw one of them kick the child.  I and several others in our group stood and watched and the soldiers angrily told us to move.  We stood our ground and just watched.  One of the soldiers came up to me and said Lechu mipo/Get out of here and then “Let me do my job.”   What is his “job”?  To make sure that the residents know that he is more powerful, to humiliate and inflict suffering on thousands of Palestinians to protect the “right” of Jews to settle in Hebron.  After a few minutes they let the kids go.  I realized how important our presence in this situation.  I don’t know how much we changed the outcome,  but our presence definitely made it less likely that there would be more violent abuse.

Israel understands this and that is why it acts to prevent international human rights activists and observers from being on the West Bank.  Israel is threatening not to renew the mission of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).  It also regularly threatens the courageous folk in the Christian Peacamaker Team who uphold the human rights and dignity of the Palestinian residents.

Both incidents that we witnesed were relatively mild in the scheme of things.  No one was physically hurt and yet it was so profoundly shocking.  This is the daily experience of these kids.  What effect will it have on their life?  Will they one day respond with violence?  Their only experience of Jews and Judaism is the settlers and the soldiers. What do they think of Jews and Judaism?   Will they develop a hatred for all Jews?

And what about the soldiers?  They are also just young boys given a grossly inappropriate amount of power over other human beings.  While I don’t want to equate the experience of the Palestinian children, the victims, and the soldiers, the experience damages the lives and souls of both the victim and victimizer.

The rest of the afternoon we move around the town crossing checkpoints, seeing the dramatic effects of the settlers on the town including the vile debris, stones, metal, foul water that the settlers throw upon the Palestinians.

We visit the home of Hashim al Aza, who has the misfortune of living right next to the Tel Rumeida another settlement, home of some of the most violent of the Hebron settlers.  Settlers have vanalized his house on several occasions, attacked , his wife and children, destroyed his vineyards, all with the complicity of the Israeli military.   He invites us into his home to show us videos of settlers rampaging through his home, attacking school children and their teachers.  Some of these videos were part of the Betzelem camera project. The soldiers in the videos just watch as the settlers violently attack people and/or property.

We see other areas of the city that are blocked by cement blocks and fences and various checkpoints.  On one road Hisham shows us a red line that indicates that Palestinian pedestrians must stop and wait for a soldier to come check them before they can continue on the road.

Towards the end of our tour we climb on a roof to look down on the part of Shuhadah street that I walked down more than a year ago.  This time I see the rear of the houses with the passage way on the roof and the fire escape ladders that the residents use to get out of their house as they can’t exit the front door.  If they want to go shopping, go the doctor, or if God forbid they have to bury a loved one, they have to climb to the roof and then down the ladders!

This city of 200,000 people is completely devastated by the presence of about 400-600 Jews.

I leave the trip shaken to my core.  Hebron was one of the first Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and it demonstrates the urgent moral crisis of the Occupation, now more than forty years long and with no end in sight.    I would prefer to avoid the  issue of American aid to Israel, of boycott, sanctions and divestment but it might be the most effective way to shock Israel into making change.   It may be the most effective strategy for non-violent change.  We could avoid facing this difficult challenge, especially for those of so connected to Israel,  if the situation was not so dire, so desperate.  But the situation is desperate for all who care for justice and all these measures must be considered.   To avoid them, or to prevent discussion of any measure is to accept the situation as it is and as it has been now for over forty years.   And for those of us who are religious Jews, Hebron calls on us to carefully examine the teachings of our faith and to challenge the use of our sacred tradition to oppress and humiliate a whole people. As it says: “The Task is great and  the time is short.”

Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, Settlements, U.S. Middle East Policy | 27 Comments »

A visit to Bethlehem: Life on the Other side of the Wall

Posted by rabbibrian on December 29, 2009

Two weeks ago, during Hannukah, I spent three days in Bethlehem, as a guest of the World Council of Churches.  I was one of two Jews – my  dear friend, Mark Braverman, was the other – invited to be present for the launch of the Palestine Kairos document, an extraordinary appeal written by Palestinian Christian leaders to Christians worldwide and to the entire world community.  Entitled, A Moment of Truth: A word of Faith, Hope and Love from the Heart of Palestinian Suffering, the Kairos document is a painful and inspiring religious cry to people all around the world to end the Occupation.

“We, a group of Christian Palestinians, …..cry out from within the suffering in our country, under the Israeli occupation, with a cry of hope in the absence of all hope, a cry full of prayer and faith in a God ever vigilant, in God’s divine providence for all the inhabitants of this land.”

“In this historic document, we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.”

In addition to participating in the meetings over the three days, I was asked  to offer a very brief public response to the document.

What did it mean to me?

As I read the document, I was moved and inspired by the clear articulation of the relationship between spiritual teachings of Christianity and the situation of Palestinians under Occupation.  I was particularly struck by the way the document balances the religious commitment to justice, to resist the evil of the Occupation, with the commandment to love, to see all people as reflection of the Divine, not to demonize the Occupiers.  In all struggles for justice this is the critical task for people of faith.  The essence of our faith is to see the world and all humanity as an expression of the Divine and out of this faith to pursue justice and peace and to resist evil.  It is very hard to do both and I chose to focus on this in my short response.

Here is some of what I said:

“I was struck by the balance in the Kairos document between the deep spiritual commitment to resist the injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people, along with a profound openness to the humanity of the oppressor.

Of course it struck me because I stand here today as a Jew, one who bears responsibility for the oppression.  While I don’t live in Israel, Zionism and the rebirth of the Jewish/Hebrew culture in Israel in Israel is important to me.  As much as I love the renewed Jewish culture in Israel, it is extremely painful to see our great spiritual tradition violated day by day by the cruelty and evil of walls, checkpoints, land confiscation, home demolition and countless other vile acts of injustice.

The injustice of the Occupation must end, God calls on all to resist the Occupation and to demand justice for the Palestinian people.  Without justice for the Palestinian people, the Jewish people will never be liberated from being an oppressor, a reality that violates God’s call to the children of Abraham to pursue justice and righteousness. As a rabbi, I join with you in the resistance to Occupation both because my faith commands me to resist any injustice but also because this injustice corrupts Judaism and the Jewish people..   As it is stated so powerfully in your document:

“Primary responsibility rests on the perpetrators of injustice they must liberate themselves from the evil in them and the injustice that they have imposed on their brothers and sisters.”

It is in this spirit that I am with you today.

For me and for all Jews this path to taking responsibility for the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians is a difficult and painful one.  Most people in our community know very little about Palestinian history and reality.  Moreover, acknowledging that something as dear as your faith, or your religious community,  is causing another people pain, is a difficult reality to acknowledge.

I invite you to read the entire Kairos document.  Is it possible for us to create a similar statement one that articulates how we as Jews on the basis of our faith understand our relationship to the land and  our responsibility to resist the Occupation?

For me it was the first time that I have stayed in Occupied Territories for several days.  Living on the other side of the Wall was transformative.  Every minute of the day, one lives with the reality of the Occupation.   I went through the checkpoint a few times with Palestinians and understood in a deeper way how demeaning and humiliating it is, even for those Palestinians who have the necessary documents, to wait in a line at the checkpoint, not knowing if the young soldier on duty will allow you to leave. Most Palestinians are “imprisoned” behind the wall and can’t even visit family and friends in Jerusalem, just a five-minute drive from their homes.

At the end of the meeting when I went to visit my family and friends in West Jerusalem, I just cried.  It felt like I had travelled from one planet to another.  How do I hold on to the reality of Jewish life in West Jerusalem that I love and the reality of Bethlehem under Occupation?

And I felt like Joseph seeking his brothers.  I was looking for my brothers and sisters, a Jewish community gathered around a theology of liberation, one that on the basis of our faith took full responsibility for our role in the oppression of the Palestinian people and took committed action to end the Occupation.  Is such a community possible?

My faith in the possibility of justice and reconciliation is expressed so beautifully in the  the Kairos document:

“Our land is God’s land, as is the case with all countries in the world. It is holy inasmuch as God is present in it, for God alone is holy and sanctifier. It is the duty of those of us who live here, to respect the will of God for this land. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war.

It is God’s land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love. This is indeed possible. God has put us here as two peoples, and God gives us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and establish in it justice and peace, making it in reality God’s land: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1).


Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis | 27 Comments »

Hannukah and Operation Cast Lead: One year later

Posted by rabbibrian on December 18, 2009

Tomorrow is Shabbat Hannukah, the Sabbath that occurs during Hannukah.   Exactly one year ago, on Shabbat Hannukah (Saturday December 27, 2008), Israel launched Operation Cast Lead.

On that day, Saturday December 27, 2008,  at 11:30 in the morning, a time when schoolchildren were still in school, 88 Israeli aircraft simultaneously attacked 100 preplanned targets in Gaza within a span of 4 minutes.  This initial attack was followed by another attack and by the end of that Sabbath day, at least 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 700 injured. Shabbat Hannukah last year, was the day with the highest   one day death toll in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Reuters report from that day reads as follows:

“Black smoke billowed over Gaza City, where the dead and wounded lay on the ground after Israel bombed more than 40 security compounds, including two where Hamas was hosting graduation ceremonies for new recruits.

At the main Gaza City graduation ceremony, uniformed bodies lay in a pile and the wounded writhed in pain.”

Our traditional greeting for Shabbat is Shabbat Shalom/ A Sabbath of Peace.  That day was far from a Sabbath of Peace.

Not only did the Israeli military assault start on Hannukah, the name of the campaign, Operation Cast Lead, is from a Hannukah poem by Haim Nachman Bialik about a dreidel made from cast lead that a father bought for his child.   The poem became a popular Hannukah children’s song.  I learned the song when I was a child and Jewish children in Israel and around the world sing it joyously.  From now on the image of the cast lead dreidl will be associated with the lead of armaments and the violence of Operation Cast Lead.

I imagine we all remember those days last year of the military campaign. I remember how shocked I was by the brutality and disproportional nature of the response.  Israel with one of the strongest armies in the world bombarded one and a half million people who live in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, in an open air prison, in isolation enforced by  the Israeli siege with no way to leave or enter.

Israel claimed it had no choice, any nation-state would do the same thing.  Israel has a right and a responsibility to defend itself.  The rockets that Palestinian armed groups fired into Israeli civilian areas terrorized the entire population, damaged property and sometimes injured and killed civilians.

Was it true that Israel had no choice?  Was this a wise or an ethical way to defend oneself?

My shock about the campaign grew as the reports of the massive deliberate targeting of civilian targets were revealed: the death of 1100-1400 civilians among them hundreds of children, the extensive wanton destruction of property, evidence of people killed even when they were holding white flags of surrender, the use of white phosphorus and other weaponry not used in congested urban areas,  the destruction of thousands of homes, of water wells, the vile graffiti scrawled on the homes of Palestinians and the list goes on and on.

As a Jew, as a rabbi, as a human being I was shocked.  Israel is a state that acts in the name of the Jewish people.  This attack was neither wise, nor ethical.  Is this what the ethical tradition of our people had come to?   We say that to be Jewish is to be compassionate,  “the compassionate who are also the children of the compassionate”?  Isn’t  the essence of our faith  that every human being is created in the image of God?

An Israeli friend told me of her experience at a family Hannukah party.  They turned on the television and saw the horrifying images of the bombing of Gaza and the smoke rising from the ground.  She was shocked by what she saw.  But then without another thought the members of her family turned off the television and resumed their party as if nothing had happened.  She was stunned that no one in her family missed a beat.  It was not significant enough to interrupt the joy of Hannukah.  It was as if the death and misery of Palestinians didn’t concern them.

Now a year later this seems an appropriate image to describe our reaction over the past year, we “turned off the TV”.

Overwhelmingly Israelis, even liberal Israelis, supported the military campaign assault.  Some Israelis called for a ceasefire but opposition to the war was minimal.  It is so striking that when Israel allowed the Phalangists to enter the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila and they killed 700 Palestinians, over 400,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv.  Last year Israeli soldiers, not someone else with Israeli permission, killed more than 1300  Palestinians and the largest protest in Israel was of 5-6,000 people many of them Palestinian citizens of Israel.

And there was the same reaction by Jewish organizations and leaders.  Everyone supported the military campaign.  Israel had no choice.  It had to defend itself.  If you dared to criticize the campaign you were a traitor to our people.

And we “turned off our TV”  by closing our ears to the devastating reports of human rights organizations in Israel and around the world issued before the war, during the war and till today about the unbearable suffering in Gaza.  – detailed reports by credible organization such B’tselem, Gisha, Shovrim Shtika, The Association for Civil rights in Israel, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others.

We “turned off our TV” by the vilification of the Judge Goldstone and our concerted effort to squash the report.

Despite the efforts of our leaders to close our ears and hearts to the humanity of men, women and children in Gaza, for many Jews and for many Americans of all faiths, the Gaza assault marked a turning point in our relationship to Israel.   Many Americans who were deeply supportive of Israel simply couldn’t justify this action.  It raised disturbing questions about Israeli policy, questions that remain unanswered.

It was a turning point for me, too.   During the war I was devastated.  How could I support this brutal assault?  What could I do as a rabbi to stop the carnage, to express my opposition to this devastating military attack.  I was much too silent. Like other liberal rabbis I signed statements in favor of a mutual ceasefire but I didn’t raise my voice in moral outrage against the assault.

Why were we so silent?

We were so silent out of fear that if we expressed our opposition to the Israeli military operation we would be targeted as traitors by members of our community.  Many rabbis are legitimately afraid of losing our rabbinic positions.

Someone told me that a Passover Seder he raised the question of the Gaza assault.  It was hard to do, there were many there who supported the Operation and he was afraid.  He thought to himself what will I tell my Palestinian friends?  Will I tell them that I was a afraid to raise the question of their suffering because some folk may be upset by me doing so?

In June of this year, 10 rabbis came together to break the silence and created Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. Within a few weeks Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza garnered the support of 300 people, including rabbis, ministers, imams, cantors and rabbinical students.

Our call is simple:

Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is being spilled (Leviticus 19:16).

“As Jews, people of many faiths and people of conscience, we can no longer stand idly by Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza.

Since Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to an increasingly intolerable blockade that restricts Gaza’s ability to import food, fuel and other essential materials, and to export finished products. As a result, the Gazan economy has completely collapsed. Most of Gaza’s industrial plants have been forced to close, further contributing to already high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition.

On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth, and on peace (Mishnah Avot 1:18).

From this we learn that justice, truth and peace are interdependent and irrevocably intertwined. Thus we cannot separate our call for justice in Gaza from the painful truth of this conflict and the ongoing tragedy of war in this tortured region. We condemn Hamas’ deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians. Out of the same ethical commitments we also condemn the use of much greater violence by the Israeli government, causing many more deaths of Palestinian civilians. Since the end of Israel’s recent military campaign, the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza has grown all the more dire.”

Our call is three-fold:  Break the Silence, Lift the Siege, Pursue Peace

Break the Silence:  We must affirm the humanity of the residents of Gaza by breaking our silence about their suffering.  They are human beings, just like us, created in the image of God and as deserving of human dignity, compassion and justice.

Lift the Siege: The Israeli siege on Gaza by land, air and sea that is causing untold human suffering is an unconscionable attack on civilians.   This siege that is supported by U.S. government and the EU must be lifted.

Pursue the Peace: There is no military solution to the conflict.  The only real solution is a negotiated settlement and it is time for Israel to negotiate with all relevant parties including Hamas towards a resolution of the conflict.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition of calling a public fast in times of moral crisis.  The situation in Gaza is a moral crisis for Jews, people of all faiths and all people of conscience.  We fast once a month dedicating ourselves to do all we can to end the siege on Gaza and to advocate for negotiation and peace.  We support the Milk for Pre-Schoolers program of ANERA that provides fortified milk and a biscuit to children in Gaza.

There are now over 900 people across the world who have made a commitment to Jewish Fast for Gaza.  If you wish to join this growing community of conscience, you can sign up on our website.

Some Congressional Representatives have initiated efforts to ameliorate the suffering in Gaza.   Jewish Voice for Peace is one of several organizations that has promoted these efforts.

In a few weeks some 1400 people from around the world will be participating in the Gaza Freedom March.  We are proud that Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and other members of Taanit Tzedek have made this sacred commitment.  To support them, visit the Gaza Freedom March website.

Now, a year later, the suffering in Gaza is even greater than a year ago.  Gazans have no way to rebuild their homes, to reclaim their agricultural land, to renew their lives as Israel blocks the entry of materials needed for reconstruction.  Israel still doesn’t allow sufficient food into Gaza, the water supply is contaminated and there is the danger of a catastrophic health crisis.

Tomorrow for Sahbbat Hannukah we will read a special Haftarah, a prophetic portion assigned by the rabbis for particular days.    For Shabbat Hannukah the rabbis made a surprising choice, they assigned the passage from Zachariah that ends:

“Not by Might, nor by Power, but My Spirit ”

The rabbis understood the dangers of military power, that human beings tend to believe that conflict can be resolved by military force.   For this reason, they were ambivalent about the Maccabees and expressed that ambivalence by assigning Zechariah’s prophetic words to be read on Hannukah.

This year these words are particularly powerful.  Operation Cast Lead is based on the belief that overwhelming military force will provide security for the people of Israel.  The rockets from Gaza are also a desperate effort to resist by military means.   Israel is less secure than before the operation.  There is no military solution to this or any other human conflict.  The only solution is political a direct negotiated settlement.  As the prophet Isaiah said justice is the only way to create peace and security.

For many in Israel the military resistance of the Maccabees is what is celebrated on Hannukah.  This story was very important in the history of Zionism and Israel who saw the Maccabean resistance as an inspiring model.

The rabbis offer a different meaning of Hannukah.  Hannukah is a rejection of power and military might and an affirmation of the Spirit of  God that inheres in every human being.  And it is this connection to the Spirit of Life that must be the center of our lives.

The small Hannukah candles are a reminder of the Divine light in each and every human being.  This Shabbat Hannukah, one year later, we are called to bring light to Gaza, the light of justice, compassion and peace.  Will we close our hearts and “turn off the TV”?

Posted in Gaza, Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, U.S. Middle East Policy | 10 Comments »

You shall stand idly by: Goucher caves in to Fear

Posted by rabbibrian on November 23, 2009

Several weeks ago students at Goucher College invited me,  Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to the End the Occupation, and Zahi Khamis, a Palestinian faculty member at the university  to speak on a panel on “Palestinian Human Rights: Your Involvement” at  the college. A few days before the event, scheduled for Wednesday last week, Sandy Ungar, President of Goucher, told the students that the event could not be held as a public event at the college.

Ungar argued that the panel was biased and would endanger Goucher college.  He gave them two options. Either they could invite a “pro-Israel speaker” or they could hold it as part of their class, during the time of the class, with no publicity. The students had organized the event as the final assignment in their Peace Studies class to create a public dialogue at the college on any issue.  The students rejected the demand to add a “pro-Israel” speaker and decided after some discussion not to cancel the event, but to proceed under the terms of the Administration.  The dialogue would take place in a classroom with space for about 30 people, within the time period assigned to the class and it would not be a public event. Within this context, the panelists would have time for a short presentation and the rest of the “class time” would be devoted to a discussion of the issues raised by the event and possible actions in response.
The students in were understandably irate about two issues:
1. The censorship and silencing of  a public discussion on Palestinian human rights
2. The issue of student rights.

There is a Student Bill of Rights at Goucher that protects the right of students to invite speakers of their choice to speak on the college and that these speakers do  not represent the view of the college.

About 50 students, all of whom heard about the event by word of mouth and through an article in the student newspaper, packed into a classroom.  Following short presentations by the three panelists the students shared their feelings about the action of the Administration and many ideas for actions in response to the censorship.  The students and some faculty expressed their dismay that Goucher had sacrificed it’s principles under pressure.  The students skillfully led a respectful and profound sharing of ideas.
Although the action of President of Goucher is outrageous, this is not an exceptional case, it is only one example of a the many ways in which public discussion of Palestinian rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are censored in America.  It is just another indication how many liberals and Free Speech advocates, such as Sandy Ungar,  end up caving in to fear and pressure, perceived and actual.     Jewish organizations, donors, and leaders exert overwhelming pressure that prevents open debate in communities across America. In this case President Ungar had to choose between his commitment to free speech and his fear that holding this event would lead Jews to see Goucher as a college that is “pro-Palestinian” or inhospitable to Jews. He also feared a loss of revenue, potential action by Jewish donors.

“We don’t want Goucher to end up on a list of schools with a reputation of bringing vehemently pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli speakers to campus”

“I don’t think it would be good for enrollment.”

“For something to be a Goucher public program, it needs to meet a set of requirements, one of which is balance.”

You can read the full history of this issue at Goucher in the student newspaper.

I am not sure who decides which speaker is “vehemently pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israel” but I fear that Ungar has left that in the hands of the mainstream Jewish community.

It was interesting that in the discussion a participant who had hosted a prospective student on a tour of  Goucher last week reported that the student and her father knew me as a rabbi and were stunned that Goucher had decided not to allow me to speak publicly!   The same was true in Mishkan Shalom, the congregation that I founded in Philadelphia where several of my congregants and their children are  alumni of Goucher college.

Understandably Zahi Khamis, a Paletinian who teaches at Goucher was deeply offended by the action of the administration.  I was so pleased to support him and to express my solidarity with Palestinians who are denied the right to share their reality and perspective.  Josh Ruebner, the third panelist, shared briefly the ways in which the Congress is silenced on this issue and the ways in which the U. S. Campaign acts to effect a change in U.S. policy.

In my short presentation to the students I placed the event in the context of the pressure exerted on journalists, academics, churches and religious institutions restricting discussion of Palestinian rights.   I shared some of my own experience as a rabbi and that of my rabbinic colleagues. In 1988 I lost my first post as a congregational rabbi because I dared to challenge Israeli policy. I was blacklisted by the Jewish Exponent and immediately disinvited from several previously scheduled speaking engagements. For the past six years as Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights –North America, it was my task to arrange public talks by my Israeli colleagues in Jewish settings. There were only a limited number of Jewish communities that were willing to host talks by the Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.  Several times a week I dealt with situations where rabbis or Jewish communities were wrestling with attempts to prevent or restrict the discussion of the human rights of Palestinians.  I personally know of countless situations where presentations on this issue have been shut down in Jewish settings.  Often even when we were able to find a Jewish venue for a talk, it was only on condition that it be a debate with a “pro – Israel” speaker.   Sandy Ungar’s demand for another pro – Israel speaker and for “balance” was a demand I heard all too frequently and this was often in the context of a talk by an Israeli rabbi.  Needless to say, the idea that Palestinians themselves should be invited to speak of their reality was not even in the realm of possibility!

The charge of “bias” is so ironic given that open discussion of Palestinian rights and of a Palestinian perspectives is so overwhelmingly censored in America.  There are literally thousands of  presentations by “pro-Israel” speakers when it never occurs to anyone to invite a Palestinian for “balance.”

This censorship is not limited to Jewish institutions, it is true in universities, the media, the churches and, of course, in Congress. There is no political issue that is so censored in American public life.  Thankfully, Muzzlewatch, a wonderful program of Jewish Voice for Peace documents many instances this censorship.  They and Phillip Weiss have written about the incident at Goucher.

As a rabbi, I was struck that two of the organizers of the panel at Goucher were committed Jewish students.  One of them was involved in Hillel and hoped to go to Israel for a second time. This was similar to my experience when I spoke at Hampshire college earlier in the year, where several of the leaders of the divestment initiative were committed and knowledgeable Jewish students.   It is clear that there is a new generation of Jews who are involved in Jewish life and understand support for human rights for all, including Palestinians as a core part of their  Jewish identity and commitment.  I was deeply moved by the integrity and commitment of all five students at Goucher who organized the program. They are a source of hope for the future.

Many Jews who work to shut down debate on this issue believe that open debate will threaten Israel and Jews. It is the ignorance of the reality of Palestinian life and lack of open discussion that threatens the American Jewish community. Such  discussion is essential to restoring integrity to our synagogues and Jewish institutions.   I told the students that the reason for my involvement as an advocate for Palestinian human rights was because I see the issue of the treatment of Palestinians by Israel as the most critical spiritual and moral issue facing Jews in our time.  The future of Judaism itself will be determined by whether Jews will live up to the values that lie at the heart of our tradition.

Open discussion is also essential to the resolution of the conflict and to developing an American policy that will promote such a resolution.  Open discussion is also essential in ending the gross violations of the human rights of Palestinians by the Israeli authorities.  The silencing is part of an effort to cover up the reality of these violations and is one of the factors that allows them to continue without any accountability by Israel.

The event at Goucher is a reminder of how difficult it is to have this conversation in America and how so many people deeply committed to free speech and open debate on all other issues make an exception when it comes to Palestinians.  I am sad that another liberal institution had caved in to fear and pressure.

Postscript: To his credit, Ungar had defended the talk by Anna Balzer at Goucher several years ago when the university was attacked in a full page ad in the Baltimore Jewish newspaper.  I guess at that time the president was less fearful of negative consequences for Goucher or…? .

Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, U.S. Middle East Policy, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »