There for Each Other: On Anti-Semitism, Christian Privilege and Palestine Solidarity

The following is a transcript of Rabbi Alissa Wise’s remarks to the Friends of Sabeel North America Conference in Vancouver, BC April 2015.

As a young girl, I attended a Jewish day school in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bus I took to school was shared with the local Catholic day schools as well. I didn’t ride that bus for that long. After a few months, some of the kids on the bus started to tease me, asking if they could see my horns. I was quite naïve about what that meant. I thought they were just being silly. Today, I hope I know a bit more about the history of anti-Semitism in the Christian world and the wrong-headed myths about who Jews are.

At that Jewish Day School, education about the Nazi Holocaust was a centerpiece of our learning. In High School, I visited Auschwitz, Majdonek and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps with my Jewish youth movement. We were told stories of how the Christian world was complicit in Nazism and their crimes. I sobbed and wailed at each visit to the camps, horrified and disturbed. I knew then my life would be about interrupting today’s violence and hatred however I could.

In my twenties, I was inspired by the White Rose, a nonviolent group of Christian Germans who organized against Hitler’s regime. My first year in rabbinical school I adopted as my spiritual mentor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, ethicist, and activist who was to me the embodiment of a spiritual leader. He was someone with vision, courage, passion, clarity and purpose. The model of both the White Rose and Bonhoeffer, that of those who benefit from the systems of power and oppression actively opposing and resisting it with their lives, continues to feed me in this work.

As for my Christian counterparts, I see you all working hard to get out from underneath the history of Christian violence against Jews, and I know that our work together as Jews and Christians to stand with justice and equality for Israelis and Palestinians is central to our ability to navigate their internalized messages of guilt and heavy conscience.

As a rabbi, working to support the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s efforts to pass a resolution calling for selective divestment from companies that profit from human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I am engaging with my Christian counterparts in deep, if unconventional, ways.  For my part, I am continuing to unlearn the legacy of trauma messages I got growing up like “no one will save us” or “we are all alone in the world”. Those dead-end ideas can lead to behaving out of a place of fear or vulnerability, rather than hope and resilience.

By a raise of hands…

– How many in the room are familiar with the claim by some large Jewish institutions that critique of Israel is anti-Semitic?

– How many of you feel like these charges have been made falsely?

Many of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – have had accusations of anti-Semitism lobbed at us for standing up for justice, equality and freedom for all people.

As we all know, there is a conscious strategy that has been developed by large Jewish institutions and Israel itself, to attempt to blur or even completely erase the lines between Israel and the Jewish people.

I want to be very clear that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel and there is nothing anti-Semitic in the BDS call by Palestinian civil society. It is a conditional call that will end when conditions of oppression end; that targets state policies, not the Jewish people. It is based on standards of universal human rights and international law that are specifically not reliant upon ethnicity or religion.

That being said, when I get asked how to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism i do caution people to ask themselves if they are in fact anti-Semitic. While there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic in critiquing Israel, that does not mean you do not also harbor anti-Semitic sentiments toward Jews. This is something worth exploring personally and perhaps also in your congregations or organizations.

As with all oppressions, anti-Semitism manifests institutionally, like the quotas at US universities that were in place until the 1970s, but also interpersonally – like ideas of Jews as greedy, controlling, rich, powerful – and also it is internalized by many Jews, leading some Jews to behave out of a place of fear or vulnerability.

Anti-Semitism, just like other forms of oppression, lumps all Jewish people together and assigns us a set of characteristics. Some of the stereotypes we hear include: Jews are rich, Jews are stingy, Jews are smart, Jews control the media, or Jews are to blame for whatever the current crisis is. Even when these stereotypes are framed positively, being reduced as an individual to having assumed attributes based on our religion can be very dehumanizing. That includes the idea that all Jews are implicated by the deeds of the Israeli government.

But – and here’s where things get complicated – that notion can be turned on its head, because Israel specifically defines itself as the state of all the Jews in the world, rather than a state of all its citizens. Israel itself may in fact be the greatest contributor to this fallacy.

To complicate things further, while critiquing Israel is not anti-Semitic, for some Christian Zionists, supporting Israel is.

Apocalyptic Christian Zionist John Hagee was recently quoted affirming that he does indeed believe that the Jewish people are going to burn in Hell for all of eternity unless they abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity. There is hardly a more deeply anti-Semitic notion than that.

While this example illustrates that anti-Semitism certainly does still exist in the here and now, it has largely lost its power in the US.  It does not keep us from jobs, schools, access to health care, housing, or positions of influence.  In other words, Jewish people are not impeded in any material way from pursuing the life of our choosing.

Anti-Semitism has been cyclical throughout history and deeply connected with other systems of oppression. Anti-Jewish sentiment has always served the interests of classism and white supremacy, by placing Jews as middle agents and scapegoats for the crimes of the ruling classes, thus obscuring the structural nature of injustices.

While the recents attacks in France are sobering, we have not seen that level of interpersonal violence against Jews in the US and Canada. Yet, there are still occasional outbursts against Jewish targets that helps keep Jewish fears alive. And despite the lack of structural barriers for Jews in the US, we still live in a country whose dominant culture is Christian. Many Jews in the US and Canada still feel very much like the “other” in society, as do other non-Christian people.  These feelings are real, and not easy.

I also need to name here: it is essential, when we talk about anti-Semitism, that we do so understanding the breadth of Jewish experience – Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern, North African, Asian and Spanish descent have had a very different historical relationship to anti-Semitism than those of us who are Ashkenazi, of Eastern European descent. Even when we are reflecting on histories and realities of oppression against Jews, we bump against the relative privilege of us Jews of Eastern European origin. The vast majority of Jews in the US and Canada are Ashkenazi and are thus generally classified as white, with all the race privilege that entails. The important and urgent topic of both internal and external racism within the Jewish community is not something i have time to delve into today, but still felt important to name.

So – it is a balancing act of being sensitive to Jewish history and trauma, without pulling punches about today’s reality. While Jews in the US have more political, economic, cultural and intellectual status than perhaps ever before, the Jewish narrative is still about vulnerability. Part of the work that we as progressive Jews need to take responsibility for is challenging that narrative.

It means that we all, collectively, need to be able to hold, simultaneously, the idea that anti-Semitism in our society is still real, if not very potent at this moment; and at the same time, recognize and fight how accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as an effective weapon to silence debate on Israel. In the US we are up against attempts to codify re-definitions of anti-Semitism that would encompass advocacy to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian human rights. This represents a scary and dangerous development and if successful, formidable obstacle in our nonviolent activism to ensure Palestinian human rights.

A bill was recently passed by the UCLA student government along these lines. The lawyers at Palestine Legal Support have said this about the proposed legislation making its way through campus and statewide legislatures:

The definition is so broadly drawn — and its examples so vague—that any speech critical of Israel could conceivably fall within it.

Likewise, any criticism of Zionism — which questions Israel’s definition as a state that premises citizenship on race, ethnicity, and religion — is considered anti-Semitic under this re-definition, because such speech can be seen as “denying Israel the right to exist” as a Jewish-only state.

Legislating a new definition is a new tactic that is evidence of the desperation of those fighting against the growing strength of BDS.

In light of these efforts, it is all the more critically important to speak out. For those of us who are Jewish in the movement, we strongly feel the obligation – strategically and morally – to speak out when false charges of anti-Semitism are used to tar the movement.

As Jews we often find ourselves in a position of privilege in this realm.  Partially this is because Jews can be the most effective at rebutting the accusations of anti-Semitism which can paralyze BDS efforts, and partially because our overall place in society, and our perceived connection to Israel, gives us greater credibility by society at large than Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian people.

At Jewish Voice for Peace, we try to use our privilege strategically when we can (for example, there is a reason it was useful to the conference organizers for the JVP Rabbinical Council to issue a statement of support for this conference). We also try  -though don’t always succeed – to not participate in reinforcing the very structures of power and inequity that the BDS movement is trying to address.

Nevertheless, as progressive people who are part of a social justice movement who should model the change we want to see in the world — we all need to speak out to make sure that everyone’s full humanity is respected in all cases and at all times.

It is both an ethical imperative and a strategic one to speak out against anti-Semitism if you hear it.  This movement is hurt any time a truly anti-Semitic statement is made, just as it is when we perpetuate systems of privilege – as Jews or as Christians – that we need to dismantle to win.

To that end, I offer  a challenge to you all as Christians in this movement: what can you all do to confront and address Christian hegemony in the world, and in our work organizing for justice? I have frankly been surprised that I am often the person to raise this questio, and hope to see organizations like Friends of Sabeel acknowledge, unpack and address Christian privilege, just as we at JVP do the same as I just explained with Jewish privilege.  Bringing in a Jew to talk on this topic is no replacement for doing the hard work of examining the legacy and current realities of anti-Semitism – and Islamophobia – in Christian communities, and Christian dominance in our culture.

For example, this could look like doing study groups about the legacy of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Christianity.

It could look like workshopping ways Christian dominance manifests in our media, educational systems, and pop culture, for example, reflecting on questions such as:

– Have you ever been given a school vacation or paid holiday related to Christmas or Easter when school vacations or paid Holidays for Ramadan or the Jewish High Holidays were not observed?

– Are public institutions you use, such as offices, buildings, banks, parking meters, the post office, libraries, and stores, open on Fridays and Saturdays but closed on Sundays?

– Is the calendar year you observe calculated from the year designated as the birth of Christ?

– Have you ever seen a public institution in your community, such as a school, hospital, or city hall, decorated with Christian symbols (such as Christmas trees, wreaths, portraits or sculptures of Jesus, nativity scenes, “Commandment” displays, or crosses)?

On top of these types of reflections, I can imagine your communities working to support and encourage each other to ensure that your work advocating for Palestinian human rights does not rely on anti-Semitic ideas.

Some members of our JVP chapter in Philadelphia recently put together materials for addressing issues of anti-Semitism and offered some examples. I would like to share them to help elucidate the differences between a clear criticism of Israeli policy and its backers and anti-Semitic ideas often repeated by activists with no anti-Jewish intentions and lines emerging from Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations.

For example:

– A clear criticism of Israel would be: “Israel has a repeated and ongoing record of human rights offenses.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israel is a worse humans rights violator than most or all other countries.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is the root of the world’s problems.”

Here is another example:

– A clear criticism: “In this issue, as in so many, the corporate media provide one-dimensional, sensationalized coverage, usually biased toward whatever side the US government is backing – when they cover it at all.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-semitic sentiment, even unwittingly would be to say: “The media, controlled by Zionists, never talks about the plight of Palestinians.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Zionist control of the media is part of a vast web of Zionist power over banks and world governments in their conspiracy to rule over humanity.”

One final example:

– A clear criticism: “Many Israeli soldiers justify their actions toward Palestinians by saying they are just following orders.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israelis are just like Nazis.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is worse the Nazis. This wouldn’t be happening if the Nazis were successful,” and so on.

It is important for us to mindful of the ways we talk about the issue and ensure we are not replicating oppressions, as we seek to end them.

I want to reiterate that I personally, at least, find this to be an extremely small problem, much smaller than the issues of Jewish privilege and Islamophobia issues in our movement.

We together, Christians and Jews, are speaking out against injustice when we see it – as our faith demands of us.  As a rabbi I take my role seriously as a moral leader, as we are taught in the Babylonian Talmud:

“Whoever has the ability to denounce [the sins of] their 
family members, but fails to denounce them, is held 
accountable for [the sins of] thier family members; if
[ one has influence] over the residents of his city [but
fails to denounce their sins], he is held accountable
for [the sins of] the residents of his city; if [he
has influence] over the entire world [but fails to
 denounce their sins], he is held accountable for [the
sins of] the entire world.”  (Shabbos 54a)

We will be held accountable should we stay silent as the land theft, home demolitions, restrictions on movement, economic strangling, and other human rights abuses that are the daily realities of life under occupation for Palestinians.

May we have the courage, to not sit silent, but to be able to look back at this time with pride for how we, Christians and Jews together, manifested the most basic ethical tenet of our traditions: what is hateful to you, do not do to others.

May we be part of the transformation of a painful history of Christian anti-Semitism and of Jewish trauma by working together to realize justice, equality and freedom, not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for all people.

My work alongside Christians is an important challenge to those dangerous and disempowering messages I learned growing up. I no longer believe Jews are inevitably alone in the world, but in fact quite the opposite. I now see just how much we are there for each other.

The JVP Rabbinical Council Supports the Canadian Friends of Sabeel Conference “Seeking the Peace of Jerusalem,” (Vancouver BC, April 23-25, 2015)

As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Friends of Sabeel North America and Canadian Friends of Sabeel.

Palestinian Christian liberation theologians such as Canon Naim Ateek of Sabeel challenge Jews and Christians to rethink our relationship to the Holy Land and each other on the basis of a universal standard of human rights grounded in nonviolence. We have long encouraged the Jewish community to engage the Palestinian Christian faith community with an open heart and mind in order to encounter another version of faithfulness.

As Jews, we believe it is enormously important to engage in dialogue and find common cause with Sabeel. We appreciate their justice-based approach for providing needed alternatives to Christian Zionism and Replacement Theology, which so often find their basis in fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. We are also aware that far too often, mainstream Christians are loath to criticize Zionism and/or Israel for fear of offending their Jewish sisters and brothers.

In fact, we must speak out – and we must do it together. The Palestinian people suffer from daily brutality by the Israeli authorities, who are destroying their homes, confiscating their land and water, manning the checkpoints that prevent freedom of movement to hospitals, work and study, shooting tear gas during demonstrations, and dropping bombs in civilian areas. They are also forced to endure a toxic form of racism growing in Israeli society, as was recently evidenced during Israel’s national election.

The work of Sabeel is rooted in a theological vision of justice for all who live in the land. This is why we, as religious Jews, are honored to stand in solidarity with them. When the Declaration of Human Rights was written in response to the Holocaust, Jews were grateful for a universal measure by which to judge human behavior. We believe groups like Sabeel are our partners in affirming these sacred standards that are rooted in our shared conviction that all human beings are created in the image of God.

We are proud to stand together with them in our shared work of justice, dignity and liberation for all.

– Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Two Jews, How Many Opinions? A Response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie

by Rabbi P. Almoni

God. Torah. Israel. Through the ages, all three essential Jewish concepts have been the arena of fierce rabbinic debate. No aspect of Jewish life, sacred or mundane, has been immune from disagreement. The Talmud, the foundational work of post-biblical Judaism, is a 20,000+ page record of these vigorous discussions.

For 1,500 years and more the Talmud has shaped our Jewish culture. But now, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism has declared an exception to the rule: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. According to Rabbi Yoffie, all Jews believe it was wrong for the Presbyterian church to withdraw its investments from three American companies who enable and benefit from the Occupation of the West Bank. Two Jews, one opinion.

Rabbi Yoffie’s claim of Jewish uniformity of mind is his wish; it’s not the reality. I am a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. We are tens of thousands of Jews who enthusiastically backed the Presbyterian church’s stand for human rights on the West Bank. And this number is on the rise. Jewish Voice for Peace represents a growing movement. JVP is regularly adding staff to match its swelling membership and increased donations. The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace continues to expand too. There are yet more Jews who are watching this debate about the Occupation; they are studying the issues. Yet Rabbi Yoffie would shut the debate down right now, angrily denouncing us as: “a fringe group in black T-shirts.” So much for the spirit of Jewish debate.

But I am troubled by the premise that lies in the background of Rabbi Yoffie’s statement. He believes in a monolithic Jewish community. A community in which all Jews share the same political position: the belief that divestment is wrong and that the Occupation of the West Bank may not be opposed in any meaningful way.

This is clearly a controversial idea. Why would all Jews choose to hew to this one opinion? Looking beyond the Jewish community, minorities rightly resist the idea that they all should hold to the same opinion. As Jews we should be the first to reject the idea that the color of a person’s passport or the color of their skin should determine their political beliefs. Try filling in the blank with the ethnic minority of your choice: “All ________ believe that ___________.” We don’t do that.

The claim: “all Jews are X” reinforces a classic anti-Semitic line of reasoning. It runs the risk of feeding anti-Semitic ideas about Jews, with ramifications for all minorities.

So, Rabbi Yoffie’s claim for Jewish uniformity is untrue and is ill-conceived. Revealingly, the Jewish establishment has taken pains to never put his claim to the test. I have never yet seen a community-wide conversation about Israel. Even supporting the modest step of divesting from the Occupation, is, according to Rabbi Yoffie, beyond the pale. Jewish Voice for Peace poses a threat to Rabbi Yoffie’s need for uniformity.

It’s high time we opened up the conversation and allowed voices outside the establishment to be heard. We desperately need to engage the imaginations of young Jews, for whom Jewish Voice for Peace is rapidly becoming a mainstream option.

Not: “two Jews, one opinion,” but, two Jews – as many opinions as those Jews choose.”

This is the spirit of Jewish tradition: not to censor and censure but to engage each other in dialogue and debate.

“Ploni Almoni” is the traditional rabbinic version of the English language “anonymous.” The author chooses to remain anonymous because of the adversarial nature of Rabbi Yoffie’s attack on those Jews who stand for Palestinian Solidarity. In that sense, Rabbi Ploni Almoni or Rabbi Anonymous, speaks for all the Rabbis and Jews who have come under attack from the Jewish establishment.

An Open Letter to the Commissioners of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Jews and Presbyterians join in a prayer circle outside committee deliberations on divestment, Detroit, 6/17/14

Dear Commissioners of the Presbyterian General Assembly,

Over the past week a delegation of rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace visited with the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in Detroit. These rabbis, together with Jewish and Presbyterian peace activists, have prayed and stood vigil, spoken in public and held many private conversations with you, the commissioners.

The rabbis asked you, our Presbyterian friends: what does your conscience tell you to do? Overwhelmingly, you replied: my conscience tells me to vote for divestment. But, the Presbyterian elders –  clergy and lay leaders – added: one concern still weighs on me. “What will the Jewish people in my life say: the rabbi I know, my Jewish cousins, my Jewish neighbors. Many of these Jews have emailed me or called me, asking me not to divest. I value my relationship with Jewish people and I do not want to undermine those relationships.”

Interfaith relationships, particularly between Jews and Christians, are an important focus. We appreciate the sensitivity of the Presbyterian Church to its relationship with Jews and the warm welcome we all received from you in Detroit. You were gracious and thoughtful. We were inspired by your commitment to each other as members of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Yet, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs came to the General Assembly on Wednesday evening, he warned you that a vote for divestment from three American companies could cost the Presbyterians their friendship with the Jewish people.

The Presbyterian Church USA  over the last ten years has sought to engage Israel on the issue of the West Bank. Sadly, to no avail. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, too, has consistently spoken out against West Bank settlements. We have yet to see what results these well-intended statements can achieve.

Rabbis accompanied by young Jewish activists went to Detroit to encourage you, the Presbyterian elders to listen to your inner voice of conscience. The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace does not believe that the risk of hurting the feelings of some, even many Jews should take precedence over the constant humiliation and violent attacks on Palestinians living under Occupation. As rabbis, we are sensitive to the feelings of those Jews who oppose divestment. But we cannot ignore the daily suffering of Palestinians and the shockingly routine loss of Palestinian life living under Occupation. Withdrawing financial support for tools of war is a compelling moral imperative.

We believe it is unseemly for Jews – or any observer –  to try to steer you away from aligning the church’s investments with your own ethical commitments as judged by you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” teaches us to give the Presbyterians the same respect that we expect for ourselves: freedom to follow our consciences without being told this will cost us our friendships.

Jews will continue to debate with each other how to best to support peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Let us allow the Presbyterian General Assembly the same freedom to choose how to align the church’s investments with its ethical commitments.

In Friendship,

Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbinical Student Leora Abelsom
Rabbinical Student Ariana Katz
Rabbinical Student David Basior
Rabbinical Student Jessica Rosenberg

(list in formation)

Does the ADL have a monopoly on Jewish Values?

by Rabbi Brant Rosen, JVP Rabbinical Council Co-Chair

Throughout centuries of Jewish history, there has been a rich and wide-ranging debate over what constitutes Jewish values and how we might live them out as Jews. Talmudic tradition repeatedly makes it clear that this debate is in fact, a sacrosanct cornerstone of our spiritual heritage.

As a Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace is proud to be part of this Jewish marketplace of ideas. As our mission states quite clearly:

Jewish Voice for Peace members are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals.

While we believe our vision has important and critical role to play in the Jewish communal debate over Israel/Palestine, we have no illusions that it is not difficult for some Jewish institutions to countenance.  We are certainly open to hearing disagreeing and differing points of view; indeed, we would welcome such a conversation as a “machloket l’shem shamayim” – a debate for the sake of heaven.

Sadly, in the Jewish communal world sacred debate too often devolves into denigration and political name-calling. The latest example: the Anti-Defamation League’s recently released report that publicly puts JVP – an important new voice in the Jewish communal discourse on Israel/Palestine, led by wonderful, smart, passionate leaders and rabbis – on the same level as hate groups such as the Aryan Nations and the Montana State Militia.

This kind of attack on JVP is all the more saddening because the ADL does important work in the community, particularly in the realm of civil rights and multi-cultural education. However, like too many other Jewish establishment institutions, the ADL has become increasingly obsessed with supporting Israel at all costs – and publicly vilifying those with whom they disagree. Their good work is even further undermined when they advocate civil rights and free speech while simultaneously insisting that Palestinian students don’t have the right to express their political opinions.

These poisonous attempts to marginalize progressive voices in the Jewish community must stop. For far too long, the ADL and other self-appointed Jewish gatekeeper organizations have sent out the message that participation in Jewish life must depend upon unquestioning support for the state of Israel and its policies. Those who seek to hold Israel to account for its oppressive policies toward Palestinians are routinely marginalized as “anti-Israel” – an incendiary epithet that the ADL dangerously conflates with anti-Semitism.

The ADL’s expose-style report repeats many of its familiar tropes against us, adding the claim that JVP and our Rabbinical Council  “intentionally exploits Jewish culture and rituals in its advocacy.”  Notably, the ADL fails to consider whether or not Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestinians, its policies of home demolition, forced expulsions and land expropriation might be counter to Jewish values. These issues, of course, have been the “elephant in the room” of the Jewish community for decades – and as a Jewish organization, we believe it is simply not the Jewish way to stand idly by in the name of communal uniformity.

There is every indication that this Jewish vision is resonating with increasing numbers of American Jews – particularly of the younger generation – who have previously felt themselves kept at bay from Jewish communal affiliation.  This alienation has been caused in no small measure by tactics wielded by Jewish establishment institutions such as the ADL, who have long been promoting a fear-based, lock-step approach to the issue of Israel/Palestine.  JVP’s success clearly reflects a palpable, desire among growing numbers of American Jews for a positive, progressive American Judaism rooted in justice, dignity and equality for all – including Palestinians.

Indeed, speaking hard truths to power is a venerable Jewish tradition that dates back to the prophets. While we realize this kind of criticism is painful for some in our community to hear, voicing these kinds of concerns has long been considered a Jewish religious imperative. We certainly don’t expect every Jewish individual or organization will be comfortable with our message, but we do reject the incendiary assertion that we are “exploiting” Jewish tradition when we speak and act according to our Jewish conscience.

It is high time for the ADL and other Jewish establishment institutions to accept the multiplicity of voices that seek to respond to tragic reality of Israel/Palestine. Vilifying other Jewish organizations as “hate groups” does nothing to further this critical debate.

Four Questions for “Women of the Wall” On the 46th Anniversary of the Six Day War

by Cantor Michael Davis

Every Israeli politician knows that, before attending election rallies from Nahariya to Nitzana, she will first have to fly to that other center of Israeli politics: New York. To win an election, the Israeli politician must win the hearts and financial backing of the Jews of New York and other major Jewish centers in North America. Israeli NGOs, too, travel the same American route, campaigning for credibility, viability and dollars in synagogue basements and the living rooms of Jewish supporters  across the United States.

Israeli left wing politician Anat Hoffman, knows this political truth well. Recently,  her organization, “Women of the Wall” achieved a major breakthrough when it was adopted by the mainstream American  Jewish community as its cause célèbre. Several times a week, I get a mass mailing from someone in my professional and personal networks on behalf of Women of the Wall. No other organization cuts through the vague barrage of mass mailings the way  the American campaign for “Women of the Wall” does. Outdoor solidarity prayer services in city centers across the U.S. and a rabbinic mission to support Women of the Wall are signs of the remarkable resonance this campaign enjoys in the American Jewish community.

As an Israeli, back when I was still living in Jerusalem, I supported “Women of the Wall.” I voted for Anat Hoffman’s Meretz party on the Jerusalem City Council. Today, as clergy in a liberal synagogue, of course I am an advocate for the full inclusion of women and girls in Jewish ritual life.  Yet, I have serious reservation about the American campaign for “Women of the Wall.”

Here are four questions for the “Women of the Wall” campaign:

1. “Women of the Wall” wants the Western Wall, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the world, to allow women’s participation in ritual, a deeply held American Jewish value that extends from Reform to the liberal wing of modern Orthodoxy in America. In Israel, this activism is upsetting to mainstream Israeli Orthodox (and irrelevant to the vast majority of non-Orthodox Israelis). But the tone of the campaign’s supports seems to relish taking the battle to the Orthodox. The energy for fighting this battle comes in no small part from a desire to defeat the Orthodox.

Confusingly, back in the U.S., the liberal Jewish community holds the Orthodox in high regard: they are true Jews. Donating money to Jewish Federation is a standard way of expressing one’s Jewish commitment. In my hometown of Chicago, the bulk of the monies that the JUF raises from the liberal Jewish community are given to local gender-segregated Orthodox synagogues and their associated institutions. To be a good Jew is to honor the Orthodox by supporting institutions that bar women from ritual.Why are the Orthodox our friends in the United States but our adversaries in Israel?

2. The official practice in the Jewish community has been to avoid criticizing Israel. This is dictated as the responsibility of non-Israeli Jews. Many – but not all – of the people who are signing on to the Women of the Wall campaign comply with (and therefore, at the very least, implicitly enforce through social approval) this policy. Now, through its advocacy for Women of the Wall, the Jewish community is advertising to the world that Israel discriminates against women. What a shanda!

Why grant this particular campaign the rare exemption from the Jewish imperative to always look out for Israel’s good name?

3. In the densely populated square mile of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall plaza is a new-fangled anomaly. This open space was created immediately after the Israeli army captured the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War, exactly 46 years ago.. Overnight, Israeli bulldozers demolished the Mughrabi Quarter, clearing the way for what we know as the Western Wall plaza. The Israeli army first evicted the (non-Jewish) residents of the Mughrabi Quarter. At least one man was killed when he did not get out of his home in time.

However important the cause of women’s prayer is, isn’t it unseemly to focus the campaign of women’s right to pray at the scene of death and expropriation?

4. Back in the 1970s, the organized American Jewish community provided the essential legal framework and key political backing to launch the State of Israel’s signature national project of the last four decades, namely, the colonization of the West Bank. We created this reality.

The organized Jewish community continues to provide financial support and political backing to Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies. The silent majority of American Jews, through its silence, endorses the community leadership’s backing of Israel’s well-publicized injustices on the West Bank. Through our continued silence, we enable Israel’s ongoing destructive (and, frankly, self-destructive) stance.

How can we own the issue of women at prayer when we ignore our responsibility for the far more serious, ongoing problems that we did help to create, namely, the State of Israel’s violent campaign against its Palestinian population?