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

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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?

Letter to President Obama from American Rabbis

Dear President Obama,

We are writing this letter to you as American rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students, serving a wide range of Jewish communities.   We were dismayed to learn that, immediately following the recognition by the United Nations of observer status for Palestine, the government of Israel issued permits to begin development of two large tracts of settlement housing in highly contested areas in  East Jerusalem (E-1) and the West Bank (Maaleh Adumim.)

As you well know, these expansion permits are damaging not only to prospects for Palestinian self-determination but also for peace in the region.  We urge you in the strongest terms to use your full authority to oppose these expansions, which are illegal under international law and which also make impossible any hope of creating a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank.

We represent a growing voice within American Jewry which seeks an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its stranglehold by blockade of the people of Gaza.  We believe that the aggressive expansion of settlements in the Occupied territories constitutes a deliberate strategy to obstruct a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  We believe further that the United States, as the primary global source of financial and political support for the  Israeli government, has an obligation to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for these actions, which thwart the possibility of peaceful resolution of the conflict.

It is no longer the case — if it ever was — that the Jewish community in the United States  is unified in its support of the policies of successive Israeli governments, which have sought to create “facts on the ground” that obstruct the hopes of independence and sustainability for the Palestinian people.  Absent active intervention by the United States and other nations, Israel will surely continue to implement these destructive policies.

As leaders of the American Jewish community, we join you in hope for a just peace for all the peoples of the region.  Please know that you have our strong support for demanding that the government of Israel reverse for this latest action and for all that you can do to lead the way to a fair and sustainable resolution.

Yours sincerely,

Rabbi Margaret Holub

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Rabbi Brian Walt

Rabbi Lynn Gottleib

Rabbi Joseph Berman

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

Rabbi Julie Greenberg

Rabbi Borukh Goldberg

Rabbi Eyal Levinson

Rabbi David Mivasair

Rabbi Rebecca Lillian

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Alana Alpert

Cantor Michael Davis

Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg

Rain Zohav

Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer

Jessica Rosenberg

Ken Rosenstein

Rabbi Shai Gluskin

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert

Ari Lev Fornari

Rabbi Art Donsky

Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Rabbi Linda Holtzman

Rabbi Leonard Beerman

Rabbi Alexis Pearce

Rabbi Sarra Lev

David Basior