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

Shabbat Shalom to Jerusalem and Gaza

by Cantor Michael Davis

Shabbat Shalom

I just got off the phone with my brother in Jerusalem. Morning in Chicago, Friday afternoon in Israel. This is the time that the family starts preparing for Shabbat with the weekly “Sponja”, sweeping and washing the floors. “The air raid sirens just went off,” he said. Over the phone, an ambulance’s siren got louder, then another ambulance. “Let’s wait and see if there are any more ambulances.”

The conversation took me right back to my last couple of years in Israel, some 15 years ago. On any given morning, at the start of the workday – oddly enough, only during the workweek –  in the quiet air of Jerusalem, suddenly, a loud explosion. Some tense moments waiting. If we could hear multiple ambulance sirens, that meant there had been a suicide bomb attack. If, after a few minutes there were just the usual sounds of the city, we knew everything was fine; the blast was likely a controlled explosion at one of the working quarries in the area.

So, I tried to reassure my brother that this was unlikely to have been a missile attack. After all, Jerusalem was never targeted, not even during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein sent 39 missiles into Israel.

While he took another call, I opened my laptop and checked Haaretz. Top headlines on the homepage: * First Missile Attack on Jerusalem Since 1970 (this has not happened since before the Yom Kippur War) * Thousands of Reservists Called Up (…it’s going to be another ground war) * picture  of a tank base near Gaza mobilizing  (Cast Lead all over again) * Picture of Egyptian Prime Minister with Gaza PM Hanniye waving and smiling in Gaza! (the Egyptians are committed….what if an Israeli missile kills the Egyptian PM…

My first reaction to the news a couple of days ago was dread. For the people of Gaza. And for the inevitability of the cycle of violence. How did this start? Israel freely admits that its troops violated Gazan territory but claimed this was for “routine repairs to the border fence”. For Gazans, this was just one more infringement on their supposed sovereignty along with actual attacks. The Israeli siege of Gaza is enforced through these attacks and violations. And yet, what good will this escalation do for anybody on either side.

I had a sinking feeling for the ugliness that is beginning to surface in the Jewish community. The recently retired head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, defended the Israeli attacks on Gaza as “progressive values”. Israel invoked an image of divine presence, the Biblical “Pillar of Cloud” (that shielded the ancient Israelites in the wilderness from Egyptian attack) as the military name for the onslaught on Gaza. And, throughout the Jewish community, the response has been to line up behind the Israeli attacks, even in the more progressive parts of the community.

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that former US Middle East negotiator, Aaron David Miller predicted that the President had no choice but to support the Israeli attacks on Gaza. “ If Obama has any hope of promoting an Israeli Palestinian initiative down the road, he’s going to have to remain in lock step with the current Israeli government…and [take] a very, very tough line on Israeli security,” said Miller. “There’ll be latitude in giving the Israelis a lot of leeway in terms of the disproportionality of whatever response they undertake in Gaza.”

The poor people in Gaza. Under siege and now under attack. And what do my family in Israel get in return for these attacks on Gaza? Fear and the possibility of worse. Lockdown in the south and the ugly thrill of going to war “because we have no choice but to respond” spreading throughout Israeli society and into the American Jewish community.

Through all this, I am grateful to Jewish Voice for Peace for standing tall and calling out Israel for its attacks and killings in Gaza and for consistently insisting on an end to violence on both sides of the conflict.

My brother and I went on to chat about family and the breakthrough Israeli invention of a cardboard bicycle – cycling is a passion we share – which has the potential of revolutionizing mass bicycle production and usage in China and around the world. Israelis are famous of shrugging off bad news and just getting on with things. So we moved on.

We ended our call as we wished each other Shabbat shalom, a Sabbath of Peace. Halevai. If only.

Rabbinical Support for the End of Unconditional Military Aid to Israel

The undersigned members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council stand with our American Christian colleagues in their recent call to “make U.S. military aid to Israel contingent upon its government’s “compliance with applicable US laws and policies.”

We are as troubled as our Christian colleagues by the human rights violations Israel commits against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons. It is altogether appropriate – and in fact essential – for Congress to ensure that Israel is not in violation of any US laws or policies that regulate the use of US supplied weapons.

The US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act specifically prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of US weapons to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.”  The Christian leaders’ letter points out, in fact, that the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of US – supplied weapons such as tear gas.

It is certainly not unreasonable to insist that foreign assistance be contingent on compliance with US laws and policies. Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg has rightly pointed out that during this current economic downturn, Congress has been scrutinizing all domestic assistance programs -– including Social Security and food stamps –- to ensure that they are being carried out legally in compliance with stated US policy.  Why should US military aid to Israel be exempt from the same kind of scrutiny?

While some might feel that requiring assistance to be contingent with compliance would compromise Israel’s security, we believe the exactly the opposite is true. As Israel’s primary ally, the US alone is in a place to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians – – and true security for all who live in the region.

As Jews we acknowledge that the signers of the letter, and the churches they represent, have ancient and continuing ties to the land of Israel just as we do, and that their concerns for the safety and dignity of Christians in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories is as compelling as our concern for the safety and dignity of Jews there.

We are troubled that several Jewish organizations have cynically attacked this faithful and sensitive call – and we are deeply dismayed that the Anti-Defamation League has gone so far as to pull out of a scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue in protest.  We believe that actions such as these run directly counter to the spirit and mission of interfaith dialogue. True dialogue occurs not simply on the areas where both parties find agreement, but in precisely those places where there is disagreement and divergence of opinion. We call on all of our Jewish colleagues to remain at the table and engage our Christian colleagues on this painful issue that is of such deep concern to both our communities.

We express our full support for the spirit and content of this statement and likewise call upon US citizens to urge their representatives to end unconditional military aid to Israel.

Signed (list in formation):

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi Lynn Gottleib
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Jessica Rosenberg, Rabbinical Student
Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbinical Student

Parsing the (Odious) New Term, “Jew-Washing”

photo: Jewish Voice for Peace

Cross-posted in the “Forward Thinking” blog of the Jewish Daily Forward:

In his latest column, Philologos correctly parses the linguistic problems with Yitzhak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg’s invented term, “Jew-washing.” His political analysis, alas, fails miserably.

Philologos has it completely wrong when he speaks of the “anti-Semitism in boycotts of Israel.” To begin with, Santis and Steinberg did not use the term “Jew-washing” in reference to a boycott of Israel as a whole, but rather to a resolution recently brought to the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that called for divestment of their pension funds from three specific companies that profit from Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank.

Regardless, it is highly disingenuous for Philologos to accuse the Presbyterian Church of anti-Semitism. Our Christian friends’ response to the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), reflects their deeply held commitment to justice in a land their tradition also considers holy.

Philologos asks, “Have the Presbyterians considered boycotting China because of Tibet? India because of Kashmir? Russia because of Chechnya?” This, of course, is classic misdirection. The issue at hand is not global human rights, but a very specific call from Palestinian civil society for international support in ending their oppression. The real question before them (and us) is not “what about Tibet, Kashmir and Chechnya?”

The question, rather, is: “will we or won’t we respond to the Palestinian call?” To this question, many members of the Presbyterian Church are courageously responding “we will.” So too are increasing numbers of Jews who believe that our legacy of anti-Jewish oppression leads us to stand with Palestinians being denied basic human rights in our name.

No, we are not being used as pawns by Christian partners to further some nefarious “anti-Semitic plot”. Rather, we are standing in solidarity with the oppressed, as the most basic of our Jewish teachings demand that we do. What irony that other Jews should stand in the way of the Jewish imperative to end injustice. How heartbreaking that some in the Jewish community pervert this imperative by labeling the best intentions of our Christian friends as “anti-Semitism.”

We do, however, fully share Philogos’ distaste for the term “Jew-washing,” the coining of which is a sign of abject desperation that itself crosses the line of anti-Semitism, as blogger Jeremiah Haber pointed out last week. We predict that odious terms such as this will soon be relegated to the history books as part of a last, flailing effort by a fearful generation of Jewish leaders unwilling to recognize the moral urgency of the moment. It also reflects the short-sightedness of an establishment that continues to support war and occupation while deliberately alienating itself from the next generation of courageous Jewish leaders.

Affirming a Judaism and Jewish Identity Without Zionism

by Rabbi Brian Walt

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

Introduction: Hilda z’l

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My talk will be divided into three parts:

1. Zionism

2. Judaism

3. Privilege, Power and Solidarity

1. Zionism

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

Liberal Zionism

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

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

Public Letter to Netanyahu

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

We wrote:

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

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

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

Home Demolition

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

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

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

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

As a person who had grown up in South Africa under apartheid, these acts of discrimination were very evocative of scenes from my childhood. Home evictions were among the brutal realities of apartheid, part of my reality as a child.

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

Then in 2008 it came to a head.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Gurion in South Africa

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

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

The expulsion of over 600,000 Palestinians, some of whom left out of fear and most because they were expelled, and the refusal to allow them to return to their homes as required by United Nations Resolution 194 was also a logical outcome of Zionism. Removing or transferring them was essential to create a “democratic” Jewish state. Ben Gurion understood this and he was one of the architects of this policy. The Jewish state could claim to be democratic if it had a minority of citizens that were not Jewish. Demography, not democracy was and is the driver. Zionism has always had the goal of control over the maximum amount of land with the minimum number of Arabs. Demography has always been the main rationale for Israeli policy. It was the policy in 1948 and it has been the same policy on the West Bank since 1967. The occupation is simply the continuation of the same Zionist goals that led to the Nakhba.

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

In 2010, my family spent five months in Israel in Katamon, a neighborhood with many Anglo immigrants to Israel. As I walked around the neighborhood I wondered who lived in all these beautiful Arab homes before 1948 and where were they now. In 2009, I was in Bethlehem, and when some Palestinian friends and I made our way back to Jerusalem, one of them told me that her home was in Katamon!  No, there can be no reconciliation without an acknowledgement of the dispossession of the Palestinians.

It is true that what happened in Israel was no different from what the colonialists did in North America and Africa and around the world. What is different is that the Nakhba is ongoing. The occupation, the stealing of Palestinian land, the creation of settlements, the demolition of Arab villages in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere are a continuation of the Nakhba. It is a systematic policy by which Israel creates facts on the ground that will make life difficult for Palestinians thereby encouraging or precipitating a voluntary “transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank. And the policy has met with success. According to the civil administration about a quarter million Palestinians voluntarily left the West Bank between 2000 and 2007.

Palestinian Residency

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

In Ha’aretz, Gideon Levy writes:

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

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

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

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

2. Judaism and Zionism

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

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

I was recently preparing a Shabbat morning service for Tikkun v’Or the Reform congregation in Ithaca. As I reviewed the service in Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform prayerbook, I came across the prayer for light that precedes the recitation of the Shema.

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

Blessed are You, God, Creator of the Light”

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

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

He wrote in Haaretz:

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

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

What does he mean? Is the existence and perpetuation of a Jewish State, one that was created by dispossessing the Palestinian people, one that has imposed the longest military occupation in human history, a “necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and all humanity?” What is the relationship between these inspiring words and the Jewish soldiers who invaded a Palestinian home last night to arrest Palestinian children? Or to Palestinian children who are imprisoned in Israel? Or to the villagers of El Arakib whose village has been destroyed several times over the past year?

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


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

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

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

Diaspora Judaism

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

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

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

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

Part 3: Solidarity, Privilege and Transformation

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

How do we respond ethically to our power and privilege?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May her soul live on in us.

A Sheynem Dank/ Todah Rabba/Shukran/ Thank You

Censorship on Shavuot

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

“Whoever has the ability to denounce [the sins of] his 
family members, but fails to denounce them, is held 
accountable for [the sins of] his family members; if 
[he 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.”

- Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat, 54a

On Sunday, May 27, an event organized by Young, Jewish, and Proud (YJP) (the youth branch of Jewish Voice for Peace) was cancelled by the 14th Street Y—a Jewish community institution.  The irony is not lost on me that the event was to be a Shavuot study session, complete with blintzes.

Shavuot is the holiday, after all, that commemorates revelation — the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai — and is commemorated partly by an all-night study session. The  Tikkyn Leyl Shavuot, is not just a night of Torah study, but is a night for learning of all kinds: Torah, Talmud, Hassidut, and beyond.

Why, then was the YJP event beyond the pale for the 14th Street Y?

Well, the Executive Director of the Y, Stephen Hazzan Arnoff would have you believe there was nothing wrong with the content, although he cancelled the event on 8:00 pm Friday evening (yes, on Shabbat!), less than 48 hours before the event. His stated reason was concern over attendance exceeding the 75 person limit in the room (for which YJP had already contracted and paid.) Of course, that claim holds no water -  the event had only 40 RSVPs as of Friday evening. Even so, there could have been a myriad remedies to the issue of over-attendance, such as limiting entry to 75 people.

The real issue, of course, was the event itself. Titled “Go & Learn,” this program was to be part of a series of educational workshops in Jewish communities across the US held to learn about and discuss the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. So far events have taken place in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Philadelphia, with Los Angeles and Chicago upcoming.

“Go and Learn” was designed by a group of young Jews across the country for all members of the Jewish community—those who have never heard about BDS, those who are opposed to BDS, those who are unsure how they feel about BDS, and those who are in full support of the Palestinian call. The workshop includes, for example, an activity where participants reflect on boycott and divestment campaigns throughout history (such as South Africa, California grapes, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Darfur). Participants indicate through color-coded stickers whether they support, oppose, have participated in, or still have concerns over each of those campaigns. The activity invites the participants to look at how they make their own ethical decisions around calls for boycott and divestment campaigns in general which are, at the end of the day, tried-and-true social movement tactics for shifting power and agitating toward change.

Participants also engage in a close reading of the actual text of the Palestinian call for BDS from 2005—a document that most people have never read. Throughout the entire program, space is made for questions and discussion. There is no end goal of the event other than for everyone to have had a chance to share their thoughts and hear from others.

How terribly disappointing – and frankly embarrassing – that the holiday of Shavuot, a festival based on Torah study and discussion did not inspire the Jewish community to keep its doors open to young Jews eager to discuss and learn. This incident raises the deeper question for me: what is the purpose of a Jewish holiday if its deeper lessons and purposes don’t inspire reflection on how we are or are not living out those values as Jews?

The state of the institutional Jewish world these days is truly a shameful one – and I am not afraid to say so. As a rabbi, a Jew, a young person, and someone invested in a dynamic and diverse Jewish community, I feel that must challenge the gatekeepers in the Jewish world to reflect on what they want their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inherit. Do we want a fearful, closed community more concerned with silencing discussion then having challenging conversations? Do we really want to bequeath a deeply fractured set of communities unable to share space or holiday celebrations?

This Shavuot left me with a sour taste – not the sweet taste of Torah I typically experience. I left the mountain feeling profoundly disappointed in what Jews have have made from that ancient experience at Sinai and the gift of Torah.

The soul searching of Elul and the Yamim Noraim, the Jewish Days of Awe, are just around the corner.  It can’t come soon enough.

Please consider adding your name to this letter to the Executive Director of the 14th Street Y urging him to reconsider and allow the event to take place at the Y.

You can watch a short video of what happened with the Go & Learn participants gathered Sunday outside the Y and were barred from entry.

To organize a Go & Learn event in your community, send an email to:

From Jerusalem to Chicago: My Journey from Settler to Clergy-Activist

by Cantor Michael Davis (cross-posted at his blog, Kol Shalom)

I was raised to be a settler. My family moved to Israel during the peace negotiations with Egypt. As a high school student in Jerusalem, I regularly took off school to attend demonstrations against the peace treaty with Egypt. My yeshiva high school bussed us – students and faculty – to these anti-peace rallies. Similarly, we supported our teachers when they went off to fight the PLO in Lebanon in 1982. At the Shabbat dinner table at the yeshiva, we sang an anthem celebrating the occupation in the West Bank, which we knew by its neo-Biblical name: “Judea and Samaria.” Most of my classmates went on to study in adult yeshivot on the West Bank.

We were the lucky ones. The Messiah may not yet have arrived in person, but we had the unique good fortune of living in the epoch of Atchalta d’G’eula, as foretold in the Talmud. We were partners in the Redemption of Eretz Yisrael, heralding the birth of a Messianic age.

I was a settler. I grew up on a suburb of Jerusalem that was a West Bank settlement. Later, I served as a soldier in the IDF, on the West Bank. As a teenager, there was no daylight between my Israeli identity and my settler ideology. We went on hikes – under armed guard – through the hills and by the villages of the West Bank. We bravely went where no Jews had settled before. The Palestinian territories were our Jewish frontier.

Settlers, so we were taught, embodied all that was good in Israel. We, the settlers, did not care about money. Unlike secular Israelis, we were not materialistic, not hedonistic. We gave our admiration and love not to the idols of Israeli and American pop culture but to the Land.

We loved the Land of Israel, or, more accurately, the part of it known as Greater Israel. Our love for Eretz Yisrael was given, not to Tel Aviv, but to Hebron; not to Haifa but to Sh’chem (Nablus); the Golan Heights, not sinful Eilat. As Jerusalemites, we turned our attention to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. On Sukkot, we gathered there in a yeshiva, a settler outpost, on Bab el-Wad street, just a few minutes walk from the Western Wall. We heard our rabbis teach Talmudic and Kabbalistic discourses on the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

So what if settlements were illegal? Our mission as agents of the Messiah superseded the rule of law. To be a good Jew was to be an Israeli, and to be a good Israeli was to build new settlements.

Our older peers, the ones who built settlements all over the West Bank, were the spiritual heirs of the original Zionist settlers, only better. Those teenagers, who a hundred years before us, had spurned the creature comforts of Bialystok and Berlin and sailed off for Jaffa to reclaim the Land. The West Bank settlers were every bit as self-sacrificing. In addition, they were not religious rebels but yeshiva boys.

And then, I left all that behind. I “took off my kippa (yarmulke)”. I severed my ties to Israeli Orthodoxy and its settler ideology. I rejected the Messianic purity of thought and that cozy camaraderie of my peer group. I no longer marched through the Arab market on the eve of Yom Yerushalayim with thousands of fellow settler supporters, banging on the metal-shuttered stalls. I no longer went to the demonstrations supporting the Occupation. I did not travel to Hebron to dance the hora in a city under curfew. I gave up the dream of a suburban house with a garden in the middle of Palestine, dodging bullets and stones on the daily commute to work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

However, even in my apartment in genteel West Jerusalem, it was impossible to escape the reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank just a few miles down the road. In my 20s, my friends routinely, if reluctantly, served on guard duty at West Bank settlements. As a reservist in the Israeli army, I strategized how to dodge these annual call-up orders. I wasn’t quite ready to serve time in the stockade. Fortunately, for me, the Israeli army wasn’t interested in jailing large numbers of conscientious objectors either. I regularly managed to set up alternate service at my old military base in Tel Aviv and thus avoid ever being posted to the West Bank.

In other ways too, it became increasingly clear, that the Green Line, the border between the West Bank and the State of Israel could not insulate me from Israel’s settler ideology. As a university student in Jerusalem, I watched with concern the rapid rise of the so-called “Modern Orthodox” in the military. This segment of Israeli society is almost completely pro-settler.  It became common to see a knitted kippa on the heads of young officers carrying assault guns. The Israeli army famously plays an over sized role in Israeli public life. The influx of religious officers was a coming of age for Orthodox Zionism. The emergence of the  Orthodox officer corps was the final nail. The age of kibbutznikim and Labor Zionists is long gone.

Predictably, the rise of the pro-settler camp in the junior ranks eventually reached the senior officer corps too. Today, several generals are now Orthodox pro-settler. Other leadership positions in the State of Israel are now filled by settlers. A settler was recently appointed to serve as a justice on Israel’s Supreme Court.

In 1992, when Yizhak Rabin returned to power, replacing Yizhak Shamir as leader of Israel, my friends and I were jubilant. Yizhak Shamir had stonewalled any attempts at reconciliation with the Palestinians. For us moderate Israelis, Rabin’s rise to power as leader of Israel was our equivalent of the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Over a period of months, new and exciting horizons of hope for peace opened up.

During this time, as a reservist in the IDF, I participated in the first military withdrawal from Gaza in May 1994. I saw Palestinian officers working with IDF officers on Israeli military bases. I saw the first joint patrol jeep of Palestinian and Israeli soldiers. The Messianic promise of the wolf and the lamb laying down together was here. Who knew, perhaps Prime Minister Rabin would indeed be the one to undo Ariel Sharon’s legacy in the West Bank?

As we now know, the idyll lasted for a just few, short years.

At that fateful peace demonstration in central Tel Aviv one Saturday night in November 1995, I was one of the thousands who heard the three gunshots that ended Rabin’s life. We ran for cover into the side streets off the main square. I didn’t stop moving until I left Israel. The rise of Netanyahu sealed the deal. I left Israel and moved to the United States.

At some point, while I was still living in Israel, I came across an American dictionary. I was flipping through the back of the book when I came upon the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. I was then still unfamiliar with the iconic lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Such straightforward clarity!  Of course, I realized that the United States was not without its own problems, but, at least here was a theoretical framework that made sense. It gave me hope.

Over time, I came to understand that what was written in opposition to the rule of King George was also a rejection of an ethnic state. If all men are created equal, how can one justify a state that on principle favors one ethnic group over another? From the State of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence that declares the formation of a Jewish State, through the State’s Basic Laws (the building blocks of an Israeli Constitution) that favor Jews over non-Jews, to State institutions that limit land ownership for non-Jews, the State of Israel officially favors Jews and discriminates against non-Jews. The State of Israel was constituted as a Jewish state with limited democracy. The United States, on the other hand, gave the world the model of a democratic state. I knew which theoretical model I preferred.

For years, I placed myself in the Liberal Zionist camp. I wanted to believe, like Amos Oz and his camp, that a Jewish State was both necessary and could be fair. Today, I no longer believe either of those. I believe today that time has finally run out for the philosophy that upholds that Israel can both institutionally, legally and constitutionally favor Jews on the one hand and still deal justly with its non-Jewish, indigenous population, on the other. I also do not see how a Jewish State offers greater security for Jews, either now or in the event of some future threat.

My Israel/Palestine activism in the States was, initially, my way of staying connected to Israel. This is an area I knew well and could contribute my expertise to the political effort. Yet, over time, as I became integrated into American life, I came to understand Israel, not only as an Israeli ex-pat, but within the context of the U.S. and American Jewish life.

I love American Jews for their proud, social consciousness: their stand for civil rights, their fight to keep church and state separate, their visceral support for immigrants, and their overall, vigorous civic engagement.

I was therefore dismayed to see all these values firmly set aside when it came to Israel: the organized Jewish community’s stand with Israel in bombing Gaza, the unquestioning support of a Jewish state with limited democracy, vilifying those who work for full democracy, including Jews and even Israelis, ostracizing those within the community who cross the approved line. Some days I feel that, since I did not grow up in the American Jewish community, I will never understand the emotional context for, what I see as, a bifurcated values system. My commitment is to work at getting closer to these Jews whom I love. I try to follow the path of listening, and not judging. Being present and not preaching. I have evidence that this approach works. The many different and conflicting ways that Jews love Israel need not be a cause for strife.  Instead, it can be a powerful way of connecting Jews to each other. I have seen Jews with opposing beliefs on Israel sit at the same table and listen to each others’ opinions. Each one felt validated in being heard.

For myself, I feel that I am heard in the context Jewish Voice for Peace. I am proud to be a founding member of its Rabbinical Council. JVP is the place where I can speak my truth without fear. My colleagues on the Rabbinic Cabinet speak the same language I do. At times we disagree, but we share a deep connection to Israel and to our values, and the commitment to bring those two sentiments together.

There is much exciting work to do. The separation barrier between Israelis and Palestinians is emblematic of mental barriers that we each carry within us. Our leadership is needed. We need safe places for Jews to work through their concerns about Israel. There is a need and an opportunity for a new model of interfaith dialog with Christians. They, too, share our deep love for the Holy Land rooted in their own religious tradition. We have the opportunity to make meaningful connections with Christians, not based on formal politeness or supporting Israel right-or-wrong, but through acknowledging our common love for Israel/Palestine and standing in solidarity with Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

As American Jews, we need not follow Israel into its self-imposed bunker of isolation. We, American Jews and Christians, can also play a role in helping Israelis to heal. American Jews can model for Israel a better way of engaging with their neighbors and the world. We can support the brave Jewish and Palestinian activists in Israel and the Occupied territories.

Zionism set up a new paradigm which held the Land of Israel to be the center of Jewish life and the rest of the world at the periphery, known as the Diaspora. Today, the time has come to claim our place as the dynamic heart of the Jewish tradition. We are leaders in engaging with our non-Jewish neighbors and expanding the scope of Jewish life to include those who had previously been excluded. Israeli leaders, including Orthodox Jews, are coming to America to learn from us how to be good Jews.

I support the call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). This non-violent strategy allows me to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The debate around BDS has the potential to break through the passive support that mainstream America offers the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the disenfranchisement of indigenous non-Jews in the State of Israel. My support of BDS is not intended to bring Israel to its knees – there is no chance that that will happen. BDS, for me, serves as a wake-up call to American Jews, to all Americans, and to the world community. Where the rest of the world goes, Israel will eventually follow.

Last month, I was in Jerusalem for a family celebration. At his invitation, I visited with Archbishop Theodosius, the senior Palestinian cleric, in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Archbishop Theodosius was a gracious host. He sees Palestinian Christians as the bridge between Jews and Moslems. His vision is to draw Israeli Jews into the conversation about full democracy for Israel/Palestine. He tasked me with translating the 2009 Christian statement of unity about Palestine (Kairos) into Hebrew. I was happy to accept this project.

My activism continues to bring me to new frontiers; I am making new friends in unlikely places. Archbishop Theodosius told me that I am only the second Jew he has befriended. I was a fellow Jerusalemite for many years and yet we never met before. Until recently, neither of us had met anybody in the others’ religious group.

I continue to be an activist in order stay connected to the issues and to my own sense of what is right. Activism makes me hopeful. For me, activism means moving beyond
dissatisfaction to a place where what is wrong does not affect my spirit. My community of activists is a safe place. Activism allows me to confront the reality of Israel/Palestine without loss of spirit.

I see the old tropes of Holocaust and Israel-right-or-wrong becoming increasingly irrelevant to young Jews. Its is these Jews, in their 20s, who give me hope for the future. By staying true to their beliefs, they will increasingly make their parents and grandparents aware that Zionism is not the only way of being Jewish. I believe the Jewish community will transform and come back to its core values.

I Support the Presbyterian Church (USA) Divestment Resolution

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

As a Jew, a rabbi and a person of conscience, I am voicing my support of the divestment resolution being brought to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this June.

This resolution, which has been a point of divisive contention between the PC (USA) and some American Jewish organizations for many years, recommends the Church divest its funds from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard. It was put forth by the church’s committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment – an appointed body that recommended church divestment of companies engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits in Israel/Palestine.”

There is a long and tumultuous history to this resolution – here’s a basic outline:

- In 1971 and 1976 the Presbyterian Church stated that it had a responsibility to ensure that its funds be invested responsibly and consistent with the church’s mission.

- In 1986, the PC (USA) formed the Committee for Mission Responsibility Through Investing (MRTI) in 1986. The MRTI Committee carried out the General Assembly’s wish to engage in shareholder activism and as a last resort, divest itself of companies which contravened the GA’s position. Divestment would follow a phased process starting with attempted dialogue and shareholder resolutions and ultimately the total sale of and future ban on the church’s holdings in a company.

- In June 2004, the PC (USA) General Assembly adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called on the MRTI Committee “to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” The resolution expressed the church’s support of the Geneva Accord, said that “the occupation . . . has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict,” that “the security of Israel and the Israeli people is inexorably dependent on making peace with their Palestinian neighbors”, that “horrific acts of violence and deadly attacks on innocent people, whether carried out by Palestinian suicide bombers or by the Israeli military, are abhorrent and inexcusable by all measures, and are a dead-end alternative to a negotiated settlement,” and that the United States government needed to be “honest, even-handed broker for peace.”

- In 2005, MRTI Committee named five US-based companies – Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies – for initial focus and that it would engage in “progressive engagement” with the companies’ management.

- In 2006, following an uproar of criticism from American Jewish organizations, the PC (USA) General Assembly overwhelmingly (483-28) replaced language adopted in 2004 that focused the “phased, selective divestment” specifically on companies working in Israel.  It now called for investment in Israel, the Gaza Strip, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank “in only peaceful pursuits.” The new resolution also required the consideration of “practical realities,” a “commitment to positive outcomes” and an awareness of the potential impact of strategies on “both the Israeli and Palestinian economies.”  The 2006 resolution also recognized Israel’s right to build a security barrier along its pre-1967 boundaries. The GA acknowledged the “hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion” that resulted from the 2004 resolution and stated that the Assembly was “grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

The most recent resolution is the result of this new process and now focuses on three of the original six companies under consideration.  From the PC (USA) website:

The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) is recommending that the upcoming 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) divest the church of its stock in three companies “until they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.”

The three companies are Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard.

At issue are their participation in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the construction of the “security barrier” between Israel and Palestinian territory, and the destruction of Palestinian homes, roads and fields to make way for the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have been declared illegal under international law.

“We have run out of hope that these companies are willing to change their corporate practices [in Israel-Palestine],” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, a Kansas City pastor and chair of the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI). “We have made diligent effort to engage in conversation. We’d like to do more, to make progress, but substantial change does not seem possible.”

As stated above, I support this resolution without reservation and urge other Jewish leaders and community members to do so as well. I am deeply dismayed that along every step of this process, Jewish community organizations (among them, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) that purport to speak for the consensus of a diverse constituency have been intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they attempt to forge their ethical investment strategy in good faith.

It is extremely important to be clear about what is at stake here. First of all, this is not a resolution that seeks to boycott or single out Israel. Divestment does not target countries – it targets companies.  In this regard speaking, the PC (USA)’s ethical investment process seeks to divest from specific “military-related companies” it deems are engaged in “non-peaceful” pursuits.

We’d be hard-pressed indeed to make the case that the Israeli government is engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.  I won’t go into detail here because I’ve been writing about this tragic issue for many years: the increasing of illegal Jewish settlements with impunity, the forced evictions and home demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, the separation wall that chokes off Palestinians from their lands, the arbitrary administrative detentions, the brutal crushing of non-violent protest, etc, etc.

All Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have cause for deep moral concern over these issues.  Moreover, we have cause for dismay that own government tacitly supports these actions. At the very least, we certainly have the right to make sure that our own investments do not support companies that profit from what we believe to be immoral acts committed in furtherance of Israel’s occupation.

As the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I am proud that JVP has initiated its own divestment campaign which targets the TIAA-CREF pension fund, urging it to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Among these are two of the three companies currently under consideration by PC (USA): Motorola and Caterpillar.

Why the concern over these specific companies? Because they are indisputably and directing aiding and profiting the oppression of Palestinians on the ground. Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work.  Motorola profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

And why is Hewlett-Packard under consideration for divestment by the PC (USA)? HP owns Electronic Data Systems, which heads a consortium providing monitoring of checkpoints, including several built inside the West Bank in violation of international law.  The Israeli Navy, which regularly attacks Gaza’s fishermen within Gaza’s own territorial waters and has often shelled civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, has chosen HP Israel to implement the outsourcing of its IT infrastructure.  In addition, Hewlett Packard subsidiary HP Invent outsources IT services to a company called Matrix, which employs settlers in the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit to do much of its IT work at low wages.

I repeat: by seeking to divest from these companies the PC (USA) is not singling out Israel as a nation.  The Presbyterian Church has every right to – and in fact does – divest its funds from any number of companies that enable non-peaceful pursuits around the world.  In this case specifically, the PC (USA) has reasonably determined that these particular “pursuits” aid a highly militarized, brutal and oppressive occupation – and it simply does not want to be complicit in supporting companies that enable it.

I am fully aware that there are several organizations in the Jewish community that are already gearing up a full court press to intimidate the PC (USA) from passing this resolution in June.  JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow recently accused national Presbyterian leaders of “making the delegitimization of Israel a public witness of their church.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center has called the resolution “poisonous,” and that by considering it the PC (USA) is “showing its moral bankruptcy.”

These sorts of statements do not speak for me nor, I am sure, do they speak for the wide, diverse spectrum of opinion on the issue in the American Jewish community.  There is no place for public bullying in interfaith relations – it is, needless to say, decidedly counter to principles of honest, good faith dialogue.  To our Presbyterian friends: please know there are many Jewish leaders who stand with you as you support the cause of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine.

In a recent open letter to the PC (USA), Rabbi Margaret Holub, my colleague on the JVP Rabbinical Council expressed this sentiment eloquently with the following words:

Your Church has long been active in pursuing justice and peace by nonviolent means, including divestment, in many places around the world.  As Christians, you have your own particular stake in the land to which both our traditions have long attachments of faith and history.  We particularly acknowledge the oppression of Palestinian Christians under Israeli occupation and the justice of your efforts to relieve the oppression directed against your fellows.

To advocate for an end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic.  To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitic.  To invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is not anti-Semitic.  There is a terrible history of actual anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians at different times throughout the millennia and conscientious Christians today do bear a burden of conscience on that account.  We can understand that, with your commitment to paths of peace and justice, it must be terribly painful and inhibiting to be accused of anti-Semitism.

In fact, many of us in the Jewish community recognize that the continuing occupation of Palestine itself presents a great danger to the safety of the Jewish people, not to mention oppressing our spirits and diminishing our honor in the world community.  We appreciate the solidarity of people of conscience in pursuing conscientious nonviolent strategies, such as phased selective divestment, to end the occupation.

I am proud my name is under this letter, alongside many other members of our Rabbinical Council. If you stand with us, please join us in supporting the PC (USA) divestment resolution at their GA in Pittsburgh this summer.