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

by Rabbi P. Almoni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Commissioners of the Presbyterian General Assembly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Friendship,

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

(list in formation)

“Anti-Semitism” vs. Palestinian Solidarity

by Cantor Michael Davis

Israel has withdrawn once again from peace talks with the Palestinians. Where, then, are we supposed to put our hopes for a peaceful and just resolution in Israel-Palestine? I have chosen to embrace the Palestinian call for boycott campaigns against Israel. Until Israel grants its Palestinian citizens rights equal to those of its Jewish citizens, addresses the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian refugees and, most urgently, ends the Occupation of the West Bank, this is our best option. A broad coalition of Palestinian civil society has called for our support of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Supporting campaigns against Israeli companies, institutions and people who are complicit in the Occupation and discrimination against Palestinians is a way to affirm our commitment to justice and equality.

My position shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all, my fellow Jewish leaders. As Jews, we’re called to heed the oppressed and to remember, as the Bible and our prayerbooks reiterate time and time again, the moral imperative that “we were once slaves in Egypt.”

As a Jew whose grandparents died in the Holocaust, I find the rhetoric of the Israeli government and certain American organizations trying to taint BDS with charges of anti-Semitism laughable. According to their spokespeople, to stand for equality in Israel-Palestine is to hate Jews. Recently, state legislatures have been considering bills opposing BDS and tarring its supporters as anti-Semitism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The leaders of the BDS movement speak with a commitment to fairness and human dignity that stirs my own sense of justice. I believe their position, if voiced in any other context, would resonate deeply with Jews worldwide. It is an honorable call. Palestinian proponents of BDS have repeatedly distanced themselves from all racism including anti-Semitism. They have spoken clearly and consistently on the subject. They hold themselves to the high standards we should expect from social justice activists; and if they didn’t, we would demand it of them. Still, the charge of anti-Semitism is in the air, even though no evidence is provided. The reason for that is simple: no evidence exists. The goal of those who throw around words like “anti-Semitism” is to silence Palestinians and those who support their call for justice.

There is real anti-Semitism in the world, so let’s not throw the phrase around carelessly. I know. My grandparents were killed by the Nazis. I am named after their young son — my Uncle Michael — who was murdered alongside his mother, my Grandmother Rosa at the Birkenau death machine in Auschwitz. As a child in England, my synagogue was once attacked as we stood in prayer. The sanctity of our silent prayers that Saturday night was shattered by stones cracking the windows. So my response to those who would smear supporters of BDS with the anti-Semitism charge is: show your evidence or withdraw the charge.

BDS is the best hope for a desperately needed change in Israel’s policies towards its Palestinian population. It is an appropriate non-violent civil response to systemic abuse. Last week, on the West Bank, a 6 year-old Palestinian boy was detained by a squad of Israeli soldiers in full combat gear on his way to school. The Israeli authorities routinely demolishes Palestinian homes simply because they were built by Palestinians, including within Israel. At the same time, the State of Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land. These are real and ongoing abuses. We — Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all people of the world — must respond. Raising the specter of “anti-Semitism” does nothing to advance the cause of peace for Israel and Palestine.

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.

Why I Work With Christians To Divest From the Occupation

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

At first glance, my work as a rabbi may look untraditional. Instead of serving a congregation, I do my rabbinic work by organizing for justice and equality for all the people of Israel and Palestine. This work includes supporting the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s efforts in Pittsburgh this past week to pass an overture calling for selective divestment from companies that profit from human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

As a spiritual leader, I feel blessed that this work allows me to engage with my Christian counterparts in deep and transformative ways.

My work alongside Christians is one way I live my commitment to interrupting today’s violence and hatred. I no longer believe Jews are inevitably alone in the world, but in fact quite the opposite. I now see just how much we are there for each other, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu reminds us in speaking of the effort to end apartheid in South Africa: “We could not have won our freedom in South Africa without the solidarity of people around the world who adopted non-violent methods to pressure governments and corporations to end their support for the apartheid regime.”

We together, Christians and Jews, are speaking out against injustice when we see it — as our faith demands of us. That is what happened in Pittsburgh this past week.

I have never been so hopeful for the future of Israelis and Palestinians as I am after witnessing the strong show of opposition to the Israeli Occupation earlier this month by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The PC (USA) General Assembly passed a resolution to boycott settlement goods with 71 percent of the vote, while divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation was defeated by a razor thin margin of two votes.

While the call for divestment was not fully heard due to parliamentary maneuvers, it has never been so incredibly close. Unfortunately, the futility of the approved “positive investment” overture was not clear to the commissioners, who failed to see that until the infrastructure of occupation is dismantled, “positive investment” is just painting rubble with a fresh coat of paint. During the push for divestment from South Africa did anyone believe investing in banstutans would work to end apartheid?

We will be held accountable should we stay silent as the land theft, home demolitions, restrictions on movement, economic strangulation and other human rights abuses that are the daily realities of life under occupation for Palestinians continue. Instead, we will together continue to highlight the wrongdoings of specific corporations profiting from human rights abuses and urge them to cease their activities so that “positive investment” in Palestine can actually bear fruit.

When the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted earlier this month on selective divestment from companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — profiting from the Israeli occupation and for boycotting products made in illegal Israeli settlements, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was standing alongside Presbyterians and Palestinians in asserting that this sort of nonviolent financial protest is appropriate in order to pressure Israel to end its control over the Palestinian people.

Despite being overwhelmingly out-resourced by large Jewish institutions with ties to the Israel lobby, our JVP members succeeded in galvanizing a nearly identical amount of support for divestment as the opposition, and overwhelming support for boycott. This accomplishment is despite heavy-handed fear-mongering by Jewish establishment organizations that included threatening the future of interfaith cooperation and raising the specter of anti-Semitism.

The Presbyterian Church’s decision to openly look at its investments and to call for divestment, let alone passing a boycott resolution that includes all Israeli settlement products, is so brave in part because this stand for human rights is distorted into accusations of anti-Semitism. The legacy of persecution against Jews runs deep and the prejudice is real even today. Accusations of anti-Semitism should not be taken lightly. But advocating for the end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic. Making financial decisions in alignment with one’s own values is not anti-Semitic. Withdrawing money from companies that destroy homes and livelihoods and take human life — this is not anti-Semitic.

Quite the opposite, it is by working together with a focus on justice and universal human rights that we can all truly transform the painful legacies of anti-Semitism within both Jewish and Christian communities. We can, each of us, call on our traditions’ best values and our own gut sense of right from wrong, and together write a future of which we are all proud.

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.