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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By a raise of hands…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

Here is another example:

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

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

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

One final example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Everett Gendler teaches Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret’s Torah of Nonviolence

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

A powerful take away for rabbis attending the fabulous Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting emerged during a text study with the venerable Rabbi Everett Gendler, who introduced us to the important work of Rabbi Samuel Tamaret (1869 – 1903). As we listened to our elder teach, we realized our deep connection to previous rabbinic generations who also regarded militarism and nationalism as antithetical to Torah.

Rabbi Gendler, a life long proponent of nonviolent direct action, was introduced to Tamaret by Dr. Gerson Cohen, a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary when R. Gendler was a student.  According to Rabbi Gendler:

We had a warm personal relationship beset by substantial differences of political outlook! One day Dr. Cohen sees me in the hallway near the library.  “Gendler,” he says, feigning the stance of a summons officer, Come in, I’ve got something for you.” He picks a thin volume off the shelf in his office, hands it to me with just a touch of disapproval, and says, “You’re an Iowa Quaker…this will appeal to you!”

How right he was! “The Community of Israel and Wars Among the Nations” was my introduction to the quite revolutionary writings of “One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis,” – pen name of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret.

The exchange between Gendler and Cohen is a beautiful testimony to rabbinic cooperation across the spectrum of opinion for the sake of knowledge.

Rabbi Tamaret, was a teacher of nonviolence as a core principle of Jewish life. He first supported and then opposed what he regarded as Zionism’s overweening nationalism after attending the fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900. The following excerpts are from Rabbi Tamaret’s Shabbat Hagadol sermon during Passover 1906, translated by Rabbi Gendler. In the essay, Tamaret distinguishes two types of violence. He describes “natural violence” as direct violence arising from the inability to control human passions, and a second type of unnatural violence constructed from sophisticated falsehoods meant to persuade “whole populations to band together publicly in organized assaults upon weaker nations.”

Rabbi Tamaret regarded Zionism in the later category, as did significant numbers of rabbis in his generation:

Fradulent evil, that is, evil justified by the mind, or political evil, has become the greatest destroyer on the face of the earth. It is the source of the worst catastrophes which have befallen men since the beginning of the “improvement” of the intellect. For what have we seen? A steady reduction of private, natural crimes of individual violence, but an enormous increase in fraudulent murders…hypocrisy has united whole nations and entire societies in the pursuit of weaker ones. This is the secret of all the wars, conscriptions and organized slaughters which have occurred in the world at large…

It was in order to clear away these two corruptions: violence due to uncontrolled passion directed at immediate wants, and the unnatural ones resulting from misrepresentations of the intellect (systemic violence) that the Holy One manifested in the world through the giving of the Torah, preceded by the exile to and redemption from Mitzrayim (Egypt).  Servitude, the condition of one having dominion over the person of another, falls under the second category of evil, that evil which pretends to some justification.

We have no assurance that the unnatural evil of man’s falsifying intellect will not snatch the Torah, toss it into its valise, and make of it another weapon for destruction and murder. For this is the standard method of the evil-minded murderer: to take the fruits of enlightenment and intelligence, intended to enhance life on this earth, and turn them into their opposites, tools for the angel of death.

Rabbi Tamaret also offered the following Talmudic commentary to illustrate what he regarded as the greatest provider of authentic security and the true meaning of Torah:

A man should concern himself more that he not injure others than that he not be injured…. The Children of Israel must derive this lesson from the events of Passover eve: not to put their trust in wealth, and not to put their trust in might, but rather in the god of truth and justice, for this will serve to defend them everywhere against those who would dominate by the power of the fist.

May the power of the Torah of nonviolence liberate our hearts and minds this Passover so we can celebrate liberty and freedom for Palestinians and Jews next year.

JVP Rabbinical Council Response to Escalating Violence in Jerusalem

As the horrific news of more violence and more death pours in from Jerusalem, the JVP rabbinical council stands in mourning with all those who have lost parents and children, homes and houses of prayer, sisters, brothers, and friends. We renew our efforts to be a voice for justice and peace for all people in Israel and Palestine.

We offer this bundle of poetry as a way to reflect and heal from the reports of mounting violence and to recommit to being part of building a future of which we can all be proud.

1.  A prayer in remembrance
by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

May the memories of those killed in senseless hatred be for a blessing.

May their spirits be lifted up and comforted in the close embrace of God’s motherly presence.

May our precious children be safe from harm.

May all the children be our children.

May we protect all parents from mourning.

May our hearts and the hearts of our people be healed quickly in our day from the wounds of the past and present.

May every grieving parent find comfort.

May we live to see the day when no parent has to grieve.

In Hebrew, translated by Rabbi Lila Vesid:

תפילת זיכרון

מאת הרבה רחל ברנבלט
והרבה לין גוטליב

יהי רצון שזכרם של בנינו
שנהרגו בשל שנאה חסרת פשר
.יהיה לברכה

יהי רצון שרוחם תעלה
ותתנחם בחיבוקה החם
.והאימהי של אלוהים

.יהי רצון שילדינו היקרים יהיו בטוחים מכל צרה

.יהי רצון שכל הילדים יהיו ילדינו

.יהי רצון שנגן על כל ההורים מן השכול

יהי רצון שלבבנו ולבבם של בני עמנו
יירפא במהרה בימינו
.מפצעי העבר וההווה

.יהי רצון שכל הורה אבֵל ימצא ניחומים

יהי רצון שנזכה לראות את היום
שבו לא יהיו עוד הורים אבֵלים

2. Let Us Join Those Who Refuse
by Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz

let me be strong as history
let me join those who refuse
let there be time
let it be possible
let no faction keep me
from those who suffer
let no faction keep me from those who needed a home
and found one
[let no faction keep me from those who had homes
and lost them: stolen, walled off, razed, occupied]
let no faction keep me from those
who need a home now.

3. Revenge
by Taha Muhammad Ali

At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
into
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbours he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.

But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

4.  Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave.
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

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.

A Time to Speak: Reflections on the Tragic News from Israel/Palestine

by Cantor Michael Davis

When my father died, some years ago, a close friend came over and sat with me quietly throughout the day. I felt no need to speak. I was comforted by his silent companionship. Ecclesiastes’ words of wisdom are captured in this ancient Jewish practice. Judaism instructs those who come to a house of mourning to be silent, to wait for the mourner to speak first.

The families of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel, the three Jewish boys who were kidnapped while hitchhiking on the West Bank, are grieving. If I were to visit them today, I don’t know what words of comfort I could offer them in their pain. I would try to be present with them, to walk with them along their path. I know I would tremble to think of what it must be like to lose a child. I would be silent.

I know from the twenty years that I lived in Israel how tragic events like the kidnapping of the three boys become the focus of the entire Israeli Jewish community. American Jews have similarly marked the kidnappings – and now the tragically violent deaths – of the three boys. I will be hosting and participating in a memorial service for the three boys tonight. I hope our communal commemorations can offer some measure of companionship and comfort to the bereaved families.

But silence is not always a virtue. There is also a time to speak. Over the past few weeks, we have seen an ugly manipulation of the plight of the three Jewish families. Thousands of Palestinians live in fear of the brutal crackdown Israel has unleashed. Innocent men have been killed. On Monday night, the Israeli military attacked Gaza again.

If our feelings for the Jewish families are sincere then we can extend our compassion to the many other victims of violence. Compassion is not diluted by sharing it with others. Hundreds of Palestinian children have been kidnapped by Israeli forces. If kidnapping means the forcible removal of a child from his parents’ care and then being taken to a prison for an indefinite period of time, where he might be subject to torture or death, all beyond the reach of his family or the law – then the some 200 Palestinian children who are currently being held by Israeli forces are also kidnapped. More Palestinians have been kidnapped and some killed since the Jewish boys were seized on June 12.

Like 7 year old Ali Abd al-Latif al-Awour who died three days after being hit by shrapnel during an Israel airstrike on Gaza; 15 year old Mohammad Dudeen who was killed by an Israeli soldier near Hebron; or 16 year old Yousef Abu Zagha who was shot in the chest at the Jenin refugee camp. The numbers are hard to grasp. 127 Israeli and over 1,384 Palestinian minors killed since 2000 according to Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem. As hard as it is to even imagine the scope of this suffering, this this is just a part of an even larger picture of violent death and suffering, predominantly on the West Bank and Gaza.

While the story of the killing of the three Jewish boys was front page news in the Chicago Tribune and papers across the nation, the shockingly routine killing of Palestinians remains hidden from our sight. Out of sight, out of mind. We respond viscerally to the shock of an isolated act of violence. All too often we become accustomed to systemic violence and it is ignored. We get used to a new normal, as horrible as it may be. But this is cold comfort to the bereaved Palestinian families and the tens of thousands of men, women and children living in terror. What is going through the minds of the Palestinian population as they listen to Israeli leaders pounding the drums of war, condemning the Palestinian population at large as legitimate military targets. And this jingoistic talk of the leaders has made its mark on the Jewish population. Mohamed Hussein Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian boy was kidnapped as he left home for early this morning on his way to Ramadan prayers. He was murdered, by all accounts by Israeli settlers. Thankfully, this particular incident was condemned by Israeli leaders.

The distinction of whom to feel compassion for and who shall remain invisible is a choice. When there are two sides to a conflict, it is a moral choice. Each Fall, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Israel’s ancient adversary, Ishmael. The Torah tells us that God provided a miracle to save the dying boy Ishmael. God heard the boy’s voice “as he was at that time” because he was an innocent child at that time. Our vocal response to the tragic kidnapping and deaths of the three Jewish boys underscores our continued silence at the violent loss of life and abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli authorities.

At the beginning of the year we confess our sins “for the sins of commission and for the sins of omission.” The State of Israel professes to act on behalf of all Jews. That includes me. If I fail to voice my opposition to this campaign of violence, it would be an act of omission. The Talmud teaches that: “silence is equivalent to acquiescence.” I do not acquiesce to the kidnapping of underage boys and terrorizing an entire population to force it into submission.

Let use our voices to speak up for those who are trembling in fear of ongoing violence – with the looming threat of yet more violence to come. May we see the end to violence and may all the children in jeopardy, both Israeli and Palestinian, come home to their families, whole in body and mind.

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

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

Dear Commissioners of the Presbyterian General Assembly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Friendship,

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

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