Reclaiming a Tu B’shvat of Liberation

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

Today marks Tu B’shvat, the Jewish festival that celebrates the “New Year of the Trees.” According to the Talmud Tu B’shvat marks the dividing point for the tithing of trees. Throughout the centuries, this festival has been announced by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms that proliferate throughout the central and northern parts of the land of Israel.

As a celebration of the natural world and the tentative beginnings of spring, Tu B’shvat has been celebrated in different ways during different eras of Jewish history and through a variety of Jewish cultural contexts around the world. But with the rise of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel, Tu B’shvat has become, for many Jews, almost exclusively associated with the Jewish National Fund’s fund raising efforts to plant pine forests throughout modern-day Israel.

In the previous blog post, my friend and colleague Cantor Michael Davis eloquently underlined the darker legacy of this particular Tu B’shvat observance, noting that the JNF’s mission to create Jewish facts on the land has led to tragedy for the Palestinian people.  Might there be a way to decouple Tu B’shvat from this destructive legacy of colonialism and disenfranchisement? I’d like to suggest one possibility:

I’ve long noticed the power of celebrating this “harbinger of spring” in the colder climates of the northern-hemisphere diaspora, where we are barely one month into winter and the landscape is filled not by the white of newly-budding almond blossoms, but by the white of snow-covered trees.

While some might think this would be an unlikely setting to celebrate Tu B’shvat, I actually find it quite profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the midst of a Chicago winter. It comes to remind us that even during this dark, often bitterly cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees. In the chilly diaspora, we can celebrate the invisible forces of liberation reborn underground even as the prison of winter seems to reign above.

Thus we observe Tu B’shvat as a welcome reminder that spring will always follow winter; that even in the coldest and darkest of times, the unseen power of liberation will inexorably rise up.

I encourage you to reclaim Tu B’shvat as a celebration of liberation: seasonal, spiritual, political, or all of the above.

Hanuka: Dedicated to Resisting Militarism Through Peace Education

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

As we approach Hanuka, the Festival of Lights, we can either promote the rabbinic message of Hanuka as dedication to spiritual illumination and peace education  OR emphasize Maccabean militarism as necessary to achieving victory over opponents. Many in the Jewish community will try to promote both, but that is impossible. Our tradition warns us: either choose the way of the book or choose the way of the sword. If we choose the sword, we can no longer be faithful to traditional nonviolent values associated with the book.

The rabbinic tradition largely supports nonviolence: “Not by military might and not by force of arms, by My spirit.” This is the prophetic verse chosen by the sages to illuminate Hanuka! Today, many Jewish people believe military strength is the way to achieve lasting security. While all states have had legitimate security needs, militarization and military occupation were traditionally regarded as evil. Yes, evil. The prophets continually denounced militarism. The sages believed that even lifting one hand to threaten another is ‘rasha‘, that is, violent, unjust and a sin. “Once the arrow is released from its bow, not even the mightiest warrior can bring it back.” Militarism has a life of its own which breeds corruption, systemic violence and the degradation of humanistic values. Militarism is not Jewish.

I find it ironic, given current Jewish loyalty to Israeli militarism by mainstream Jewish institutions, that Hanuka’s traditional emphasis on active nonviolence arose during Roman Occupation. The rabbinic sages framed the holy day as a reminder that our spiritual power comes from remaining steadfast to compassion and good deeds. We are told to think of ourselves as cohainim, spiritual educators. We don the cohenet mantle and light a menorah in the window at sunset, as people return from the market place, in order to create a public witness to our faithfulness to upholding human dignity and love. This is the true source of human strength.

Hanuka also means education. Light symbolizes Jewish dedication to rekindling the altar of peace education! Great is peace, was the message of the sages. This meant refusing to cooperate with Roman militarism. The sages initiated a boycott which forbade the buying and selling of military equipment to either Romans or Jews.  Jewish rabbinic law forbid Jews to derive pleasure or benefit from any products that promote systemic violence. Yes, BDS has Jewish roots in rabbinic tradition. So, how do we increase light today? By supporting resistance to Israeli state militarism through peace education as well as noncooperation with militarism through BDS.

If you use olive oil to light your menorah, please listen to Iyad Burnat in the video above and remember that the olive tree has been tended by Palestinians in the holy land for millennium, and, thus, traditional knowledge about the olive tree has been largely kept by the Palestinian community to this very day. A collective tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. The Annexation Wall, which, when completed by 2020, will be twice the distance of the Green Line in the West Bank. As for security: 85% of the Annexation Wall is NOT on the Green Line. 

The true miracle of Hanuka today is giving public witness to the absolute necessity of putting militarism aside and rededicating our commitment to human dignity as a force more powerful for achieving security and peace.  And lest we forget, the children of Gaza are dying. I have learned from many young Gazans that they regard education as their main form of nonviolent resistance to Occupation. Education gives them hope. The message of nonviolent resistance is alive and well among Palestinians. Israelis would benefit from listening and responding to the traditional messages of Hanuka instead of promoting the Maccabees on steroids. 

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.

On Multifaith Solidarity and Movement Building Among Asian Americans and Palestinians

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

The proclamation of June 4 as Palestinian Cultural Day was initiated by the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, California, in partnership with the Arab Community Cultural Center. This has been one component  of its active commitment to struggle for Palestinian human rights. This community has launched a series of research, education, and direct action projects, including a partnership with the West Bank village of Wadi Foquin and an oral history project with local Palestinian elders, in conjunction with Professor Rabab Abdulhadi and the Arab Muslim Ethnicities Diaspora (AMED) project at San Francisco State University.

Because of its ongoing relationships in the Palestinian community, Buena Vista United Methodist Church (BVUMC) approached Loubna Qutami, the executive director of the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco, with the idea of proposing the above proclamation and getting it passed by the Alameda County board of supervisors. Their collaboration was eventually successful. The first year, one member of the board of supervisors blocked the proclamation due to pressure from reactionary elements in the Jewish community, resulting in the first and only time the county had rejected a proclamation to honor one of the Bay Area’s immigrant communities. The proponents of the proclamation went through another round of conversations with county supervisors and received complete support the second time around.

At a luncheon to celebrate the passage of Palestinian Culture Day held at the church, Rev. Michael Yoshii, senior pastor of BVUMC, shared the remarkable history of the church, which shapes its unique perspective in support of Palestinian human rights. The church is well known as one of the outstanding social justice solidarity communities in the area with a wide range of concerns. Part of the philosophy of the church’s activism is an understanding that the current debate about Israel-Palestine (as in all issues of human rights) must be framed by the personal experiences of people most vulnerable to the oppression and violence. The BVUMC community understands this need due to its history.

Reverend Yoshii told the story of the church’s place in the history of Japanese American in the United States. In 1924, Congress passed the Anti-Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which barred immigration from Japan and other Asian countries because of racist backlash against these communities. Originally founded as a mission church to the Japanese community in 1898, the current church building on Buena Vista Avenue was built in 1926 as a way of strengthening the community for those families choosing to establish roots in this country, even in a highly segregated time. Another shameful part of American history unfolded during World War Two. Executive Order 9066, issued February 19, 1942, mandated detention camps for Japanese Americans, and 120,000 people were removed from their homes and communities and relocated to ten camps across the country. The church on Alameda Boulevard stood empty four years, serving as a space to store the belongings of an entire community.

The emotional trauma generated by that episode was still felt by the community for years. In 2000, the church was completing its 100th anniversary renovation project, and decided not to sand the wooden floor in the social hall. Instead, they chose to leave the scratches visible as a witness to the wounds and hardships faced by the community.

The Japanese-American community proactively sought redress for their injustice through the Redress and Reparations Campaign in the 1980s. In 1981, a Congressional Commission heard the stories of Japanese Americans in a variety of cities across the country. These stories were the first time in 40 years that members of the Japanese American community shared their truth with the American public. An official apology from the U.S. government and checks of $20,000 were issued to each surviving internee through the Civil Liberties Act passed on August 10, 1988.

As part of the apology three reasons were sited as the cause of the roundup and imprisonment of 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were citizens of the United States, and one-third unnaturalized immigrants. Rev. Yoshii reiterated the reasons that led to the roundup and persecution of U.S. citizens during war time as a call to all of us to be aware of the social conditions in our current national environment that are similar to those that produced Executive Order 9066:

  1. War hysteria produced a collective mentality that made it acceptable to deny civil liberties to a wide section of society.
  2. A lack of political leadership allowed extremist policies to be implemented.
  3. Pre-existing racial prejudices which enabled mass support from the public who did not question the injustice of the roundups due to racist attitudes towards the Japanese.

Loubna Qutami spoke on a parallel track. She described how the institutionalizing of racist practices have become national policy as part of the neverending, so-called “War on Terror.” Institutionalizing racist policies is deadly for those who are most vulnerable to the impact of these policies. In 2008, rendition began with the Patriot Act which limits freedom of speech, has a policy of informants, often targets the mentally ill, and subjects U.S. citizens to military detention due to new definitions of military law, security, and terrorism. Are we watching a pattern repeat itself with Muslim Americans?

The process of profound changes in laws impacting the public connects directly to Palestine where two separate systems of laws were created and two sets of legal identities were initiated. Citizenship is given on the basis of Jewish affiliation by birth or conversion. Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, are ruled by Israeli military courts, and have little or no access to any of the legal guarantees or rights enjoyed by Israeli citizens.

Both the Palestinian-American community and the Asian-American community share a capacity for resilience and a commitment to keep moving forward born of their struggle for justice. Another way to describe this quality is sumud, or steadfastness to one’s cultural and physical survival. That is why storytelling is part of BVUMC and Arab Cultural Center’s collaboration and the day’s celebration.

Qutami mentioned another element critical to a positive solidarity partnership: “There is no pressure to reduce our narratives from our allies. In other words, people are free to speak the truth of their experience without being asked to alter it for the sake of another community’s political or cultural goals.”

“There are natural partnerships,” said Qutami, “that we can build upon: resisting racial profiling, resisting mass incarceration and detention, empowering our community voices.

Several Palestinian Americans were invited to share their story. People’s reflections included:

  • the need to create more cultural programing opportunities for youth
  • the need to organize in order “to protect our liberties, and not be passive about our future.”
  • the desire to bring public awareness to the fact that, “somehow it is acceptable to insult arabs, muslims in public spaces…we should challenge this!”
  • the mourning of a sister who died during the First Intifada and the need to “remain steadfast, sumud, to the freedom struggle for the homeland.”
  • the desire to share something with ” my grandchildren before I move on.”
  • thanksgiving for the oral history project because it became “a road map for finding my voice. I want to make up for all the years my voice was silenced,  that’s what sharing stories as part of the storytelling project has done to me.”

The events leading to Palestinian Cultural Day are an important lesson of the positive and empowering results that occur when communities work together to support each other in our collective effort to maintain our civil liberties and to safeguard the beauty of our cultural resources and traditions for the benefit of future generations.

proclaimed in Alameda County, June 4, 2013

Whereas, Palestinians trace their roots back to the historic land of Palestine and profess many faiths; and

Whereas, Palestinian culture is presented through books, poetry, music, dance, oral history, folktales, proverbs, and handicrafts made with cross-stitch embroidery patterns that often display ethnic or regional identity and honor a rich cultural legacy from centuries past that are important symbols of Palestinian culture; and

Whereas, Palestinians have embraced for over 2,000 years core values such as love of family, commitment to education, hospitality, and reverence for land, community empowerment, strong sense of justice and they now share these values with the residents of Alameda County; and

Whereas, Palestinian residents of Alameda County now number approximately 20,000 and continue to make major contributions to the County in the fields of arts and culture, community organizing, student activism, law and medicine, and we are valued members of the community as small business owners; and

Whereas, Palestinians living in Alameda County will hold the second annual Palestinian Cultural Day that honors the local Palestinian community and its contributions to the County’s civic life as well as the historical and cultural contributions of Palestinians throughout the world, and, now therefore be it

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT PROCLAIMED that this Board of Supervisors, County of Alameda, State of California does hereby proclaim JUNE 4, 2013 as “Palestinian Cultural Day”  and recognizes the contributions of the local Palestinian population to Alameda County residents and communities.

What if We Really Wept: Days of Fasting, Days of Action

by Jessica Rosenberg

Since Tisha B’Av always falls in July and August, I didn’t experience it as a child at Quaker summer camp. When, as an adult already politicized about Israel/Palestine, I learned about what Tisha B’Av commemorates and how it functions in the Jewish calendar, I was blown away by the power and the potential of the day.

Mourning the loss of the temple and exile from Jerusalem is certainly complicated for many contemporary diaspora Jews.  For me, Tisha B’Av is an extremely challenging and intriguing holiday that I continue to struggle with. It is said that Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year. In addition to the destruction of the Temples, Tisha B’Av includes the commemoration of other tragedies in Jewish history, including the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492.  Traditionally, Jews mourn the destructions by sitting on low stools or on the bare floor as they chant Eicha (The Book of Lamentations) and kinot (a series of liturgical poems describing the destruction of the Temples).

I think a lot about how fear and trauma exists in Jewish communities, and how it plays into our relationship to Israel/Palestine. More times than I can count I’ve heard that Jews will not be safe in the world without Israel to protect us. My family and teachers and friends point to time after time of Jews being knocked down, kicked out, killed and say: it will happen again, no matter what. I look at that history and say: it can be different, it has to be.

For me Tisha B’Av is about physically, emotionally, spiritually immersing ourselves in the deep loss, fear, and sadness that comes from centuries of Jewish trauma, and doing so publicly, communally.

I didn’t grow up in a community that observed Tisha’ B’Av and very few people in my non-Orthodox, diaspora Jewish communities observe it today. I’m inspired to see some of my peers developing new traditions and approaches to make the tradition relevant for us today.  What if more of us really mourned, really wept, what would change?  Would more of us be able to mourn and move on? How would it change our communal relationships to non-Jews? If we actually mourned in depth in this time of year, would it free us to feel something different the rest of the year?

This year, Tisha B’Av falls on the We Divest National Day of Action. Or, should I say, the We Divest National Day of Action falls on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av has been set for a long while to be on the 9th of Av, every year, and TIAA-CREF scheduled their shareholder meeting for Tuesday July 16th, the corresponding Gregorian calendar day. This is also during Ramadan, which means many JVP members will be fasting and observing a holy day on July 16th.

In our time, across the spectrum of Jewish movements and observances, in addition to Lamentations and the traditional, Temple-related kinot, communities add poems and prayers of mourning commemorating contemporary tragedies (many prayer books have kinot commemorating lives lost in the Nazi Holocaust, some people add kinot for the victims of 9/11).

In my Tisha B’Av observance, I find it powerful to read stories and poems from Palestinians who’ve been dispossessed and expelled from their land.  I feel still quite clumsy about how to weave together the kind of mourning I want to do: to focus attention on Jewish history and trauma for the purpose of experiencing grief towards moving and lessening my fear; and to focus attention on Palestinian history and trauma that my community has to reckon with our part in causing. But this is work we will do together, every year, trying new things, telling each other about it, building new ritual together.

If you want to mark Tisha B’Av this year, you can start with the ritual available on JVP’s website, compiled by Director of  Campaigns, Rabbi Alissa Wise. Then you can talk to your friends, your chapter, your communities: how do we experience Jewish history? What do we do with historical trauma? How does trauma shift and change? What is the role of ritual in moving our trauma?

There is a tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av and thus that out of destruction, redemption is born.  May we commit to our own and each others’ healings, may we be working for all people’s liberation in our time.

Here are some poems and stories by Palestinian authors to weave into your observance, conversations and day:

by Nathalie Handal

A night without a blanket, a blanket
belonging to someone else, someone
else living in our homes.
All I want is the quietness of blame to leave,
the words from dying tongues to fall,
all I want is to see a row of olive trees,
a field of tulips, to forget
the maze of intestines, the dried corners
of a soldier’s mouth, all I want is for
the small black eyed child to stop
wondering when the fever will stop
the noise will stop, all I want is
a loaf of bread, some water
and help for the stranger’s torn arm,
all I want is what we have inherited
from the doves, a perfect line of white,
but a question still haunts me at night:
where are the bodies?

“There Was No Farewell”
by Taha Muhammad Ali

We did not weep
when we were leaving -
for we had neither
time nor tears,
and there was no farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting
that it was a parting,
so where would our weeping
have come from?
We did not stay
awake all night
(and did not doze)
the night of our leaving.
That night we had
neither night nor light,
and no moon rose.
That night we lost our star,
our lamp misled us;
we didn’t receive our share
of sleeplessness -
so where
would wakefulness have come from?

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?

Reflections on Nakba Day

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

This week was the 65th commemoration of the Nakba, the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their home and their entry into refugee status. Over 500 Palestinians villages were destroyed during the Nakba.

Today, millions of children and grandchildren of the first generation of Palestinian refugees from the period of the Nakba live in the world’s largest open air prison. They are not even allowed cement to rebuild houses destroyed by Cast Lead. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are also refused national and civil rights. Their “encampments” are surrounded by barbed wire fences and they are imprisoned for a life time. Syrian Palestinians are also suffering from the civil war occurring there.

The story of Palestinians is often shunned. It is against the law, against the law! to teach the Nakba in the country that expelled Palestinians from their homes. What does it mean to make the Nakba an outlawed story in Israel? The nation of storytellers refusing to tell a story?

The only alternative to the present condition of strife and struggle is convivencia, living well together. Together on the same land. Together with mutual acceptance. Together as citizens of a common nation.

The first steps toward this vision is the acknowledgement of the Nakba and with that acknowledgment, grappling with The Right of Return. Remove the walls, open the gates, and let our two nations live out the days of their lives as free people in solidarity with one another with all the rights and privileges a human being deserves in this life.

This is the only path to peace. We can find a way. If we will it, it is not a dream.

Rabbi Liz Bolton on Values-Based Solidarity

Statement delivered by Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton at the Kairos USA Press Conference in Support of the American Christian Leaders’ Call for an End to Unconditional US Military Aid to Israel, Washington, DC, November 29, 2012:

My name is Elizabeth Bolton. I am a rabbi from Baltimore and a member of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, and honored to be here.

Along with my Jewish clergy colleagues, I stand in support of the church leaders asking Congress for review of military aid to Israel so that it complies with its own laws and legislation.

A core value in my rabbinate is the passage in Genesis – that we are all created b’tzelem elohim/in God’s image.  The people of Israel are my people, yet I abhor the deliberate debasement of the divine image through systemic violations of human rights committed in the name of Israel the people in the land of Israel.

Some in our communities have been falsely stoking fears that decades of Jewish Christian dialogue would be destroyed as a result of the call by the fifteen church leaders. This is a false prophecy.  Jews and Christians and activists and humanists must all be able to speak truth to power, to call out as witnesses, and hold our civic leaders to account for their stewardship of our resources.

This is consonant with the principle found in the Talmud – dina d’malhuta dina – the law of the land is the law. Applied in this context, the principle is an extension of my citizenship here, and enhances my personal understanding if the complexities inherent in faith-based, particularly Christian-faith-based, calls for justice in Israel and Palestine.  I understand this interest in, and concern for, the holy land, and believe that the motivation for these actions is thoughtful, deeply considered, and values-based.

True interfaith cooperation and dialogue starts with a commonality of principles and ideals, and a willingness to engage with open eyes and open hearts, especially when looking at the painful and tragic intersections of faith and history.  Jews, humanists and activists who stand with these churches do so because we share respect for law, for dignity, and self-determination based on human rights.

In that spirit, JVP has created another opportunity to echo the church’s call. At, you can find a petition asking President Obama to ensure that American aid to Israel is in compliance with current US laws. Our president has identified himself as a person of faith, and I call that to our attention at this moment precisely because some of us at this table do this work as people of faith. Jewish Voice for Peace is just that – a Jewish voice speaking and seeking peace, and taking this opportunity to raise the voices in chorus.

Ten thousand voices have already declared their support for the churches’ call, in this petition to Congress:

We are Jews, Christians, Muslims,  and other people of conscience who wish to thank you for your principled stand asking members of the United States Congress to hold Israel accountable in its use of U.S. military aid as required by U.S. law.

May our solidarity continue to be driven by values, not tribal allegiances, motivated by the prophetic vision that demands we stand with the powerless and call out the powerful.

May our shared work be for a blessing.

The Politics of Weeping

by Rabbi Margaret Holub

I’ve been struck this past week, reading my various rabbis’ words as we process Operation Pillar, by all the talk of weeping.  “I weep for Israelis terrorized by sirens….”  “I weep for Gazans terrorized by Israelis….”  “I weep for everyone on both sides….”  There was a nice comment that someone made somewhere about how we shouldn’t forget to weep for the Bedouin in the southern Negev while we are weeping for both Israelis and Gazans.  And so on.

Then there were the comments telling the rest of us who we are allowed to weep for; I read one posting in another place from a rabbi admonishing the rest of us that we’re not entitled to weep for Gaza unless we have a first-degree relative in Israel, preferably directly in harm’s way.  That pissed me off.

And I also saw disgruntled comments that certain kinds of weeping — for the four Israeli dead, for example — just feed the evil delusion that this is a symmetrical conflict.  Or that if you only weep for the dead and destroyed of Gaza, you are self-hating, or at the very least, no one in the Jewish community will take your weeping seriously.

For a couple of days now I’ve been kind of anti-weeping.  But, like many of us, I’ve been feeling pretty damned impotent to do anything useful.  And today I got to thinking that maybe this is one role for rabbis: to weep.  And to share our sorrow and rage and all the rest, whatever piece of the whole scenario brings us to tears.  There’s plenty to cry about.  I haven’t personally shed any tears yet, but I’ve had knots in my stomach a lot and some sleepless nights.

But mostly I think it’s probably a good idea, at least for me, to try to stay centered and think.  What I am trying — not totally productively — to think about is what I have to offer that might be of help.  I don’t think that any of us can do absolutely the one perfect thing that will end the blockade, end the occupation and bring peace and justice.  It’s going to be partial from each of us.  So I’m also thinking that it’s probably not too productive to try to look tougher than I actually am, or smarter, or more radical.  though it’s hard for me not to try.  I was particularly moved by one person in our Rabbinic Council who said the other day that she’s not really in a position to be out front in public right now, but she can see doing some behind-the-scenes things, like making phone calls or writing press releases or even reaching out to other rabbis who are having a hard time right now dealing with this stuff.  When she said that I thought, wow, that’s something useful being said here.

But back to the weeping…  I think that all of us are moved to weep by different things, which is as it should be.  I don’t really think that one kind of weeping is better than another at this moment.  I kind of imagine us all at home, looking at our various computers and weeping, each in our own way, so that between us all we’re weeping over much of the tragedy/crisis/war/massacre and trying to find our voices and think how we can help.

And I find this comforting.

Reflections in the Key of Anguish

by Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton

I am a singer and a rabbi, and I would rather sing to you right now, because you have probably read too many words, heard too much raw speech, about Israel and Gaza. It would be better to sooth and distract. But I feel compelled to find words. Just words.

Biblical verses and fragments of songs jostle for recognition and repetition, but I can’t hear then clearly enough. Instead, I’m trapped in the compulsion to read every report, go to every web site.

It feels disrespectful to say that I feel inundated or bombarded by all the words, when there are too many who are actually being bombarded.

To recite a litany of some things on this “side” and some things on that “side” feels like a desecration, a less-than-holy thing to write. I’m a rabbi; I have comforted at hospital beds, in houses of mourning; celebrated in times of joys, worshiped on the holy days, learned and taught with children and the young at heart, and know that trauma is trauma. No proportionality need qualify the permanence, and the destructiveness, of its impact.

My heart is heavy now, listening and reading way too much, way too many words, pulling me back to the days of Operation Cast Lead. A friend wondered, then, why I was so absorbed, so anguished, from so far away. How can I explain now, to anyone – to family, to clergy colleagues, to friends – how profoundly I want to find a way to wail the song: no more bombing in my name.

The diploma on the wall speaks: You! Find words, analyze, contextualize. I reply, resisting: I don’t have to come up with political solutions.  Let me just sing.

But I’m pulled to this keyboard, not to the other one, tapping at the letters to drown out the songs of anguish. Maybe, soon, a new melody in the key of tselem elohim will come to me.

I’ll keep listening for it.