Will liberal Jews take responsibility for their role in American policy and the suffering of the Palestinian people?

Israel/Palestine
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The following is a Yom Kippur sermon on American Jews and Israel that I gave at Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca New York.

I want to start my sermon with a kavvanah (spiritual intention) of two quotes, one from the Psalms and the other from Arundhati Roy a contemporary Indian writer.

First, Arundhati Roy: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.  And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.  There is no innocence.  Either way you are accountable.”

The Psalms:

L’maan achai v’reyai adaberah na shalom bach.
L’maan beyt Adonai eloheynu avaksha tov lach.

For the sake of my brothers, my sisters and friends
I will speak of peace.
For the sake of this planet, the House of God, may I seek  goodness and blessing for all.

Ir Amim

During our stay in Israel this year, we took two tours with Ir Amim (City of Nations), a non-profit Israeli organization that educates the public about the reality in Jerusalem.  The first tour was in English and included many people from around the world; the second was in Hebrew and we were the only foreigners.

On both trips, we saw with our own eyes the huge Jewish neighborhoods that have been built since 1967 that encircle East/Arab Jerusalem: from Pisgat Ze’ev in the North to Gilo and Har Homa in the South.  We saw bypass roads for Jews and a special underground road for Palestinians.  We saw the huge Separation Wall.  Most shocking, we saw armed Jewish enclaves in the middle of  Palestinian neighborhoods such as the Ras El Amud, Sheikh Jarrah, Mt. Olives, Jabal Mukabber and others.  These settlers receive full support from the Israeli government.  We drove by the expanding settlement created in Ras El Amud that is sponsored by Irving Moskowitz, an American Jewish millionaire.  The tours were educational, enlightening — and devastating.

After seeing the reality on the ground, the Israelis on the second tour were all very disheartened; a sense of hopelessness and despair was palpable in the bus.  One man was particularly distressed.  “What is the solution?” he demanded of our tour guide. Our guide, who had retired after serving many years as a police officer in Jerusalem, insisted that his task was to show us the reality on the ground, not to suggest a solution.  Agitated, the man  turned to his fellow passengers with the same question.  “What do you  think? What is the solution?”  What emerged was amazing.  They all agreed that the only hope was intervention by the United States and the international community.  To our astonishment, this group of Israelis all agreed that the only possibility for a resolution was if America put pressure on Israel to relinquish the settlements and to make a peace agreement based on territorial compromise.

For us, as American Jews, it was an enlightening moment.  We were close to the end of our stay in Jerusalem and the new American Administration had made the most serious effort yet to do just that, to insist that Israel end all settlement activity. Yet, in response to outrage and massive pressure from the America Jewish community and the Israel lobby, the  Administration had backtracked and agreed to a temporary partial freeze on settlements that will end in eight days’ time.

Biden’s visit

In March, Israel welcomed Vice President Biden’s visit with the announcement of new construction in one of the very settlements we had seen on our trip.  “Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is our capital,” Prime Minister Netanyahu told the cheering crowd at the AIPAC conference, forgetting to point out that close to 40% of the residents of Jerusalem are Palestinian and that, while vast new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem had been built encircling Arab/East Jerusalem, not one new Palestinian neighborhood had been built and Palestinians are routinely are denied new building permits.

Many of us were so hopeful to see the new Administration push for a complete freeze on settlement activity, the most basic change needed for any serious negotiation.  When the administration backtracked again, it illuminated just how powerful an influence the American Jewish community – our community – has on U.S. policy on Israel.  It is our relationship to Israel as American Jews that I want to explore today.

Peter Beinart

In June, Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic, a magazine with a centrist to right wing perspective on Israel, wrote an article entitled, “The Failure of the Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books that stirred controversy and an important ongoing debate in the Jewish world.

Beinart argued that  “for several decades the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Beinart pointed out  that the mainstream Jewish organizations base their argument for American support for Israel on the idea that Israel is a democracy that shares American values. Then the Jewish establishment ignores or downplays the disturbing long-term anti-democratic trends in Israeli society and silences those in America who speak about them.

Beinart pointed to many indications of this anti-democratic trend in Israeli society. Among them:

* The most extreme right wing government in Israel’s history

* An intolerant settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy as well as the army

* An ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, and a large Russian immigrant community (Both these communities are particularly prone to anti-Arab racism.)

* A poll that shows that  56% of Jewish Israeli high school students and more than 80% of religious high school students would deny Israeli Arabs (i.e. Palestinian citizens of Israel) the right to be elected to the Knesset

* Another poll that indicates that  53% of Israeli Jews, and 77% of those from the former Soviet Union, support encouraging Israeli Arabs to leave the country.

* A  coordinated public attack led by members of the ruling coalition against Israeli human rights organizations as traitors to Israel

* A shocking insensitivity to Palestinian suffering

The very week last month that Beinart spoke at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Israeli bulldozers had just demolished the houses of the villagers in El Farsiya in the Jordan Valley.

This demolition was the second time that Israel had carried out a demolition in this village.  Beinart pointed out that American Jewish leadership would never mention this incident.

Israel has four times destroyed a Bedouin village of El Arakib.  The initial demolition was carried out by a force of hundreds of police officers and soldiers. Just this week, immediately after Rosh Hashana, Israel demolished this village for a fifth time.  Once the villagers are moved from their village, the Jewish National  Fund will plant a forest on the location. Several other Jewish National Fund parks have been built on the ruins of former Palestinian villages in Israel once their inhabitants were expelled.

Beinart pointed out that American Jewish leaders would never address the issue of what happened in El Farsiya or El Arakib and many other villages as a challenge to Israeli democracy.  Worse, they may defend the actions.

Stifling Debate

Leaders of our community go further.  They stifle open debate on any anti-democratic actions by Israel – like  these demolitions — by calling those who raise these issues in America and in Israel “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic.” even though this means calling thousands of American Jews and thousands of Israelis “anti-Semitic.”   They have also launched a concerted public attack on the most respected international human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others, labeling them also anti-Israel.  Beinart argues that this uncritical support for Israel and the stifling of open debate  has led to the distancing of young liberal American Jews from Zionism and Israel.  “Fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists, few and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal,” he wrote.

Beinart, who is father of two young children and a devoted member of an Orthodox synagogue, focuses on alienation of young liberal Jews from Israel and Zionism.

He is talking about our children and grandchildren and he is talking about us.   Increasingly we, liberal American Jews find ourselves in an agonizing conflict between our loyalty to the Jewish people, our wish to support Israel, and our concern and/or our opposition to the disturbing trends in Israeli society and the policies and  actions of the Israeli government. Liberal Jews are increasingly troubled about Israeli policies and actions.  It is painful, sometimes even unbearable, for us to listen to the stories like the demolition of the two Palestinian villages that I described.   It is very painful for me to talk about them.

The conflict for us is between core values   We believe in human rights, in open debate, in democracy.   They are the very values we hold dear in relation to our own country and every other country in the world.  We criticize our own country’s profound racism, prejudice, inequality, and militarism.  And, we are proud of the role many American Jews played in the civil rights struggle, in the peace movement, as advocates for justice on many issues.

For us, the very core of Judaism is:

pursuit of justice (Justice, justice shall you pursue!),

equal human rights for all (God created Adam/human beings in God’s image)

and the pursuit of peace (Seek Peace and Pursue It!)

How can we uphold these core values of our faith in our own country and everywhere else in the world,  but not in Israel?  How can we turn our eyes and not face the painful reality of the oppression of Palestinians in Israel?  How can we be appropriately vocal about Sudan, China, Burma, Zimbabwe, but silent about Israel? Aren’t we responsible first to deal with injustice for which we are directly responsible?

How do we respond to Israeli attitudes, policies and actions that violate what we believe to be the core tenets of our faith?  Israel claims to act in the name of the entire Jewish people. Is it acting in our name when it demolishes Palestinian villages?  Many of us have enormous grief about what has become of Israel.  If we speak about this publicly. will we be called anti-Semitic by fellow Jews?  And we feel an inner tug of disloyalty to our people when we criticize.

Delegitimization

Many liberal Jews – and many rabbis — have been cowed into silence by overwhelming pressure from mainstream Jewish leaders.   Over the past year in addition to calling critics “self hating,” or “Israel-bashing,”  the Jewish establishment has come up with a new term “delegitimation” or “delegitmization”, to silence this criticism .

Just before Rosh Hashana, I saw a glossy brochure for a conference on “War by other means: The Global Campaign to Delegitimize Israel.”  The conference will be held at Boston University in October, sponsored by CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting.

While there are people and groups in the world who want to delegitimize and destroy Israel, CAMERA and other conservative groups use the term “delegitmization”  to cover a broad spectrum of critics of Israeli policy. Rather than focus on global and Jewish concern about Israeli policy that has led to a rise of anti-Semitism in several countries–  including our own — the leaders of Israel and of the American Jewish community want to deflect any legitimate criticism and debate by labeling all efforts to challenge Israeli policy as “delegitimizing Israel.”  It is just the latest strategy to silence the debate.  It is Israel’s illegitimate and immoral policies that lead to the “delegitimization” of Israel.

Change in America

Beinart’s article is significant because it is written by a well- known and well-respected young Jewish intellectual and because it is part of a broader change in the debate about Israel in American society.

Over the past few years, more and more Americans have dared to face the wrath of the powerful Israel lobby by raising these issues in the public realm.  They have been vilified by Jewish leaders, yet they have courageously created an environment where questions that were previously silenced are now part of the debate.  Several books have opened the debate and the Internet has played a major role.  Progressive Israeli and American bloggers tell the story of Palestinian suffering and of anti-democratic actions by Israel on a daily basis.  These reports are painful to read and profoundly disturbing. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the attack on the flotilla and other actions by Israel have also shocked many in America.

These bloggers also write daily about the efforts of the American Jewish Community, the Israel lobby and the Israeli government to stifle debate in America and about the lack of reporting on issues relating to Palestinian suffering in the mainstream press.

This change has lead to an increasingly open debate in America about Israel policy: on university campuses, in churches and some synagogues, in the press and on the Internet.   American can no longer hide from this reality, nor should we.

How do we, as liberal Jews, respond to this debate?

Beinart: Two forms of Zionism

In his article Beinart argues that there are two versions of Zionism: There is a Zionism that, in response to persecution of Jews, believes that the entire world is against us and that our only option is to exercise our Jewish solidarity and power.

And there is a liberal, humanistic Zionism that is “gasping for air” in Israel today.  It is a Zionism that understands, in Beinart’s words, that “the best way to memorialize Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.” He believes that it is this form of Zionism that will inspire our children and is worth fighting for.

The young Israelis who protest weekly at Sheikh Jarah, the Jerusalem neighborhood where Jewish settlers have displaced Palestinian residents. give voice to this Zionism as do the many peace and human rights groups in Israel.

Beinart writes: “What if we told the next generation of Jews that it faces a challenge as momentous as any in Jewish history: to save liberal democracy in the only Jewish state on earth?  What if we shared an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what israel risks becoming and in love with what it still could be”?

Beinart’s article is courageous and important to all Jews concerned about Judaism and the future of Jewish values.  Many of us are profoundly concerned about what Israel is becoming and we should all be in love with what it still could be. It is vitally important for us to support courageous Israelis of all kinds who are fighting for a just Israel.  We need to teach our communities about these efforts, take Jews to Israel to meet progressive Israelis and invite them into our communities.  For the Jewish identity of our children, we need to find a way for them to connect to progressive Jewish culture in Israel and to progressive groups that uphold our core beliefs.  We also need to  make sure that when they go to Israel they also see the Palestinian reality and meet Palestinians who are working for peace.  This is the best chance we have to foster a positive and hopeful connection to Israel. This has been the focus of my work for the past three decades and it continues to be one essential part of what we need to do.

Jews and American Policy

And we need to go beyond this.  We live in America and it is as American citizens that we need to act. The United States government provides more aid to Israel than to any other country on earth and yet our government has allowed Israel to settle half a million people on the West Bank and rarely intervenes when Israel engages in egregious discrimination such as the fifth demolition of the village of El Arakib just a few days ago.  Our government always provides diplomatic cover for Israel as it did after Operation Cast Lead and the Flotilla incident.

It is time for turn our moral angst about Israeli policy to ending the suffering of the victims.  It is time for us to address the direct and indirect responsibility that we have as American Jews for the discrimination and suffering of Palestinians.   As the Obama administration pushes Israel, it will face huge resistance from the mainstream Jewish community, the Israeli lobby and many members of Congress.

The House in Silwan

Last year I told the story of standing on the ruins of a  demolished Palestinian home in Silwan and listening to residents talk about their children who had been arrested in the middle of the night for throwing stones at the bulldozers that destroyed the house.  I turned to my colleague in Rabbis for Human Rights and said, “I can’t bear to hear the story anymore, you see many such incidents how do you stand it?  He turned to me and looked me in the eye and said,”How do I stand it?  How do you stand it?  You pay for it!”

He told me that a representative of the American consulate had been present at the demolition, that America apparently didn’t have the power to stop an action of blatant housing discrimination that would horrify most liberal Americans including, maybe especially, liberal American Jews.  Liberal American Jews have played a major role in the struggle to provide equal housing opportunity in America.

Yes, we pay for it and the United States covers for Israeli discrimination and all the injustice that Beinart describes in  his article.  And the leadership of American Jewry, including many rabbis and even some of the leaders of the Reform movement, are vocal advocates ensuring that the U.S. defends Israel when it commits human rights violations. This was clear after Operation Cast Lead, in the vicious vilification of Judge Goldstone and in the response to the attack on the flotilla.   This direct role the U.S. policy has in supporting the Occupation became  clear to me on that visit to Silwan and it became particularly clear during our most recent stay in Israel.

From our vantage point of  living in Jerusalem, I could see the direct effects of American Jews’ support for the policies of the Israeli government.  Every day the Israeli government acts to further settle the West Bank, to dispossess Palestinians from their homes, to steal more Palestinian land, to squeeze them into smaller and smaller pieces of land.  Every day these actions make a peace between the Palestinians and Israelis less likely.   The silence of the American government along with the massive support that America gives to Israel is what makes this all possible.  Without this support Israel could never continue these policies.  At any point, if America were to act on our basic principles and insist that Israel as a democracy stop wholesale ethnic discrimination against Palestinians, it would stop, or at a minimum there would be a profound change.

Those Israelis on our bus were right.  Without American support Israel would not have been able to masively expand settlements: without significant and serious American pressure there is no hope for a solution.  All of it is financed and supported by American government and it is our community, the American Jewish community, that plays a major role in securing the support of the United States and in silencing the debate about American policy in our country.  Israel relies on the American Jewish community and the Israel lobby to maintain the consistent overwhelming and blind support of the U.S. Congress.

As I watched this in Jerusalem, it became clear to me that I needed to act as an American citizen to call on my government to hold Israel accountable.  We liberal Jews have been relatively quiet; some of us have supported Israeli peace groups, but we have not been as active in regard to American foreign policy.  Many liberal Jews even  join in the silencing of dissent in America.  When churches in America discuss taking a position on Israeli policy — as the Presbyterians did this summer — the mainstream Jewish community mobilizes its leaders and rabbis to warn our non-Jewish friends that taking action on Israel will threaten Christian-Jewish relations and that their action is anti Semitic.

As a liberal American Jew, I want to join with other American citizens calling for a more moral and responsible American policy in regard to Israel.   Of course, Israel is entitled to security, our people feel vulnerable and we too have suffered, but our suffering in the past does not give us any right to inflict suffering on another people.  The message of our Torah is the opposite: that our suffering should sensitize us to the suffering of others. I am a supporter of the Israeli peace groups but I now see myself as a American Jew with a responsibility to demand that my government  intervene to uphold the core values of our faith by insisting that Israel end the violation of human rights, end the settlement policy,  and make real commitment to justice for the Palestinians.

For too long have we been vocal about human rights violations everywhere in the world but silent when Palestinian homes are demolished or when Palestinians are thrown out of their homes and replaced by extremist right wing Jewish settlers who are protected fully by the Israeli government, army and police and supported by our money and political support.

How can we hold up one standard in America and another in Israel?   What we believe must happen here in America is what should happen in Israel.  It is not complicated.

American Jews are beginning to take action.

A few years ago, J Street was formed as an alternative to the Israeli lobby.  J Street defines its mission as pro-Israel and pro-peace and supports efforts by the President and the Congress to pressure Israel and the Palestinians toward a two state peace settlement.  It is an organization that  challenges the power the Israel lobby has over Congress and  it works to open debate in the Jewish community.  It supports members of Congress and candidates who are pro-peace.  In February, J Street will be holding a conference and I would encourage those of you who are interested to attend.  I believe there have also been efforts to establish a local chapter here in Ithaca.

Another Jewish organization that has been active in regard to U.S. policy for many years is Jewish Voice for Peace.  While J Street is an explicitly Zionist organization, Jewish Voice for Peace includes Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, as well as many non-Jewish Americans.   JVP advocates for peace achieved through justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.  JVP seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East.  It is a strong and consistent voice calling for a U.S. policy that promotes democracy and human rights.  Again, I believe there is an effort to establish a local chapter of JVP here in Ithaca.

Palestinian civil society has called for a global non-violent movement – B.D.S.: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to end the Israeli policy of oppression and discrimination against their people.   Many Americans, including many American Jews, are involved in this effort.  We often criticize Palestinians for violent resistance. BDS is a totally nonviolent effort to end oppression.  Going as far back as the Exodus from Egypt, there is no example in human history of a political system where a privileged group gives up its privilege without enormous pressure.  And in Israel, there is no incentive to give it up.  Why would the settlers living in beautiful homes with exquisite views on the West Bank give up this privilege without any pressure to do so (and with full funding from the U.S.)

The B.D.S. movement makes many Jews anxious.  There are many legitimate concerns in our community, especially about the academic or cultural boycott, that must be discussed. I hope that we will have a chance to do so in this community.  The Israeli government and some in the Jewish community have decided to draw a red line, putting anyone who supports B.D.S. beyond the pale.  This is a huge mistake.   While we may oppose specific boycotts like the academic boycott or cultural boycott, many Israelis support a boycott of products produced on the West Bank.   Just this past week, Israeli actors and directors decided to boycott the new publicly funded theater in Ariel on the West Bank.  Their action is supported by 100 American playwrights including Tony Kushner, Cynthia Nixon, and Theodore Bikel.  Does this make Theodore Bikel beyond the pale?  Does it put all the Israeli actors and directors beyond the pale?  This is definitely a profoundly challenging issue but the way to deal with it is not by calling those who advocate B.D.S. traitors.  Enough of name calling. It is time for an open discussion.

And this brings me to our congregation.

We are a diverse congregation with many different relationships to Israel.  Some of us have never even visited Israel.  For some of us, like myself, Israel is a central part of my identity as a Jew.  Some of us have family in Israel.  And all of us feel a special connection to that land. Facing these questions is challenging.

I urge you as individuals and as a community to be concerned “at what Israel risks becoming and in love with what it still could be.”  What happens in Israel affects and will continue to affect all Jews.

There are many different ways to take action.  We don’t all have to do the same thing.

We have started by holding listening circles and we need to continue listening and  learning.  I personally am especially grateful to those members of the congregation who disagree with my position but have been prepared to listen.  I look forward to listening carefully to opposing points of view and to a continued respectful and sometimes difficult conversation.

We need to go beyond just listening.  We also need to take action, whether it be to challenge the the Reform leadership as our Board recently did, to support J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, Taanit Tzedek, Americans for Peace, Israeli peace or human rights groups to name just a few possibilities.

“You don’t live here, you don’t understand”

We can no longer be silenced by those who say, “What right do you have to criticize Israel, you don’t live there, you don’t have to pay the price for the consequences of your actions”?

Yes, we don’t live there and the citizens of Israel must decide their own future.  Our responsibility is for the role our own government and our own community plays in Israel.

Whether we like it or not, as Americans we are directly involved in Israel.  The question is how we will be involved — as those who uncritically support Israeli policy or those who call on our government to advocate for the same values we support here in America and to support those in Israel who are upholding those values? I trust that this community will be a space of open debate on these issues and a community that will act to promote justice, compassion and equity in America, in Israel and throughout the world.

Lastly, this sermon not really about Zionism or Israel but about Judaism.  What kind of Judaism will we support: a Judaism that is based on universal human values or a Judaism that privileges the rights of Jews above the rights of other people?  Reform Judaism has a proud history of upholding the prophetic vision of Judaism with the core values of justice and compassion for all human beings.  What’s at stake in the issues I have raised this morning is our religious faith and legacy.  The stakes could not be higher.

I want to end with the same kavvanah with which I began:

Arundhati Roy writes: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.  And once you’ve seen it,  keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.  There is no innocence.  Either way you are accountable.”

We have both seen and heard and we are accountable.

L’maan achai v’reyai adaberah na shalom bach.

L’maan beyt Adonai eloheynu avaksha tov lach.

For the sake of my brothers, my sisters and friends

I will speak of peace

For the sake of this planet, the House of God, may I seek  goodness and blessing to all.

May the Source of Life bless us with the strength to seek peace for all our brothers and sisters, for Israeli Jews and for Palestinians.

For the sake of this planet, the House of God, may we seek goodness and blessing for all.

I wish you and your families a year of blessing and joy.

May we all write and seal ourselves in the book of life, blessing — and peace.

Shana Tova.

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