Two Israelis try to help Brooklyn’s Jews cross the Red Sea

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Last night in Brooklyn, the most progressive Jewish congregation in New York, Kolot Chayeinu, held an “open conversation” about cultural boycott of Israel featuring six panelists, all of them Jewish. It was a first for New York in that this was the first time that such a debate was held in a synagogue. I found it thrilling in the way that I used to find the Harlem Globetrotters games thrilling– one side ran circles round the other– though like the Globetrotters victories, I am not entirely sure what was achieved. The best answer is that in a borough in which Jews had helped vote in a Republican congressman two nights before out of parochial fears, a handful of very good Jews are trying to wake other Jews up.

The panel was leftwing even for the Jewish community because everyone on it was for some form of boycott. And more than 200 people crowded the shul. “That’s the first sentence of your story; you couldn’t get this many people out for any other political event,” James North said, sitting next to me.

Many in the crowd oppose boycott and spoke in emotional ways. I love Israel, I might want to move there, its delegitimization scares the heck out of me, please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, an older lady said, to big applause.

Israel is a state, it’s not a baby, Dalit Baum responded from the stage.

Whenever Baum and the other Israeli on the panel, Udi Aloni, opened his or her mouth (sorry about the grammar, this is the internet), the debate was over.

The only panelists who actually live there, each taking a personal legal risk to advocate for boycott, these moral giants did not speak about their feelings, they described the real conditions of Jim Crow. Dalit Baum’s first speech was about how easy it is to pass into the bubble of unconsciousness here or in Israel– but right now Palestinian children are being arrested in the middle of the night and held in prisons in the occupied territories and brought into a children’s court so that they will squeal on village elders who are organizing nonviolent protests against the wall.

“People’s lives are being crushed every day. It’s unimaginable, the cruelty.”

As this serious woman with giant dark eyes spoke, you literally could have heard a pin drop.

And Baum continued poetically by imagining the life of the judge in that special court for children. The judge is a woman Dalit Baum’s own age, in uniform. She goes back to Tel Aviv later, as Baum does. “She is for peace. She votes for Meretz. I know her. She’s Ashkenazi.” (Nodding laughter from audience.)

Udi Aloni took us into the same spiritual/political terrain in his appeal. BDS is not a Jewish call or a Jewish movement, it is a Palestinian call. Palestinians support it and so BDS gives Palestinians sovereignty in their land. And therefore BDS is Aloni’s  opportunity at last to deal with a sovereign Palestinian community of brothers and sisters rather than a victimized and powerless community in some kind of false staged “dialogue.”

Would Aloni change this or that point about the BDS call? Sure. But it is not for him to say.

“Once they have true sovereignty, I can argue with them on everything,” he said. “But let my other be a brother. Let the non sovereign be sovereign.”

There is nothing to say after such a beautiful statement.

At the end of the debate Aloni was even more impassioned. Who are we to talk about cultural boycott when any Jew in this room can go to Israel tomorrow to rediscover his cultural and religious “birthright,” but a Palestinian who lives there cannot visit the village of his grandparents to look on his own culture.

“Voila,” James North said, sitting next to me.

And when Aloni staged a production in Arabic of Waiting for Godot at the Jenin Freedom Theatre, he could not bring it to Haifa for Palestinians there to see it. No; his Pozzo was arrested by Israelis on arbitrary grounds. And held for a month. Culture.

“We are just trying to do a little justice here,” Aloni said, trembling with anger.

Don’t you see that, Jews? We are just trying to do a little justice here, in a vastly imbalanced situation. This is not about What is good for the Jews, this is about actually doing something to battle racism and give Palestinians a voice, as Dalit Baum said at the end.

So Jews were called back to a tradition of social justice last night in a Democratic borough that just went for a rightwing Republican. That’s a good thing. And Roy Nathanson in arguing against cultural boycott said, I teach music in the schools and “we have apartheid for young black men in this country.” OK, a helpful point. But have you been to the occupied territories lately, as Baum and Aloni have?

The organizers are trying to help American Jews, and I’m all for that. The big gracious spirit of Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, lately converted to boycott of the occupied territories, pervaded the evening, and wise Esther Kaplan began the night by saying that boycott is a nonviolent tactic, in a violent scene. This discussion has been “nearly taboo within the Jewish community,” she said.

Maybe soon they will get this show into a mainstream synagogue? As Baum said, We don’t have all day.

Update: Jack Ross corrects: “Park Slope is NOT in District 9, it is in Yvette Clark’s district, as am I in Flatbush.” I corrected my mistake.

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