A meme created and posted by HandsUp United on Monday has caused an uproar in St. Louis activist circles. The image that circulated on social media bears the photo of Rabbi Susan Talve, the leader of St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation. Rabbi Talve is well known figure in the Ferguson protest movement and interfaith community of St. Louis. The controversy surrounds the commentary in the meme about Rabbi Talve referring to her as a “Real Terrorist” for her support of Israeli apartheid and its oppression of Palestinians. The image is part of HandsUp United “Real Terrorist” campaign calling out St. Louis power brokers for their role in perpetuating systems of racial oppression and includes photos of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, Missouri Senator Jamilah Nasheed with the hashtag #RealTerrorist.
As Palestinians, we are too familiar with the label “terrorist” and Hands Up’s use of the word attempts to turn the term on its head by applying it to state political power as a way to illustrate society’s hypocrisy about the use of violence. The messaging is blunt and could have used more context. Here I hope to provide some background on why Rabbi Talve was targeted.
In the summer of 2014, Palestinians around the globe, including the community in St. Louis, watched in agony as Israel assaulted our people in Gaza for over 50 days killing over 2000. Our anguish was only amplified by the murder of Mohammad Abu Khader in Jerusalem who was set on fire alive by Jewish settlers. In the midst of this agony, Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson. For many of us, this awakened an active love and solidarity with the Black liberation movement. The pain of both of our communities was raw and fresh, and was being met with very similar responses of state violence.
During our summer of sorrow, Rabbi Talve was traveling in Israel with a delegation organized by AIPAC, a conservative, war-mongering lobby group that has vigorously supported U.S. funding and defense of the Israeli policies of settler colonialism in Palestine.
During her time in Israel, Talve sent dispatches back to her community in St. Louis. In her messages, Talve asserted that all of Jerusalem belonged to Israel, blamed the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza on Hamas and praised the Israeli army for their morality and courage. When she returned from Israel, she hosted a promotional event for AIPAC at her synagogue. AIPAC hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at their annual conference in Washington, DC in March 2015, the day before he spoke to the US Congress. His message to Washington was clear: the US and Israel are engaged in a common war against the “uncivilized” of the Middle East. His racism against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims rivaled his racialized hatred of President Obama. AIPAC is the organization Talve chose to travel to Israel with and to support in St. Louis. Her actions made it clear that she supports Israel at all costs. At the Ferguson October events in 2014, she told a reporter, “A lot of American Jews are very conflicted as I am about the occupation, they’re scared for Israel because we don’t feel safe in this country.”
As a Palestinian who is exiled from her father’s country of birth, those words could not sound more privileged and racist. In this sick logic, my family and millions of other Palestinians are denied return to Palestine so that Talve and her co-religionists can have a back-up country. The idea is absurd and that it comes from the lips of the “progressive” rabbi makes it harder to comprehend.
In March 2015 the Missouri History Museum censored a panel, From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson to Palestine by telling organizers that Palestine was not permitted to be part of the discussion.
Emails secured through a FOIA request show that Jewish establishment leaders in St. Louis pressured the museum to remove Palestine from the discussion. Our Black and brown alliance refused to continue with the panel at the museum without Palestinian voices included and staged a protest on the steps of the Museum. Included among the emails retrieved is a message from Talve offering her support to Museum Director, Frances Levine. In her email dated March 18, 2015 she writes, “dear Fran…let me know if you want to talk about the protests planned for tomorrow night. not sure how I can help but I will if I can….talk to you soon! Love, susan.”
Does this strike you as the offer of a person committed to social justice and dialogue?
Our brown and black partners refused this attempt to divide our alliances and cancelled the event at the museum. We continued with our plans to welcome the Ayotiznapa Caravana to St. Louis. One of the events with the delegates was a vigil for victims of state violence at the Mike Brown memorial in Ferguson. Talve was in attendance. Our dear friend and comrade, Murad, a Palestinian student from Deheisheh Refugee Camp in the West Bank, was asked to speak. Murad told the story of his high school friend who was shot by Israeli soldiers and died in his arms. It was a story of unimaginable pain. As the gathering dispersed, Talve was discussing the event with my friend, Harry, and remarked, “What do we have to learn from the Palestinians, to strap bombs to ourselves?”
When Harry told me about this I was speechless and angry for Murad. Talve had come to a sacred space organized by people of color in mourning and basically said a big FU. She called all Palestinians suicide bombers, so excuse me if I’m not morally outraged that she was referred to as a #RealTerrorist.
Talve is at the center of social justice movements in St. Louis. For that, she should be commended. But her hypocrisy of fighting against racial injustice in St. Louis while supporting it in Israel is what HandsUp United was calling out. Zionism has no place in liberation spaces led by people of color. I am so grateful to my family at HandsUp United for understanding that none of us are free until all of us are free.
A version of this post first appeared on Sandra Tamari’s Facebook page.