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‘We made a mistake. There is a sickness inside our community’ — Jacob Ari Labendz in the synagogue

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St. Louis has become a hotbed not just for the racial conversation in the U.S., but the Jewish movement in the wake of Gaza to question Zionism in American life and support equal rights.

On August 6, Rabbi Susan Talve of the Central Reform Congregation invited five members of Jewish Voice for Peace to express their opposition to the Gaza massacre in her sanctuary. I have been very critical of Talve for serving as a conduit for AIPAC’s rightwing garbage, but she must be celebrated for inviting these Jews into her shul after she saw the local Jewish Federations giving JVP the bums rush.

I’ve watched one speech so far. Jacob Ari Labendz, 37, tells us he wanted to move to Israel when he was a boy. Now the history scholar (who just defended his dissertation at Washington University) worries about his career if he continues to speak out on Israel. But he speaks out.

This is a brilliant speech– not just in its ideas but its subtle manner, its means of entering a Jewish space and forever changing it. The speech avoids the rhetoric of anti-Zionism, but when you hear this speech, you realize that it is Over for the Israel lobby inside the Jewish Diaspora. It is just a matter of time. Because the very best and brightest of young American Jews wish to preserve a rich heritage against an alliance to a militant state that commits atrocities in our name.

Jewschool has posted the speech transcript. Full speech below, but here are some excerpts:

We made a mistake when be believed that association with a state, an institution of political power, which is temporary and flawed by necessity, can stand in for meaningful Jewish identities. Let us not make the mistake of alienating those of us who love our traditions and our communities but who also question the morality of political nationalism and who stand against Occupation….

There can be no progressive partnerships with organizations like AIPAC.

Support Palestinians in their efforts to achieve liberation and equality. Listen to their voices and follow their lead…

Do not ask Palestinians to be Zionists. It is unfair and cruel…

The community has stolen my birthright, because my birthright cannot come at the expense of others . 

Here’s the whole speech:

When I was a boy, my dad bought me a cap gun. It felt real. It was blue-steel, heavy, and bore no orange, protective bits. Sparks flew when I pulled the trigger and smoke followed. I had the gun for about ten minutes, until my mother saw it, shrieked at my father, and grabbed it away. Just one year later, in Israel, my mother stood by smiling and taking pictures as a soldier handed me, a child of eleven, his unloaded but very real M-16. He carried that gun to defend Israeli citizens. In 1988, that meant repressing the first intifada, the first popular uprising against the Israeli Occupation–against checkpoints, collective punishment, statelessness, and national subordination. At the time, my heart filled with pride to be associated with the young man. Today, I’d likely call him a boy. Today, undone by witnessing acts of ethnic violence and oppression carried out in my name and without my consent, that memory shatters my youth.

My parents raised me to love Israel and I did. I wanted to move there, to serve in its army, and to raise children in Hebrew. I still remember singing ha-Tikvah, the national anthem, with prayer-like devotion. And then, slowly, I learned that our promise land came at the expense of others. I learned about the Occupation, which is now in its forty-seventh year. I am thirty-seven. If I were Palestinian, I might never have known anything but occupation at the hands of a Jewish state. We have invested so much love, so much of who we are into the institution of a particular state that to criticize it can be terrifying.

And so I turned to our community, which I have loved and to which I have dedicated my life. I found there only silence and exclusion. I faced accusations of antisemitism. I lost friends and relatives and I worried for my career. In the 1960s, a divided American Jewish community came together around three issues: Israel, Soviet Jewry, and the Holocaust. The Soviet-Jewry issue fell away with the Cold War. The Holocaust, though recalled annually with reverence, is passing from memory into history. It no longer speaks to our younger generations as it did to ours. And we are thus left with Israel as our sole uniting factor. As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted, the State of Israel–an institution of political power–has replaced Judaism and Jewish culture at the center of our Jewish lives.

We all know the birthright program, which sends young Jews to Israel for ten days at no cost. Its founders learned from a survey in the early 1990s that our younger generation held weaker attachments to our community and also that participating in an organized trip to Israel reversed that trend for individuals. But can the solution to a crisis of meaning in our community really lie overseas? Data also show that our youths tend not to identify strongly with Israel. Its simple nationalism alienates those of us who think about belonging on more nuanced terms. Israel has driven us into the streets to protest atrocities carried our in our name and without our consent. And there, heartbreakingly, we face counter-protests from our own community in defense of occupation, in support of the ethnic division of society, and, this time, in favor of a bloody war of choice. If we have placed Israel at the center of our identities and if Israel now stands on the wrong side of history, what future can we expect? Support for Israeli politics–even if accompanied by prayers for peace–threatens to extinguish much of what is worthy of preserving in our tradition. If we do not speak, we risk not only complicity, but the alienation of future our generations.

We should be able to discuss this within our own community–and I appreciate the welcome here tonight–but instead we find silence and exclusion. Hillel International, the organization for Jewish life on college campuses, prohibits working with anyone or any organization which dares to criticize Israel at a fundamental level. This includes former Israeli soldiers who speak against the Occupation. NexDor, a local group which brings together Jewish young adults refused an offer from Jewish Voices for Peace to present its mission. Whether we love Israel or not, we made a mistake when we forgot about the richness of our heritage and its temporal and geographical breadth. We made a mistake when be believed that association with a state, an institution of political power, which is temporary and flawed by necessity, can stand in for meaningful Jewish identities. Let us not make the mistake of alienating those of us who love our traditions and our communities but who also question the morality of political nationalism and who stand against Occupation. We are a people composed of smaller sub-ethnic units, each with its own rich history, and we are sacrificing this heritage on the alter of quotidian politics.

I fear that a line has been crossed that only yesterday seemed unapproachable. The past weeks witnessed calls for ethnic cleansing in the Jewish press and the Israeli Parliament. In Israel, thugs beat anti-war protesters in front of the police and peace activists suffer intimidation. At the solidarity meeting here, I overheard one of our leaders explaining to his friend that the Israeli Consul [Roey Gilad] had postponed the rally due to his schedule. This made my neighbor nervous. He did not want the war to end before the rally. Peace would have undermined its impact. There is a sickness in our community.

Some history. Political Zionism emerged as a liberation movement in response to antisemitism and nationalism. The foundation of Israel included anti-colonial aspects. Yet the settlement of Palestine by European Jews was itself an act of colonization carried out with–and in opposition to–world powers. The project as it unfolded was based in ideas of Jewish supremacy and in a particular interpretation of our traditions and history. It turned on the violent exclusion of the region’s indigenous population. After 1967, Israel established an occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. After 2005, it initiated a siege of Gaza, designed to undermine Palestinian statehood. I therefore cannot remain silent when people portray this month’s conflict in isolation from the context of forty-seven years of occupation, collective reprisal, settlement expansion, and siege. We can attribute each individual failure to achieve peace to one side, the other, or both. But we cannot ignore that despite any rationalizations, Israel has occupied Palestinians for nearly fifty years. Ask what else Israel could have done from its position of strength to pursue peace. Consider what it means to accept so many deaths and the destruction of a city as collateral damage. No matter how we judge Hamas, the assault on Gaza has demonstrated Israeli disregard for Arab life. This will not bring peace. The choices that may bring peace will present serious risks, but none more dangerous, physically and ethically, than preserving the status quo.

This does not mean that Israelis lack the right to equality in their native land. It does not mean abandoning our ties to that land. However, we must pay attention to how legacies of power make certain forms of exclusion and subordination seem normal. We must remain vigilant against our own chauvinism and listen to others. Do not believe that Israel lacks partners for peace and do not stand with those who demonstrate to Palestinians that they lack such partners.

Jewish progressives can and do enjoy many ties to Israel, but Jewish progressives cannot value Jewish lives and freedoms over the lives and freedoms of Palestinians. Our self-realization cannot come at the expense of millions without citizenship, rights, and the same prospects for their children as our own. Progressives must stand against occupation, siege, and settlement expansion. There can be no progressive support for a wars of choice. There can be no solidarity with the Netanyahu government or its representatives like the Israeli Consul, which has undermined moderate Palestinians, rejected offers of peace, and expanded settlements to make a two-state solution–if that is desirable–impossible. There can be no progressive partnerships with organizations like AIPAC. Jewish unity cannot come at the expense of Jewish integrity.

Work for peace and justice, not an end to resistance. I have spoken about the damage that we do to ourselves, but that should not draw attention from those who suffer and die in Gaza and beyond. Support Palestinians in their efforts to achieve liberation and equality. Listen to their voices and follow their lead. Reconsider the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is disingenuous to insist upon non-violent resistance and then to undermine its most effective form. BDS does not delegitimize Israel. The occupation does. Do not ask Palestinians to be Zionists. It is unfair and cruel. Ask how we can together create a society free and fulfilling for all.

Those of use who have been marginalized can come together. We can drop the illusion of Jewish unity and form communities of intention. You do not need to reject Israel–though some of us do–but I implore you to reconsider its place in our community and what it means to support Israel in its present form. I do not fear Palestinians. We can withstand European antisemitism. Yet the orientation of our community horrifies me. It is alienating our next generation and killing Palestinians. The community has stolen my birthright, because my birthright cannot come at the expense of others. No child’s birthright should be a photograph with an M-16. Stand with us for peace and compassion. Thank you.

Hat’s off to Rabbi Talve. As Labendz writes at JewSchool,Few cities, if any, can boast of such openness to debate and protest.”

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32 Responses

  1. LanceThruster
    LanceThruster on August 22, 2014, 1:44 pm

    This also talks about the big picture in regards to tribalism vs universalism –

    http://uprootedpalestinians.blogspot.com/2012/03/tribal-nexus-zionists-and-anti-zionists.html

  2. seafoid
    seafoid on August 22, 2014, 2:10 pm

    Very impressive

    “Whether we love Israel or not, we made a mistake when we forgot about the richness of our heritage and its temporal and geographical breadth”

    I happened to be listening to this while reading it

    There is so much more to life than the nihilism of Zionism. Jews can and do do way better.

  3. seafoid
    seafoid on August 22, 2014, 2:31 pm

    In the week that 200 Jewish thugs descended on the wedding of a Jew and a Muslim to protest the Rassenschande it’s interesting to look around the world at other models of religious coexistence which will be required post Zionism

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanson_Ki_Mala_Pe

    “saaNsoN kii maalaa pe simruuN maiN pii ka naam

    apne mann kii maiN jaanuuN aur pii ke mann kii Ram

    With every breath I take, I chant the name of my beloved I know of my heart, and God knows of the heart of my beloved

    yahii merii bandagii hai, yahii merii puujaa

    This is my salutation [and] this is my prayer.

    ek thaa saajan mandir meN aur ek thaa pritam masjid meN

    par maiN prem ke rang meN aisii Duubii ban gayaa ek hii ruup

    One lover was in the temple and another in the mosque but to me, immersed in the joy of love, both seemed same”

    Take it away, Nusrah Fateh ali Khan

    Zionism is such a dismal, petty and miserable ideology

  4. Jackdaw
    Jackdaw on August 22, 2014, 3:19 pm

    Jacob Ari Labendz had a couple of oddball parents. Is it any wonder that he has a beef with Israel?

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a singular genius. It was a blessing that he died when he did and he didn’t have to witness his country turn into a pile of crap.

    • just
      just on August 22, 2014, 4:48 pm

      “Jacob Ari Labendz had a couple of oddball parents. Is it any wonder that he has a beef with Israel?” Can you please back up that allegation, Jackdaw?

      Jacob Ari Labendz gives me hope– he’s no kid, either.

      (Oh, and Jackdaw– Nusrat wasn’t an Israeli! You know the country that did “turn into a p.o.c.”)

    • Mooser
      Mooser on August 22, 2014, 6:17 pm

      “Jacob Ari Labendz had a couple of oddball parents.”

      Who taught their son to stand up and say what he thinks, instead of sniping on the internet at Mondoweiss? Yeah, real oddballs.
      I bet your parents were perfect, Jackdaw. Perfect Zionists.

    • Labendz
      Labendz on August 22, 2014, 6:25 pm

      I normally do not respond to comments on my articles, but I will make an exception here out of respect for my parents.

      My parents made me the man I am today. Even if they do not agree with all of my politics, they have supported and nurtured me.

      If you liked anything of what I wrote, it is to their credit as much as it is to my own. You owe them thanks, rather than derision.

      • just
        just on August 22, 2014, 6:30 pm

        I thank your parents and you, Jacob. Your speech was superb in so many ways.

        I wish you and your parents the best.

      • amigo
        amigo on August 22, 2014, 6:55 pm

        Long after the Jackdaws have disappeared into oblivion along with Zionism,voices like Jacob Ari Labendz will be remembered.

      • Qualtrough
        Qualtrough on August 22, 2014, 11:41 pm

        Labenz-You have my utmost admiration. It takes a singular courage to stick to your beliefs despite the fact that doing that might alienate you from family, friends, society, and even damage one’s career. I wish I possessed 1/10 of your courage!

      • Jackdaw
        Jackdaw on August 23, 2014, 2:05 am

        ” My parents made me the man I am today.”

        Jacob.
        Your a guy with limited life experience whose concept of conflict is limited to arguing obscure points of Czech history with your peers in academia.

        My twenty years additional years of life experience (than you) have taught me that academics are the last people that you want to ask about politics or conflict resolution. Better to talk to a ‘blue collar’, ‘man on the street’, for they have deep wisdom.

        Come to Israel now and dodge some rockets. See if that doesn’t change your opinion of things.

      • Cliff
        Cliff on August 23, 2014, 8:54 am

        @Jackdaw

        Anyone would rather be Israeli than Palestinian, when the context is ‘which would you want to be when both sides are fighting?’

        Israelis suffer almost no casualties in these massacres. When they do, it’s usually due to friendly fire.

        The Palestinians aren’t immigrants who stole the land. The Israelis are.

        The Palestinians are living under colonial rule. Not the Israelis.

        There is no comparison. The Palestinians are the ones suffering – and it’s at the hands of the Israelis.

        Israel kills more people in 2.5 weeks than ALL suicide attacks over 30 years in this conflict.

        So why don’t YOU go to Gaza or live in the West Bank as a Palestinian.

      • just
        just on August 23, 2014, 9:16 am

        “My twenty years additional years of life experience (than you) have taught me that academics are the last people that you want to ask about politics or conflict resolution.”

        That goes a long way toward understanding the Jackdaw! Thanks.

        “Better to talk to a ‘blue collar’, ‘man on the street’, for they have deep wisdom.”

        You mean like members of Lehava? Or the mentors of these regular Israelis?

        “Israeli teenagers: Racist and proud of it
        Ethnic hatred has become a basic element in the everyday life of Israeli youth, a forthcoming book finds.”
        http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.611822

        Or any of the other folks that protest and attack “leftists” and Israeli Arabs in your streets?

      • Jackdaw
        Jackdaw on August 23, 2014, 12:10 pm

        @just

        Working class people are generally more realistic than ‘luftmenschen’.
        ‘Blue collar’ types naturally have more conflicts than other folks so are more adept at conflict resolution.
        Without personal stakes in international conflicts or politics, they are dispassionate and clearheaded.

        Just. Step out of the echo chamber. There’s a real world out there that you’re going to miss.

      • annie
        annie on August 24, 2014, 1:14 am

        ‘Blue collar’ types naturally have more conflicts than other folks

        really?

      • Mooser
        Mooser on August 24, 2014, 11:30 am

        “Just. Step out of the echo chamber. There’s a real world out there that you’re going to miss.”

        And “Jackdaw” (now with twenty years extra life experience and blue collar) is here to tell us all about it!
        Aren’t we lucky!

      • just
        just on August 24, 2014, 12:10 pm

        I get it! You like to pigeonhole folks.

        “Step out of the echo chamber. There’s a real world out there that you’re going to miss.”

        Goose step out into the real world yourself, ‘Jackdaw’.

  5. Chu
    Chu on August 22, 2014, 3:39 pm

    good speech. I think the only audience who will listen to him are Jewish youth. It seems that as much as older Zionists want to understand, majority of them can’t adapt at this point. They don’t want to hear that their sacred project is being criticized, so they tune out.

  6. Mooser
    Mooser on August 22, 2014, 4:22 pm

    Am I to understand that this speech is the first out of five?
    Which would leave four more to go? I hope they all get their chance to speak. And there’s a full and free discussion in the congregation. Perhaps some kind of a change will come out of it.

  7. michelle
    michelle on August 22, 2014, 5:05 pm

    .
    what a tangled web
    this injust Israel has imprisoned much of the Jewish population
    .
    deaf ears;
    i was talking to a ‘practicing’ Christian
    (G-d will let us know who we are who we were and who we will be)
    and i brought up the oppression the Palestines have been living with
    she pretty much shrugged it off Israels homeland G-ds Will and so on
    so i asked how can it be done in the Name of G-d and include lying
    cheating stealing oppression and murder …. no answer
    i went on to ask her what would she do if her family her children her
    grandchildren were subject to the same treatment/oppression she in
    an ‘apples and oranges’ tone said she wouldn’t put up with it
    still i went on i could tell she still hadn’t fully related to the issue
    i asked her this …. what about all the Christian Palestines …. she
    seemed floored the concept of Christian Palestines was new to her
    i left it at that hoping that through me G-d had oiled her wheels
    .
    all and every should be respected and treated justly
    all life is of G-d
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

    • Citizen
      Citizen on August 22, 2014, 6:58 pm

      The Christian fundy I know the best personally, a very nice woman in her daily life, just answers my attempts to give her some facts about Israeli policy and conduct with, “Oh, there’s always a few rotten apples in any barrel.” She said she would send America’s sons, including her own, to die for Israel. If you don’t support the Jews, she says, you won’t go to heaven. God said so.

    • globalconsciousness
      globalconsciousness on August 22, 2014, 10:35 pm

      Michelle, I get a lot of the shoulder shrugs when I attempt to engage on this issue in particular and it not from practicing religious folk but Americans both Jews and those who are not…I have reasoned that it is perhaps because of the media and how the debate is framed in particular ways but surely ordinary, decent people would not turn away when children are being murdered en masse but they do… the last time I had this one way discussion, the only time any interest was piqued was when I mentioned the zoo animals being killed or left to die – this drew out an anguish look -seems the Palestinians and their children are not as important as the zoo animals…it is dispiriting…

      • michelle
        michelle on August 23, 2014, 4:40 pm

        .
        @ Citizen & globalconsciousness
        .
        people are like walls
        there is usually a door
        given time/effort you
        will learn how to find it
        .
        G-d Bless
        .

  8. seafoid
    seafoid on August 22, 2014, 5:30 pm

    They have hollowed out Judaism. It’s a shell now.

    Cordyceps is worth watching if you haven’t seen it
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKjBIBBAL8

    But Cordyceps serves a natural function. What is the purpose of Zionism? To drive all the Jews in Israel over the cliff of fascism ? For what ?

    That someone has to go to a synagogue and state the bleeding obvious- Israel has lost it. Is it not understandable? Does it have to be spelt out ? Do people still believe the tikkun olam self-medication ? The world is going to have to repair Judaism. (Yes Mooser, not everyone) And it’s going to hurt

    • Mooser
      Mooser on August 22, 2014, 6:12 pm

      “That someone has to go to a synagogue and state the bleeding obvious”

      Now, now, Seafoid, Israel is a democracy! And what democracy which has any self-respect would take orders from a religion?

  9. Mooser
    Mooser on August 22, 2014, 5:44 pm

    “To drive all the Jews in Israel over the cliff of fascism ?”

    “All” the Jews, Seafoid? “All the Jews in Israel”? Nah, not all of them, not by a long shot. Some will make short work of getting out and some will take it in the shorts.
    Zionism has always worked to the advantage of certain Jews, and not others.

  10. Das Judenreich
    Das Judenreich on August 23, 2014, 3:08 pm

    Remarkable. Despite the many calls in editorials here in England for the Muslim community to do more, I’ve not noticed any calls for English Jews to acknowledge “their problem”.

    • Anonymous on September 7, 2014, 3:05 am

      Well it’s one thing for the MSM to make the call, it’s quite another for that call to come from within one’s own community. But yes, I find the hypocrisy infuriating. (I’m English too.)

  11. michelle
    michelle on August 23, 2014, 4:46 pm

    .
    there was another Jew
    who was ‘kicked out’ of
    the Jewish community
    because He Spoke out
    against Jewish politics
    what was/is His name
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

    • Mooser
      Mooser on August 24, 2014, 11:39 am

      michelle, while I think about a half-dozen people have been arrested at JF offices, I don’t think anybody has been “kicked out” yet.
      That’s still to come (“and they were carried, still in the attitude of prayer, from the church”) ; since Zionism is in fact, the most important thing that needs talking about in Judaism, JVP and people like Abe will not stop talking about it. At some point the synagogues will join the Denver ‘Jewish Federation’ (?) and say “Absolutely not, enough”and then we will get the kickings-out. And the physical attacks. That’s still to come. I wonder, we may be watching a schism of some type.
      Happens in the best of religions, you know.
      But I want to say right now, I categorically refuse to throw shrimp at Orthodox Rabbis!. That was cruel and unnecessary.

  12. Jackdaw
    Jackdaw on August 24, 2014, 4:27 am

    Absolutely Annie.

    ‘Blue collar’ types, particularly tradesmen, deal with competitors, commuters, suppliers, subcontractors, contractors, law enforcement, clients, transport people. etc.

    Stressful stuff. Right?

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