Trending Topics:

Leading American rabbi issues first public criticism of apartheid conditions in Jerusalem

US Politics
on 38 Comments

I am often asked by non-Jewish friends how the bar on criticism of Israel is exercised among Jews. I have struggled to explain the social prohibitions on such talk, whether in the synagogue, the New York Times, or academia, because I did not grow up inside the Jewish organizational sphere. And so I listened with keen interest to a recent dialogue at JCC Manhattan between two leading rabbis, Ayelet Cohen, 40, and David Ellenson, 68, about their reluctance to criticize Israel publicly.

The conversation was notable for two confessions from Ellenson: that he and Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt criticized Israel for the first time ever, over the Jewish nationality law, in the Wall Street Journal last December (this piece) only after they were pressed to do so by a member of the Israeli Knesset; and that he had first observed Israel’s discriminatory practices against Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem–not paving roads in Palestinian sections– 18 years ago but that he had declined to criticize these Jim Crow conditions, and indeed felt queasy about speaking publicly about them in New York that night.

Why did he feel such inhibition? The rabbis invoked the idea that the Jewish people are one, in Israel and the United States, and there is a sacred responsibility to support one another; and Cohen laid out a rule she is uncomfortable with: that American Jews have no right to criticize Israel because they don’t serve in the army there.

The talk took place on February 23 and was called, “At a Crossroads: American Jews’ Relationship to Israel.” Ellenson is the Chancellor Emeritus of Hebrew Union College. Cohen is director of the Center for Jewish Living and the David H. Sonabend Center for Israel at the JCC and served for many years as the leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT congregation.

Here are three excerpts:

Cohen:

You said a phrase before, Can you be critical of Israel and still love it infinitely when you know that there are people who are bent on the destruction of the state? And I think that’s such a salient question. Do I love Israel infinitely? I feel like I love Israel the way I love my family. Infinite love and infinite awareness and patience and despair over its complications and its failings and wanting to believe that it can yet be the best of itself…. [Cohen remembers a childhood friend killed in a terrorist bombing of a bus 19 years ago in Jerusalem].

So when we think of criticism and talk about criticism– and I remember always that sense of, Any criticism of Israel is not OK, belies a lack of love for Israel, and is not appropriate for Americans. If you want to criticize Israel, make aliyah, live in Israel, fight in the army of Israel and then you have a right to criticize, and if you don’t do that you have no right to have any opinion except for a supportive opinion.

Ellenson:

Recently, in fact just last December… Deborah Lipstadt and I wrote an article, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal against the proposed nationality law that prior to his dissolution of the government, where Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted Israel declared officially as a Jewish state, to not really emphasize the democratic character of Israel. I do think Israel is a Jewish state, I have no problem with that. But I began to think, that well, timing-wise, prudentially, pragmatically this is not a very wise time to engage in that kind of position. I think Dr. Lipstadt and I when we wrote this op-ed, we both said it was the first time to our knowledge that we had ever voiced any critique of the Israeli government…

I do think that for Jews who are committed to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel, that we American Jews not only have the ability to make our views felt but I think American Jews are really obligated– if one believes that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh, that we have one people, that there’s echad unity, and that Jews are responsible for one another, then I think American Jews should speak out on issues of concern to them…

In this sense, I guess I can reveal this. What actually motivated Deborah and I to write this is that a friend of ours who is a member of the Knesset called us privately and said it’s very important for American Jews who support this position– in this case opposition to the passage of the nationality law– to express their views, that will help us a great deal in the Knesset. I see that as completely legitimate, but I cannot say I still feel in my heart of hearts completely comfortable with being critical.

The other point that I would make, and this is what it means to awaken to another narrative. When I used to live in Jerusalem, I would note that in areas or neighborhoods that were Arab, that for example the streets would be completely paved in Abu Tor, let’s say in the Jewish section, and, as soon as you go 20 feet more, into the Arab neighborhoods, the streets simply would not be paved. I don’t know why now, in 2015, when I saw these things in 97, 98, 2000, it didn’t bother me more, but I think we haven’t as Jews– and the state of Israel hasn’t done all it could or should have done frankly [speaks haltingly] to support its Arab citizens.

Even here it’s difficult for me to make that as a public statement. But I am beginning to be awakened to that much more. But that’s a personal trajectory on my part. It’s different than the topic tonight, which is how is it that we do go about engaging in it. If Jews like you and me can’t begin to engage in this without being accused of being somehow traitors to the Jewish people, we’re not going to have many Jews left.

Cohen:

You said before, you were talking about the oft quoted phrase that all of Israel is responsible for each other… We talk so much about the American Jewish responsibility to Israel and the sacred obligation to support Israel– and where I have so often felt as a progressive American Jew, Are you supporting me back? Where is the support? .. Where is that obligation to world Jewry, to the incredible flourishing of progressive Jewry… ?

Back when Alan Dershowitz was attacking the Israel lobby theory as anti-Semitic, I discovered his own comments that American Jews had a “sacred mission” to support Israel. These rabbis affirm that; and it seems to me as problematic as any other religious demand on civic life, say, opposition to stem-cell research.

The conversation was circumscribed. Cohen repeatedly referred to younger Jews who are critical of the occupation, and who derive their Jewish identity from that opposition. But the conversation pointedly excluded anti-Zionists or non-Zionists, indeed defined American Jews as the subset of Jews who support Israel. Cohen got the name of Jewish Voice for Peace wrong — Jewish Voices for Peace, she said; and Ellenson could not remember the right name for Students for Justice in Palestine and also called BDS (boycott divestment and sanctions) DBS.

These rabbis are deeply immured in a communal conversation, which is why I think people should respect Ellenson making this public break. Obviously it gives him pain to issue the criticisms that he does. (BTW, Palestinians who support the right of return don’t have to break with their siblings, parents and grandparents; no, they affirm that community by doing so.)

But of course Ellenson was silent for over 15 years about conditions that if they existed in the U.S. would be the target of angry protest by progressive Jews. And this speaks to the conundrum for young Jews, the Open Hillel folks who are breaking with their elders. If this is the Jewish communal conversation, where will you find leadership on the question of Palestinian human rights? From Palestinians.

philweiss
About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

38 Responses

  1. Kay24
    Kay24
    April 21, 2015, 2:03 pm

    I suppose the good Rabbi will get attacked by others for speaking the truth. No one, not even an honest Rabbi should dare to criticize Israeli policies. Whatever evil is done in the name of all Jews, it MUST be accepted and never criticized.

    It is time Israel realized that as long as they keep the brutal occupation going, the blockades, collective punishment, and the building of illegal settlements, they are not entitled to be “recognized” as a Jewish state by the world. More like a rogue state when you look at it today.

    • pabelmont
      pabelmont
      April 21, 2015, 4:12 pm

      Kay24: I suppose we may hope that Israel will do something SO (SOOOOO VERYYYYY) AWFUL that American Jews like tnese rabbis will have to re-examine the proposition that “Whatever evil is done in the name of all Jews [] MUST be accepted and never criticized.”

      Let’s see, how bad is bad enough (or too bad)? Gaza-2014 was not bad enough, obviously. Mavi Marmara was not awful enough. Maybe if Israel drops a nuke on Iran? Would that awaken these rabbis?

      Here’s another thought: a lot of Americans have not served in the USA’s army. I am one. Are we allowed to think about, criticize USA’s policies?

      Can we all remember the famous American Jewish gangsters? Are Jews, are these rabbis, allowed to criticize these fine upstanding proponents of violence? ?

      What if these gangsters had claimed that they acted in the name of all Jews?

      If so, why not Israel and its violence?

      Oh well, for an older generation, it seems a lost cause. these rabbis do NOT seem to me to have turned any corner.

      • JWalters
        JWalters
        April 21, 2015, 6:28 pm

        Excellent points. And let’s not forget the largely Jewish-American gang known as Murder Inc.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish-American_organized_crime

        How glaringly brutal and unjust does Israel have to be for people to call it what it is?

        Einstein discovered the theory of relativity because he had the courage to accept the evidence. It showed the speed of light was constant in every reference frame, which was so counter-intuitive (in key examples) that many people dismissed it as simply unbelievable.

        One blinder is that many Jewish Americans (or “American” Israelis?) are extremely afraid and sensitive. But the reason for that, documented well in many Mondoweiss articles, is they have been subjected to a deeply financed, massive, long-lasting campaign of deceit and emotional manipulation. Who is putting up the money for this, and why? A clue – why are the neocons promoting chaos in the Middle East?
        https://consortiumnews.com/2015/04/13/neocon-chaos-promotion-in-the-mideast/#comment-193096

      • Kay24
        Kay24
        April 21, 2015, 6:46 pm

        The Maavi Mara incident (which a Turkish American was killed), Rachel Corrie (another brave American who was protesting the illegal settlements which the US condemns) and last year the massacre in Gaza (during which UN shelters were bombed) did not make a single pro Israeli member of Congress nor the zionist media, see the light and change their minds. This good Rabbi speaking against apartheid conditions is just a rare event. Unfortunately he does not have the megaphone to change the situation. He will never be mentioned in the media.
        This is life in the United States of Israel.

      • RoHa
        RoHa
        April 21, 2015, 9:31 pm

        “American Jews have no right to criticize Israel because they don’t serve in the army there.”

        Very few American Jews have served in the Syrian Army. That is why we hardly ever hear any criticism of Syria from American Jews.

      • Kay24
        Kay24
        April 21, 2015, 10:08 pm

        JW Good questions, which would enlighten the world, if we knew the answers. These must be anti Muslim/Arab elements, who play war games with the lives of innocent Muslims, who have by now died by the hundreds of thousands, equal numbers injured and maimed, and millions of refugees suffering in the most terrible conditions. Do they care? No, in fact they are thirsting to continue the bombing (manufactured in either the US or Israel) by attacking Iran.

        Who is behind the financing, planning, and spreading the chaos, is the trillion dollar question.

  2. Krauss
    Krauss
    April 21, 2015, 2:12 pm

    Never, ever, forget that the reason why that panel even took place is because of the enormous sacrifice that has been put in, largely by non-Jews, to bring the issue to the table despite MASSIVE resistance and brazen attacks.

    So while you cover all their bases throughout the post, my sympathy is never with the Anguished Jewish Soul, just as it wouldn’t be with the Anguished White Soul in either Jim Crow South or in white-ruled South Africa.

    The brutal reality is that these people are being dragged kicking and screaming into a resolution of justice. Look at the racist attacks on SJP at Berkeley. Anyone who thinks this fight is over are fooling themselves. Whoever becomes the president next is going to be worse on the Palestinians than Obama was, who was never good but who must be judged against the Bush/Clinton disasters.

    They can whine all they want. The reality is that they are in the way and we shouldn’t show even a shred of empathy to people whose “concern” for human rights prohibits them from speaking out on apartheid a full 15 years and even then only tepidly and to a closed Jewish space.

    This is why “liberal” Zionism is morally bankrupt.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      April 21, 2015, 2:59 pm

      “The brutal reality is that these people are being dragged kicking and screaming into a resolution of justice.”

      I wouldn’t worry about guys like that. A few years from now he’ll be claiming he never was a Zionist, really. All depends on which side of his finger cools off first.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 21, 2015, 3:08 pm

        “Why did he feel such inhibition?”

        Even at 68 (let alone 40), if they have been blessed with good health, it’s very possible to have a living parent. One who can still pick up a pen.

      • RoHa
        RoHa
        April 21, 2015, 9:50 pm

        I’ve just turned 69, and I do have a living parent. Said parent got a card from the Queen a short time ago.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 22, 2015, 2:01 pm

        “Said parent got a card from the Queen a short time ago.”

        I add my humble salutations and felicitations to Her Majesty’s exalted ones, and wish your parent much nachos, if she can still eat spicy food. I very much can’t.

        Still a postcard from the Queen beats a postcard from the King saying ‘cut ’em off without a farthing!’

    • JWalters
      JWalters
      April 21, 2015, 6:43 pm

      I agree. The mealy-mouthed excuses for massive injustice deserve no respect. They are akin to slave owners’ justifications. Justice knows no tribal or ethnic boundaries (unless you believe, even sub-consciously, that other ethnic groups are sub-human).

      We can feel sympathy for the poor blighter who is so confused he goes into a life of crime. But we still STOP him from continuing to commit crimes. Call it “tough love”, but give him therapy AFTER he’s in prison.

      I suspect the root reason for these community “leaders” foot-dragging will turn out to be financial pressure.

  3. eljay
    eljay
    April 21, 2015, 2:24 pm

    || Kay24: … It is time Israel realized that as long as they keep the brutal occupation going, the blockades, collective punishment, and the building of illegal settlements, they are not entitled to be “recognized” as a Jewish state by the world. ||

    If/when Israel cleans up its act, it will be entitled to be recognized as a law-abiding state, not as a supremacist “Jewish State”. No state – not even Israel – has a right to exist as a supremacist state.

    • Kay24
      Kay24
      April 21, 2015, 4:12 pm

      I agree. Yes sir, Eljay. :))

      • eljay
        eljay
        April 22, 2015, 10:19 am

        || Kay24: I agree. Yes sir, Eljay. :)) ||

        Finally I get a little respect around here! ;-) :-D

      • Kay24
        Kay24
        April 22, 2015, 1:13 pm

        Eljay: “Finally I get a little respect around here! ”

        Finally I get a response around here. Heh.

    • bintbiba
      bintbiba
      April 22, 2015, 2:07 pm

      Much respect, eljay !!! ; ))

      • eljay
        eljay
        April 22, 2015, 2:10 pm

        || bintbiba: April 22, 2015, 2:07 pm Much respect, eljay !!! ; )) ||

        Thanks, bintbiba – and much respect in return! :-)

  4. CitizenC
    CitizenC
    April 21, 2015, 2:34 pm

    Another sighting of that moral unicorn, the liberal Jewish conscience, a creature in the fairy tale of “the Jewish people.”

    See Rabbi Elmer Berger’s “Memoir of an Anti-Zionist Jew” etc for an example of a real Jewish conscience, or to be precise, Judaic. Berger dismissed the “Jewish people” as a reactionary, anti-modern idea, and accepted fully the modern liberal status of Jews as a religious minority. Or secular citizens, for the irreligious.

    Berger and his secular analogues had principled, unapologetic stands on Palestine, unlike the moral unicorns, and their “secular Jewish” counterparts.

    • pabelmont
      pabelmont
      April 21, 2015, 4:18 pm

      CitizenC: A wonderful characterization of “liberal Zionists” : moral unicorns!

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 22, 2015, 2:03 pm

        “CitizenC: A wonderful characterization of “liberal Zionists” : moral unicorns!”

        Yes, loved that, too!

      • RoHa
        RoHa
        April 23, 2015, 5:02 am

        Splendid term.

  5. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    April 21, 2015, 2:56 pm

    Israel: The Danger of Idolatry
    Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 2/20/2015

    After looking at the specific question of the Netanyahu Speech, I will look more deeply into the distinction between seeing the State of Israel as an achievement to be celebrated and criticized, or as an idol to be worshipped.

    The Talmud also tells the story that the ancient rabbis hunted for the yetzer hara, the evil impulse, of idolatry. They thought that if they could find it, they could kill it – and end idolatry. They did finally find it – hidden in the Holy of Holies, at the sacred center of the Holy Temple.

    It is easier to make an idol of something greatly valuable than of something trivial. We face a choice between celebrating Israel when it is a worthy instrument for justice, peace, and Jewish culture — or worshipping it as an idol no matter how it acts. Idolators do not criticize their godlets. Torah sees idolatry as the worst of sins, for it leads to all the others. Greed. Lies. Slander. Robbery. Murder. God forbid that we turn the State of Israel into a Jewish idol.
    https://theshalomcenter.org/content/israel-danger-idolatry

    • eljay
      eljay
      April 21, 2015, 3:29 pm

      Torah sees idolatry as the worst of sins, for it leads to all the others. Greed. Lies. Slander. Robbery. Murder. God forbid that we turn the State of Israel into a Jewish idol.

      Too late: Thanks to hateful and immoral Zio-supremacists, the damage has already been done.

    • RoHa
      RoHa
      April 21, 2015, 9:20 pm

      “celebrating Israel when it is a worthy instrument for justice, peace, and Jewish culture ”

      Let me know when that happens.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 22, 2015, 2:08 pm

        “Let me know when that happens.”

        I sure will! In the meantime, I strongly suggest you do not adopt the expedient of voluntarily ceasing respiration until the great event happens in order to pass the intervening time. Just a feeling.

  6. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    April 21, 2015, 3:07 pm

    These rabbis are deeply immured in a communal conversation, which is why I think people should respect for Ellenson making this public break. Obviously it gives him pain to issue the criticisms that he does. (BTW, Palestinians who support the right of return don’t have to break with their siblings, parents and grandparents; no, they affirm that community by doing so.) – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/04/apartheid-conditions-jerusalem/comment-page-1#comment-762570

    I take umbrage at that. The statement is true that they don’t face pressure from close relatives on speaking out if their relatives are other Palestinans. BUT Palestinians have tons and tons of pressure from speaking out publicly about Palestine in a way that people raised in “pro-Israeli” communities do not. Namely, when the Palestinian says it, their opponents, who can be very hardcore PEPs and Neocons, may label them as being supporters of terrorism, Hamas, etc. etc. This libelous charge of being an Arab “pro-terrorist” can damage them in a wider American “pro-Israeli” society both in terms of reputation, job loss, fear of criminal charges, etc. in a way that a mere “ex-pro-Israeli” or rabbi would not face. A good example of this is the case of the “Holy Land” society in the US where Arab Americans were charged with supporting Hamas terrorism when they gathered humanitarian support for Gaza.

    So the good rabbi has it backwards when he says critics coming from the pro-Israeli community have it harder. While yes, Palestinians don’t have to deal with relatives’ support for Israeli abuses, their relatives actually have in some cases demanded that their children not talk about Palestine for fear of serious recriminations in the US.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      April 22, 2015, 2:12 pm

      WJones, I don’t know where he gets the mega-chutzpah to even call it a “communal conversation”. There are other people, lot’s of them, involved.

      And your points about Palestinians in the US are well taken. Thank you. I hadn’t thought enough about that consequence, that even in the land of ‘free speech’ those directly involved might be under pressure to avoid talking about it, out of a fear of consequences.

      • W.Jones
        W.Jones
        April 22, 2015, 10:03 pm

        Yes, Mooser.
        I know personal cases of that with Palestinians and either their families or their own fears and prohibitions about others knowing their human rights concerns on the topic. They don’t want to get under government surveillance for supporting other Palestinians- a concern the rabbi wouldn’t have.

        Phil is right that they don’t have to worry about family members shunning and hating them for being “wrong”, but they have other more problems and risks that can be worse like Odeh had.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 24, 2015, 11:44 am

        Thanks, WJones.

  7. ckg
    ckg
    April 21, 2015, 8:35 pm

    Off topic but urgent: An anti-BDS bill S.619 will likely come to a vote tomorrow Wednesday. Please email your senators in Washington today.
    http://dyn.realclearpolitics.com/congressional_bill_tracker/bill/114/s619

    http://www.endtheoccupation.org/article.php?id=4399

    • ckg
      ckg
      April 21, 2015, 8:46 pm

      On closer inspection, it will be introduced tomorrow, but not voted on. But email them anyway.

  8. RoHa
    RoHa
    April 21, 2015, 9:44 pm

    “Do I love Israel infinitely? I feel like I love Israel the way I love my family. Infinite love …”

    “Any criticism of Israel is not OK, belies a lack of love for Israel, and is not appropriate for Americans.”

    “I do think that for Jews who are committed to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel, that we American Jews not only have the ability to make our views felt but I think American Jews are really obligated– if one believes that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh, that we have one people, that there’s echad unity, and that Jews are responsible for one another, then I think American Jews should speak out on issues of concern to them…”

    “We talk so much about the American Jewish responsibility to Israel and the sacred obligation to support Israel…”

    Am I allowed to raise the issue of Jews being more loyal to Israel than to their own countries yet?
    Or is that still a certain kind of trope?

  9. dx
    dx
    April 21, 2015, 10:55 pm

    Thanks for the links–they are most helpful!

  10. JohndeClefPineiro
    JohndeClefPineiro
    April 22, 2015, 11:10 am

    No fair-minded person accepts, endorses, condones or expresses anti-Semitism. The ugliness and stupidity of bigotry is ugly and stupid, no matter to whom it is directed nor by whom.

    But also no fair-minded person would regard as bigotry or anti-Semitism the righteous and justifiable criticism expressed throughout the world of the barbarity, immorality, and even genocidal character of what the right-wing government in Israel is doing to Palestinians in their own land.

    No less an authority than the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has criticized and exhaustively documented the deliberate right-wing plan to violently dispossess the Palestinian people in his book: “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.”

    And here is an interview with this distinguished Israeli-born historian on DemocracyNow! that is really essential for all of us to listen to to become more informed of the reality playing out on the ground and in the background.

    All fair-minded people owe it to themselves to open their minds to such informed insight:

    http://www.democracynow.org/2014/7/28/professor_ilan_pappe_israel_has_chosen?autostart=true&get_clicky_key=suggested_related

    In addition, given his background, what American Jewish leader Henry Siegman [an ordained orthodox rabbi] has to say about Israel’s founding in 1948 through the current assault on Gaza may surprise some of us. Indeed, you can hear the conscience of humanity coming through loud and clear in Rabbi Siegman’s irrefutable observations on Israel’s motives and conduct in this “slaughter of innocents” in Gaza. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/7/30/henry_siegman_leading_voice_of_us

  11. chuckcarlos
    chuckcarlos
    April 22, 2015, 11:32 am

    one actually believes that one is part of the “chosen people”…or in some way your god is better than their god or culture, or politics, or just about anybody else and one is heading to the unhappy hunting ground of doom…

    happens over and over again…

    if someone’s god is so damn important than he had better have shown himself to the chosen people…

    and I believe they live on the Asian Continent…exactly where most of humanity live

    otherwise your god is pretty damn stupid

    Islamic Republic of Iran and the Fascist Jewish State of Israel…the difference?…absolutely ZERO EXCEPT the Persian have the guts to declare their true intentions…

    publishing daily info, news and photos of the fascist dirtballs in Israel which is now happening…those guys are gonners…

    • Walid
      Walid
      April 22, 2015, 11:49 am

      “Islamic Republic of Iran and the Fascist Jewish State of Israel…the difference?…absolutely ZERO EXCEPT the Persian have the guts to declare their true intentions…” (chuckcarlos)

      Would you please elaborate?

  12. smithgp
    smithgp
    April 22, 2015, 2:57 pm

    I suppose it’s possible to imagine more pusillanimously timid criticism of Israel than these two leveled. You’d have to work at it, though.

Leave a Reply