Editor’s Note: Since Mike Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, solidarity between the Black Lives Matter and Palestine movements has become an increasingly central tenet of both struggles. Rabbi Susan Talve is a well-known progressive St. Louis rabbi who has become nationally acclaimed for her work in Ferguson, among other things. However, Rabbi Talve has also been an outspoken pro-Israel advocate during this same period — including inviting AIPAC to speak at her synagogue during Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer –and increasing her Zionist advocacy in recent months, sparking controversy. As local politics with national implications reach a breaking point, St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace issued this open letter.
Dear Rabbi Talve,
The Mishna calls Aaron, the first Israelite high priest, “Ohev shalom v’rodef shalom / a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.” We know, as Jews, that it is not enough simply to want peace. Peace must be pursued. The Bible uses the same word to command us to pursue justice. We know that peace, however much desired, cannot be achieved without justice. In recent days, your reputation for being a pursuer of peace and justice has been called into question and this has made us question our own relative silence. We write to you today in full awareness of and gratitude for all of the work you do on behalf of peace and justice in our community and beyond. We write to you specifically because of your values and because we can no longer patiently sit by as you defend the oppression of Palestinians at Israeli hands. This hypocrisy tears at our local community and ripples painfully far beyond it. We write you in hopes that our Jewish community can come together to work for Black and Palestinian liberation.
We are Jews who, like you, have been on the streets supporting justice for Mike Brown and actively working within our communities to end white supremacy and dismantle structural oppression. We commend your courageous and outspoken stand in support of Black struggle and many other social justice issues.
We are also Jews who stand with the indigenous people of Palestine who have been oppressed for more than 65 years by Zionist policies that privilege Jews over Palestinian Muslims and Christians, including near-daily assassinations, mass incarceration without charge, torture of children, collective punishment, demolitions of families’ homes, destruction of farmers’ olive groves and livelihoods, indiscriminate bombings, tear-gassing of entire villages, segregated roads and legal systems, and denial of access to holy sites, to name just some of Israel’s myriad apartheid policies.
For more than a year, we have struggled to reconcile your righteous stand on challenging U.S. domestic racism with your stated commitment to Zionism and defense of Israel. We have reached out to you, met with you, heard your requests to wait, and to give you more time and to understand how hard it is for you to reconsider your stance on Israel. We found hope when you opened your synagogue to an event by St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace and in the positive response to our words by many of the members of your congregation. We have wanted to trust — and still want to believe — that you too can be an ally in challenging Israel’s system of racial oppression, which is itself a form of white supremacy, as you challenge white supremacy here in the U.S.
As we have waited, we have witnessed our Palestinian comrades’ distress in movement spaces, forced to bite their tongue to protect you from discomfort and accountability. They have been unimaginably patient, doing everything to stand with Black struggle and not make this about Palestine. We too have bitten our tongues, avoiding writing this letter again and again. Tragically, your admirable actions in Ferguson have served as a shield for you, as you continue to justify Israeli state violence.
We are writing today because our choice to protect you, to give you time, to give you the benefit of the doubt, has placed the burden on Palestinians and Black leaders to voice and grapple with the painful ways you have brought Zionist oppression into this beautiful movement, in incidents that have remained largely hidden. We write today because to whitewash the lived alliances between Ferguson and Palestine is to silence the very voices we seek to hear.
Days after Mike Brown was shot, as the tear gas was falling on Ferguson, as Palestinians were tweeting their solidarity with protesters, you hosted a presentation in your synagogue by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (aipac.org), the racist, right-wing, hawkish organization behind the U.S. sending billions in military aid — fighter jets, missiles, bullets, tear gas — to Israel to use against the Palestinian people. You traveled in Israel with this organization as Israel mercilessly rained bombs down on Gaza for more than 50 days last summer, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians — more than 500 of them children, some just months old. During this agonizing assault, you sent letters back to your congregants and followers blaming Palestinians for their own deaths and praising the Israeli army. You committed yourself to “defend Israel against her enemies” while cautioning those critical of Israel that it was “impossible and dangerous to take sides.” When St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace members brought flyers to counter AIPAC at your synagogue, we were removed by security and you explained that there were security concerns related to everything happening in Ferguson and the New Black Panther Party.
When the Missouri History Museum tried to remove Palestinians from a “Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine” event after pressure from the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), we reached out asking you to stand with us against censorship of Palestinian narratives and you refused, explaining “I am the JCRC.” When organizers of the same event held a vigil to mourn state violence, our friend Murad told a difficult, heart-wrenching story about his friend being killed by an Israeli soldier before his eyes and dying in his arms. It brought deep pain to Murad and our entire community when you reacted by saying: “What do we have to learn from the Palestinians — to strap bombs to ourselves?”
After these painful moments, we asked you to join us in the difficult work of challenging Zionism and white supremacy in ourselves and in our community. You have said it is too hard: “Let the younger generation do it.” This fall, like so many seasons before, we have watched Palestinian friends murdered, their children robbed from them in the middle of the night, fathers taken away for torture with no chance of a fair trial. Murad, whose story you dismissed, recently led a funeral procession for the 12th time as he buried his dear cousin, shot in his own town by an occupying Israeli soldier.
How much longer can we wait for you?. We have privileged your timeline and comfort over our friends, over real people losing real family members to real violence perpetrated by our people, Jewish people, in our name and with our complicity. Yet your behavior demonizing Palestinians and whitewashing Israel locally has only increased, turning what should be safe spaces for all people of color into contradictory ones, drawing wedges where there were none. We feel we have hit a wall.
At a march last month calling on St. Louis to resettle Syrian refugees, while every other speaker stuck to the point at hand, you instead used your time to magnify Israel’s medical treatment of Syrian refugees, presenting Israel as heroic and unappreciated without any mention that Israel’s treatment of refugees is notoriously abysmal. Israel resettles African refugees in prisons and has refused to resettle a single Syrian, let alone any of the millions of Palestinian refugees it has forced into exile — including many being slaughtered in Syria and those living in St. Louis, protesting on the streets of Ferguson, denied from returning to their actual homes simply because they are not Jewish while you travel back and forth to Israel effortlessly.
In a recent newsletter for your congregation, you wrote how Palestinians’ fear of Israeli takeover of the Al Aqsa mosque comes from unfounded rumors, presenting Palestinians as irrational — without mentioning the actual statements by members of the Israeli cabinet calling for the destruction of the mosque and the frequent acts of political and religious theater carried out by fundamentalist Jews on that site. In the context of the occupation and Israeli intransigence on issues connected to Jerusalem, Palestinian fears are grounded in lived experience. Their anger at being barred from worship at their holy site is righteous.
We were troubled by your Thanksgiving-Hanukkah letter last week drawing a parallel between supporting Black protesters in Ferguson and supporting Jewish Israelis, mentioning Palestinians only in reference to attacks on Jews and again portraying them as angry and confused without just cause. We find the parallel between Jews in Israel and African Americans misleading and offensive. While Jews still face some true antisemitism and a history of oppression, Jewish Israelis, especially white Jewish Israelis, enjoy vast privilege in their own state, defended by a powerful military and police force, while Palestinians struggle for their basic rights in the face of systematic exclusion and oppression. We can of course express deep concern for Israeli victims of violence, but to do so without a power analysis and attention to the broader context, we only perpetuate the system that gives rise and meaning to that very violence.
Your letter was all the more troubling for failing to acknowledge the alliance between activists in Ferguson and Palestine. You reference individual Palestinians opposing your positions on Israel but ignore that solidarity from Ferguson to Palestine has become a central tenet of the movement in St. Louis. Because Israeli and U.S. state oppression are deeply interconnected. Tear gas used against protesters in Ferguson is the same used daily on Palestinians. Israeli police proudly train U.S. police in population control tactics, and vice versa. State-sanctioned killings and systemic racism play out in our city, as well as in occupied Palestine. Let us strive to support and be in allyship with those most affected by oppression. We cannot pick and choose from among oppressed and occupied communities; we must support all those who struggle against white supremacy and state violence. Ferguson to Palestine is not a slogan; it is the lived reality of Black and brown communities.
We understand that many may be confused by this letter given that you have many times expressed a desire for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But to talk about peacemaking, reconciliation, and balance between Israelis and Palestinians without an analysis of power, racism, and institutional oppression is as misplaced in discussing Israel/Palestine as it would be in discussing Ferguson. As someone fiercely committed to justice, will you join us in standing in solidarity with Palestinians working to actively dismantle and end all Israeli policies that privilege Jews over non-Jews? Will you hold yourself accountable to Palestinians, whose liberation is interlocked with our own humanity as Jews? Will you speak truth with us to Jewish institutions like the Jewish Federation, JCRC, and the Anti-Defamation League that support and help maintain these policies that render true peace and reconciliation impossible?
Your Hanukkah letter talks about the uncomfortable “breach” we must all step into. As a leader in the progressive Jewish community, we invite you to join with us in stepping into a different breach — one where your hopes and dreams for Israel collide with the brutal realities of Palestinian oppression. Let us struggle together to reach the other side.
St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace
Organizations and individuals can sign on in support of this letter here.