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Sabeel BDS conference pits local church against Jewish community leaders

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On April 29-30 Friends of Sabeel North America organized a highly successful conference in Santa Cruz CA, titled “Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions at the Crossroads of Campus, Church & Community.”  Local rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community, including the director of Santa Cruz Hillel, tried hard to shut it down, focusing on the Peace United Church of Christ that hosted the conference. The juggernaut of pressure, exerted not only on the conference organizers and local Christian clergy, but directly on the lay leaders of the UCC church to prevail on their pastor to block the conference as flagrantly anti-Semitic, included letters and opinion pieces in the local newspaper, The Sentinel. The conference went on, filling the large church with close to 400 attendees.  Having failed to stop the conference, Rabbi Richard Litvak of Temple Beth El and five other Jewish leaders, including two rabbis and the Santa Cruz Hillel Director, published an OpEd that appeared on the Saturday of the conference.

Besides the familiar charges of BDS as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, Rabbi Litvak’s piece included a direct attack on Sabeel and on Naim Ateek. Sadly familiar to us at Sabeel, this attack made the charge that Sabeel “employs disturbing theological rhetoric that misrepresents and denigrates Judaism… [employing] explicitly anti-Jewish imagery, comparing “crucified Palestinians” to “Jesus on the cross,” the victims of an “Israeli government crucifixion system.” The piece also characterized the conference as unbalanced, promoting “a vision of the future for which only one side is entitled to ‘justice’ and for which only Israel is to blame for decades of conflict.” As an alternative to BDS, Rabbi Litvak hailed programs that emphasize “mutual recognition” and the kind contact between Jews and Palestinians that will “prepare both parties to make the painful sacrifices needed for peace and learn to view ‘the other’ as their partner for a shared future.”

The conference featured powerful addresses by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Palestinian American activist Lara Kiswani, Omar Barghouti of the BDS National Committee, and Rev Graylan Hagler of Plymouth United Church of Christ.  I also spoke at the conference, and published the following OpEd, published in The Sentinel in the week following the conference:

BDS not anti-Semitic: it’s the best hope for Israel

By Mark Braverman, Special to the Sentinel

In his April 30 opinion piece Rabbi Richard Litvak names the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.” In so doing he asks us to agree that the intent of BDS is to destroy or end Israel.  This is simply not true.

At the conference at Peace United Church of Christ that has caused Rabbi Litvak and his colleagues such distress I heard incisive, urgent, rights-based criticism of Israel, and it is well-deserved. Hats off to the clergy and laity of the church who held the conference in the face of intense pressure. The organizers understand that BDS is not anti-Semitic, that criticism of Israel has nothing to do with attitudes toward Jews or Jewish tradition.  As a Jew, I understand the reasons for Zionism, which arose out of Jewish suffering and partook of the nationalist spirit of 19th century Europe. But this can not be the basis of a modern nation state, not now, when the trajectory of history is away from ethnic nationalism, the cause of so much conflict and suffering. Israel cannot build its future by privileging Jews over others.

Rabbi Litvak maintains that the return of Palestinians expelled in 1948 would “result in extinguishing Israel as the world’s only Jewish state.”  But, we must ask, what kind of a Jewish state? The world, including many Israelis, is beginning to demand of Israel, as it did of South Africa, that it become a legitimate member of the world community. Peace for Israel will come not with building walls, but with becoming a democracy for all its inhabitants.  Whatever political form Israel may eventually take, anything else cannot be called “Jewish.” Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has said that not only is criticism of Israel’s illegal policies not anti-Semitic, it is the best way to fight anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Litwak misrepresents the theology of Palestinian Rev Naim Ateek. Care for the oppressed is the core of Liberation Theology, and at the heart of the Jewish values I was raised on. I understand all too well the Rabbi’s discomfort with the image of a crucified Jesus being tortured by Jews, an image that has caused our people so much suffering throughout history. But we must turn from a preoccupation with past suffering and toward an acknowledgement, however painful, of how our current quest for safety has turned us into persecutors. The man on the cross stands for those crushed under the heel of oppression in every historical period and place. This is the meaning of Ateek’s crucifixion imagery. It is a tragic irony that those now responsible for Palestinian suffering are the leaders of a Jewish state.  But this only serves to point out that Jews too are capable of wrongdoing. In talking about Israel’s “original sin,” Ateek is doing no more than calling Israel to account, as we Americans identify the genocide of native peoples and slavery as our “original sins.”  In this we are not calling the existence of our country into question – we are taking responsibility and resolving to do better.  To require the same of Israel is not questioning Israel’s “right to exist,” as Rabbi Litvak charges. Rather we are requiring that Israel cease its land theft and its abrogation of the rights of the indigenous Palestinians.

Rabbi Litvak cites programs that bring together Jews and Palestinians. These would be fine if there were movement toward a just settlement.  But after these opportunities, the Jews go back to their lives in Tel Aviv and Haifa and the Palestinians return to the open air prisons of the West Bank and Gaza or to their second-class status in Israel. When rights are restored to Palestinians, we can talk about reconciliation and mutual understanding. Until then, the only responsible actions for Americans are to petition our government to condition military aid to Israel, and to support global, non-violent efforts for a future of dignity for both peoples. BDS is not going away. Tired tropes invoking the specter of anti-Semitism and the empty appeal to the now discredited “two state solution” aren’t going to stop it.

Mark Braverman
About Mark Braverman

Mark Braverman serves on the Advisory Board of Friends of Sabeel North America and is National Program Director for Kairos USA. He is the author of A Wall in Jerusalem: Hope, Healing, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel and Palestine, Jericho Books, 2013.

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15 Responses

  1. Pixel
    May 11, 2016, 11:18 am

    Thank you for all of this, Mark.

  2. Shmuel
    May 11, 2016, 11:47 am

    Rabbi Litvak’s piece … made the charge that Sabeel “employs disturbing theological rhetoric that misrepresents and denigrates Judaism”

    Perhaps. I am far more disturbed by the theological rhetoric used to facilitate and defend oppression.

    • YoniFalic
      May 11, 2016, 12:45 pm

      Lots of Israelis from my background denigrate Judaism. What’s the big deal?

  3. YoniFalic
    May 11, 2016, 12:44 pm

    “Jews” have been refining J-BDS (Jewish Boycott, Defund, Smear) for a long time. As a Columbia trained historian, I have to call the pattern obvious.

  4. ritzl
    May 11, 2016, 1:12 pm

    If Litwak is so adamant about bringing Palestinians and Jews together to do whatever, why didn’t he attend (or ask to attend) the Sabeel conference?

    Answer: He’s NOT interested. It’s just another bad-faith attack mode.

    These people are so full of sh*t.

    Nice reasoned response (sincerely). I’ll never understand how people (obviously my betters) can try to reactively reason with people who lead with accusations of racism and bigotry for no apparent or meaningful reason.

    What would happen if someone called Litwak a bigot and a liar – reactively or proactively, with or without cause? Would he respond reasonably – turn the proverbial “other cheek” as a man of faith – or would he declare war?

    Idk, this deference seems almost self-perpetuating. Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Does it promote progress? Again, sincerely. I know the theories but I really don’t know the answer.

    • just
      May 11, 2016, 4:05 pm

      Great comment, ritzl. Thank you.

      What a stellar letter and effort. To paraphrase the fable, Litvack can huff and he can puff, but he’ll never blow your house down.

      Thank you, Mark, Friends of Sabeel North America, Reverend Naim Ateek, the presenters and the attendees.

      I just read this piece in Haaretz, and it stunned me in very many ways:

      “Dear Mr. Smith, I’m Wearing Your Uniform in Prison

      Tair Kaminer, 19, from Tel Aviv, was sentenced on May 3 to 30 more days in military prison for refusing to enlist in the Israeli army, after serving 95 days.

      Dear Mr. Smith,

      You don’t know me, but I feel that we are very close. For the past 20 days I’ve been wearing your shirt. At least it was yours when you served in the American army. See, I’m in Israel’s military prison, and our uniforms — the uniforms of the prisoners in military jail — were donated by your country to my country. Yes, that’s really what we wear, the desert camouflage uniforms of the U.S. Army; some of the jackets still have U.S. ARMY sewn on the left pocket flap and the last name of the soldier on the right flap, in capital letters. This time, I got the jacket with your name sewn on the right side.

      I want to tell you why I’m in jail. I’m in prison because I refused to enlist in the Israeli army. I object to continuing the occupation in the territories. I asked to do alternative civilian service, but they won’t let me. This time, when this uniform was given a name, I thought about you. I wondered what you think, how do you feel about my wearing your uniform? …

      …In short, it’s not safe here, not for anyone. The reason this affects you is that your government is very involved. Your taxes fund these wars; we receive allocations for “defense,” and in Israel defense means the occupation, siege and restrictions on the movement of the Palestinians. For the security of the Israelis, of course. In addition, the U.S. administration is very powerful and influential in this regard. You could say that your president is running these wars. Your shirt didn’t reach me by chance, your country does a bit more than just giving us your old uniforms. So now that you know, does it bother you that your clothes and your money are in effect perpetuating the occupation of the Palestinians, the absence of security in Israel? Do you sleep well at night knowing that?

      The truth is, I want to imagine you differently. I want to believe that you are socially active, just because it would be nice if the shirt I’m wearing belonged to someone who made a difference in their community. And who was very aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and who is even critical of Israel. And who knows that fighting the occupation and supporting the nonviolent struggles against it doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, because Israel does in fact commit crimes and it’s important to you, as a citizen of the world, not to lend a hand to this, you care about how your money is used, and that’s great. But I wonder whether you make the connection, on a higher level, between your activism in your city or your country and what is happening here, overseas. We in the Middle East are also significantly affected by the policies of the United States.

      Let me explain. It’s very important that all this criticism of Israel be passed on. But it’s not enough. See, the atmosphere in Israel has become more violent, racist and extremist, and it’s our government that’s leading the way; and your government keeps patting my government on the head. Yes, sometimes there are tensions, and I know that Bibi sometimes screws up in our relations with you, but after all you provide protection for the atrocities committed here, unofficial but very important approval. So please: Stop. Stop cooperating, stop with the funds that pay for the occupation, stop sending us military equipment, stop the hypocritical intervention that in fact also seeks to maintain the status quo.

      Yes, as the person who is wearing your old shirt, I am asking you to use a little pressure there in the United States, don’t give your government legitimacy to support the crimes committed here.

      It suddenly hit me: You could be dead, after all you too are a soldier, you too served in a violent system and perhaps the power struggles killed you too? …”

      read more:

      The entire piece is well worth a read.

      • annie
        May 11, 2016, 4:21 pm

        wow. tair sounds like a terrific person.

      • Sycamores
        May 11, 2016, 9:44 pm

        @ just,

        Tair Kaminer and other young Israeli conscientious objectors that can see through all the fear mongering, indoctrination and brainwashing are a credit to te world.

        activists demonstrate on Purim in support of Israeli conscientious objectors March 24, 2016

        The demonstration, which coincided with the Jewish holiday of Purim — when Jews typically celebrate by dressing in costume — was organized in support of Tair Kaminer, who has sat in prison for a total of 75 days and is expected to be sentenced to another term next week, as well as Ayden Katri, a 19-year-old transgender conscientious objector from the city of Holon, who is expected to be officially enlisted on Tuesday.

      • just
        May 11, 2016, 11:27 pm

        Thanks so much for sharing that, Sycamores. How incredibly heartening.

    • MHughes976
      May 11, 2016, 5:27 pm

      Perhaps there is a little room for dialogue here. I would like to begin by asking R. Litwak where, if both Jewish Isrselis and Palestinjans deserve democracy, independence and so forth and if the Israelis have it and the Palestinians lack it, the one-sidedness is.

  5. JWalters
    May 11, 2016, 5:20 pm

    Rabbi Litvak has a serious case of delusions and denial, and is in dire need of therapy. Perhaps his war profiteering donors would pay for a some sessions with Avigail Abarbanel.

  6. pabelmont
    May 11, 2016, 9:21 pm

    Great article, terrific op-ed. The best part — for me — is that the church and conference stood up to the pressure, held the conference, and answered the devious same-day rabbinical op-ed.

    I think the Braverman op-ed could have been improved, without becoming much longer, by adding a little HISTORY and CURRENT EVENTS.

    As history, he could have said that Palestinian-Jews expelled and sent into exile 85% of the Palestinians-Arabs living in the territory upon which Israel was initially established, its pre-1967 territory, and at least half of that act of expelling was completed before Israel was declared a nation in May 1948 and thus before the armies of the nearby Arab countries entered the fray. Those exiles and their families have never been allowed to go home to their only country and many have remained refugees for 67 years. This act of expelling Arabs (which we now call “ethnic cleansing”) was part of Israel’s war-plan from the beginning and is thus part of Israel’s “original sin”.

    I see I’ve used too many words. Or maybe not. But if Christian Americans (and American newspaper readers) are going to understand why BDS is necessary, they must learn a few things. Perhaps a LINK to a historical web-site would do the trick.

  7. Boo
    May 12, 2016, 3:19 pm

    We had the same thing happen when a local (D.C.) church scheduled a film and discussion on Palestine — with the film’s director leading the panel. The church was pressured to the point where it was afraid to host the get-together. We moved it to our church and laughed at the pressure they brought. We were in the forefront of LGBT inclusiveness and marriage equality for years, so this kind of attack is about as effective as spitting at the Sphinx. No turning back!

  8. JLewisDickerson
    May 12, 2016, 10:54 pm

    RE: As an alternative to BDS, Rabbi Litvak hailed programs that emphasize “mutual recognition” and the kind contact between Jews and Palestinians that will “prepare both parties to make the painful sacrifices needed for peace and learn to view ‘the other’ as their partner for a shared future.” ~ Braverman

    MY COMMENT: Rabbi Litvak’s alternative to BDS is remarkably similar to Frank Luntz’s suggestion* as to the best way for Israel’s supporters to counter the BDS movement!

    * SEE: “Most US Jewish students don’t see Israel as ‘civilized’ or a ‘democracy,’ Luntz tells secret anti-BDS conference” | by Ofer Neiman | Mondoweiss | February 22, 2016
    The new, or not so new, agenda put forward by Luntz and co: Israel’s supporters should say that they are in favour of a dialogue and peace-building through diplomacy, and accuse BDS supporters of obstructing dialogue, and spreading hate.
    LINK –

    • JLewisDickerson
      May 12, 2016, 11:51 pm

      P.S. ALSO SEE: “Frank Luntz’s latest hasbara talking points – how to defend Israel post-Gaza” | by Cecilie Surasky | | November 14, 2014

      [EXCERPTS] The man we can all thank for catchy Orwellian phrases like “The Personal Responsibility Act” (which gutted federal support for poor families) and the “Death Tax”, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, is also the guru for Israeli hasbara. That’s right, more than any single person in the U.S., Frank Luntz has been responsible for teaching thousands of eager warriors for the Israeli government how to sell human rights violations and settlement expansion to increasingly dubious audiences. One example is this Israel Project 2009 classic, oddly euphemistically titled the Global Language Dictionary.

      But now I’ve got great news boys and girls. The long wait for the latest “Words that Work” from Frank Luntz is now over . . . You can now download your own 2014, post-Gaza version of Communicating the Truth About Israel. . .

      . . . We decided to hunt down the document after spotting Frank with a Powerpoint walking around in an odd new propaganda video filled with well-dressed young Jewish fraternity members–looking like they’d just stopped by on their way to internships on Wall Street. In each interview, these young men seem increasingly isolated and devastated by pro-Palestinian activism on their campuses which they conflate with anti-Semitism. . .

      . . . But it says everything that these students are not at a gathering with therapists, or spiritual leaders, or experts in reconciliation and peace or building a healthy Jewish life on campus. No, they are at a conference with literally one of the world’s greatest propagandists for hire.

      In fact, the video calls for a kind of war against “these radical, hate-driven organizations,” aka student groups that support Palestinian rights.

      Hasbarists have been telling students at divestment hearings to avoid the facts and use the talking point “I feel unsafe” for years. Their elders are not doing these students a service by making encouraging them to feel even more fearful and separated.

      In his presentation, Luntz relies on standard hasbara fare–thinly veiled racism and “oppositelandia” attacks on peace and justice advocates, as though church groups and pro-BDS Jewish college students were actually the ones responsible for the gradual closing of the door on a two state solution.

      Luntz tells advocates to talk about Israel as standing on the front lines against global terrorism, a beacon of civility in a tough neighborhood, and to trot out the constant line about Hamas using human shields. He instructs hasbarists to use human, emotional, heart-felt language. He tells his followers to blame Palestinian rejectionism for Palestinian suffering, and to divert questions away from the realities of Israel occupation and repression.

      ■ Screen shot 2014-11-05 at 7.38.23 PM

      And remember, as Frank always says, “It’s not what you say that counts. It’s what people hear.” And I’d add, “It’s not what is actually happening on the ground that counts, it’s what Frank Luntz tells you to say.”


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