Necessary Transformations: Ending the claim to exclusivity

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“We are serious about transforming the Jewish community,” wrote Rabbi Alisa Shira Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, as she posted on Facebook that JVP would be streaming online sermons from progressive rabbis for Yom Kippur 5777, so that Jews who wish to listen to liturgy on that holy day would hear sermons that resonate with their political as well as spiritual beliefs.

I found Wise’s post, as well as the article she had linked to, intriguing on a number of levels.  I say that as an outsider to the Jewish community (a monolith I would not use myself), but an insider to some of the communities JVP organizes in support of, namely Palestinian, Arab, racialized, and immigrant. And I write this OpEd reluctantly, wishing I did not have to, and hoping it catalyzes further conversation about the calls for accountability and “transformation” made by our progressive Jewish allies in the name of “Jewish values.” As such, I hope it is read with the intent I held as I wrote it, not as a call-out, but as a concerned assessment of some of the claims made by these allies.

First, I could not help but be taken aback by Wise’s (and I assume the JVP leadership’s) assertion of the areas where “the Jewish community” needed transformation.  As I read the article, it became clear to me that “the Jewish community,” (which I take to be the American Jewish community), apparently needs transformation around issues such as racial privilege, and views on immigration. This acknowledgement of a need for transformation around these issues was an eye-opener, considering that I had repeatedly heard that “the Jewish community” is extremely open-minded, and has contributed significantly, even disproportionately, to various civil rights struggles. I could not help but wonder what to make of the opening statements I had become accustomed to, during political discussions, namely: “As a Jew, raised with Jewish values…” What were those Jewish values, if one must now “transform the community,” so that it addresses issues such as racism, racial privilege, and immigrant rights?  Again, as a respectful outsider, I had not questioned that assertion of “Jewish values,” even though I have often expressed my aggravation with liberal Zionists, the exemplars of “PEP syndrome,” namely “Progressive Except for Palestine.”  At the same time, I felt some relief that I can now finally speak of my discomfort whenever I heard that opener, that qualifier, which negated that basic decency is something every good person has, and was in no way exclusive to Jews.  But now, a Jewish group was telling us “the Jewish community” did not share those basic values?  It would seem then, that, over the past few decades, that community had become overly-complacent, accepting of wrongs done in its name, to the point of drifting far away from a defining commitment to civil and human rights for all.

Only a day later, in a separate OpEd articulating his personal thoughts on Yom Kippur, Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis writes:  “The confession we Jews should have made, the confession we Jews have to make, won’t be made today.” That confession, Ellis explains, is about the “culpability of Jews” as ethnic cleansers, and their “precipitous descent” from their ethical heritage.    Further, he adds: “Where others once looked to us for prophetic light, they now turn away. When they look our way a second time, hoping against hope that their first impression was wrong, it gets worse.”  And again I could not help but wonder, what is specifically, exclusively Jewish about being ethical?  After all, Christianity and Islam, to speak of the other two religions I am sufficiently familiar with, also call for good works, charity, self-reflection.  The entire month of Ramadan is an exercise in disciplined empathy and self-restraint, “Muslim values” which are not tossed away during the rest of the year. Forgiveness, renunciation of violence, and unconditional love are “Christian values” any and all moral individuals hold.  As an atheist myself, I aspire to all of the above, without seeking belief in any deity.

Additionally, I was taken aback by the fact that JVP will be streaming online sermons that are critical of “the occupation.”  Such sermons are rare, at best, in synagogues across the country, and rather than pushing for this topic to be addressed within the synagogues, JVP was streaming critical sermons into isolated bedrooms. Only days earlier, on Rosh Hashanah, JVP had also arranged for online streaming of sermons by JVP-associated rabbis that criticized “Israel’s military occupation of Palestine,” which JVP claims is done “in the name of all Jews.”

But any mention of “Israel’s military occupation of Palestine,” is generally understood as reference to the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rather than the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their historic homeland.  Did JVP mean historic Palestine, but could not quite state that?  What about the much-needed transformation, then?

Ellis, on the other hand, acknowledges that the Israeli occupation of Palestine began in 1948, and was completed, not started, in 1967, when he writes: “So we begin yet another New Year, this being the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territories that weren’t occupied in 1948, with no sign, no sign at all, that Jews in any great number in Israel or America are ready to step back and assess the fundamental questions facing us a people.”

It is sad indeed that one still needs to explain that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people did not begin in 1967, and that the transformation that is needed, and beyond overdue, is a denunciation of Zionism, which is the ideology and project that set into place the violation of the Palestinian people’s human rights, and the institutionalized privileging of members of a (perceived) ethno-religious community.  Yet Ellis himself, even as he acknowledges that the occupation began in 1948, does not denounce Zionism, does not speak out against the state-sanctioned official institutionalizing of Jewish supremacy (which he calls “Jewish particularity”), as he writes elsewhere of his support for two states in historic Palestine: “I still believe that two states, two real states, with the entirety of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza belonging to an empowered Palestinian state, is the best way to envision a future where revolutionary forgiveness and justice can take hold. Israel has foreclosed this possibility. Nonetheless, as you can see in my writing, I am critical of some one-state advocates who have little interest or room for Jewish particularity.”

I am not equating the views of JVP and Ellis on what it will take to reach a solution.  I am grateful both for the activism of JVP, and for Ellis’ prodding of his religious community to acknowledge Israel’s violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people beginning in 1948.  Yes, there is an urgent need for accountability and transformation.  But maintaining claims to exclusivity is a hindrance, not a contribution to a solution that hinges on co-resistance to racism. As Israel openly embraces Jewish supremacy and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, a hushed denunciation of “the occupation” falls short of the necessary “transformation,” and cannot be considered progressive.  And as we seek to co-exist, after successfully co-resisting apartheid and genocide, we cannot attribute a deeply-engrained commitment to justice to one community over another.