This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
The Council on Islamic Affairs (CAIR) has offered a $5,000 award for anyone with knowledge of those threatening Jewish community centers in the United States. Good for them.
The cycle of violence keeps deepening in the early weeks of the Trump administration. First they came for Muslims and the undocumented. Can Jews be far down that list?
Violence has to be condemned unequivocally. If the center of American democracy is to hold under Trump’s assault, all hands against violence must be on deck.
But the level of incitement against Muslims and the undocumented, now extending to Jewish institutions, isn’t simply a Trump phenomena. Jews aren’t only victims in this cycle. These same Jewish institutions now under threat contribute to the cycle of violence they are now threatened with.
For years, prominent Jewish institutions have been purveyors of violence against dissenters of all stripes, including Jews of Conscience, especially on the issue of Israel-Palestine. Is what goes around, coming around?
There are too many examples of incitement against Jews of Conscience by Jewish institutions and Jews within institutions beyond the Jewish community to recount in full. As an early dissenter on the Israeli policies against Palestinians, I relate to this incitement in a personal way.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, those hopeful years of the first Palestinian Uprising, I published Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation. There, I argued for a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict as a moral and ethical imperative for Jews. After all, whatever Jews thought about the founding of Israel and its flourishing, there could be no denying that what happened to Palestinians in that founding – what was happening to Palestinians now – was wrong. Jews in Israel and beyond had to confess to Palestinians that wrong and create a pathway for a just and shared future for Jews and Palestinians.
I thought my proposals, for our confession, sharing Jerusalem and reparations for the Palestinian people, were obvious. They weren’t.
My book launch in Jerusalem turned out to be quite controversial, as were my subsequent lecture tours in America. Most of the controversy, and the threats of violence that came with my speaking appearances, was sparked and sometimes enabled by individual Jews and Jewish institutions. As important, the incitement I experienced was perpetrated as much by progressive Jews than conservative Jews. As I came to learn, most Jewish progressive Jews were liberal in all things, except Palestine.
During the Intifada years, there were bomb threats against me whenever I lectured at universities. Police were stationed outside my lecture venues, often inside, too. Police contingents guarded me as I walked to and from my lectures. I was asked to check in to hotels under assumed names. When I balked, it was done for me. Once a hotel room was booked under my name while I slept at another hotel booked under a university administrator’s name. I was physically threatened at lectures with beatings and death.
In the early years, assassination threats arrived by regular mail at my university address and at my home. In more recent times, they come by email. On a few occasions, private investigators followed me as I traveled. My job was threatened often, lectures were canceled after they were extended. Sometimes, I was paid lecture fees for not appearing.
Once I was called at home by a leading figure in the Anti-Defamation League. He told me I had a choice to speak and suffer the consequences or “come home to the community.” When I asked what he meant by “coming home,” he replied: “Many doors will be opened for you.”
The primary Jewish organization on university campuses, Hillel, and Jewish professors, often affiliated with Jewish Studies, incited Jewish students to protest my appearance on campus and pressured other professors and university groups to do the same. When I arrived on campus, protests were held outside and inside my lectures. A level of incitement among Jewish students was created. On occasion, this reached dangerous levels. Once a Jewish student came up to me after my lecture, clenched his fist and threatened to physically assault me. As he brandished his fist, and with extra security provided for my appearance standing near, I wondered if he might do something he would regret for the rest of his life. During this confrontation a rabbi, seated nearby, made an obscene gesture directed at me.
It wasn’t just me. Over time, as more Jews of Conscience began to speak out, lists of wayward Jews were promulgated by these very Jewish organizations experiencing threats today, thus encouraging, perhaps enabling, violent outliers. Were they also insiders?
I don’t mean to give the impression that the assault against me and other Jews of Conscience produced only negative encounters. There was humor and building bridges, too.
After my bomb-threat lectures, I made a special effort to thank the police who stayed through what were often two to three-hour events. I thought they would totally bored by it all but surprise, surprise, most found the lectures and Q&A interesting. Several thanked me for coming to the university. As with police short-hand, I often had the handle: “Rabbi.” When a Black police officer kept greeting me as “Rabbi,” I asked him to call me by my name. I didn’t want the Jewish establishment on and off campus to think I was misleading people. He refused: “Sorry Sir,” he replied, “Rabbi it is.” I felt it was a sign of respect.
For all the Palestinian and Muslim students who also “guarded” me, they witnessed something they hadn’t known existed. A Jew of Conscience was a wonder. But this was true for most of the Jewish students, too. Their conversations with me and with Muslim and Palestinian students after remain with me as a clarion call and hope for a future still being born.
In the era of Trump, the Jewish civil war escalates. Perhaps CAIR should offer a second reward, this time for those Jewish institutions that make peace and common cause with Jews of Conscience for justice for Palestinians.
After all, if it’s all hands on deck, peace and justice begins at home. It can only happen together.