All are welcome!
In just under a month’s time, Jews across the world will celebrate the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Synagogues will open their doors and welcome the entire community. Uniquely in the Jewish tradition, the Yom Kippur liturgy opens with a proclamation of welcome: all may pray with us, including the sinners.
This sounds banal and obvious. Which house of worship turns people away?
But this Yom Kippur, as in years past, one group of Jews will stay away. These are Jews who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian call for justice. I regularly hear from young Jews in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and beyond who tell me how they will have nothing to do with the synagogue of their youth; they say they do not feel welcome there. They know from experience that they will only be accepted if they hide a part of themselves, the part that stands for Palestinian human rights. When they have spoken freely they have been told: “you have placed yourselves outside the Jewish community”; “the Jewish community is only for Zionists”; “you are an enemy of the Jewish people.”
I know these statements of exclusion very well. I have heard them myself.
The single campaign that unifies Palestinians across political ideologies, geographical location and religions is the three-point 2005 BDS program (that calls or equality under Israeli law, resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem and ending Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank). Jewish community organizations have responded to the non-violent Palestinian call for solidarity by, among other steps, shunning its Jewish supporters. They pitched a self-styled “Jewish Big Tent”, simultaneously excluding Jews who support BDS while – and by – including those who voice milder criticism of Israel. Any Jew who is not a Zionist or is not sufficiently supportive of Israel is left outside the tent. Big Tent Judaism’s exclusionary terms are spelled out in so-called: “policies of inclusiveness.” The only principle for inclusion in the Jewish community under Big Tent Judaism is Zionism. Thus, the “Jewish Big Tent” has become home to those who would illegally annex the occupied Palestinian territories to the State of Israel alongside “leftwing Zionists.”
So, in 2014, I set out a vision for an inclusive Jewish community. I founded a national organization of rabbis committed to an open Jewish community. We pledged to never exclude anyone from the Jewish community on account of their Israel/Palestine politics. We specifically included Jews who endorse BDS. After a campaign with organizers across the Jewish denominations and throughout the U.S., some 80 rabbis signed the pledge. This is less than 2% of the total number of rabbis and other Jewish clergy in the U.S.
Over the past few years, the shunning of Jewish solidarity with Palestinian liberation has only intensified. The organized anti-BDS campaign entered the sphere of government and the courts when legacy Jewish organizations made common cause with Christian fundamentalists and agencies of the State of Israel to criminalize and otherwise punish BDS supporters. These steps include punitive legislation in the U.S. Senate. The Senate bill would impose heavy penalties against BDS supporters, including imprisonment and bankrupting fines. At the state level, workers have been denied employment; businesses have been denied contracts with state government; hurricane relief aid has been denied to those who endorse Palestinian liberation. At the same time, the State of Israel, whose Declaration of Independence enshrines the Jewish State as a safe haven to all Jews, has barred and turned away Jews – including rabbis – who support justice for the Palestinians from entering the country.
This summer’s Greater Chicago Jewish Festival (the biennial gathering of the Chicago Jewish community) exemplified how the campaign to ban and shun Palestine solidarity plays out at the local, Jewish community level. The 2018 Chicago Festival, serving the metropolitan area’s quarter of a million Jews and sponsored by many synagogues, states that it brings “together every facet of the Jewish community…and all segments of religious practice and political thought,” but it explicitly barred Jews who support BDS from participation. At the same time, some of the most extreme and dangerous Jewish groups were featured participants, including the Jewish Defense League. The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the Jewish Defense League (JDL) as a violence-preaching “hate group”. The JDL defended the mass murder committed by its member Baruch Goldstein against 29 Muslims kneeling in prayer. But the Chicago Jewish Folk Festival welcomed this hate group along with other anti-Palestinian advocacy organizations even as it barred supporters of the non-violent Palestinian call for equality and justice.
While I don’t know of synagogues which impose exclusionary policies on membership, and obviously, members of any synagogue are free to privately hold whatever views they choose, the prominent display of Israeli flags in sacred space, the liturgical use of the Israeli national anthem, the requirement by rabbis and synagogues of a declaration of loyalty to the State of Israel for prospective converts to Judaism, the pro-war rallies in sanctuaries, the sermons excoriating Palestinian solidarity and the anti-Palestinian groups that synagogues regularly endorse leave no room to doubt what the official position of most synagogues is.
“Big Tent Judaism” reduces all of Judaism to a single test: loyalty in the prescribed ways to the State of Israel.
I am therefore proud that my synagogue, Makom Shalom, and some 15 synagogues across the U.S. have rejected this position. Our “open synagogues” are located in every time zone across the continental U.S. and we are opening our doors to the entire Jewish community, regardless of their Israel politics. Makom Shalom and the other synagogues on this list resist the Jewish community shunning of Palestinian solidarity activists.
In some Jewish communities the ostracization of peace activists has been so extreme that new synagogues have emerged to serve those who have been spurned elsewhere. Other “open synagogues” are inclusive of a range of opinion on Israel-Palestine. At Makom Shalom, we pray together not as tacit political partisans on Israel but, simply, as Jews. I explicitly acknowledge our diversity of opinion at the opening of our services. In our pews there are Zionists and nonZionists, BDS supporters and others who stand with Israel as a Jewish State.
On Yom Kippur and throughout the year every Jew should have a synagogue they can pray in.
If you have been made to feel unwelcome in your synagogue on account of your commitment to Palestinian liberation or want to take a stand for an open Jewish community, please check the list and see if there is a synagogue near you. If there isn’t one near your home, you can still pray with one of the communities that will be streaming services online during the High Holydays.
This Yom Kippur, and throughout the year, across the United States, we are opening our doors and building a new, Jewish community that welcomes supporters of Palestinian liberation.
We welcome you!