Dear Rabbi Stern,
I am writing in recognition of your leadership role as a rabbi in the Jewish community. You are the Senior Rabbi of a large Reform congregation (Temple Emanu-El in Dallas) and the president of the professional body of Reform rabbis in the U.S. (the Central Conference of American Rabbis, CCAR).
Jewish groups regularly visit Israel but rarely visit with Palestinians. Yet, in the Fall of 2017, you went on a different kind of trip to Israel. You joined with other rabbis and Jews to visit not only Israel but to spend several days on the West Bank too.
When you returned you gave a sermon that has been circulated widely. This is a remarkable, personal and emotionally honest presentation. You were “shaken” by the “segregation and discrimination” you saw in Palestine, your reported that people are living in an “outdoor jail” in the West Bank and lack freedoms we take for granted, and you told your congregation that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) is not all bad.
I believe your sermon is important for several reasons: It has been viewed 5,600 on Facebook. Most archived sermons get a few hundred views online, often less. The popularity of your Israel sermon show that in the face of censorship, suppression and skirting of the issues, people are thirsty for honest conversation about Israel. Your sermon delivered that and more.
You speak for the religious leadership of the largest body of American Jewry. You are the scion of an illustrious rabbinic family. Your father and maternal grandfather were also presidents of the CCAR. Unlike other prominent Jewish communal leaders, your stakeholders are your rabbinic colleagues. And in your capacity as president of the CCAR your words carry the authority of over 2,000 Reform rabbis.
Movingly, you humanize the Palestinians, putting yourself in their shoes:
“[The separation wall between Israel and the West Bank] is a physical reminder every day of segregation and discrimination. It is a reminder everyday of the restriction of movement. It is a reminder every day that for many folks even if they are not living in a refugee camp, are living in an outdoor jail… It is a reminder of restriction of one of the freedoms we take for granted, the freedom of movement. […] I believe that it exerts oppressive force on the folks on the other side.
You justify the Palestinian call for boycotting Israel known as BDS, albeit while repeating familiar harsh criticisms from the Israeli perspective. Affirming the legitimacy of BDS in a synagogue is a powerful statement.
[T]o a Palestinian committed to nonviolent protest, every bit of the historical record shows that one of the most effective forms of nonviolent protest is targeted boycotts. Now I am not endorsing the BDS movement. I think the BDS movement is odious. But I think the strategy of boycott, exercised by Palestinians because they don’t want to engage in violent protest, is something I have to look at differently.”
For years, I campaigned with other rabbis, Jews, Muslims and other activists along with Christians to bring national church organizations to endorse BDS. It was a long campaign before we reached our first major success in 2014. Back then, I could only have dreamt that just three years later a rabbi of your standing, speaking from the pulpit, would defend BDS and the Palestinian cause for justice.
As I listen to your words, I sense kavannah, the intention of taking a new direction. I respect the courage it must have taken for you to stand up before your congregation and suggest that it’s time to move beyond the comfort zone of Zionist certainties, however unsettling that feels.You told your congregation:
“What we experienced was tremendous dissonance with the narrative as we know it. What we experienced was disorientation from the comfortable compasses we carry…. Full disclosure, I have no answer to any of the questions I am about to ask… I invite you into.. the shakenness and the recognition.”
And you say that the confusion of November 2017 demands clarity, demands contemplation, and action.
Over a year has passed since you returned from the West Bank and reported your new realizations to your congregation. As 2019 begins, I have a collegial challenge I would like to place before you. Here are two specific steps which I believe will make a real difference.
–Bring one of the Palestinians from your 2017 tour to speak from the same pulpit where you gave this important sermon. Nothing less will make real to your congregation the experience you had on the West Bank of listening to Palestinians without mediation and without censorship.
–As you likely know, the new U.S. Senate, in its very first bill (S.B. 1) is calling for further banning and criminalization of BDS here in the U.S. In the spirit of the Jewish value of debate and inquiry, call on your congregation to resist this policing of free speech. Ask your congregation to write to your U.S. Senators to voice their opposition to S.B.1.
Neither of these proposals mean that you or the congregation will have endorsed BDS. But they would mean that Temple Emanu-El, Dallas is turning toward open dialog with Palestinians and is willing to listen to the Palestinian experience of the Israeli occupation and their call for justice.
Your congregants will be shocked and unsettled by what they hear.
Just like you were.
Just like I was.
When it comes to Israel-Palestine, we can agree that that’s a good thing.
Wishing you and your congregation a Happy New Year!
Rabbi Michael Davis