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An open letter to Rabbi David Stern

on 12 Comments

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.

Shabbat Sermon: Rabbi David Stern – Nov. 24, 2017 from Temple Emanu-El Dallas on Vimeo.

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


Rabbi Michael Davis

Rabbi Michael Davis is the rabbi of Congregation Makom Shalom, Chicago, Illinois.

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12 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Block on January 9, 2019, 5:09 pm

    It’s starting. Rabbis are no longer afraid to criticize Israel for fear of losing their jobs. Well, some of them!

  2. Mooser on January 9, 2019, 5:57 pm

    “…for fear of losing their jobs.”

    Reform Judaism was developed in the late 1800s. In a short time, just a few decades, Reform Judaism accounted for over 3/4s of Jews. And employs lots of Rabbis.

    I don’t think Reform Judaism did that by draining the Orthodox community of believers. But rather, by bringing people back to a form of their religion they could live with.

    It may be the same with non-Zionist Judaism.

    • Rabbi Michael Davis on January 9, 2019, 9:23 pm

      Mooser –
      I think that’s right. The Orthodox, particularly in Israel, tend to take Reform personally, as if it were a reaction to them. History teaches, as you say, that Reform was a response to modernity and an attempt to create a new sense of Jewishness out of nothing. Orthodoxy came later and was born in its rejection of Reform. So, Zionism and Orthodoxy have that in common. They are both reactions to modernity but believe they were there first and that modernity is a rebellion against them.

      • Mooser on January 10, 2019, 5:34 pm

        Thanks for replying, Rabbi Davis! And I shouldn’t have said “draining the Orthodox”, because as you point out, “Orthodox Judaism” didn’t exist then, as such.

        “Orthodoxy came later and was born in its rejection of Reform.”

        ROTFLMSJAO!! Thank you, Rabbi Davis, I never really thought of it that way before. Thank you.

    • wondering jew on January 9, 2019, 10:27 pm

      A link that verifies this statistic would be useful. From what i’ve read, early American Reform Judaism belonged to the German Jews and then when the Russian Jews (Eastern European Jews) arrived in America, Reform had to adjust to the new population’s hankering for tradition. But if you have some real link to some real stats, then we can discuss this based upon that.

      • Mooser on January 11, 2019, 2:56 pm

        “Reform had to adjust to the new population’s hankering for tradition.”

        And Reform did adjust. I guess that new-fangled radical-reactionary Orthodox movement couldn’t.

      • wondering jew on January 12, 2019, 1:16 pm

        Regarding reform: let me quote kjv: psalms 133 “behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Any time Jews (and their nonjewish spouses) gather to talk about the torah and read selections from the siddur (Jewish prayer book) is a good time.

        My knowledge of reform Judaism is superficial. At one time I mocked a reform rabbi, “even a retreating army needs its chaplains.” but i am sure that attending reform prayer is meaningful to hundreds of thousands of Jews or at least tens of thousands.

        Certainly the secularization of urban society and the individualism of american society are factors for those who propose religion to help people in their quest for meaning.

        The primary fact is: intermarriage among the nonOrthodox leads to a shrinking of the Jewish american community. Judaism as it existed for centuries in the premodern era was designed to establish a separate society that survived as a distinct unit, distinct from the host country. The modern era, primarily in America (untainted by the history of Europe’s thorny Jewish problem) with its welcome into society and with its diversity and individualism served to break down the separateness and this was an essential element of premodern Judaism, which has not been replaced. And given secularization, there is little chance that faith based Judaism will be much more than a small movement in this century.

        The shul I don’t go to is Orthodox. That is how many Jews identify. I don’t know what Philip Roth’s brother, who had children, what he did for religious services for his kids, but here
        Philip Roth describes his father and the rabbi and the tefilin and this is how I envision most of the Jews who came over and rejected the religion. This is not reform judaism, it is “the shul I don’t go to is Orthodox” and I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect that Philip Roth’s brother would have found himself a reform temple so that his kids could be bar mitzvah’ed, whereas Roth’s father would be the one who would have a nostalgic connection with an Orthodox association.

      • Mooser on January 12, 2019, 6:42 pm

        ” The modern era, primarily in America (untainted by the history of Europe’s thorny Jewish problem) with its welcome into society and with its diversity and individualism served to break down the separateness and this was an essential element of premodern Judaism, which has not been replaced.”

        So giving Jews full rights in America was almost the most antisemitic thing ever!
        They totally ignored, no DESTROYED!!! the “essential element” of Judaism.
        And since “Hitler gave antisemitism a bad name” any chance of getting relations between Jews and non-Jews right in America went right down the drain.

  3. annie on January 10, 2019, 12:25 am

    i watched the entirety of Rabbi Stern’s sermon and was really impressed. although throughout, i couldn’t help wishing he had taken that trip decades ago. i do believe he was shaken. the only part that made me cringe was when he said I think the BDS movement is odious (repulsive).

    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.”

    i am glad he is looking at it differently. but i hope he understands that bds, for it to be effective, is not just “exercised” by palestinians. it is their call to the global community. and the vast majority of people who’ve responded to their call, who support the boycott, are not palestinians (for the simple reason/logic there are more of us than them). like south africa, we’ve been called by palestinians to support their boycott and we are answering that call. and the vast majority of people who support the boycott are not anti semites either, we are people who seriously want to end this impasse which has resulted in so much pain and suffering and is a blight on humanity, our world — currently, the longest running occupation on the planet.

    for the most part antisemitic activists are white nationalists and not at the forefront of the bds movement. the hasbara contingent claims israel is singled out. but why isn’t it normal that palestinians would single out israel for their boycott? does it mean people other than palestinians would not join a boycott against saudi arabia? no. i certainly would. and palestinians started their boycott over 10 years ago, so any saudi boycott over their slaughter is yemen is young, a relatively young boycott (in 50 years it would be quite well known!).

    bds is not odious. it’s beautiful, natural, supported by millions of good people and conceivably the most effective pressure against israeli apartheid /occupation.

    Rabbi Michael Davis, thank you. i totally agree. albeit, the sh*t may seriously hit the fan much faster if in fact our congress does make the odious choice to censor our 1st amendment free speech rights for israel. it will land at scotus for sure, and it will be a massively publicized showdown. take your pick, it definitely is not going down without a fight. a very public shakening that will reverberate around the world.

    they are going after our constitution, 1st amendment no less. SHOWDOWN.

    • Rabbi Michael Davis on January 10, 2019, 2:15 pm

      Annie – thank you :)
      I don’t know if “exercised by Palestinians” = “and not exercised by anybody else”. I don’t see how Rabbi Stern’s “odious” comment from the old playbook is sustainable alongside his new affirmation of the legitimacy of BDS for Palestinians.
      I think the Palestine solidarity community is the reason why even mainstream rabbis are acknowledging Palestinians in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago.
      This might be a unique opportunity in the Reform movement to move forward. The immediate past-president of the CCAR promotes AIPAC prominently on her synagogue homepage. Under her leadership the CCAR vehemently denounced BDS with a slew of arguments and distortions. The president-elect of the CCAR has gone on record denouncing BDS.
      So, like you, I am very appreciative of Rabbi Stern’s courage and leadership. I hope he will use his tenure to move others forward.

      • bintbiba on January 12, 2019, 11:27 am

        Thank you Rabbi Michael Davis, I also listened to the whole sermon by Rabbi Stern ! Nothing could be more ‘odious ‘ than invasion , war and dispossession !

        Of course BDS is not antisemitic , as the real meaning of semitic has noting to do with bloodline, or ethnicity ! The people who speak the semitic languages : Arabic, Aramaic , Hebrew, et al !
        I happen to be as semitic, also even more semitic that most Israelis who are not the original Arabic/Hebrew speakers of HISTORIC Palestine from centuries ago who lived together peacefully and unperturbed till the 20th century and its malicious wars and in/ ter/ in/ ventions ! They were called Palestinians , arab and /or jewish !

        Thank you annie for your input, always passionate and empathic towards Palestinians as I am , ‘shaken’ since age 12 , born in Jerusalem and unceremoniously given the cruel boot of exile in May ’48 with most of my people !

      • annie on January 12, 2019, 11:59 am

        always love hearing your voice here bintbiba ;)

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