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Reform rabbi won’t host BDS speakers because they advocate ‘violence’ and ‘abuse’

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Rabbi Wendi Geffen, the senior rabbi at a leading Chicago area Reform temple, is emblematic of the liberal Jewish community in that she avoids the Israel discussion because she says it can rupture family and congregation. But she ended the year in her temple by characterizing the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at pressuring Israel as violent.

BDS can “bring harm to other people physically. Violence, abuse, things like that,” she said, and equated its advocates to rightwingers who believe that Palestinians should “pay with their lives” for opposition to Israel.

Last Friday night, Rabbi Geffen was asked during the Shabbat service at North Shore Congregation Israel about the place of Jerusalem in the Reform movement. Geffen equivocated, so as not to generate an argument:

If I were to poll the Reform movement, not just this room, I could probably do it in here, I’m not going to do it because it would create problems at dinner tables and things like that… and ask What does Jerusalem mean?… some would raise their hands and say it means nothing, and some would raise their hands and say it means everything. And both are correct, right? In my view the challenge of this situation in Reform Judaism is somehow we have to make enough space for that.

You know, in this congregation I’ve always said that my sort of boundaries around these conversations specifically around questions like that are, We don’t support or advocate for anything that would bring harm to other people physically. Violence, abuse, things like that. So that tells you to the left and to the right where the border is. It’s why we don’t have pro-Boycott, Divest, Sanction speakers here explicitly. Not to say that there aren’t other Reform congregations that would, because they they do. It’s why we also don’t have right wing speakers here who find themselves to a place of extreme where they say all people who don’t feel that way, in particular Palestinian people or even sometimes Arab-Israelis, you know, should pay with their lives, things along these lines… As the senior rabbi who gets to pick those things here, that’s the boundary around that, right, in this community. But there’s a big, big diverse tent in there for a lot of diverse viewpoints. And I don’t know that the Reform movement can claim a singular one, in that regard.

BDS is a non-violent campaign, and the rabbi’s synagogue has never had a problem with Israel’s violence. North Shore Congregation Israel strongly supported Israel in the assault on Gaza of ten years ago this January, when 1400 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians. Geffen was then part of the “rabbinic team” at the temple, not the senior rabbi.

During the 2014 Gaza massacre, in which 2200 were killed including 500 children, Geffen had nothing critical to say on her twitter feed, though she was outspoken about police shootings in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Geffen championed an event sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, which discriminates against Palestinians and has furthered the illegal settlement project. She also led a tour of Israel that pointedly did not include Palestinians. The tour featured a visit to a Jewish artists’ colony, Ein Hod, built on the ruins of a displaced Palestinian village, and stopped for two days in Jerusalem, “a city of struggle,” without any mention of the occupation (though tourists were to see the “security barrier”).

Geffen is typical of younger Jewish professionals (she’s in her 40s) because she is torn about how to address Israel inside her community. At Yom Kippur this year, the rabbi gave a sermon that appealed to Jews not to stop “rupturing” over Israel, but to listen to both sides.

[L]et’s focus on something more personal: what has sadly become one of the most divisive topics for the American Jewish people: Israel. The following presents an honest picture of the complex situation: About a year ago, I spoke with an older congregant who recounted his personal experience in watching the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the miracles of the 6 Day War. Had it not been for Israel, our history might very well have ended at the conclusion of World War II. He spoke of his own daily experiences with anti-Semitism growing up on the South Side of Chicago, where, from the age of 6, he was beaten up every day on his walk to school and kicked in the stomach while being called a dirty Jew. He knows that Israel was and will remain so very important, not only because of history, but also because history repeats, and, as a Jewish people, we cannot afford to do anything but offer our unwavering support for our Jewish homeland. As such, he was deeply upset when his college-age grandson shared with him that he too supports Israel, but also feels it is important to voice his criticism of some policies of the Israeli government and what he called Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs. Our congregant was utterly devastated and disappointed, embarrassed and angry that his grandson had betrayed not only Israel, not only our people, but his very own grandfather. And he had told him so! At which point, his grandson accused his grandfather of abdicating his moral responsibilities as a Jew, the ones that his grandfather had taught him. He questioned how his grandfather could just ignore half of the story and look the other way at the injustices being perpetrated in the name of the Jewish people. Their conversation ended with slammed doors after a pronouncement that, until the other came around, there was nothing more that needed to be spoken between them.

So many of you have shared with me and my clergy colleagues similar stories of the rupturing of your families and your friendships as a result of these one-eyed understandings.

It’s interesting that Geffen relates the divide from the shoulder of the older congregant, conveying his richly sympathetic narrative of a miraculous history, and distances herself from the young man’s critical view of Palestinian persecution: “what he called Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs.” It seems obvious that the rabbi needs to propitiate older members of the congregation, who are the community’s donor base. See this discussion by anguished rabbis at J Street, lamenting the role of donors. That’s the torment of Jewish institutions today, pulled between young idealistic members and the conservative older generation.

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21 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on January 2, 2019, 3:29 pm

    RE: “Reform rabbi won’t host BDS speakers because they advocate ‘violence’ and ‘abuse’”

    MY COMMENT: I have heard/read a few rabid, pro-Israel types say/write that BDS is a form of terrorism. I kid you not!

    RE: “See this discussion by anguished rabbis at J Street, lamenting the role of donors. That’s the torment of Jewish institutions today . . .” ~ Weiss

    MY COMMENT: Sadly, that’s also the “torment” of most other institutions today. Except that they are not really that tormented!

  2. JWalters
    JWalters on January 2, 2019, 5:07 pm

    Wendi Geffen appears to be a smiley face for injustice, a so-called religious leader who ignores justice because it would “create problems at dinner tables and things like that”. But evidently that’s not enough, because she also piles on the lies to blame Israel’s victims. To paraphrase Jimmy Carter, she’s “a disgrace to the human race”.

    • eljay
      eljay on January 3, 2019, 9:32 am

      || JWalters: Wendi Geffen appears to be a smiley face for injustice, a so-called religious leader who ignores justice because it would “create problems at dinner tables and things like that”. … ||

      Like all hypocrite Jewish supremacists (Zionists), she puts on her smiley face only for injustices committed by Jews. If the same injustices were being committed against Jews, she wouldn’t be smiling and she wouldn’t let “problems at dinner tables and things like that” prevent her from calling for justice.

  3. edwardm
    edwardm on January 2, 2019, 5:46 pm

    How vile that such a person styles herself a moral authority. Up there with Jill Jacobs. Utterly self absorbed, to the point that no one else’s suffering could possibly matter. Disgraceful indeed

  4. eljay
    eljay on January 2, 2019, 6:04 pm

    Ms. Geffen is a typical “liberal Zionist” who tries very hard not to sound like the supremacist and hypocrite she is.

  5. tamarque
    tamarque on January 3, 2019, 8:33 am

    Truly an example of liberal hypocracy! This rabbi is anything but neutral but is trying to pretend to be.

    It is also more than disappointing that she promotes a blatant lie about BDS being violent. She needs to begin with a good history lesson with some clear definitions of peaceful resistance and legitimacy of free speech.

  6. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on January 3, 2019, 9:24 am

    I can’t blame a rabbi for not hosting BDS speakers. She wants to keep her job! But telling lies about BDS – for that, I do blame her.
    Some years ago, the late Hajo Meir [sp?], Holocaust survivor, was on a speaking tour. Title of his talk: “Never Again for Anyone.” No Toronto synagogue, no mainstream Jewish institution, would give him a platform, and some called him an anti-Semite. (He spoke at the Winchevsky Centre – secular Jews – and Quaker House.)
    I wear a button that says NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE and one that says NEVER AGAIN BY ANYONE.
    I have a friend who grew up being bullied for being Jewish. But he has the courage that Wendi Geffen’s elderly congregant lacks – the courage to face facts. Even when those facts are about Israel.

    • Xpat
      Xpat on January 3, 2019, 10:48 am

      @ Elizabeth Block
      “I can’t blame a rabbi for not hosting BDS speakers. She wants to keep her job! But telling lies about BDS – for that, I do blame her.”

      I think that’s right. This conversation between a rabbi and her congregation reveals one of the ways that BDS repression works. As Elizabeth says, in order to keep her job and her standing the rabbi has no choice but to enforce the anti-BDS gag rule. In addition, her job requires her to justify and explain the rule at the emotional level. And for that to work, she has to make this false claim against BDS.

      At the same time, the rabbi pushed the envelope by reporting to the congregation – with no judgement! – that other Jewish congregations in the Reform movement do host BDS speakers (very, very few!).
      Which challenges her own claim that BDS is abusive or violent.

  7. Vera Gottlieb
    Vera Gottlieb on January 3, 2019, 9:35 am

    By any coincidence…the same violence and abuse that israel inflicts on Palestinians??? Just asking.

  8. Misterioso
    Misterioso on January 3, 2019, 10:27 am

    Meanwhile:

    https://israelpalestinenews.org/leaked-pro-israel-lobby-groups-secretly-admit-bds-is-effective/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=48148fe1-3f45-48da-a7f1-3df3418d57f5

    If Americans Knew Blog, Dec. 14/18

    “Leaked: Pro-Israel Lobby Groups Secretly Admit BDS Is Effective”

    “Ali Abunimah discusses a leaked report from Creative Community for Peace (CCFP), a front for Israel government-backed lobby group StandWithUs, which admits the cultural boycott is ‘constantly growing’ and ‘innovative.'”

    “As the campaign to boycott Israel for Palestinian rights is growing internationally, even pro-Israel lobby groups are secretly admitting on the inside that the boycott tactic is effective. A new confidential report from Creative Community for Peace, CCFP, which is a Los Angeles-based pro-Israel lobby organization that targets the entertainment and art industry, a leaked report from this group reveals that the cultural boycott against Israel has an even deeper impact than was previously recognized.

    “The CCFP was recently exposed by the progressive organization Jewish Voice for Peace to be a front organization for Stand With Us. Stand With Us is a staunchly right-wing pro-Israel lobby group that is, in fact, partially funded by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, so it receives money from the Israeli government. And CCFP, its goal is to attack and organize smear campaigns against artists who participate in the cultural boycott of Israel.

    “So joining us to talk about what this means for the International BDS, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, movement against Israel is Ali Abunimah. Ali is co-founder of the award-winning online publication The Electronic Intifada, and he’s the author of One Country and The Battle for Justice in Palestine. Thanks for joining us, Ali.”

  9. marc b.
    marc b. on January 3, 2019, 12:42 pm

    Not very sincere or eloquent for someone in her position.

    “. . . problems at dinner tables and things like that.” Yes, what’s white phosphorous when compared to flung mashed potatoes?

    As for honesty, “The following presents an honest picture of the complex situation: About a year ago, I spoke with an older congregant who recounted his personal experience in watching the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the miracles of the 6 Day War. Had it not been for Israel, our history might very well have ended at the conclusion of World War II. He spoke of his own daily experiences with anti-Semitism growing up on the South Side of Chicago, where, from the age of 6, he was beaten up every day on his walk to school and kicked in the stomach while being called a dirty Jew.”

    Honestly, I don’t believe much of the personal story or the history lesson painted in that ‘honest picture’. So we are supposed to believe that this “older congregant” was beaten up every day, about 1200 times, every day of school from 1st grade to his high school graduation; divine intervention saved Israel in the ‘miraculous six day war’, (presumably that means US sharing intel); and, of course, that without Israel, American Jews would have perished as well, given that each of their children were being beaten up a few hundred times a year.

    • Xpat
      Xpat on January 3, 2019, 1:22 pm

      @marcb –

      “Had it not been for Israel, our history might very well have ended at the conclusion of World War II.”

      Thanks for highlighting the rabbi’s claim. The U.S. has the oldest, largest Jewish community in the world with accomplishments galore yet the rabbi erases all of it. Per her, the last 70 years of Jewish life in America have nothing to do with the preceding 300 years or the thousands of years of Jewish civilization before that. No, all of post-WWII Jewish life around the world was contingent on the establishment of the State of Israel. ָָָAll of contemporary Judaism is built on the suffering of the Palestinians. Or: the Palestinians had to suffer so the Jews could thrive.

      On the positive side, at least Rabbi Geffen allowed that we might have prevailed even without the State of Israel.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 3, 2019, 4:33 pm

        Since about 1970 and at an every increasing pace since then in the US it’s been: “As goes the Right, so goes the all-rightnik

      • RoHa
        RoHa on January 3, 2019, 8:21 pm

        “The U.S. has the oldest, largest Jewish community in the world”

        Oldest? How old are the Jewish communities in Morocco and Syria?

        “the thousands of years of Jewish civilization before that.”

        What Jewish civilization?

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 4, 2019, 11:53 am

        “The U.S. has the oldest, largest Jewish community in the world”

        Gee, they told me that the US has a number of individuals who may, or may not, identify as Jewish.

        “accomplishments galore”

        Pres. George Washington sent the “Jewish community” a very nice letter assuring us we would be treated as white. So there was no holding us back after that.

      • Talkback
        Talkback on January 4, 2019, 5:42 pm

        Xpat: “The U.S. has the oldest, largest Jewish community in the world.”

        The oldest is in India and exists about 2,250 years longer than the US.
        https://www.ijn.com/the-worlds-oldest-jewish-community-is-in-india/

      • Xpat
        Xpat on January 5, 2019, 6:05 pm

        Obviously, and in the context of this conversation, the point is that the United States is home to the older of the two major centers of Jews today, and possibly the larger of the two. If you consider that most of the minor centers of Jewish life today such as England and France grew significantly because of the Holocaust, then the U.S. is the oldest significant center of Jewish life today. Israel is the periphery.
        On the second point that the Jewish community in the U.S. mirrors the divide in Israel – that’s just more Israeli/Zionist self-delusion. Most of the Jewish right-wingers here are Orthodox who map on to right wing Christians here (family size, values, prejudices, voting patterns) much more clearly than the Israeli divide.
        If anything, Israel is a mirror of the U.S. After watching too much American TV, they even imported anti-Black prejudice and projected that on to the Ethiopian Jews.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 6, 2019, 12:18 pm

        “If anything, Israel is a mirror of the U.S. After watching too much American TV, they even imported anti-Black prejudice and projected that on to the Ethiopian Jews.”

        How dare you! Jewish ethical values would prevent anything like that in Israel.

  10. Kay24
    Kay24 on January 4, 2019, 7:44 pm

    Isn’t that ironic, she seems to be supporting the side that kills unarmed civilians by the thousands each year, the side with deadly weapons, snipers, precision bombs, that collectively punish, demolish homes, and steal lands, over activists that are trying to boycott and protest peacefully? These zionist supporters love Israel right or wrong, mostly wrong.

    • Ellen
      Ellen on January 5, 2019, 6:53 am

      Talkback, interesting link. A little off subject of the thread, but the Jewish Communities of India might be the longest contiguous Jewish communities, yet the “facts” of that article stating they migrated from Judea before settling in India appear spurious .

      No citations or explanation of how the author just knows that they came from Judea — which had a population in the iron age, but was know as Judea under the Romans, much later. Populations came and went.

      Hebraic tribes of Hadramaut in Yemen were much earlier and as that is closer to India. As there has always been trade and exchnage with India, the likeyhood that Jews of 2500 years ago in India may have come from what is now Yemen. Hebrew family names are not uncommon in the hills of Yemen.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 5, 2019, 1:25 pm

        ,” but the Jewish Communities of India might be the longest contiguous Jewish communities”

        I believe the custom of ‘sitting Shiva’ after a death came from them.

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