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.