Friday, September 20, 2019

For or Against: Complicating the American Dialogue on Israel

The following piece was originally published here under the title "Am I pro-Israel or anti-Israel? I hate this question!" as a featured post in The Times of Israel Blogs. 
The Jews of America are exhausted. The past three years under Trump have been a perplexing and somber reminder that antisemitism and racism are alive and well. Since Trump’s election we’ve witnessed white supremacists march in the streets of Charlottesville, threats and vandalism on synagogues and Jewish community centers, assassination attempts on multiple high-profile Jewish Democrats, and in Pittsburg, the deadliest mass shooting of Jews in American history. 
The GOP and an increasingly irritable Donald Trump have weaponized cries of antisemitism for right wing causes, almost never on behalf of the majority of diaspora Jews, but instead co-opting extremist Israeli views (such as withholding civilian aid to Gaza and the West Bank) as their own and dangerously casting them representative of the American Jewish community at large. The beloved GOP red herring of labeling any and all criticism of Israel or its occupation of Palestinians as antisemitic only detracts from the very real instances of antisemitism occurring across the globe.
The vast majority of these vapid statements on antisemitism have been largely ignored due to the tumultuous, toxic, and perplexing daily communications transmitting from Trump on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. That was the norm until last week, when the President of the United States dared to accuse American Jews of being disloyal and uninformed for voting Democratic, saying “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Given an opportunity to revise or retract, Trump doubled-down on these comments, ignoring the fact that in 2016 and 2018 Jewish voters cast their ballots for Democrats at 71% and 79%, respectively.  
As countless other scholars, leaders, and writers have already pointed out, such accusations of dual loyalty originate from a deeply antisemitic place, once invoked by the likes of Adolf Hitler to dehumanize Jews and strip them of their citizenship, now a vehicle for dividing Democrats on Israel and delegitimizing over a century of Jewish voting trends in America. 
It’s also worth noting that Trump’s accusations are well within his wheelhouse. Since taking office, the president has made numerous problematic comments to Jewish groups and surrounded his cabinet with closeted racists and antisemites, such as former chairman of Breitbart Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, a Jewish member of the Trump administration and chief architect of its cruel immigration policies. Bannon infamously made comments from 2007 that resurfaced after his appointment as White House Chief Strategist, complaining about his children attending school with “whiny Jews.” Meanwhile, Miller’s own uncle publicly lambasted his nephew for his nativist anti-immigrant views, all of which are most certainly antithetical to Jewish principles.
The GOP has an anti-Semitism problem, one that is galvanized by Donald Trump, fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of Zionism, and driven by an obsession to appeal to and mobilize evangelical Christian voters. Republicans continue excusing racially charged sentiments from this president out of fear of being attacked on Trump’s twitter, or worse, facing a primary challenge. While it is certainly unfair to claim the GOP to be majority racist and anti-Semitic, those who harbor hatred have unquestionably been given a sense of freedom since Trump’s election. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported just this February that “the number of white nationalist groups, those particularly electrified by Trump’s presidency, surged by almost 50 percent – from 100 groups to 148.” 
Simultaneously, there is a fundamental misunderstanding that assumes criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. While we should be wary of arguments that seek to delegitimize Israel’s status as a sovereign nation state, criticizing its government under Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly anti-Semitic. Netanyahu is rightfully under the threat of indictment for corruption charges and has consistently worked to undermine peace efforts by increasing Jewish presence in illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Groups like J Street U, Breaking the Silence, and New Israel Fund are working tirelessly to provide a more nuanced and critical understanding of the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict than the one promoted by Taglit Birthright Israel and others who seek to delegitimize Palestinian claims and ties to the land. But this isn’t enough to shift the conversation. We need to rebrand the debate. 
For the first time since the emergence of Zionism, it seems that members of the diaspora Jewish world are facing a politically manufactured choice: are you pro- or anti- Israel? I find this question detestable, suspicious, and misinformed at best, and manipulative propaganda at worst. I hate this question.
Presenting a complex, non-binary issue in such explicitly binary terms not only stifles criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestinians, but also forces us to conform our views to inadequate and overly-simplistic categories: for or against. How can we have an honest, informed dialogue when our language stands as a barrier to productive discourse? While we argue the right of Israel to exist (which, at this point should be settled) what is to come of the millions of Palestinians who reside in occupied territories? Does Judaism not teach us to love and not oppress the stranger? Does Judaism not teach us the importance of repairing the world through acts of loving kindness? Does Judaism not teach us to pursue justice at all costs? 
At this crucial moment, we have an opportunity to deny the American and Israeli right wing the power to frame the discussion. If we change the dialogue itself, rejecting the notion that a nuanced stance toward the state of Israel could be boiled down to “for or against,” we might somehow discover a more meaningful and productive pathway toward ending the suffering in the occupied territories, all while making Israel more secure and transforming it into a project more aligned with its founding ideals and principles.
The notion that Jews must maintain loyalty to the state of Israel is itself antisemitic, even if it is what the Jewish Right believes to be true. Both American and Israeli Jews have an important job in 2019 and 2020: stop the spread of right-wing extremism and change the conversation around Israel. Like it or not, Israel will be on the ballot in 2020, and candidates can already be seen engaging on the issue leading up to the Democratic primaries. Should we fail to expand our discourse on Israel, we stand to lose sight of the immediate needs of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza, the latter of which is said to be unlivable in its present state. What’s more, should Israel continue its military occupation of Palestinian areas, it will threaten the security of a region already rife with conflict. 

Division and Destruction on Tisha B’Av: Where do we go from Here?

The following piece was originally published here in The Times of Israel Blogs.
“Two Jews; Three Synagogues” is a classic Jewish joke that addresses the division within our community. It could not be more emblematic of our history and the challenges we face today. This week we will be commemorating two of the most catastrophic events in the history of the Jewish people: the fall of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, and the subsequent destruction of the Second Temple. On Tisha B’Av, we fast and abstain from work and dedicate this as a time for reflection and a living yahrzeit for each and every moment of catastrophe in the Jewish story. Not only do we spend time mourning the loss of the First and Second Temple, but also the thousands of Jews killed during the Crusades, the millions slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, to name a few.
Notably, reflection does not begin with the fast day itself. It is in reality a three week long process beginning on the 17th of Tammuz, which is in itself a fast day commemorating the Roman infiltration of the walls of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the temple. During this three week period, observers are tasked with abstention from joyous occasions such as wedding ceremonies. Often we focus on mourning the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, but how often do we truly consider why its loss is so significant to our people? How often do we consider the historical conflicts that would result in destruction and exile? Most importantly, how can we take these lessons of the past and make them relevant for our modern world? In the words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
From the very beginning, the Israelites faced class division and internal struggle. Not too long ago we studied Parashat Korach, the Torah portion named for Moses and Aaron’s cousin who would gather a small group of supporters to carry out a takeover of God’s chosen leaders for the Children of Israel. Korach demands of his cousin Moses to explain to him from where he is given his authority to lead the 12 tribes. Korach demands an answer, asking of his cousins, “all the community is holy, why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” Moses, as a response, falls on his face—physically bringing himself down to Korach’s level, a symbolic gesture indeed — only for Korach and his followers to be swallowed up and buried alive by the Earth. While we typically use this story as a way to discuss the imbalance of authority, I find immense value in utilizing the text to discuss division between people and Jews. Instead of accepting God’s punishment for Korach as acceptable, perhaps we should question why such division occurred to cause a rebellion to take place. How can we actively ensure people are included so that they don’t feel left out of the conversation? How can we do a better job of working together for the good of Klal Yisrael — The Community of Israel — instead of actively seeking to destroy it? When will we, after thousands of years, realize the trend that senseless hatred between ourselves leads to destruction?
When the Israelites finally arrive in the land of Canaan and are victorious in their war against the Canaanites that had occupied that land, the only ruling authority are Judges appointed by each Israelite tribe to serve as its leadership. This loose confederation of tribes does not last, as conflicts over resources between them become too divisive, and eventually Judges are no longer sufficient for leading the Israelite community. Kings rise to power, awarded by God divine authority that would remain significant well after the appointment of King Saul. It isn’t too long until the United Monarchy ruled by Saul, David, and Solomon breaks apart into two kingdoms in the North and the South. The North taken by the Assyrians, and the weakened Southern Kingdom eventually falls siege to the Babylonians in 586 BCE — the Israelites exiled and the Temple destroyed. We cannot ignore this reality, that the Jewish people first face destruction because of divisiveness that weakened them to the extent where they could no longer protect themselves from outside forces. We see the same events reproduced after exile and the erection of a second temple, which would be destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Fast-forward to 2017 in Israel. The tensions between the progressive Jewish community and the religious community surrounding egalitarian prayer and conversion in particular, have become increasingly more uncertain. We now find ourselves at a crossroads, once again, where division threatens the destruction of the Jewish people.
When we look to our textual tradition of Torah, we find unity expressly sought after by Israelite leadership. Last week, we took a brief look at Parashat Devarim. This Torah portion begins the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, saying, Eleh hadivarim asher diber Moshe el Kol Yisrael — “these were the words that Moses said to all of Israel.” He isn’t addressing select tribes, he doesn’t focus only on the purest members of the congregation, there isn’t any distinction in gender, and he doesn’t hold a separate council meeting with the Elders. He addresses every single Israelite.
I implore my brothers and sisters to take time to return to our scriptural traditions. The same texts that calls upon me to pursue justice, the same scripture that commands me to love the stranger as myself, the same scripture that in truth calls for a more perfect world that reaches the maximum output of love, acceptance, and cooperation.
As Jews of the Diaspora, we have a responsibility to fight alongside Israelis who desire equality and opportunity for living a life of informed choice. We have a responsibility to speak up for women who are screamed and spat at, terrorized, and made subhuman for their “rebellious” acts of reading from Torah, wearing kippot and talitot, or even speaking in the presence of the Kotel. We have a responsibility to ensure Kol Yisrael is welcome under our tent: Jews of matrilineal and patrilineal descent; Progressive Jews; Observant Jews; Jews of color; LGBTQ Jews — all are welcome, all are accepted, all are loved.
On this Tisha B’Av, let us take time not only to reflect on the utter loss of our greatest “Jewish community center,” the Temple, to remember where we came from, but let us also take this opportunity to ultimately to reflect on why catastrophe took place. We know how this story ends. Let us not be as divisive as our ancestors to allow the division of our community, our family. Instead, let us strive to come together as one Kehillah Kedosha, one sacred community, so that we may survive our biggest threats today and tomorrow.

To love your neighbor is to respect them first: musings on egalitarian prayer at the Kotel

The following piece was originally published here in The Times of Israel Blogs. 
And God said, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26)
From the very beginnings of our scriptural tradition, the emphasis in our being made in the likeness of God is very clear.
B’Tzelem Elohim, or, “in God’s Image”, is one of the most commonly cited values of Progressive Jewish organizations in the United States today. Among the other values held by these organizations is “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh” or “all Israel is responsible for another.” This text, originating from Shavuot 39a, is Talmudic, and very much a binding principle of our Rabbinic tradition. Of course, the term ‘Israel’ here applies to the people of Israel, the Israelites; or in our modern context, the Jewish people. We are obligated by Judaism’s scriptural and rabbinic law to share responsibility for those in our community, and to be inclusive of them, for we are all equal in our origins and in our worthiness as the Jewish people, for we are all God’s creation.
The decision by Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his party to withdraw an agreement permitting the development of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall many years in the making was, to me and many of my peers, an insult to Jews of the Diaspora. Their actions undoubtedly violate our values as Jews, and put in danger the long-term financial security of the modern nation state that is Israel. American Jews give NIS 8 Billion in donations to Israel and help stimulate the economy with NIS 58 Billion through tourism, according to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. The decision regarding the Kotel ultimately plunged this financial security into unknown territory. Not only does this action display a lack of respect toward pluralism and the Jewish world, but stands as a violation of the ideal that we are all made in God’s image, that we are all entitled to the same rights as Jews regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
As a vocal and decisively ardent member of the Reform Movement, a religious school teacher, a student of Judaism, a person aspiring to become a Rabbi, and a staunch advocate for an inclusive Israel that exists safely within her borders, I cannot stand idly by the blood of my brothers and sisters who are not looked upon equally by the ultra Orthodox Haredim that currently control the Western Wall. It is difficult to have a meaningful connection to the Kotel knowing that other members of my Movement, and people who consider themselves Jewish despite disagreement with the Haredim on the grounds of patrilineal descent are prohibited from sharing the opportunities I am so lucky to have because of something as out of my control as gender. Just because I am privileged enough to approach the Wall, to enjoy its disproportionally large section, and to do so undisturbed (such as by the harassment experienced by women who have tried to pray utilizing teffilin and tallit), does not mean that I enjoy doing so. I would feel more at peace and feel a stronger connection at the Kotel knowing that everyone is able to enjoy it equally.
And don’t think for a moment that I do not support and love my Haredi brothers and sisters on the other side. I am taught by Jewish tradition, in Leviticus, that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” to appreciate the differences among us. I do indeed love the Haredim as I would any other person or Jew, but there is no mutual exclusivity in my agreeing with them- most notably when they decide to limit the participation of any person. That said, what this really comes down to, if I am to love my neighbor, is that I am to respect them and to expect the same respect in return. The progressive Jewish world has tolerated the Haredim operating essentially the entire religious world of Judaism in Israel since the beginning. Up until recently, women could be booted from their seats on El Al flights if a religious man did not wish to sit beside them. Is it really so much to demand inclusion in the form of a rightful egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel? Or is it a matter of disrespect toward progressive Judaism and pluralism?
I feel as though my closeness to this subject could not be stronger than it is now, through my current work at The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism. The centers are comprised of Beit Daniel, its flagship synagogue; Miskenot Ruth Daniel, guesthouse, tours and seminar center in Jaffa; Kehilat Halev, the center’s community in Central Tel Aviv; and, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a service learning program run jointly through BINA.
I feel especially empowered by the staff that I have been working with, who all feel the ultimate struggle for inclusion and equality in Israel. This struggle does not end at the Western Wall, which has become the symbolic embodiment of the religious divide within Israel. The Daniel Centers also proudly operate the largest non-Orthodox conversion program in the country, which allow Jews who successfully complete their program to be recognized as Jewish by the state. The latest attack on this occurred just recently, as the Israeli government advanced a bill that could—if passed—direct conversion power to be operated solely and thus monopolized by the Orthodox Rabbinate. No longer would a Reform or Conservative conversions be legitimized by the state; undoubtedly a huge blow to both movements worldwide, if it is successful.
In my opinion, and from my own experience, this just isn’t Jewish. Judaism teaches inclusivity. Judaism teaches acceptance. Judaism teaches love. The conversion bill isn’t inclusive, accepting, or loving. It is a direct contradiction of Jewish teachings reaching as far back as antiquity.
It’s difficult to understand, coming from my American background, that this divisive reality exists between the progressive and orthodox in Israel. In the States, we may not always agree, but we coexist and work together in JCCs and Federations. Is it ironic that the Jews of Diaspora are so tolerant in faith, or is that commonplace because we live in a Christian world? I’ve learned through experience that pluralism and its embrace is essential to building and maintaining our small but mighty Jewish community.
Now it’s time for Israel to discover the power of pluralism by finding compromise wherever possible, and continuing the progress that organizations like the Israel Religious Action Center and Beit Daniel have worked so hard for over the past thirty years. This means the Haredim will need to tolerate the varying lifestyles of Jews outside of orthodoxy, just as progressive Jews have tolerated and accommodated for the lifestyle of traditional Jewish practice. Of course, this includes egalitarian prayer especially, but also extends to issues of conversion, and ultimately the identity politics behind “who is a Jew?”
I consider it helpful to study the Book of Ruth from the collection of Prophetic writings, which we read every year on Shavuot—commemorating the revelation of Torah by learning from a text that chronicles the life of a convert. It is told that Ruth marries a Jewish man, but is from Moab, and is not Jewish by birth. No problem. Ruth is welcomed by the Israelite community, and especially by Naomi, her mother-in-law. When her husband dies, and she seeks a new hand for marriage, Ruth maintains her loyalty to Naomi, and goes to glean in the fields of a man named Boaz, whom she would eventually marry. Ruth, at this point still a Moabite woman, is known throughout the community as an “Eshet Chayal”- a woman of virtue, for her loyalty, and is called such by Boaz. As she tells Naomi in the first chapter, “your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
Ruth is welcomed and included, despite her being from Moab and not an Israelite, into their community! Her conversion leads her into the path of living that we in modernity would consider a Jewish lifestyle, but she is not denied any opportunity for who she is. For she is made B’Tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—she is equally accepted. I remember once learning from a rabbi that when a person converts to Judaism it is as if their soul was always the soul of a Jew, and that they just needed to find their way to our community.
Should we not strive to be more inclusive, accepting, and loving like Naomi? It is up to the Progressive movement in Israel and Diaspora to continuously be inclusive, to be open and welcoming to the stranger in our own midst—including Orthodoxy—or else we risk falling into a trap of actually straying from our tradition and becoming no better than those that stand on the other side.