Thursday, August 07, 2014

For Some Jews, Israel's Treatment of Palestinians is Yet Another Jewish Tragedy

This past Tuesday, August 5, 2014, I joined with around 50 Twin Cities-area Jews and their supporters for a mourning ritual to mark the annual Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av.

Tisha B'Av is a fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem as well as other tragedies throughout Jewish history. Those who gathered in Minneapolis on August 5 mourned the tragedy of the destruction of Gaza and what organizers declared the Israeli government's "ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland and the deprivation of Palestinians' human rights."

Tuesday's ritual took place in front of the Minneapolis office of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). According to the event's organizers, the JCRC promotes the conflation of Judaism and Zionism, stifles dialogue and dissent, and claims that the only way to be Jewish is to unquestioningly "stand with Israel," i.e., to unquestioningly support the Israeli government's policy regarding the Palestinians. The Jewish organizers and attendees of the Tisha B'Av Gaza Mourning Ritual gathered to "express our grief and mourn in a moment of visible defiance against this narrative." In doing so they conveyed the message that "the JCRC does not represent us."

As a non-Jew it felt important to stand with Jewish people opposed to Israeli policy and military action as they relate to Gaza and the Palestinian people. Recently, I've been sharing my thoughts and opinions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a couple of friends on Facebook. These friends disagree with me on this issue. Following are some of my correspondence with them.

First, my response to being asked to define "extremism" . . .

In my view an individual's or group's dehumanizing ideology and/or actions make them "extremist." I see extremist elements in ISIS, Hamas, Zionism, the Tea Party, and expressions of unfettered capitalism, among other groups and systems. Of course, these extremist elements take many different forms, the worst being violence and death visited upon innocent people. What they all have in common, however, is a tribal mentality (often expressed in extreme forms of nationalism) that leads to the demonizing and labeling of other human beings as "the other." That's the first step in dehumanizing people, and from there all sorts of terrible things can and often do start happening. We need only to look at history and certain areas around the world today to see expressions of extremism being played out.

Next is my response to a friend who, among other things, brought up my presence at a rally against Israeli militarism back in 2002 . . .

First, let me say how much I appreciate your friendship and your willingness to engage with me in this highly emotional subject. Second, the sign I was carrying back in 2002 read "Criticism of Israeli Militarism is Not Anti-Semitic." (Incidentally, no one "handed" me this placard. I made it myself and brought it to the rally. Also, I don't remember it being an "anti-Israel" rally. It was an anti-Israeli policy rally. I believe this distinction is both important and possible). I'm sorry if you found the statement on my placard to be offensive, but I continue to stand by it. Perhaps that difference in viewpoint is the big sticking point between us. Also, if you find that particular statement to be in some way an expression of anti-Semitism, then I have to question some of the other statements, organizations and publications that you have also dismissed as anti-Semitic. Third, I don't support Hamas. I find this organization's anti-Jewish rhetoric, along with some of its actions, abhorrent. Yet I also find abhorrent the treatment of Palestinian populations by Israeli policies and military actions. The reasons the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas are complex, but I don't believe the group's anti-Semitic rhetoric was a major factor. From my reading, it was Hamas' dedication to liberating the people from the Israeli blockade/occupation, and its opposition to the corrupt previous government, that drew people to it. I don't believe that the desire to be liberated from the oppressive conditions of the blockade/occupation automatically translates into anti-Semitism. Again, my sense is that this is a sticking point between our differing perspectives. My hope is that once Palestinians have achieved their hoped for liberation, another group other than Hamas will be voted into power. Most Palestinians, like most Jews, want to live in peace, side by side. But for that to happen there must first be justice for all.

Then there's this response to a friend who labels Hamas as "arsonists" and the Israeli military as "firefighters" . . .

The main problem I have with your analogy is that it implies that the Israeli military can do no wrong and that Hamas (and maybe even the Palestinian people) can do nothing that's not wrong (other than complete surrender to the Israeli government's demands which focus only on stopping Hamas rockets but fail to address the siege of Gaza). That's a rather pessimistic viewpoint. Where's the hope of a negotiated peace when one side is viewed as only right and the other as only wrong? Also, I find it problematic that in your view the oppression of the Palestinian people via the occupation/siege doesn't factor in at all to the range of responses – some of which are reprehensible – that we're witnessing on the part of the Palestinians to Israeli policies and actions. From what you've said elsewhere, the sole reason that we're seeing resistance and, in some cases, violence, is that the Palestinians, perhaps even all Arabs, have an irrational hatred of Jews, a hatred that nothing can ever change. It's like you're saying, 'Well, that's just who and what they are. They're not like "us," they're totally the "other."' I'm kinda surprised that you don't see that as dehumanizing of a whole group of people. And once you dehumanize people in that kind of way, once you determine that there's no possible way to negotiate with them or find common ground, well, a pathway is created to go from that to thinking that it's justifiable to simply push them out of the way, hole them up in restricted areas, exterminate them, even. I mean, given that they're viewed as irrational haters hell-bent on killing, what are the other options? Sadly there are Israeli politicians and others who are speaking in such terms. And they of all people should know what happens when you start going down that path.

. . . I don't want to be either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I want to be aligned with all who want for themselves and their children lives of freedom, peace, and security. I have to believe that the longing for such basic human aspirations cuts across all lines of race, religion, and ethnicity. I also know that there are extremists across the board who have no regard for human life and people's hopes and aspirations. It's a sad fact that injustice and war often open the door to such extremists. My hope is that on both sides of this current conflict, moderate and progressive voices might start to be heard. Perhaps the current ceasefire will help in this regard.

Finally, here's my response to a childhood friend now living in Israel who challenged me to live there for two years before thinking and saying the things I do about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict . . .

I can't begin to imagine what it's like to live in fear of sudden and violent death as you and so many others do in both Israel and Gaza. Yet I also know that there are people in Israel who share the perspectives of the articles I choose to post on Facebook; people who believe, for instance, that both sides in this terrible conflict should be held accountable for their actions. If that wasn't the case, if I didn't know that there are Israelis who, like me and many others around the world, are critical of both Hamas and aspects of Israeli policy and military action, then I'd definitely think twice about posting the pieces that I do. Also, I don't think it should just be the experience of those living in Israel that determine what's reported and how. The experiences of Gazans also need to be considered. Put that way, your question to me could be rephrased as an invitation for you to live for two years in Gaza before deciding that the articles I share are "media misinformation."

Above: The sentiment expressed on this t-shirt reminds me of actress and human rights activist Vanessa Redgrave's long-held belief that "the struggle against anti-Semitism and for the self-determination of the Palestinians form a single whole."

Above and below: Reading the names of Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza by the current Israeli military action. To date, over 1800 Palestinians have been killed.

Together we light these yartzeit, memorial candles, and read the names of Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza this summer and whose names we know from the International Middle East Media Center. . . . There are so many names. We read them aloud together, overlapping our voices, making a great noise in our grief, anger, lament, protest.

As can be seen in the photo above, some in attendance at Tuesday's mourning ritual ripped their clothes so as to make a visible manifestation of their grief.

Over the past few weeks, as I've followed events in Israel and Gaza (see, for instance, here and here), I've come across a number of well written and insightful articles. One of the most incisive and moving is Rabbi Michael Lerner's August 4 Salon commentary, "Israel Has Broken My Heart: I’m a Rabbi in Mourning for a Judaism Being Murdered by Israel." Following is an excerpt.

In my book Embracing Israel/Palestine I have argued that both Israelis and Palestinians are victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have a great deal of compassion for both peoples, particularly for my own Jewish people who have gone through traumas that have inevitably distorted future generations. Those traumas don’t exonerate Israel’s behavior or that of Hamas, but they are relevant for those of us seeking a path to social healing and transformation.

Yet that healing is impossible until those who are victims of PTSD are willing to work on overcoming it.

And this is precisely where the American Jewish community and Jews around the world have taken a turn that is disastrous, by turning the Israeli nation state into “the Jewish state” and making Israel into an idol to be worshiped rather than a political entity like any other political entity, with strengths and deep flaws. Despairing of spiritual salvation after God failed to show up and save us from the Holocaust, increasing numbers of Jews have abandoned the religion of compassion and identification with the most oppressed that was championed by our biblical prophets, and instead come to worship power and to rejoice in Israel’s ability to become the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East. If a Jew today goes into any synagogue in the U.S. or around the world and says, “I don’t believe in God or Torah and I don’t follow the commandments,” most will still welcome you in and urge you to become involved. But say, “I don’t support the State of Israel,” and you are likely to be labeled a “self-hating Jew” or anti-Semite, scorned and dismissed. As Aaron said of the Golden Calf in the Desert, “These are your Gods, O Israel.”

The worship of the state makes it necessary for Jews to turn Judaism into an auxiliary of ultra-nationalist blindness. Every act of the State of Israel against the Palestinian people is seen as sanctioned by God. Each Sabbath Jews in synagogues around the world are offered prayers for the well-being of the State of Israel but not for our Arab cousins. The very suggestion that we should be praying for the Palestinian people’s welfare is seen as heresy and proof of being “self-hating Jews.”

The worship of power is precisely what Judaism came into being to challenge. We were the slaves, the powerless, and though the Torah talks of God using a strong arm to redeem the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, it simultaneously insists, over and over again, that when Jews go into their promised land in Canaan (not Palestine) they must “love the stranger/the Other,” have one law for the stranger and for the native born, and warns “do not oppress the stranger/the Other.” Remember, Torah reminds us, “that you were strangers/the Other in the land of Egypt” and “you know the heart of the stranger.” Later sources in Judaism even insist that a person without compassion who claims to be Jewish cannot be considered Jewish. A spirit of generosity is so integral to Torah consciousness that when Jews are told to let the land lie fallow once every seven years (the societal-wide Sabbatical Year), they must allow that which grows spontaneously from past plantings be shared with the Other/the stranger.

The Jews are not unique in this. The basic reality is that most of humanity has always heard a voice inside themselves telling them that the best path to security and safety is to love others and show generosity, and a counter voice that tells us that the only path to security is domination and control over others. This struggle between the voice of fear and the voice of love, the voice of domination/power-over and the voice of compassion, empathy and generosity, have played out throughout history and shape contemporary political debates around the world. . . .

– Rabbi Michael Lerner
Excerpted from "Israel Has Broken My Heart: I’m a Rabbi in Mourning
for a Judaism Being Murdered by Israel

August 4, 2014

Recommended Off-site Links:
How Europe's Jews Lost Their Humanity in Gaza – Gilad Isaacs (972mag, August 1, 2014).
Both Israelis and Palestinians Are Losers in This Conflict – Daniel Barenboim (The Guardian, July 24, 2014).
Israel and Palestine Can Never Be Secure Until Both Are Secure – Michael Nagler (Truthout, August 4, 2014).
Nine Facts About the Israeli-Palesinian Conflict on Which We Can All Agree – Qasim Rashid (The World Post, August 1, 2014).
Five Israeli Talking Point on Gaza – Debunked – Noura Erakat (The Nation, July 25, 2014).
An Israel Without Illusions – David Grossman (The New York Times, July 27, 2014).
"Concentrate" and "Exterminate": Israel Parliament Deputy Speaker’s Gaza Genocide Plan – Ali Abunimah (The Electronic Intifada, August 3, 2014).
Losing the Moral High Ground – Eugene Robinson (TruthDig, July 25, 2014).
Israel Started This War and Killed 1,000+ Based on a Very Big Lie – Icarus Verum (Addicting Info, July 26, 2014).
Collective Punishment in Gaza – Rashid Khalidi (The New Yorker, July 29, 2014).
I've Always Loved Israel But This Brutality Breaks My Heart – Max Hastings (Daily Mail, July 23, 2014).
The Logic of Israeli Violence – Greg Shupak (Jacobin, July 30, 2014).
Why Israel Lies – Chris Hedges (TruthDig, August 3, 2014).
While Bombs Fall on Gaza: Resisting Militarism in Israel – Sahar Vardi (Acting in Faith, July 30, 2014).
The Case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel – Rafeef Ziadah (Aljazeera America, August 4, 2014).
Both Sides Prepare for New Gaza War Crimes Probe – Associated Press via The Washington Post (August 4, 2014).
Gaza's Christians and Muslims Grow Closer in Defiance of Israeli Attacks – Mohammed Omer (Middle East Eye, July 30, 2014).
What Do Gazans Think of Hamas, Abbas and Israel's Strikes? – Mohammed Omer (Middle East Eye, August 3, 2014).
Lessons from My Jewish Mother and Palestinian Father – Claire Hajaj (The Takeaway, July 30, 2014).
Millennials Are Over Israel: A New Generation, Outraged Over Gaza, Rejects Washington’s Reflexive Support – David Palumbo-Liu (Salon, August 1, 2014).
In Photos: Worldwide Protests Against Israeli Attack on Gaza – Annie Robbins (Mondoweiss, July 27, 2014).
In France, Progressives Fight a Two-Front Battle Against Israeli Propaganda and Anti-Semitism – Pierre Guerlain (Truthout, July 31, 2014).
As Israel’s Assault on Gaza Intensifies, It is Not Anti-Semitic to Say: Not in My Name – Laurie Penny (The New Statesman, July 23, 2014).
I Was Wrong About Gaza: Why We Can No Longer Ignore the Horrors in Palestine – Brittney Cooper (Salon, August 5, 2014).
A Venerable Jewish Voice for Peace – Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan (Democracy Now!, July 31, 2014).
Nixed Signals – Seth Ackerman (FAIR, October 1, 2006).
CRS Official: Gaza a 'Complete Catastrophe' on 'Brink of Collapse' – Dale Gavlak (Catholic News Service via National Catholic Reporter, August 4, 2014).
The real problem with disproportionate force – Phyllis Bennis (The Detroit News, August 5, 2014).
Gaza Ceasefire: After 1,800+ Dead, What Led Israel to Stop the Assault — and What Comes Next?Democracy Now! (August 5, 2014).
On Israel's Defeat in Gaza – David Rothkopf (Foreign Policy, August 6, 2014).
Israel’s Supporters Try to Come to Terms with the Killing of Children in Gaza – Robert Mackey (New York Times, August 7, 2014).
Mounting Evidence of Deliberate Attacks on Gaza Health Workers by Israeli Army – Amnesty International (August 7, 2014).
The Gaza Paradox: Hamas Has Little Support, but the War Has a Lot – Jesse Rosenfeld (The Daily Beast, August 7, 2014).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Something to Think About – July 18, 2014
"We Will Come Together in Our Pain
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
Quote of the Day – September 7, 2013
In Search of a "Global Ethic"

Images: Michael J. Bayly.


Mary Lynn Murphy said...

Thank you for the summary, Michael, and thank you for being there.

Richard Demma said...

Wonderful article and very inspiring finish from Michael Lerner, which says it all so eloquently. As the Jewish theologian Marc Ellis has said, there were two tragedies which befell the Jewish people in the twentieth century, the first was the Holocaust (or Shoah) and the second was the founding of the state of Israel. I always come to tears at the end of Schindler's List, when the real life survivors place stones of honor and remembrance upon the grave of Oskar Schindler - because of the pathos of witnessing the plight of such suffering people having to endure the tragedy of Israel's own fall from grace. It's almost too cruel.