Empathy, Not Vengeance: A Rabbinical View on the Recent Violence in Israel/Palestine

Like so many throughout the world, we grieve the loss of Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar – the three Israeli teens who were found murdered this week near their homes in Hevron. The loss of children through acts of violence strikes at the very core of our souls – we can only hope the outpouring of grief being exhibited throughout the world for these three young men is providing a measure of comfort to their parents and loved ones.

And just as fervently, we grieve for Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, murdered in an apparent “price tag” act of vengeance for the deaths of the three Israeli youths. We also note with sorrow that at least eight Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military during the weeks following the abduction of the three Israeli boys, including 10-year-old Ali al-Awour, 15-year-old Mohammad Dudeen and 22-year-old Mustafa Hosni Aslan. Ali died of wounds from an Israeli missile strike in northern Gaza; Mohammad was killed by a single live bullet in the village of Dura; Mustafa was killed by live bullets in Qalandiya refugee camp during clashes with an Israeli military raid.

We are also not unmindful that, according to the Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem, over 1,384 Palestinian minors have been killed by the Israeli military since 2000. Indeed, as the Jewish Voice for Peace statement issued yesterday affirms, “we refuse to mourn only the deaths of Palestinians, or only the deaths of Israelis. But that does not mean we can ignore the enormous power difference between Israelis and Palestinians, or pretend it is just a ‘cycle of violence’ with no root cause or context. Each of these horrific incidents that harms both peoples happen in the context of an ongoing occupation, itself inherently a system of daily violence. And it is a system that by its very nature puts the lives, dignity, and human rights of all in jeopardy.”

Just as we must understand the larger context of violence in which these acts occurred, we must also search our own souls to examine the ways in which we, as Jews, respond to our Jewish losses. We believe that too often, we use our grief as a barrier between our community and the outside world. We withdraw into our pain, holding tight to the conviction that the world ultimately believes “Jewish blood is cheap.”

And all too often, we use our grief as a kind of weapon to lash out at those around us. In this regard, we are deeply dismayed by the incitement of Israeli politicians and religious leaders against Palestinians, particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public call for “vengeance.” It is impossible to separate this kind of incendiary rhetoric from the tragic violence perpetrated against Palestinians over the past few days.

We stand with the great sage Rabbi Ben Azzai, who famously taught that the concept of humanity being created in the divine image is the most central value of Torah. If we ultimately view all life as sacred, then empathy  – not isolation or vengeance – is the most healing response of all. Let us affirm that our losses are all ultimately connected in deep and profound ways. Let us affirm that the loss of Jewish children is inseparable from the loss of innocent children everywhere who fall victim daily to hatred and violence. Let our grief inspire us to grieve no less for children who fall victim to violence the world over – whether in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Iraq, in the West Bank and Gaza – or in cities throughout our own country.

Let us redouble our resolve to create a world of safety and security for our children and for all who dwell on earth. And let us do what we must to make such a world a reality once and for all.

May the memories of all our fallen children be for a blessing.

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Alissa Wise

Founders, Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Two Jews, How Many Opinions? A Response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie

by Rabbi P. Almoni

God. Torah. Israel. Through the ages, all three essential Jewish concepts have been the arena of fierce rabbinic debate. No aspect of Jewish life, sacred or mundane, has been immune from disagreement. The Talmud, the foundational work of post-biblical Judaism, is a 20,000+ page record of these vigorous discussions.

For 1,500 years and more the Talmud has shaped our Jewish culture. But now, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism has declared an exception to the rule: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. According to Rabbi Yoffie, all Jews believe it was wrong for the Presbyterian church to withdraw its investments from three American companies who enable and benefit from the Occupation of the West Bank. Two Jews, one opinion.

Rabbi Yoffie’s claim of Jewish uniformity of mind is his wish; it’s not the reality. I am a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. We are tens of thousands of Jews who enthusiastically backed the Presbyterian church’s stand for human rights on the West Bank. And this number is on the rise. Jewish Voice for Peace represents a growing movement. JVP is regularly adding staff to match its swelling membership and increased donations. The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace continues to expand too. There are yet more Jews who are watching this debate about the Occupation; they are studying the issues. Yet Rabbi Yoffie would shut the debate down right now, angrily denouncing us as: “a fringe group in black T-shirts.” So much for the spirit of Jewish debate.

But I am troubled by the premise that lies in the background of Rabbi Yoffie’s statement. He believes in a monolithic Jewish community. A community in which all Jews share the same political position: the belief that divestment is wrong and that the Occupation of the West Bank may not be opposed in any meaningful way.

This is clearly a controversial idea. Why would all Jews choose to hew to this one opinion? Looking beyond the Jewish community, minorities rightly resist the idea that they all should hold to the same opinion. As Jews we should be the first to reject the idea that the color of a person’s passport or the color of their skin should determine their political beliefs. Try filling in the blank with the ethnic minority of your choice: “All ________ believe that ___________.” We don’t do that.

The claim: “all Jews are X” reinforces a classic anti-Semitic line of reasoning. It runs the risk of feeding anti-Semitic ideas about Jews, with ramifications for all minorities.

So, Rabbi Yoffie’s claim for Jewish uniformity is untrue and is ill-conceived. Revealingly, the Jewish establishment has taken pains to never put his claim to the test. I have never yet seen a community-wide conversation about Israel. Even supporting the modest step of divesting from the Occupation, is, according to Rabbi Yoffie, beyond the pale. Jewish Voice for Peace poses a threat to Rabbi Yoffie’s need for uniformity.

It’s high time we opened up the conversation and allowed voices outside the establishment to be heard. We desperately need to engage the imaginations of young Jews, for whom Jewish Voice for Peace is rapidly becoming a mainstream option.

Not: “two Jews, one opinion,” but, two Jews – as many opinions as those Jews choose.”

This is the spirit of Jewish tradition: not to censor and censure but to engage each other in dialogue and debate.

“Ploni Almoni” is the traditional rabbinic version of the English language “anonymous.” The author chooses to remain anonymous because of the adversarial nature of Rabbi Yoffie’s attack on those Jews who stand for Palestinian Solidarity. In that sense, Rabbi Ploni Almoni or Rabbi Anonymous, speaks for all the Rabbis and Jews who have come under attack from the Jewish establishment.

A Time to Speak: Reflections on the Tragic News from Israel/Palestine

by Cantor Michael Davis

When my father died, some years ago, a close friend came over and sat with me quietly throughout the day. I felt no need to speak. I was comforted by his silent companionship. Ecclesiastes’ words of wisdom are captured in this ancient Jewish practice. Judaism instructs those who come to a house of mourning to be silent, to wait for the mourner to speak first.

The families of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha’ar, and Naftali Frankel, the three Jewish boys who were kidnapped while hitchhiking on the West Bank, are grieving. If I were to visit them today, I don’t know what words of comfort I could offer them in their pain. I would try to be present with them, to walk with them along their path. I know I would tremble to think of what it must be like to lose a child. I would be silent.

I know from the twenty years that I lived in Israel how tragic events like the kidnapping of the three boys become the focus of the entire Israeli Jewish community. American Jews have similarly marked the kidnappings – and now the tragically violent deaths – of the three boys. I will be hosting and participating in a memorial service for the three boys tonight. I hope our communal commemorations can offer some measure of companionship and comfort to the bereaved families.

But silence is not always a virtue. There is also a time to speak. Over the past few weeks, we have seen an ugly manipulation of the plight of the three Jewish families. Thousands of Palestinians live in fear of the brutal crackdown Israel has unleashed. Innocent men have been killed. On Monday night, the Israeli military attacked Gaza again.

If our feelings for the Jewish families are sincere then we can extend our compassion to the many other victims of violence. Compassion is not diluted by sharing it with others. Hundreds of Palestinian children have been kidnapped by Israeli forces. If kidnapping means the forcible removal of a child from his parents’ care and then being taken to a prison for an indefinite period of time, where he might be subject to torture or death, all beyond the reach of his family or the law – then the some 200 Palestinian children who are currently being held by Israeli forces are also kidnapped. More Palestinians have been kidnapped and some killed since the Jewish boys were seized on June 12.

Like 7 year old Ali Abd al-Latif al-Awour who died three days after being hit by shrapnel during an Israel airstrike on Gaza; 15 year old Mohammad Dudeen who was killed by an Israeli soldier near Hebron; or 16 year old Yousef Abu Zagha who was shot in the chest at the Jenin refugee camp. The numbers are hard to grasp. 127 Israeli and over 1,384 Palestinian minors killed since 2000 according to Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem. As hard as it is to even imagine the scope of this suffering, this this is just a part of an even larger picture of violent death and suffering, predominantly on the West Bank and Gaza.

While the story of the killing of the three Jewish boys was front page news in the Chicago Tribune and papers across the nation, the shockingly routine killing of Palestinians remains hidden from our sight. Out of sight, out of mind. We respond viscerally to the shock of an isolated act of violence. All too often we become accustomed to systemic violence and it is ignored. We get used to a new normal, as horrible as it may be. But this is cold comfort to the bereaved Palestinian families and the tens of thousands of men, women and children living in terror. What is going through the minds of the Palestinian population as they listen to Israeli leaders pounding the drums of war, condemning the Palestinian population at large as legitimate military targets. And this jingoistic talk of the leaders has made its mark on the Jewish population. Mohamed Hussein Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian boy was kidnapped as he left home for early this morning on his way to Ramadan prayers. He was murdered, by all accounts by Israeli settlers. Thankfully, this particular incident was condemned by Israeli leaders.

The distinction of whom to feel compassion for and who shall remain invisible is a choice. When there are two sides to a conflict, it is a moral choice. Each Fall, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Israel’s ancient adversary, Ishmael. The Torah tells us that God provided a miracle to save the dying boy Ishmael. God heard the boy’s voice “as he was at that time” because he was an innocent child at that time. Our vocal response to the tragic kidnapping and deaths of the three Jewish boys underscores our continued silence at the violent loss of life and abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli authorities.

At the beginning of the year we confess our sins “for the sins of commission and for the sins of omission.” The State of Israel professes to act on behalf of all Jews. That includes me. If I fail to voice my opposition to this campaign of violence, it would be an act of omission. The Talmud teaches that: “silence is equivalent to acquiescence.” I do not acquiesce to the kidnapping of underage boys and terrorizing an entire population to force it into submission.

Let use our voices to speak up for those who are trembling in fear of ongoing violence – with the looming threat of yet more violence to come. May we see the end to violence and may all the children in jeopardy, both Israeli and Palestinian, come home to their families, whole in body and mind.

An Open Letter to the Commissioners of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

Jews and Presbyterians join in a prayer circle outside committee deliberations on divestment, Detroit, 6/17/14

Dear Commissioners of the Presbyterian General Assembly,

Over the past week a delegation of rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace visited with the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in Detroit. These rabbis, together with Jewish and Presbyterian peace activists, have prayed and stood vigil, spoken in public and held many private conversations with you, the commissioners.

The rabbis asked you, our Presbyterian friends: what does your conscience tell you to do? Overwhelmingly, you replied: my conscience tells me to vote for divestment. But, the Presbyterian elders –  clergy and lay leaders – added: one concern still weighs on me. “What will the Jewish people in my life say: the rabbi I know, my Jewish cousins, my Jewish neighbors. Many of these Jews have emailed me or called me, asking me not to divest. I value my relationship with Jewish people and I do not want to undermine those relationships.”

Interfaith relationships, particularly between Jews and Christians, are an important focus. We appreciate the sensitivity of the Presbyterian Church to its relationship with Jews and the warm welcome we all received from you in Detroit. You were gracious and thoughtful. We were inspired by your commitment to each other as members of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Yet, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs came to the General Assembly on Wednesday evening, he warned you that a vote for divestment from three American companies could cost the Presbyterians their friendship with the Jewish people.

The Presbyterian Church USA  over the last ten years has sought to engage Israel on the issue of the West Bank. Sadly, to no avail. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, too, has consistently spoken out against West Bank settlements. We have yet to see what results these well-intended statements can achieve.

Rabbis accompanied by young Jewish activists went to Detroit to encourage you, the Presbyterian elders to listen to your inner voice of conscience. The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace does not believe that the risk of hurting the feelings of some, even many Jews should take precedence over the constant humiliation and violent attacks on Palestinians living under Occupation. As rabbis, we are sensitive to the feelings of those Jews who oppose divestment. But we cannot ignore the daily suffering of Palestinians and the shockingly routine loss of Palestinian life living under Occupation. Withdrawing financial support for tools of war is a compelling moral imperative.

We believe it is unseemly for Jews – or any observer –  to try to steer you away from aligning the church’s investments with your own ethical commitments as judged by you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” teaches us to give the Presbyterians the same respect that we expect for ourselves: freedom to follow our consciences without being told this will cost us our friendships.

Jews will continue to debate with each other how to best to support peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Let us allow the Presbyterian General Assembly the same freedom to choose how to align the church’s investments with its ethical commitments.

In Friendship,

Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbinical Student Leora Abelsom
Rabbinical Student Ariana Katz
Rabbinical Student David Basior
Rabbinical Student Jessica Rosenberg

(list in formation)

“Love Thy Palestinian Neighbor:” A Bar Mitzvah Dvar Torah by Elijah David Gold

The following post is a D’var Torah (Torah lesson/commentary) that was written and recently delivered by thirteen year old Elijah David Gold for his Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca, NY (where JVP Rabbinical Council member Brian Walt serves as rabbi).

In his address to his community, Elijah powerfully applied the Torah’s teaching to love one’s neighbor as oneself to the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinian children in the West Bank.

Thank you for coming to my Bar Mitzvah.

My Torah portion is K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1- 20:27. It is a very important Torah portion because it gives us guidelines for how to treat others. I would like dedicate my D’var Torah to the memory of Wolf Karo. Our congregation participates in the Remember Us project. The Remember Us project has Bar or Bat Mitzvah children lift up the spirit of a child who died during the Holocaust before they had a chance to become Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.

Wolf Karo, who I am lifting up today was relative of mine from Babiak, Poland, where my great Grandma Anne was born. My mother and I requested a child from Babiak or with the last name Caro. It turns out that Wolf Karo’s name had been submitted by my great Grandmother’s cousin in Pennsylvania who has the same name as Wolf Karo.

We tried to do research about Wolf Karo’s life, but we were unable to find out much. His Hebrew name was Zev. His father’s name was Chiel-Maier And his mother’s name was Ester and he was born around 1922. We don’t know how or when Wolf Karo died, but we believe it was likely in the Chelmo Concentration Camp because the first transports to Chelmo came from neighboring Babiak and Chelmo was the first camp where the Nazis used poisonous gas for extermination. At the end of the service I will say Kaddish for Wolf Caro.

K’doshim is a Torah portion of God’s laws and commandments as told by Moses to the Israelites. It includes the Holiness Code and prescribed punishments for sex offenses which includes a prohibition on gay sex. The Tikkun v’Or community strongly disagrees with this and openly welcomes everyone. In Judaism, laws are meant for everyone to understand the reason and significance of the  law. For this purpose, the famous Jewish legal scholar who was also a mystic, Joseph Karo, who I and Wolf Karo are direct descendants of, wrote the Shulchan Aruch, or “Set Table,” so that Jewish law would be laid out for the Jewish people “like a set table ready for eating”.

The Holiness Code includes the Ten Commandments, stated again, but in a different order. The Holiness Code involves a number of different subjects including, how to farm and eat, how to be a person of integrity, how to relate to others in your personal and work life, some laws of Jewish religious practice, and obligations to work for social justice.

For farming and eating, The Holiness Code says that when we plant fruit trees, we should let them mature for five years before eating them. It also says not to eat anything with it’s blood. The Holiness Code tells us that we should not sow two kinds of seeds

In terms of being a person of integrity, the Holiness Code tells us to be kind to and feed the less fortunate. This relates to my Mitzvah Project because for my Mitzvah Project every other week I would go to Loaves and Fishes which is a place where anybody can go to get a free meal. I would play guitar for fifteen to thirty minutes for others’ entertainment.

The Holiness Code says to respect God. It says to love your neighbor as yourself. It tells us not to place a stumbling block before the blind and not to insult the deaf in front of them. It tells us not to steal. It says not to degrade your daughter and make her a whore. The Holiness Code says to love the stranger as yourself.

For relating to others in your personal and work life, the Holiness Code says to not cheat or rob, It says not to hate your relatives or hold grudges, It says not to hate your relatives or hold grudges, It says not be selfish or unethical. To not be unbiased and be fair. To have good labor practices, And to revere our parents.

For religious practice and to set ourselves apart as Jews, the Holiness Code tells us that we must keep the Sabbath and not worship false idols. It says men are not to shave the hair at the corner of their heads. It says not to permanently mark yourself, and to observe God’s laws.

The Holiness Code also includes rules about sacrificing animals. It says not to let your cattle mate with another kind, not to make clothing out of two type of cloth, not  to turn to ghosts or spirits and includes rules about having relations with someone else’s slave.

After the Holiness Code, K’doshim includes a large section outlining punishments for sex offenses, as I mentioned before.

I am going to talk about three parts of the Holiness Code that stood out for me. The first is “You shall not eat anything with its blood too.” In kosher law this commandment is interpreted as you must drain the blood of an animal before you eat it. I think this is a very bland interpretation of the commandment. Cornell professor Sherry Colb,  who read the Torah for us today, points out that when a commandment is repeated three or more times in the Torah it has a deeper meaning than just the words of the commandment. Sherry thinks that kosher laws are interpreted too simply and instead of just not mixing milk and meat we should not eat animals and dairy because it is cruel and unnecessary.

Rav Simcha Zissel who is best known as the founder and director of the Kelm Talmud Torah. says that the prohibition of eating blood is because the blood is the soul of the animal, and we shouldn’t eat another soul, whereas plants don’t have a soul. Rav Simcha Zissel also says that this is why the Torah mentions the concept of “doing what is correct and good” in connection with the prohibition of eating blood. When the Torah tells us not to eat blood, it is telling us to respect life, even animal life. I think the main way to respect life is to not take from it or kill it.

The next two parts of the holiness code that I am going to talk about are “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love the stranger” Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, of Congregation Beth Israel in the North Berkshires, says that “love your neighbor” is God’s mitzvah. She says that according to a Hasidic teaching, God created humans because God needed a partner or “neighbor” to be in a relationship with because God couldn’t be whole without without extending love to another. Because we are called to be like God, we are supposed to extend love to “others” too.

There is the famous story of where a convert asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said, “what is hateful to you, don’t do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary”. Second century rabbinic sage, Ben-Azzai disagreed that loving your neighbor is the greatest requirement of the Torah. He said that the teaching “God created human beings, making them in the likeness of God” is a more important principle. Ben-Azzai thought that people should not be able to use their likes and dislikes, or if they understand others, as a guideline for how to treat others because we are all created in God’s image.

I believe “love your neighbor” should include all human beings, not just Jews. But even if you do not agree with that, K’doshim also includes the requirement to love the stranger. It says:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Certainly in this case, it is clear that we are to treat all human beings with dignity, equality, and respect. For this reason, for my D’var Torah I decided to learn more about how Palestinians, and especially Palestinian children, are treated in the state of Israel. To do this I watched the documentary “5 Broken Cameras” that takes place in the West Bank. I read testimonies of detained Palestinian children in +972 Magazine, I read testimonies of Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories in “Breaking the Silence,” I read parts of the book, “Stolen Youth,” published by Defense of Children International – Palestine, and I read a report on the psychological effects of child detention that my mother helped prepare for the human rights organization, Friends of Sabeel – North America.

If the Torah says that you are to love your neighbor and love the stranger as yourself, it seems that Israel is in serious violation of this. Palestinians in the West Bank only get 20 percent of the water that Israelis get. As I learned about Palestinians living in the West and Gaza Strip, what affected me the most was the children.

The Israeli military targets children for arrest and detention in order to uproot Palestinian communities. Around 200 Palestinian children are arrested per month. They are tried in the only juvenile military court in the world. The most common charge is rock throwing. They are between the age of twelve and seventeen. This includes what is my Bar Mitzvah age.

During their arrests 90% are blindfolded, 75% undergo physical violence, and 60% are placed in solitary confinement. They are not given lawyers or allowed to see their parents. They are verbally abused and forced to sign confessions in a language they don’t know with the false promise of being allowed to see their parents if they will sign. After they are released, they do not go back to being the children they previously were. They suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they have nightmares, trouble sleeping, anxiety, behavior problems, scared to leave their houses, and many other problems.

Last fall my mother traveled to the West Bank and spent time in the village of Bil’in where “5 Broken Cameras” was made. She became friends with the filmmaker’s brother. She recently learned that his daughter, Mayar, who is my sister’s age, has not been able to sleep because she has nightmares from when the soldiers have come into her home with tear gas in the middle of the night. Most children are arrested during the middle of the night and more than once in their childhood. As you can see, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not treated like human beings should be treated; certainly not like neighbors or like their Israeli counterparts whose children are are tried in civil, rather than military, courts.

In my Torah portion, God commands us to help our fellow Israelites return to good if they are committing sinful acts. In fact, it is a sin not to help. Maimonides and Nachmanidies who were famous for their work on Jewish law say that the commandment is about collective responsibility and we are not only responsible for ourselves but also the behavior of others.

If you see someone committing a sin, or going down a wrong path, you are commanded to try to make him go back to a path of good. Nachmanides says “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor”. As I have now become a Bar Mitzvah, I  have moral and ethical responsibilities and I am required to fulfill mitzvot. I am responsible for my own actions and the actions of my community. As long as the State of Israel is committing crimes, it is a sin for me to stand idly by and not help my fellow Israelites return to a path of goodness. That is why I will be donating some of my Bar Mitzvah money to the organization, Defense of Children international – Palestine.

Now for the thank yous, I would like to thank my mom for helping me with all of my D’var Torah and supporting me. Thank you to my dad for taking me to Loaves and Fishes and supporting me. Thank you to Isabella for being a loving sister. Thank you Cantor Abby and my Hebrew school teachers for helping me get ready for my Bar Mitzvah. Thank you to my Grandparents and great Grandparents for loving me. Thank you to all of my Torah readers for helping me out.

“Anti-Semitism” vs. Palestinian Solidarity

by Cantor Michael Davis

Israel has withdrawn once again from peace talks with the Palestinians. Where, then, are we supposed to put our hopes for a peaceful and just resolution in Israel-Palestine? I have chosen to embrace the Palestinian call for boycott campaigns against Israel. Until Israel grants its Palestinian citizens rights equal to those of its Jewish citizens, addresses the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian refugees and, most urgently, ends the Occupation of the West Bank, this is our best option. A broad coalition of Palestinian civil society has called for our support of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Supporting campaigns against Israeli companies, institutions and people who are complicit in the Occupation and discrimination against Palestinians is a way to affirm our commitment to justice and equality.

My position shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all, my fellow Jewish leaders. As Jews, we’re called to heed the oppressed and to remember, as the Bible and our prayerbooks reiterate time and time again, the moral imperative that “we were once slaves in Egypt.”

As a Jew whose grandparents died in the Holocaust, I find the rhetoric of the Israeli government and certain American organizations trying to taint BDS with charges of anti-Semitism laughable. According to their spokespeople, to stand for equality in Israel-Palestine is to hate Jews. Recently, state legislatures have been considering bills opposing BDS and tarring its supporters as anti-Semitism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The leaders of the BDS movement speak with a commitment to fairness and human dignity that stirs my own sense of justice. I believe their position, if voiced in any other context, would resonate deeply with Jews worldwide. It is an honorable call. Palestinian proponents of BDS have repeatedly distanced themselves from all racism including anti-Semitism. They have spoken clearly and consistently on the subject. They hold themselves to the high standards we should expect from social justice activists; and if they didn’t, we would demand it of them. Still, the charge of anti-Semitism is in the air, even though no evidence is provided. The reason for that is simple: no evidence exists. The goal of those who throw around words like “anti-Semitism” is to silence Palestinians and those who support their call for justice.

There is real anti-Semitism in the world, so let’s not throw the phrase around carelessly. I know. My grandparents were killed by the Nazis. I am named after their young son — my Uncle Michael — who was murdered alongside his mother, my Grandmother Rosa at the Birkenau death machine in Auschwitz. As a child in England, my synagogue was once attacked as we stood in prayer. The sanctity of our silent prayers that Saturday night was shattered by stones cracking the windows. So my response to those who would smear supporters of BDS with the anti-Semitism charge is: show your evidence or withdraw the charge.

BDS is the best hope for a desperately needed change in Israel’s policies towards its Palestinian population. It is an appropriate non-violent civil response to systemic abuse. Last week, on the West Bank, a 6 year-old Palestinian boy was detained by a squad of Israeli soldiers in full combat gear on his way to school. The Israeli authorities routinely demolishes Palestinian homes simply because they were built by Palestinians, including within Israel. At the same time, the State of Israel continues to build illegal settlements on Palestinian land. These are real and ongoing abuses. We — Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all people of the world — must respond. Raising the specter of “anti-Semitism” does nothing to advance the cause of peace for Israel and Palestine.

Hanuka: Dedicated to Resisting Militarism Through Peace Education

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

As we approach Hanuka, the Festival of Lights, we can either promote the rabbinic message of Hanuka as dedication to spiritual illumination and peace education  OR emphasize Maccabean militarism as necessary to achieving victory over opponents. Many in the Jewish community will try to promote both, but that is impossible. Our tradition warns us: either choose the way of the book or choose the way of the sword. If we choose the sword, we can no longer be faithful to traditional nonviolent values associated with the book.

The rabbinic tradition largely supports nonviolence: “Not by military might and not by force of arms, by My spirit.” This is the prophetic verse chosen by the sages to illuminate Hanuka! Today, many Jewish people believe military strength is the way to achieve lasting security. While all states have had legitimate security needs, militarization and military occupation were traditionally regarded as evil. Yes, evil. The prophets continually denounced militarism. The sages believed that even lifting one hand to threaten another is ‘rasha‘, that is, violent, unjust and a sin. “Once the arrow is released from its bow, not even the mightiest warrior can bring it back.” Militarism has a life of its own which breeds corruption, systemic violence and the degradation of humanistic values. Militarism is not Jewish.

I find it ironic, given current Jewish loyalty to Israeli militarism by mainstream Jewish institutions, that Hanuka’s traditional emphasis on active nonviolence arose during Roman Occupation. The rabbinic sages framed the holy day as a reminder that our spiritual power comes from remaining steadfast to compassion and good deeds. We are told to think of ourselves as cohainim, spiritual educators. We don the cohenet mantle and light a menorah in the window at sunset, as people return from the market place, in order to create a public witness to our faithfulness to upholding human dignity and love. This is the true source of human strength.

Hanuka also means education. Light symbolizes Jewish dedication to rekindling the altar of peace education! Great is peace, was the message of the sages. This meant refusing to cooperate with Roman militarism. The sages initiated a boycott which forbade the buying and selling of military equipment to either Romans or Jews.  Jewish rabbinic law forbid Jews to derive pleasure or benefit from any products that promote systemic violence. Yes, BDS has Jewish roots in rabbinic tradition. So, how do we increase light today? By supporting resistance to Israeli state militarism through peace education as well as noncooperation with militarism through BDS.

If you use olive oil to light your menorah, please listen to Iyad Burnat in the video above and remember that the olive tree has been tended by Palestinians in the holy land for millennium, and, thus, traditional knowledge about the olive tree has been largely kept by the Palestinian community to this very day. A collective tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. The Annexation Wall, which, when completed by 2020, will be twice the distance of the Green Line in the West Bank. As for security: 85% of the Annexation Wall is NOT on the Green Line. 

The true miracle of Hanuka today is giving public witness to the absolute necessity of putting militarism aside and rededicating our commitment to human dignity as a force more powerful for achieving security and peace.  And lest we forget, the children of Gaza are dying. I have learned from many young Gazans that they regard education as their main form of nonviolent resistance to Occupation. Education gives them hope. The message of nonviolent resistance is alive and well among Palestinians. Israelis would benefit from listening and responding to the traditional messages of Hanuka instead of promoting the Maccabees on steroids.