A Wholehearted Endorsement by The Argentum Post of ” I Am Jewish and I Want People to Boycott Israel” by Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of JVP2
June 26, 2016 by Alfred
This writer of the Argentum Post fully endorses the magnificent work the organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) does in support of the peaceful conflict resolution with justice for Palestinians, in the conflict which was generated by the reckless and violent implantation of Israel in Palestine.
As a son of parents who survived the Nazi crimes against the humanity of Jews and others, as well as one who guides himself along secular humanist values, I fully relate to, endorse, and hereby help divulge the message of the JVP’s executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson in her article which was published in The Washington Post on June 24, 2016 which is titled ” I Am Jewish and I Want People to Boycott Israel “.
I also highly commend JVP for their enormous educational, and thereby awareness heightening, campaigns to bring to the psyche of the American people the full historical reality of how Israel is on a daily basis has been violating the most fundamental rights of the autochthonous people of Palestine and thereby helps in forcing the mainstream media to finally begin to end its shameful silence on this subject rendered tabu by a small band of politically and financially powerful individuals and organizations of undue influence in our Citizen’s United v. FEC badly corroded democracy.
I furthermore point out that Israel’s extremist right-wing power structure is now embarking on the wrongful path of blacklisting, intimidating, and censoring the democratic rights of free expression of its citizens by insidious legislative means which reflect an inchoate state of ethical and political decadence which cannot sustainably be maintained and which damages Judaism world-wide and perversely damages the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
I additionally highly recommend a reading of the latest issue of article titled “Uncritical Support for Israel Threatens Both Jewish Values and Prospects for Middle East Peace“.
This article’s author is Allan C. Brownfield and is published by the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) whose director is Stephen Naman.
As of this writing, this particular article is apparently not yet available in its digitalized version on the net.
Both JVP and ACJ are to be highly commended for their excellent, principled, courageous stand in support of the most humanist, universalist values exposed by an inherent in the foundations of Judaism.
On the subject of the “universalist” dimension of Judaism articles, this writer further highly commends and recommends the reading of the book by Rabbi Everett Gendler, titled “Judaism for Universalists“.
The supra noted report by ACJ comprises a report on this magnificent Rabbi Gendler’s book which is titled “Voice of Jewish Universalism Shares His Views on the Moral Challenges Which Confront Us”. Both will probably become available on the Internet and as soon as that happens, the Argentum Post will link to said highly informative and revealing articles which are antithetical to the misleading sound bytes and outright lies broadcast by the likes of Israel’s PM Netanyahu and its propaganda office AIPAC.
If the aspiring candidate for the presidential election, Hillary Clinton, does not undertake a most thorough revision of her revulsion-inducing deference to the present right-wing obscurantist, fundamentalist, racist, and international law violating regime of Benjamin Netanyahu and of its misleading and damaging lobby AIPAC, she will definitely not qualify to become our President on the basis that her willful ignorance of historical reality (a) is contrary to the best national security interests of our nation, and (b) she will in reality reveal that she is not only not a “friend of Israel” (as she likes to characterize herself) since her stance will be in opposition to the most genuine interests of all well-meaning and humanist Jews in Israel proper and globally. With friends such as these, Israel needs no enemies, as the legendary Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has stated in his myth debunking book “Punishing Gaza”.
So, with this foreword this writer provides hereby (1) the link to the excellent article titled ” I Am Jewish and Want People to Boycott Israel ” by JVP’s Executive Director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, which was published in The Washington Post on June 24, 2016 and (2) provides infra a copy of the highly informative article “Uncritical Support Threatens Both Jewish Values and Prospects for Middle East Peace” by Allan C. Brownfield, who is the editor of Issues of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ).
ISSUES OF THE AMERICAN COUNCIL FOR JUDAISM • SPRING-SUMMER 2016
Recent developments in Israel show a deterioration in that country’s democracy, an end to the peace process as settlements continue to grow in the occupied West Bank, and a growth of Jewish religious extremism. In the face of all this, establishment Jewish organizations in the U.S. continue to provide uncritical support. Many observers, both in Israel and the U.S., believe that such support enables these negative trends to continue and represents a threat to both Jewish values and to prospects for peace in the Middle East.
Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University, who is also a member of Ta’ayush: Arab-Jewish Partnership, a human rights advocacy group, notes that, “Israeli human rights activists .and what is left of the Israeli peace groups, including joint Israeli-Palestinian peace organizations, are under attack. In a sense, this is nothing very new; organizations such as B’Tselem, the most prominent and effective in the area of human rights and Breaking the Silence, which specializes in soldiers’ firsthand testimony about what they have seen and done in the occupied territories and in Gaza, have always been anathema to the Israeli right, which regards them as treasonous. But open attacks on the Israeli left have now assumed a far more sinister and ruthless character; some of them are being played out in the interrogation rooms of Israeli prisons. Clearly, there is an ongoing coordinated campaign Uncritical Support for Israel Threatens Both Jewish Values and Prospects for Middle East Peace By Allan C. Brownfeldinvolving the government, members of the Knesset, the police, various semiautonomous right-wing groups and the public media. Politically driven harassment, including violent and illegal arrest, interrogation, denial of legal support, virulent incitement, smear campaigns, even death threats issued by proxy — all this has become part of the repertoire of the far right, which dominates the present government and sets the tone for its policies.”
Dr. Shulman, who received the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in February, argues that what he calls “state terror,” with which Palestinians in the occupied territories have lived for decades, has now become a part of the texture of life in Israel itself. He notes that, “Israelis with a memory going back to the 1960s sometimes liken the current campaign to the violent actions of the extreme right in Greece before the colonels took power … Israeli peace activists have graduated from being protestors, in theory at least, protected by the law, to being dissidents — that is, legitimate targets for government-inspired attacks. … Sometimes, on a good day, I think that the very starkness and horror of the occupation will eventually bring it to an end. Both in Hebrew and, I think, outside of Israel, throughout the world, the term ‘occupation’ has by now acquired something of the specific gravity of the word ‘apartheid’ in the days before the South African system collapsed … Michael Asgard, the human rights lawyer, recently published a humane and hopeful statement: one day, he said, the occupation will crumble, probably all at once. Asgard is not alone.”
Challenging Free Speech and Dissent
The efforts to challenge free speech and dissent in Israel are growing. One target are so-called “leftist non-government organizations” (NGOs). They are the object of legislation now making its way through the Knesset at the behest of the right-wing minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked. Like many right-wing NGOs, liberal groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem receive funding from donors in both Israel and abroad. The new law aims at forcing liberal and human rights groups to disclose all foreign sources of support every time they appear in a public setting. Initially, Shaked wanted Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and Editor of Issues. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. 2 representatives of such groups to wear identity badges whenever they entered the Knesset or other public spaces. Seeing the analogy to the badges the Nazis forced Jews to wear in public, Prime Minister Netanyahu quietly eliminated this clause.
The legislation, known as the “NGO Transparency Bill,” calls for NGOs receiving over half their support from foreign governments or “foreign political entities” (such as the EU) would be required to cite this clearly in all publications and contacts with public officials. At the same time, the Netanyahu government defeated an Opposition bill that would have applied the same criteria to right-wing and settler groups who receive much of their funding from private foreign donors such as Sheldon Adelson, but not governmental entities.
In an editorial titled “A danger to Israeli democracy,” The Washington Post (Jan. 2, 2016) declared: “Israel, surrounded not only by threats to its existence but also by governments and movements that practice tyranny, is a stubbornly free society. While its democracy is imperfect and rowdy, the bedrock commitment has remained … That commitment is precisely why Israel’s parliament should reject proposed legislation that would stigmatize nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from overseas. The proposal reflects the kind of tactic that Russia and China have employed to squelch dissent, and it is not in keeping with Israel’s core values as a democratic state.”
Delegitimizing Progressive Groups
While advocates of the legislation in Israel argue that it provides more “transparency,” the fact is, declares The Post, “… the legislation is aimed at delegitimizing progressive groups in Israel that have long been advocates for human rights and opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as Peace Now, B’Tselem, New Israel Fund and others … The law would force them to carry an unpleasant label suggesting that they are somehow at odds with Israel’s interests. Millions of dollars are also being sent to Israel to support right-wing causes such as settlement activity, but it comes largely from individual donors, not governments … Israel’s nongovernmental organizations are already required, under an earlier law, to file disclosure reports of their funding, so the only effect of the new requirement would be to force them to wear a public badge in a way that is odious … It is not always easy to tolerate or defend groups that criticize the state or those in power, but allowing them to function normally is an important test of democracy, and, ultimately, the mark of an open and free society.”
Critics note that Israel’s proposed legislation mirrors that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made NGO groups register as “foreign agents,” as if they were enemies of the state. In China, the new restrictions on NGOs will forbid support from abroad and give oversight to the security apparatus. In both cases, dissent is being silenced. This is precisely the policy advocated by Israel’s right-wing.
The militant right-wing group Im Tirtzu, which has been publicly embraced by Prime Minister Netanyahu, branded Israel’s human rights groups “foreign agent organizations.” In a recent report, Im Tirtzu describes how, like a fifth column, these groups take European funding in order to operate “from within Israel against Israeli society, IDF soldiers, and the state’s ability to defend itself.” In an accompanying video showing a simulated terrorist knife attack followed by grainy images of four human-rights activists, a narrator tells viewers that “while we fight terror” these “moles” of European governments “fight us.” Im Tirtzu has also launched a campaign attacking artists. It refers to two of Israel’s best known (and liberal) authors, Amos Oz and David Grossman, as “foreign agents” and “moles.” The organization calls on Israelis to support a bill that would outlaw twenty progressive groups. Inspired by this call, seventeen members of the Knesset are sponsoring a bill that allows for the dissolution of NGOs engaging in “activity hostile to the State” and forbids employees of “mole organizations” from serving in the military due to their apparently suspect patriotism. The Netanyahu government proposal does not go as far as Im Tirtzu’s legislation — but it moves in precisely that direction.
Daniel Sokatch, head of the New Israel Fund, a U.S. organization that donates around $25 million a year to about 100 progressive and civil rights organizations in Israel, called the bill “an ugly anti-democratic piece of legislation that does not provide any more transparency than already exists.” The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, met with Justice Minister Shaked to express American “concerns” about her legislation and suggested that the bill could undercut Israel’s standing as a thriving democracy.
The irony is that Justice Minister Shaked and Prime Minister Netanyahu welcome foreign funds to influence Israeli policy and opinion, as long as those funds go to the right wing. In a series of investigative reports for Haaretz, Uri Blau shows how American donors gave settlements in the West Bank more than $220 million over the past five years — donations that went through tax-exempt American nonprofit organizations. Despite the longstanding U.S. Government view that settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace, at least 50 organizations in the U.S. are involved in raising money for settlements.
Blau found that American donations fund everything from air conditioning for settlers to payments to the families of convicted Jewish terrorists. Among 3 the recipients of tax exempt American donations is Honenu, a right-wing legal aid group that has provided stipends to Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The yeshiva whose rabbis wrote “The King’s Torah,” which states, among other things, that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” only applies to killing other Jews, also benefits from tax deductible contributions from the U.S. Israel’s leading newspaper, a right-wing paper given away free, is funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Naomi Paiss, Vice President for public affairs at the New Israel Fund, notes that, “The current governing coalition, the most hard line in Israel’s history, has made it clear that it will do everything possible to stifle dissent … The treatment of organizations with unpopular missions and activities is the canary in the coal mine of democracy. We who defend Israel as a liberal democracy must make clear to our counterparts in Jerusalem that we see through the hypocrisy and double-dealing and take a stand for an honest, free and democratic Israel.”
The assault on human rights organizations and other progressive NGOs is only one example of Israel’s retreat from democracy. Prime Minister Netanyahu is supporting legislation which provides for the expulsion of a member of the Knesset if that member expresses opposition to Israel’s existence as a “Jewish and democratic state,” supports armed struggle against Israel or incites racism. Two of the actions, incitement to racism and support for terror, already constitute a criminal offense. Dr. Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, points out that, “The third ground, opposition to a Jewish and democratic state is extremely vague — and could theoretically be invoked to disqualify religious MKs advocating a state based on halacha (not democratic) or secular MKs advocating the separation of religion and state (allegedly not Jewish). In practical terms, however, the main trigger for the legislation and virtually the only situation in which it might be used would be against Arab Knesset members allegedly expressing support for terror — a criminal offense … This damaging Israeli proposal will only intensify political witch-hunting and widen the Jewish-Arab divide … It will further erode Israeli democracy, undermining the crucial defense of its minorities and their untrammeled representation in the Knesset.”
Israeli peace activist and former member of the Knesset Uri Avnery laments the growing assaults on free speech and democracy. He writes that, “Benjamin Netanyahu is totally absorbed in enacting a new law that would be a watershed in the history of Israel. This law will enable 90 of the 120 Knesset members to evict any or all of the members from the Knesset altogether. The grounds for such a decision are nebulous: supporting ‘terrorism’ — by speech as well as by deed, denying the Jewish character of the state, and such. Who decides? The majority, of course. The immediate impetus for proposing this bill was provided by the three Arab Knesset members who visited the parents of Arab ‘terrorists’ in annexed East Jerusalem. They had a good pretext — to help them obtain the bodies of their sons, who had been shot dead on the spot. But the obvious reason was to pay their respects.”
Immune from Prosecution
Avnery points out that, “By law Knesset members are immune from prosecution for any act committed in the line of their duties. For Knesset members to visit their voters in such circumstances may be such an act. Therefore, a new law is necessary. … Netanyahu was brought up in the U.S. He most surely has been taught there that democracy does not mean only the rule of the majority. Adolf Hitler was probably supported by the majority. Democracy means that the majority respects the rights of minorities, including the right of free speech. The right of free speech does not mean the right to express popular views … Free speech means the right to utter views that are detested by almost everyone … Everyone understands that the right of 90 to evict 30 is a threat to evict Arabs from the Knesset … This is not a law against ‘terrorist’ sympathizers. It is a law against the Arab minority. The Knesset will be Jewish, pure and simple. It will be a Jewish state without being democratic.”
Even without such legislation, in Avnery’s view, “Israel is one of the least democratic countries in the world to which Israel wants to belong. In the West Bank, which is governed by Israel, there live about 2.5 million people who are denied any civil and human rights. We believed for a time that Israel could remain ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ while holding large occupied territories. The Arab citizens of Israel proper constitute some 20% of the population. These were the remnants of a large majority, most of whom had fled or were evicted. No country ever profited by throwing out its minorities. Nazi Germany threw out its Jewish scientists, some of whom went to the U.S. and built the atomic bomb for America. Long before that, the Catholic kings of France threw out the Protestant Huegenots, who emigrated to Prussia and turned a small garrison town named Berlin into a world center of industry and culture. If two thousand years have not taught us anything, when will we ever learn?”
Those in Israel who are committed to democracy are concerned about current trends. The Jerusalem Report (Feb. 8, 2016), in an article headlined “Democracy Under Threat,” declares that, “After less than a year of the most right-wing administration in the country’s history, Israel’s robust democracy 4 finds itself under severe pressure. Over the past several months, government ministers have made a succession of illiberal moves widely perceived as antithetical to democratic freedoms and principles. These include proposed legislation to silence and delegitimize critics, recurrent incitement against the Israeli-Arab minority, more nationalistic and less universal content in the school curriculum, artistic censorship by threatening to withhold funds from state-financed theaters, greater government control over the media and toying with new forms of religious coercion.”
Extremist Hilltop Settler Youth
In the occupied West Bank, argues The Jerusalem Report, these challenges “… exist in heightened fashion. In the most obvious case, hilltop settler youth, with an anti-democratic Kingdom of Judea ideology (aimed at replacing Israel with a non-democratic Halakha-based Jewish kingdom), carry out potentially lethal attacks on anything not Jewish. Far more dangerous to Israel’s democracy, however, is the way the mainstream settler movement, which elevates the Jewish at the expense of the democratic, has no compunction about maintaining an indefinite coercive occupation, has infiltrated the corridors of power
Examples of anti-democratic and racist extremism are growing. One Knesset member, Bezalel Smotrich, has said that the burning to death of three members of the Palestinian Dawabsheh family last July by a settler youth or youths was not terrorism, since, in his view, Jews by definition cannot perpetrate acts of terror. He described the killers as “well-intentioned youngsters gone astray.” In a recent Knesset speech, Smotrich declared, “We will annex the West Bank, whether you like it or not.” In March, Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef delivered a sermon in which he argued that Jewish law directs the state to expel all non-Jews from Israel. He adds some qualifiers: if they accept the Noahide laws, they may remain because they will be useful as servants to Jews. He suggested that Saudi Arabia would be a good place to send Palestinians and declared, “According to Halacha it’s forbidden for goyim to live … in Israel … A foreigner residing here who accepts the seven Noahide Laws may live here … They will serve us. That’s why we permit them to remain in the land. The previous chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef (Yitzhak Yosef’s father) ruled that Palestinianx were “donkeys” meant to serve Jews.
In December, the Education Ministry banned Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” for teaching in high schools because it tells a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. The ministry stated that, “Large segments of society see such relations as a threat to their separate identities.” The ministry is also revising its civics textbook to prioritize “Jewish dimensions,” which critics say will be at the expense of democratic values. The right-wing Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, summed up his approach: “The education system should not promote values contrary to those of the state.” Culture Minister Miri Regev has threatened to withhold funding for the Israeli Arab Al-Midan theater because it staged a play based on letters by a jailed terrorist and from an Arab children’s theater in Jaffa because it’s director, Norman Issa, refused to perform in the occupied territories. Control over the Media Another issue for Israeli democracy is the manner in which Prime Minister Netanyahu is extending his control over the media. He is not only prime minister but minister of communications, responsible for changes in public broadcasting. The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), with its institutional culture of free criticism, is to be replaced by a new body, funded directly by the government and not an independent license fee. As part of this reform, a new TV channel, Channel 20, has emerged with a strong right-wing, religious-settler bias. When Israeli President Reuven Rivlin appeared at a conference also attended by Breaking the Silence, Channel 20, on its Facebook page, accused him of “spitting in the face of IDF soldiers.”
According to The Jerusalem Report, “Perhaps the biggest threat to Israeli democracy in the longer term is the close pact he (Netanyahu) has forged with the national religious settler movement … What that amounts to is an unshakeable core policy of perpetuating the occupation … The costs for Israel could be high: the emergence of an illiberal and intolerant Israel could lead to the loss of many of the best and brightest to more democratic pastures; it could also lead to the loss of international legitimacy and support …”
The Israeli public appears to be supportive of the moves away from democracy initiated by the Netanyahu government, and racist attitudes appear to be growing. Almost half of Israeli Jews are in favor of transferring or expelling the state’s Arab population, according to the Pew Research Center’s report in March. At the same time, 45% of Israeli Jews say that a Palestinian state cannot exist alongside Israel. Tamar Herrmann, a professor at the Open University of Israel, who advised on the study, said that Israelis understand the “transfer” of Arabs as applying to Arab citizens of Israel. The word “transfer” in this context means “forceful expulsion,” she said, “putting them on trucks and sending them away” across the Jordan River to Jordan.
Support for Expulsion
Alan Cooperman, the Pew study’s lead author, says that support for expulsion comports with other data points in the survey such as the fact that four out of five Israeli Jews say Israel should 5 give preferential treatment to Jews. The survey also found that 60% of Israeli Jews believe God gave the land to them, and that majorities of religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox feel that Jewish law should be the law of the state.
The growth of racism in Israel was highlighted in a report in the London Daily Mail (March 17, 2016) about the group Lehava, which is engaged in a battle against religious intermarriage and interfaith relationships of any kind. The article’s headline reads: “‘Dial one if you know a Jew dating an Arab,’ shocking Israeli campaign group set up ‘hot line’ to inform on ‘traitors diluting the Jewish race’ — and to split up model Bar Rafaeli and Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Lehava, the Daily Mail reports, “… believes relationships between a Jew and a non-Jew is a Biblical sin. Racist extremists who set up a ‘hotline’ to inform on Jews in a relationship with ‘Arabs’ and who targeted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are openly peddling hate and violence — but the Israeli government won’t act. Lehava hunts down people sleeping with ‘goys’ — or non-Jews — then ‘persuades them to separate, attacks Christians as ‘vampires’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ and is justifying attacks on churches … It accused supermodel Bar Rafaeli of ‘diluting the Jewish race’ if she did not split up with Leonardo DiCaprio.”
“Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land”
Despite being under investigation for four years, Lehava and its followers operate in the central square of Jerusalem where they openly incite violence every Thursday night. Its leader, Benzi Gopstein, boasted to The Daily Mail that he receives ten calls a day from Jewish people informing on friends dating non-Jews. Founded in 2009, Lehava means “the flame” and is also an acronym in Hebrew for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land.” The group has also launched campaigns against renting apartments to Arabs or hiring them in the workplace.
A report by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, states that Lehava “advocates hatred of Arabs in Israel and is based on racially-oriented and alarmist incitement.” Benzi Gopstein, a follower of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane since the age of 14, now leads a group similar to that of Kahane. While Kahane’s Kach Party was made illegal because of its racism, Lehava, in the different environment prevailing in Israel today, is free to pursue its goals. Occasionally, it goes too far. In 2014, three Lehava members were arrested for setting fire to a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem and spray painting, “There is no coexistence with cancer,” “Death to Arabs,” and “Kahane was right.”
In January, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that Israel’s fast-moving expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands “raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions” and commitment to a two-state solution.” Mr. Shapiro also said that, “Too many attacks on Palestinians lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities, too much vigilantism goes unchecked, and at times there seems to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians.”
Ambassador Is Bitterly Attacked
Ambassador Shapiro was bitterly attacked both by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who called his statement “unacceptable and incorrect,” and his former aide, Aviv Bushinsky, who said on television that, “To put it bluntly, it was a statement typical of of a little Jew boy.” Shapiro is an Orthodox Jew who speaks Hebrew and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Editorially, The New York Times (Jan. 22, 2016) declared: “The criticism of Mr. Shapiro, a vigorous advocate for Israel, was unusually personal and unfair. He correctly identified a serious problem. Since 1967, there has been a dual legal system in the West Bank in which Palestinians are subject to military courts, where, experts say, they are almost always convicted. Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian judicial system, with its greater rights and protections. Israel is moving quickly to establish facts on the ground that preclude a Palestinian state, leaving Palestinians increasingly marginalized and despairing.”
In Israel, many prominent voices are increasingly critical of the government’s policies. The respected author Amos Oz says that he will no longer participate in official events sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He calls the Netanyahu government “the most militant, right-wing government Israel has ever had.” He referred to the “Hilltop youth,” Jewish settlers who commit attacks on Palestinians and Christian and Muslim places of worship in the occupied territories, as “Hebrew neo-Nazis … They’re not Nazis, but they have a great deal in common with neo-Nazi hooligans all over the world: desecrating churches and mosques, synagogues and cemeteries, violently attacking foreigners; filled with hatred and xenophobia; aspiring for some despotic central regime to replace what they regard as anarchy. These are the syndromes of neo-Nazism.”
Blind Eye to Anti-democratic and Racist Trends
The organized American Jewish community has largely turned a blind eye to these anti-democratic and racist trends in Israel and continued to provide unquestioning support to the Israeli government. Israelis who seek to maintain a democratic society and continue to work for the establishment of a two-state solution have noticed. Writing in Haaretz, columnist Chemi Shalev decries “the deafening silence of 6 most American Jews in response to the waves of chauvinistic anti-democratic legislation and incitement in which Israel is increasingly drowning.”
Israeli commentators noted that when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, some delegates objected and walked out in protest of comments Trump had made about Muslims, Mexicans and others. At the same time, AIPAC continues to welcome and embrace Benjamin Netanyahu. In an article with the headline, “Protesting bigots and demagogues at AIPAC? Don’t stop at Trump. Call out Netanyahu too,” (Haaretz, March 20, 2016), columnist Roy Isacowitz writes: “Many American Jews are angered at the prospect of Donald Trump addressing the AIPAC conference … which would make perfect sense if not for the fact that the American community … has been sitting in silence and showing complacency in the face of demagoguery and racism for years already, without feeling the need to stand up and do something about it. AIPAC, that bastion of Jewish values, has gone even further. Rather than sitting in complacent silence, it has given repeated and resounding standing ovations, year after year, to Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli demagogues and racists, who not only talk the talk, as Trump has done, but walk the walk.”
Isacowitz writes that, “Israel has already built the wall that Trump only talks about. it has blighted the lives of millions of Muslims, as Trump says he would like to do. Its behavior has been far more bellicose than anything Trump has exhibited so far and its racism is not only more extreme but a lot more deadly. The supporters of Israeli Trumpism have assassinated a prime minister, gunned down worshippers in a mosque, burned a Palestinian baby to cinders in its bed and committed thousands of other racist atrocities. But when the Israeli Trump-in-chief arrives in Washington, he is feted as the true representative of Jewish values … What perversion allows American Jews — or the majority of them it would seem — to regard Donald Trump as the antithesis of their Jewish values and Benjamin Netanyahu as their exemplar?”
AIPAC Is “Destroying Israel”
In Isacowitz’s view, American Jews, or certainly those who speak in their name, have adopted “a value system that exempts Israel from every value it purports to hold dear.” Another distinguished Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, argues that, “AIPAC is destroying Israel, not safeguarding it.” He writes in Haaretz (March 20, 2016) of the approximately 20,000 people who gathered at AIPAC’s March meeting in Washington that “almost all are not friends of Israel, despite their organization’s name and pretensions.”
Levy believes that, “AIPAC may be the organization that has caused the greatest damage to Israel. It corrupted Israel, taught it that everything is permissible to it. It made sure America would cover up and restrain itself over everything. That it would never demand anything in exchange. That Uncle Sam would pay and keep mum. That the supply of intoxicating drugs would continue. America is the dealer, and AIPAC the pusher … America’s second most powerful lobby, after the NRA, is considered ‘pro-Israel.’ But it is pro an … aggressive, occupying … and nationalist Israel. With friends like these. Israel doesn’t need enemies in the U.S. The day AIPAC weakens. Israel will grow stronger. It will be forced to stand on its own two feet and be more moral.”
Israel, the recipient of more U.S. aid than any other country, is, Levy points out, hardly a weak and poverty stricken country in need of such aid: “The residents of the world’s most financially supported state, which is also the best at whining and playing the victim, live in a country that is ranked 11th in the U.N.’s world happiness report, four places above the country of its funders. Is Israel the neediest country in the world? After all, it’s also a military power, in a region where there are virtually no real armies left. So why should all that weaponry go to Israel, of all countries? … Thank you very much, dear brethren from AIPAC for bringing us to this point. Without your efforts, we would be in a better and much different place today.”
Culture War in Israel
Ori Nir, a former Washington bureau chief of Haaretz and The Forward, now associated with Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of the Jewish Peace Now movement, notes that many of his American friends are bewildered with recent developments in Israel. They ask him, “What the hell is going on there, have they totally lost it?” He responds that, “ … what seems like collective madness in Israel is not. What you are witnessing these days … the witch hunt against progressive non-profits and liberal culture icons, the efforts to quash dissent through legislation, the campaign to thrust chauvinistic content (including straight-out lies) into the civics curriculum, attempts to exclude and demean Israel’s Arab citizens, lobbing accusations of treason at those who publicly oppose or even criticize government policies — all these are manifestations of war. this is a culture war, a civil war Israel-style.”
The silence from American Jews as the culture war in Israel proceeds, saddens Ori Nir. “American friends of Israel have admirably come to help her at past times of crisis, particularly at times of war. My friends, this is a time of war … There is a war being fought against what most American Jews consider to be ‘their’ Israel … This war is led by members of Israel’s own government … You can say that Israelis got the government they voted for … You can say 7 that change in Israel should come from within … Fine. But then can you really claim to be a caring friend of Israel? … If you indeed care about Israel, it is time to speak up and act. Your natural allies in Israel need you.”
Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, agrees that the American Jewish establishment has been silent in the face of the growing assault upon democratic values in Israel. She notes that, “Many of us treat an assault on liberal values in the Israeli context differently than if it happened here. What if the U.S. Government tried to ban a book from schools because it promoted racial intermarriage? What if a desperate Republican Party candidate appealed to his white constituents on Election Day by warning of ‘droves’ of Hispanics swarming to the polls? Yet when the Israeli government banned such a book, or when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu employed such a cynical tactic, there was a response from predictable sources, but no lasting campaign of outcry.”
Idolatry: Substituting Israel for God
More and more American Jews are coming to the view that unquestioning support for Israel and making it the center of organized Jewish life has been a form of idolatry, with Israel replacing God and Judaism’s universal moral and ethical values. Beyond this, remaining silent as democracy erodes in Israel and the occupation continues, makes American Jews complicit in policies which, in the long run, are damaging to Israel itself.
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism at Columbia University and co-author with Liel Leibovitz of “The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel and the Ordeals of Divine Election,” spoke on March 15, 2016 at the Center For Jewish Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He makes the point that, “When Israel became an illegal occupier of the territories it conquered in 1967, it forfeited its universalist mantle. It made Israel look like a less compelling answer to the immense question of what might be left of chosenness … Israel interpreted chosenness as a title to land and a warrant for defying world opinion and international law. It justified its aggressions as defenses … Israeli exceptionalism abandoned the high moral ground … Israel becomes steadily more illiberal and thus more offensive to Jews who remain among America’s most liberal populations. Israel now, simultaneously, claims the privilege of victimhood and the right to be honored as democratic even as it abandons liberality. This is a hell of a climb down from tikkun olam, the injunction to repair the world and welcome the stranger. It offers little solace or cohesion for American Jews.”
The division between Israel and American Jews, particularly young people, is growing, while the Jewish establishment’s uncritical support and persistence in claiming that Israel is, somehow, “central” to Judaism continues. Todd Gitlin notes that, “By now, a growing minority of younger American Jews are so intensely angry at the actually existing, increasingly illiberal Israel … as to reject ‘Zion’ as a dirty word and endorse the whole bundle of BDS politics … Not many liberal American Jews go so far, but the gulf that has opened up between Israel and American Jews will be a fundamental feature of the Jewish landscape for a long time … The more the American Jewish establishment colluded with Netanyahu, the more damage the Israeli right does to the prospects for peace.”
It is not only young people who are disillusioned with events in Israel and the manner in which American Jewish organizations make them complicit in developments which violate their ideas of what Judaism’s moral and ethical values embody. Rabbi David Gordis, a former executive at the American Jewish Committee, former president of Hebrew College and a former Vice President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes in Tikkun (Feb. 23, 2016) that Israel is “a failure,” and the Zionist dream has “curdled into Jewish selfishness.” He laments that, “After a life and career devoted to the Jewish community and to Israel, I conclude that in every important way, Israel has failed to realize its promise for me.”
Rabbi Gordis, now a Senior Scholar at the State University of New York at Albany, says that from Israel’s creation, he believed in Israel but that the spiral of that society into occupation and Jewish particularism has caused him to change his mind. It is, in his view, a political, spiritual and political failure: “Israel is distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which encourages the worst behavior rather than the best.”
His indictment includes American Jewish leaders: “The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire … The Israel of today is very far from anything I dreamed of and worked for throughout my career … On the positive side, Israel’s accomplishments have been remarkable. Israel has created a thriving economy, and has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of the displaced and the needy. Israel has generated a rich and diverse cultural life and its scientific and educational achievements have been exemplary. In spite of these achievements, however, Israel in my view has gone astray. And it is in the area for which Israel was created, as a Jewish state, embodying and enhancing Jewish values, that I see this failure.”
Two State Solution “Impossible”
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is nearing a half century in duration, notes Gordis, and Prime Minister Ne8 tanyahu’s “facts on the ground” steps “make a two-state solution impossible … Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal, and the visionary … Most depressing of all is that I see no way out, no way forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation, and there are no recognizable trends that can move Israel out of this quagmire … Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, says that he published the article by Gordis because he shares his views: “We publish it with the same sadness that Gordis expresses … because many of us at Tikkun magazine shared the same hopes he expresses for an Israel that would make Jews proud by becoming an embodiment of what is best in Jewish tradition, history and ethics, rather than a manifestation of all the psychological and spiritual damage that has been done to our people, which now acts as an oppressor to the Palestinian people.”
In the presidential debate in Brooklyn in April, Sen. Bernie Sanders called for an “even-handed” U.S. policy in the Middle East. In response to a question about whether Israel’s response to missiles from Gaza was “disproportionate,” he responded: “Of course, Israel has the right not only to defend itself but to live in peace and security. But in Gaza there were 10,000 wounded civilians and 1,500 killed. Was that a disproportionate attack? The answer, I believe, is it was. As somebody who is 100% pro-Israel, in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.”
“Courage” to Criticize Israel
Sen. Sanders criticized his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for her talk to AIPAC in which, he pointed out, there was no concern expressed for the needs of Palestinians. “There comes a time,” he declared, “if we are going to pursue justice and peace that we are going to have to say that (Prime Minister) Netanyahu is not right all of the time. You spoke on the Middle East and barely mentioned the Palestinians.” The audience cheered at these remarks.
Some said that it took “courage” for Sen. Sanders to criticize Israel. But in expressing the views he did, Sanders was hardly alone. Indeed, The New York Times (April 16, 2016) carried a front page story with the headline, “Chiding Israel, Sanders Highlights Jewish Split.” According to the Times, “Jewish Democrats, like the rest of the party, have been struggling for years over the appropriate level of criticism when it comes to Israel’s policies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But that debate burst onto a big national stage … thanks to Mr. Sanders, the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in history. Mr. Sanders’s comments … buoyed the liberal and increasingly vocal Democrats who believe that a frank discussion within the party has been muzzled by an older, more conservative leadership that is suspicious of criticism of Israel.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the progressive pro-Israel lobbying group whose more critical view of the Israeli government has gained influence on Capitol Hill, said Sanders’s comments were “very different from the stale talking points that have dominated those types of discussions before and contributed to a meaningful redefinition of what it means to be pro-Israel.” Peter Beinart, a leading voice in the liberal Zionist movement, said: “The roar of the crowd was telling. A Democratic Party dominated by progressive millennials, African-Americans and Latinos will gradually defect more and more from the AIPAC-Bibi line. Those aren’t their values. What Bernie said … and the crowd’s response were a sign of things to come.” Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a growing organization that advocates pressuring Israel with the threat of boycotts, called the Sanders remarks “heartening,” and said, “Today showed that the movement for Palestinian rights is shifting the discourse at the highest political levels.”
Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk
It is not being a friend of Israel’s long-term best interests to provide uncritical support for a government which is in the process of turning its back on humane Jewish values and making peace with the Palestinians unlikely by continuing to settle land which both the U.S., the international community, and previous Israeli governments believe must constitute a future Palestinian state. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. Those who devote their time and energy to defending Israel’s retreat from democracy and the peace process aren’t friends.
An Eloquent Voice of Jewish Universalism Shares His Views on the Moral Challenges Which Confront Us
JUDAISM FOR UNIVERSALISTS
By Rabbi Everett Gendler,
Blue Thread Communications,
Rabbi Everett Gendler is one of the towering figures of progressive Jewish activism and a pioneer of Jewish non-violence, environmentalism and the Havurah movement. He was active in the civil rights movement and went to the South to protest against segregation. In 1962, he was jailed with Dr. King and other clergy in Albany, Georgia. He believes that Zionism, Jewish nationalism, is a rejection of Judaism’s moral and ethical universal tradition. Now 87, he has spent his life working to make the world a better place for men and women of every race and religion. In 2013, he received a “Human Rights Hero” award from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Also in 2013, he was awarded the Presidents’ Medallion from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion “in recognition of a lifetime commitment to social justice and environmentalism.” He was instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s important address to the national rabbinical convention on March 25, 1968, ten days before King’s death.
Born August 8, 1928 in Chariton, Iowa, Rabbi Gendler served from 1978-1995 as the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he served as rabbi to a number of congregations, including the Beth Israel Community Center in Mexico City, the Associacao Religiosa Israelita in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and the five synagogues of Havana, Cuba. He served as rabbi of the Jewish Center of Princeton, New Jersey and of Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts.
In this book, his first, are collected fifty of his essays, which present his vision of a Judaism in love with nature and seeking harmony with the natural world. He has been a committed pacifist throughout his adult life. The longest single essay is on “War and the Jewish Tradition.” Published during the Vietnam era, when Gendler was a leading figure in the Jewish Peace Fellowship, encouraging selective conscientious objection. As a disciple of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama, he and his wife Mary have been engaged for many years in a program of teaching techniques of non-violence to the Tibetan exile community in India, where they visit each year.
Of particular interest is Gendler’s role as the major discoverer and translator of the writings of Aaron Shmuel Tamarat, a Russian rabbi of the early 20th century, who opposed World War 1 and rejected the growing Jewish nationalist movement which was emerging in Eastern Europe.
“Radical Universalist with a Rabbinic Degree”
In the Introduction, Gendler recalls, early in his career, being referred to as “a radical universalist with a rabbinic degree.” If this taunt had come at a later time, he writes, he would have replied, “Of course I’m a universalist! How could I dare to be a rabbi without being concerned for all human beings? Abram’s original command from God, as he was sent on his journey and assured that ‘I shall make of thee a great nation,’ was ‘Be thou a blessing … in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12-2, 3). Not to be a universalist, not to be concerned that through the quality of Jewish life all human families should be blessed, would represent a betrayal of the original purpose of God’s call to Abram to become Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam!”
Originally, the accusation of being a universalist with a rabbinical degree was dispiriting to Gendler. “Looking back now,” he writes, “I can hardly believe my internal reaction. Why didn’t I welcome these words as an unsought testimonial to the truth of my calling, even if they were dismissively intended? Why didn’t I summon Amos and Isaiah to strengthen the case?”
He cites Amos (9:7):
“Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.”
Liberation of All Peoples
Gendler notes that, “Amos and Isaiah thus unite in the assertion that God works toward and welcomes the liberation of all peoples. Indeed, the holder of a rabbinical degree had better be a universalist! How else could he or she serve adequately and with integrity such a universalist God, whose liberating concern extends to all peoples and all persons? Sadly, I had forgotten the penetrating words of our dear friend from Princeton, Erich Kahler, who 10 characterized the Jews (in ‘The Jews among the Nations,’ 1967) as ‘a tribe directed toward the achievement of an all-embracing, super-ethnic humanity … The substance of its particularity is universality … a tribe directed toward humanity at large.’ Nor did I remember Heschel’s trenchant remark about idolatry: “What is an idol? Any God who is mine but not yours, any God concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.’”
The narrowness and intolerance which causes some rabbinical groups to decline participation in marriage ceremonies in which one party is Jewish and the other is not is troubling to Gendler. He writes: “I remain convinced that the current movement guidelines for rabbinical practice with respect to intermarriage are woefully inadequate. The official discouraging of officiation when one member of the couple is not Jewish, even when there is a commitment to rearing anticipated offspring as Jews, is both pastorally problematic and strategically inept. What are the personal consequences of denying young people our presence and blessing at the very moment when they make the relational commitment that enables the next generation to come upon the scene? Usually these are not strangers; they are the young people we’ve educated and come to cherish. This is both personally painful and, I think, destructive of the future of Judaism.”
To his readers, Gendler offers this hope: “I dare to hope that my essays will offer … some guidance for the future … At first glance, they may seem out of touch with some current political atmospheric readings — the strong conservative winds, the tightening boundaries, the turning toward the past, the enchantment with fundamentalist doctrines that are ascendant in Jewish life in the 21st century. Yet my reading of the long-range spiritual forecast, Biblically anchored, predicts that the overall direction of future Jewish and human development will find accurate markers in the spirit of these collected essays. They represent, I hope, both the appreciation and celebration of the particular Jewish tradition along with their reappropriation and expansion in light of current expansions and opportunities. They also, I hope, are largely faithful to Erich Kahler’s description of the quintessential Jewish character of tribal universality, and to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s depiction of idolatry as the exclusion of any person or people from the caring concern of the true God Who Unites Us All.”
Judaism and the Natural World
There is much in these collected works about Judaism and natural world. “I was born in Charlton, Iowa,” writes Gendler, “and lived there eleven years, in a small town surrounded by the open country where nature was omnipresent. Des Moines, the ‘city’ of my adolescence, also enjoyed nature’s presence — as did I. Not that I was conscious of it at the time. It seems to me, in retrospect, that not until my ordination from seminary and a period of time spent in Mexico City did I become more fully aware of nature.” He came to understand Judaism’s deep connection with nature and the cycle of life: “Small wonder, then, that a folk desirous of maintaining some significant connection both with cosmic rhythms and with the self should preserve its lunar festivities … a vital and relevant Judaism for our age must begin to reclaim seriously its nature heritage.”
At one time in history, Gendler notes, it may have been the proper task of Judaism to struggle against nature cults, since they represented human subjugation to nature. Yet, he writes, “Over the centuries … the reverse has occurred, reaching a frightening climax in our age: the almost total alienation of human beings from nature. Consequently, one of the crucial religious tasks of our age is to work towards human integration with nature … From the earliest biblical accounts of Adam in the Garden until the ‘blooming deserts’ of modern Israel, the land has served as the basis of the Israelite economy and Jewish religious rituals. Each of the three major pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot — is based on the agricultural cycles. So precious was the land that there is an obligation to rest it every seven years, an agricultural Sabbath parallel to the Sabbath day.
Our kinship with other creatures is addressed by Gendler in a 1967 sermon, which anticipated contemporary concerns about factory farming and its impact on the creatures we “process” into food and our own spiritual sensibility: “Those familiar with the creation story in Genesis have perhaps noticed that the sea animals and the birds which fly by receive the same blessings as men: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (1:22). One notices also that the beasts of the earth as well as men are invited to the banquet provided by the herbs, fruits and growths of the earth’s surface (Genesis 1:30) … Nor is the notion confined in the West only to the Jewish tradition. One great figure of Western culture is surely Francisca of Assisi, called St. Francis by the Church, who was known for his great friendship with other creatures … .In the ‘Mirror of Perfection,’ St. Francis urges the emperor ‘to make a law that men should make good provision for birds and oxen and asses and the poor at Christmas-time.’”
Citing the mistreatment of animals in the “factory farming” so prevalent today, Gendler argues persuasively that, “… it might even occur to us that the issue of respect for animals is really the issue of respect for life as such. Great seers such as Ghandi and Schweitzer also suggest that life is a continuum, and that one cannot make arbitrary cuts anywhere in the chain without doing injury at all levels … The issue of the treatment of God’s beasts is, I suspect, in a subtle way, also the issue of the treatment of other human beings and ourselves as well.”
Prophetic Objections to Zionism
In his discussion of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret (1869-1931), Gendler shows how prophetic his objections to Zionism would turn out to be. He notes that, “… elements of injustice, residues of unrighteousness … were embedded in the very beginnings of the Zionist movement. These need full, yet sympathetic, acknowledgement if ever a peaceful future is to become a reality.” In response to the Hebron riots of 1929, Tamaret wrote “Three Unsuitable Unions.” He found that 11 the Zionist attachment to modern nationalism compromised both Jewish values and Jewish identity. Gendler writes that, “Tamaret took seriously the idea that Jews have a Divinely directed moral mission in the world, and while a fully observant halakhic Jew, he understood our purpose in universal ethical terms. Hence the pain and the passion of his recognition that if Jews were to adopt the time-dishonor end, ethically tainted tactics of violent statecraft, a grievous moral injury would be inflicted on all of humankind.”
A rabbi in a small town in Poland, Tamarat, Gendler points out, “saw and articulated the profound ambiguity. From the very beginning, of settlement in a spirit of dominance rather than of sharing. Not for him the empty reassurance of ‘a land without people for a people without a land.” Such idle words did not set him at ease in Zion. Vividly, he portrays what we might, perhaps, designate … as the original sin of the political Zionist settlement: ‘… the Zionists hid their eyes from the fact that the actual place was not a newly-discovered, unsettled island located at the far ends of the earth, but was a place already inhabited by a people which was sure to feel the ‘nationalist’ and ‘sovereign political’ aims as a needle in its living flesh.’”
In an essay translated by Gendler, Tamarat declares that, “Political Zionism, as developed thus far, clearly imperils the character of Judaism, which has survived so many centuries free from the defilements of ‘nationalism’ and ‘homelandism’ … Judaism is at root not some religious concentration that can be localized or situated in a single territory … Neither is Judaism a matter of ‘nationality’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the famous three-fold mesh of ‘homeland, army, and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah: ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.’ (Job 11:9) … the true locus and center of Judaism is within the heart … Wherever on all this earth such a Jew is found, there is the place of Judaism.”
“A Jew in the Diaspora”
In an essay entitled “To Be A Jew in the Diaspora,” written in 1975, Gendler examines the changing meaning of the word “Zion” as it related to Jews and where they lived. “For many centuries,” he writes, “following the Exile, which began with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70-135 CE. Zion served as a point of spiritual reference for the Jew. Prayers sought mercy for Zion, psalms were recited singing its praises … Yet throughout those centuries, Jewish life for the most part had its effective centers in the places where Jews actually lived. Jews prayed, studied, celebrated, and organized their communities where they happened to be … At no time during that long stretch of time was Zion treated as a particular place offering vicarious experiences for Jews elsewhere. As messianic expectation did not fall prey to other-worldliness, the hope for Zion did not succumb to other-placeless.”
With the coming of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, Gendler writes, “a radical transformation occurred. The State of Israel became widely identified with Zion … the power-political unit Israel inherited a religious aura from the repository of ideals long associated with Zion, though it is far from clear that those ideals were intended to issue in a modern nation-state established by military-political means … By identifying the State of Israel with Zion, other interpretations of what it might mean for Zion to be approximated within time and space were foreclosed.”
The religious aura surrounding Israel, in Gendler’s view, “has tended to make many Jews, both in and outside Israel, less critical of particular policies of the Israeli state than they might otherwise be … .The reduction of various interpretations of Zion to but one, the modern nation-state Israel, both distorts the past and limits the future … the vicarious living through Israel by Jews elsewhere (produces) serious negative results.”
Life in America More Free Than in Israel
The entire notion of “diaspora,” Gendler argues, leads to the view that “the most significant Jewish fact of my life is my not living in Israel. Subjectively, however, I find that this fact hardly matters at all. I live my Jewish life in this place at this time.” Beyond this, he declares, his life in America is far more free than it would be in Israel: “Were I a woman, would my personal liberties in relation to marriage and divorce be enhanced by my living in Israel? Hardly, for the male dominance of Orthodox laws defining personal status, backed by State power, would reduce my liberties significantly … As a conscientious objector to war, unless I happened to be an Orthodox Jewish female, my situation would be far worse as an Israeli … Were I an Israeli with concerns about life and politics in Israel extending to the situation of the Palestinians, and were I to undertake there direct action of the kind in which many of us here in the U.S. participated during the civil rights movement … would I find the political atmosphere more respectful of civil disobedience than I did here? I think not . … It seems to me that, as a Jew concerned with issues of social justice, my freedom to participate in dissenting political activity is probably greater here in the U.S. than it would be in Israel.”
When it comes to the efforts to get Jews in the U.S. and other countries to immigrate to Israel, Gendler challenges the use of the term “Aliyah” to describe such an action. He writes: “‘Aliyah?’ To use this term for immigration to Israel by Jews is already to weight a discussion. Bias is built into the term, for at root, ‘aliyah’ means ‘ascent, going up.’ It is the term used for being ‘called up’ to the Torah, hence has further overtones of religious duty, of merit, of goodness. In short, it is a heavy term, value-loaded; and as presently used, it implies that immigration to Israel by Jews is without question a meritorious act … At the same time that any Jew anywhere is granted free entry to Israel, and citizenship, many Arabs face restrictions on becoming Israeli citizens, even if they were born in Israel proper … It seems to me that there is a basic religious and moral question to be confronted.”
That moral question, Gendler notes, is this: “Can one person’s true Aliyah depend on another’s yeridah (descent, misfortune, deprivation)? If, indeed, we all have One Father, this seems hardly possible … Such policies do not strike me as merely the aberration of a particular government. Unhappily, they seem to me inherent in political Zionism as it has developed, and I doubt that any change in such policies is likely under any imaginable government in the near future.”
Non-Violence in Theory and Action
In an essay written in 1997, two years into a retirement that has been keeping Gendler busy for 18, he recalls the courses he taught at Phillips Academy, among them “Nonviolence in Theory and Practice,” which focused on the work of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and which “was one way to continue my earlier participation in the nonviolent movement for social change, explored both the dynamics and the philosophical and religious explications of spirit flexing its muscles.”
He recalled that his temple in Massachusetts “has experimented over the decades with reincorporating into its regular worship elements of nature in Judaism that were ancient, authentic, but often overlooked. Among the widely satisfying results were fresh ways to celebrate the cycles of the sun, the phases of the moon, the succession of the seasons, and the times for planting and harvesting. These fruits of our liturgical life contain, as do all fruits, seeds for further planting; in this way, life renews itself again and again. The seed is simultaneously the end of one life cycle and the beginning of the next. It symbolizes the constant renewal of life, the annual proclamation that death is indeed followed by resurrection.”
This thoughtful book concludes with a conversation held in May 2015 between Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush and Rabbi Gendler. One question Bush asked is: “And who are the Jews, to your mind? Who are the Jews of the Bible, of history, of today? When I say, ‘I am a Jew,’ what would you like me to mean?” Gendler replied that, “I would like, when any one of us says, ‘I am a Jew,’ for that … to have a value overtone. I would like it to mean that I am someone who is committed to, and appreciative of, and active in, the preservation of the rich gift of Creation, of beauty, of the wondrous deliverances of the human spirit. I would like it to imply the appreciation of sustenance, and support for the liberation of individuals and of peoples from unnecessary constraints. There are necessary constraints, of course: The loss of all boundaries is terrifying, not liberating. But the expansion of freedom, that’s what I would like being Jewish to mean. To say ‘I am a Jew’ means I am associated with a group of people whose basic dedication is to these goals. Some of them will do it in our traditional ceremonies, others will do it in less distinctive, more general fashion — but we all have a feeling of relationship to one another.”
Israel as a Substitute for Deity
When it comes to Israel, Bush points out that “non-Zionism” is “particularly unusual for a contemporary Jewish book.” Gendler responds that, “Yes, and it’s the one Jews seem most concerned about: Israel. So let me say that I am overwhelmed and delighted by the outpouring of scholarship and culture and sheer fruitfulness of Jews living together and sustaining institutions in that land, but I have personally not found visiting Israel a positive experience … My painful feeling has been that Israel has become a too-available substitute for Deity or even values in defining Jews and Judaism. Israel-centrism is a great danger for Jewish identity, and the behavior of what I have seen since the 1967 war called ‘imperial Israel’ is a great danger to Jewish values … You know, the number of non-Zionist Jews in the American Jewish community is quite sizable. And in my congregations, people who shared my discomfort with Israel, especially with its displacement of the Palestinians, had a place to come.”
On his 85th birthday, Rabbi Gendler and his family set up a website called the “Gendler Grapevine,” to give small grants of seed money to carry on his work, particularly involving environmentalism and social action, at Jewish summer camps, seminaries, synagogues and other institutions. He says that, “Hopefully, too, this book will find its way into the hands of individuals with similar sensibilities to mine, and help them enter into a mindset in which the universe has some direction, an overriding purpose … The wager on us humans may have been one of God’s less wise decisions: The Divine could lose, we could really destroy what we have been blessed with. But my sense is that there’s still a good chance of transformation, there are stirrings among human beings in so many positive directions. If some of my insights, and some of the joys I express in my writing, can help tip that balance, I’ll be very, very satisfied.”
A Book to Enrich the Soul
Sharon Strassfeld of the Jewish Catalogue writes that, “Rabbi Gendler has been ahead of the curve on every major issue facing the world, before any of us saw with any clarity things that were eminently clear to him. This is a book that will enrich the soul and delight the mind with its age-old fresh insights.”
Rabbi Gendler has made a notable contribution in making the world a better place for all of us. Whether or not one agrees with all of his views, the wisdom in these pages deserves as wide an audience as possible. • — ALLAN C. BROWNFELD
ISSUES OF THE AMERICAN COUNCIL FOR JUDAISM National Office: Editorial Contact: Post Office Box 888484 Post Office Box 9009 Atlanta, GA 30356-0484 Alexandria, VA 22304 (904) 280-3131 ACJSLN@aol.com http://www.acjna.org Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor Stephen L. Naman, President
The objective of Issues is to be a responsible vehicle of comment and opinion, delineating for U.S. Jews a role in the totality of American life that is consonant with the highest ideals of a democratic society and with the timeless values of the Jewish religious heritage.
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