The Evils of Tikkun Olam Exposed

Here’s my recent satire piece published in The Forward. It speaks for itself…

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https://forward.com/opinion/404120/theyre-right-tikkun-olam-is-fake-judaism-a-modest-proposal/

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The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

Llagrimes_(tears),_pastel_portrait_by_Robert_Perez_Palou
       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”

Israel / Palestine Bogus Argument #1: “Settlements aren’t really an obstacle to peace”

This is a new series of posts I’m going to work on, in which I debunk BA’s (bogus arguments) that are often made, on one side or the other, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, etc.).

Today’s Bogus Argument: “Settlements aren’t really an obstacle to peace,” often claimed by AIPAC supporters and other apologists for the Netanyahu gov’t. Actually, even though the argument often gets stated the way I just phrased it, what those making the argument usually mean when they say this is that Israeli announcements of plans to build new housing units within the large settlement blocs abutting Jerusalem are not really an obstacle to peace.

Let’s consider this argument.

Usually it is supported by two claims: one, that Palestinian complaints are disingenuous because both sides already know that a final status agreement would preserve the major Jerusalem settlement blocs within Israel and there would be compensatory land swaps to the Palestinian state; and two, that the Palestinians had previously engaged in negotiations w/o too much fuss despite periodic new Israeli building in the blocs.

Therefore, the argument goes, these Palestinian complaints (and those made by groups like Peace Now, J Street, and various Knesset members in the opposition) are disingenuous. The Palestinians, according to this theory, only complain over this for strategic and negotiating purposes, not because they are actually upset about new Jewish housing being built in neighborhoods that everyone knows will eventually be part of Israel. No, they press these complaints fully knowing them to be without merit, because they are actually not interested in going back to negotiations with Israel, and because they are not serious about accepting Israel’s right to exist as part of a two-state final status agreement. By insisting that Israel cease and desist from new construction in all the settlements, the Palestinians are, supposedly, making an unreasonable demand they know Israel won’t accept, and by doing so they are deliberately sabotaging peace talks and building up global animosity towards Israel as part of a long-term plan to one day get back all of what was British-ruled Palestine.

This line of reasoning, and its dismissal of Palestinian objections to new settlement construction, is, in my humble opinion, completely bogus. It’s wrong.

Continue reading “Israel / Palestine Bogus Argument #1: “Settlements aren’t really an obstacle to peace””

Coming Soon: Israstine

nablus-outpost
From today’s headlines…

With news of a brand new settler outpost emerging in the Nablus area, we start 2017, the likely year that will be remembered as the year the State of Israestine was born.

With the blessings of the increasingly vocal Israeli and American-Jewish right wing, and the upcoming carte blanche support of the Trump Administration, Israel and Palestine are now rapidly heading towards one state. A few more outposts, a few more announcements of plans for new neighborhoods, a few more openly public statements by top ministers in this Israeli gov’t saying they don’t want two states ever and they want to annex parts of the WB starting now. Not sure when the last straw will come, but when push comes to shove and the two-state option is completely and utterly gone, regardless of whether it was more because of aggressive settlement policies or more because of PA incitement and rejectionism, many lifelong Zionists will feel morally compelled to advocate for the single state between the Jordan river and the sea to be a democracy, with one person, one vote, complete freedom of movement, and new elections for a Knesset that reflects the wishes and identities of the 10 to 12 million people who live there. We’re witnessing the birthpangs of Israstine. Bibi is one of the founding fathers. Abbas too. Trump may just help deliver the baby.

If this is the will of most Israelis and Palestinians, then I wish them well and wish them success, and hope that the birth of the signle state is not a violent one. I think a two-state agreement along the lines Kerry outlined is a better option, a political resolution to an intractable conflict that is more likely to succeed, and more likely to meet some of the security needs and national/cultural expression needs of Jews and Arabs in this part of the world. But if Israstine is where the leaders of Israel and the PA want to head, and if their respective constituents are unwilling to demand otherwise, then it is what it is.

What I don’t think I can do, in the years ahead, is support de facto indefinite Israeli rule, direct and indirect, over millions of Palestinians because “it’s a temporary situation” or because “it’s mainly their fault.” I know my own heart, I know what I can and can’t support. I don’t want to be left with only the option of a democratic bi-national Israstine to support, but I also don’t know that I’ll feel able to support any other program. I have no control over what Israelis or Palestinians want or choose to do with their political and security calculations, and I’m not judging anybody. But by the same token, nobody has the right to judge me when I’m asked, as an American citizen, what do I support and what do I want our country to support with its resources? I know the answer to that. I can only see myself supporting a US policy that supports two democracies or one democracy – two states or one – but democracies as a bottom line, not this frozen endless status quo that denies the essence of the values of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, the values of liberal Judaism (and I would argue of the essence of Judaism), and the best values of the United States.

The new kapos (i.e. Jews like me)

In the aftermath of Trump’s decision to nominate David Friedman to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel, we’ve learned that Friedman has had some choice words for Jews like me, who support J Street, and other progressive Jews. Specifically, he’s said that we’re worse than kapos, who, if that term isn’t familiar, were the Jews the Nazis assigned to supervise other Jews in concentration camps and in forced labor.

Image result for kapo ww2When one Jew calls another a kapo it means “ultimate traitor.” To have Friedman calling other Jews kapos, when he’s about to go to work for a man who has retweeted anti-Semitic Twitter accounts, and who has won the high praise of American neo-Nazis, is so ironic that … well, it’s just really ironic, that’s all.

Anyway, one of my FB friends – someone who has critiqued left wingers many times for their blindness to anti-Semitism in progressive circles – just posted today, with alarm, that he is receiving messages calling him a kapo for opposing the Friedman nomination.

I believe this is probably the shape of things for American-Jewish politics for the next few years, possibly more. I also suspect that it is connected to Steve Bannon’s strategic thinking about how to best deal with the American Jewish community. Do things that widen the acrimony and divide. Tie up the energies of the progressive political American Jewish community, and its often quite effective political organizing and influence, with having to fight the right wing of the American Jewish community. Meanwhile, take the American Jewish right off the table as a potential obstructive political force by emphasizing how RW / anti-Muslim / pro-(greater)-Israel Trump is. This makes it easier for some of Bannon’s anti-Semitic and truly fascist circle to be able to take their places in Trump’s inner circle.

Friedman is a great example. He has no experience as an Ambassador, and he’s a loudmouth. He can’t make policy – he’ll have to take orders from Trump – but he’s perfect for a divide & conquer approach to minimizing the political power of different parts of the American Jewish community.

My guess is that Bannon sees himself as a major player in Trump’s inner circle, but that he sees himself as in competition, to some degree, with others who have different agendas. Bannon may not care that much about Jews himself, but what we know from his previous work is that he’s interested in bringing to the table people who are quite serious about their anti-Semitism. (That’s a generous reading of Bannon, BTW.)

Anyway, I just think we’re likely to see Trump work some kind of strategy like this vis-a-vis the Jewish community. I think Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is perfect as their first gambit of this nature. In terms of really changing the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the ultimate shape that a viable agreement to end the conflict might take, moving the embassy to (West) Jerusalem is not really that substantive a thing to do. In an ideal world, with a permanent peace agreement establishing two states, Israel and Palestine, each with a capital in different sections of Jerusalem, the American embassies to both states would proudly take their places in their respective parts of Jerusalem. But for all kinds of practical reasons that make good political sense, U.S. policy under Republicans and Democrats for decades has been to hold off on moving the embassy to Jerusalem until a final status agreement is reached.

Image result for divide and conquer

But the decision to move the U.S. embassy is a great wedge issue for the American Jewish community and it will suit Trump’s team perfectly. It’s highly symbolic and highly emotional. The tweets and one-line talking points to be offered in a tone of moral superiority and “can you believe these politically correct idiots?” contempt easily write themselves.

Trump announcing the embassy move will send the various Jewish political organizations into their various corners, firing away at each other. AIPAC, ZOA, RCA, the Conference of Presidents, and possibly JCPA and even maybe Reform & Conservative organizations will support the move. J Street, APN, Ameinu, maybe the Reconstructionist movement will dissent or offer qualified dissent. In the Islamic world, the announcement will probably ignite extremists’ passions and increase the likelihood of terror attacks, either in the US, Israel, or elsewhere. It’ll also lead to a big UN showdown. And then, while we in the American-Jewish community are all consumed with this unnecessary shit storm, all of our energies and resources are tied up and largely unavailable to be a useful force against any/all other Trump agendas.

It’s so smart I’m surprised Putin didn’t think of it himself…

Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s letter to her congregation re the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives

Offered here out of my personal admiration for the work of my colleague, Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, MA.

A letter to congregants about BLM and the Jewish community
by  Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Friday, August 19, 2016

*****

Dear congregants,

Two weeks ago, upon my return from a four-day retreat at the Weston Priory in Vermont, I discovered in my accumulated email that in the short time I was away, a storm had engulfed much of the Jewish community.  During that week, a coalition of groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement released a platform entitled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice. <policy.m4bl.org>”  It is an extensive, powerful document, and I would highly recommend reading it for all those interested in issues including everything from economic policy to criminal justice reform to voting rights to reparations to U.S. foreign policy.

It was in reaction to a part of this latter section, “Invest-Divest,” that the firestorm in the Jewish community broke out.  In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. role in that conflict, the document uses very strong language that, to many in the Jewish community (and I will include myself in that group), seemed out of proportion and extreme (including the use of the word “genocide” to refer to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian people).  There were a number of hasty reactions to this portion of the document, including from our Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which seemed to condemn the entire Black Lives Matter enterprise, because of this one section of the platform.

The reason you have not heard from me sooner on this issue is because after my initial sense of dismay and confusion at reading the “Vision” document, I began seeing a whole variety of responses – all from within the Jewish community.  While some individuals and organizations felt the need to question and condemn the language about Israel, even if praising much of the rest of the platform, others within the community – many, but not all, Jews of Color – expressed a deep sense of hurt by what they deemed organizational Jewish abandonment of the cause of racial justice, and/or an unwillingness to face up to the realities of Israeli policies.  My head and my heart have been in some amount of turmoil, as I have tried hard to really listen to a wide variety of perspectives and to think about how my own perspective as a white person frames and limits my understanding. I realized I had a lot of listening and thinking to do before I could say anything of any benefit or use.

What I wanted to offer you here is not one more response to all of the issues raised by the “Vision” document and the reactions it provoked – there have been some very good pieces written about that, and I have included links below to a variety of explorations of the complex issues involved, everything from the complicated reality of Black-Jewish relations in the U.S. to anti-Semitism on the Left to racism within the American Jewish community to the legacy and impact of the Israeli occupation.  Today I wanted to share with you where I see the opportunities arising out of a painful few weeks.

In observing my own evolution over this time, and in witnessing the heartfelt wrestling of many of my rabbinic colleagues, I am appreciative of the deep questions that have arisen in the wake of the release of the Black Lives Matter platform. Questions about what it means to be a white ally in the struggle for racial justice; questions about how the realities of imbedded, often unconscious racism and anti-Semitism shape our attitudes and our actions; questions about how we as an American Jewish community can do a better job of wrestling with the complex reality of Israel and the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people; questions about what it means to be a racially diverse American Jewish community; questions about how to address the fears and historical trauma that continue to shape so much of our discourse within the American Jewish community.

Two weeks after opening those first emails that made me aware of this issue, I am actually feeling cautiously hopeful.  The level of distress uncovered in these past few weeks signals to me there is, in fact, both a need and a desire within the American Jewish community – in all its fractured complexity, in all its diversity – to wrestle with some very difficult realities that we cannot avoid.  There are conversations happening now that were not happening two weeks ago, in all parts of the Jewish communal world.  There are voices being heard that were not heard a few weeks ago.  There is some heartbreak, but a broken heart is an open heart, and I am hopeful that with open hearts, and a willingness to really listen, we can, as a broader community, reach a new level of understanding, and new kinds of commitments to creating a more just and equitable world.

Here at CDT, I want to express appreciation for our Understanding Race group, which has been doing its own learning about race and racism, and bringing opportunities to the community for discussion and learning.  In the coming year, we will be exploring as a community issues around racial diversity within the congregation, and how to become a more diverse community as well as a community where Jews of Color can feel fully seen and respected.  Under the auspices of the Tikkun Olam committee, we will continue our work in the realm of criminal justice reform, and explore new ways to ally with local struggles for racial justice.  And I hope too that we will build on our trip to Israel and the West Bank this summer, and have opportunities for further learning and discussion in that realm.

One final note – I am heading off for one more retreat, my last get-away of the summer, this Sunday through the following Sunday.  While I’m away, I will not be checking email. But I do welcome your responses and thoughts and questions, so please know that if you send something to me and do not hear right back, it is because I am off-line, and I will respond upon my return.

I wanted to give the “last word,” as it were, to a local Black leader whom I deeply respect, and whom we hosted a few years ago during our Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Shabbat celebration – Tina Chery, the founder and director of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (the organization which we support each year at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace).  She sent this moving testimonial to supporters of the Institute this past week, and I offer it here for those who did not receive it – it’s a 12-minute video, reflections that put Ms. Chery’s work for peace in Boston in the context of the violence of this summer and larger issues of institutional racism (and please see below for links to some of the articles I referenced above).  Hers is both a prophetic and a healing voice, even as she puts into words her own heartbreak.

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu,” the “Shabbat of Comfort” following Tisha B’av.  It signals the turn from destruction toward redemption and renewal.  May we seek that comfort, that renewal, in a willingness to really listen to one another; to embrace the difficult questions; to turn towards – not away – from our own agitation; to persevere in our desire for a more just and loving world.  I want to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace and reflection, healing and comfort.

Rabbi Toba

[Links to outside articles for further reading:]