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.

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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:]

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

A guest sermon I offered this weekend at First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ in Eugene, Oregon.

 

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

Good morning and thank you so much for offering me the honor of sharing some thoughts with you today, on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Though I have not served in our military, many of my family members have been soldiers, both here in the US and in other parts of the world where they’ve lived. My grandfather was a US Army infantryman in France during World War I. My father served during the Korean War, though he was never shipped overseas.

My mother’s family are Moroccan Jews who now mostly live in Israel. During World War II, my mom’s family lived in Casablanca, which was under German occupation. During the 1940s France had ruled Morocco as a colony, but the Nazis took it over not long after Paris fell. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Rosette, joined the French underground, and nobody knew much about what she did. She was gone for weeks at a time and then would suddenly show up for a few days. One time she showed up late at night at the home of one of her sisters with a small group of men. Her terrified sister let them in and, in later years, all she could say about the visit was that the men brought a whole bunch of weapons into the house, hid them in a back room, and Rosette told her to just say nothing and people would come by soon to get them.

Then there are my many, many aunts and uncles and cousins who have served and currently serve in the Israeli army. My mother’s brother, my Uncle Yossi, was the sole survivor of his army unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat had launched a very effective surprise attack and the army was scrambling to call up reservists. When Yossi’s unit’s call-up notice went out over the radio, he went to get his boots from their usual place, but couldn’t find them. Turned out his mother had been tidying and had moved them. By the time he found them and hustled to the base, his tank unit had already been sent to the front. The commanding officer placed him with a different departing unit. As it happened, all of the others in his intended unit were killed in an explosion. The misplaced boots saved his life.

Yossi is an interesting case in point. In addition to the trauma and survivor’s guilt he’s had to bear over that pair of boots, he also has told my mom about terrible recurring memories and dreams from his experience in combat. In particular, he is haunted by a flash moment in which he and an Egyptian soldier were suddenly face to face, a few meters apart. The two men shared a moment of horrified shock and recognition, and then both moved to fire. Yossi fired first, but for years struggled to cope with the image of the Egyptian young man’s body.

On this weekend when we contemplate those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in battle, we are drawn to personal memories of war, memories that become family stories that get passed through the generations. A lot of those stories give us insight into the meaning of friendship. In the Book of Proverbs, we find these words: “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.”[1] And in Ecclesiastes, also on the theme of friendship, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toils: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”[2]

I’d like to consider these two short, simple biblical passages in light of the themes that Memorial Day weekend evokes – themes of war, friendship, memory, and community. Some of what I have to share comes from people whose experiences with war have left them passionately opposed to war in all or most of its forms, and in sharing those thoughts I want to be clear that I honor in the deepest way the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers and the pain and loss of their families. We need to be able, in a house of God, to attempt to look at war through lenses of honesty and concern for the divine image that is present in every human being, though we also need to stand in solidarity and true friendship with all who are serving or have served, and with all who have given their lives for us in times of war. We need to do both, and doing both with sensitivity and candor honors the dead and the truth alike.

I’d like to start with the words of Vera Brittain. She served as an English army nurse during
World War I, and wrote one of the most widely read memoirs of the war, Testament of Youth. In it she describes her years as a female student at Oxford – at a time when few

Vera Brittain

 

women went to university – and the beginnings of her romance with a brilliant fellow student named Roland. She includes many of the letters the two lovers sent one another after Roland quit school to enlist. Roland’s early letters describe his enthusiasm for getting into battle, and his later letters from the battlefield become increasingly disillusioned and numb. Of course, like so many European young men of that generation, Roland never made it home.

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Enough with the genes stuff. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

So, I’m on FB and I see this post:

ashkenaz

Despite the worried look on the Orthodox Jewish man in the photo accompanying the post, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising to find out that after Jews lived in Europe for many, many centuries, their genetic heritage includes significant European components. Even in Ancient Israel, Jews were never a racial group or a hermetically sealed ethnic group. Israel is at the geographical meeting place of three continents, and empires based in all three of those continents conquered and intermingled with the ancient Judeans over a long period of time. The reason I presume that Jews who’ve lived in very different parts of the world over time have come to physically resemble the people in the dominant cultures in which they’ve lived is that there has always been a certain degree of intermarriage and of conversion. Also, as this article points out – as far back as 2600 years ago, with the Babylonian exile of a large part of the Israelite population, there’s been a sizable Jewish diaspora throughout different parts of the Middle East. Greek and Roman domination of ancient Israel also facilitated movement of some Jews to the big cities and ports of the Mediterranean.

What worries me about these genetic studies is how quickly they tend to get used, in the form of ideologically motivated pseudo-science, to make absolutist “racial” claims about whether or not the Jews have a national connection to the land of Israel, or whether or not the Jews are “really Jews.” But who says that blood and genes are what defines the Jewish people?

I think it’s fair to say that ethnic/religious communities get to decide for themselves how they define themselves. In the case of the Jews, there have been several ways that people have become part of “the tribe.” For 1000 years or so, the children of Israelite fathers, not mothers, were considered Jews-by-birth. Roughly around the time of the Romans, the early rabbinic community facilitated a shift to defining Jewish identity by birth to the mothers. But people could always convert, and at different times during the very long sweep of Jewish history, significant numbers of people did.

And no, I’m not referring to the whole meme about the entire Kingdom of the Khazars converting en masse in the Middle Ages, which has become a trope in an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that basically argues that Ashkenazi Jews aren’t “real Jews” because they almost all descend from the (utterly unproven) “Khazar conversion,” and therefore the Ashkenazi Jews of the world maintain a public lie about their very identity, and then – the conspiracy theory tends to go – use that lie in order to justify their support for the state of Israel.

The conversions into Judaism by meaningful numbers of people that I’m referring to took place in many different lands where Jews lived in Diaspora communities. In Rome, in what is now Turkey, in Persia, in Egypt, in Greece, etc. Jews aren’t and have never been a racial group. People have not needed to be born into the group to join the group, and the transmission of Jewish identity from generation to generation has been more about community, shared beliefs, shared ritual and cultural practices, and a shared sense of history and destiny than the “purity” of bloodlines. As Rabbi Jack Cohen, z’l, once wrote:

“Throughout the long age from the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E. [until the modern era, the Jews were] a unique, spiritually motivated and united trans-territorial society.”

So the genetic stuff is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us all that much, nor does it qualify or disqualify real people from their understandings of their own identities.

 

Toldot – my words 7 years ago – do they still apply now?

I gave this talk at Yom Kippur in the fall of 2008, not long before the U.S. elections that year. It draws heavily on parts of our upcoming Torah portion, Toldot.

Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5769                  By Rabbi Maurice Harris

A long time ago, a matriarch of our people went through an agonizing pregnancy.  Her name was Rivka, or Rebecca in English, and Genesis tells us that she went through excruciating physical pain while she was carrying twins.[1]  The text, written in poetic Hebrew, reads:  “…the children struggled in her womb, and she said, eem ken, if it has to be like this, lammah zeh anochi, why should I exist?”

Rebecca was a decisive woman, and she went directly to God to ask for guidance or an explanation.  God answered her with a prophecy:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ – two nations are in your womb.

וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ – and two separate peoples will issue out from your body.  One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.[2]

And God’s words were fulfilled.  Rebecca gave birth to twin boys, Esau, who came into the world red and hairy, and Jacob, who followed grasping onto his brother’s heel.  According to tradition, Jacob went on to be the forefather of our people.  Esau went on to be the founder of the ancient nation of Edom.  The rabbis later told us that Esau was also the father of their arch-enemy, the Romans.

Today we are all like our ancestor, Rebecca, on two fronts.  First, we are, as Americans, pregnant with twins.  Two nations are within us, two competing visions of what this country should be.  Similarly, as Jews who love Israel, we are also pregnant with twins.  Two Israel’s are within our people’s consciousness – competing visions of what Israel should be.  Each of these sets of twins have been locked in a painful struggle of wills for a long time, but we are on the verge of a birth here in the US and in the land of Israel as well. Continue reading