The Community has Stolen My Birthright

Editor’s Note: Jacob Ari Labendz has shared with us his talk “The Community has Stolen my Birthright” which he gave at Central Reform Synagogue, in St. Louis, MO on August 6, 2014. Background information and transcripts follow. Labendz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis. He will be spending the 2014-2015 academic year on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin, sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation and Washington University.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION
On Wednesday, August 6, 2014, more than seventy people gathered in the sanctuary of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis (CRC) to hear from representatives of the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). We oppose the Israeli occupation and advocate for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with freedom and equality for all. We opposed oppose the recent current war in Gaza.

In hosting this event, Rabbi Susan Talve and CRC took steps to distinguish St. Louis as a place safe for Jewish progressives and a community willing to engage in a thoughtful reevaluation of our community’s politics and alignments.

Rabbi Talve initiated the event after witnessing the police escort four JVP activists off of the campus of the Jewish Community Center on July 29. We had disrupted a “Solidarity Gathering in Support of Israel,” co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and additional organizations. A fifth JVP member, a ninety year-old Holocaust survivor, spoke out as well. A member of the audience then struck her on the back in reprisal in plain view. No one except her friend did anything. Not even the police.

Such protests and responses have multiplied across the country, particularly during this last Gaza war, as an increasingly large and overwhelmingly young segment of the Jewish community has rethought its relationship with Israel and begun to stand against its policies regarding toward Palestinians. In major cities activists have taken to the streets, occupied Jewish communal institutions, and submitted petitions to Jewish and American leaders. There is talk of boycotting Jewish institutions that do not formally oppose the Occupation. We hope that St. Louis will be different. We had hope to be able continue trusting Rabbi Talve. It is to her credit that CRC released this video for distribution.

Five speakers represented JVP at the CRC event, including a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli artist, a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at Washington University, and two local activists. Each spoke for ten minutes and called upon those assembled to stand against the violence in Gaza and the Occupation. Some addressed the need to support the Israeli left, others described their own visits to the Occupied Territories, and others spoke about the exclusion that progressives often face within the Jewish community when they speak out as Jews against Israeli policies. The JVP representatives encouraged audience members to seek out Palestinian voices and follow their lead in fighting against the recent war and the Occupation.

Following the formal remarks, the representatives from JVP answered thoughtful and challenging questions about their positions on Hamas’s tactics and the meaning of the Israeli siege. A number of audience members rose to express solidarity with some of the opinions expressed. A few explained that they too had felt silenced within the Jewish community. It is a testament to the openness for which Rabbi Talve and CRC strive that they opened their doors to dissenting voices of peace, despite repeatedly defending Israel’s war on Gaza and taking a position of tolerance for the Occupation. Few cities, if any, can boast of such openness to debate and protest.
Communities and organizations around the nation should take notice. More »

Rachel Azaria’s Solution for Silencing “Antisemites”

You all know what I’m talking about. As much as Jews are working to combat Antisemitism, so do Jews love to refer to anyone who is rude to them or disagrees with them as an Antisemite. And now, as it turns out, anyone who is rude can always be implied to be a Hamas supporter who is also anti-human rights and definitely a misogynist.

Here’s the conversation as reported by the victim herself which took place on the subway in NYC: More »

If Not Now: A Personal Political Reflection

This is a guest post by Becky Havivi, a Brooklyn-based community-builder and activist. This is not written on behalf of or in the name of If Not Now.

On the Friday night before Tisha B’Av, traditionally the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, 300 American Jews joined together in Washington Square Park to mourn the deaths of over 1500 Palestinians and Israelis in the most recent armed conflict in the region. This was the fourth public event over a period of two weeks organized by If Not Now, a new movement that emerged in response to the latest crisis in Israel/Palestine, the sense of urgency growing as violence escalated, and the sense of disconnection from what mainstream Jewish institutions were expressing.

In this charged moment overflowing with noise, If Not Now has managed to effectively strike the right chord, as evidenced by the large numbers of young Jews that have turned out to actions and events over the last few weeks, in New York City and in cities across the country. If Not Now has successfully given voice and media attention to liberal young American Jews, a constituency who, for the most part, feels alienated by the conversations happening in broader Jewish institutional arenas.

Though I helped plan the program for If Not Now’s Shabbat service and rally, my own involvement in the group was not a no-brainer. As an engaged and connected American Jew I have struggled to find my footing and stake a claim within the broader Israel/Palestine discourse that has felt authentic to the rest of my progressive lefty values. The articles I see posted on my Facebook newsfeed and the arguments that I hear repeatedly spouted on both sides make me want to flee. And for a pretty long time I have done just that. More »

Only Cause: Some Words On Standing Up in Israel and Palestine

Try reading out loud.

Sometimes I feel like there are all these peace agreements for sale and no one’s buying. We’ve got two states, one state, unions, federations, long term, short term and more. Get ‘em while their hot! Bibi’s not buying and Hamas sure ain’t interested. Abbas is like a man at a mall minutes before closing with credit card in hand – no idea which product can fit in his station wagon; the proprietor eyeing him to leave. People keep asking what the alternative is to violence, “we have to kill and die, there’s no other choice!” Humanity knows when that is the case and when it sure isn’t. Those filled with love and pain – commitment to their people and in solidarity with all other peoples – tend to reluctantly make it clear that it may be a time when fighting may be necessary.

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Hamas video in Hebrew becomes parodied Israeli hit

Hamas produced a music video in Hebrew singing about terror attacks against Israelis and intended to intimidate them. But the strategy has backfired, as social media-savvy Israelis with their trademark dark humor remixed the catchy tune. Posting to YouTube, Israelis turned murderous lemons into oddly entertaining lemonade, including versions in a capella, acoustic, cartoon, and even animal performers.

The original:

The A Capella version (racist headgarb aside):

An eerily fitting Lion King version:

Check out the Smurf, acoustic, parrot, and diningware instrument versions. This collection selected from, of all places, Artuz 7.

VIDEO: “If Not Now” vigils against war in Israel and Gaza

Beautiful video of some of the recent If Not Now vigils. And grassroots organizing teams now opening in NYC, DC, Oakland, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Jackson, and New Hampshire. Check their site for the materials you’ll need to convene your own Kaddish vigil for all those affected in Israel-Palestine.

Tisha B’Av at Grand Army Plaza asks Israel-Gaza “If not now?”

Last night, several hundred young Jews gathered under the banner of “If Not Now” in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza to observe Tisha B’Av, the annual holiday of Jewish contrition, and read the names of those killed in recent fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. These breathtaking photos by Gili Getz capture the somber reflection of the next generation of American Jewry reflecting on their relationship to Israel, to Palestine, to war, and to peace.

I lived in Brooklyn for seven years and I recognize so many of my colleagues in the photos: rabbinical students, young Jewish professionals, lay leaders of the Jewish social justice movement, and scions of famous rabbis. This is the center of New York young Jewry. The group already held two previous anti-war vigils in New York and Washington, DC, outside the offices of the Jewish Federations of North American and the Conference of Presidents, respectively, to object to their support for the continuation of fighting between Israel and Gaza.

As studies have shown for years now, young Jews see the Middle East very differently from their parents. And this crowd attests deeply to that: the people in these photos are the cream of the crop of American Jewish education: day school-educated, engaged in religious life, Birthright and Masa alumni, and shaping the innovative efforts that establishment Jewry looks to for continuity and salvation. The generation gap is real. Very, very real.

The Genderlessness of War

When I was little, I asked my mom why girls couldn’t be soldiers.

“I think because the governments are afraid of girls. They would fight so hard, it would be too scary.” My mother always explained things in ways where I could see myself as strong. It was an empowering perspective, but I never actually wanted to fight scary hard.

Old photos and newspapers tell a different story from my mother’s. Women were delicate flowers, unable to defend themselves and their country—we can’t have them be soldiers! They’re too busy being wives and mothers! Our culture was (and still is) far more comfortable with images of young widows collapsing in tears than with images of women getting blown up along with their brothers.

Even moments when women were depicted as strong and capable, like Rosie the Riveter and women’s baseball, come from gendered war propaganda—the men were out fighting, so the ladies had to toughen up a bit and do “men’s work” until their fathers, brothers, and husbands came home.

This gendering of war strikes me as so absurd. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that death does not just affect one person at a time; each death ripples through a community like an earthquake, bringing friends and family to their knees in hopeless sorrow. Even when death comes peacefully in old age, it sends close family members reeling with emotion. And when violent death comes to the young! Look at today’s photos from any article about Gaza—anguished weeping knows no bounds, no gender or age. Old men sob over family members just as hard as the beautiful widows whom the newspapers seem to love.

I came across a few articles from the mid-1990s critiquing the pacifism of feminists as clichéd and backward. They argued that, as modern feminists, we should push back against the trope of wives and mothers opposing war on moral grounds, and in fact that we should argue in favor of what we see as “just wars.”

I find this just as absurd as the idea that only women grieve over the untimely deaths that war wreaks. Striving for a lasting peace isn’t just a feminine value; it’s a human value. I see no reason to go around looking for “just wars,” simply because one presents as female.

War is horrible, and war is just as genderless as grief.

 

A meaningful fast to all who are fasting, and a prayer for a swift end to all bloodshed.

Tonight at Grand Army Plaza: “If Not Now” group observes Tisha B’Av

If Not Now Observes Tisha b’Av: Mourning Destruction in Israel & Palestine
Monday, August 4 at 8:00 pm – 9:30 pm EST
Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, NY
RSVP on Facebook 

On the Ninth of the Jewish month of Av every year, we lament the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem, the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, and innumerable other severe brutalities committed against the Jewish people on this date in years past.

Jewish liberation is bound up with the liberation of the Palestinian people. So as we mourn the dehumanizing oppression our people has suffered, tonight we also mourn the dehumanizing oppression we are currently enabling and inflicting upon Palestinians.

May the destruction and occupation in Palestine cease. May redemption be born out of the ashes. Freedom and dignity for all.

PROGRAM

  • Explanation of Tisha b’Av & Reflections in English on violence and suffering in Israel and Palestine
  • Maariv (traditional evening service)
  • Chanting of Eicha (the Book of Lamentations): partly in Hebrew, partly in English, and partly personal contemporary lamentations
  • Name-reading of Israelis and Palestinians who have perished in the current violence
  • Mourner’s Kaddish
  • Close
  • Post-event Small Group Discussions: Being Jewish & Mourning Israel-Palestine Today

QUESTIONS & PRESS:
Contact Simone Zimmerman (simonerzim@gmail.com) & Max Cohen (maxacohen@gmail.com)

TBT: Re-Revisiting The Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting this piece I posted a year ago, right before Tisha B’Av, on the mitzvah of rebuke.  I argued that one of the consequences of living in therapy culture is that we must be more confrontational and engage in more rebuke, since the Torah commands us to do so when we’re angry, and we now have the emotional technology to do so constructively.  ”True rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence…In a culture of processing groups, conflict aversion is not piety and not even always chastened caution:  It’s reckless abandonment and sometimes it’s even mean. ”

We’re TBT’ing, because it’s still a live issue, and especially in this moment, when the Jewish community is rightly immersed in intense and urgent debate about Israel, it is all the more important not to back away from hashing out those conflicts, even as we must pursue the most constructive ways to do so.  However, I appreciate several responses I got critiquing my failure to explore the significance of power to this question.  Several respondents pointed out that when the person whom I feel violated me is someone who has power over me, it can be extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to perform rebuke; conflict-aversion may be self-protection.  Part of what makes processing groups and group therapy work is the external creation of a safe space, including the removal of the power dynamics that obtain in general.  Even if we have been trained how to speak critically and non-violently, that training is not so helpful if we don’t have control over the context.  These critiques are correct and I am grateful for them.  I also wonder whether power dynamics are actually much more prevalent in hurtful interactions than perhaps I considered a year ago.

Here is the article again.  I invite and welcome responses, especially on the question of power.

The Heroes We Won’t Hear

Max Socol is a Jewish educator and political activist in Raleigh, NC.

With so many remembrances of the Freedom Summer published in the Jewish press over the last month, it seems strange to say that something was missed. But it’s true, there is more to this story, as I learned at the 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson, MS. To my surprise, the event was a “who’s who” of Jewish political activists who have been quietly shunned from our community because of their unorthodox views on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
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How A Thirteen-Year-Old Girl Restored My Faith In Humanity

As the horrific images from Gaza continue their relentless march through my newsfeed, I am haunted by the fact that many of my closest friends and family believe that Israel is justified in its latest attack. It is disturbing to see how easily these otherwise good and decent people have been manipulated into supporting what amounts to a hi-tech massacre. To be sure, lip service is often paid to the innocent victims, but this is usually little more than a rhetorical prelude to a lengthy discussion about how Hamas is really to blame for the roughly 1,000 civilian casualties.

What a breath of fresh air it was to see this Israeli news report by Tzion Nanous. Near the end, 13 year old Tome Yechezkel, who has lived her whole life under the threat of rockets, shows more empathy and common sense than all of her political leaders(and many of my adult friends) put together. Here is my translation of the report’s moving conclusion:

Tome: I’m here my whole life. I have nothing else.

Tzion Nanous: From the moment that Tome was born, Qassam rockets have been falling in Nir Am. Here she is, 8 years ago, at the age of 5 when the alarm was called ‘Red Dawn’.

‘Red Dawn! Red Dawn!’

Tzion Nanous: Having endured Qassam rockets her whole life, after being sequestered in her house yesterday morning, she maintains a firm view of the other side.

Tome: Think about the fact that all of these bombs are falling on someone. I have a bomb shelter. If I hear ‘Red’…I have a public warning system. If I hear ‘Red’ I run to my bomb shelter. Okay. So it’s not the childhood that people dream of, running to a bomb shelter when there’s a warning. But they have no public warning system…That boom? That’s Gaza without a public warning system. The residents of Gaza who are guilty of nothing. These bombs are falling on them. It’s much easier to yell ‘They should die!’ and ‘They should go to hell!’ ‘Who cares about them? They murder our people.’ But people there are also dying. They’re also being blown up. They also can’t leave…Their life is shit. Worse than mine.

Tzion Nanous: Yuli, Tome’s mother, is scared. Not from Qassam rockets and not from infiltrators, but from the reaction of people to what her daughter just said. ‘How,’ she asks ‘have we turned into a State where compassion for the other side is a position that is almost subversive, almost illegitimate?’ It is precisely the people who live here on the border and endure [Qassam rockets] their whole life who know very well: In the end, after the war, we will need to continue to live at a distance of a few solitary kilometers [from Gaza]. The army does great work, but military force alone can’t solve the problem in the long run.”

It’s difficult to be hopeful at a time like this, but Tome gives me hope for a different kind of future. A future where it’s not so easy to get us to shut off our natural capacity for compassion. A future where the slaughter of 1,000 of our fellow human beings is not met with deflections but moral outrage. A future where I have a difficult time explaining to my grandchildren how this could have ever happened in the first place.

“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.””

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”

(More here.)

A Letter from Israel Right Now

Much of this is taken from an email to a good friend.

Tel Aviv Rally. July 2014. By A. Daniel Roth

I am glad that you got this conversation started. I need to be thinking this way about making a positive impact on the world as humans and as Jews. I have been working hard lately, getting the next round of “Achvat Amim” participants ready, and covering the situation from the border areas with Gaza, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv. I’m sorry it took me this long to write back. I’ve been learning an enormous amount about me and about the media. Writing and sitting in the studio gives you a chance to go through an analytical process, not a complete one – TV may not be built for thorough analysis at all – but something. Being in the field involves a lot more communication about what you see around you, what others say around you, and how it feels. It’s a strange and interesting world. The other day, I was walking to work and cool breeze, unusual for July, was blowing in from the West. It reminded me that I needed to write you back and it reminded me of all the pain and progress over where you are and the overbearing feeling of chaos over here.

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Nothing you post here will change anyone’s mind

The Forward has a short piece online about the changing nature of Social Media news coverage and its impact on the public perception of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza.  This article – like every article bemoaning the rapid fire, limited nature of the platform – notes that the speed at which information is disseminated changed the way we experience conflict.  But that isn’t it alone. The fact that both sides have these tools, I have to say I don’t think it is the platforms “fault” for the way we see this conflict.

The New Yorker published the translated Yediot Ahronot piece by Etgar Keret about the degradation of the civil discourse in Israel. In “Israel’s Other War” Keret laments the perversion of the deeply held value of true democratic (and Jewish) societies: that the voice of the minority has value. The phrase “Let the IDF Win” has again become a popular refrain in Israel during this conflict.  Keret notes this phrase has nothing to do with the external enemy but rather the subversive voices on the home-front. Lefties and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are lumped together with Hamas terrorists for simply disagreeing with their elected officials or expressing concern for the dead children in Gaza.

I encourage you all to read this piece but the thesis delineates that Israelis “are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism, and lack of empathy mean love of the homeland, while any other opinion—especially one that does not encourage the use of power and the loss of soldiers’ lives—is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Israel as we know it.”

But as an American living a charmed life in California I still feel this false choice forced upon me by the Jewish world. The anonymity of the key board and safety of our curated social networks insulate us to a degree that we only see and experience this conflict in the way we want to believe that it is happening. More »

A Bunch of Jews Went to Israel during “Operation Protective Edge” Just to Have Sex (and I’m Horrified)

What kind of privilege flaunting nonsense is this: Mideast War Gets Jewish American Singles Ready to Fuck. How could anyone in their right mind go to Israel for the express purpose of getting laid (on some awkward Birthright-for-people-who-are-too-old trip, too)? What kind of insensitive program plans a fun trip to Israel and then when a war breaks out says “okay, we might have to stay in a different hotel or something, but we’re definitely still going”?

People are dying!

And don’t tell me I just don’t understand because I’m not Israeli, rockets are part of normal life in the Middle East, real Israelis just suck it up and go about their business. That’s a load of crap and you know it. Things are dangerous and not letting up, and the Iron Dome isn’t foolproof. But that’s beside the point—the point is, people are dying, and some privileged dorks are trying to get laid in the blood stained rubble. Doesn’t this strike you as horrifying? Or at the very least, gauche?

It’s like having a date in a cemetery, and even though there’s a funeral going on, you’re still going to make out, because hey, you didn’t know the dead guy, so what does it matter? It matters! It’s disrespectful!

Regardless of your Israel/Palestine politics, this is just embarrassing. Can’t these people get laid on their own effed up continent? Like, really?

There are so many layers to this horror. How out of touch could someone be to decide to go be a tourist in a war zone?

If someone had some important business in Israel, like a wedding or a mandatory rabbinical program or whatever, I could see it. If someone had some really intense research, if someone wanted to learn about the conflict in horrifying ways, if someone were a journalist, etc etc. There are so many other reasons that I could see as potentially legitimate, though not my choices. But a trip for the sole purpose of flirtation? No. Just, no.

And I get that they had already planned the trip. But still, when the rockets started flying, the people running the program should have had the decency to postpone things. Even if there were no actual threats to the safety of the participants, it’s still awful. It looks bad for J-Date, and, dare I say it, it’s bad for the Jews. It turns my stomach that no one involved with this trip had the heart to think of all the people wounded and dying and all the families grieving and think, “you know what? I’ll go some other time.”

Throwback Thursday: The last Gaza wars…

This Thursday as we look back in time through Jewschool’s archives, there is unfortunately plenty of commentary and analysis from past Gaza wars.

Like a TV rerun, we see the topics and even personalities replay before us. In 2008 during Operation Cast Lead, I wrote about the necessity of Israeli human rights monitoring, Josh Frankel wrote about how other progressives should accept the use of military force sometimes, Rabbi Brant Rosen wrote about his shock at the civilian toll in Gaza. In 2012 Adam Davis wrote about Achinoam Nini being attacked by Israeli racists for her pro-peace stances, I reported from a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv, and all too many more posts. All of these can be found again in the headlines this week.

But the post I want to feature this week is a brave opinion piece from just after the 2012 Gaza flare up, Towards a More Productive Progressive Response on Gaza, by guest author Sandy Johnston. Sandy takes issue with and rebuts some of the one-sided Facebook comments made by lefties about the conflict.

I repost this today because it is easy in these times to entrench within our ideological comfort zones and take the contrapositive of our self-perceived moral opponents. That is, to knee-jerk advocate the opposite of whatever “their side” says. Alas, as Gershom Gorenberg points out, this is a historical weakness of liberals. (His article also highlights pro-war bluster is a weakness of hawks, though clearly that shortcoming kills more people than being devil’s advocate.)

If we are to be intellectually honest leaders advancing a progressive agenda, then we must not shy away from the nuance and difficulty of this conflict. Any with an easy answer is wrong. And anyone saying otherwise is an extremist.

Read it below the fold.

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Caring Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

This is a guest post by Rabbi Joshua Strom. Joshua Strom is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, where he lives with his wife Tali and their sons, Jonah and Gabriel.

Black – White. Yes – No. Israeli – Palestinian.  All – Nothing. Us – Them.

Once again we find ourselves in familiar territory. Once again our passions are inflamed. Once again the words fill the op-ed sections, our conversations, our e-mail forwards, our social media feeds:

“The right to defend itself.” “End the occupation.” “Rockets fired.” “Civilian casualties.”

And so on. And so on.

And once again, it seems, all nuance has gone completely out the window. The word “and” is replaced with “but,” negating everything that came before it, all for the sake of having the last word in our Facebook comments, our Twitter exchanges. The complexity of the events that led us here; the volatility of those directly and indirectly touched by the conflict; the range of emotion and logic spanned on a daily, if not hourly, basis; the fluctuation between hope for a better day and utter despair that peace will never come—they all seem to disappear, vanishing into thin air with a pop and a fizzle, like missiles intercepted by our own personal Iron Domes. More »