Identity, Israel, Politics

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.

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.

Please encourage Rabbi Talve to continue creating space for progressive Jewish voices for justice, equality, and peace. Rabbi Talve is an important advocate for the oppressed, persecuted, and underserved in St. Louis. Please encourage Rabbi Talve to bring her synagogue’s position on Israel in line with her progressive politics. I hope she joins us. You can email Rabbi Talve at: [email protected].
UPDATE: On Wednesday, August 13, 2014, CRC hosted and co-sponsored an event with AIPAC called “The Progressive Case for Israel.” The speaker attempted to justify the brutality of Israel’s recent war on Gaza and to excuse the Occupation by shifting the audience’s attention from the ethnic oppression of Palestinians to other relatively progressive aspects of Israeli society. Two of the JVP representatives who had addressed CRC one week earlier were detained at the entrance and called a “security threat” (for distributing flyers). Although Rabbi Talve invited both to stay for the event, AIPAC’s representatives had created such an unwelcoming environment that one decided to leave. While we support open dialogue, observers noted that CRC and Rabbi Talve embraced and aligned with AIPAC’s right-wing, pro-Occupation, and pro-war agenda and presented its message as normative and correct.
Read more about the August 13th event and its relationship to Rabbi Talve’s local activism here.
You can email Rabbi Talve at: [email protected].
Below is the full transcript of Labendz’s talk from August 6.
When I was a boy, my dad bought me a cap gun. It felt real. It was blue-steel, heavy, and bore no orange, protective bits. Sparks flew when I pulled the trigger and smoke followed. I had the gun for about ten minutes, until my mother saw it, shrieked at my father, and grabbed it away. Just one year later, in Israel, my mother stood by smiling and taking pictures as a soldier handed me, a child of eleven, his unloaded but very real M-16. He carried that gun to defend Israeli citizens. In 1988, that meant repressing the first intifada, the first popular uprising against the Israeli Occupation–against checkpoints, collective punishment, statelessness, and national subordination. At the time, my heart filled with pride to be associated with the young man. Today, I’d likely call him a boy. Today, undone by witnessing acts of ethnic violence and oppression carried out in my name and without my consent, that memory shatters my youth.

My parents raised me to love Israel and I did. I wanted to move there, to serve in its army, and to raise children in Hebrew. I still remember singing ha-Tikvah, the national anthem, with prayer-like devotion. And then, slowly, I learned that our promise land came at the expense of others. I learned about the Occupation, which is now in its forty-seventh year. I am thirty-seven. If I were Palestinian, I might never have known anything but occupation at the hands of a Jewish state. We have invested so much love, so much of who we are into the institution of a particular state that to criticize it can be terrifying.

And so I turned to our community, which I have loved and to which I have dedicated my life. I found there only silence and exclusion. I faced accusations of antisemitism. I lost friends and relatives and I worried for my career. In the 1960s, a divided American Jewish community came together around three issues: Israel, Soviet Jewry, and the Holocaust. The Soviet-Jewry issue fell away with the Cold War. The Holocaust, though recalled annually with reverence, is passing from memory into history. It no longer speaks to our younger generations as it did to ours. And we are thus left with Israel as our sole uniting factor. As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted, the State of Israel–an institution of political power–has replaced Judaism and Jewish culture at the center of our Jewish lives.

We all know the birthright program, which sends young Jews to Israel for ten days at no cost. Its founders learned from a survey in the early 1990s that our younger generation held weaker attachments to our community and also that participating in an organized trip to Israel reversed that trend for individuals. But can the solution to a crisis of meaning in our community really lie overseas? Data also show that our youths tend not to identify strongly with Israel. Its simple nationalism alienates those of us who think about belonging on more nuanced terms. Israel has driven us into the streets to protest atrocities carried our in our name and without our consent. And there, heartbreakingly, we face counter-protests from our own community in defense of occupation, in support of the ethnic division of society, and, this time, in favor of a bloody war of choice. If we have placed Israel at the center of our identities and if Israel now stands on the wrong side of history, what future can we expect? Support for Israeli politics–even if accompanied by prayers for peace–threatens to extinguish much of what is worthy of preserving in our tradition. If we do not speak, we risk not only complicity, but the alienation of future our generations.

We should be able to discuss this within our own community–and I appreciate the welcome here tonight–but instead we find silence and exclusion. Hillel International, the organization for Jewish life on college campuses, prohibits working with anyone or any organization which dares to criticize Israel at a fundamental level. This includes former Israeli soldiers who speak against the Occupation. NexDor, a local group which brings together Jewish young adults refused an offer from Jewish Voices for Peace to present its mission. Whether we love Israel or not, we made a mistake when we forgot about the richness of our heritage and its temporal and geographical breadth. We made a mistake when be believed that association with a state, an institution of political power, which is temporary and flawed by necessity, can stand in for meaningful Jewish identities. Let us not make the mistake of alienating those of us who love our traditions and our communities but who also question the morality of political nationalism and who stand against Occupation. We are a people composed of smaller sub-ethnic units, each with its own rich history, and we are sacrificing this heritage on the alter of quotidian politics.

I fear that a line has been crossed that only yesterday seemed unapproachable. The past weeks witnessed calls for ethnic cleansing in the Jewish press and the Israeli Parliament. In Israel, thugs beat anti-war protesters in front of the police and peace activists suffer intimidation. At the solidarity meeting here, I overheard one of our leaders explaining to his friend that the Israeli Consul had postponed the rally due to his schedule. This made my neighbor nervous. He did not want the war to end before the rally. Peace would have undermined its impact. There is a sickness in our community.

Some history. Political Zionism emerged as a liberation movement in response to antisemitism and nationalism. The foundation of Israel included anti-colonial aspects. Yet the settlement of Palestine by European Jews was itself an act of colonization carried out with–and in opposition to–world powers. The project as it unfolded was based in ideas of Jewish supremacy and in a particular interpretation of our traditions and history. It turned on the violent exclusion of the region’s indigenous population. After 1967, Israel established an occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. After 2005, it initiated a siege of Gaza, designed to undermine Palestinian statehood. I therefore cannot remain silent when people portray this month’s conflict in isolation from the context of forty-seven years of occupation, collective reprisal, settlement expansion, and siege. We can attribute each individual failure to achieve peace to one side, the other, or both. But we cannot ignore that despite any rationalizations, Israel has occupied Palestinians for nearly fifty years. Ask what else Israel could have done from its position of strength to pursue peace. Consider what it means to accept so many deaths and the destruction of a city as collateral damage. No matter how we judge Hamas, the assault on Gaza has demonstrated Israeli disregard for Arab life. This will not bring peace. The choices that may bring peace will present serious risks, but none more dangerous, physically and ethically, than preserving the status quo.

This does not mean that Israelis lack the right to equality in their native land. It does not mean abandoning our ties to that land. However, we must pay attention to how legacies of power make certain forms of exclusion and subordination seem normal. We must remain vigilant against our own chauvinism and listen to others. Do not believe that Israel lacks partners for peace and do not stand with those who demonstrate to Palestinians that they lack such partners.

Jewish progressives can and do enjoy many ties to Israel, but Jewish progressives cannot value Jewish lives and freedoms over the lives and freedoms of Palestinians. Our self-realization cannot come at the expense of millions without citizenship, rights, and the same prospects for their children as our own. Progressives must stand against occupation, siege, and settlement expansion. There can be no progressive support for a wars of choice. There can be no solidarity with the Netanyahu government or its representatives like Consul Gilad, which has undermined moderate Palestinians, rejected offers of peace, and expanded settlements to make a two-state solution–if it is desirable–impossible. There can be no progressive partnerships with organizations like AIPAC. Jewish unity cannot come at the expense of Jewish integrity.

Work for peace and justice, not an end to resistance. I have spoken about the damage that we do to ourselves, but that should not draw attention from those who suffer and die in Gaza and beyond. Support Palestinians in their efforts to achieve liberation and equality. Listen to their voices and follow their lead. Reconsider the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is disingenuous to insist upon non-violent resistance and then to undermine its most effective form. BDS does not delegitimize Israel. The occupation does. Do not ask Palestinians to be Zionists. It is unfair and cruel. Ask how we can together create a society free and fulfilling for all.

Those of use who have been marginalized can come together. We can drop the illusion of Jewish unity and form communities of intention. You do not need to reject Israel–though some of us do–but I implore you to reconsider its place in our community and what it means to support Israel in its present form. I do not fear Palestinians. We can withstand European antisemitism. Yet the orientation of our community horrifies me. It is alienating our next generation and killing Palestinians. The community has stolen my birthright, because my birthright cannot come at the expense of others. No child’s birthright should be a photograph with an M-16. Stand with us for peace and compassion. Thank you.
For more on the Jewish activist community, see this article: On Gaza and Ferguson

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