Religion

Two great divrei Torah on Justice

As I sat in shul this morning, it was helpful to reflect on the parasha of this week.
As we were called to the Torah for our various work in law, justice and healing, it was helpful to meditate and reflect on a number of things in my life, including the varying responses people had to posting a varied political perspective that was critical of the occupation and war in Lebanon.
Even with my own critiques of the actions, some of which I did include in the posts, some of which I did not, I think the majority response in the posts, which is almost always overwhelmingly negative on Jewschool, was both interesting and heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because I know that when I do sit and talk with many Jews, in varying ways, people in their hearts do not want wrongdoing to happen to others, and have concerns and critiques about the occupation, and of Israel’s policies, yet rarely, in fact hardly ever do mainstream Jewish organizations include these viewpoints.
I am willing to post these varying viewpoints that are critical of Israel and will continue to do so–it is a bit tiring to me that some want to say that to be critical of Israel’s government means one is critical of its people and all Jews–that is simply not true. I am just as, if not more so, critical of the US government, and to me governments more often than not do not reflect the interests or opinions and hearts of their people. And ultimately, it is not one-sided to critique governments that have more political and global power in different, and potentially, harsher ways, than nations and goverments that do not. Amnesty International has first-hand information that points to an Israeli policy of deliberate destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure during the recent conflict in which almost one million people — one-quarter of Lebanon’s population — were displaced in the month-long Israeli assault. Israel carried out more than 7,000 air attacks. Over 1,000 Lebanese were killed (one-third of them children); over 4,000 were wounded –view AI’s video documentation here. In this time, 175 Palestinians and 51 Israelis were also killed. To critique these governments is an honest reflection of the global world that we live in today–“with great power comes great responsibility”. It does not mean that people do not care about the lives that are lost in Israel, or that people do not care about their own people–rather it means that they, that we, care deeply. If readers need to make this out to be about me, then that’s unfortunate, because it misses the larger issues and ultimately doesn’t serve us as individuals and as communities trying to think about justice in its many forms. If you know me, as in if you know me off this internet “community” with its limitations in being able to actually have conversations, you’d know that I believe that things are complicated, nuanced and that ultimately I believe in finding nuanced ways to reach people. I wish the actions had done more to open up the messaging to reach more people. And I also wish that more people would be open to taking the risks that the people in the actions did in naming the atrocities that are taking place. Many of the folks involved are deeply involved in Jewish communities, in Jewish learning and organizing, yet that’s not “seen”–partly because it is almost impossible to work (as in be a paid staff/employee) in the Jewish world today and be able to voice criticism of the occupation and Israel’s actions, yet there are many who are employees who have critiques. So what happens–people have to hide. Well, people don’t want to hide anymore and people want to say what they feel, even if it will be unpopular. It is no coincidence in my eye that many involved in this work are also already marginalized within Jewish communities, in being queer, trans and Jews of color–for we already know what it is to be outside. To take the risk in criticizing Israel, to be seen as outside, is something we already know. And it is no coincidence in my eye that the language then includes discussing people as “freaks”–for we know all to often how truly “welcome” we really are.
At this point, more often than not, I am more interested in the work that happens around the kitchen table, in the conversations between people where a different kind of growth and honesty can happen–where we can express our questions, fears, lack of knowledge, awareness, etc–where people engage with each other and try to meet each other where we are–and while some may critique the actions for this reason, the blogs, in many ways, are not about that work either. More often than not the “conversations” are just as polarized, just as staunch and rigid and just as limited. So if one is to critique direct action for this, as a friend of mine this weekend so eloquently put, one must also critique the blogs for the very same reason. So, lets take a look around ourselves, at what it is to engage with this project and ask ourselves, how much justice, how much conversation and engagement with each other are we willing to pursue?
If you enjoy reading parashat, check out Rabbi Jill Jacob’s piece on jspot and radicaltorah.
Also an excerpt from Melissa Simon’s piece on Mosaic:

This week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim, or “magistrates,” is about creating a just society. It is part of Moses’ closing speech to the Children of Israel. The Israelites are standing and waiting to go into the Land, but Moses is unable to go with them. Because of Moses’ bad behavior in the desert, he will be left behind as the Israelites go on to the promised land.
In Moses’ speech, he provides ethical and administrative norms to be followed by the community. A dominant word within this parasha is tzedek, “righteous” or “justice.” The word occurs six times in the Torah and 68 times in the entirety of the Tanakh.
What is justice? Many modern Jews, myself included, take pride in our faith’s commitment to social change. “Social justice” has become a sort of buzzword for young Jewish activists working in a variety of fields. As a Reform rabbinical student, I take particular pride in my denomination’s leadership role in certain areas of social justice. The idea of a just society is rooted in our most holy text, the Torah. According to W. Gunther Plaut, a leading commentator on the Torah, “no people gave as much loving attention to the overriding importance of law equitably administered and enforced as did Israel.”
What, then, does a just society look like for LGBTQ people? This week’s Torah portion says “they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Plaut suggests that this roots the ultimate administrative power in the people, rather than the king. This leads us to ask questions of our own lives. How can our leaders lead justly? How can we be leaders in our own community? How can the people create their own just society?
In Parashat Shoftim we are commanded “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” Deuteronomy 16:20). The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. Why does the word tzedek, “justice,” repeat twice? There is a Chassidic teaching that the word justice is repeated because “in matters of justice one may never stand still. The pursuit of justice is the pursuit of peace. Do justly so that justice may be engendered.”
We all must take a stand for justice wherever we see injustice taking place, not only for our own communities, but also for those in need of our support. The work of Citizens to Restore Fairness was accomplished through the work of people of all races, of many religions and across the entire spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is through embracing our diversity that we have the power to create change.

19 thoughts on “Two great divrei Torah on Justice

  1. sorry, meant to ask what makes you a modern jew? (not as a you-against-me type of a thing). azoi shraibt min, ven min tracht in tzyoinish. nu nu….

  2. Funny, I read this today too in the Parasha:
    “When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. 11 And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary unto thee, and shall serve thee. 12 And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it. 13 And when the LORD thy God delivereth it into thy hand, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword; 14 but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take for a prey unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. 15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations. 16 Howbeit of the cities of these peoples, that the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth, 17 but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; 18 that they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods, and so ye sin against the LORD your God. {S} 19 When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? 20 Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down, that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall.”
    Seems to me that if we were to follow Torah, we’d have to kill every single male in Lebanon, huh? And cut down all of its non-fruit bearing trees, too.
    I’m certainly not for that.

  3. Cole: I have certainly never said that you can’t be critical of Israel. As long as you are even handed in your criticism, you’ll have no problem with me. But you and your gang go on and on about “genocide” perpetrated by the Israelis while virtually ignoring the horrific things done by the other side and when your critique makes it seem as if Israel is the sole party responsible for violence in the middle east, well… then we have a problem. Criticise all you want – you’ll find that in Israel many staunch supporters of the State and of Zionism do a lot of criticising too – but don’t pretend you’re fair and even handed when all we hear from you is the same one-sided tripe.

  4. Cole,
    Thank you for writing this piece and expressing views many of us share. Yes, Israel was attacked by Hezbollah and had a right to defend herself. However, some of us question the action that was taken to destroy Hezbollah. I know it was difficult because of the actions of Hezbollah and it was frustrating to hear others critique Israel’s actions without understanding the full picture. However, we can say that Israel was right to defend herself and then go on to critique how she did that.

  5. “I am willing to post these varying viewpoints that are critical of Israel and will continue to do so–it is a bit tiring to me that some want to say that to be critical of Israel’s government means one is critical of its people and all Jews–that is simply not true.”
    Please. Do we need to go through this again. This is just a variation of the argument that any criticism of Israel is decried as anti-Semitism in order to squash dissent. It’s a tired canard promoted by the likes of Alexander Cockburn (“The Politics of Anti-Semitism”) and is simply not true. As I’ve mentioned, CK has mentioned, and even Abe Foxman from the ADL has mentioned criticism of Israel is not a problem. What matters is what sort of criticism is levelled at Israel? Is Israel held to a double-standard?
    “Amnesty International has first-hand information…”
    When AI’s director made that statement comparing our treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to the Soviet Gulag the organization lost all credibility. Honestly, to compare what is happening at Gitmo–bad as it is–to a system of punishment and incarceration that killed millions is appalling. I always thought AI took pride in their honesty but now I know better. Plus, I think we can all remember how people on the far left had “first-hand information” about the Jenin “massacre” that never happened.
    “If you know me, as in if you know me off this internet “community” with its limitations in being able to actually have conversations, you’d know that I believe that things are complicated, nuanced and that ultimately I believe in finding nuanced ways to reach people.”
    Then why do you post links to organizations and individuals whose views of reality are anything but complex?
    George Galloway
    Counterpunch
    WBAI
    &c
    And you’re right, it isn’t about you, it’s about a radical movement that is so out of touch with reality that they think the United States, one of the freest countries in the world, is on the verge of becoming a fascist police state, a radical movement that feels it is silenced when in fact it is ignored by people who do not care for their brand of politics, and a radical movement that fronts like it stands for progressive “social justice” issues but does nothing concrete to achieve improvements in individuals’ lives.
    Dialog, yeah, I’m all for it. I like discussing things and hanging out with people who think differently than I do on most things. I realize there are a variety of perspectives in the Jewish community, in New York City (where I live), in the U.S., and in the world. But in order to have a frank, rational and fruitful discussion, the discussants need to share a common framework: objective reality.
    If people choose to look at the world the way they wish it was (not the way it is) and act accordingly, they are going to engage in some pretty foolish forms of politics that may make them feel good but that amount to zero social change. If people choose to look at the world the way it is, with all its complexities and problems, they are on a much more solid basis to address those problems. We all, as individuals, make that choice.

  6. ck, you wrote:
    ” I have certainly never said that you can’t be critical of Israel. As long as you are even handed in your criticism, you’ll have no problem with me”
    Here, I disagree with you. In a nationally neutral media source, that is correct. The goal of such a news team would be to report what happens, and put it into context. that means understanding both sides of the story and clarifying both evils and goods on either side of the fence. However, the last time I looked, Jewschool was no such neutral place, and neither is my dining room. We are clearly on one side of this battle, tied to the fate of one side, and have the ability to impact the actions of only one side. therefore, it is that side that we are critical of.
    Every one of our readers knows of the atrocities that Hezbollah has performed, or that any of Israel’s enemies engages in, however, they are not necessarily aware of the mistakes our own people make. As well, any complaints about Hezbollah that we make, can’t possibly help hte world, but our criticism of Israel can help to change.
    We post and discuss things taht we can do something about. This is the same in Israeli – neighbor relations, as it is in our discussion of American policy. Productive, fair discussion of Katrina does not involve listing all of the damages inflicted by this storm, but rather in understanding our preparations and responses to it. Injustice will continue in the world, and there will always be evil, we must continue to discuss whether we give in to it, or stand strong for our principles.

  7. Josh, you write:
    “We are clearly on one side of this battle, tied to the fate of one side, and have the ability to impact the actions of only one side. therefore, it is that side that we are critical of.”
    If I’m reading this correctly, it makes sense to me and I agree.
    I think many of us are liberals or progressives or leftists and we have an obligation to be critical in that respect as well. Mobius has posted some excellent articles in this regard (see the ones on left-wing anti-Semitism) but as a whole this sort of rigourous self-reflection is not taking place on the progressive left. Instead the blame is placed on others–the “neocons” the religious right–for the movement’s political failures.
    And for many of the Jews on the radical left in the United States who I know well or have briefly met–I am not talking about liberals or democratic socialists–they do not see their lives tied to fate of Israelis at all. If anything, their ideology and even, in some cases, their identity is tied to the other side in this conflict. Or it’s tied to some universalist aspirations of international socialist solidarity (no, I’m not kidding). It’s not tied to being ethnically or religiously Jewish and it’s certainly not tied to Israel. For these people Israel is a “colonialist settler-state” perpetuating “apartheid” and “genocide.”
    “Every one of our readers knows of the atrocities that Hezbollah has performed, or that any of Israel’s enemies engages in, however, they are not necessarily aware of the mistakes our own people make.”
    I think most, the vast majority, of the people reading Jewschool are well-aware of the mistakes “our own people make.” After all, we Jews have been reading about and discussing the mistakes made by our people for thousands of years.

  8. “Do we need to go through this again. This is just a variation of the argument that any criticism of Israel is decried as anti-Semitism in order to squash dissent.”
    Yes, unfortunately we do need to go through this again because that is what people were doing.
    I think Counterpunch and WBAI provide interesting commentary–you don’t have to agree with it and it may not be nuanced to you, but to others it is…I’ve also posted about a lot of other people and places, media outlets and ideas, so you can keep beating the same drum, but if you’re gonna call for balance then note when you’re not representing accurately…i write about lots of different things…
    “If people choose to look at the world the way they wish it was (not the way it is) and act accordingly, they are going to engage in some pretty foolish forms of politics that may make them feel good but that amount to zero social change. If people choose to look at the world the way it is, with all its complexities and problems, they are on a much more solid basis to address those problems. We all, as individuals, make that choice.”
    So what’s your choice WEVS1 because apparently from the way you post you have the moral highground over a number of organizations and people? You bring a lot of large sweeping generalizations about the left and so forth based on your personal experiences, which I can tell weren’t great–so why don’t you at least engage with us by being clear about why those were challenging experiences–meaning, why don’t you talk about what was hard for YOU rather than only denouncing not only individuals, but apparently organizations including Amnesty International, as uncredible–who is credible to you? Based on what you have posted, it doesn’t seem like much. And to judge other’s realities as not “objective reality” honestly just sounds elitist. So what is change to you? What do you do that you believe in, that you support? Why don’t you share another side of yourself?

  9. fyi arik i don’t know if melissa really reads this site…i just posted some of melissa’s writing from mosaic

  10. Cole, I actually was pretty specific in my comments above and, I think, in my comments generally. I’ve written several times in my references to the radical left that I am not talking about liberals or democratic socialists. I’m talking about self-styled revolutionaries, the type of people who write for “Counterpunch,” rant at WBAI, and so forth. In other words people who think ideological posturing is equivalent to politics. And on that topic, WBAI and Counterpunch are simply the Fox news of the radical left. Both are devoid of complexity or nuance. Anyone who claims that Israel is engaging in “genocide” has no conception of what that term means. Anyone who claims Zionists control the U.S. government should be called out for the scumbags they are.
    To be clear, I am not talking about a “moral high ground.” I think most people think they are good, it’s just part of who we are. I am talking about politics in terms of political success and political failure. Politics as a venue where competing ideas and interests clash, where people vote on these ideas and the winners determine policy.
    “generalizations about the left and so forth based on your personal experiences, which I can tell weren’t great…”
    I base my analysis on my understanding of history and politics, on historical and political evidence, not opinion. To provide an example. I’ve read here on a couple of occasions people claiming that poverty causes terrorism. To refute this I posted links to three studies by social scientists (one economists, two political scientists) that falsify that claim by empirical evidence, not opinion.
    And before you engage in any long-distance psychoanalysis (always a mistake), my personal experiences on the radical left actually weren’t that bad. I mostly hung out with anarchists, not authoritarian leftists in groups like ANSWER, ISO, SWP, etc. What’s not to like about shaking your fist at “the man,” marching with puppets, reading books published by AK Press, and all that other fun stuff. My point is that the politics of all these groups are a dead end. In the end the marches, the demos, the rallies, the meetings, amount to no social change. But it feels good and you can convince yourself you’re on the right side of history, struggling against nefarious forces who, in your words, are trying to “silence” you.
    I always recommend Richard Hofstatder’s “Paranoid Style of American Politics” to my radical friends. It’s concise, well-written, and convincing. Here’s a choice bit:
    “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”
    This sound like anyone? WBAI? Counterpunch? Galloway? et al. It sure does to me.
    Amnesty International shot their own credibility with that silly uninformed comment. The “new gulag”? Please. This is what I’m talking about when I say radicals have a problem with objective reality. And it isn’t unique to the radical left, the radical right says crazy, uniformed things all the time as well. Any organization that would claim a few hundred prisoners being held in wack conditions—and a few deaths in those prisons—is the same as a penal system that was responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings is simply not in touch with reality. They’re like the people who said the Holocaust never happened.
    The same sort of people claim that 1,500 Palestinians killed in a year and half of the second Intifada constitutes genocide. Again, no sense of objectivity or reality. If Israel had a policy of genocide, with all its military capacity, why has the IDF only managed to kill less than 2,000 people in close to two years? Don’t you think if there were such a policy, a heck of a lot more people would be dead? These are the kind of questions people ask when they are objective and when they deal with the world the way it is. We don’t scream “genocide” every time someone is killed. We certainly lament human death but we have a sense of comparison, of nuance, of balance.
    Both extremes–left and right–do not share this sense of balance. Everything is black and white. And their ideologies–anarchism, communism, fascism–are not reality-based. They are ideological fantasies about the way the world operates. When these people are politically weak, as they are in the U.S., they are ignored and marginalized. This is a good thing. When these people have power and are able to implement their fantasies into political programs, we are in trouble. Then you have the gulag, concentration camps, etc.
    Since you asked, the best way to achieve social change to IMHO is reform. Our constitutional framework has facilitated bargaining, compromise, and eventual progress on numerous passionately debated issues—public school desegregation and civil rights, regulation pf the environment, establishment of central bank, federalism etc. I know it ain’t sexy, it ain’t revolutionary but it works in this country. Revolutionary posturing is, well, just that.

  11. That video from Amnesty says nothing and reveals nothing. In fact, you could have replaced the Lebanese with Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) and you would have ended up with the same video. The difference, however, would have been that Hizbullah shot their rockets indiscriminately into Israeli population centers while Israel targeted Hizbullah facilities and areas where they operated. This is why it is one section of Beirut that is primarily destroyed and not all of Beirut. This is why the NY Times had a photo, some days into the war, showing the destruction in one part of Beirut and people sitting in a cafe in another part of town.
    What is truly incredible about what you write, Krawitz, is that you accept one sided lies. The “die in” which you supported represents what, in your opinion? Is it even-handed? Does it represent that state of things? Or is it a biased one sided attack on Israel that ultimately weakens it greatly? You don’t recognize a PR bonanza for the enemy when you promote it? I’d understand if it were justified, but it wasn’t justified. You signed and promoted a petition that falsely represents the history of this conflict and essentially takes a false anti-Israeli narrative and presents it as fact. You then promote the most egregious lie about it which is to claim that “Jews of conscience” are in support of that document. Jews of conscience don’t lie to achieve historical goals. We might expect that from Arafat, the PLO or Hamas, but not from Jews of Conscience. There is plenty to critique with respect to Israel’s behavior over the years, by the way, but that is not the same as lying about the conflict and its origins with the intent of weakening Israel.

  12. Oy. These complaints against Cole’s posts sound much like the attacks on those who oppose the Bush-Cheney regime. Just because I despise them, does not mean that I wish to ‘weaken’ the US, or am not a patriot.
    Had Israel negogiated with Hamas after the capture of Cpl Shalit (anybody remember HIM?), it is doubtful that Hizbollah would have taken the ‘opportunity’ to abduct/capture (depending on whose side of the border they were on) and kill other Israeli soldiers. Does anyone know that one of Hiz’ demands (apart from the freeing of political prisoners) was a map to the land mines Israel left behind?
    When the attack on Qana made the news, and I heard that a lot of the children casualties were handicapped, I wondered if it was something like the large deaf population in Gaza (the Old Gazans intermarried to keep the money in the same families). Imagine my shock to find out that the handicaps were related to the land mines.
    Imagine my increased nausea when the IDF soldier was killed by one of these mines, and several other soldiers wounded.

  13. Thanks WEVS1. I do reform work for my paid job–I see the merits of it in many respects, along with the limitations, and have engaged with reform work for a number of issues. It’s how this country works in many respects, yes, but I don’t think reform work is the only viable method of “social change”. In fact, I think people who dream, who push, who some may say are not in “objective reality” are critical to pushing this country forward, and have actually been some of the best leaders (even though I don’t like to say or validate the idea of “a” leader because all leaders had multiple people helping them) because along with doing reform work they continued to push beyond the idea that incremental reform is the only answer.
    Almost all movements for social change had much much more to them than calls for reform or changes in litigation. The visions were much biggers, the dreams and aspirations bolder, the heart of it beyond the idea that incremental reform would “bring” people freedom. From abolitionists to suffragists to activists and journalists of today, they all did so much more than just call for reform–and ultimately, I don’t think that reform would be successful without those calls. So, I say dream. I say it’s good for people to dream–sometimes it means people’s actions don’t have as “big” of an impact, but how do we weigh it. Ultimately, it’s changing some people’s lives, it’s making, even if small, it’s making a small difference. So it’s a form of change–but even still, really, I have to say when I think of the burgeoning of almost all social movements, they never came from the place of incremental reform. They came from people pushing back against the violence they were experiencing, from saying enough. Their messages may have been, dare I say, coopted to be something different over time, but ultimately, people were angry, expressing that anger and rage, and ultimately love for their communities and their lives and not necessarily focused on reframing a legislative bill. So I say, learn from all of it–even if what the learning is is also what it means to dream, to see life differently, to think of the world in a different way. That’s a good thing to do if you want and believe in change–just as artists help people reach a different side of ourselves, so to I think engaging with people who push us (even if it pushes us to say, no I’m not there, I don’t agree, that’s not me) is a good thing. We become more solid in who we are.

  14. And btw thanks for clarifying–you had said that your experiences on the left weren’t great, so I was basing it off that. One thing though I would say is not to generalize all of WBAI or Counterpunch as though they are all the same thing–sure as WBAI has gone down in funding some of the shows are not great, but some of them are still pretty good, and though I didn’t quote counterpunch (i was posting someone else’s response) i have read some of the pieces and they were thought provoking in one form or another. but again, as i stated before, i post links to a number of media venues, many “traditional”, many not–(but i guess there’s no critique of traditional media lol–just kidding i’m sure you have critiques).

  15. And you sign petitions with lies and support “die ins” that attack Israel unfairly while ignoring its enemy in the very same war even as it targets civilian centers and kills Israeli civilians. How “progressive.”

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