Occupy the Synagogue

Well before the Jewish New Year had arrived last September, it was already clear that American rabbis across the denominational spectrum were going to use their pulpits, for the most heavily-attended sermons of 2014, to endorse one of the bloodiest massacres of Palestinians in Israel’s history.

Rabbi Rachel Ain of the (Conservative) Sutton Place Synagogue in New York told the New York Jewish Week’s Steve Lipman that “the wider effects of the war” – “war” was her word for the virtually one-sided slaughter in which more than 2,100 Palestinians died (including over 500 children), six Gaza hospitals were attacked, over 150 mosques were leveled, and some 10,000 Palestinian homes destroyed – had prompted her congregation to “reaffirm its strong commitment to the people, state and land of Israel.” War fever ran just as high at the “left” end of mainstream rabbinic opinion, with Rabbi Richard Block, president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, insisting that what’s at stake is “Israel’s very existence, which Hamas seeks to eradicate, and Jews everywhere, whom Hamas aspires to exterminate.” (How Hamas plans to do all this without armor, a navy, an air force or any heavy weaponry remains unexplained.)

And what about the Orthodox – who, after all, represent the very sort of Judaism that early Zionists explicitly repudiated? Rabbi Zvi Romm, spiritual leader of the Lower East Side’s Bialystoker Synagogue, spoke of “soul-searching” in response to the devastation of Gaza; but the “soul-searching” he had in mind for Orthodox Jews “needs to include our asking ourselves how we can do more for Israel.”

And so it went.

Activists for justice in Palestine often stress that their campaign is aimed at Israel, not at Jews – an understandable position, particularly in light of Israeli propaganda’s manic insistence that every criticism of Israel is, by definition, an expression of anti-Semitism. But as a religious Jew myself, I cannot shrug off Israel’s “Jewish connection” so easily. Jews claim pride in a religious tradition that, as the dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappe once wrote, has been “the bedrock for cosmopolitanism, socialism and universalism.” But when such a tradition is conscripted by warmongers – as it clearly has been – how can other religious Jews escape the sin of complicity if we allow their abuse of our shared religion to pass without protest?

The hypocrisy of ignoring our clergy’s role in Israel’s derelictions seems particularly acute, at least to me, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest hallucinatory address to the United Nations, in which he suggested that every child blown to bits in Gaza was really a blow struck on the Syrian battlefield against ISIS. Since the only possible “link” between the two is that most Gazans are Muslims, and since Netanyahu’s assignment of religion-based collective guilt passed with little comment in the West, it’s hard to see how religious Jews can claim immunity when their leadership (unlike most Gazans) actually endorses large-scale war crimes.

And the situation is really worse than that. Mainstream Jewish publications have been virtually unanimous in endorsing religious jingoism. Just for example, the Jewish Press – the most widely read English-language Orthodox Jewish periodical in the United States – recently offered fulsome praise for an “inspirational” letter written by the commander of Israel’s Givati Brigade on the eve of his troops’ invasion of Palestinian territory. The Jewish Press was delighted that Colonel Ofer Winter, the same officer whose orders would later cause the slaughter of more than 150 victims on a single day (after the fighting was supposed to have stopped), informed the soldiers about to enter Gaza that its people “dare to curse, blaspheme and scorn the God of Israel.” This sort of thing would be bad enough if the Jewish Press took a favorable line towards all jihadis, but in fact it frequently condemns them – the Muslim variety, that is. Only when a Jewish commander called the civilians his soldiers were about to massacre the enemies of God, and urged his troops to take appropriate vengeance, did the newspaper approve. How many Jews noticed this hypocrisy, let alone condemned it?

I would like to dismiss the Jewish Press as an aberration, but my experience tells a different tale. During the assault on Gaza, traditional Jews observed an annual fast commemorating the destruction of the Holy Land thousands of years ago. I took that opportunity to post a brief comment to an on-line news site lamenting “the horror of watching Jews slaughter the innocent and hearing other Jews cheer them on.” In response, one Jewish blogger lectured me that the fast is actually meant to mourn “the destruction of the Temple whose site has been stolen by Muslims” – though of course there were no Muslims when Roman soldiers destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. Another commented that I had “unbridled chutzpah” even to raise the subject. “[E]ither you are a messianic jew,” he wrote, “in which case you are no jew at all or you’re just a misguided fool…who knows zero about his religion.” It’s hard to know how many religious Jews were reading this exchange, but I do know that not one posted a criticism of the bloggers who denounced me.

If that example seems too personal, perhaps you will remember how, about fourteen years ago, Israel’s prominent Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called Palestinians “snakes despised by God.” Actually, if you get your information from Jewish media, you may not remember those words at all – Jewish sources scarcely mentioned them. But another phrase in the same sermon, implying that Jews killed by the Nazis were atoning for sins committed in an earlier life, prompted what the New York Jewish Week’s Eric J. Greenberg called “a firestorm of negative reaction” from the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the president of something called the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. So the problem wasn’t that Jewish organizations didn’t value “Holocaust memory.” The problem was that Jewish “memory,” under the auspices of supposedly religious authority, was being appropriated for the benefit of Jews alone. Can one belong to the same religion and let that sort of swindle pass in silence?

Obviously, the answer is no. For me, as a religious Jew, it is simply impossible to avoid a critique of Jewish attitudes that affect the oppression of Palestine. The corollary of that proposition is that justice for Palestine requires, among other things, questioning both the leadership and the shortcomings of my own religion.

Where to begin? Well, Jews need to ask, for instance, why we have allowed the genuinely humanitarian strands of our tradition to be obscured by chauvinism and paranoia. We need to admit that while Jews have demanded (rightly) that Christians jettison their religion’s anti-Semitic heritage, we have so far been remarkably complacent about the bigotry toward non-Jews contained in our own religious history. We need to confront how the double standard built into too many aspects of Talmudic law-making – one ethical rule for Jews, a different rule for others – has induced religious Jews to accept the sinister double standard Israelis apply to Palestinians.

These are not easy questions, and I do mean to be glib in summarizing them. But we owe it to ourselves, as well as to Palestinians, to tackle them. “No one could ignore anymore,” wrote Ilan Pappe in 2008, retrospectively, about the groundbreaking work of Israeli dissident Israel Shahak, “the fundamental role the Jewish religion plays in the making of Israel’s criminal policies.” But if the role of religion in supporting “criminal policies” is “fundamental,” then it isn’t enough for Jews concerned about Palestine to criticize the Israeli government. As long as Jewish leaders join in the chorus of Israeli propaganda, we have to speak out against them, too – and we have to challenge the religious ideology that has made that unholy alliance possible.

In the end, in fact, we have to do more than that. Those of us who care about Judaism have to reclaim it from the manques who have corrupted it. We must occupy the synagogue, so to speak, until the synagogue truly becomes ours – and what it should be. Only then can we truly speak for humanity elsewhere.

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