It isn’t exactly easy to speak out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine as a professional Jew. The institutions with power within our community maintain strong Israel-at-all-costs politics, despite their otherwise progressive exteriors. The mainstream Jewish community overwhelmingly votes blue, supports social welfare programs, racial justice, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and other issues we declare as tikkun olam (translation: a Jewish tenet that means repairing the world).
But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, the trauma kicks in and the reactionary self-preservation mindset takes over.
Jewish people have been subjected to a long history of genocide, expulsions, pogroms, forced conversions, and every other sort of oppressive “othering” anyone can imagine. In every time and place, this has been our lived realities. Throughout such difficult times, there has always been a yearning for our people to return to our spiritual homeland and to live in the ultimate peace that our return would theoretically bring. Judaism springs from Israel/Palestine, all our holy sites are there, all our sacred texts take place in and around that land, and our liturgy has spoken of our hope to return for over a thousand years.
However, the moment Theodore Herzl wrote of his desires to mimic European colonialist policies in the Holy Land, variously comparing the Jewish conquering of Israel to the Americas, South Africa, and the intellectually superior cities of Venice and Vienna throughout his writings of the late 19th and early 20th century, the political movement of (what some describe as) settler colonialism took over our dream of holistic return to the Holy Land. The moment the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in 1946, the hope for a peaceful creation of a Jewish state was destroyed. The moment Kiryat Arba was established for civilian settlement in 1968 in the West Bank, the occupation of land taken as a part of Israel’s defense in ’67 became officially illegal by international law.
These are painful truths for many in the Jewish community to face. The trauma of the 1930s and ’40s fueled the intensity of the violent creation of the Jewish state. The existential threat of the Six-Day War and the incredible victory of the Israeli military validated all claims to land in the region.
No, this isn’t a history lesson—it’s the necessary context to understand what is happening right now. Reports from Gaza describe this as the worst Israeli aggression they have ever experienced, more so than even 2008 or 2014. Reports from Israel describe more consecutive days in bomb shelters for Israelis than ever in their lifetimes, fearing qassams (rockets deployed by Hamas) reaching even farther beyond the Gaza borders than in years past. The factual details of the legal case around Sheikh Jarrah—the neighborhood in Jerusalem at the heart of the “real estate dispute”—seem purposely obfuscated and there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the deeds, rents, and proceedings.
So here is what I do know: Eviction for any reason against any people amid an ongoing global pandemic is dangerous and immoral. The death toll in Gaza has reached 200 from the violence just within the past two weeks, including 59 children. The death toll in Israel has reached 10, including 2 children. While any loss of life is heartbreaking, the incredible disparity in casualties raises questions about Israel’s claim of self-defense, as does the unprecedented attack on the press with the bombing of the AP and Al-Jazeera offices.
Now let’s talk about the attacks on Al Aqsa, a mosque in Jerusalem, on the final weekend of Ramadan, which have not been discussed enough in mainstream media or Jewish circles. I understand that the death tolls and rocket fires make for better headlines and pictures in the news. I know we love to position this as an easy Hamas Terror vs. Israeli Defense Forces conflict. But truthfully, the actions inside the mosque were the most triggering for this rabbi.
When the Arab states attacked Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, it was considered a doubly grievous act for the fact of violating a holy day. American Jews have been extra aware of the importance of safety and sanctity in our houses of worship since the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway. And yet, on the last Friday of Ramadan, a holy time for prayer and communal gathering, the IDF entered into the mosque and fired stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets on the worshippers. Monday night, when a tree on the compound caught fire, Jewish worshippers at the Kotel below cheered, chanted, and sang in hopes that the mosques would burn. While the cheering of “extremists” on Monday was condemned pretty widely by American Jewish institutions, the attack on a holy site by military forces went largely unacknowledged.
I am beyond disappointed in my community. The double meaning of sanctuary as a holy place and a safe space is for a reason. There is never an excuse to desecrate a house of worship with weapons. How can we pretend that this is all about self-defense, Jewish safety, or the fight against global antisemitism if we can’t respect others’ holy sites and right to pray and gather as a community?
I’d hoped to see the Reform movement, my denominational home and always at the forefront of social justice fights, speak out against Israeli aggression and the U.S. military support for the violence. Instead, the statement issued in this moment focused on Hamas’s attacks and doubled down on the need to stand by Israel. T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights and an organization I am proud to be a member of, issued a more even-handed response acknowledging the Israeli aggression—which was then criticized by Reform rabbis within a closed Facebook group for not spending enough of the word count on Hamas.
In short: I feel betrayed by the institutions I was raised in for not living up to the values I was taught and try to still live by myself.
As a rabbi, I continue to pray for the safety of all Israeli and Palestinian civilians living in this crisis and for the One who makes peace in the Heavens to bring peace down to us on earth. And as a member of IfNotNow, I am committed to action and to joining my generation in pushing our communities toward evermore progressive policies, removing the American Jewish support for the Occupation, and toward fighting for dignity and freedom for all Israelis and Palestinians.
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