Justice and Equality for All?

By: Cantor Michael Davis

At a time that the Jewish community in the USA is getting smaller, it has gained a new text to study. The Internet is full of rabbinic interpretations of this of the recent Pew Survey on Jewish Life. As a leading rabbi in American Jewry’s largest religious denomination, the Reform movement, New York rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch’s response in the Huffington Post is significant.

Rabbi Hirsch speaks for all synagogue professionals when he promotes the synagogue as one of American Jewry’s best hopes for rejuvenation and growth. To that end Rabbi Hirsch calls for expanding synagogue membership to include unexplored constituencies, including Jews who don’t believe in God (23% of all Jews). Right now, I am teaching an introductory class in Judaism on behalf of the Reform movement. In our class on god, it was clear that many of the students do not have a belief in a living God.  Rabbi Hirsch speaks a truth that clergy have long known: synagogues are home to believers and non-believers alike. And a majority of Jews accept this. The Pew survey found that 68% of American Jews accept non-belief in God as compatible with being Jewish.

Rabbi Hirsch’s recipe for growing the Jewish community continues with an enthusiastic endorsement of the State of Israel. He is the former senior official of the Reform movement’s Zionist arm. His New York synagogue has hosted senior Israeli military officers and continues to promote the State of Israel as a Jewish value. He asserts: ““Israel makes American Jews better Jews: Israel awakens long dormant components of their Jewish identity.”  After all, 43% of American Jews in the Pew survey report that “caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.”

In charting a future that will respond to the needs and aspirations of 21st Jews, Rabbi Hirsch surprisingly gives only passing mention to a key finding of the Pew Survey.  In response to the question: “What is essential to being Jewish?” over half of American Jews(56%) replied: “working for justice and equality.” Yet Rabbi Hirsch does not find social action to be significant.

My concern is with Jews who do care deeply about Israel but do not agree with Rabbi Hirsch. Many Jews who are alive to the ongoing crisis in Israel/Palestine are supporting the Palestinian non-violent call for civic engagement through boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). They care enough to act in solidarity with the Palestinians, holding Israel accountable to bedrock Jewish values, American values: justice and equality for all. Yet these Jews have been repeatedly attacked by major Jewish organizations who reflect Rabbi Hirsch’s point of view. Witness the ADL and JCPA’s attacks on Jewish Voice for Peace (disclosure: I am a member of JVP’s  Rabbinical Council). As clergy in the Reform movement I am dismayed at my own national organization’s regrettable silence in the face of these attacks.

Far more important than how Jews treat each other is the fate of the Palestinians themselves. The Reform movement is largely silent (or acts too late to have an impact) on any Israeli issue that does not affect Reform Jews, here or in the State of Israel. It is a sad truth that, when it comes to Israel, our enthusiasm and energy are given not to justice and equality for all, but are reserved for the interests of our own community. Justice and equality for Palestinians is still off-limits in our national Jewish institutions and in most synagogues. The word “Palestinian” itself is taboo in practically all pulpits, except as a pejorative or in an Israeli context.

But the Pew survey shows that the large Jewish organizations are way off the mark here. On the question of who is included in Judaism’s “big tent” there is a dramatic divide between the leading American Jewish institutions and regular American Jews.  In response to the question: “What is compatible with being Jewish?” 89% of American Jews affirmed: “being strongly critical of Israel” is indeed compatible with being Jewish. The Reform movement, along with other branches of Judaism, is concerned with the shrinking Jewish community and seeks ways to reach out to build a larger movement. So why are Jews who support justice and equality for Palestinians through a non-violent political campaign not welcome in our synagogues?

This is the Jewish way. This is a machloket l’shem shamayim – a debate of well-meaning people on both sides. V’sofah l’hitkayem  – it will endure. This issue is not going to disappear. Inclusiveness is also the path of good sense. The best way to reach out to more Jews is to embrace an inclusive vision. Caring about Palestinian rights will bring in Jews who care about this issue.

I would challenge Rabbi Hirsch to accept into his synagogue the overwhelming majority of Jews who accept other Jews regardless of their views on Israel.  Let us bring the Jewish commitment to justice and equality into the synagogue. Let us address this Jewish taboo: what is being done on a daily basis in our name as Jews to the Palestinians. Sure, let’s debate the issues as Jews; let us not silence this crucial debate.  Barring Jews who support the Palestinian call for BDS from the Jewish community is not the way to enlarge the Jewish community.

Or, to put it in the context of the Pew survey: why are Jewish supporters of  justice and equality for the Palestinians kept out of the synagogue while Jewish atheists are welcome to pray in the House of God?