There for Each Other: On Anti-Semitism, Christian Privilege and Palestine Solidarity

The following is a transcript of Rabbi Alissa Wise’s remarks to the Friends of Sabeel North America Conference in Vancouver, BC April 2015.

As a young girl, I attended a Jewish day school in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bus I took to school was shared with the local Catholic day schools as well. I didn’t ride that bus for that long. After a few months, some of the kids on the bus started to tease me, asking if they could see my horns. I was quite naïve about what that meant. I thought they were just being silly. Today, I hope I know a bit more about the history of anti-Semitism in the Christian world and the wrong-headed myths about who Jews are.

At that Jewish Day School, education about the Nazi Holocaust was a centerpiece of our learning. In High School, I visited Auschwitz, Majdonek and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps with my Jewish youth movement. We were told stories of how the Christian world was complicit in Nazism and their crimes. I sobbed and wailed at each visit to the camps, horrified and disturbed. I knew then my life would be about interrupting today’s violence and hatred however I could.

In my twenties, I was inspired by the White Rose, a nonviolent group of Christian Germans who organized against Hitler’s regime. My first year in rabbinical school I adopted as my spiritual mentor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, ethicist, and activist who was to me the embodiment of a spiritual leader. He was someone with vision, courage, passion, clarity and purpose. The model of both the White Rose and Bonhoeffer, that of those who benefit from the systems of power and oppression actively opposing and resisting it with their lives, continues to feed me in this work.

As for my Christian counterparts, I see you all working hard to get out from underneath the history of Christian violence against Jews, and I know that our work together as Jews and Christians to stand with justice and equality for Israelis and Palestinians is central to our ability to navigate their internalized messages of guilt and heavy conscience.

As a rabbi, working to support the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s efforts to pass a resolution calling for selective divestment from companies that profit from human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I am engaging with my Christian counterparts in deep, if unconventional, ways.  For my part, I am continuing to unlearn the legacy of trauma messages I got growing up like “no one will save us” or “we are all alone in the world”. Those dead-end ideas can lead to behaving out of a place of fear or vulnerability, rather than hope and resilience.

By a raise of hands…

– How many in the room are familiar with the claim by some large Jewish institutions that critique of Israel is anti-Semitic?

– How many of you feel like these charges have been made falsely?

Many of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – have had accusations of anti-Semitism lobbed at us for standing up for justice, equality and freedom for all people.

As we all know, there is a conscious strategy that has been developed by large Jewish institutions and Israel itself, to attempt to blur or even completely erase the lines between Israel and the Jewish people.

I want to be very clear that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel and there is nothing anti-Semitic in the BDS call by Palestinian civil society. It is a conditional call that will end when conditions of oppression end; that targets state policies, not the Jewish people. It is based on standards of universal human rights and international law that are specifically not reliant upon ethnicity or religion.

That being said, when I get asked how to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism i do caution people to ask themselves if they are in fact anti-Semitic. While there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic in critiquing Israel, that does not mean you do not also harbor anti-Semitic sentiments toward Jews. This is something worth exploring personally and perhaps also in your congregations or organizations.

As with all oppressions, anti-Semitism manifests institutionally, like the quotas at US universities that were in place until the 1970s, but also interpersonally – like ideas of Jews as greedy, controlling, rich, powerful – and also it is internalized by many Jews, leading some Jews to behave out of a place of fear or vulnerability.

Anti-Semitism, just like other forms of oppression, lumps all Jewish people together and assigns us a set of characteristics. Some of the stereotypes we hear include: Jews are rich, Jews are stingy, Jews are smart, Jews control the media, or Jews are to blame for whatever the current crisis is. Even when these stereotypes are framed positively, being reduced as an individual to having assumed attributes based on our religion can be very dehumanizing. That includes the idea that all Jews are implicated by the deeds of the Israeli government.

But – and here’s where things get complicated – that notion can be turned on its head, because Israel specifically defines itself as the state of all the Jews in the world, rather than a state of all its citizens. Israel itself may in fact be the greatest contributor to this fallacy.

To complicate things further, while critiquing Israel is not anti-Semitic, for some Christian Zionists, supporting Israel is.

Apocalyptic Christian Zionist John Hagee was recently quoted affirming that he does indeed believe that the Jewish people are going to burn in Hell for all of eternity unless they abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity. There is hardly a more deeply anti-Semitic notion than that.

While this example illustrates that anti-Semitism certainly does still exist in the here and now, it has largely lost its power in the US.  It does not keep us from jobs, schools, access to health care, housing, or positions of influence.  In other words, Jewish people are not impeded in any material way from pursuing the life of our choosing.

Anti-Semitism has been cyclical throughout history and deeply connected with other systems of oppression. Anti-Jewish sentiment has always served the interests of classism and white supremacy, by placing Jews as middle agents and scapegoats for the crimes of the ruling classes, thus obscuring the structural nature of injustices.

While the recents attacks in France are sobering, we have not seen that level of interpersonal violence against Jews in the US and Canada. Yet, there are still occasional outbursts against Jewish targets that helps keep Jewish fears alive. And despite the lack of structural barriers for Jews in the US, we still live in a country whose dominant culture is Christian. Many Jews in the US and Canada still feel very much like the “other” in society, as do other non-Christian people.  These feelings are real, and not easy.

I also need to name here: it is essential, when we talk about anti-Semitism, that we do so understanding the breadth of Jewish experience – Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern, North African, Asian and Spanish descent have had a very different historical relationship to anti-Semitism than those of us who are Ashkenazi, of Eastern European descent. Even when we are reflecting on histories and realities of oppression against Jews, we bump against the relative privilege of us Jews of Eastern European origin. The vast majority of Jews in the US and Canada are Ashkenazi and are thus generally classified as white, with all the race privilege that entails. The important and urgent topic of both internal and external racism within the Jewish community is not something i have time to delve into today, but still felt important to name.

So – it is a balancing act of being sensitive to Jewish history and trauma, without pulling punches about today’s reality. While Jews in the US have more political, economic, cultural and intellectual status than perhaps ever before, the Jewish narrative is still about vulnerability. Part of the work that we as progressive Jews need to take responsibility for is challenging that narrative.

It means that we all, collectively, need to be able to hold, simultaneously, the idea that anti-Semitism in our society is still real, if not very potent at this moment; and at the same time, recognize and fight how accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as an effective weapon to silence debate on Israel. In the US we are up against attempts to codify re-definitions of anti-Semitism that would encompass advocacy to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian human rights. This represents a scary and dangerous development and if successful, formidable obstacle in our nonviolent activism to ensure Palestinian human rights.

A bill was recently passed by the UCLA student government along these lines. The lawyers at Palestine Legal Support have said this about the proposed legislation making its way through campus and statewide legislatures:

The definition is so broadly drawn — and its examples so vague—that any speech critical of Israel could conceivably fall within it.

Likewise, any criticism of Zionism — which questions Israel’s definition as a state that premises citizenship on race, ethnicity, and religion — is considered anti-Semitic under this re-definition, because such speech can be seen as “denying Israel the right to exist” as a Jewish-only state.

Legislating a new definition is a new tactic that is evidence of the desperation of those fighting against the growing strength of BDS.

In light of these efforts, it is all the more critically important to speak out. For those of us who are Jewish in the movement, we strongly feel the obligation – strategically and morally – to speak out when false charges of anti-Semitism are used to tar the movement.

As Jews we often find ourselves in a position of privilege in this realm.  Partially this is because Jews can be the most effective at rebutting the accusations of anti-Semitism which can paralyze BDS efforts, and partially because our overall place in society, and our perceived connection to Israel, gives us greater credibility by society at large than Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian people.

At Jewish Voice for Peace, we try to use our privilege strategically when we can (for example, there is a reason it was useful to the conference organizers for the JVP Rabbinical Council to issue a statement of support for this conference). We also try  -though don’t always succeed – to not participate in reinforcing the very structures of power and inequity that the BDS movement is trying to address.

Nevertheless, as progressive people who are part of a social justice movement who should model the change we want to see in the world — we all need to speak out to make sure that everyone’s full humanity is respected in all cases and at all times.

It is both an ethical imperative and a strategic one to speak out against anti-Semitism if you hear it.  This movement is hurt any time a truly anti-Semitic statement is made, just as it is when we perpetuate systems of privilege – as Jews or as Christians – that we need to dismantle to win.

To that end, I offer  a challenge to you all as Christians in this movement: what can you all do to confront and address Christian hegemony in the world, and in our work organizing for justice? I have frankly been surprised that I am often the person to raise this questio, and hope to see organizations like Friends of Sabeel acknowledge, unpack and address Christian privilege, just as we at JVP do the same as I just explained with Jewish privilege.  Bringing in a Jew to talk on this topic is no replacement for doing the hard work of examining the legacy and current realities of anti-Semitism – and Islamophobia – in Christian communities, and Christian dominance in our culture.

For example, this could look like doing study groups about the legacy of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Christianity.

It could look like workshopping ways Christian dominance manifests in our media, educational systems, and pop culture, for example, reflecting on questions such as:

– Have you ever been given a school vacation or paid holiday related to Christmas or Easter when school vacations or paid Holidays for Ramadan or the Jewish High Holidays were not observed?

– Are public institutions you use, such as offices, buildings, banks, parking meters, the post office, libraries, and stores, open on Fridays and Saturdays but closed on Sundays?

– Is the calendar year you observe calculated from the year designated as the birth of Christ?

– Have you ever seen a public institution in your community, such as a school, hospital, or city hall, decorated with Christian symbols (such as Christmas trees, wreaths, portraits or sculptures of Jesus, nativity scenes, “Commandment” displays, or crosses)?

On top of these types of reflections, I can imagine your communities working to support and encourage each other to ensure that your work advocating for Palestinian human rights does not rely on anti-Semitic ideas.

Some members of our JVP chapter in Philadelphia recently put together materials for addressing issues of anti-Semitism and offered some examples. I would like to share them to help elucidate the differences between a clear criticism of Israeli policy and its backers and anti-Semitic ideas often repeated by activists with no anti-Jewish intentions and lines emerging from Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations.

For example:

– A clear criticism of Israel would be: “Israel has a repeated and ongoing record of human rights offenses.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israel is a worse humans rights violator than most or all other countries.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is the root of the world’s problems.”

Here is another example:

– A clear criticism: “In this issue, as in so many, the corporate media provide one-dimensional, sensationalized coverage, usually biased toward whatever side the US government is backing – when they cover it at all.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-semitic sentiment, even unwittingly would be to say: “The media, controlled by Zionists, never talks about the plight of Palestinians.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Zionist control of the media is part of a vast web of Zionist power over banks and world governments in their conspiracy to rule over humanity.”

One final example:

– A clear criticism: “Many Israeli soldiers justify their actions toward Palestinians by saying they are just following orders.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israelis are just like Nazis.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is worse the Nazis. This wouldn’t be happening if the Nazis were successful,” and so on.

It is important for us to mindful of the ways we talk about the issue and ensure we are not replicating oppressions, as we seek to end them.

I want to reiterate that I personally, at least, find this to be an extremely small problem, much smaller than the issues of Jewish privilege and Islamophobia issues in our movement.

We together, Christians and Jews, are speaking out against injustice when we see it – as our faith demands of us.  As a rabbi I take my role seriously as a moral leader, as we are taught in the Babylonian Talmud:

“Whoever has the ability to denounce [the sins of] their 
family members, but fails to denounce them, is held 
accountable for [the sins of] thier family members; if
[ one has influence] over the residents of his city [but
fails to denounce their sins], he is held accountable
for [the sins of] the residents of his city; if [he
has influence] over the entire world [but fails to
 denounce their sins], he is held accountable for [the
sins of] the entire world.”  (Shabbos 54a)

We will be held accountable should we stay silent as the land theft, home demolitions, restrictions on movement, economic strangling, and other human rights abuses that are the daily realities of life under occupation for Palestinians.

May we have the courage, to not sit silent, but to be able to look back at this time with pride for how we, Christians and Jews together, manifested the most basic ethical tenet of our traditions: what is hateful to you, do not do to others.

May we be part of the transformation of a painful history of Christian anti-Semitism and of Jewish trauma by working together to realize justice, equality and freedom, not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for all people.

My work alongside Christians is an important challenge to those dangerous and disempowering messages I learned growing up. I no longer believe Jews are inevitably alone in the world, but in fact quite the opposite. I now see just how much we are there for each other.

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The JVP Rabbinical Council Supports the Canadian Friends of Sabeel Conference “Seeking the Peace of Jerusalem,” (Vancouver BC, April 23-25, 2015)

As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Friends of Sabeel North America and Canadian Friends of Sabeel.

Palestinian Christian liberation theologians such as Canon Naim Ateek of Sabeel challenge Jews and Christians to rethink our relationship to the Holy Land and each other on the basis of a universal standard of human rights grounded in nonviolence. We have long encouraged the Jewish community to engage the Palestinian Christian faith community with an open heart and mind in order to encounter another version of faithfulness.

As Jews, we believe it is enormously important to engage in dialogue and find common cause with Sabeel. We appreciate their justice-based approach for providing needed alternatives to Christian Zionism and Replacement Theology, which so often find their basis in fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. We are also aware that far too often, mainstream Christians are loath to criticize Zionism and/or Israel for fear of offending their Jewish sisters and brothers.

In fact, we must speak out – and we must do it together. The Palestinian people suffer from daily brutality by the Israeli authorities, who are destroying their homes, confiscating their land and water, manning the checkpoints that prevent freedom of movement to hospitals, work and study, shooting tear gas during demonstrations, and dropping bombs in civilian areas. They are also forced to endure a toxic form of racism growing in Israeli society, as was recently evidenced during Israel’s national election.

The work of Sabeel is rooted in a theological vision of justice for all who live in the land. This is why we, as religious Jews, are honored to stand in solidarity with them. When the Declaration of Human Rights was written in response to the Holocaust, Jews were grateful for a universal measure by which to judge human behavior. We believe groups like Sabeel are our partners in affirming these sacred standards that are rooted in our shared conviction that all human beings are created in the image of God.

We are proud to stand together with them in our shared work of justice, dignity and liberation for all.

– Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Two Jews, How Many Opinions? A Response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie

by Rabbi P. Almoni

God. Torah. Israel. Through the ages, all three essential Jewish concepts have been the arena of fierce rabbinic debate. No aspect of Jewish life, sacred or mundane, has been immune from disagreement. The Talmud, the foundational work of post-biblical Judaism, is a 20,000+ page record of these vigorous discussions.

For 1,500 years and more the Talmud has shaped our Jewish culture. But now, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism has declared an exception to the rule: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. According to Rabbi Yoffie, all Jews believe it was wrong for the Presbyterian church to withdraw its investments from three American companies who enable and benefit from the Occupation of the West Bank. Two Jews, one opinion.

Rabbi Yoffie’s claim of Jewish uniformity of mind is his wish; it’s not the reality. I am a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. We are tens of thousands of Jews who enthusiastically backed the Presbyterian church’s stand for human rights on the West Bank. And this number is on the rise. Jewish Voice for Peace represents a growing movement. JVP is regularly adding staff to match its swelling membership and increased donations. The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace continues to expand too. There are yet more Jews who are watching this debate about the Occupation; they are studying the issues. Yet Rabbi Yoffie would shut the debate down right now, angrily denouncing us as: “a fringe group in black T-shirts.” So much for the spirit of Jewish debate.

But I am troubled by the premise that lies in the background of Rabbi Yoffie’s statement. He believes in a monolithic Jewish community. A community in which all Jews share the same political position: the belief that divestment is wrong and that the Occupation of the West Bank may not be opposed in any meaningful way.

This is clearly a controversial idea. Why would all Jews choose to hew to this one opinion? Looking beyond the Jewish community, minorities rightly resist the idea that they all should hold to the same opinion. As Jews we should be the first to reject the idea that the color of a person’s passport or the color of their skin should determine their political beliefs. Try filling in the blank with the ethnic minority of your choice: “All ________ believe that ___________.” We don’t do that.

The claim: “all Jews are X” reinforces a classic anti-Semitic line of reasoning. It runs the risk of feeding anti-Semitic ideas about Jews, with ramifications for all minorities.

So, Rabbi Yoffie’s claim for Jewish uniformity is untrue and is ill-conceived. Revealingly, the Jewish establishment has taken pains to never put his claim to the test. I have never yet seen a community-wide conversation about Israel. Even supporting the modest step of divesting from the Occupation, is, according to Rabbi Yoffie, beyond the pale. Jewish Voice for Peace poses a threat to Rabbi Yoffie’s need for uniformity.

It’s high time we opened up the conversation and allowed voices outside the establishment to be heard. We desperately need to engage the imaginations of young Jews, for whom Jewish Voice for Peace is rapidly becoming a mainstream option.

Not: “two Jews, one opinion,” but, two Jews – as many opinions as those Jews choose.”

This is the spirit of Jewish tradition: not to censor and censure but to engage each other in dialogue and debate.

“Ploni Almoni” is the traditional rabbinic version of the English language “anonymous.” The author chooses to remain anonymous because of the adversarial nature of Rabbi Yoffie’s attack on those Jews who stand for Palestinian Solidarity. In that sense, Rabbi Ploni Almoni or Rabbi Anonymous, speaks for all the Rabbis and Jews who have come under attack from the Jewish establishment.

An Open Letter to the Commissioners of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly

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Jews and Presbyterians join in a prayer circle outside committee deliberations on divestment, Detroit, 6/17/14

Dear Commissioners of the Presbyterian General Assembly,

Over the past week a delegation of rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace visited with the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in Detroit. These rabbis, together with Jewish and Presbyterian peace activists, have prayed and stood vigil, spoken in public and held many private conversations with you, the commissioners.

The rabbis asked you, our Presbyterian friends: what does your conscience tell you to do? Overwhelmingly, you replied: my conscience tells me to vote for divestment. But, the Presbyterian elders –  clergy and lay leaders – added: one concern still weighs on me. “What will the Jewish people in my life say: the rabbi I know, my Jewish cousins, my Jewish neighbors. Many of these Jews have emailed me or called me, asking me not to divest. I value my relationship with Jewish people and I do not want to undermine those relationships.”

Interfaith relationships, particularly between Jews and Christians, are an important focus. We appreciate the sensitivity of the Presbyterian Church to its relationship with Jews and the warm welcome we all received from you in Detroit. You were gracious and thoughtful. We were inspired by your commitment to each other as members of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Yet, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs came to the General Assembly on Wednesday evening, he warned you that a vote for divestment from three American companies could cost the Presbyterians their friendship with the Jewish people.

The Presbyterian Church USA  over the last ten years has sought to engage Israel on the issue of the West Bank. Sadly, to no avail. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, too, has consistently spoken out against West Bank settlements. We have yet to see what results these well-intended statements can achieve.

Rabbis accompanied by young Jewish activists went to Detroit to encourage you, the Presbyterian elders to listen to your inner voice of conscience. The Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace does not believe that the risk of hurting the feelings of some, even many Jews should take precedence over the constant humiliation and violent attacks on Palestinians living under Occupation. As rabbis, we are sensitive to the feelings of those Jews who oppose divestment. But we cannot ignore the daily suffering of Palestinians and the shockingly routine loss of Palestinian life living under Occupation. Withdrawing financial support for tools of war is a compelling moral imperative.

We believe it is unseemly for Jews – or any observer –  to try to steer you away from aligning the church’s investments with your own ethical commitments as judged by you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” teaches us to give the Presbyterians the same respect that we expect for ourselves: freedom to follow our consciences without being told this will cost us our friendships.

Jews will continue to debate with each other how to best to support peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Let us allow the Presbyterian General Assembly the same freedom to choose how to align the church’s investments with its ethical commitments.

In Friendship,

Cantor Michael Davis
Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Margaret Holub
Rabbi Alissa Wise
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Rabbi Brian Walt
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton
Rabbi David Mivasair
Rabbi Shai Gluskin
Rabbinical Student Leora Abelsom
Rabbinical Student Ariana Katz
Rabbinical Student David Basior
Rabbinical Student Jessica Rosenberg

(list in formation)

I Support the Presbyterian Church (USA) Divestment Resolution

by Rabbi Brant Rosen

As a Jew, a rabbi and a person of conscience, I am voicing my support of the divestment resolution being brought to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this June.

This resolution, which has been a point of divisive contention between the PC (USA) and some American Jewish organizations for many years, recommends the Church divest its funds from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard. It was put forth by the church’s committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment – an appointed body that recommended church divestment of companies engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits in Israel/Palestine.”

There is a long and tumultuous history to this resolution – here’s a basic outline:

– In 1971 and 1976 the Presbyterian Church stated that it had a responsibility to ensure that its funds be invested responsibly and consistent with the church’s mission.

– In 1986, the PC (USA) formed the Committee for Mission Responsibility Through Investing (MRTI) in 1986. The MRTI Committee carried out the General Assembly’s wish to engage in shareholder activism and as a last resort, divest itself of companies which contravened the GA’s position. Divestment would follow a phased process starting with attempted dialogue and shareholder resolutions and ultimately the total sale of and future ban on the church’s holdings in a company.

– In June 2004, the PC (USA) General Assembly adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called on the MRTI Committee “to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” The resolution expressed the church’s support of the Geneva Accord, said that “the occupation . . . has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict,” that “the security of Israel and the Israeli people is inexorably dependent on making peace with their Palestinian neighbors”, that “horrific acts of violence and deadly attacks on innocent people, whether carried out by Palestinian suicide bombers or by the Israeli military, are abhorrent and inexcusable by all measures, and are a dead-end alternative to a negotiated settlement,” and that the United States government needed to be “honest, even-handed broker for peace.”

– In 2005, MRTI Committee named five US-based companies – Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola and United Technologies – for initial focus and that it would engage in “progressive engagement” with the companies’ management.

– In 2006, following an uproar of criticism from American Jewish organizations, the PC (USA) General Assembly overwhelmingly (483-28) replaced language adopted in 2004 that focused the “phased, selective divestment” specifically on companies working in Israel.  It now called for investment in Israel, the Gaza Strip, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank “in only peaceful pursuits.” The new resolution also required the consideration of “practical realities,” a “commitment to positive outcomes” and an awareness of the potential impact of strategies on “both the Israeli and Palestinian economies.”  The 2006 resolution also recognized Israel’s right to build a security barrier along its pre-1967 boundaries. The GA acknowledged the “hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion” that resulted from the 2004 resolution and stated that the Assembly was “grieved by the pain that this has caused, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understanding and dialogue.”

The most recent resolution is the result of this new process and now focuses on three of the original six companies under consideration.  From the PC (USA) website:

The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) is recommending that the upcoming 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) divest the church of its stock in three companies “until they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine.”

The three companies are Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard.

At issue are their participation in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the construction of the “security barrier” between Israel and Palestinian territory, and the destruction of Palestinian homes, roads and fields to make way for the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have been declared illegal under international law.

“We have run out of hope that these companies are willing to change their corporate practices [in Israel-Palestine],” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, a Kansas City pastor and chair of the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI). “We have made diligent effort to engage in conversation. We’d like to do more, to make progress, but substantial change does not seem possible.”

As stated above, I support this resolution without reservation and urge other Jewish leaders and community members to do so as well. I am deeply dismayed that along every step of this process, Jewish community organizations (among them, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs) that purport to speak for the consensus of a diverse constituency have been intimidating and emotionally blackmailing the Presbyterian Church as they attempt to forge their ethical investment strategy in good faith.

It is extremely important to be clear about what is at stake here. First of all, this is not a resolution that seeks to boycott or single out Israel. Divestment does not target countries – it targets companies.  In this regard speaking, the PC (USA)’s ethical investment process seeks to divest from specific “military-related companies” it deems are engaged in “non-peaceful” pursuits.

We’d be hard-pressed indeed to make the case that the Israeli government is engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.  I won’t go into detail here because I’ve been writing about this tragic issue for many years: the increasing of illegal Jewish settlements with impunity, the forced evictions and home demolitions, the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, the separation wall that chokes off Palestinians from their lands, the arbitrary administrative detentions, the brutal crushing of non-violent protest, etc, etc.

All Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have cause for deep moral concern over these issues.  Moreover, we have cause for dismay that own government tacitly supports these actions. At the very least, we certainly have the right to make sure that our own investments do not support companies that profit from what we believe to be immoral acts committed in furtherance of Israel’s occupation.

As the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I am proud that JVP has initiated its own divestment campaign which targets the TIAA-CREF pension fund, urging it to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation. Among these are two of the three companies currently under consideration by PC (USA): Motorola and Caterpillar.

Why the concern over these specific companies? Because they are indisputably and directing aiding and profiting the oppression of Palestinians on the ground. Caterpillar profits from the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of Palestinian orchards by supplying the armor-plated and weaponized bulldozers that are used for such demolition work.  Motorola profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

And why is Hewlett-Packard under consideration for divestment by the PC (USA)? HP owns Electronic Data Systems, which heads a consortium providing monitoring of checkpoints, including several built inside the West Bank in violation of international law.  The Israeli Navy, which regularly attacks Gaza’s fishermen within Gaza’s own territorial waters and has often shelled civilian areas in the Gaza Strip, has chosen HP Israel to implement the outsourcing of its IT infrastructure.  In addition, Hewlett Packard subsidiary HP Invent outsources IT services to a company called Matrix, which employs settlers in the illegal settlement of Modi’in Illit to do much of its IT work at low wages.

I repeat: by seeking to divest from these companies the PC (USA) is not singling out Israel as a nation.  The Presbyterian Church has every right to – and in fact does – divest its funds from any number of companies that enable non-peaceful pursuits around the world.  In this case specifically, the PC (USA) has reasonably determined that these particular “pursuits” aid a highly militarized, brutal and oppressive occupation – and it simply does not want to be complicit in supporting companies that enable it.

I am fully aware that there are several organizations in the Jewish community that are already gearing up a full court press to intimidate the PC (USA) from passing this resolution in June.  JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow recently accused national Presbyterian leaders of “making the delegitimization of Israel a public witness of their church.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center has called the resolution “poisonous,” and that by considering it the PC (USA) is “showing its moral bankruptcy.”

These sorts of statements do not speak for me nor, I am sure, do they speak for the wide, diverse spectrum of opinion on the issue in the American Jewish community.  There is no place for public bullying in interfaith relations – it is, needless to say, decidedly counter to principles of honest, good faith dialogue.  To our Presbyterian friends: please know there are many Jewish leaders who stand with you as you support the cause of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine.

In a recent open letter to the PC (USA), Rabbi Margaret Holub, my colleague on the JVP Rabbinical Council expressed this sentiment eloquently with the following words:

Your Church has long been active in pursuing justice and peace by nonviolent means, including divestment, in many places around the world.  As Christians, you have your own particular stake in the land to which both our traditions have long attachments of faith and history.  We particularly acknowledge the oppression of Palestinian Christians under Israeli occupation and the justice of your efforts to relieve the oppression directed against your fellows.

To advocate for an end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic.  To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitic.  To invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is not anti-Semitic.  There is a terrible history of actual anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians at different times throughout the millennia and conscientious Christians today do bear a burden of conscience on that account.  We can understand that, with your commitment to paths of peace and justice, it must be terribly painful and inhibiting to be accused of anti-Semitism.

In fact, many of us in the Jewish community recognize that the continuing occupation of Palestine itself presents a great danger to the safety of the Jewish people, not to mention oppressing our spirits and diminishing our honor in the world community.  We appreciate the solidarity of people of conscience in pursuing conscientious nonviolent strategies, such as phased selective divestment, to end the occupation.

I am proud my name is under this letter, alongside many other members of our Rabbinical Council. If you stand with us, please join us in supporting the PC (USA) divestment resolution at their GA in Pittsburgh this summer.

An Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA)

We write to you as members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council to encourage your efforts to initiate phased selective divestment from corporations which profit from or support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.  We applaud your initiative and want to communicate our support as Jewish leaders who also work for justice and peace for the people of Israel and Palestine.

We are aware that the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) has unleashed a powerful campaign to dissuade you, and consequently dissuade the Presbyterian Church (USA) from moving forward with its well-considered divestment campaign.  We have been dismayed to learn the JCPA has called your divestment campaign “anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and at times anti-Semitic”.

As Jewish leaders, we believe the JCPA’s stance does not represent the broader consensus of the American Jewish community. There is in fact a growing desire within the North American Jewish community to end our silence over Israel’s oppressive occupation of Palestine.  Every day Jewish leaders – we among them – are stepping forward to express outrage over the confiscation of Palestinian land, destruction of farms and groves and homes, the choking of the Palestinian economy and daily harassment and violence against Palestinian people. Members of the Jewish community are increasingly voicing their support for nonviolent popular resistance against these outrages – including the kind of cautious, highly-specified divestment such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) is preparing to undertake.

However, even if the American Jewish community were unanimously opposed to such phased selective divestment by your Church – which is not at all the case – we believe it is still important that you move forward with the thoughtful multi-year process which your Church has begun.  Your Church has long been active in pursuing justice and peace by nonviolent means, including divestment, in many places around the world.  As Christians, you have your own particular stake in the land to which both our traditions have long attachments of faith and history.  We particularly acknowledge the oppression of Palestinian Christians under Israeli occupation and the justice of your efforts to relieve the oppression directed against your fellows.

To advocate for an end to an unjust policy is not anti-Semitic.  To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitic.  To invest your own resources in corporations which pursue your vision of a just and peaceful world, and to withdraw your resources from those which contradict this vision, is not anti-Semitic.  There is a terrible history of actual anti-Semitism perpetrated by Christians at different times throughout the millennia and conscientious Christians today do bear a burden of conscience on that account.  We can understand that, with your commitment to paths of peace and justice, it must be terribly painful and inhibiting to be accused of anti-Semitism.

In fact, many of us in the Jewish community recognize that the continuing occupation of Palestine itself presents a great danger to the safety of the Jewish people, not to mention oppressing our spirits and diminishing our honor in the world community.  We appreciate the solidarity of people of conscience in pursuing conscientious nonviolent strategies, such as phased selective divestment, to end the occupation.

With prayers for peace,

Rabbi Margaret Holub, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Brant Rosen, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Alissa Wise, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Julie Greenberg, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Michael Feinberg, JVP Rabbinical Council

Cantor Michael Davis, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Joseph Berman, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi David Mivasair, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Brian Walt, JVP Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, JVP Rabbinical Council

David Basior, Rabbinical Student, JVP Rabbinical Council

Alana Alpert, Rabbinical Student, JVP Rabbinical Council

Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbinical Student, JVP Rabbinical Council

God Is In This Place

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

This sermon was given Sunday, January 23, 2012 at St. Johns Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Many thanks to St. Johns for the invitation and exceptionally warm welcome. The ideas within are in part thanks to the good thinking of JVPers who came before me and the work I did with my comrades at Jews Against the Occupation in NYC 2001-2004, among other smart people.

In Genesis we read:

Jacob woke from his sleep and said, surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!

It happened for me like that too. Well, maybe not exactly. Let me tell you what happened.

In the summer of 2007, while I was studying to become a rabbi, I lived in the West Bank for two months. One day I planted trees in a destroyed olive grove outside of Nablus. I was working with local Palestinian farmers and a group of activists from Sweden. None of the Swedish activists were Jewish; most of them were anarchist college students who were on the first trip to the Middle East, there just for a couple weeks to support Palestinian non-violent resistance.

Before we set out for the day, we exchanged information in case of arrest or injury, chose individuals to negotiate with the army, and reminded each other to follow the lead of the Palestinian farmers, to retreat when they wanted to and not to stray from the group.

As we walked the four miles out to the plot of land where the olive trees had been uprooted and now would be replanted, we got to know each other a bit. The Swedish internationals were intrigued that I was becoming a rabbi, and on our long walk out to the grove, they questioned me about what I believed about God. As happens a lot when I am with anarchists and activists who don’t like or trust organized religion, there was a skepticism, or at least a confusion about my religiosity; especially as the nearest religious Jews were the ones who did the uprooting. I would often dodge the question about God in this kind of situation.

But, at that moment I had an answer. As if, I, like Jacob suddenly woke up.

There I was on the lookout for Israeli military snipers or jeeps and being pressed to answer what I believed about God, in a land full of claims on God. I scanned my history with this land—my family’s connections to Jerusalem, my teen camping trips in the North of Israel, my dance club days in Tel Aviv in college — and I came to truly understand for the first time that it was against all odds that I was standing there. I had planted trees not too far from Nablus before with the Jewish National Fund — before I knew their participation in the erasure of Palestinian history. Yet there I was, a middle-class American Jew raised in a right-wing Zionist Jewish home, and now I was helping Palestinian farmers plant trees as an act of resistance in the occupied West Bank. It was in response to this question asked of me in Nablus that I filled in the blank about God:. God is the impulse in me to serve the Other out of a sense of responsibility that stems from the Source of redemption.

God was in this place and I did not know it.

And, then I did. I never looked back.

My responsibility to the other — the most intimate and the most distant — is what brings me to and sustains me in the work seeking a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

We all have a responsibility to hear from those directly affected by occupation and oppression how we might support their struggle for dignity, self-determination and equality.

After all, these demands are basic — as much as we might hope for ourselves – as the Golden Rule teaches — treat others as you would like to be treated. So simple, so basic — so incredibly challenging.

In 2005, a Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) was made by over 120 organizations in Palestinian civil society. This call, a request for solidarity, urges those concerned with Palestinian human rights to take action in their local communities by organizing consumer boycott and divestment campaigns — like the effort underway in the Presbyterian church to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.

Make no mistake about it — the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions made by Palestinian civil society is a rebuke of the current policies and actions made by the Israeli government. This includes the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and the lack of basic civil rights for non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel.

Several Christian denominations, including your own, have made brave, constructive decisions to investigate whether their churches’ investments contribute to violence and oppression in Israel and Palestine. Churches are reviewing investments as a means to ending the humiliation and brutality faced by Palestinians under occupation — an occupation that causes great harm to Israeli society as well. As long as one nation occupies another, neither can enjoy  true peace and security. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, no one is free until we are all free.

The churches engaging in this review and calling for divestment understand that investing in corporations that profit from the occupation is unethical.  Examining the impact of their investments is a practical, effective way for American Christians to do good rather than cause harm — and is an answer to the Palestinian call for solidarity.

The decision to divest from the occupation is also critically important for Jews everywhere.

All too often, when a non-Jewish group or individual, speaks out against blatantly unjust Israeli policies and actions, they are accused of acting on that unreasoning hatred of Jews and Judaism that is commonly called anti-Semitism.

Anti-semitism, like all forms of oppression, seeks to lump all Jews together and assign us a set of characteristics–some negative, some positive.  In the lumping, we are made less human, no longer seen as individuals with our own individual lives and characteristics. Saying that all Jews support Israel unconditionally is in itself a kind of anti-Semitism, then, as it denies us the right to form our own opinions, beliefs, and relationships with Israel as whole people.

Issuing a moral rebuke such as a targeted divestment shows a respect for Jews, and others that support Israeli policies, that is fundamentally incompatible with anti-Semitism.  Such an act is predicated on the belief that the recipients of the rebuke are capable of reevaluating their actions and turning onto a more just path.

I can think of no greater act of friendship than to risk defamation in order to remind one’s friends of their own ideals when they, themselves, have forgotten them. In fact, this idea of sacred rebuke – tochecha – one of my most favorite Jewish concepts/values — is included in the Holiness Code — the section of the Torah that is famous for its focus on moral and ethical imperatives.

Tochecha is about our obligation to tell someone when they have done or are currently straying and behaving wrongly – whether to us, or to another. What’s more, tochecha requires us also to engage with those we are rebuking and assist them and support them in the repair of the wrong you are calling out.

As we learn in Leviticus 19:17:

You shall not hate your fellow human being in your heart. Rebuke your fellow human being but incur no guilt because of this person.

You shall not hate your fellow human being in your heart — this is required for one to engage in tochecha — rebuke. It must be based on love and respect.

We know that Jews will not be truly free or secure until the oppression of the Palestinians ends. By examining the economic underpinnings and voting to divest from companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation, that literally have a vested interest in the failure of a just peace, Christian churches are acting as partners with Jews in our own liberation.

Millennia of persecution have left most Jews with deep scars. Whether our relatives perished in the Holocaust or whether they suffered lesser forms of persecution and discrimination, we have been deeply affected by anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately the phenomenon is alive and well throughout the world.  Many still hold wrong-headed beliefs about Jews — that we are miserly, loud, arrogant, or untrustworthy. Or that we are all rich, smart and powerful.

Even if American Jews  are mostly safe and secure, we often don’t feel that way. We remain vigilant and ask our allies to remain alert as well.

Because our wounds run so deeply, it is very difficult for many Jews to recognize that Israel, not Palestinians, hold disproportionate power.

But, even still, that sacred rebuke is essential — even if — and perhaps because – it is difficult for some Jews to hear. It is precisely because of my love for my own family members, my community members that I do the work I do and participate in the call for BDS and see the growing global movement as a path to a lasting peace, with justice.

As a third century rabbi, Rabbi Yossi ben Chanina, taught: “A love without reproof is no love.”  His study partner Resh Lakish added: “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.”

Out of respect and love — highlight what is wrong, and together we step toward peace.

Highlight the harm of settlement expansion and of the various consumer products—like SodaStream and Ahava cosmetics that are profiting off of Palestinian’s natural resources and stolen land. Highlight the acts of Caterpillar which makes millions off of demolishing homes and uprooting olive trees. Each year, U.S. corporations receive an alarming subsidy from U.S. taxpayers. By law, 75% of U.S. military aid to Israel must be spent in American corporations. It is with this money, for example, that Israel buys weaponized bulldozers from Caterpillar.

Highlight Motorola solutions who profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

Highlight Hewlett-Packard who provides on-going support and maintenance to a biometric ID system installed in Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank which deprive Palestinians of the freedom of movement in their own land and allows the Israeli military occupation to grant or deny special privileges to the civilians under its control.

The Presbyterian church’s decision to openly look at your investments, and to call for divestment from the companies stated above – Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard – is so brave in part because you are doing it in the face of being painfully and wrongfully accused of anti-Semitism. The legacy of persecution against Jews runs deep and the prejudice is real even today. Accusations of anti-Semitism should not be taken lightly. Nor should they be issued carelessly.

As I see it, the quest for justice is at the core of Jewish tradition and identity. When Jews support the Israeli occupation, we are acting from fear due to centuries of intense persecution and genocide. When the US government supports the Israeli occupation in the face of international human rights violations, it is acting out of self-interests that have nothing to do with Jewish values, traditions or security. The very essence of Jewish values is a tradition of justice.

To the Jewish organizations that wield the accusation of anti-Semitism against those that speak out for justice, I ask, When have  you raised your voice when Israel demolishes  a Palestinian home or uproots a  Palestinian orchard?

The truth is that the majority of American Jews have never felt so distant either from those organizations or from Israel itself. Major studies commissioned  by these same organizations have found  that most young American Jews feel emotionally unattached to Israel and report that peace is a higher value to them than security.

These same American Jews reject the idea that all Palestinians or Muslims support terrorism. Other studies have confirmed that over two-thirds of American Jews are “disturbed by Israel’s policies and actions.”

For many American Jews, maintaining harmony with Jewish organizations like the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, and the Anti-Defamation League – comes  at the price of the values that most American Jews hold dear: justice, equality and peace.

Because the organizations of our parents and  grandparents no longer speak for us, groups including my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, are generating  phenomenal support among American Jews.  Jewish Voice for Peace is one of the largest and oldest grassroots Jewish peace organizations in the US We have a professional staff of seven that supports over 100,000 Internet activists and some 1000 members in over 30 chapters across the United States.

Our work at JVP includes having initiated the largest divestment campaign for Palestinian human rights in US history. This campaign — the We Divest campaign — is now a national coalition effort that is demanding retirement fund giant TIAA-CREF divest from the Israeli occupation. Our petition to TIAA-CREF highlights 5 companies — 3 of which — Caterpillar, Veolia and Motorola Solutions — are part of their “socially responsible investment” portfolio. There is currently no way for TIAA-CREF investors to not be investing in human rights violations against Palestinians.

Daily humiliation at checkpoints, segregated Jewish-only roads, illegal settlement expansion, restrictions on movement and access to jobs and healthcare — all parts of a Palestinian’s life living under occupation must be stopped.

While not all may be ready to hear us, we must continue to speak. Our obligation to sacred rebuke endures — for Jews and non-Jews alike. We at Jewish voice for peace need your help. We cannot end the Israeli occupation alone. We need our allies to stand side-by-side with us.

This work, my friends, is where God resides. God is surely in this place, and, now, I do know it.

And yet, in truth. we do not know for sure what will come of it.

As the book of Proverbs beautifully teaches us in chapter 9 verse 8:

A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you.

For decades, churches have led the way in applying the nonviolent tactic of divestment to end violence against civilians all over the world. The Presbyterian Church has shown the integrity, and the courage, to rebuke the Israeli government for its bitter oppression of the Palestinians.

Whether it was intended, or not, this rebuke speaks also to the many Jews, and non-Jews, who support Israel’s oppressive policies, or stand aside and leave them unopposed.  Now we must face the test of our own integrity, and our own courage:  we must choose how we will hear the message of divestment.  Will we be scoffers, hating our friends for challenging our misdeeds, or will we be wise, loving them for reminding us of the pursuit of justice that is our highest calling, and the expression of our better selves?

The answer, of course, is that our response will be mixed, and, at first, the scoffers may well predominate.  Yet I believe that the day will come, be it in one year, five years, or in fifty, when the Presbyterian Church’s action in this matter will be remembered with love and gratitude by Jews around the world.

I am proud to be among the first to say, Todah Rabah, “Thank you!”