After the Women’s March, Build a Progressive World

Like many others, I’m inspired but skeptical of the extraordinary, million-person turn out for the Women’s March on Washington and sister marches throughout the world. As we approached the massive Washington, DC demonstration, a friend asked me, ‘what does marching like this really do? Isn’t it just letting off steam?’ I guess that’s one way of looking at it. But a big march shows the world how much steam there is. Considering we just elected an unqualified, insensitive buffoon to lead our country, showing the world how many people oppose his agenda means a lot. That being said, I hear the critiques. I’m concerned that symbols of the march, like the pink pussy hats felt marginalizing to some trans-folk and people of color. I’m concerned that the march’s platform doesn’t mention war. I’m concerned that like the occupy movement, this movement may fizzle and folks will go home, never to find opportunities for engagement. So before our opportunity for creating the society we want winds up lost in a pile of pink dryer lint, I’ve put together the following list to help those of us who are fired up and ready to go to put all that energy somewhere. Here’s stuff you can do, right this moment to make change, wherever you are, whatever your capacity!

  1. Decolonize your mind.  Get yourself a real education that helps you live as a truly free human being. Reject the education that we are offered that bogs us down in standardized tests and lectures about preparing to be good worker bees with marketable skills. While all of us would probably say that we are against oppressions such as misogyny and racism, what no one ever tells you is how deeply we internalize these negative, divisive ideas from society. Every aspect of our lives, from our relationships in love and the workplace to our beliefs about what we can accomplish in life, are informed by racism, misogyny, heterosexism, Islamophobia and orientalism. Even those of us with the best of intentions can be racist and sexist. We can hurt others and ourselves without even meaning to. It does not matter if you come from a very liberal place like Brattleboro or Whidbey Island and grew up basket weaving while singing liberation songs of the civil rights movement. You too can perpetuate racism. I have been the white person who responds with defensiveness when called out on racism and I’ve learned that this does not help anything. Instead, try and sit with the criticism for a moment before responding, even though it is hard to hear, even if you think it is unfair. Educate yourself by reading writers of color like Baldwin, Lorde, Assata Shakur, Richard Wright, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis and many, many others. Listen to critiques of capitalism by Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy. Read critical race theory and queer theory.  If you don’t like reading on your own, invite some friends to a book club once a month or once a quarter.
  2. Know your elected officials up and down ballot and contact them. If you think you are going to bring about a progressive revolution by voting for Jill Stein every four years, think again. One Capitol Hill staffer recommends (and I agree) that you follow your state and local elected officials on social media. Make sure you know their names. Make sure you write them letters, schedule meetings with them about local issues you care about, campaign for them (or for their opponent). Pay attention and hold them accountable. People who run for office locally tend to be among those who run for higher office later on, so knowing them now can mean you have access to them later, when they are serving on Capitol Hill or at higher levels in state government. Also, run for something yourself. Because the past forty years in U.S. politics have been mired in the personal scandals of elected officials instead of their policy commitments, good people are discouraged from running for office. Do it anyway if you feel called to. If you are a solid, progressive candidate, we will have your back. Check out , an initiative to get millenials to run in down ballot races.
  3. Green your life. Have you thought about how much waste you create? How much meat you eat? Where your vegetables come from? How much plastic you throw away? Whether you could bike or walk instead of driving? What kind of soap you use to clean your home? By making minor changes around your home, you can help to slow the impact of climate change. And remember, something is better than nothing. Here are some tips to get you started.
  4. Engage Locally. My amazing cousin Sarah Kane cares passionately about the environment. So, in her hometown of Tacoma, WA, she and a group of committed folk worked to pass a plastic bag ordinance. Now, retail establishments in Tacoma don’t give out plastic bags for free anymore which cuts down on litter and reduces the waste caused by single use shopping bags. An org that does local work in DC and Maryland that I really love is Jews United For Justice (JUFJ), where I served as a Jeremiah Fellow. If you are in DC or Maryland, you have access to paid sick leave and paid family leave at your job because of the work of this organization. JUFJ is currently working on several fair housing initiatives and fighting for a $15 minimum wage, among other things. Get involved in these campaigns, make friends with your neighbors, and make the community you live in now the community you want.
  5. Engage globally. The United States is a large country flanked by two oceans. For this reason, many of us don’t travel to other countries and don’t speak another language. This results in U.S. citizens not fully understanding the impact our decisions have on the rest of the world. Go to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or Latin America and learn about the history of U.S. involvement in those regions. Learn about the disastrous human cost of our foreign policy and corporate greed. Remember that who you vote for in the U.S. and whether you choose to engage your representatives, senators, and president  has an enormous impact on the lives of people around the globe. Did you zone out watching CNN’s coverage of that trade bill last year? Does Syria confuse you? Do the names Allende and Mosaddegh mean nothing to you? Are you irritated when people start yelling about Israel-Palestine? Familiarize yourself with the world, learn some basic geography even, and you could wind up changing it.

This could be the start of something important. The election of Donald Trump was a jolt, certainly, but now we have an opportunity to move further than we ever have. Let’s make the most of what we’ve got right here and right now. And let’s keep getting into the streets!


Rachel’s Soapbox: First Thoughts on Life as a Jew in Trump’s America

Since the election, my thoughts have been coming in a jumble. So I’ve started a little column on my website that I call my soapbox. It is a weekly mix of the personal and the political in this frenetic and frightening but exhilarating moment.

1. I am pleased to see ADL take a stand against Islamophobia and pleased with their new CEO committing to ‘register’ Muslim if a registry were created. But I’ve watched for fifteen years as ADL has tacitly nudged on Islamophobia in America in the name of protecting Jews and Israel, which makes their recent decisions seem sort of shallow and politically expedient. Abe Foxman’s deeply hurtful statements about the Islamic center in lower Manhattan were not lost on the American Muslim community six years ago. (Mr. Foxman said that no Islamic center should be built near ground zero for the sake of “sensitivity to the victims”, as though there were no Muslim victims and no daylight between the perpetrators of the attacks and Islam. As far as I can tell, no apology has been issued to the American Muslim community.) Nor were their ‘Top Ten Anti-Israel Organizations’ blacklists, which repeated unfounded allegations and outright falsehoods about American Muslim organizations and which still appears on their website. Their constant interventions into the material support cases of the early 2000s resulted in the criminalization of Islamic charities and cast an unfair pall of suspicion over every Muslim in the country who supported charitable works in Palestine. I know Mr. Greenblatt is not Mr. Foxman and that the organization has new leadership and I’ll be fair to them. But they will have to do significant tshuva to get on the side of right and shake off their past ugliness. They should start by ending their facilitation of partnerships between American police departments and the Israeli military, in the first instance.

2. Islamophobic Jews like David Horowitz, Rabbi David Eliezrie, and Mort Klein rarely see their place within the Jewish communal tent questioned. A recent piece in The Forward asked sincerely whether pro-Trump Jews would be able to take their rightful place in synagogues across the country now that liberal Jews are out in force against their candidate. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are spent to paint Jews like me as outsiders, self-haters, and fringe lunatics. They do everything they can to deracinate me and other Jews because of our support for Palestinian human rights. At this moment, the mainstream Jewish community needs to reckon with this. The community is fine with Islamphobes who sidle up to alt-right antisemites but refuses to rent space to JVP. What will it say about us if we allow this dynamic to continue?

3. We need to undo the redlines in the Jewish community. We need to talk about the issues that divide us, not shun those with dissenting views. The fact is that we can’t have a productive and meaningful debate about Israel-Palestine in the Jewish community and this imperils us more than we realize. We avoid the subject, we avoid points of view we find too challenging, and we lob personal attacks at those who don’t share our views. I believe this is because we are too deeply enmeshed in our inherited trauma to listen to the viewpoints of Palestinians and their allies. Making healthy progress in this area means confronting the places that scare us and making space for the stuff we’re sweeping under the rug.

4. Antisemitism should be taken as seriously as any other form of oppression. It functions less acutely than oppression based on race, gender and sexuality in the contemporary American moment, but pretending it just vanished after the conclusion of WWII is ridiculous. The rise of the alt-right shows that antisemitism is still a tool of the powerful and that its antidote is aligning with other struggles for justice. Standing up for others in this moment, specifically Arabs and Muslims, Latinx, LGBTQ, and Native communities, means there will be others to stand up for us.

5. Of course there is antisemitism on the left, but the left I am part of is more committed to eradicating bigotry than the center or the right, certainly. And while the left is not infallible—we internalize racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and the rest of it as much as anyone else in this society does—the richest discussions I’ve had about antisemitism have taken place in these spaces. I’m hearing a lot of discussion in broad strokes about antisemitism on the left and antisemitism in the BDS movement. Speaking as someone who has spent considerable time in both left and pro-Palestinian spaces over the course of thirteen years, I can say I have *NEVER* been asked to check my Jewish identity at the door. I have never lied about being Jewish in social movement spaces and everyone who worked with me in Palestine knew I was Jewish. Organizers in the BDS movement are some of the most deeply principled people I know. The Palestinians I’ve worked with are extraordinarily resilient in the face of obstacles I will never have to face. They are people who live their values, who sacrifice time and personal ambition to do the work necessary to keep Palestinians on their land, to elevate their voices, and to refute the utterly baseless lies told about them in the media. They are the people who have held me when I felt weak, angry, frustrated, and isolated. Please don’t give into baseless suspicion about them and their motives.

6. Our Jewish community is dealing with some serious unhealed trauma because of the European pogroms of the early 20th century, which led to many of our ancestors coming here and culminated in the Nazi Holocaust. It also led to Zionism and Israel’s creation. These events have left us with open wounds and there are those in our community who make a living off of rubbing salt into them. The pro-Israel advocacy community uses any and all opportunities to paint those who disagree with it as antisemites. They are manipulating our emotions and commitment to our community and heritage. They are guilting us into staying silent about the oppression of Palestinians. And we respond like scared rabbits, like white people who clutch their bags when a black person enters the subway car. The red lines they have created result in us making decisions every day not to stand with Palestinians and other people of color in meaningful ways. Let’s commit to stop guilting and shaming, only honoring our diverse experiences and facing the things that make us uneasy. This is a frightening time, but one with tremendous opportunity.

It’s time to rise to the occasion.

Down With Hipster Hamantaschen!!

Apricot Custard Hamantaschen with Yeast Dough

Apricot Custard Hamantaschen with Yeast Dough

Folks, I know I’m a bit late posting, but in the event that a few of you are still home baking your mishloach manot, or if you are hosting seudah tomorrow and you are just not that into serving coconut cheesecake hamantashen or savory goat cheese hamantaschen or goji berry with superfood powder hamantaschen, this blog post is for you. This time of year comes around and I crave old fashioned, traditional hamantaschen with filling of poppy, apricot, prune or fig. Anything else feels like guitars in the synagogue on Friday night; forced and doesn’t help me connect to tradition. However, I have tasted a few ‘traditional’ hamantaschen in my time that were not fit to tile the bathroom floor. The filling was too acidic or too sickly sweet. The dough was too thick, too crumbly, and just not delicious. So, perhaps my favorite early springtime cookie needs a bit of a progressive touch. Like Judaism, the humble hamantasch needs careful updating so as to meet the needs of our modern life and connect to the tradition of our ancestors. Here is the best I can muster. A batch consists of 18 cookies, for life, of course!!

Yeast Dough

2 1/4 tsps of active dry yeast

1/4 cup of steamy hot water

1/4 cup of cream or half and half

2 tbsps of sugar

half a stick (1/4 cup) of butter

1/4 package of philly cream cheese

1 egg

2 1/2 cups of flour

splash of vanilla


Apricot preserves (store bought)

Custard (you can buy Kozy shack flan or something similar or do the home made version)

2 cups of heavy cream

3 egg yolks

1/4 cup sugar

vanilla bean

Directions for baking the custard: put cream into a saucepan and begin to heat. Open the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into cream, add bean to mixture and bring the whole thing to a boil. Turn off the heat and cover for ten minutes. combine egg yolks and sugar with a whisk until the yolks turn lemony yellow. Then, temper the cream mixture into the egg mixture, a little at a time so as not to scramble. Bake for forty minutes at 325 and then chill for at least an hour.

Directions for dough: using a stand mixer, combine yeast and steamy water. Let proof for five minutes. Add milk and the first third of the flour (like 3/4 of a cup). mix together until well combined. Add butter, sugar, and cream cheese and mix for one minute, then add another 3/4 cup of flour. Add the egg so the mixture is too liquidy again, add vanilla, mix for a minute and then add 3/4 of a cup of flour. Add the last 1/4 cup of flour and knead with the paddle for five minutes (you may have to pull it off the paddle a few times to get it just right. Stick the dough in a dark cabinet for an hour until it doubles. Take it out and punch it down.

Directions for constructing the cookies: Roll the dough nice and thin, to 1/8 of an inch. Remember that it is still going to puff in the oven. Take your favorite coffee mug and make three or four inch rounds. Fill with 1/2 tsp of custard and some preserves on top. Pinch the ends tightly into a triangle and make the center hole smaller than you think it should be. Ice water on your finger tips will secure the seam. Refrigerate your cookies for at least five minutes, then bake at 375 for twelve minutes. Turn the oven off and open it a crack. Let the cookies sit in the warm oven for another minute or so, then put on the counter to cool.

Chag sameach!!

Soften Your Edges: Parshat Beshallah

This week we read of how the recently freed Israelites come upon a stream but they could not drink from it. Why? The text vaguely states ‘because they are bitter.’ Here is the verse: וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה–וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם (Ex 15:23). The Hebrew here could potentially yield two meanings as there is a dangling participle. JPS translates the Hebrew to mean that the people could not drink from the waters because they (the waters) are bitter. However, the Hebrew could easily be translated in a far more interesting way. The Baal Shem Tov reads this verse to state that the Israelites could not drink the water because they (the Israelites) are bitter. The Israelites were unable to shake off the suffering of slavery so easily, even as they knew their terrible experience of oppression had ended, because they saw that God had parted the sea. They, like so many victims of abuse and trauma, were unable to trust, to enjoy life giving water that they needed to sustain themselves. This reading makes sense, because the text makes it clear that these ancient people really were committed to living comfortable lives as slaves and had serious trouble seeing the miracle of their liberation. Check this verse out: כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת-מִצְרַיִם מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר (Ex 14:12); or this one, after God parts the sea! מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד-יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל-סִיר הַבָּשָׂר בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע:  כִּי-הוֹצֵאתֶם אֹתָנוּ אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית אֶת-כָּל-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה בָּרָעָב (Ex 16:3).

This small verse give us tremendous insight into the way human beings experience powerlessness and the damage done to human beings because of unequal systems. As life beats us down, we ignore the very things we need to give us sustenance for our journey. We become literally unable to take it in.  This is why sufferers of depression neglect their homes and their health. We develop rough edges in response to our powerlessness and become cynical about what we can change, even when the world is changing all around us.  We also forget how to treat people as we forget how to treat ourselves. How many activists do you know who bulldoze over others in order to reach for the spotlight? Whose anger overshadows their vision of a better world? I once wrote a poem prayer about this very issue, thanks to a workshop led by the Jewish progressive poet Elaina Ellis. This is what I wrote back then (knowing nothing of the Baal Shem Tov’s reading of this verse):

“I release my rough edges to live a life of love and to allow love into my heart without the veil of humor and sarcasm shielding me from attack and disapproval. I release old grief, like sand to flowing silt. I allow a sweet water to run through me, a sweet water of kindness, chesed, eroding the edges of a dry riverbed, making old scars smooth and soft, wiping out old grooves that seemed permanent. I do not always need to yell back. And sometimes knowing when to fight, when to refuse to fight, and when to admit fault can distinguish the wise from the foolish.”

This week, we should all read beshallah with the intention of letting water into our dry riverbeds and softening the grooves of our familiar anger patterns. Change is always possible, both in the world and in you! Gut Shabbos!

Shmuely Boteach Insults Russell Brand in the Name of Defending Israel

I did not plan to post about this, because I have other stuff to write about today and because fights about Israel/Palestine among celebrities are simply not the most important thing to write about when 2,000 lives, of mostly innocent civilians, have been snuffed out in Gaza. So, please forgive this brief digression. I was so disgusted with this column by “Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach that I decided to say something.  For those who don’t know the back story, renowned Palestinian American Yousef Munayyer appeared on Sean Hannity’s show a few weeks back. Hannity used his forum to yell at and insult Munayyer, needling Munayyer to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization.  The clip was such an obvious example of bullying, of the intellectual dishonesty and overheated self-righteousness that characterizes the American pro-Israel right wing, that comedian Russell Brand used his internet forum to take Hannity down a peg.  Unsurprisingly, Hannity responded with a thin-skinned, babyish takedown of Brand, who as I mentioned is a comedian (way to take a joke, Hannity).  Now, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has joined the fray.  But instead of plainly arguing the case for Israel, Boteach chooses instead to bring up, in the most passive aggressive and craven way, Brand’s problems with addiction, his marriage, and his personal life to discredit Brand’s viewpoints. Why do I care? Because Boteach’s method of argument typifies the dangerous denial that ails the Jewish community on account of Israel and Zionism.

When you hold the title of Rav, it comes, in my view, with certain responsibilities. To stoop so low in public reflects negatively on the whole community and on Judaism, because when you use your title to sell books and merchandise you hold yourself out as an expert in our sacred texts and in our values.  Russell Brand may be a public figure who should expect below the belt criticism, but he is a human being and like all of us, he has his demons to face. What should other people assume about Judaism when a Rabbi, steeped in our wisdom and tradition, behaves in such a judgmental way towards another human being simply to score cheap points for Israel? After all that study of Talmud and Torah, this “Rabbi” chooses to point out the flaws of his interlocutor with spite and condescension, when he should be making his case? Also, do Russell Brand’s personal, human struggles somehow justify Israel’s conduct in Gaza? Of course not. Boteach is merely lashing out at another human being instead of searching for the truth. The former is a lot easier and more satisfying to the yetzer hara than the latter. I’m sure the Chofetz Chaim would be proud (I am also entitled to some sarcasm).

I don’t write this simply to chastise Shmuley Boteach, but to point out the tactics of intimidation, personal insult, and emotionalism that have come to characterize argument for Israel. Ultimately, objective observers the world over can see that Israel’s conduct in Gaza will not bring peace any closer. Those speaking out for Palestinian rights and for the merits of the Palestinian cause include great leaders of human rights struggles, nobel prize winners, authors, artists, not to mention bereaved Israelis themselves.  But Israel’s self-appointed defenders, in their attempt to tune out any uncomfortable truth dismiss their critics with ad hominem attack. This one is a closet antisemite. This one is a self-hating Jew. This one is on drugs. This one failed a math test in middle school. When that doesn’t work, they pitch a fit. If Job appeared this morning on CNN to criticize Israel, totally all tam ve yashar ve yarei elohim vesar mera, Shmuley Boteach would find something negative to say about him and then shame everyone listening into staying silent by crying antisemitism. (It doesn’t matter whether Job is an Israelite or not, by the way!) Why? Because attacking others is a deeply powerful and human way of denying difficult truths. It even has its own cliche: ‘killing the messenger.’ Israel’s defenders kill the messenger more than they make their own arguments and it does nothing to advance the interests of Jews.

Ultimately, critique, even strident withering uncomfortable critique, gives us the opportunity to make our case stronger. It gives us the chance to clarify our beliefs. And most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to fix what is broken. Let’s finally commit to fixing what is broken instead of attacking our critics about their personal struggles. Let it be messy and uncomfortable but let it be honest! No more of the nonsense. We have real work to do.

Pursue Justice: For Young American Jews Searching For Answers In Trying Times

I write this as an American Jew, now a thirtysomething, who once thought I understood everything I needed to know about Israel. At synagogue growing up, the Rabbi’s sermon would often explain our collective support for Israel and the importance of Israel to Jews around the world. At family gatherings, older relatives, my grandfather, my great uncle, my mother, my cousins, would talk politics and I would absorb information from the opinions they gave. I thought I knew what I needed to know because I had traveled to Israel and my madrich (guide), a student at the prestigious Hebrew University, explained why Israel took the actions it took.

These influences definitely strengthened my Jewish identity, but as a twenty-something making my way in the world, I was confronted with angry protests over Israel’s actions during the Second Intifada. I did not understand why young progressives would identify with Palestinians when I, a young progressive myself, was taught that they were an invented people intent on doing violence to Jews who only wanted a place of our own on earth.

But the problem with teaching young Jews to love Israel is that the more emotionally involved we get, the more we want to solve Israel’s problems. And it would be difficult to solve any problem without first understanding why anyone would ever support the other side, right? So, that is when I began to read and listen. I began to understand that there was a whole lot that I did not know. I felt like a traitor, but I felt compelled to listen to the voices that told me I did not know anything close to the whole story. Palestinians do exist and there are at least four million of them living under Israeli control. They are also not interchangeable with other Arabs, but are rather connected to their homes, communities and identities.

These past several weeks have brought staggering violence in the Middle East, first with the revelation that three teenage Israeli boys had been kidnapped and murdered and then with the horrifying murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir of Jerusalem. Almost immediately afterward, the Israeli government began bombarding Gaza from the air as rockets fired in from Gaza on Israeli cities and towns. The official reason Israel gives for this latest round of strikes is to defeat Hamas, but we know that even if the Israelis succeed in delivering a crushing blow Hamas, this will probably not end Palestinian resistance or bring peace anytime soon. So, the time to learn is now.

The following is the best advice I have, as someone who has been a young Jew and who has felt the pain and cognitive dissonance that comes from the hot rhetoric and polarizing emotions Israel brings up. So, here goes:

1) Listen To Palestinians In Their Own Words

First, we must learn from many perspectives and sources if we want to understand. We must read, surf the net, travel, and ask others. Do not allow anyone to tell you that ANY perspective is out of bounds. I encourage you to read from the right and the left and beyond. Most importantly, read the words of Palestinians themselves; don’t simply be content with reading pro-Israel characterizations of their views, or decontextualized quotes in the media. Read the Electronic Intifada, or Permission to Narrate, or Jadaliyya. Read novels, like Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin. Watch films, like Five Broken Cameras or pretty much anything by Hany Abu-Assad.

2) Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Your Beliefs

On Facebook the other day, an Israeli friend of a friend wrote the following comment in response to the death of a Palestinian in Gaza: “ I can assure you that I don’t know of a single Israeli who is happy about them; nobody here passes around sweets when an innocent Palestinian is killed.” Like her, I once believed certain axioms about Israel and the Palestinians that I now realize were rooted in prejudice. I believed that Israelis don’t celebrate when Palestinians are killed. Well, stories such as this one, and this one, and this one, seem to refute that idea. Some Israelis do rejoice when innocent Palestinians are killed. And it’s not because Israelis are so awful, but rather because they are human beings, capable of the full range of human behavior, some of it laudable, some of it not so laudable. So are the Palestinians, who have among them both secular and religious people, progressives, conservatives, capitalists, feminists, and everything in between. Contrary to disparaging opinion pieces like this one, they love their children as much as we love ours. So, if you care about getting to peace and about being part of the solution, don’t be afraid to go deep and discard old prejudices. As a rule of thumb, if you would feel insulted were someone to characterize Jewish culture the way some article or statement characterizes Palestinian culture, look deeper.

3) You Cannot Get It All From One Source

When I was in college, Jewish community leaders would consistently tell us to stay away from “biased” sources and media. Worse advice has never been given to young people. First of all, there are plenty of sources they characterized as unbiased which in fact had an agenda, but which were written persuasively, so that they seemed like absolute, irrefutable truth. Take with a grain of salt any material you are offered which claims to be “unbiased facts.” Trust me, there are a lot of facts. Second, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, there are many voices you should read. If you want to be informed, you cannot get all of your information from any one source or one perspective. So, my advice to you is get them all! Read Zionists and anti-Zionists, women and men, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, right and left! Read them all!

4) Reach Out

When I first started feeling misgivings about the community’s positions on Israel, I thought I was the only Jewish person in the world who felt this way. After being derided by some Jewish classmates for choosing to attend a New York City antiwar demonstration, I found a rag tag group of young (and a few old enough to be my grandparents) Jewish radicals calling themselves Jews Against the Occupation. That group of people changed my life forever and helped me connect my love for Jewish identity with my changing understanding of Israel. Now, there are so many Jews who feel the way we did back then, you should have no trouble finding your folk. If you need to connect, the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace is offering spiritual support during the Gaza crisis.

5) Always Be A Self-Loving Jew

Despite assertions to the contrary, I live my life with deep reverence for my Jewish heritage. If anything, being on this journey has introduced me to new expressions of being Jewish that were not emphasized by my suburban Zionist upbringing. I knew very little, for instance, about Jewish workers and the social movements they created at the turn of the 20th century or the Mizrahi Jewish experience in Israel. I still go to synagogue, observe Jewish holidays, and participate in Jewish community where I am able to and welcome to. There is no contradiction between supporting Palestinians rights and being a good Jew, in fact, many would argue that this is what the Torah means when it instructs us ‘V’Ahavta L’Reacha Kamocha’ or ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ All the rest is commentary.

We owe it to ourselves, to our future children, to our ancestors who struggled so we could live freely as Jews in this moment to challenge ourselves, to reach out, and to add our voices to the discussion. Use this time of terrible sadness, of violence and anger, to transform your own voice into one that speaks peace.

Presbyterians: Fight Antisemitism While You Divest

**UPDATE: The PCUSA has voted in favor of divestment**

Today, the Presbyterian General Assembly will vote on whether it should divest its holdings in three companies: Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP. These three companies produce military technologies integral to maintaining Israel’s occupation. Of course, because we are talking about Israel, there has to be an overheated public debate. Many Presbyterian leaders fear that divestment will alienate the Jewish community and associate the Church with the long, nefarious history anti-Jewish persecution in Christian Europe. I can appreciate where they are coming from. Like them, I also care tremendously about combating antisemitism. I have a personal stake in making the world a safe place for Jews. But investment in these military companies, especially their complicity in clear violations of Palestinian human rights, does not achieve this goal. So, I have a novel suggestion for the Presbyterian Church on this important day: fight antisemitism while you divest.

The Presbyterian vote comes after a decade of debate on the topic within the church. An interfaith coalition of groups, representing Christians, Muslims and Jews, argues that divesting from the companies would place an obstacle into the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation, which continues and expands its reach over Palestinian lives as the peace process fails over and over again. If the Presbyterian Church is truly committed to peace in the Middle East as it claims to be, the argument goes, it would renounce investment in those companies profiteering from the ongoing violence and repression there. To paraphrase one excellent slogan, it is impossible to talk about peace while investing in violence.

So, what should a conscientious Presbyterian, who cares both about Palestinian suffering and about the history of anti-Jewish oppression do when presented with this dilemma?

The first step comes from differentiating what happened back then from what is happening now. Divesting from three military technology companies complicit in human rights violations has no relationship whatsoever to the historical Christian persecution of Jews. The resolution does not demand that Jews convert to Christianity or face torture. The resolution does not claim that Jews cannot be trusted or are conspiring to take over the world. The resolution does not target Jews collectively at all, but rather addresses specific violations of Palestinian human rights from which the Church does not want to profit. Caterpillar’s notorious D-9 bulldozers have been used to raze thousands of Palestinian homes, many of them the homes of Christian Palestinians. Motorola and HP both supply equipment used to administer Israel’s checkpoints and control over Palestinian movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In fact, 75% of HP’s products have military uses, despite the company’s warm and fuzzy image for producing standard office equipment and back to school electronics. The objective of divestment, despite assertions to the contrary, is to stop the profiteering from Palestinian suffering, not to ostracize Jews.

Some Jewish critics claim that this divestment can be analogized to a “boycott of Jews” because Israel’s activities are “singled out,” but this argument makes no sense. The Presbyterian Church has taken steps to divest from human rights violations and other violence around the world, including from apartheid South Africa. Also, many of these same Jewish critics support an end to the occupation and the implementation of a two-state solution, because they believe it benefits Jews and Israelis to do so. Divesting from military companies that strengthen occupation and further entrench Israel’s hold over the West Bank helps the objectives they claim to support. Divesting would bring them one step closer to their goal, or at least bolster their position in the debate by showing credible interfaith support for an end to occupation. If we all agree that Israel’s occupation is part of the problem, why wouldn’t we do what we can to stop it? Why would we continue to invest in the infrastructure that keeps this cycle of violence afloat? Furthermore, the Presbyterian resolution explicitly condemns violence against innocent people, as do all the organizations working to support it.

Second, the Presbyterians should stay committed to eradicating fear and prejudice against Jews and other religious minorities, for that matter. Presbyterians could use this as an opportunity to bolster their commitment to Jewish-Christian relations and make sure antisemitism has no place in the Church going forward. They could delve more deeply into the issues, theological and political, that have divided our communities in the past. They could develop educational programs to teach their young leaders about Christian antisemitism, blood libel, pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust, and what can be done to keep these terrible events from re-emerging in the future. They could connect the plight of the Jews in Christian Europe to the plight of other oppressed minorities in the world, and perhaps discuss the connection between this history and the current trends toward Islamophobia in Europe. In this way, the Presbyterians and those of us who choose to be their Jewish allies can bring us closer together, proving that boycott and divestment can actually be better tools for positive engagement among people with differences than tiptoeing around injustice to avoid an emotional backlash.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “true peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” Both Jews and Palestinians deserve better than the absence of tension; we need the Presbyterians to consciously and lovingly divest from violence.



Do Not Let Pamela Geller Speak for American Jews

 It is high time to uproot Islamophobia from Jewish communities #muslimjewishunity

 When I heard that Pamela Geller had decided to adorn our DC metro area buses with Islam-bashing ads featuring images of Hitler shaking the hand of Hajj Amin El-Husseini, I wasn’t outraged, just exasperated. Our nation’s cities have been dealing with her garbage for about two years now, since a district court in New York struck down an MTA policy that refused to allow on public transit “demeaning” advertisements to racial or other protected groups.

I view this latest of Geller’s public tantrums, however, as a unique opportunity and a challenge for American Jews. In the United States today, there are numerous mosques and Muslim religious centers facing hostility from their surrounding communities. EEOC reports that since the September 11th 2001 attacks, Muslims report a more than 250% increase of workplace discrimination based on religion or national origin. Countless American Muslims report harassment and discrimination at our country’s airports due to cumbersome and overbroad travel watchlists. There are reports of the FBI placing informants in Muslim institutions to sow discord and recruit terrorists. And of course, there is a whole cable news channel devoted to the idea that Muslims are trying to stealthily subvert our Constitution to replace it with shari’a law.

All of the mistrust, prejudices, and abuses that Muslims face in the post 9/11 world are things Jews should be quite familiar with. It was not so long ago that prominent public figures like Father Coughlin and Henry Ford proclaimed publicly that Jews were enemies of American values, that our leaders were secretly maneuvering to undermine the Constitution in favor of an anti-Christian state, and that we were simply not to be trusted. This resulted in pervasive discrimination that permeated all aspects of our lives, from where we went to school to where we lived and where we felt safe to walk. Our American Jewish history provides an important backdrop for the solidarity that we could show to our American Muslim brothers and sisters, should we be so inclined. So, why is Pamela Geller a welcome guest speaker at synagogues across the country? Why does she get so much of her support from right wing, pro-Israel Jews?

We certainly see Jewish organizations, such as the ADL, issue press releases with condemnations and articles like this one from Mira Sucharov that call for Muslims and Jews to “dialogue.” But Muslims need and deserve much more from us than mere words. Our Jewish leaders and rabbis should be the ones on Fox News calling out those who foment prejudice against Muslims. Our Jewish organizations should be reaching out to support Muslim civil society organizations with common concerns about the rights of religious minorities in America and putting an end to discrimination. Instead, we see organizations like ADL repeating baseless accusations of terrorist ties. This only foments unjustified prejudice against the entire American Muslim community and prevents the bridges between us from being built.

 It does not advance the interests of Jews to cherry pick verses from the Quran, distort their meaning, and then insist that Islam is antisemitic. Denigrating Islam will not solve Israel’s problems in the world. Other writers have done an excellent job of explaining why Geller’s assertions about antisemitism and the Quran are completely off the wall, but this does not stop Jewish Americans, some of whom are members of my own family, from indulging in grotesque and ugly stereotyping of Muslims while claiming they are simply defending the rights of Jews.

There is no question that American Muslims have a lot to learn about the experience of American Jews. I have personally had enriching discussions with young Muslims who had questions about Jewish religious practice, who were curious about my own experience of antisemitism, who wanted to understand the European history that led to the Holocaust, who wanted to better understand why they faced such hostility when they attempt to talk about Palestinian rights on their campuses. But, these conversations would never have been possible if I had hedged on the issue of Muslim civil rights. We cannot reasonably expect Muslims to take a strong stand against anti-Jewish oppression if we refuse to uproot Islamophobia from our own communities.

Islamophobes divide us to push their agenda, to foment fear, and thereby raise their own public profiles. Their place in our public discourse has nothing to do with keeping Jews, Israelis, Americans or anyone else safe. Instead of giving into this kind of emotionalism and demagoguery, we owe it to ourselves and to our children and to all the generations that come after them to support Muslim civil rights in America robustly, not reluctantly.

Frankly, if it weren’t for the crazed debate over Israel, it would be a no-brainer.


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White Nationalists Threaten Jews, BDS Does Not

As we learn the details of the horrifying shootings at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, several pro-Israel commentators and tweeters have tried to link the shooting to rising support for a boycott of Israel and the BDS movement.  Max Blumenthal created a storify which details the ugly stuff here.  The offensive remarks by zealous Israel supporters reveal their shameless opportunism and poor taste, considering the gravity of the circumstances.  When our community is faced with a genuinely frightening event, the Israel-on-the-brain crowd continues to insist that BDS is the real enemy.  Seriously.

So, let me break it down for those who might be confusing things. The shooter is an antisemite. He is a real antisemite, not a human rights group or Nobel prize winner painted to look like an antisemite through use of tortured logic and redefinitions. This is someone who actually despises us and seeks to kill us because we are Jews.

This shooter clearly has no relationship whatsoever to BDS. Perhaps to the chagrin of Israel’s most ardent supporters, racist groups are explicitly unwelcome in that movement and have no place in its ranks.  Let’s take a look at some obvious distinctions: The BDS movement invokes the language of human rights and equal protection. It looks to international law and historic anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles to support and inspire its position. It has support and participation from Muslims, Christians, Jews, secular people, labor unions, student groups, artists, academics and others who don’t wish to invest in the violence of occupation. By contrast, Kansas shooter Frazier Glenn Miller is a former KKK member who invokes the language of white nationalism, which is antithetical to human rights and equal protection.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he organized the ‘White Patriot Party’ in the 1980s and eventually ran for Congress twice in 2006 and 2010. He has raged publicly about the threat Jewish/Christian intermarriage posed to the white European demographic; he has denigrated Jewish religion by claiming that Jews killed Christ; he has claimed that Jews control media, government and international institutions; and he has posited that Jews are lying about their suffering during the Holocaust to make white Europeans look bad, and that the Holocaust is a hoax.  In other words, far from an advocate for equality and human rights, Miller instead asserts that the United States should belong only to white European people.  I don’t hear arguments like his coming from supporters of BDS.  Although, I will admit they bear an uncanny resemblance to some arguments we hear in other circles of the debate, albeit in a slightly more polished and palatable form.

The BDS movement was initiated in 2005 by 180+ Palestinian civil society organizations.  These organizations wrote to the world and called upon it for help as peace negotiations led them nowhere and Israel further entrenched its occupation.  They decided to use a peaceful tactic, the boycott, to pressure Israel and to make the occupation harder and more consequential to maintain. This tactic has been used by social movements across the political spectrum historically as a means to effect social change.  Boycott has also been affirmed as a protected form of free expression by the United States Supreme Court.  Although Israel fanatics make wild accusations of antisemitism, the movement can claim a healthy amount of support from Jews in diaspora as well as Israel, including groups such as: Boycott from Within, The Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Jews for a Just Peace, Independent Jewish Voices and a number of Jewish identified groups in Europe.

Meanwhile, Israel fanatics like Pamela Geller raise money for openly racist groups like the English Defense LeagueDaniel Pipes defends Geert Wilders, who has made common cause with the French far right to form an anti-immigrant ‘trojan horse’ in the European Parliament.  David Horowitz publicizes the writing of Jared Taylor, an open white nationalist, who advocates the idea that blacks have a higher propensity to commit violent crime.  These groups hold viewpoints that decent people committed to democratic values should find abhorrent, yet Geller, Pipes, and Horowitz do not find themselves subject to accusations of bigotry from Israel’s ardent supporters. In most cases, they are still welcome inside the tent.

During a truly terrifying time for our Jewish community, the Israel zealots give real antisemites a free pass in favor of targeting advocates for Palestinian rights. The only plausible reason for this, in my opinion, is that the BDS movement has made tremendous strides around the world, finding allies in renowned artists, writers, scholars, and human rights leaders.  The connections this activism has forged between people of all faiths and backgrounds directly contradicts their extreme, hardline Zionist viewpoint, which relies on a hostile, incurably antisemitic world for its relevancy.

I believe that Jews have the capacity to discern those who endanger us from those who do not.  I only pray that we can cut through the fog and mirrors of an opportunistic political agenda that cedes vital ground to the white nationalists who truly imperil us and our natural allies.