Readers Respond: Letters from Winter 2013
A NOTE ON LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:
We welcome your responses to our articles. Send your letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please remember, however, not to attribute to Tikkun views other than those expressed in our editorials. We email, post, and print many articles with which we have strong disagreements, because that is what makes Tikkun a location for a true diversity of ideas. Tikkun reserves the right to edit your letters to fit available space in the magazine.
I was heartened to read the many articles about restorative justice in the Winter 2012 issue, as I believe in the need for a holistic and relationally oriented revision of our often heartless, overly legalistic and unjust legal system. From what I read about restorative justice, however, I am disappointed that it seems to bear no vision for the revision of our system of civil law, which some would argue is more fraught with abuse and harm than is the criminal justice system. The articles referred only to criminal cases.
The systemic blindness to the injuries caused by the legal process itself has led me to believe that the blindfold of Lady Justice has become, instead of a guarantee of equal justice, a serious obstacle to justice. Our blindfolded lady can’t see clearly enough to recognize the lives she flattens, the justice she snuffs out with the steamroller of her letter of the law. What is the vision restorative justice might contribute to such a situation?
Those charged with crimes are given free representation, yet if those facing litigation cannot afford a lawyer, they are not provided one. Rather, they are told that if they can’t afford a lawyer, they will surely lose the case, regardless of the truth in the matter, so they’d better pay the settlement fee demanded by the suing party. If they can’t afford that either, then their home could be sold to pay as little as a $15,000 judgment. The civil legal system, as it exists today in the United States, is practically a red carpet rolled out to those who wish to extort or exact revenge. It harmfully enables—and often financially rewards—those who are eager to find someone to blame for their own misfortune or lack of judgment. It also encourages, rather than dismisses, thousands of frivolous lawsuits that cause untold harm. The civil legal system ostensibly addresses (and often wildly exaggerates) even the smallest and most trivial degrees of injury to a suing party. However, it is completely blind to, and does not take into account, the sometimes great injury that can be done to defendants through the lawsuit process.
As a first step in the reformation of civil law, I’d like to suggest that we focus on actual injury rather than an entirely legalistic focus on violation of laws. Civil cases should be analyzed in terms of what injury may have actually occurred, and if injury did not occur, the case should be thrown out.
I write in response to a web article written by Katherine Franke and Rebecca Alpert in May 2012 defending their decision to boycott an LGBT event hosted by the Equality Forum because the event selected Israel as the featured nation and was sponsored by the Israeli Embassy and Ministry of Tourism. Franke and Alpert’s explanation rested on the idea of “pinkwashing,” a term coined by Sarah Schulman, a supporter of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.
“Pinkwashing,” Schulman has said, is “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” The focus of Schulman’s, as well as Franke and Alpert’s, ire is on a marketing campaign in which the Israeli Consulate General and other Israeli government officials promote Israel to the United States LGBTQ community as a tourist destination. Their criticism was also drawn upon by others around the country, including in Seattle, where anti-Israel activists in the community successfully pressured the Seattle LGBT Commission to cancel a reception it had scheduled for representatives from the Israeli LGBTQ social justice community.
I have followed the pinkwashing debate closely and am speaking out against what I see as “pinktrashing”—knee-jerk oppression politics rather than an informed, engaged, public dialogue about Israel and queer progressive politics.
The Israeli LGBTQ community has sought and achieved important protections for human and civil rights in the areas of marriage and family equality, as well as in access to health care for transgender Israelis, among others. These contributions and their connection to an international global social justice campaign are worthy of attention and analysis as well as critique.
The boycotts and pinktrashing campaign, on the other hand, have as their goals shutting down public discussion about Israeli LGBTQ social and policy developments. They also take Schulman’s analysis to a new and different level. That next step is premised on the idea that progressive LGBTQ policies in Israel have been either designed or accepted by Israeli leaders in order to foster support for Israel among the U.S. progressive community. That proposition is not only false but is also implausible, based on any legitimate political or social development theory and is, frankly, demeaning and disrespectful of Israeli LGBTQ activists.
In any case, by making its goal the termination of public discussion regarding Israel, the pinktrashing campaign is unfortunate. There is an important conversation to have about the relationship between LGBTQ politics in Israel and Palestinian-Israeli relationships. Pressuring city commissions, conferences, and public events to withdraw speaking invitations, as opposed to engaging in public discussion, prevents civil resolution of difficult issues.
The recent criticisms of the Israeli Consulate General’s efforts to host public discussions about LGBTQ rights in Israel remind me of the silencing tactics of the supporters of the Zionism is Racism resolution at the United Nations in the 1970s. Like the resolution, the point of the pinktrashing campaign is not to foster discussion about the complexities of Israeli queer progressive politics in view of Israeli-Palestinian relationships. It is to shut down any engaged, reflective discussion by drawing upon insecurities and imperfections of the U.S. progressive (particularly queer) political communities.
The pinktrashing campaign requires that LGBTQ individuals and organizations pick a side—without ever having had the chance to engage in any dialogue—and it polarizes those sides as either being in support of Israel and its development of progressive queer politics or being in opposition to the pro-Palestinian, anti-Occupation movements. It guarantees conversations in echo chambers.
My hope is that someday soon we can get beyond the polarized and polarizing rhetoric around Israeli politics and now around Israel and queer politics to come to a solution, or at least a conversation, that recognizes the humanity of all people who lay some claim to Middle East lands. Inflammatory rhetoric and speaking in silos create, unfortunately, only roadblocks.
Rebecca T. Alpert replies:
I appreciate Jennifer Levi’s acknowledgement that this is a targeted marketing campaign by the Israeli government, which was not acknowledged by the organizers of Philadelphia’s Equality Forum. I would disagree about its intentions, however. I understand its main purpose is not to inform the queer American community about Israeli LGBT-friendly policies, but to deflect attention from their decidedly unfriendly policies regarding the human rights of the Palestinians. And as a progressive Jewish lesbian, I resent the Israeli government’s efforts to suggest that good policies toward one oppressed group can in any way mitigate horrific policies used against another group.
I also agree that boycott may not be the best tactic, and my own work through Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) focuses on the divestment strategy. I was attracted to this work to support nonviolent Palestinian solutions, and in the long run I prefer boycott to a third Intifada, which I fear will be the next stage if Israel does not stop building settlements and walls and strangling the Palestinian economy.
And please understand that for my public stance I have been boycotted by the American Jewish community. A representative of JVP is not welcome to speak at Hillel or virtually any American synagogue, effectively terminating any truly open discussion on Israel in Jewish communal settings.
Ultimately Levi and I share a common purpose—open dialogue. As Katherine Franke suggests, we want to talk with queer Israeli activists and imagine that we have much to learn from one another. (See her response to Arthur Slepian at tikkun.org/pinkwashing).We only disagree about who is to blame for the absence of the conversation. From my perspective, when the Israeli government is ready to encourage American Jews to talk about Palestinian rights, I will welcome the dialogue that I hope will ensue.
RAV KOOK AND THE TRANSITION TO A HOLY STATE
Nathaniel Berman’s eye-opening article on Rav Kook’s thoughts about the state (“Statism and Anti-Statism: Reflections on Israel’s Legitimacy Crisis,” Tikkun, Summer 2012) left me with a question. I am with Berman in wishing for a Jewish statism that has at least enough universalism that would not make peace impossible, and in celebrating Kook the Jewish universalist. But what of the necessary stage? I wanted Berman to connect to Marxist thought on the same issue, of means and ends, necessity and agency, and to deal with the thought that a violent nationalist espousing racism can, according to this scheme, argue that to be caught up in evil/darkness is unavoidable. It took the women’s movement to reevaluate the utopianism that had been derided by Marx. But still, the jump to preferable pleasantness leaves me wondering about how we come to our different views and commitments, and about whether or not we are in the peace movement or the violent Right, etc. How possible is it to live the change you want to see in the world?
Nathaniel Berman replies:
If particularistic nationalism is a “stage” on the way to nationalism with a universalist vocation, Mark Joseph asks, how can we know when the moment of transition has arrived? This question can really be posed to any worldview that both articulates a vision of historical teleology and yet demands political and ethical action to achieve its telos. As Joseph suggests, this quandary was long central to Marxist polemics, pitting “revisionists,” who trusted in historical inevitability, against revolutionaries, who demanded violent rupture with an unjust order. In the Jewish tradition, this issue emerged in rabbinic denunciations of “forcing the end-times” (dehikat ha-ketz) through actions such as mass migration to the Holy Land. Indeed, Religious Zionism needed to interpret away the many traditional sources that take such stances, in order to refute widespread condemnations of it as heretical. My own view is that whether one is concerned with national self-assertion, social justice struggles, or religious audacity, “stage” theories should be replaced by an understanding that the ever-present possibility of divergent diagnoses is what makes political, ethical, and spiritual choice both imperative and yet never definitive. Nationalists will always have to choose, in ever-changing circumstances, between consolidating their group and opening up to other peoples and cultures; social progressives between working within and against “the system”; religious devotees between submitting to the divine and wrestling with it. Such perilous choices are central to the human condition—and the choice between different forms of Jewish identity has never been more urgent than in our time.
COMMENTS ON BDS
In August, we sent out an online newsletter to our readers. In it, contributing editor Stephen Zunes argued that boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) should be directed not just at Israel, but also at all occupations and at the worst human rights violating countries. His article comes very close to articulating the position on BDS that Rabbi Michael Lerner has articulated for Tikkun. We differ only in the following respects:
1. The occupations of Tibet by China and of Chechnya by Russia should count, and there may be other such (India in Kashmir, perhaps). Ethical considerations should be considered valid in determining what is and is not an “occupation” when considering BDS.
2. We believe that BDS is also appropriate against any country engaged in prolonged warfare (and hence occupation) in some other country’s territory (the United States in Iraq till this year, and in Afghanistan continuing; Sudan in Darfur; Syria in Lebanon for many years; Israel in Lebanon for many years) unless it can make a credible case that failing such an occupation, it would face occupation by the other country.
3. In the case of Israel (or any other country ruled by a group that has a long history of being victims of persecution prior to having a state under its control), Rabbi Lerner has argued in Embracing Israel/Palestine that BDS has the potential negative consequence of increasing the paranoia of a previously persecuted group, which in turn might lead to more oppressive behavior rather than a lifting of the oppressive behavior, and that therefore it is a dangerous (though appropriately nonviolent) strategy that should be used very sparingly if at all, and then only in a very targeted way.
4. It is imperative that those who launch BDS campaigns make clear what it would take to stop the campaign. It is not enough of an answer to say “Stop the Occupation,” because in the case of Israel/Palestine, the criterion is in doubt. Some supporters of BDS (like those of us at Tikkun) are calling for the end of the Occupation of the West Bank and the boycotts and blockades of Gaza by Israel. Other supporters of BDS think that the Occupation refers to Israel’s very creation in 1948 and that its dissolution would require the ending of Israel as a refuge state for Jews facing oppression elsewhere. One major reason Tikkun has not joined the BDS movement as a whole is that BDS seems to include both of these positions. That makes it very easy for blind supporters of Israeli policy to claim that support for BDS is really support for ending the State of Israel, since at least some parts of the BDS movement genuinely hold that view. We believe that in the case of the State of Israel, those who support BDS (ourselves included) need to continually make clear that they also support the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in at least part of its ancient homeland in what became Palestine after Jews were forcibly expelled by Roman imperialism roughly 1900 years ago.
Keith Barton responds:
Rabbi Lerner, I realize that you are trying to set a “fair and balanced” tone when it comes to analyzing the BDS issues that are percolating through various constituencies in the United States. I find that your perspective is no more fair and balanced than Fox News, due to the preponderant dependence of Israel on U.S. foreign “aid” and on the American Jewish community, which has a stranglehold on the American democratic process. BDS is currently the only avenue through which people can express opposition to Israeli policies, because the “democratic” process is locked down by the tentacles of AIPAC. Similarly, U.S. public opinion has more influence on Israeli policies than it has on China, Russia, and India, since those regimes are not, by and large, dependent upon American largesse in the way that Israel is. China would find BDS amusing at best, considering that it currently manufactures the vast majority of consumer goods that America depends on and owns half of American treasury assets besides.
So you cannot separate the militarism of Israel and the nefarious machinations of AIPAC from considerations of BDS. Because of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, BDS is well suited for expressing moral opposition to Israeli policies, both in the occupied territories and in wider Middle Eastern affairs, whereas BDS is a poor choice of tactics for influencing China, Russia, or India. In fact, BDS is probably the only avenue through which Americans—and even American Jews—can express moral opposition to Israeli policies, due to the preponderant influence of the reactionary American Jewish community in American politics.
However, Israelis do seem to care about what Americans think about Israeli policies. Why else would they expend considerable effort trying to stamp out BDS? I cannot believe that BDS actually threatens Israel in a direct financial way, any more than BDS against South African apartheid could have directly brought South Africa to its knees. But moral opinions do matter, and BDS is primarily a symbolic expression of disapproval that seems to carry some weight above and beyond writing letters and op-ed pieces, particularly when BDS originates from sober religious institutions or from idealistic young Jews (YJP, etc.).
Barry Wright responds:
May I ask whether the United States has vetoed over eighty UN resolutions against any other country for its occupation and quasi-apartheid policies except Israel? And has the United States supported any other countries practicing questionable human rights abuses with billions a year in aid except Israel?
Michael Novick responds:
Dictating to the Palestinians what they should call for is unacceptable. Their struggles against Occupation, for civil rights within Israel, and for the right of return are the three demands of the BDS campaign initiated by Palestinian civil society, and the terms under which the campaign would be ended. Do you or do you not support those demands? Apparently, you think that allowing Palestinians to return to their homes and homeland conflicts with your desire to see Israel as a “refuge state for Jews facing oppression elsewhere.”
It’s fine for Professor Zunes or Rabbi Lerner to denounce other occupations or prolonged wars. But in the real world, there is no campaign led by the Western Saharans (internationally recognized as occupied) or the Chechnyans (not so recognized) for BDS by other nations or other civil societies. It is also telling that when you consider occupations, you do not mention Puerto Rico (where the UN has called for decolonization) or any other U.S. “territories.”
David Kronfeld responds:
Let me translate Professor Zunes’s article: let us create a flimsy smokescreen (by adding Morocco into the equation) so that we can continue to attack Israel, but under cover of attacking “all” occupations.
Like so much of the anti-Israel sentiment infecting the progressive movement, the article is disingenuous to the core. Its intention is to push the BDS movement directed primarily at Israel and to deflect criticism of that movement, without any substantive change.
This piece is just a specious argument, which adds to the self-righteous stance of “just helping the downtrodden” professed by those who seek to fundamentally harm Israel. I think it is a shameful piece of attempted sleight of hand, aimed at gaining propaganda value alone.
Diane Reike responds:
Well, we all know where this is going. Heal the rest of the world, and then maybe (or maybe not) Israel will consider thinking about it.
I am a political activist whose only allegiances are to God, myself, and doing what I can to heal the world. My motto is “take care of myself so that I can take care of others, be good to myself and be good to others, and use everything that comes my way for my uplifting, learning, and growth.” I truly respect your work and see you as one of those around the world who are anchor points for God to work through. From my perspective, the web article on immigration that you shared via email is so right on. I do see that there will be a time when we will be living in a society wherein we all know we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper. In the moments when the picture looks bleak, through God’s grace I can remind myself to look for the good in all things. At these times I can perceive that perhaps the plan is for all that has been hidden to come to Light so completely that the darkness will not be able to survive. It gives me great joy to know that you are here and making a difference.
—Annette Saint John Lawrence
Sherman Oaks, CA