Arthur Waskow on Israel’s Multiple Denials of Human Rights

“Tshuvah: Till by Turning, Turning, We Come Round Right”

 I have been having qualms about some aspects of what I wrote a few days ago in response to Rabbis Marc Angel’s and Uri Regev’s open letter called “Vision Statement: Israel As A Jewish Democratic State.” (See the link at the end of this message, for their text.)

I have no qualms about the basic religio-political stance I set forth, but I do have qualms about the way I said it, So I want to do some self-correction – what especially at this time of year we call “tshuvah,” turning in a more ethical direction.

As I wrote, I started reading Rabbis Regev’s and Angel’s “Vision” statement with hope, based on its title. But I finished reading with deep disappointment.

I share the anger and sense of betrayal that many of my colleagues feel about the Israeli government’s refusal to recognize marriages or conversion ceremonies at which we officiate, or to honor the spiritual presence of Women of the Wall. Yet I feel far far more distressed by the habit into which many of our colleagues have fallen of defending those prerogatives of our own while ignoring the far worse oppression of the Palestinians.

I understand how many dimensions there are to denial of justice by the present Government of Israel, just as there are to the denial of justice by the present US government. I know that no one can work on all these fronts simultaneously and equally.  But that is a far cry from singling out one or even two of them and using rhetoric that suggests fixing those problems will repair the Jewish and democratic quality of the State of Israel. For me, there can be no democratic State of Israel and no Jewish one in any values-based sense, so long as the State rules over millions of people and denies them the power to govern themselves.

I would have felt very different about the Vision Letter had it said forthrightly, “Among many denials of democracy and of Jewish values in the State today is its worsening insistence on subjugating the Palestinian people and making less and less possible the emergence of a new Palestine alongside of and at peace with Israel. But we see that goal is very difficult to achieve right now, and we want to work on others that will strengthen Israeli grass-roots democracy and the vitality of grass-roots Judaism there. We hope what we do on those questions will make it easier to end the Occupation.”

Even if Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, and Modern Orthodox Jews were all allowed to have their rabbis marry their congregants, that would still not equal democracy so long as the whole structure of the State leans more and more on subjugation of the Palestinians.  (And it would not mean the prophetic Judaism promised by the Declaration of Independence, either.)

As I wrote the other day, recreating democracy and a vital Judaism in Israel today while remaining silent about the Occupation is as if US Jews in 1861, facing a society heavily invested in economic and political support for slavery, had focused on anti-democratic discrimination against Jews – and there was plenty! — without even mentioning the monstrous denial of democracy involved in slavery.

For me, the better model — one of my rabbinic heroes –  has been Rabbi David Einhorn. In 1861, in the Southern city of Baltimore in the slaveholding state of Maryland –– a city commercially and interpersonally linked to the South –  he cried out that Torah demanded the abolition of slavery, naming the real anti-democratic, anti-Jewish  monster.  His own congregants threatened his life and forced him to flee Baltimore. He moved to Philadelphia, where slavery had been outlawed, and brought new life to a synagogue, Keneseth Israel, that remains successful today,

I hope that Rabbis who speak out about their religious marginalization in Israel –  as they should! – will speak also about the denial of equality to Israelis of Palestinian culture and connection, the ill-treatment of  the Israeli poor, the encroaching attacks on freedom of speech, and above all, about the cancer of the Occupation, as Einhorn did about the cancer of slavery.

For what then must I “Turn” and do tshuvah ?  For writing as if without addressing this broader and fuller truth there would be no merit at all in raising one of the many ways in which Israeli democracy and the values of the Prophets are in tatters. But there is merit in what Rabbis Regev and Angel did ––   not as much as I think we needed, but merit nevertheless.

Blessings for a year of emet, tzedek, v’shalom  — truth, justice, and loving peacefulness. Without all three of these pillars, the world cannot stand. We must  rebuild  all three.

tags: Israel/Palestine   
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