Earlier this month, I attended the large Jewish-led demonstration in Washington, D.C. (un)welcoming Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich to the U.S. We gathered in the cold rain to say that his remarks celebrating a brutal pogrom — and suggesting the state should take over from the settlers and “wipe out” a Palestinian town — are morally unacceptable and antithetical to the values at the core of our faith. We agree that, in this moment, the future of Israeli democracy is being decided.
I found it quite moving to be among so many Jews united in our outrage and concern. It strikes me that there is much agreement among those gathered, and I get the impression that there are important potential disagreements we should discuss openly. First, let’s focus on the points of agreement between us. Since the protest was organized around letting Smotrich know he doesn’t represent us or Judaism, we can assume there is consensus in opposing his rhetoric and policies.
My ancestors fled Eastern Europe running from violent pogroms. I never imagined that my people — the people of the book and of the Exodus — would make the word “pogrom” relevant and force us to face its clear painful definition. But sadly that is where we are. Turning away from this reality does not make it any less real, but instead blocks our chances of co-creating positive change,
So we stood together in Washington, D.C. to call us forward to a better future. I assume we also agree that Smotrich and his ilk can’t define us out of Judaism. Those who have such a narrow, limited, unloving view of Judaism must not be allowed to decide if we, the vast majority of the world’s Jews, are indeed Jewish. I know who I am. They can never take my identity away from me. Nor yours from you.
I hope we also agree that we must actively oppose any attempts to use warped theological cover as an excuse for what comes down to Jewish supremacy. Every group should celebrate the unique beauty of their traditions, but whenever people suggest that “we” are somehow inherently better than “the other,” danger is close at hand. Anyone who pretends that a “Jewish soul” is superior to all others is warping our faith in a way that undermines our proud history. This belief is having a profound impact on key policy decisions and thus on people’s lives. We have a clear and ongoing obligation to call out this evil from within our community.
As Jews, our scripture makes clear that freedom is the universal right of all people. In this moment, I hope we can all agree that Palestinians are human beings deserving of the same basic rights as all other precious human beings. This should not be controversial, but sadly it clearly is.
As we mourn the current state of democracy in Israel, I hope we can also agree that the occupation is corrupting Judaism and leading us down a dangerous path. We were told the occupation was defensive in nature and only temporary. Anyone watching closely now knows that is not accurate. As those who long advocated for a two-state solution, we must admit that approach is no longer possible. Instead we are called to the difficult and essential task to find a way to live together.
Maybe those with me on the street that day are not yet in agreement about some of what I’ll raise below, but I hope — building on the major points of agreement above — we can engage in mutually respectful dialogue about these other vital issues. And, at the end of this piece, I offer an invitation to begin that conversation.
Some who gathered to greet Smotrich seem to be of the belief that all was well prior to the last election. They suggest that somehow we could restore a democracy by avoiding the worst excesses of this new extreme government. I’m not Israeli, but instead, like most on the street that day, I’m one of many American Jews who have cared about the region for years. When we came together to let Smotrich know he was not welcome, we brought with us a range of beliefs and approaches to street protest. Remember the old joke about a gathering of Jews always having one more opinion than people? It proved true that day.
I’ve organized many events and I understand the valid concern about message discipline. Still, it was troubling that those in the large group with many Israeli flags were harshly unwelcoming of Palestinian flags joining in. From my perspective, the image of those flags together better represents our deep concerns about Israeli democracy itself. With deliberate intent, Israelis have been told that the Palestinian flag is a symbol of hate. We’d be much better off if people could understand the flag and the familiar head scarf (keffiyeh) as symbols of a people whose basic human needs have not been met. Of course, that vast understatement does not adequately reflect the scope of Palestinian suffering that should concern us all.
It is self-evident to me that you can’t have a healthy democracy while actively implementing oppressive policies that demean the basic humanity of others. If you have another view, I’d like to understand it. I celebrate those standing up for democracy in Israel and ask them to extend their compassion to include Palestinians. It seems to me that any true understanding of democracy requires this simple and essential step.
The changes we need to make are systemic, and still we recognize that all systems are built on individual actions. What we each do over time creates the system we live in. Maybe if those of us who ended up on that same street, at the same time, can find a way to better understand each other, we can do our small part to help create that larger system-wide change we so desperately need. Having celebrated dialogue groups in the past, I now see both their power and their limitations. It seems they can give good-hearted caring people something meaningful to do while the oppressive structure remains firmly in place. Still, in these troubled times, I’m not willing to give up on communication between people, even those with fundamental disagreements.
So I invite each of you reading this to join a Global Town Hall on Tuesday, March 28. We will gather to hear from two renowned nonviolent Palestinian scholars and activists, one just returned to the U.S. and the other joining us while on a trip to the region. These smart visionary leaders are worth listening to. A young Jewish woman will host the online event, and all those ready to engage in respectful dialogue are welcome.
Of course, this is not the only opportunity to listen to Palestinians or engage with others coming to terms with what is happening in the world these days. If you can’t make this particular conversation, please find others. Consider getting in touch with me and seeing what kind of forum we might craft together. In particular, I ask readers to help get this piece in front of the new organization UnXeptable and the longtime Progressive Israel Network, which both played key roles in the protest.
To all those who were with us on the street that day and to those with us in spirit, let’s build on our shared concern for peace and democracy in the region and be ready to listen and learn together as we seek a path forward to a better future. We all agree that we stand at a crossroads. For many of us, this perilous moment is deeply frightening, but we must not hide from that fear. I still believe that if we work together it might also prove to be a moment of opportunity. The veil has been lifted. Let us be brave enough to see clearly the challenges we face and together find a way to overcome them.
Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.
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