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Holy Land Service

January 30, 2022
Sheryl Nestel, Independent Jewish Voices
Holy Land Service

I’m so honoured to be speaking with you today at this annual Holy Land Service. I want to thank Ken McAvoy and the Middle East Working Group for inviting me and for attending to all the details. Thank you to Rev. Cheri DiNovo and Rev. Russel Daye for including me in the service today. I have had the pleasure over the years of working with many incredible people in the United Church and I’m so pleased to be continuing those conversations here today.

The topic of my talk is the “Jewish Divide on Israel:  Reflections from Beyond the Pale. What I hope to do is share with you my observations on how the Issue of Israel/Palestine is currently dividing the Jewish community. Many in the Jewish community judge the work that I and my fellow dissident Jews do as a form of betrayal. However, calling on the prophetic tradition, I would ask under what circumstances, and within which moral precepts is there an imperative to challenge our communities – the communities that produced us, the communities that educated us, the communities that bear our histories? I know that this is not a question unfamiliar to those of you who have been working for justice for Palestinians within your United Church communities.

I was asked to choose scripture that is relevant to my talk and I looked to Leviticus 19 verse 17:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely reprove your fellow and not bear guilt because of him.”

This is drawn from the holiness code in Leviticus and appears just before “Love thy neighbor as thy self.“ It has been interpreted by the great medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides thusly:  He in whose power it is to prevent sin and does not take the means to prevent it, he himself is ultimately responsible for the sin since it was possible for him to prevent it. This pronouncement must have posed as many challenges to medieval Jews as it does to Jews in 2022.

The dilemma for Jews in this moment is whether to choose fidelity to or betrayal of what appears to be the Jewish communal consensus.  The admonition to not hate your co-religionist in your heart requires speaking out rather than maintaining silence about the transgressions of our communities. For some members of my community, speaking out publicly against Israel’s dispossession of and violence against the Palestinian people constitutes a betrayal. However, fidelity to our community in regards to Israel can constitute betrayal of another sort, the betrayal of the moral and spiritual precepts that are central to Judaism. These fundamental precepts, which are connected to both Jewish history and religious tradition, teach us that we Jews are obligated engage with the struggles for liberation of others. If we deny or refuse this imperative, and when others become our victims argues Jewish theologian Marc Ellis, “the brokenness of our past is betrayed and our political empowerment is made suspect.”

So, what is the nature of the divide over Israel in the Jewish community? Increasingly under interrogation both inside and outside the Jewish community is the universally accepted narrative that Jews’ vulnerability is an intractable problem that transcends time and space and can only be eliminated through the existence of a Jewish majority state where Jews are empowered to defend themselves at all costs.  Within this framework, the Occupation and Israeli militarization are acts of resistance to annihilation rather than the conquest of another people. It also demands that the Jewish memory of suffering be channeled into unequivocal support for Jewish empowerment in Israel as a guarantee against the inevitable threats to Jewish continuity.

The appeal of this framework is obvious and many Jews and non-Jews are deeply committed to this point of view. Of course, what is omitted or rationalized in this understanding is the trauma suffered by the people of Palestine in the actualization of the Zionist vision. For many of us, this is a perversion of our religious and historical legacy. Dissident Jews around the world are pushing back against this framework within our communities.

Many of the most powerful institutions in the Jewish community defend Israel in an unqualified way despite a well-documented history of Palestinian dispossession dating back more than a century and the recent escalation of violence and of horrifying injustices. This defense extends well beyond intercommunal rhetoric and seemingly informs the rationale behind the intimate partnership between various levels of the Canadian government and the institutional Jewish community – with significant benefits for both partners.  We see our government working hand in hand with influential Jewish pro-Israel organizations to protect the Jewish state from criticism and sanctions, to expand trade and diplomatic ties between Israel and Canada and to enshrine policies that encourage the weaponization of antisemitism.  I am referring here specifically to the adoption by Canada of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of antisemitism as a tool to silence the public naming of racism and apartheid in the Jewish state.

Marc Ellis[1] who I mentioned above and whose work I recommend highly, has named this form of Jewish communal politics “Constantinian Judaism” a reference to how Christianity became a state-empowered religion under the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Constantinian Judaism, like Constantinian Christianity links power and empire. A commitment to a militarized Judaism is a Constantinian Judaism, where Jewish energies, creativity, wealth and political power, in Israel and elsewhere, are placed in service to the state.

Jews who challenge Constantinian Judaism are accused of weakness, disloyalty, self-hatred or assimilation. Our very status as Jews is even challenged inasmuch as supporting Israel and Zionism is now considered to be an inextricable part of Jewish identity even though criticism of and opposition to Zionism has accompanied this political ideology since its inception.

So, if we were to map the Jewish political spectrum on Israel, what would we see? While the terrain has shifted dramatically in the last decade, there appear to be three main political camps. One, is the institutional Jewish community – those institutions which dominate Jewish communal life and claim to speak for all Jews despite any semblance of a communal democratic process in determining their policies or actions. They have extensive connections to Israeli institutions and their campaigns are deeply influenced by Israeli strategies countering pro-Palestine discourse and activism. Their defense of Israel’s policies is usually unconditional and several Canadian Israel advocacy groups have been active in targeting, defaming and even seeking litigation against those who advocate for Palestinian human rights. Allegations of antisemitism are almost always employed in these silencing campaigns.

In the middle are groups that identify as “Progressive Zionists” and view the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, beginning in 1967, as Israel’s original sin. Israel can be redeemed, they believe, through withdrawal from the occupied territories and the implementation of a two-state solution – a stratagem that is increasingly viewed as a practical and political impossibility. These groups rarely discuss the events of 1948 and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. J Space, one such Canadian group, has tellingly sided with the institutional Jewish community in supporting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism which, among other things, condemns as antisemitic any claim that Israel is a racist endeavour. In essence, those who identify as Progressive Zionists rarely stray from the widely accepted narrative I sketched earlier.

The third camp at play in this landscape are those who have been dubbed “Jews of Conscience.” Internationally, this group of Dissident Jews has grown exponentially in the last decade. Jewish Voice for Peace in the U.S. which has taken an explicitly anti-Zionist stance has a multi-million dollar budget and dozens of employees. The youth-oriented group If Not Now has recently denounced Israeli apartheid and continues to move leftward. The International Jewish Collective for Justice in Palestine represents 17 Jewish groups in 14 countries around the globe. And my own organization, Independent Jewish Voices Canada, has member groups in every major Canadian city and is recognized as one of the world’s most effective Palestine solidarity groups. To be sure, there are signs within many sectors of the Jewish community that cracks are visible in the wall of compulsory Israel loyalty.

Jews of Conscience wrestle with the ongoing consequences of 1948 and while recognizing the horrors of pre-war antisemitism and the devastation to world Jewry of the Holocaust, we cannot concede Israeli innocence in the foundation of the State. We endeavour to chip away at the wall of willful ignorance which allows a triumphalist picture of the history of the Jewish state to occlude the Nakba, and the ongoing Palestinian trauma of expulsion.

For us, the Holocaust serves as an object lesson about the elimination of all forms of racism and hate rather than a reason for Jews to embrace the deadly ideology of nationalism and the militarization required to sustain it.  We question the hypocrisy of the other camps’ support of liberal precepts of self-determination, reconciliation with indigenous peoples in Canada, defense of human rights and opposition to racism when they are unwilling to apply these principles when the rights of Palestinians are threatened.

We actively oppose Jewish McCarthyism, inside and outside the Jewish community.

We support encouraging free and open debate on Israel and Zionism and work to defeat the suppression of speech on Palestine on campuses and elsewhere.

We challenge the ideological checkpoints which determine who and who is not a legitimate Jew,

We work to loosen the stranglehold of Zionism on Jewish cultural, political life by reclaiming the diaspora as a place of possibility.

We consistently expose the ways in which Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism infuse campaigns to silence criticism of Israel.

We vigorously oppose and challenge the weaponization of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel.

It is to this last principle that I would like to turn. I’m well aware that advocates for Palestinian human rights within the United Church have faced opposition and political pressure from the institutional Jewish community. I have had a chance to read the recommendations of the Just Peace Task Force to the 2022 General Council. The efforts of members of the Task Force to formulate positions on three difficult issues: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the question of apartheid in Israel and the designation of Israel as a Jewish State are worthy of enormous praise. I am particularly struck by their statement that Christ calls us to stand in costly solidarity with those who seem most at risk of losing the fullness of life that God intends for all people. Indeed, solidarity can be costly.  Dissident Jews face not only defamation within our own communities but painful discord in our families and places of worship. Sadly, our Christian allies often face the devastating allegations that their support of Palestinian human rights renders them antisemites. The post-Holocaust Christian Jewish dialogue rightly called out historic Christian antisemitism and its connection to the decimation of one third of the world’s Jews. However, in the ecumenical deal that was struck as part of this dialogue, unequivocal support for Israel was required as part of Christian repentance. It seems to me that those of you who choose costly solidarity with Palestinians are seen by some as betraying this precept. This is abundantly clear in the recent Rabbinical Statement on the UCC’s proposed resolutions on antisemitism and Israel which are being brought to the 2022 General Council. In the statement, six Canadian rabbinic bodies warn the United Church that in order to “purify themselves of the legacy of antisemitism” they must avoid using pejorative language that incites Jew-hatred and they must reflect on and not ignore “post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian dialogue work undertaken in awareness that Christian anti-Judaism was a contributing factor to the genocide.” Presumably the ecumenical deal I mentioned earlier prohibits the church from speaking about verified Israeli apartheid, from supporting non-violent resistance to Israeli oppression of Palestinians and from recognizing that the Israeli Nation State Law effectively enshrines Jewish superiority in Israel/Palestine. Rising rates of antisemitism and “might makes right” claims that Jews speak in one voice are used in the statement as blunt objects of intimidation.

In my reading, the Just Peace Task Force has chosen principle over politics and arrived at recommendations that reflect authentic humanitarian values. It is my sincere hope that people of good faith will see that these positions are in no way antisemitic. Rather, I would argue, they are pro-peace, anti-racist and firmly rooted in principles of justice. Please know that your Jewish allies support your efforts and recognize that the space of exile that we are sometimes forced to occupy together is a place to connect and draw strength.

I’ll conclude by saying that when a politics of dispossession and racism is pursued in the name of protecting and defending the Jewish people, dissident Jews loudly proclaim that we are not represented by such politics. Rather, we stand with those who are murdered, imprisoned and made homeless and stateless by these policies. This was done to us; why are we doing it or lending our support to those Jews who are doing to Others?  We assert that it must be principles and not blood that determine where we stand.

Despite claims to the contrary, dissident Jews like myself care deeply about being Jewish. My relationship to my Jewishness and to other Jews, indeed to the Jewish future is firmly intertwined with the outcome of the Palestine liberation struggle. Its impact on lives in Israel/Palestine and its connection to the morally consequential internal battle in the Jewish community over the question of Palestine must not be underestimated.

Despite what the mainstream Jewish world would have us believe, a moral, creative and authentic Jewish life is not antithetical to support for Palestine.  Rather, solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle is fundamental to a liveable Jewish future based on principles of justice, righteousness and on costly, but necessary solidarity.

[1] See Marc Ellis, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, Baylor University Press:  Waco, Texas, 2004.

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