This week, my 10-year old son reflected with me about a wonderful lesson in his class at Berkman Mercaz Limud (our religious school). The 4th graders learned about the siren that was sounded throughout Israel two weeks ago for Yom HaShaoh—Holocaust Remembrance Day, and just last week for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. He showed me the video on YouTube, where you can see Israelis driving on the highway, stop their cars, step outside, and stand quietly in memorial honor for the duration of the one-minute siren. What impressed me about the teacher’s lesson was my son’s readiness to discuss deeper concepts. He asked about the roots of hatred and why some groups live together peacefully and others do not.
I responded that the world—all of us—have work to do, and that Jews like every other group, need to be careful to take care of our own people and also to take care of others.
Within public discourse and institutional Jewish life, too often we are asked to choose between the two principles: If you care more about taking care of our own people, here’s the right-leaning organization for you. If you care more about taking care of other groups, here’s the left-leaning organization for you. The polarization may work for some, especially those who hold extreme positions. But I believe most of us want a Jewish community who cares about and advocates, for both the interests of the Jewish people and the interests of other groups. Both, Israelis and Palestinians.
Well beyond the Jewish community, I see the danger of this polarization, when people perceive that they need to choose between caring about Israel’s right to exist, and caring about the lives and dignity of Palestinians.
Last month I had the opportunity to gather with agencies in the Jewish community who are particularly concerned about efforts to de-legitimize Israel. Clergy and leadership of the JCRC, AJC and Board of Rabbis studied with expert Ethan Felson and ministers. We learned about efforts towards Israel’s de-legitimization, and we learned about efforts for co-existence and for peacemaking towards the goal of a Two State Solution. Why now? Yes, we are in the season of Yom Ha-atzmeut, Israel Independence Day. But what drove this gathering wasn’t the Jewish calendar; it was a Christian one.
This June, the Presbyterian Church USA will hold its biennial convention. There, the Church will consider resolutions on Israel, that have been brought by activists from the global Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions Movement, known as BDS. The Presbyterian ministers involved with BDS are working toward persuading their national Church to drop its support for the 2-State solution for Israelis and Palestinians. These ongoing overtures are a follow up to their convention two years ago, when by a narrow margin, and reportedly to audible gasps, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest from three United States companies doing business in Israel. Sure enough, in that divestment decision, there was a footnote calling for the re-examination of the Church’s stance supporting the existence of the State of Israel.
Tracking the overtures in the Presbyterian Church, offers us a look at a microcosm of the BDS movements in general. BDS is not, as they often claim, a strategy to influence Israel’s policies; their cause does not support Israel’s existence.
Decades ago, boycotts against South Africa worked to influence a more equal life for citizens of the country. In contrast, BDS does not strive to improve the State of Israel, to influence Israel’s policies, or to strengthen coexistence, or the peace process for a Two-State solution.
Therefore, what threatens the BDS movement most? When we stand up only for Israel’s security and neglect to mention our concern for the Palestinans? No! We weaken BDS when we say: we care about our own people and we also care about another people. According to the thinkers leading efforts such as the Israel Action Network of the Jewish Federation, and the Reut Institute in Israel, what most threatens the anti-Israel BDS movement is when Jews work to improve the lives of Palestinians in our efforts for peace. BDS seeks to divide Israel supporters who criticize Israel’s policies, from the mainstream Jewish community. BDS strives to drive a wedge between progressive Jewish values and pro-Israel support. BDS hopes to project a monopoly on empathy.
When Jews stand for social justice efforts in Israel and show our passion for coexistence and civil rights for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, we begin to prove BDS wrong, and to drive a wedge between those who would de-legitimize Israel, and those who would share their criticisms in the spirit of loving support. Of course, this strategy to combat BDS is not only a method to support Israel’s right to exist; this strategy of empathy serves as the very foundation of our Jewish values.
In this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, we learn: Love your neighbor as yourself. Vahavta lereyecha kamocha. Dubbed, “the golden rule,” this foundational Jewish principle means, at its most basic understanding, that we ought to demand for others the same kind of treatment we want for ourselves. Originally, the text probably intended neighbor to mean, fellow Israelite. Yet generation after generation, tradition steers the verse to a more universal understanding of connection. The 20th century commentator Martin Buber interprets it: “Be loving to your fellow person, as to one, who is just like you.” Not your fellow Jew, but your fellow person, is just like you. Empathy toward the other, who is just like you.
Now, what of our friends in the Presbyterian Church? Are they really predominantly anti-Israel? No. I am beginning to get to know some ministers who have helped me understand.
One has explained that in 2014, when she advocated for Two States for Two Peoples and stood against BDS in the last convention’s vote, she saw some of her beloved friends and colleagues on the other side of the line. She guesses that they are not actually against Israel or even for BDS, but that they perceived BDS to represent the progressive voice of peace and the voice of concern for the Palestinians.
Another minister has explained that the leaders who are advocating for BDS are a very small minority, who take advantage of a Church governance system, and of the unawareness of the majority of their colleagues. He added that when Christians hear Jewish pro-Israel voices that express concern for the rights and dignity of Palestinians, it serves as a powerful way to help ministers understand that BDS is not the only group with compassion for the Palestinians.
I am so grateful to these Christian clergy for their dedication to peace and to a Jewish State, and for courageously putting themselves on the line, with their public support. They, too, are great teachers of empathy. But their position is still in the minority.
Yesterday, on Yom Ha-atzmeut, Israel’s Independence Day, I signed a letter addressed to Christian clergy from rabbis and cantors. Entitled “A Letter in Hope,” its message intends to reach the Christian colleagues who will soon at their national conventions, consider resolutions for Boycott-Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. Excerpts from letter, read:
“We embrace all those who are working to bring Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews to build institutions upon which peace and coexistence depend. We are especially heartened by the ways in which environmental concerns unite the two communities. Israel was founded as a Jewish state that promises, in the words of its founding document, to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” This principle balances the right of the Jewish people to a homeland with the rights of all others for whom the State of Israel is also their home. We are saddened that there does not appear to be political momentum toward a renewal of negotiations.
We understand that divestment, designed to force Israel’s hand, might appear to be a legitimate, non-violent way for Christians to make their voices heard. However, divestment only hurts efforts to foster economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians – something both parties and the international community know is essential for peace. Furthermore, whether intentional or not, a divestment resolution would provide support to the international BDS movement – a movement which claims to seek peace but leaves no room for a Jewish state of Israel alongside a future Palestinian state.”
This season of Yom Ha-atzmeut, Israel Independence Day, is a time to affirm and celebrate Israel’s existence and to further our understanding of threats to Israel, Israel’s complex challenges and Israel’s ongoing efforts for peace and social justice. Please join us for these upcoming Israel Conversations at Rodeph Shalom:
panel about the Settlements with two young Israelis, on May 17; and
speaker about co-existence, on June 8; and
at the Trip Info session, on June 8, learn about our upcoming trip to Israel this fall, which will offer a deeper look into Israel’s social justice needs and work.
With love for Israel and dedication to Israel’s future, let us be inspired: to love your neighbor as yourself. And to be loving to your fellow person, as to one, who is just like you..