Sunday, January 04, 2009

Waskow on American Jewish Response

American Jewish "politics" is important. It is important because American Jewry is, along with Israeli Jewry, is one of the twin foci of Judaism today. What happens in American Jewry today will affect the face of Judaism as a whole in 100, 200, 500 years. It is also important, of course, because, no matter what you think about Meirscheimer and Walt, American Jews do have a strong influence on American public opinion and American policy.

So, I think the following "letter" from Rabbi Arthur Waskow is important. The emergence of J-Street is a healthy symptom that the forces of a progressive, open, post holocaust Judaism is finally finding a voice. The opposition to it, - may it soon wither - is also significant. I call J-Street "post holocaust", because what Waskow calls an inter-generational difference, I view as a difference in how Jews view the holocaust. It has sadly become de-rigour in most Jewish circles, and certainly in establishment Jewish circles, to assume that Jewish annihilation is always imminent and to repeat, as in a mantra, "Never Again." This habit of thinking and behaving has given Jewish hawks energy and silenced Jewish doves - after all if a Holocaust is imminent than any of Israel's military excesses can be forgiven, and it is never appropriate to criticize Israel when you might be giving succor to anti-Semites.

In any case, enough of my preamble. Here, verbatim, is the latest "letter" from the Shalom Centre.

Shalom, Shabbat, & Shibboleth

It gets harder, Shabbat by Shabbat, to say without weeping the words "Shabbat shalom" - a sabbath of peace -- when the present government of Israel has used last week's Shabbat and yesterday's to massively increase the level of its violence as a response to the violence of Hamas.

The ground invasion of Gaza that began yesterday/ Shabbat is likely to kill many many Palestinans and Israelis. "Shabbat shalom" could instead have meant seeking such elements of "shalom" as ending the blockade of Gaza and ending the assassination of Hamas leaders in exchange for an end to rocket attacks on Israel. --- As 10,000 Israelis, marching yesterday in Tel Aviv, were urging.

On The Shalom Center's website (lead story at ) is our analysis of alternatives to the present death machine, including our approach to building the politico-religious base in America to make those alternatives real.

And at the same time, we need to resist recurrent efforts by some Jews to define what is kosher for other Jews to say and do --- even when they are urgently trying to protect Israel from attack.

In ancient Israel, the word "shibboleth" became a communal password. Since some versions of Hebrew included the "sh" sound whereas others used "s" and some of their speakers could not pronounce the "sh," that word became a way to demonstrate you were a kosher Israelite (specifically, a Gileadite rather than an Ephraimite). If you could not pronounce it but said "ssiboleth" instead, you got killed. (See Judges 12:5-6.)

The "shibboleth" of today is the sentence, "Israel has the right to defend itself from attacks." Say it, just like that, and you are a kosher Jew. Add complexities or qualifiers, like "Defend how?" in any form, and you are unkosher.

The most important and most disappointing use of this shibboleth is by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of Reform Judaism. Within the URJ are many views about the Sderot-Gaza Crisis. The situation is complex enough that this is hardly surprising. It would be nice for URJ's head to make clear that this is so, though of course he is entitled as well to his own opinion. Though I disagree with Rabbi Yoffie's views about the war, they are certainly worthy of discussion.

But I think that this past week, in a column for the Forward, Rabbi Yoffie transgressed menschlich discussion by attacking J Street. It is the newish lobby group that has committed itself to the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" task of supporting with money and with information Congressional candidates who can love Israel and love peace as well. J Street has, inevitably, been called the alternative to AIPAC, but its key staffers -- Jeremy Ben-Ami and Isaac Luria - have firmly insisted on defining what they are for, not what they are against.

So what was their sssinful violation of the shibboleth?

Instantly upon the massive Israeli bombing of Gaza, J Street called for a cease-fire -- an immediate end to the bombings, to rocket attacks by Hamas against Israel, and to the Israeli blockade of food, fuel, and medicines from entering Gaza.

Perhaps Rabbi Yoffie might have ignored this, but J Street did something much worse - it actually amassed 14,000 signatures for its one-line call for a cease-fire.

Now Rabbi Yoffie says wars "sicken" him, even the wars he supports. So what was wrong with J Street's effort to end this war, including ending Hamas rockets against Israelis?

Ahh, they violated the shibboleth. Rabbi Yoffie attacks J Street for saying: "Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing 'right' in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing 'right' in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them."

Rabbi Yoffie explains that "These words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive."

Ahhh. To pronounce "shibboleth" right and be a kosher Jew, you must not say that Israel is not doing right, even if you are crystal clear that Israel's enemies are not doing right.

What should we do if we think J Street is basically correct in what should happen, morally right-on and politically knowledgeable rather than "naïve," and if we believe that being "in touch with Jewish sentiment" at any given moment in the polltakers' notes is no measure of Jewish wisdom?

I urge our readers and members to click to the J Street website and make a contribution of $36 or more. (This number is in Hebrew numerology the symbolic affirmation of two lives - in this case, Israelis and Palestinians.)

At that URL, you will find a space called "In honor of." I suggest that if your sense of humor leans that way, you fill it in with "In Honor of Rabbi Eric Yoffie."

The URL is this:


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