A member of IfNotNow speaks

On Thursday, August 2, 2018, Tablet Magazine published an article by Amy Stein. Entitled “Losing Hope in Israel, Looking to Jordan,” it makes the outrageous claim (among others) that shimmers of democracy in Jordan compares favorably to Israel’s, whose government, the author argues, is in steep decline, this based on a two-day trip to Jordan She also spends time in this article defending the IfNotNow agenda.

I decided to annotate the article.

The article and my comments appear below.

ps I’ve been posting regularly lately and have received no response.  If you’re reading this and have a reaction, I’d love to hear from you

Phil

 

It was the second Friday night of July, my second Shabbat in Israel this summer. I had just finished services at Kol Haneshama, one of the only[1] Reform synagogues in Jerusalem. I was with a group of fellow rabbinical students, all of us studying at the Hartman Institute as part of the annual Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar (RTS), where 170 rabbis from all over the world gather for 10 days. We had taken to calling ourselves the “Young Girls Club,” three rabbinical students from different progressive schools in the United States, and myself—a half-Israeli, former Hasidic rabbi.[2]

As we walked down the street, someone with us mentioned one of her friends who was currently staffing a Birthright trip, and was having a hard time with a few participants who she said “kept on challenging her” with questions about Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. The consensus among us is that the Birthright guide’s “hard time” is clearly a result of what happened earlier that week: Eight Birthright participants walked off two different trips to meet with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Five other Birthright participants had walked off their trip a few weeks earlier. We all agree that the credit for these walk-offs goes to IfNotNow.[3] My friend wondered out loud: “What do they want? What is their goal? This is not the way to go about it,” and so on. I’d heard these arguments dozens of times.

For the first time at Hartman I “outed” myself. I said: “Well, I am myself a part of IfNotNow.” I heard a silent gasp from a member of the group, but I continued, “I have followed this campaign since its inception. While I’m personally not as involved as I would like to be, I wholeheartedly support the Birthright: #NotJustAFreeTripcampaign.”

I went on to explain my position. Birthright simply cannot credibly claim to be an “apolitical” free trip to Israel while it shows its participants a whitewashed, sanitized version of Israel, erasing and avoiding the occupation. That is political. Our generation cannot afford to be silent.[4]

My friends were skeptical, but they listened, and nodded along as I said my piece. This is something I find more and more with rabbinical students in the United States: People who are not part of IfNotNow seem more and more open to our ideas.

That was one of many times throughout my 10 days at Hartman, and my month in Jerusalem, that IfNotNow was mentioned. Some rabbis agreed partially, some were terrified, some demonized us. But everyone agreed: The American Jewish landscape is changing.

It’s not hard to see the proof of that change from the leaders of the American Jewish establishment: Steve Wernick, the head of the Conservative Movement, compared Israel’s anti-Democratic actions to that of Saudi Arabia and Iran in a public statement about the “canyon” between Israel and the Diaspora. Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform Movement, feels so much accountability to millennials that he responded to an open letter from a 17-year-old Union for Reform Judaism member within 24 hours; and the theme for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference—happening in Israel for the first time in five years—is, “We Need to Talk.”

I can talk more about all that is wrong with Birthright, with Israel’s increasingly right-wing government, the Jewish establishment approach, the occupation, and more. The amount of articles and op-eds written on that in the past few weeks and months and years are numerous. I am not one to follow the crowd, because if I was I would still be wearing a shtreimel today.

I want to share a more personal reflection.

Toward the end of my four weeks in the Middle East, I took a two-day tour of Jordan, which I call the only stable country in the Levant. I have been following Queen Rania of Jordan, and her work to advance the rights and lives of women and children, for a while. I have been reading about how a country that is an absolute monarchy—in a region where that is usually synonymous with theocracy and dictatorship—is moving toward democracy, led by an ambitious king and queen. I followed their de facto legalization of LGBQ relationships, and the rise of Jordan’s own LGBTQ publication, My.Kali.[5] There is one clear feeling that one gets from reading about and going to Jordan: The country is moving in the right direction. Far from perfect, but getting there.

On the way back from Jordan, I told my friends, the same ones from above: It feels like Jordan is moving toward more democracy, while its neighbor Israel is moving further and further away from it.[6] This time, even they agreed in dismay. Israel is on the wrong track. The effect of years of discrimination against Palestinians—51 years of military occupation—is slowly making its way inside the Green Line.

I would have loved to love Israel.

I might not be religious, but I love Judaism. I love our culture and spiritual traditions. I love our foods and languages. And I really wish that I could love the country where all of this is visible on the streets.[7]

I am angry at the Israeli government for not allowing me, and us, to love the country.[8]

I am half Israeli. My father was born in Jerusalem, my grandmother was born in Jerusalem. My family’s roots in the city go back to my great-great-great-grandmother who lived in Jerusalem and is buried on the Mount of Olives. Several of my direct ancestors going back to the 17th century—whom I can trace my lineage to in my sleep; I grew up hearing their names—lived, and are buried in the Galilee. My family’s connection to the land predates Zionism by many years.

A few people told me I shouldn’t get into Israel-Palestine-related activism, because it would hurt the work I am trying to do to advance LGBTQ rights. But I can’t be silent while Israeli democracy is dying[9] and the occupation grows ever more entrenched. [10]Not because I hate the land, but because I love it and the people that live there.[11]

There are those who claim other countries in the region are worse, who talk about how Hamas and Iran kill LGBTQ people. There are those who say the leaders in China, Russia, and North Korea are all more oppressive than Netanyahu. [12]I agree, there is injustice everywhere, and I speak out against these abuses—even as I roll my eyes at the comparison and how low it sets the bar for Israel, often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East.[13] But I have no personal relationship to those other countries.

I call out abuse wherever I see it, but I will fight most fiercely when it is my own home.

I used to have hope in coexistence between all the people who have righteous claims to the land: Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was never a utopia, but now I am losing hope.

And for that, I mourn. [14]

Footnotes

[1] “One of the only”…How many are there? And “only” seems to imply a lack of them, as if there’s a clamoring for more and, what? the state prevents them from happening? I am not fully knowledgeable of the number of liberal synagogues live in Jerusalem, but I know of “only” five, but I suspect there are several more.

[2] Okay, so the article’s not about the journey from Hasidic rabbi to one of the “Young Girls Club,” but, c’mon, don’t you think we ought to know something about who the author is?

[3] This is the heart of the article, that Birthright Israel, according to the author, does not adequately address the totality of the Situation, and this summer some thirteen Birthright participants made some appropriate noise about it. After all, we deservedly claim to be askers of questions. This might become a more interesting problem for Birthright, but thirteen out of many tens of thousands hardly seems noteworthy.

[4] So how does she know that it’s a whitewashed, sanitized trip? I suppose a problem inherent in an article with likely a severe word limit is that the author cannot explain all claims. But somehow she knows, and doesn’t share, that the standard Birthright itinerary allows no opportunity to ask the difficult questions. The implication is, of course, that the trip is largely a propaganda arm of the “establishment” Jewish community.

[5]

Very nice, and good for Jordan. Do you think what’s happening there regarding LGBTQ rights has any relationship in reality to gay rights in Israel? Was there a Gay Rights parade in Amman I didn’t hear about? What? One magazine of gay interest?

[6] Come on. Are you telling me that Jordan, with a hereditary king as benevolent as he may be, is yielding to democracy? This is a clear setup. A rising of some democratic elements in Jordan, does this make Jordan the only democracy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, where’s the decrease in Israeli democracy?

[7] Perhaps you’ve visited the Israel in an alternate universe, or perhaps you’re in the habit of making unsubstantiated claims.

[8] Does this mean someone representing the Israeli government came to you and ordered you not to love Israel?

[9] So here we go again. This latest round of criticism of Israel that asserts self-evidently and unequivocally that democracy in Israel is going downhill. But, and, again, this may be a consequence of a word limit, where is there evidence of this occurring? The fact that a democratically elected legislature passes laws one doesn’t like does not mean democracy is dying. It means that a law YOU don’t like has been passed by, ahem, a democratically elected legislature. You don’t like Bibi? Okay, then, he’s a right-wing fanatic and he does no good. But show me how. You don’t like the territories? Okay, get in line, but while you’re at it show me how Israeli democracy within the Green Line at least has been impacted, apparently in recent times quite severely.

[10] Like the occupation or not, I don’t see how it could become “more” entrenched.

[11] Hold on, now. Didn’t you just say you’re not allowed to love Israel? Which one is it?

[12] Well, yeah. Last I heard Bibi was, umm, democratically elected. Just because you don’t like the guy doesn’t mean his role in Israel compares in any way to dictators.

[13] Which as far as I know remains true, unless you’re going to count Jordan for reasons I can’t comprehend

[14] Okay, but at the risk of being repetitive, I haven’t seen why you’re in mourning. All you’ve managed are several somewhat repetitive assertions with no proof of any of them.

This entry was posted in We Are For Israel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A member of IfNotNow speaks

  1. Rabbi David Ostrich says:

    What’s going on, Phil? Micky and David write occasional posts. Here you are, writing a bunch in a short period of time. I’m just curious.

    As for the author of the Tablet article, her name is Abby Stein, and she has a website that tells all about her life and transgender experience.

  2. Nevet Basker says:

    This is an important point, well beyond the INN kerfuffle: “The fact that a democratically elected legislature passes laws one doesn’t like does not mean democracy is dying. It means that a law YOU don’t like has been passed by, ahem, a democratically elected legislature.” This should be its own article!

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