The “Holy Land”? In What Context and in Whose Language?

Holy LandA critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based… To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.
Michel Foucault

A friend of mine recently sent me an email asking for my reaction to her distress over an article that recently appeared in The Charlotte Observer. The email included a screen shot of the story.

The headline read: “Greetings from the Holy Land!” A picture of members of the Eastern North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church holding a copy of The Charlotte Observer accompanied the blurb: “These Observer readers from Kannapolis and Charlotte visited Israel in February…”

The Observer thus neatly equated the term “Holy Land” with the current state of Israel. But a goodly number of locations that are critical to the story of the “Holy Land” are currently in locales that are not within that state – like Hebron/Al Khalil, Jericho, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

My friend wrote to the newspaper in protest:

[T]hat one, innocent photo and blurb just erased 3 million Palestinians living under a military occupation for almost half a century; erased a persistent and lethal conflict and the context surrounding reporting on that conflict, made an incredibly inaccurate political statement and just misled your readers to believe that that entire area belongs to the State of Israel and [that] the Palestinians (or those pesky Arabs throwing stones) are hostile interlopers – not human beings who live there and have lived there for centuries.

Most Jews don’t use the term “Holy Land” much – and there is a good reason for that. The only time the expression is arguably used in Tanakh is in Zechariah 2:16: “YHVH will take Judah to Godself as YHVH’s portion in the Holy Land (adama ha’kodesh) and will choose Jerusalem once more.”

The term is, in fact, medieval. It has a Latin origin (terra sancta) which is first attested in the 11th century C.E. The first English reference we know of dates from 1297, and that reference is related to the Crusades. Crusaders thought of the “Holy Land” as the area where Jesus lived and died, and as the location of the Holy Sepulcher.

The expression “Holy Land” is almost entirely sourced in Christian theology and Christian conceptual frameworks. Like the terms “Old Testament,” A.D. (anno domini, “in the year of the/our Lord”), and C.E. (“Christian era”), “Holy Land” was brought into regular use by Christian writers and theologians.

All of these expressions represent a Christian take on the Way the World Works. None  have any place in a secular venue.

We perpetuate the discourses of dominant cultures with incredible – and destructive – ease. But when we name things from the perspective of the powerful, we are capable of erasing the lives of real people, of doing away with cultures and peoples, of committing irreparable, indelible harm.

Michael Foucault writes, “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

It is nearly the end of Passover, the festival that calls us to resist oppressive power of any kind, to free ourselves and humanity, too. To free ourselves, we must give names to oppression we face. May the names we use and the language we employ be accurate, truthful, and enduring.

The Procrustean Choice: Living with Antisemitism or Living with Racism

NetanyahuBenjamin Netanyahu flies to Europe not to grieve, but to calculate. As families are mourning their loved ones, he chooses to agitate for his political agenda. Instead of compassion, he offers European Jews a lesson. Theirs is misplaced allegiance. Israel, so Netanyahu, is the only place they can truly call home.

I’ve taught the Holocaust for almost three decades. Antisemitism has never left Europe. I don’t believe it will. Even the murder of a million Jewish children and five million Jewish adults could not do away with it. What could?

Europe was long ago infected with a cultural pathology, a virus that appears to go into remission only to return – still virulent, still horrifying, still murderous.

White Europeans may not, however, point fingers at non-white Europeans and claim antisemitism is no longer “their” issue. This is not the problem of some Muslim “other.” This disease was born in Europe. Variations on neo-Nazism are everywhere, and they find a home in a number of varied populations across the continent.

It is true: No one can guarantee the safety of Europe’s Jews.  But is Israel their home? Is it mine? What will Israel offer, should we make aliyah?

A lot better, of course, than it offers other refugees seeking asylum. Do you happen to be a black and African soul fleeing violence instead of a white, European, and Jewish one? So far, the Israeli government has managed to respond to less than 1½ percent of asylum requests from Sudanese nationals. Not a single Sudanese has been granted refugee status.

Eritrean asylum seekers face similarly awful conditions. Just four of almost 2,500 Eritreans in Israel have acquired refugee status. Some of the detainees in the Holot detention facility, where such refugees face (and freeze) in despicable conditions, have been there for six years.  Israel is hardly a safe haven for them.

Nor is Israeli society free from its own forms of virulent racism. Lehava (Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land) is just one of many virulently racist groups whose supporters can be heard screaming “death to Arabs” in the streets of Jerusalem. Three Lehava supporters have been indicted in the arson attack against a Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in the city.

Last January, a Druze man who had recently completed his service with the IDF reported that ten religious Jewish men had assaulted him after hearing him speaking in Arabic. He had to pay for his own ambulance to get to a hospital.

Before we consign Israeli racism to extremist right-wing groups, we might want to consider the kinds of things coming out of the mouths of some Israel’s leaders – and as a matter of course, these days. Just this month, Naftali Bennett, Minister of the Economy, spoke about internal security concerns in the country, referring to areas with high Arab populations. “Anyone who’s gone traveling in the Negev in recent years knows,” he asserted, “that they can’t leave their car … because it will be broken into and stolen.”

Arabs, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population, are car thieves.

European Jews fleeing antisemitism will, if they make aliyah, live in a country that is home to hate speech and hate crime. They will be fleeing to a country that has been – for five decades – exercising colonialist methods to subdue and control millions of Palestinians.

Netanyahu claims to belong to a western culture that is “based on freedom and a culture of choice.”  For whom, exactly?

The extent to which any western culture has achieved such an ideal is worth questioning. The extent to which Israel presents humanity with anything close to such a thing is debatable.

I want Israel to exist. Most Jews in the world want Israel to exist. But the Jews of the Diaspora do not live in order to support Israel on any and all terms presented by Netanyahu and his supporters. The dangers faced by Jews in a Europe that is still home to antisemitism should not blind anyone to the dangers of living in an Israel that has been made a comfortable home for rampant racism.

No home we have had has ever been a safe one. That fact should not keep us from trying to create one.

Hillel International on Jewish Identity – and Israel

I’m here because my political views have left me without a Jewish community, yet I’ve never felt more Jewish.  I hope older Jews will listen.

Student postcard response at Open Hillel Conference

I know. I was supposed to write about our “Yavneh” rabbis and their hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities of their time.

I got sidetracked by today’s Jewish leadership and its hopes for the say-so over Jewish communities.

Just as we exaggerate the tolerance for diversity among our Talmudic sages in regards to points of law, so we downplay our leaders’ intolerance for diversity of political opinions on Israel.

Last October, I traveled to Boston for the first Open Hillel Conference, “If Not Now, When?” About 350 people – mostly college students, but also middle aged and senior folk – attended the three-day conference.

Background material: Around two years ago, Hillel students in various college campuses began to protest the organization’s recently adopted “Standards of Partnership” rules. Those rules state, among other things, that campus Hillel groups may not collaborate with people or groups that “delegitimize Israel” or support the Palestinian call for political pressure on Israel through boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

Almost a year ago, Swarthmore College Hillel became the first Open Hillel, stating: “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.” Other Hillels have joined them in making such statements, including Vassar College and Wesleyan University.

I wrote about the conference for The Charlotte Observer.

I joked about this piece with close relatives. I claimed that I had taken the great step forward and “come out” on the topic in order to say, “hey, can we tolerate having a conversation with people who might seriously disagree with us?”  To whit:

I went to this conference because I am – as both a teacher and a rabbi – deeply interested in understanding where the younger Jewish generation is when it comes to defining their Jewish identity. I learned this: They want to be included in Jewish communities, synagogues, and institutions.

These students ask that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.

It’s an important message. Open conversation is not naïve; it is a basic necessity – for a democracy, for a healthy community, for a nation, and for the world.

Pretty rad, I know. And that is what makes the situation so sad.

Questioning my bona fides on Israel has been part and parcel of recent response to my editorial. Just wondering: Is it likely that someone who teaches course after course on the history of antisemitism (yes, that’s me!) would feel that it’s important to think about how to secure the survival of Jews and Judaism? It is. I do.

But here’s the ethical issue that concerns me: Both the “Standards for Partnership” and Hillel International’s explanation of its vision on Israel link what is appropriately Jewish to the question of whether one supports Israel’s right to exist.

From the website: “Hillel desires that students are able to articulate why Israel plays an important role in their personal Jewish identities…Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”

Hillel’s policy, despite disclaimers that assert that the organization includes “diverse opinions” on Israel, excludes Jews for whom the state of Israel is not a defining element in their Jewish identity.

Those that Hillel International expects to fall outside their definition and vision of Jewish identity are not only to be found on the left of the political spectrum. There are those on the Jewish right who unequivocally deny today’s Israel a right to exist.

See, for example, the website of Neturei Karta, a Haredi group that strenuously objects to Zionism and calls for a peaceful dismantling of the State of Israel. For such Jews, no state of Israel can be permitted until the coming of the Messiah.

If just such an ultra-Orthodox Jewish student walks into any Hillel on any campus seeking, perhaps, a place to davenn with others, to learn about Talmud, or to attend any of a thousand possible programs Hillel students and their advisors might be supporting and arranging, that particular Jew cannot be welcomed and given a place at Hillel’s table.  That student utterly and unequivocally rejects the state of Israel’s right to exist.

Hillel’s vision of Jewish identity will inevitably exclude some Jewish students, in clear contradistinction to the organization’s claim that it “welcomes Jewish students of all backgrounds.”

I used to think of college Hillel’s as another (lovely) form of Jewish community, a place for college-aged Jews to explore their Jewishness. I assumed Hillel leaders knew that “Jewish identity” has an extraordinary and very wide bandwidth in practice, in ritual, in belief, and in political expression. Not all Jewish college students see their Jewish identity as related to the state of Israel. Must they do so, in order to participate in Hillel International?

As a rabbi, I do not apply a political litmus test to my congregants. Our membership forms don’t ask people to state their political views before we will allow them to participate in Jewish communal life.

We all want Jews and Judaism to survive – healthy, independent, and strong. On ethical grounds alone we should not insist that Jews who want the right to belong to Jewish community first pass a political litmus test on Israel.

Horror Upon Horror – And Hope?

Three Israeli Boys
Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel

There is never enough horror.

In the first week of July, we learned that Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar, the three Israeli boys kidnapped on June 12 were, in fact, murdered – within hours of their capture. Likely, the authorities were aware of that fact, given, among other things, the frantic cell phone call from one of the teens played at the burial.

Mohammad Abu Khdeir
Mohammad Abu Khdeir

Israel reacted with a massive round-up of over 400 Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. Five Palestinians died in the crackdown, including another teen, 15-year-old teenager Mohammed Dudeen.

The burial of the three Israeli boys was followed, also within hours, by the brutal beating of a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was then set on fire.  He died sucking in the flames consuming him.

Terrors unfold so fast that there is no keeping up or holding back the bile.

Yesterday I read an eloquent analysis of the horror of acquiescence.  David Grossman’s essay “On hope and despair in the Middle East” was published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Today,” Grossman wrote, “in an Israel that has known so much disappointment, hope (if ever mentioned at all) is always hesitant, a bit timid, and apologetic. Despair, on the other hand, is utterly confident and self-assured, as if speaking on behalf of a law of nature, an axiom that states that between these two peoples there shall never be peace, that the war between them is a heavenly decree, and that altogether, it will always be bad here, nothing but bad. As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer, and at worst, a traitor who weakens Israel’s wherewithal by encouraging it to be seduced by false visions.

“In this sense, the Israeli right has won. The right, which adheres to this worldview – certainly over the last decades – has managed to instill it in a majority of Israelis. One could say that the right has not only vanquished the left: It has vanquished Israel.”

It is eloquent, impassioned reading.

For days I have remembered the nightmare years of the early 1980s, when I went on radio shows in Columbia, Missouri, as a local peace activist.  I was asked to speak about the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.  The Israelis were complicit, it had been discovered, in the Phalangist-perpetrated Sabra and Shatila massacres.  Palestinians were murdered en masse while Israeli Defense Forces surrounded both camps, stationing troops in order to stop any residents from escaping the slaughter.

And now, today in Israel?

Tens of thousands of “likes” on a Facebook page calling for “revenge” for the murder of the three teens.

Explicit calls from all directions to kill Arabs (or political leftists).

Members of the Knesset quoting Torah to prove that there is a God of revenge who backs their murderously inflammatory rhetoric.

And the like, as one would expect, from the “other side” is just as pernicious, just as hateful, just as ever-present.

This is not “mere” extremism.  None of this is spontaneously generated by the particular horror of the way those boys died.  It is the result of years of hope suppressed, perverted, dismissed.

In my lifetime, I have watched – yes, in horror – as Israel’s hope has been highjacked.

I was lucky to have been ordained by ALEPH – The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the same year as Rabbi Simcha Daniel Burstyn, who was born and raised in America and has lived and worked in Israel on a kibbutz for decades.  Recently, he wrote: “I am very much aware that history is playing itself out on so many different levels and that recent events look very different from different vantage points… The more I read, the more I feel that the distinction is not between Jews and Arabs, but really between those who believe in using physical force, violence and fear, and those who believe in ‘live and let live,’ in using tools of peace and coexistence, in creating peace by de-escalating at EVERY OPPORTUNITY.”

He signed, as he always has as long as I have known him, “pray for peace.”

And so I shall.  Because there is enough horror.