Yom Kippur 5775: “What About Palestine!?”

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you may have heard about this incident. I did put it up on my blog as well:

I don’t normally walk by our corner sign, on the corner of 8th and Washington. Since our parking is on the other side of the building, I’m usually parking there and entering the building by our office doors. But being located where we are, should I have someplace to be downtown I tend to walk. So a few weeks ago, after a morning coffee appointment downtown, I walked back down Washington, crossing over to our building, and as I passed the sign I notice someone had written, in marker, not big, in the metal frame that surrounds the reader board, “What about Palestine!?”

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And my heart sank.

My heart sank first off because we know this has been a difficult summer with the hostilities in Israel and Gaza, and although at the time of the graffiti hostilities had been put on hold, reading those words took me right back to those heartwrenching days of a few months ago.

My heart sank because during the summer’s fighting we saw anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head once again, primarily in Europe but also closer to home, where Jewish institutions were targeted and historic anti-Jewish tropes replayed and regurgitated. People directing their frustration over the war and directing it to all Jews. And while the graffiti could have been worse, it was enough to see that we, as a Jewish institution, were being targeted.

And my heart sank because of what happens here in Olympia. Where we are still reeling from the events surrounding the troubling Olympia Food Coop boycott of Israel four years ago when the concerns of the entirety of the Jewish community were not met, and when a beloved local institution did not show the sensitivity one would expect to a minority population in this community.

So I collected myself. I took out my phone and took pictures of the graffiti, went back into the Temple and printed them out. I then walked down to the police department and filed a report. I had a constructive conversation with the officer assigned—although I knew there was nothing to be done about it, I just wanted to have it on record—and handed over my pictures.

I learned though channels (there was another guy in the lobby of the police department at the time who worked for a cleaning company and overheard my conversation) that the best way to remove the graffiti was with a product called “Goof-Off,” and so after a quick trip to Olympia Supply for a bottle and a wire brush, I returned to the Temple and started scrubbing. After a few applications, the graffiti was removed.

And I did the next natural thing one does these days—I put it on Facebook.

I posted the pictures I took, and here is what I wrote:

To the person who wrote graffiti on the TBH sign:
1. Targeting non-Israeli Jewish institutions about Israel/Palestine is highly problematic, if not anti-Semitic.
2. If you want to talk about Israel and Palestine, I’d be happy to meet with you. You can email me at rabbi@bethhatfiloh.org, rather than tag our building.
3. We have filed a police report with the Olympia Police Department.
4. You owe me $7.59 for a bottle of Goof-Off and a wire brush.
5. Since this is the season of the High Holidays, if you wish to make amends, explain yourself and apologize, I am willing to forgive.

Well, no one has come forward, yet.

So this incident has passed, and nothing has happened since. But it still is present in my mind. I’m reminded of it whenever I see the sign. And even prior to that graffiti, I had always been fearful that something may happen here.

We know it is not easy living as Jews in Olympia. Even today, as we gather here to celebrate our most sacred day, outside Olympia is holding its Fall Arts Walk—a major community celebration. The scheduling conflict (and I should remind you that Yom Kippur is a lot older than ArtsWalk) for this or other events, school, exams is common, we deal with it all the time. And when we mention a conflict it elicits an acknowledgment and apology at best or hostility at worst. Every year, and not just at this season, we are in the difficult position of having to explain ourselves, make our case why we need to reschedule, or miss something. We have to put ourselves out there. The ability to not have to do that, to indeed just expect that your calendar and your concerns will be taken into account, is a privilege the majority in this community enjoy. And it is not easy living as a Jew in Olympia around Israel.

And yet, that question still is there “What about Palestine!?” and so I thought I should at least do the courtesy and think about the question, even if the way it was delivered was so problematic.

And I should say, that I am not the only one in my position who is thinking about this question, or talking about Israel over these holidays. It is not just the graffiti on our sign that is prompting these thoughts. Indeed, just prior to the High Holidays a flurry of articles came out debating not only the various points one can make, but merits of even talking about Israel over the High Holidays.

There was in Ha’aretz Peter Beinart’s article “American Rabbis, these High Holidays talk about Jewish texts, not the Jewish state.” Rabbis pushed back in their own articles of why they should, including Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah (Rabbis for Human Rights). The New York Times ran a piece called “Talk in Synagogue of Israel and Gaza Goes From Debate to Wrath to Rage.” And then in Religion Dispatches: “Too Hot for Shul: Rabbi Seek Healthy Israel Dialogue After Gaza.”

And I had the debate myself, whether I wanted to talk about Israel this year. On the one hand I agree with Beinart. I am not a pundit. I have my opinions, yes, and I have read my fair share of articles and analysis, I am sure there are others who have read more and have better things to say. My training and expertise lay elsewhere. And besides there is so much I want to talk about: God, spirituality, the environment—even up until a few days ago I thought of using this time to speak about environmental justice.

But I know it is probably on your mind, or has been at least earlier this summer.

The articles did not exaggerate—this is a question we rabbis ask all the time. Should we and how do we talk about Israel. For it is so sensitive and a hot topic in our communities. For with regards to Israel, if you perceived as too critical you are labeled as disloyal, if perceived as not critical you are labeled as immoral. This is especially hurtful when it comes from within the Jewish community. I could probably eat a ham sandwich in a church on Yom Kippur that I paid for by stealing money from the tzedakah box, and my commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people would not be questioned. If I don’t say the right thing about Israel, I will be seen as a traitor. And this labeling is not just confined to rabbis, everyone is subject to this.

What underlies this, I believe, it is the distinction between particularism and universalism. Are we concerned with our group? Are we particularists? That is the loyalty argument. Or are we concerned with all of humanity? Are we universalists? That is the morality argument. But it is a false distinction. As Jews we need to be concerned with both. We are committed to Jewish tradition, Jewish spirituality, the Jewish people and yes, that means the Jewish state, a contemporary manifestation of Jewish peoplehood. On the other hand, our values of compassion, justice and peace must extend to all peoples. We are both particularists and universalists.

And this is the tension we find ourselves. Why I think it is so difficult to address this especially here in Olympia, when there are strong voices who don’t understand this tension, or who wish to exploit it, or who force us to choose one at the expense of the other. But it doesn’t work that way.

And it is in this spirit, of living in the tension, that I think about the question: “What about Palestine?!”

Because I do believe it is a question that we as Jews need to ask.

Earlier this summer a number of my colleagues travelled to Israel on a study tour organized by my rabbinic association. I had desperately wanted to go, but unfortunately I was already committed to attending a retreat at the same time. It was one of four retreats I am attending as part of the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I had been accepted to and began this program months before, and so was unable to join my friends and colleagues. And I deeply regretted it. And interestingly, while obviously it was not planned, the study tour—and my retreat—were taking place during the time of the hostilities.

On retreat, part of the day is spent in silence, and as part of the overall experience, the group of rabbis and cantors from all denominations I was with on retreat took upon ourselves the silencing of phones and cutting off contact with the outside world.

Things were escalating in Israel when I turned off my computer and phone, and I had hoped that perhaps, maybe, things would have calmed down by the time I turned on my phone upon my return. I discovered to my dismay that the opposite was true; things have gotten worse.

The raging violence hung like a shadow over the retreat, and though it wasn’t originally part of the schedule, we did take an evening of reflection and sharing of our thoughts and feelings. And since this was a retreat focused on spiritual practice, we did so with an intention of contemplation and prayer.

We gathered one evening and sat in a circle. In the middle was a smaller circle. We were asked to write down the answers to two questions regarding the conflict: What is at the heart of the matter for me? And, where do you experience doubt or confusion in your position? Then we took turns in smaller groups sitting in the middle of the circle and offering our responses. I invite you to think about your own answers to these questions for a moment.

What came to my mind is that I began to realize that the Israel of my youth, or even of 20 years ago, is no longer the Israel of today. We need to celebrate all the good that Israel was, is and has yet to be. At the same time, let us as American Jews accept the challenge that Israel provides. The intensity of the fighting this summer has awakened in me a moral challenge and a question, that why does the dream and necessity of Israel come with such a high cost to bear.

I do not deny that Israel is under real threat. Rockets continuously fired, tunnels dug, all to carry out indiscriminate violence. And I do not deny that Hamas is guilty of their own human rights abuses, using human shields, putting their own people at risk.

And yet, I find the blame game so unsatisfying. Who did what to who when is so unproductive. For when I think about Israel’s ongoing repression and occupation, and read the death toll numbers for which Israel is responsible, including the number of children, I am in such pain. I am in such pain. And it is because of, not despite, my love for Israel that it hurts me so much.

I don’t know how much more I can say at this moment. Others report and parse the facts, others report from their immediate experiences, other dissect the political situation. I know my words will ultimately dissatisfy. But my experience at the retreat moved me, and I thought that one step to take is to simply be able to pray for and hold in compassion all those in pain.

On retreat (and oftentimes at TBH) we include in our prayers not only the children of Israel, but the children of Ishmael. [We are also going to be spending the year looking at this term, “Israel,” in its multiple manifestations over the course of Jewish history and thought.] That we pray not only for our community, but all communities. As Jews we need to pray for ourselves, yes, and we need to be able to pray for the Palestinians. And specifically, not “I feel pain at the death of Palestinians, but…”—rather “I feel pain at the death of Palestinians, period.” And I hope that those on “the other side” will pray for “our side;” can recognize and pray for the hopes and dreams of Israel. And if we do this, we can eliminate the notion of “sides” altogether.

For that was so difficult for me watching things unfold this summer during the conflict between Israel and Hamas: the increasing taking of sides, both outside and within the Jewish community.

In the Torah on the High Holidays we read the story of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Sarah unable to conceive allows Abraham to have a child with her concubine, Hagar. This child is Ishmael, and after Sarah does have her own son, Isaac, she seeks to banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Abraham does so, not without distress, but God promises to look after them, and God does. Ishmael we are told becomes the founder of a nation.

Now reading this story as an origin or paradigm for contemporary political events is just as dangerous as reading the Torah to determine the borders of a modern nation-state. But I bring this story to illustrate what it is at its core: two people, bound together, at conflict, both seeking the same thing.

The Torah does not relate any relationship between Isaac and Ishmael after this event, after Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the wilderness, save for one moment: when Abraham dies, both Isaac and Ishmael join together to bury him.

What happened between Isaac and Ishmael and their parents happened. There is no undoing the past. But they were able to come together to do what needed to be done to forge a shared future.

That is what I pray for. That is what I will work for.

On retreat, after we offered our thoughts on the two questions, we prayed. Anyone who wished to could enter the smaller circle and offer whatever prayer they wanted. I didn’t offer a prayer during that session on retreat, nothing concrete came to my mind at the time, at least nothing concrete enough to say aloud, but I have thought much since that time about what my prayer would be.

And I have thought of this: Rather than concern ourselves with meaningless labels like “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian;” rather than lay the blame solely on Hamas as ruthless terrorists or Israel as the sole oppressor; rather than hold one narrative to the silence of another; rather than deflect scrutiny at one’s own conduct by pointing out that of another; rather than picking a side, let’s just pray to the God of all sides:

God of All Sides, help us break down the barriers that divide us.

Let us, God, be on Your side.

The side of peace.

The side of compassion.

The side of love.

The side of children.

The side of unity.

The side of coexistence.

The side of friendship.

The side of burying the past.

The side of a shared future.

Amen.

Thank you for praying with me.

The enemy of peace is not one people or the other, but it is extremism. We see that today in the renewed rise of anti-Semitism, towards which we need to be vigilant. We see that today in the mass deaths taking place in Syria and across the Middle East. We see that today in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. These are sad times we live in. The innocent are suffering at the hands of extremists.

As Jews we need to be concerned with the safety and well-being of our people, both here and abroad. And as Jews we need to be concerned with the safety and well-being of all people. That is not an easy road to travel. But is a road we must travel.

And we begin by opening our hearts and our minds.

“What about Palestine!?” It is a question we, as Jews, need to ask.

  1. Were there tears in the house? ‘Cause there are in mine right now…
    Thank you.

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  2. […] may remember on Yom Kippur I spoke about “What About Palestine!?” While it started as graffiti on our synagogue’s building sign, I reflected back to us that […]

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