The Real Lesson of the Olympia Food Co-op Boycott Lawsuit (Hint: It’s Not About Israel/Palestine)

Without much fanfare, the lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op regarding the boycott of Israeli products has seemingly come to a close. Two weeks ago, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy dismissed the suit, finding no injury on the part of the plaintiffs. The suit has gone on for a long time, with motions and counter motions, and an interesting turn at the state Supreme Court which ended up overturning the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.

From the beginning, I viewed this lawsuit from a distance. I was not a party to it nor was I particularly a fan of legal action. The three remaining plaintiffs are not members of my congregation. And indeed, one of the plaintiffs, Linda Davis, wrote a scathing, ad hominum attack against me in the JTNews, the (late) Jewish newspaper out of Seattle.

And while the lawsuit is dismissed and the case is over (barring appeal) and the boycott remains, there are still some issues that are not settled which for some are necessary to be addressed to heal.

The boycott started eight years ago. The Co-op has a Boycott Policy which states that the staff decides on boycotts, using the formal consensus model of decision making. Under formal consensus, everyone must agree to an action in order for it to be enacted. One has the option to “stand aside”—i.e., not necessarily agree with the action, but also not willing to stop it either. And one has the option to “block”—meaning one is opposed to the decision and is unwilling to step aside. Even if one person blocks, the action is not enacted.

For the Co-op, after a member suggested the Israel boycott in March 2009 and a year of consideration, in May, 2010, the Merchandising Coordination Action Team reported to the Board that it had reached an impasse, and recommended a membership forum and a vote. The Board then asked the full staff to try to reach consensus on the issue and report back in July. In July, it was reported that the staff would not reach consensus, that there were members of the staff who would block it. The Board, recognizing that the staff would not initiate the boycott and rejecting the idea of a member vote, consented to the boycott proposal. (These are the facts of the boycott as found in legal affidavits of the lawsuit.)

Legally, was the Board permitted to take this action? As far as I understand non-profit law (as a lay observer, not a lawyer or legal expert)—yes, as long as they don’t violate the organization’s by-laws, a Board of a non-profit is charged with the oversight of that organization, and can make and rescind policy and take actions it feels it is in the organization’s best interest.

So the questions that have been asked and will continue to be asked:

  • Why did the Board not stand by its boycott policy and honor the process of the staff?
  • Why did the Board not take the recommendation and hold a member forum and vote? [In an act of organizational chutzpah, the Board, in passing over the recommendation for a member vote and consenting to the boycott themselves, then announced that members who did not like the decision could petition for their own vote to overturn the Board action.]

These are the issues that remain. (I won’t even go into corporate personhood.) Those on the extreme either side of the boycott have staked out their camps. Those opposed call those in favor anti-Semitic, and those in favor claim those opposed are complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians. Neither strikes me as correct: the claim that opposition to the boycott equals support for the Occupation is a false equivalency. And there is a distinction between explicit anti-Semitism and ignorance or neglect about how Jewish oppression uniquely works and what it means to engage on an issue that is deeply personal to a minority population.

For me, it is not about BDS or Israel/Palestine. Personally I stand in opposition to the Occupation and in support of Palestinian rights and self-determination, and I believe it is time for a moral reckoning for Israel and the American Jewish community around this issue. Indeed, it is not despite but because of my commitment to Jewish community, values, and history that I take this position.

No, the issues that remain after the dismissal of the lawsuit are about justice work in general: what is the relationship between ends and means, and what is the commitment of an organization dedicated to justice to exercise justice in all levels through a commitment to transparency and process. Even exercising legal rights can be ethically questionable.

There are times in working for social change that we need to be in solidarity with those with whom we do not agree with on every issue. It happens within the Jewish community, in interfaith work, and in the broad coalitions we see forming today on issues as diverse as race, immigration, and others. It requires a consciousness of when to act and when to refrain from acting, a consciousness of who is in the room and in what capacity, and ultimately a consciousness of who we are in community with, not just for today, but for the long haul.

Shimon Peres z”l

Right before our Advancing in Hebrew class this past Tuesday night did I see the news that Shimon Peres, a giant in the history of Israel, passed away.

Peres was Israel’s senior statesman who emigrated from Poland with his family during the British Mandate, helped build the state alongside David Ben-Gurion, served in many senior positions including Prime Minister and President and became, after contributing to the build up of Israel’s military, a leader in the quest for peace by (among other things) secretly negotiating the Oslo Accords. It was for this that he, along with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unlike Rabin, who was killed for his move towards peace, Peres was able to live out his very long life. Yet he still was not able to see a time of true peace. And his legacy may just be that—not looking back on a particular milestone or achievement, but a lifetime of service in pursuit of peace. In 2005 Peres was quoted as saying, “Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”

When I traveled to Israel on my interfaith trip with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs last May, one of our first stops was the Peres Center for Peace in Yafo, an NGO founded by Shimon Peres in 1996. Here, in a beautiful spot overlooking the Mediterranean, many programs were born that sought to build connections, relationships and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. The one we specifically heard about that morning was the medical program, which provided means for Palestinians living in Gaza to get medical help in Israel, and for doctors to participate in training across the border. Fascinating and powerfully important work.

Peres’s legacy, like anyone who spends a lifetime in government service especially at the upper levels of leadership, is going to have its highs and lows. Biographers and historians will continue to analyze this. But my one personal take away, realized after walking out of that building that bears his name, is that it will be programs like the one I learned about that will that will truly bring about peace.

Governments and leaders can negotiate borders and sign treaties. But it is the people on the ground forging real relationships that will allow for peace to take hold. For what peace truly needs is the ability for people to see one another as whole and holy beings, worthy of love and respect, who must have their rights respected and their basic needs met.

Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.

Open Closed Open

Those of you on Facebook understand Facebook memories, when the social media site selects a posting from the past to remind you of what you posted on that day in years past. Recently Facebook has been reminding me of my trip to Israel l took a year ago at this time.

It was a trip to Israel unlike one I had taken before. It was focused on peace building efforts as our interfaith group met with a host of organizations and individuals who are building bridges to peace, connecting Israelis and Palestinians. It was also my first trip into the Palestinian West Bank as our tour took us to Ramallah and Bethlehem. And then, after the formal tour had ended, I stayed in Israel an extra week to visit family and friends and do my own touring. As part of this time I had the privilege of spending a day with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights as he did field work in the West Bank.

This experience was life changing as I began to understand things in a new way. There is nothing that compared to bearing eyewitness, and the ability to both see on the ground peace efforts as well as the day to day lived experience of Palestinians was powerful to see first hand.

I’m reflecting on that trip again as today is Yom Ha’atzamut, Israel Independence Day.

On that trip we visited a Yad B’Yad (Hand in Hand) school in Jerusalem, a school that is for both Jewish and Arab children. Unlike other schools that are segregated, this school brings together students of different backgrounds to learn with and from each other. It was also firebombed a few months before we visited, a testament to the fear and hatred that comes from forward movement.

yad byad
From the Yad B’Yad school in Jerusalem

It is an enterprise not without its challenges, as was described by our guide. And one challenge comes around this time of year, when the Israeli national holidays are not observed in the same way by the Arab Palestinian population. For while some celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, others call it the Nakba—or “catastrophe.” The school administration is charged with holding both narratives at the same time, and honoring and understanding them both. A recent article talked about this.

And this must be our charge as well. As Jews living outside Israel, who have been brought up with a particular story and narrative as to the creation and continuation of the state of Israel and its place within world Jewry, we must be able to recognize that there are multiple narratives surrounding this day. That victory oftentimes creates victims, and that the story of Israel does not just involve one people, but multiple peoples.

And as we celebrate the achievement that is Israel itself and all that the country has attained, we as American Jews can not deny the fact that Israel currently is oppressing and controlling another population, and that this reckoning has practical and moral implications for the Jewish people and for the future of the State of Israel.

This is what I am wrestling with this Yom Ha’atzmaut. Two things that came across my desk recently, in addition to the article about the Yad B’Yad school, are giving me hope for forward movement.

One was about the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony held for the past 11 years by the Combatants for Peace Movement in cooperation with the Parents’ Circle – Bereaved Families Forum. This joint ceremony mourns all loss created by ongoing conflict. As an Israeli journalist wrote in the Forward about her experience:

…by taking the risk and attending this ceremony at last, I made a commitment: to remember and to hope, to feel the pain and to look to the future, to celebrate Independence Day while recalling the Nakba and trying to build a better society. To mourn the dead, but never to value them more than the living.

The other came out of my alma mater, Wesleyan University, where the Jewish student organization hosted a panel with representatives from across the political spectrum–including those shunned by “mainstream” Jewish community–to talk about Israel/Palestine. For our other challenge as American Jews is to be continually open to who is in our tent, and to listen to all the voices being expressed from among our ranks. Excluding voices present within Jewish community can come with risk, and I am not sure that it is one we want to take. Litmus tests can be dangerous things.

[And as an American liberal rabbi, I am also concerned when one’s Jewish identity is solely focused around Israel at the expense of the rich spiritual and textual tradition we have inherited.]

There is much to read and think about and discuss when it comes to Israel. I value the place as a Jewish cultural center, a repository for Jewish history, a crossroads of diverse Jewish community and a home to members of my family. (Facebook also reminded me that today is the birthday of Yohanna’s twin cousins). We must look to a time when we can truly create a nation that lives up to its expressed ideals in its Declaration of Independence:

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The title of this post is from the poet Yehuda Amichai, whose last collection of poems before his death was called Open Closed Open. Amichai is one of my favorite poets and I think about his work often. In honor of this day, I offer this selection from his work:

I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turnoff, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head: There, over there, not that there, the other there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.

Open Closed Open. If we are open, not closed, to one another, then we are open to a new future. We can point to what the right way is.

Noah and Small Injustices

This Shabbat we turned to the story of Noah, and small injustices.

The story of Noah and the flood is perhaps known to us. It is a story that is told to us as children and a story that is a part of the popular imagination. (And recently was a major motion picture.) God, dissatisfied with the world that was created, decides to destroy the world’s inhabitants by flood. Noah is chosen to be the savior of humanity (and animal life) when he is called by God and instructed to build an ark to house him and his family, along with representatives of all the world’s animal species. The floods come, Noah is saved, and once the waters subside all leave the ark to begin the world anew.

Its an extreme story, one that is also not exclusive to Jewish teachings. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example. There was perhaps some ancient catastrophic natural event that led different cultures to develop folklore of a flood story, a fact which makes the story that much more powerful because of its universality. But the key to reading and understanding this story is not to see it as a record of a worldwide catastrophe (although it is hard these days to read the story without thinking of sea level rise caused by global climate change), but to see it as a story of humanity. What are the values present in the story that we as humans are meant to understand?noah wickedness

To think of that question, we turn to God’s reasoning. In the Torah story, the flood was not a random event, but a response. God was responding to the condition of humanity—a condition of evil, a condition of violence. “God saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted having created humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.” (Genesis 6:5-6)

But what, exactly, was the “wickedness” and “evil” that is spoken of? This story comes on the heels of the story of Creation, which ends with the first murder. So perhaps that murder and neglect for human life is what is being described. A midrash, however, comes to teach otherwise:

This is what the people of the age of the Flood used to do: when a person brought out a basket full of beans for sale, another would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth [a minimal amount, too small for legal action], and then everyone would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth, so that the seller had no legal remedy. (Bereshit Rabbah 31:5)

Each person only stole a small amount of beans, but when many people steal a small amount, then all the beans are gone. In other words, It was not the great injustices that led to the destruction of the world, but the small ones. A steady stream of small injustices build to such a crescendo that required a complete destruction and restarting of life on earth.

In recent days we have witnessed an increase in violence in Israel, with seemingly random attacks on Israeli civilians. What is striking to me is the “smallness” of these attacks. During the last intifada, when I lived in Jerusalem for a year as part of my rabbinical studies, the fear was bombings, which would kill numerous people at once. Now the attacks are that much smaller—stabbings in the street, cars driven into crowds. But the smaller attacks join into a larger wave of violence, which must be condemned.

These attacks are carried out in a context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general absence of peace, which is perhaps defined by many small injustices. As Israelis are attacked, we must not deny the small injustices that are carried out every day against Palestinians, who live under an ever-growing occupation, the constant threat and perpetration of violence, the need to negotiate checkpoints and who are generally not in control of their lives.

In our country, the idea of “small injustices” also relates to our conversations around race and privilege. While we note the wave of African American deaths at the hands of white police, we also need to take into account the small injustices faced every day by people of color, who are denied access, who are routinely stopped in their cars, who are watched in stores and who are perceived as a threat while walking down the street.

And as Jews in America we experience small injustices as well. Recently I was asked about the presence of anti-Semitism locally, and while I noted that we haven’t faced any major overt incidents recently, the scheduling conflicts, ignorance of Jewish calendars and customs, and indifference or hostility towards Jewish approaches remind us of our minority status and are just as wounding.

Many of the ills that plague us are defined by small injustices.

But while we speak of small injustices, we really know that small injustices, carried out by many, are both symptoms of and create great injustices. This is the lesson of the midrash on Noah. Small injustices aggregate, they condition societies to hate and hurt the other, they create societies that are, in the words of the Torah, “evil.” Another flood will not come to destroy humanity, that is God’s promise. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing it ourselves.

As we read Noah this year, we take to heart the beginning of the story. We condemn the small injustices.

We condemn violence.

We condemn wickedness.

We condemn evil.

We condemn violence.

We condemn oppression.

Rather, we pray for justice, and we pray for peace.

And we pray to avoid the Flood.

Is This What Sinat Chinam Looks Like?

It was at the end of my time away, which included a spiritual retreat and vacation time with my extended family, that I opened up my email to get caught up, only to learn that our building has been once again targeted by graffiti. Someone had scrawled “Free Palestine!” on one of the large columns to the left of our main entrance.graffiti

I was returning in a day or two, so I asked that nothing be done in the meantime—I wanted to see it for myself. Upon my return to Olympia I looked at it, took photos and dutifully went off to the police station to report the vandalism. As it was last time this happened—a year ago when someone wrote “What About Palestine?!” on our readerboard—there was little the police could do to find the person responsible, but they were appreciative of the report so they can track vandalism and see if any patterns emerge. I thought it important that there is a formal record of the synagogue being selectively targeted.

Because that is what it is, the synagogue—a visible Jewish structure—being targeted with a message meant directly for us. This wasn’t a tag of a name, or an artistic rendering . It was a message meant to target, upset, challenge and unnerve Jews. And to deliberately target a minority group with the express purpose of challenging and unnerving them, through violating their private space, is an expression of “malicious harassment” (as our Washington State law terms it).

The irony of this act of graffiti is that, in my own way, I support the message. I believe that we as Jews need to be concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, and need to confront head on the role Israel has played in the perpetuation of an unjust and oppressive system. I want Palestinians to be free. What I don’t support, of course–and what no body should support—is the transmission of that message through harassment, through the violation of Jewish space.

I will grant that the message in its content does not directly target or threaten Jews qua Jews. But the means of conveying the message can inspire fear and vulnerability. Plus the message conflates American Jews and Israelis in unhealthy and oftentimes erroneous ways, makes assumptions about political attitudes that may not be founded in reality, treats Jews as some monolithic “other” and trades on classic anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish dual loyalty.

This act of graffiti is another reminder of our potential vulnerability. As we Jews rightfully join the fight for racial justice, we also remember that in the Charleston shooters manifesto, Jews were second on the list behind African-Americans.

This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, a holiday set aside to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples in Ancient Jerusalem. These buildings hold an important place in the religious imagination of the Jewish people because of their importance and centrality in the life of our ancestors, and because of the spiritual power contained within. Their destructions—first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE—are marked by mourning and lamentation. It has become a day to mark not only these specific events, but the idea of communal destruction in general.

While outside armies toppled the buildings, the rabbis in the Talmud decades later sought to determine reasons for the destructions. In their mind, the external destruction must be in response to an internal weakness. The first destruction, they suggested, was because of sinful nature of the Israelite community in their lax observance of ritual law and sexual practices. The second, they suggested, was based on ethical lapses, primarily the prevalence of sinat chinam among the community.

Sinat chinam is an interesting term, and it is usually translated as “groundless hatred.” That is, hatred that does not have any basis in reality, hatred without cause. Maybe there are those we dislike for good reason—they wrong us or hold incompatible views. Sinat chinam is just hatred for the sake of hatred, hatred because of who one is, rather than what one does or says. The Jewish community at the time was factionalized, write the rabbis, divided by this groundless hatred, which gave an opening for the destruction of the Temple.

I want to suggest another understanding of sinat chinam. Sinat means “hatred.” Chinam has the connotation not only of “groundless” but of “freely given.” Indeed, the word chinam in modern Hebrew is most commonly found in stores and markets as it means “free,” i.e. “without cost.” Something that is freely given is casually doled out, as free samples in stores, or outdoor festivals or outside ballparks. So what is hatred freely given?

I think our graffiti is an example of such. It is a malicious act done casually, without thought, and without any intention of positive outcome. It does not seek to constructively advance a cause, it rather casually seeks to destabilize others in pursuit of that cause. It is an act done without deep thought which seeks to further alienate and “otherize” an already vulnerable minority population. It is hatred casually doled out. And this can be destructive.

On my way to the police station yesterday I happened to be run into a friend and we shared a quick lunch. I told him about the graffiti. He was sympathetic, and he mentioned that the positive in this incident is that it means that the Temple is a visible, engaged member of the community, and underneath the act of graffiti is a desire to connect, even if the means are misguided. While I still feel shaken and unnerved by the idea of being targeted, I do take some strength from this idea.

Because unlike millennia ago, this act of sinat chinam will not result in the destruction of the Temple. We will continue to be a visible presence in the Olympia community. We will continue to defy and challenge what “the Jews” are supposed to think and feel, providing a model for a dynamic Jewish community. We will wrestle with Israel, with Palestine, with politics. We will continue to observe traditions and deepen our spirituality. And we will continue to be a platform for social justice and peace. We will continue to be a place where people are able to connect—with Judaism, with me and with each other.

The graffiti will be painted over. The column will still stand.

I’m Going to Jerusalem. And Ramallah.

In one of his last gestures before leaving his position as Government Affairs director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, my friend Zach Carstensen put in my name for a trip run through a program called “Interfaith Partners for Peace.” The idea behind the trip is to pair up rabbis and ministers from the same geographic area to travel to Israel and learn together.Jerusalem

Aside from visiting Jewish and Christian holy sites, the majority of the trip is visiting with organizations and individuals who are working on various projects of peace and understanding, mutual recognition and concern. Projects that seek to build connections between Israelis and Palestinians in order to help bring about reconciliation and a better future. We travel to Tel Aviv/Yaffo, the Galilee and Jerusalem. And we travel to Ramallah and Bethlehem.

I’m very excited for this opportunity.

[Also excited to meet and travel with my partner, Stephen Crippen, an Episcopal Deacon in Seattle. Zach paired us up, we have never met. However, we did work together when we both served on the Faith Cabinet of the R-74 campaign which brought marriage equality to Washington. We know each other by conference call and Facebook.]

It has been a long time since I was in Israel-12 years ago, while I was in rabbinical school. During seminary we spend a year studying Hebrew and Jewish studies. It was a wonderful year for me and Yohanna and one-year-old Ozi, travelling a lot, spending a lot of time with Yohanna’s extended family all over the country.

And it was a difficult year as well. It was during an intifada, and there were many attacks and bombings of public places. I remember hearing some from our Jerusalem apartment, including one evening when we were reading online about one attack only to hear another go off nearby. And that year a young man serving in the IDF who lived in our building was killed during an attack at a checkpoint. His name was Erez.

It was that year (2001-2002) that lead to the building of “the wall”-the separation barrier that creates a physical division between the Israelis and Palestinians. Since I have not been back, I have not seen it. It is one thing I am anticipating experiencing, along with the many other changes that have taken place in the past 12 years. (A newly redesigned Yad Vashem/Holocaust museum, for example. Cousins who were once kids are now adults, for another.)

I’m reflecting on this upcoming trip following the elections earlier this week. While Netanyahu’s Likud party won the most seats in the Knesset, there is still the need to form a government. And while the Israeli electorate on the one hand affirmed the status quo, the Arab joint list made new gains and the Orthodox party suffered greater losses than they had in the past. I don’t know what the political environment will be in two months when I am there.

I don’t know a lot about how things will be. But I do know that both Israel and I have changed in the past 12 years. I go with an open heart and an open mind, expecting and hoping to be challenged and, hopefully, inspired.

And not only am I different, but I will experiencing Israel in a way I haven’t before. I will be experiencing Israel in part through the eyes of Christian leaders, who have their own relationship with this Holy Land. And I will be learning from those who are committed to creating a new reality through mutual understanding and co-existence, though an understanding of the differing narratives and through the refusal to create divisions, “sides” or “the other.”

Some 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 this is a question that we as Jews need to address. We need to care about both Israelis and Palestinians. I look forward to this (one, not the only) opportunity  to engage again with this question myself and to bring back what I learn.

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!?”


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, 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.


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.

Only Prayers

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot. We are coming to the end of the book of Numbers in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and the Israelites are poised on the eastern side of the Jordan river ready to enter into the promised land. Their years of wandering are over, they have come almost to the end of their journey. (Deutoronomy is essentially one long speech of Moses, in the narrative the Israelites stay put.)

At the end of this week’s reading, the heads of the tribe of Gad and Reuben come to Moses and the other leaders of the community with a request. They are cattle ranchers, and they noticed that the land they have just come to settle in, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is perfect for cattle raising. Is it possible, they ask, to be assigned this portion of the land as their territory? In other words, could they stay on this side of the Jordan and not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites?

Moses considers this request and agrees on one condition: they first enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites, and once the land is settled they can return to the other side of the river and settle there.

On the one hand, an anthropological reading of the text can say that this story comes to fill in the back story as to how certain tribes wound up living where they did, especially that certain tribes are outside the land that was talked about in the text.

Reading this story now symbolically, two things come to mind: The Gadites and the Reubenites were part of the larger community of Israelites, and even though they wanted to live in a geographically distinct area away from the Israelites, they needed to still be mindful that they are part of a larger whole, and they needed to support the other tribes. Or, in other words, single communities separated by geography need to support one another. This motivation is what perhaps drives our connection to Israel-we are geographically distinct yet feel a bond through our membership in the Jewish people. And this is why the pain over what Israel experiences and what Israel does is that much more acute.

The evil dark side is that Jews everywhere are being held responsible by others for what is happening right now. John Lloyd, writing in Reuters, notes:

…There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

People from Sri Lanka didn’t live in fear when their government was pounding the Tamil Tigers into submission, with thousands of deaths. Chinese visitors are undisturbed by reaction to their government’s suppression of dissent in Tibet and its jailing of dissidents. And quite right, too. Who knows what Russians, Sri Lankans or Chinese abroad think about their governments’ actions?

Jews, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews in Western democratic countries for Israeli actions. That’s all Jews, whatever their views on the Israeli response to the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Sometimes, the reaction goes much further than disapproval.

Lloyd notes the increase in seemingly unchecked anti-Semitism, including riots and a fire-bombing of a synagogue in France. This has been just as horrifying to watch as what is happening in Israel and something we can not take lightly.

A second understanding of the Torah story this week  is that sometimes separation is what is necessary in order to move forward, and that an original vision sometimes needs to be amended. In the Torah the original vision of all the tribes living together in the land needed to be changed to allow for the fulfillment of the request of the Gadites and the Reubenites. But this was perhaps a necessary step for the Israelites to continue.

Etgar Karet, a noted Israeli author, wrote a powerful op-ed about “peace.” That word is probably doing more harm than good he writes, because it take the human actors out of the mix. Reflecting on both an interview he conducted with Prime Minister Netanyahu and on his son’s second grade class, he writes,

It turned out that Netanyahu, a courageous former officer in an elite combat unit who had faced impossible odds in battle, thinks like my son and his classmates do when it comes to peace. I don’t want to spoil the mood of my prime minister or a class of second-grade kids, but I have a strong gut feeling that God won’t be giving us peace any time soon; we’re going to have to make an effort to achieve it on our own. And if we succeed, neither we nor the Palestinians will receive it free of charge.

Peace, by definition, is compromise between sides, and in that kind of compromise, each side has to pay a genuine, heavy price, not just in territories or money but also in a true change of worldview.

That’s why the first step might be to stop using the debilitating word “peace,” which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings in both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word “compromise.” It might be a less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can’t be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling, not always perfect dialogue with the other side.

True, it’s more difficult to write songs about compromise, especially the kind my son and other kids can sing in their angelic voices. And it doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts. But in contrast to the lovely word that demands nothing of the person saying it, the word “compromise” insists on the same preconditions from all those who use it: They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more – they must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist. And in the racist and violent part of the world I live in, that’s nothing to scoff at.

These words are very powerful. It strikes me that this conflict is one that is being waged by those on both sides who have a greater-almost messianic-vision of how things should be. These visions will only perpetuate conflict and not bring about a resolution. “Compromise” is a better word than peace since it is more realistic and descriptive of what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to give up the visions of what they think things should be, and instead see where they can compromise and give up and separate from, in order to move forward.

How we get there, I don’t know. But here is one thing.

In Israel and all across the world this past Tuesday Jews and Muslims were getting together to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. The joint fasts were to be seen as “hunger strikes” against violence and as prayers for life and peace. The initial effort was organized by a colleague of mine from Rabbis Without Borders who lives in Israel.

We didn’t have a big event here in Olympia, but I did head over to the mosque at the end of the day to join in prayers and iftar, the breaking of the fast. It was a small scale opportunity to share an experience and join together in common cause and friendship.

I don’t normally fast on the 17th of Tammuz. It is a minor fast day, and there are even some authorities who say that in times of peace and security the fast will be optional. That is definitely not the case this year, and with the added kavannah (intention) mentioned above, I took on the fast this year.

It was truly a compelling experience. In another sphere of my rabbinic life and learning these days I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer. I will be sharing more on that later, but for now I can say that the fast itself-which unlike Yom Kippur we undertake while we go about our normal daily business-was a type of prayer. A continuous beseeching of God throughout the day.

What was my prayer?

Please, God, let us

End the violence

Be kept from hatred and scorn

Stop creating false divisions

Learn to know when we need to pull back and compromise

See the death of all children as a fundamental tragedy

Deeply hear and understand each other’s narrative.

There is more to pray for I know. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.