Jewish Moments: Joyful Amazement & Fearful Bafflement

For many Jews, including myself, there were two astonishing moments during the past week.

One of them came on Sunday afternoon. On Internet live feed, it was possible to watch at least 1000 Jews demonstrating at the AIPAC national convention  against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands – – about to reach its 50th anniversary this summer.

The demonstration was organized by If Not Now, and it was filled with chants and songs in English and Hebrew – – many of them spiritually rooted. For example, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” means  “A world of love will yet be built.”

And “”Aish tamid tukad al hamizbayach, lo tichbeh” (a chant created by Rabbi Shefa Gold from a phrase in Leviticus 6:6) means, “An eternal fire shall be kept burning on the sacred altar; it shall not go out.” The demonstrating chanters meant their burning Jewish passion for justice, for Palestinians as well as for Israelis.

For me, watching this brought tears of joy. I remembered coming back from the summer of 1969, living in Israel and visiting Palestinians living on the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem under a two-year-old Occupation who wanted only their own state, not subjugation to or domination over Israel or Jordan.

I came back to bring together about 30 American Jews and Christians to place an ad in the Village Voice –-- for who could afford the New York Times? --  to call for a peace settlement between Israel and a new Palestinian state. In those days, there were no Israeli settlers on the West Bank, and the Occupation was mild. But as a historian, let alone as a Jew, I knew that no occupation remains mild for very long.

For decades, we blew gently on those sparks to grow a movement. Breira (“Alternative”) came and went, New Jewish  Agenda came and went, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom  (“Covenant of Justice and Peace”) came and went. And now, at last, a generation has arisen strong enough and numerous enough to carry that vision through varied organizations into the voting booth and onto the streets.

Watching,  I recited the ancient Jewish prayer, “Sheh-hekhianu! -- Praised be the Breathing  Spirit of the world Who has filled us with life, lifted us up, and carried us to this very moment!”

Earlier last week came a moment much stranger. Many Jews were gobstruck by the news that an Israeli Jew had been arrested for allegedly making many of the calls to threaten JCCs with being bombed. Like, many of us wondered, Does that mean there wasn¹t  really anti-Semitism after all? Like, What in Hell is going on?

For me, there are three take-aways from that strange moment:

1. The basic and still alarming truth is that Trump/Bannon white nationalism is still explicitly directed against Muslims and Mexicans and

is having the effect of real anti-Semitic outbreaks as well. Hundreds of real graves were desecrated, real swastikas painted on the walls of real synagogues.

We must also stay alert to the fact that while Jewish graves were being desecrated, two mosques were being arson-attacked. There was no concern from the White House about that, not even crocodile tears.

And ICE was amping up and broadening its raids, tearing families apart.  Of course no concern from the White House about that.

And we must also stay alert to the fact that Jews and Muslims came toogether to protect mosques and synagogues, that people of every ethnic background came together to protect immigrants.

We need to be saying that -- explicitly . I have little patience for a formula I have heard from some “Establishment  Jews” who icily skate over these facts by mentioning their opposition to “hate in all its forms” without naming the targets or perpetrators of that hate.

2. Even while we await a clear sense of who the alleged Israeli threat-caller is, we should be aware that there is real internal anti-Semitism arising. Not the fake charge aimed at people who disagree about policy, but a real contempt on the part of some Israelis for “wishy-washy liberal” (especially  American) Jews.

An international alliance of “white” Christian nationalists (Trump/Bannon, Putin, Le Pen, UKIP, many others in Europe and Australia and even in India (not so white but obsessed with Hindu power) has been expanded to include Israeli right-wingers who aim their first oppressions at Palestinians and as a derivative their contempt at Jews who view the Palestinian people with respect.

3. Harder to address but I think crucial is for us to address a large proportion of Trump voters who are not hooked on racism, misogyny, etc etc but are willing to tolerate them because they feel economically, culturally, and spiritually marginalized, thrown out of the America they thought was them.

In my essay at


I drew on what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1942 in an essay called “The Meaning of This War.”

 We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed? ...

("The Meaning of This War [World War II]," pp. 210-212, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996]).

        Early in the essay, he asks the question: "Who is responsible [that the war has “soaked the earth in blood”]?" And he answers as a Hassid would, by quoting the Baal Shem Tov: "If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him." (p. 209.)

I think we must ask ourselves the same questions.

Spiritually, we should not be triumphantly proclaiming, as many of us did, that demography would soon turn the country over to us and we could ignore the "benighted rednecks."  When Hillary Clinton called “those people” not only deplorable but irredeemable, that was an affront to serious Jewish, Christian, Muslim, & Buddhist spirituality.

And politically, as we have already seen, that attitude is a disaster.

What then is an attitude -- like listening! -- and what are policies that can address the legitimate needs of that community warmly, as Dr. King was trying to do in the last year of his life with the "Poor People’s Campaign²?   I think that is a profound, difficult, and necessary question for us to be asking.

Jews asking that question as Heschel did and Jews protesting against AIPAC and the Occupation are the new growth of an old Judaism: A Judaism committed truly to draw on Jewish wisdom to make itself a profoundly Jewish community, a profoundly Jewish movement, to heal and transform the world, not only to heal and renew the Jewish people.


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