Seek peace, and pursue it.

I haven’t written about Israel/Palestine in a couple of weeks, and I can only suspect that this has been because I don’t want to!

It’s the tail-end of a lovely summer, and we’ve just been having too much fun for me to want to go too far down that rabbit hole. It’s like knowing that the aunt you were once close to but who’s been mentally unstable for years is in the hospital, and you feel you should go, you want to want to go — but you don’t really want to go. Much as you love her.

So, it being the end of a lovely summer and all, I’m going to lean on someone else’s thinking rather than come up with my own. The ever excellent South Jerusalem recently linked to a piece at The American Prospect by one of the site’s two bloggers, Gershom Gorenberg: “Whose Religion Is This Anyway?”

Gorenberg writes here about what he calls “a half-visible minority of a minority” — Israeli, Orthodox Jews on Israel’s political left, actively seeking a just, peaceful end to the occupation of Palestinian lands, in the face of frank distrust and doubt from all sides.

The struggles he describes aren’t unique to Israeli Jews, however, or the Orthodox. To be a believing Jew of any stripe, anywhere, and to pursue a just peace as an imperative of your faith, is to face distrust and doubt from all sides, everywhere. Leon Wieseltier once wrote something about ethnic anxiety being the only remaining proof of authenticity for the Jewish people, and I would add: To the exclusion of actual Jewish practice.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of congregation B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles wrote two years ago about a crying need for essential honesty among the Jewish people about Israel’s role in its bloody conflict with the Palestinians, and the need for flexibility on the question of Jerusalem. It’s a remarkable thing to read, both because of Rabbi Kanefsky’s naked emotion, and because of an important fact that he acknowledges early on:

These are extremely difficult thoughts for me to share, both because they concern an issue that is emotionally charged, and because people whose friendship I treasure will disagree strongly with me. And also because I am breaking a taboo within my community, the Orthodox Zionist community. “Jerusalem: Israel’s Eternally Undivided Capital” is a 40-year old slogan that my community treats with biblical reverence. It is an article of faith, a corollary of the belief in the coming of the Messiah. It is not questioned.

This break with orthodoxy, so to speak, was so notable that the Los Angeles Times covered it :

As news of Kanefsky’s statements raced through local and national Jewish circles on Friday, the reaction was swift and often impassioned. Many Orthodox leaders denounced Kanefsky’s call as wrong-headed or even dangerous, with one saying it was akin to “religious suicide” for Jews to discuss any compromise on Jerusalem.

“Religious suicide.” Religious suicide? This Orthodox rabbi is in danger of shooting his relationship with the Almighty in the head? For following the Scriptural injunction to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15) and “justice, justice pursue” (Duet. 16:20)? “He has told you,” says the prophet Micah, “what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Acting on these holy words is religious suicide?

At the theoretical other end of the religious spectrum, in Jewish Reconstructionism, is the man I consider my rabbi (though I am myself a member of the Conservative Movement), Rabbi Brant Rosen, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and spiritual leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist Community in Evanston, Il. Rabbi Rosen has written, campaigned, travelled, and told the truth about the aching need for a just peace for a long, long time, and though he generally doesn’t discuss it, I know that it hasn’t always been a easy row to hoe. In a painfully honest blog post, he did recently broach the sensitivity of Jewish peace activism:

I’ve come to believe that too many of us in the Jewish community will unabashedly protest persecution anywhere in the world, yet remain silent when Israel acts oppressively.

I know all too well how we actively avoid this truth. We use any number of rhetorical and political arguments to deny it, to mitigate the discomfort and pain it causes us.  We engage in a kind of tortured dance of rationalization that we save for no other world issue but this one. But for me, at least, none of it really addresses the core issue at hand: however difficult it might be for us to face, Israel is unjustly oppressing Palestinians.

I just can’t do the dance any more.


This summer, Rabbi Rosen was instrumental in the launch of “Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza.” The Hebrew in the title is translatable as “a righteous fast,” or “a fast for justice,” with the word for “fast,” ta’anit, referring specifically to a fast undertaken for religious reasons, rather than a mere cessation of eating (tzom). The response to this effort has been, in a word, mixed:

Since we launched the Jewish Fast for Gaza, we’ve received all kinds of feedback, some supportive, some critical, some utterly unprintable. (My personal favorite from the latter category: “You should all get severe stomach ailments.”)

My own experience as a member of the Conservative Movement has fallen in with that of these two accomplished rabbis. The fact that I maintain a strictly kosher home, work on neither Shabbat nor religious holidays, pray at home and often attend services, cover my head in prayer, speak Hebrew with my children, and travel regularly to Israel, where I lived for 14 years, is often simply insufficient to make up for the fact that I frequently and publicly call on Israel to act with justice toward the Palestinians. I’ve received nasty letters from fellow members of the movement, have watched people literally turn their back rather than talk to me, have been told that my writing “puts weapons in the hands of the enemy” — and have been told that some believe me to be either “a self-loathing Jew” or  “not really Jewish.”

But what Gorenberg wrote (remember Gorenberg? This is a post about Gorenberg) speaks directly to my experience both of the Divine, and of the ugly reality on the ground, as I suspect it does for many Jews of faith:

I have no doubt that the pursuit of peace is the most basic of Jewish obligations, that the first lessons of Judaism’s sacred texts is that all human beings are created in the divine image and deserve freedom. The first religious figure who inspired me was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the European-born American theologian [ed. note: and giant of the Conservative Movement] who returned from marching at Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. and declared, “Our legs were praying.” That is, seeking social justice was not only a religious requirement, it was an act of worship. Heschel protested the war in Vietnam though it meant challenging the polices of the country that gave him refuge during the Holocaust. His kind of faith did not allow him to stay silent. I can’t know for sure what Heschel would be doing were he alive today, but I believe strongly that he would be working for peace in Israel.

Seeking social justice is not only a religious requirement, it is an act of worship — this is the Truth.

And in my struggle to live a life of faith, and to reconcile my faith and ahavat Zion, love of Zion (my home, both spiritual and literal) with the ugly injustices that are daily perpetrated in Judaism’s name — in my name, as a Jew of faith — I cling to that truth and pray for guidance.

There are days, I will admit, on which it feels it would be much easier to just leave it all behind.

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  1. Emily,

    Thank you for the lovely shout out. I’m honored to be called your rabbi and even more honored to be sharing the struggle with you. There are indeed times in which it just feels so much easier to leave it all behind. For me, at least, I gain strength in the knowledge that I struggle together with folks such as you who I know have my back.

    I’ve got your’s too. Let’s keep on keeping on…

  2. CitizenE

     /  August 21, 2009

    Ella have you read Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning? Written before the Iraq invasion, it was incredibly prescient. The author was a divinity student before he became a war correspondent. Anyway, I believe more than any text that I have ever read, Hedges makes the case that war is a human jones, not just one person or another.

    As American Jews, we are caught between worlds–we know what it is to be on the side of the oppressed; it is in our blood, in the tales that go back to our earliest memories, it is connected to our earliest experiences of collective religious feeling. We know in our deepest beings we don’t want that at least for those we love.

    We know too the baggage of being the privileged when others at our hands, albeit perhaps indirectly, are the oppressed. We would not wish to be them; we would fight to avert it, and so it is so easy to want to forget about it.

    Pacifism has such a short history in the world–let’s say in Europe it goes back to the late 19th century–Tolstoy and William Morris, and it appears to have passed already from human memory with the deaths of Ghandi and King almost a half century ago. But it is a human issue, not particularly Jewish or American, and it begins in the hearts of individual human beings in individual moments.

  3. Reading this now, two years later, this post still resonates with me. Thank you for writing it.