Fasting For A Tolerant and Pluralistic Israel

#BlackLivesMatter has generated a wave of rebuke from the American Jewish establishment ever since it published its online Platform on August 1. And deservedly so. Under the “Demand” entitled “Invest-Divest,” the Platform alleges that there is a “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and that “Israel is an apartheid state.”  First, as a well-written response from Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council succinctly put it, why has this self-proclaimed collective of 50 + BLM organizations “co-opt[ed] and manipulat[ed] … a movement addressing concerns about racial disparities in criminal justice in the United States in order to advance a biased and false narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?” Second, and even more egregious than the “Gaza to Ferguson” false equivalency, how can BLM accuse Israel of “genocide” or “apartheid?”  These claims are so far removed from the truth that they would be laughable if they weren’t so hurtful.  To accuse Israel, and by implication Jews worldwide, of being perpetrators of genocide when there are still survivors of the Shoah in our communities is deeply painful and offensive. If anything, BLM should be calling out Hamas, not Israel, for perpetrating inhumane treatment of people of color in Africa. But taking a stand against popular causes and interest groups, such as BLM, can be difficult in this age of p.c. expression.  I therefore applaud progressive Jewish groups such as Tru’ah and J-Street, and important actors in community relations such as ADL and St. Louis’ JCRC, for speaking out publicly in opposition to the BLM Platform.  As my colleague Rabbi Ari Hart put it in a column in the Forward, “the words we use have profound consequences for the social reality around us and for the human bodies living within that structure.” While I will continue to support the domestic racial justice advocacy work Black Lives Matter has pushed to the forefront of American discourse, I refuse to sacrifice truth and kowtow to hateful and bigoted political agendas in doing so.  Words matter, and the American Jewish community should speak out as it has done to denounce this violent rhetoric.

But where is this same American Jewish community when it comes to denouncing hateful, bigoted, and violent rhetoric and actions by Haredi Jews in Israel towards their co-religionists?  Given the carnivalesque spectacle of the American Presidential election, not to mention the tragically ubiquitous police shootings and shootings of police this summer, it is perhaps not surprising that we, as a community, have taken our collective eyes off of the escalating intolerance, misogyny, and outright sinat hinam (baseless hatred) taking place in Israel right now.  But we must.  For years, the leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements in America, in conjunction with their Israel counterparts and Women Of The Wall, have been negotiating in good faith with the Netanyahu government to provide an egalitarian, pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall).  An historic agreement was reached earlier this year, approved by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet, but after pressure from his Haredi coalition, Netanyahu has refused to implement the accord.  Moreover, his security forces, which previously served at least as a buffer of protection for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, now refuses to protect from verbal and even physical harassment Women of the Wall and others who wish to pray at the Wall.   Women are denounced as “whores,” and during July’s Rosh Hodesh services, a Haredi man ripped apart a prayer book containing God’s name in gross violation of halakha and common decency.  One davenner recently remarked that he has been “hit by eggs, sprayed with water, sprayed with spit, grabbed at, kicked in the shins and stomped on in the stomach.” At the same time, Netanyahu’s government just overrode a Supreme Court decision by passing a bill prohibiting the use of state-sponsored mikvahs (ritual baths) to the non-Orthodox . Yet outside of official pronouncements from the Reform and Conservative Movements, American Jewish leaders have been surprisingly quiet.

We cannot and must not remain silent when Jewish leaders ostracize and demonize other Jews.  We need the same multi-vocal rebuke as has been generated by the BLM Platform.  We need Sheldon Adelson and other wealthy Jewish philanthropists who care about connecting young Jews with Israel to use their positions to pressure the Israeli government to change course.  As Jews who believe deeply in pluralism and tolerance, we cannot stand idly by while fellow Jews are assaulted and treated as deviants unfit for Jewish ritual experience.  If there is anywhere on earth where all Jews, no matter their background or level of observance, should be able to pray as they see fit, it is at the Kotel.  The place where Jews of all stripes gathered as pilgrims to offer sacrifices at the Temple; the place that has served as the axis mundi for Jewish hope and belief in redemption during our darkest hours; and the place where Jewish men and women fought and died to liberate during the Six Days’ War. The Kotel belongs to all Jews, no matter what Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch–the rabbi invested with authority over the Kotel Plaza–might think.

According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to the sin of sinat hinam-baseless hatred by Jews of other Jews.  This Sunday will be Tisha B’Av, the holiday during which we lament the destruction of the Temple.  Traditionally, we fast to commemorate the destruction and devastation it inflicted on the Jewish communities during First and Second Temple times.  But this year, I am not going to fast for the past destruction.  I am going to fast in protest to the current, escalating sinat hinam taking place at the Wall and throughout Israeli religious life.  I am going to fast in protest of the indifference the American Jewish community has shown in addressing this intolerance in our midst.  And I am going to fast in the hope of others joining me in insisting that Israel become a place where all Jews are once again welcome to profess our faith in public.  Please consider fasting too, and/or tweeting about Tisha B’Av and the need for Jewish pluralism using the hashtag #kotelkulanu (the Wall is for everyone).  Jewish lives matter.  Jewish religious practices matter. And not just for Haredim.


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