by Rabbi David J. Cooper
In a few days, Kehilla members will receive a survey to assess support for the wording of a statement reflecting our synagogue’s values in regard to Israel/Palestine. Standing up for our values is not just words, but an action. And silence too is an action. So I believe that we must not be silent. Although we have previously, as a synagogue, addressed issues about Israel/Palestine, the situation has become even more dire. Many in the shul have felt that we needed to restate our values in regard to the Israeli occupation specifically – which we have not done in the past.
The purpose of the statement is two-fold.
First, it is for ourselves as a community, to give words to what our values are in regard to an ethical moral dilemma that faces us as a Jewish community. As such, it also informs potential Kehilla members about this community that they seek to join.
Second, it is a statement that we are putting out to the world and specifically to the larger Jewish community that a congregation of over 400 households has a general consensus dissenting from the policies and practices of the Israeli government regarding the occupation and regarding the non-separation of state and synagogue. It also affirms that we will not participate in silencing a variety of voices dissenting from and/or protesting the status quo.
Within two years of our founding, 31 years ago, the congregation took a vote where we recognized the need for a Palestinian state and that it needed to be the subject of direct negotiations involving Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. At the time, Israeli law was criminalizing discussions with the PLO and the idea of a Palestinian state was almost unheard of or was suppressed in the mainstream Jewish community. This was seven years before the idea of a two-state solution was given more air-time after the Oslo Accords.
But times have changed. The extent and severity of the occupation has increased in the 23 years since Oslo and with it a spiral of Palestinian resistance and Israeli repression. The prospects for any resolution that yields a Palestinian state with meaningful sovereignty and territorial contiguity seem more and more remote. Also, in the last few years, the power of the Israeli orthodox rabbinate over people’s lives has become more severe.
Jewish Israeli opponents and critics of the occupation have also been dealing with increased McCarthyist-like suppression in Israel. And in our own US and local Jewish community, there has been a concerted attempt to banish from the community dissenting voices especially those who support boycott, divestment or sanctions of Israel “whether in whole or in part” (i.e., even if only directed at Israeli business enterprises within the occupied territory). In Kehilla, our survey last year showed that we were divided in regard to BDS, but that we were united in our support for open discussion about BDS in the Jewish community. And many of us are deeply concerned that the exclusion from the Jewish community of many Jews who support strategies of opposition will turn people, especially young adults, away from Jewish communal participation. We want Kehilla to be a safe space to be Jewish AND to be in opposition.
Our survey had a huge volume of replies with many comments that I and others in the Middle East Peace Committee read – all sorts of differences about Zionism, two- versus one-state, pro and con on BDS. And yet, we could see that despite these differences there was a distinct agreement about our values and that the continued occupation of the West Bank and the severe blockade of Gaza ran contrary to these values.
After the survey, we composed a draft values statement. We held a series of open gatherings for review and comment. The statement was drafted and redrafted over months to catch a variety of nuances but kept to a one-page length. And now we are about to circulate the resulting iteration for your approval.
The statement reiterates Kehilla’s affirmation of human and civil rights for all in Israel/Palestine. It states that as a community we oppose the continuation of the occupation. It recognizes a historical connection between Jews and the land while denying that this connectedness is exclusive to the Jewish people. It acknowledges the variety of positions that our congregants have concerning Zionism and strategic approaches to the issues. It supports a separation of state and religious authority. And it affirms that open discussion and compassionate listening to a variety of ideas is necessary in our Jewish and Kehilla community. Although it touches on political issues, it is not so much a position paper as it is a heart-felt statement of our values which then lead us to our political stances. As such it does not propose solutions so much as state the values that those solutions should embody.
Some may ask why are we expressing our values in regard to Israel/Palestine and not Syria or China or Iran or Hamas. As a Jewish community we are specifically implicated or connected to the actions of Israel which was founded as a Jewish state. Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh la-zeh: All Israelites have responsibility in regard to each other’s actions. [Tractate Shavuot 39A, Babylonian Talmud.]
So when you receive the survey, please respond. There will be space provided for your comments.