Rabbi Alissa Wise Addresses St Peter’s Church


The following address was given by Rabbi Alissa Wise to St Peter’s United Church of Christ on November 12, 2015 in Carmel, Indiana.

In Genesis we read: Jacob woke from his sleep and said, surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!

It happened for me like that too. Well, maybe not exactly. Let me tell you what happened:

In the summer of 2007, while I was studying to become a rabbi, I lived in the West Bank for two months. One day I planted trees in a destroyed olive grove outside of Nablus. I was working with local Palestinian farmers and a group of activists from Sweden. None of the Swedish activists were Jewish; most of them were anarchist college students who were on the first trip to the Middle East, there just for a couple weeks to support Palestinian non-violent resistance.

Before we set out for the day, we exchanged information in case of arrest or injury, chose individuals to negotiate with the army, and reminded each other to follow the lead of the Palestinian farmers, to retreat when they wanted to and not to stray from the group.

As we walked the four miles out to the plot of land where the olive trees had been uprooted and now would be replanted, we got to know each other a bit. The Swedish internationals were intrigued that I was becoming a rabbi, and on our long walk out to the grove, they questioned me about what I believed about God. As happens a lot when I am with anarchists and activists who don’t like or trust organized religion, there was a skepticism, or at least a confusion about my religiosity; especially as the nearest religious Jews were the ones who did the uprooting. I would often dodge the question about God in this kind of situation.

But, at that moment I had an answer. As if, I, like Jacob suddenly woke up.

There I was on the lookout for Israeli military snipers or jeeps and being pressed to answer what I believed about God, in a land full of claims on God. I scanned my history with this land—my family’s connections to Jerusalem, my camping trips in the North of Israel, my dance club days in Tel Aviv in college— and I came to truly understand for the first time that it was against all odds that I was standing there. I had planted trees not too far from Nablus before with the Jewish National Fund—before I knew their participation in the erasure of Palestinian history. Yet, there I was, a middle-class, American Jew raised in a right-wing Zionist Jewish home, and now I was helping Palestinian farmers plant trees as an act of resistance in the occupied West Bank. It was in response to this question, asked of me in Nablus, that I filled in the blank about God: God is the impulse in me to serve the Other out of a sense of responsibility that stems from the Source of redemption.

God was in this place and I did not know it.

And, then I did. I never looked back.

My responsibility to the other—the most intimate and the most distant—is what brings me to and sustains me in the work seeking a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

We all have a responsibility to hear from those directly affected by occupation and oppression how we might support their struggle for dignity, self-determination, and equality.

After all, these demands are basic—as much as we might hope for ourselves– as the Golden Rule teaches—treat others as you would like to be treated. So simple, so basic—so. Incredibly. challenging.

In 2005, a Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions was made by over 120 organizations in Palestinian civil society. This call, a request for solidarity inspired by the movement that brought down apartheid in South Africa, urges those concerned with Palestinian human rights to take action in their local communities by organizing boycott and divestment campaigns—like the one taken up – and won!—like that of the  the UCC this past summer!

Make no mistake about it—the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) made by Palestinian civil society is a rebuke of the current policies and actions made by the Israeli government. This includes the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the lack of basic civil rights for non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the demand of return for Palestinians made refugees with the founding of Israel in 1948.

Several Christian denominations, including the UCC, have made brave, constructive decisions to investigate whether their churches’ investments contribute to violence and oppression in Israel and Palestine. Churches, campuses, and communities nationwide are reviewing investments as a means to ending the humiliation and brutality faced by Palestinians under occupation—an occupation that causes great harm to Israeli society as well. As long as one nation occupies another, neither can enjoy true peace and security. As Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. taught—no one is free until we are all free.

Those engaging in this review and calling for divestment understand that investing in corporations that profit from the occupation is unethical.  Examining the impact of their investments is a practical, effective way for Americans to do good rather than cause harm—and is an answer to the Palestinian call for solidarity. It is pressuring Israel, non-violently, to make a change.

All too often, when a non-Jewish group, or individual, speaks out against blatantly unjust Israeli policies and actions, they are accused of acting on that irrational hatred of Jews and Judaism that is commonly called anti-Semitism.

Issuing a moral rebuke such as a targeted divestment shows a respect for Jews, and others that support Israeli policies, that is fundamentally incompatible with anti-Semitism.  Such an act is predicated on the belief that the recipients of the rebuke are capable of reevaluating their actions and turning onto a more just path.

I can think of no greater act of friendship than to risk defamation in order to remind one’s friends of their own ideals when they, themselves, have forgotten them. That is Tochecha—sacred rebuke.

Tochecha is about our obligation to tell someone when they have done or are currently straying and behaving wrongly – whether to us, or to another. What’s more, tochecha requires us also to engage with those we are rebuking and assist them and support them in the repair of the wrong you are calling out.

As we learn in Leviticus 19:17:

You shall not hate your fellow human being in your heart. Rebuke your fellow human being but incur no guilt because of this person.

You shall not hate your fellow human being in your heart—this is required for one to engage in tochecha—rebuke. It must be based on love and respect.

Many of us—Jews and non-Jews alike—have had accusations of anti-semitism lobbed at us for standing up for justice, equality, and freedom for all people.

As we all know, there is a conscience strategy that has been developed by pro-Israel institutions, and Israel itself, to attempt to blur or even completely erase the lines between Israel and the Jewish people.

I want to be very clear that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel—a nation state, and there is nothing anti-semitic in the BDS call by Palestinian civil society. It is a conditional call that will end when conditions of oppression end; and that targets state policies, not the Jewish people. It is based on standards of universal human rights and international law that are specifically not reliant upon ethnicity or religion.

That being said, when I get asked how to deflect accusations of anti-semitism i do caution people to ask themselves if they are in fact anti-semitic. While there is nothing inherently anti-semitic in critiquing Israel, that does not mean you do not also harbor anti-semitic sentiments toward Jews. This is something worth exploring personally, and perhaps also in your congregations or organizations.

Anti-semitism, just like other forms of oppression, lumps all Jewish people together and assigns us a set of characteristics.  Some of the stereotypes we hear include:  Jews are rich, Jews are stingy, Jews are smart, Jews control the media, or Jews are to blame for whatever the current crisis is.  Even when these stereotypes are framed positively, being reduced as an individual to having assumed attributes based on our religion can be very dehumanizing.   That includes the idea that all Jews are implicated by the deeds of the Israeli government.

But—and here’s where things get complicated– that notion can be turned on its head, because Israel specifically defines itself as the state of all the Jews in the world, rather than a state of all its citizens.  Israel itself may in fact be the greatest contributor to this fallacy.

To complicate things further, while critiquing Israel is not anti-semitic, for some Christian Zionists, supporting Israel is.

Apocalyptic Christian Zionist John Hagee was recently quoted affirming that he does indeed believe that the Jewish people are going to burn in Hell for all of eternity unless they abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity. There is hardly a more deeply anti-semitic notion than that.

As this example illustrates, while anti-semitism certainly does still exist in the here and now, it has largely lost its power in the U.S.  It does not keep us from jobs, schools, access to health care, housing, or positions of influence.  In other words, Jewish people are not impeded in any material way from pursuing the life of our choosing.

Anti-Semitism has always been deeply connected with other systems of oppression.  Anti-Jewish sentiment has frequently served the interests of classism and white supremacy, by placing Jews as middle agents and scapegoats for the crimes of the ruling classes, thus obscuring the structural nature of injustices.

While the recent attacks in France are sobering, we have not seen that level of interpersonal violence against Jews in the US and Canada. Yet, there are still occasional outbursts against Jewish targets that helps keep Jewish fears alive. And despite the lack of structural barriers for Jews in the US, we still live in a country whose dominant culture is Christian. Many Jews in the US still feel very much like the “other” in society, as do other non-Christian people.  These feelings are real, and not easy. (The Donald Trump Starbucks controversy of late highlights the point!)

I also need to name here that it is  essential that when we talk about anti-semitism we do so understanding the breadth of Jewish experience– Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews of middle eastern, north African, Asian and Spanish descent, have had much different historical relationship to anti Jewish sentiment than those of us who are Ashkeanzi, of Eastern European descent. For centuries Jews lived in relative piece and coexistence in the Muslim world, unlike Jews in Christian Europe.

Even when we are reflecting on histories and realities of oppression against Jews, we bump against the relative privilege of us Jews of Eastern European origin in contemporary times. The vast majority of Jews in the U.S. and Canada are Ashkenazi and are thus generally classified as white, with all the race privilege that entails. The important and urgent topic of  both internal and external racism within the Jewish community is not something I have time to delve into today, but still felt important to name.

So –it is a balancing act of being sensitive to Jewish history and trauma, without pulling punches about today’s reality. While Jews in the U.S. have more political, economic, cultural and intellectual status than perhaps ever before, the Jewish narrative is still about vulnerability. part of the work that we as progressive Jews need to take responsibility for is challenging that narrative.

It means that we all, collectively, need to be able to hold, simultaneously, the idea that anti-Semitism in our society is still real, if not very potent at this moment; and at the same time, recognize and fight how accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as an effective weapon to silence debate on Israel. In the US we are up against attempts to codify re-definitions of anti-Semitism that would encompass advocacy to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian human rights. This represents a scary and dangerous development and if successful, formidable obstacle in our nonviolent activism to ensure Palestinian human rights.

Because our wounds run so deeply, it is very difficult for many Jews to recognize that Israel, not Palestinians, hold disproportionate power.

But, even still, that sacred rebuke is essential—even if—and perhaps because– it is difficult for some Jews to hear. It is precisely because of my love for my own family members and community members that I do the work I do and participate in the call for BDS and see the growing global movement as a path to a lasting peace, with justice.

As a third century rabbi, Rabbi Yossi ben Chanina, taught: “A love without reproof is no love.”  His study partner Resh Lakish added: “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.”

Out of respect and love—highlight what is wrong, and together we step toward peace.

Highlight the harm of settlement expansion and of the various consumer products—like SodaStream and Ahava cosmetics that are profiting off of Palestinian’s natural resources and stolen land.

Highlight the acts of Caterpillar which makes millions off of demolishing homes and uprooting olive trees. Each year, U.S. corporations receive an alarming subsidy from U.S. taxpayers. By law, 75% of U.S. military aid to Israel must be spent in American corporations. It is with this money, for example, that Israel buys weaponized bulldozers from Caterpillar.

Highlight Motorola Solutions who profits from Israel’s control of the Palestinian population by providing surveillance systems around Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and military camps in the West Bank, as well as communication systems to the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

Highlight G4S, a British security company that provides equipment and services to Israeli prisons at which political prisoners are held without trial and subjected to torture. International campaigning has had a huge impact on G4S:

• In June 2014, the Gates Foundation divested the whole of its $170m holding in the company as a result of an international campaign.

• Universities in Oslo and Bergen refused to give G4S contracts over its role in Israel’s prison system following student campaigns. In the UK, at least 5 student unions voted to cancel contracts with G4S, and students successfully pressured 2 other universities not to renew contracts with the company.

• Major charities in South Africa, the Netherlands and elsewhere terminated contracts with G4S.

• The US Methodist Church, the largest protestant church in the US, divested from G4S after coalition campaigning brought the issue to a vote.

Highlight Hewlett Packard who provides on-going support and maintenance to a biometric ID system installed in Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank which deprive Palestinians of the freedom of movement in their own land and allows the Israeli military occupation to grant or deny special privileges to the civilians under its control.

As I see it, the quest for justice is at the core of Jewish tradition and identity. To my mind, when Jews support  the Israeli occupation, we are acting from fear due to centuries of intense persecution and genocide. When the U.S. government supports the Israeli occupation in the face of international human rights violations, it is acting out of self-interests that have nothing to do with Jewish values, traditions or security. The very essence of Jewish values is a tradition of justice.

To the Jewish organizations that wield the accusation of anti-Semitism against those that speak out for justice, I ask:

When have you raised your voice when Israel demolishes a Palestinian home or uproots a Palestinian orchard?

The truth is that the majority of American Jews have never felt so distant either from those organizations or from Israel itself. Major studies commissioned  by these same organizations have found  that most young American Jews feel emotionally unattached to Israel and report that peace is a higher value to them than security.

These same American Jews reject the idea that all Palestinians or Muslims support terrorism. Other studies have confirmed that over two-thirds of American Jews are “disturbed by Israel’s policies and actions.”

For many American Jews, maintaining harmony with some Jewish organizations, like the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, and even the Anti-Defamation League– comes at the price of the values that most American Jews hold dear:  justice, equality and peace.

Because the organizations of our parents and grandparents no longer speak for us, groups including my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, are generating phenomenal support among American Jews.  Jewish Voice for Peace is one of the largest and oldest grassroots Jewish peace organizations in the U.S. We have a professional staff of 29 that supports over 250,000 Internet activists and some 9000 members in over 65 chapters across the United States.  Most of this growth has taken place over the last 5 years.

Daily humiliation at checkpoints, segregated Jewish-only roads, illegal settlement expansion, restrictions on movement and access to jobs and healthcare—all parts of a Palestinian’s life living under occupation must be stopped.

In this moment of intensified violence in Palestine and Israel, it is more important than ever to understand the occupation, dispossession, and state violence that has been the status quo for decades and is at the root of the current violence. We want safety and dignity for all the peoples of Palestine and Israel, and so we mourn each and every life that has been lost.

What is happening today must be understood as an uprising which is the inevitable result of decades of occupation, dispossession and state violence.

This is an uprising that did not come out of nowhere. Violence against Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli police and Jewish settlers is constant.

Over the last year or so, Israel has accelerated the pace of demolishing Palestinian homes; allowed increasing numbers of Jewish settlers to take over homes in Palestinian neighborhoods, and cracked down with increasingly violent policing practices and arrests without due process in Palestinian neighborhoods.

The status quo is unsustainable, and is now reaching its breaking point.

While not all may be ready to hear us, we must continue to speak. Our obligation to sacred rebuke endures—for Jews and non-Jews alike.

This work, my friends, is where God resides. God is surely in this place, and, now, I do know it.

And yet, in truth. we do not know for sure what will come of it.

As the book of Proverbs beautifully teaches us in chapter 9 verse 8

A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you.

For decades, churches have led the way in applying the nonviolent tactic of divestment to end violence against civilians all over the world. The Presbyterian Church, UCC, Mennonites, Quakers, Methodists and more have shown the integrity, and the courage, to rebuke the Israeli government for its bitter oppression of the Palestinians.

Whether it was intended, or not, this rebuke speaks also to the many Jews, and non-Jews, who support Israel’s oppressive policies, or stand aside and leave them unopposed.  Now we must face the test of our own integrity, and our own courage:  we must choose how we will hear the message of divestment.  Will we be scoffers, hating our friends for challenging our misdeeds, or will we be wise, loving them for reminding us of the pursuit of justice that is our highest calling, and the expression of our better selves?

May we have the courage, to not sit silent, but to be able to look back at this time with pride for how we together manifested the most basic ethical tenet of our traditions: what is hateful to you, do not do to others.

May we be part of the transformation of a painful history of anti-Semitism and of Jewish trauma by working together to realize justice, equality and freedom, not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for all people.

My work alongside Christians, Muslims and other communities of conscience has been an important challenge to dangerous and disempowering messages I learned growing up. I no longer believe Jews are inevitably alone in the world, but in fact quite the opposite. I now see just how much we are there for each other.


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