Expanding Our Conversation About Israel/Palestine

For the past year-and-a-half, an ad hoc group of Reconstructionist rabbis and laypeople have been organizing programs under the tagline “Reconstructionists Expanding Our Conversation About Israel/Palestine.” During the winter of 2023, our principal effort was a 10-part class I taught titled “A History of Palestine and Israel.” The experience we accumulated through our earlier efforts made the class a plausible next step and established the basis for its success. We could only do this after we had built a constituency for a no-holds-barred critical approach to Israel/Palestine. How did we do that?

The six original members of the organizing group have been engaged in seeking justice, equality and dignity for all in Israel/Palestine in various organizations and in their congregations for decades. Some of us first met in the course of serving on the Joint Israel Commission (JIC) of Reconstructing Judaism. We bonded over our dismay that the movement’s institutions seemed resistant to addressing frankly the radical deterioration of conditions in Israel/Palestine or the historical roots of those conditions. We then found like-minded partners beyond the JIC in various congregations.

The conditions that concerned those who ultimately formed the “Expanding Our Conversation” organizing group were highlighted in the January 2021 report of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.” In July 2020, another Israeli NGO, Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, had come to the narrower conclusion that apartheid prevailed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Of course, the word “apartheid” was jarring. But B’Tselem is a respected Israeli human-rights NGO with a record of years of solid, research-based work that has been applauded by much of the international human-rights advocacy community, including many Jews. Therefore, its statement could not reasonably be dismissed as ill-informed or motivated by antisemitism. That has been the all-too-common response of legacy North American Jewish organizations to sharp criticism of Israel, especially to the term “apartheid.”

American Jewish institutions were less delicate in their critique of a much more detailed report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” which appeared three months later. Like Yesh Din but unlike B’Tselem, HRW limited its charge of apartheid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Nonetheless, the Israeli Foreign Ministry called the report “fictional … preposterous and false.” The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called it a “disgraceful report” that “attempts to demonize, delegitimize, and apply double standards to the State of Israel.” The American Jewish Committee asserted that its arguments were “baseless and sometimes border on antisemitism.”

Because the research in the B’Tselem and HRW reports was serious and substantial, and our communities were mostly reluctant to discuss them (my congregation held two programs on the B’Tselem report), we created a venue to do so. In Elul 5781/August-September 2021, we organized two events framed by passages from Torah, rabbinic texts and the B’Tselem report. We posed the question: Do we need to engage in collective teshuvah because of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people? Rabbis Brian Walt and Laurie Zimmerman and I were the presenters.

With little publicity beyond the mailing lists of the five co-sponsoring Reconstructionist congregations, more than 60 people attended. It was clear that a significant number of members of Reconstructionist congregations were hungry for this kind of discussion and learning, and were grateful for the opportunity to have this discussion within the Reconstructionist movement. No one disagreed with the premise that this was a legitimate and important topic to discuss. No one argued that the facts presented in the B’Tselem report were substantively incorrect. There was concern for what it would mean for Israel’s future and its standing in the world.

Responding to the enthusiasm for engaging in difficult discussions about Israel/Palestine at our Elul events, in winter-spring 2022, we offered a nine-session speaker series with Reconstructionist rabbis and rabbinical students presenting a spectrum of views on Israel/Palestine. We hosted speakers who upheld the traditional views of the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi David Teutsch reviewed “The History of the Reconstructionist Approach to Israel, Zionism and the Treatment of Palestinians.” But we leaned towards presenting views that are commonly marginalized or excluded in our communities. We did this because we believe it is incumbent on us as Jews to advocate unambiguously for justice and equal rights for Palestinians, and because we affirm the Reconstructionist practice of applying our ethical commitments to our social and political realities. As those realities — and our understandings of them — change, our communities should also change.

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert launched the series by proposing a “Reconstructionism Without Zionism.” Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari recounted his journey to “Becoming an Abolitionist: Antiracism and Antizionism.” Rabbi Brian Walt, returning to the theme that launched our efforts, spoke on “Nakba Denial and Teshuva/Reparations.” (Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the destruction of Palestinian society, and the flight or expulsion of some 750,000 refugees during and after the War of 1948.) Other speakers included Rabbis Toba Spitzer; Brant Rosen; Laurie Zimmerman; and rabbinical students Sarah Brammer-Shlay, Solomon Hoffman and Rachel Kipnes, who spoke about an Appeal to the Jewish Community by 93 rabbinical and cantorial students expressing their distress that Jewish community institutions were silent in the face of Israel’s abuse of its power and the racist violence that erupted in Israel/Palestine in May 2021.

he series was co-sponsored by six Reconstructionist congregations. More than 1,400 people registered. Some 200 to 300 people — a large majority of them members of Reconstructionist congregations — attended each session; and another 100 watched the recordings. The overwhelming majority of the responses to our post-series evaluation were enthusiastically positive. People asked for more.

What should that “more” be? We decided to take another step beyond the traditional Jewish communal boundaries by offering a series of six “Palestinian Voices” in the fall of 2022. We featured scholars and activists who were all experienced in addressing Jewish audiences, but who used terminology and conceptual frames that we anticipated might distress at least some members of the community we were building.

Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University launched the series with a talk on his recent book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. Other speakers included Nadia Saah (on Project48, which provides educational material, eyewitness testimonies, images, videos, and artifacts about the Palestinian Nakba and Palestinian refugees’ struggles to return); Basma Fahoum (on Palestinian citizens of Israel, a group often rendered invisible by the official Israeli terminology designating them as “Israeli Arabs”); Yafa Jarrar (on conditions in the West Bank); Jehad Abu Salem (on the Gaza Strip); and Sa’ed Atshan (on Jerusalem).

We knew that these topics and frank exposition of Israel’s relentless oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — and the installation of a de facto one-state regime from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — would be painful for many Jews. We invited people to share their feelings and pose difficult questions in discussions after the presentations. The organizers and most of the speakers stayed on for half an hour beyond the scheduled time to process the presentations and the feelings they aroused with those who wanted to do so. The audiences for these events ranged from 175 to 325; another hundred watched the recordings.

*****

I taught modern Middle East history at Stanford University for 35 years before retiring in 2019. Every year I was on campus, I offered an undergraduate seminar to 16 to 18 students on “Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” We read about 250 pages a week, and I usually assigned three 6- to 8-page papers over a 10-week quarter. I required students to attend office hours to discuss their oral presentations of the weekly readings, which were a key element of the pedagogical experience. It was more work than the average history class (for them and for me). I did not inflate grades.

Typically, 35 to 45 students applied for the class, sometimes more. I had them write essays explaining why they wanted to take the class and what, if any, background they had in the subject. This allowed me to assemble a diverse group with differing levels and kinds of previous knowledge, and as wide a range of views as I could anticipate from the essays — from MAGA Republicans and AIPACers to Palestinians and Muslims. I loved teaching it, and students regularly wrote in their teaching evaluations that it was the best class they took at Stanford.

Staff at the campus Hillel discouraged Jewish students from taking classes with me, and the rabbi refused to acknowledge that I am a Jew. The San Francisco and San Jose Jewish Community Relations Councils disapproved of me. David Horowitz branded me a “campus supporter of terrorism.” Nonetheless, typically, about 30% of the class was Jewish. It was not uncommon for Jewish students to cry when they came to my office hours to discuss the class. I cried with them.

Those were my qualifications to teach “A History of Palestine and Israel” to Reconstructionists willing to hear a version of that history that they weren’t likely to have learned in a Zionist youth movement, a Jewish school or all but a small (but growing) number of synagogues. When we decided to offer the class, we imagined that perhaps 50 people would enroll. Although we were asking for a serious commitment of time, promised to assign significant reading and asked people to pay a registration fee, 166 people registered for the class and about 100 attended weekly sessions. More viewed the video recordings.

My pedagogical career was built around teaching controversial topics that challenged many of my students’ beliefs. I believe the best way to teach such material is to invite students to a joint adventure through protracted face- to-face discussion, and evidence-based oral and written argument. The meanings of facts are best determined by examining counterposing views, close reading of texts when appropriate, and comparing the evidence and arguments presented by different points of view. Determining what you think in that environment demands more than, “I embrace this view because it makes me feel comfortable or because the alternatives frighten me.” Someone facing you may not be convinced if you’ve failed to consider relevant evidence or deployed flawed logic.

This approach is appropriate for Reconstructionist communities because we don’t rely on religious or political dogma. We have a history of thoughtful but bold innovation, expressed most recently in the adoption of a Resolution on Reparations to address generational harm and trauma inflicted upon BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities and the ways American prosperity was “built on oppression and white supremacy.” In much of white America, that is akin to acknowledging the nakba in many Jewish communities.

As in my Stanford class, I offered an array of conflicting views.

On Zionism we read Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, Jabotinsky, Labor Zionists and Ari Shavit. But we also read Zachary Lockman’s Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine about the contradiction between the ideals of Labor Zionism and the practices of a colonizing settlement project (terms the Zionist movement used unapologetically until World War II). And we read about the Arab society that the early Zionists encountered in Palestine and the emergence of Palestinian national sentiment in the early 20th century (Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness).

On British policy, we read the 1917 “Balfour Declaration.” And we also read Balfour’s 1919 “Memorandum on Syria, Palestine & Mesopotamia,” composed on the occasion of his retirement from political life in which he wrote,

…so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate…For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far more profound import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

On the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, we read Abba Eban’s speech to the United Nations hailing Israel’s righteous conduct of the war; and we read Norman Finkelstein’s critique of the speech, “To Live or Perish: Abba Eban Reconstructs the June 1967 War” (Eban claimed Egypt attacked Israel first; this is untrue). Because the settlement project in Jerusalem and the West Bank began even before the 1967 war was over, we also read the Reconstructionist movement’s “A Brief History of Annexation,” which several of the organizers had prepared for the Joint Israel Commission.

No sacred cows received a free pass home to the barn. As Reconstructionists have done with other complex and controversial topics, when we talk about Israel/Palestine, we should ask whose cows they are, where they have been and why they are going to this particular barn. The power of the Reconstructionist movement lies in our willingness to ask such difficult questions.

The evaluation forms from the class indicated that a large majority of participants were extremely appreciative of the opportunity to engage in this kind of learning and were eager for more. That is consistent with the results of a 2021 survey of Reconstructionist congregations by the Joint Israel Commission. Some 50 percent of respondents agreed that “Members of our congregation are looking for opportunities to learn about or discuss Israel or Israel/Palestine.” But 64 percent reported that their congregations “infrequently” or “never” offer any programming around Israel/Palestine. The reasons are obvious, though ethically unconvincing: 30 percent said, “We do not want to stir up controversy that may divide the congregation;” 20 percent said, “Our congregation avoids political issues.”

We will continue to offer programming to Reconstructionists seeking critical discussions of Israel/Palestine. On June 29 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, we are joining Canada’s three Reconstructionist congregations — Darchei Noam (Toronto), Dorshei Emet (Hampstead) and Or Haneshamah (Ottawa) — in co-sponsoring Sayed Kashua speaking on “Being Palestinian in a Jewish State.” Kashua is a Palestinian citizen of Israel whose Hebrew literary accomplishments include four novels, a successful run as columnist for Ha’aretz and the award-winning TV series “Arab Labor.” During Elul, we will host a conversation about reparations and the Palestinian “Right of Return” as a form of teshuvah for the nakba with journalist Peter Beinart.

To receive notifications about these and other events, please email office@shamayim.org.

One Response

  1. Joel, you are amazing. I cannot thank you enough for your decades of contributions to the healing of this issue that feels like a knife in the heart of Judaism. I, like so many have benefitted tremendously from your classes.
    After 15 years focused on climate issues I came to the realization that the heart of the matter was justice- to the Earth and all people. And if I was going to pivot to Justice, why not aim for the origins of modern western religion teachings about justice, Judaism- and why then are we doing what we are doing to the Palestinians???
    I hope you have many more years of teaching about Israel/Palestine. And I hope you practice making the ends of your sentences LOUDER than the beginning. Then it wouldn’t be such a struggle to hear you.
    Blessings on your health and capacity to continue to inspire your students to reach for truth, and to challenge us along the way.

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