Reform Jewish Clergy Needs to Lead the Way on Palestinian Human Rights

During the month of Elul, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, it is tradition to take stock of where we stand as individuals and communities in the moral universe.

It is with pride that Reform congregations around the country have engaged in social justice actions. This includes efforts on prison reform, food insecurity, immigration, and LGBTQ rights. Groups have taken part in demonstrations on the ground, pre-COVID. During the pandemic, webinars and Zoom sessions have sprung up to inform and educate in greater depth.

Now that people have more time to read and learn, it is the perfect opportunity to examine locked in narratives around the Israel/Palestine conflict. Netanyahu’s suggestion that he would annex the West Bank in July has served as a catalyst to reflect upon the human rights issues faced by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The second-class status of Palestinians living in the state of Israel (21 percent ) is of concern as well.

Addressing the topic can feel like a mine field for Rabbis and Cantors. Within congregations, there is a continuum of belief systems. Everyone has a different opinion of the causes and potential solutions for the Holy Land.

Needless to say, passions run high.

However, an aversion to an “out of the comfort zone” conversation is not a reason to resist taking on a difficult dialogue.

The horrific murder of George Floyd has forced Jews to face and reflect upon their attitudes on privilege and racism. Within our own communities, many are less than embracing toward fellow Jews of color.

Biblical prophets pointed out unsettling actualities. It’s time for our Temple leaders to speak truth to power.

Facts on the ground are difficult and painful to hear. It’s challenging to learn about Palestinian families who are facing eviction from their homes in East Jerusalem. How many Jews know about the case of the Sumarin family, and their ongoing fight against the Absentee’s Property Law of 1950? Perhaps even more shocking is that their legal adversary is the Jewish National Fund.

Americans were reminded during the white nationalist Charlottesville rally that all countries have extremists. However, the man who killed Heather Heyer with his car was convicted on federal charges. Yet, regular occurrences of settler violence against Palestinians are treated with impunity by the Israeli government. During the COVID crisis, incidents of Palestinian intimidation, vandalizing of property, and the destruction of crops has escalated.

These activities have come to the attention of John Yarmuth (D-KY), the first Jewish representative from Kentucky. On June 11, Yarmuth, along with Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Jared Huffman (D-CA) spearheaded a letter signed by 54 Representatives to David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel. It addressed West Bank settler violence. It urged Friedman to condemn all acts of aggression in the West Bank. Yarmuth has publicly drawn analogies between the Black Lives Matter movement and the situation facing Palestinians.

American Jews are at a pivotal juncture. We are witnessing the illiberal direction of the Netanyahu government, even as Israelis rise up and gather to protest in the streets. 

Human rights are an across the board concern. There cannot be a double standard. It is time for Reform Jewish leaders to roll up their sleeves, promote and open the channels of discourse, and sheperd the way out of denial. They need to model why it is essential to look at Palestinians as individuals — with the same humanity, dignity, and aspirations for themselves and their children that American Jews and Israelis wish for.

Underscoring empathy and mindfulness in this divisive time can help to build the bridges needed to create an understanding between ourselves, and those it has been too easy to categorize as “the other.”

It will take moral courage to take the initiative. Old story lines are hard to relinquish. Then again, a new vision might help wake up those who prefer to look away, and make the road to mutual understanding and peace less rocky.

This article originally appeared on the Medium platform on September 3rd, 2020.

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