Don’t Be Afraid: Open Up the Dialogue

I enjoyed two hours of eye-opening dialogue last Sunday at the kick-off event for Jewish Voice for Peace’s Milwaukee chapter. I was surprised that not only would I be in for something informative and emotional, but for some amazing falafel, babaganoush, and other Middle Eastern treats donated by Holyland Grocery and Deli.

When Rachel Buff, JVP-Milwaukee’s co-coordinator, called us away from the buffet table and to our seats, I discovered that we were a full audience of at least 50 people. That’s impressive considering that JVP doesn’t always offer the most popular point-of-view among American Jews. Apparently, that’s changing.

Rachel made her introduction by telling us about something eye-opening that happened to her over the High Holidays. On Yom Kippur, Rachel’s mother compared her daughter, who is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than she is, to Hitler.

This recollection left many in the audience shaken. After this conversation with her mother, Rachel knew it was vital within the American Jewish communities to re-introduce an open dialogue on Israel-Palestine. As it stands now, the community has let the rift between the two sides grow so wide you can barely hear the insults, let alone the questions, being shouted across it.

After Rachel, Rabbi Brant Rosen took the podium. Rabbi Rosen has a long resume and is currently the Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee and is the co-founder and co-chairperson of the JVP Rabbinical Council. He has a friendly demeanor and you get an immediate sense of his wealth of knowledge about Judaism and Middle Eastern politics.

Like many Jews who came to stand in solidarity with Palestinians later in life, Rabbi Rosen began his journey as an unquestioning Zionist. It wasn’t until Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 that he joined the peace movement. Having studied a tradition that values questioning from the Talmud to the Passover Seder, Rabbi Rosen sees something profoundly Un-Jewish about many American Jews’ refusal to ask questions about Israel’s militarism.

Rabbi Rosen sees the grassroots Jewish peace movement gaining momentum in America and doesn’t think it can be quelled. He believes it is our duty as Jews to “stand alongside the oppressed,” and JVP gives him the opportunity to do so “openly and unabashedly.” Rabbi Rosen pointed out that Zionism and Israeli politics weren’t always taboo topics that you either supported wholeheartedly or didn’t discuss at all, giving Martin Buber and his books as an example that open discussion on Zionism once existed. The Rabbi believes that such dialogue being shut down signals a problem — a major problem.

When the Rabbi was done speaking, Lynn Pollack came to the podium. Lynn is petite, but don’t let that fool you — she has a very big presence, and I was close to tears more than once while she spoke. Lynn is a long-time peace activist and is currently on the leadership team for the JVP-Chicago chapter. She pointed out that JVP is the largest growing Jewish organization in America today and the only one to unequivocally oppose the latest assault in Gaza.

“Staying silent,” said Lynn “is the same as supporting operations, sieges, and massacres in our names.”

Lynn, not surprisingly is very active in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. She said that there are always connections among struggling people everywhere. Lynn stands in solidarity with anyone, anywhere fighting for human rights, and she emphasized the interconnectedness of these issues. For example, the protests against excessive force in Ferguson and Staten Island are linked to issues in the Middle East — many American police officers, after all, are trained in anti-terrorism tactics in Israel.

Lynn also brought to our attention the repercussions of the lack of dialogue about the peace movement in America: professors being fired or censured for their questioning of Israel’s policies, like Steven Salaita at Urbana-Champaign, and Rasmieh Odeh, the Palestinian activist from Chicago, who is being held in solitary confinement in a Detroit jail.

Lynn has hope for the younger generations, who she believes are less attached to, and therefore less likely to give unquestioning support for, Israel. The Open Hillel movement on college campuses showcases this, because it hopes to promote open discussion. Lynn also sees hope for older generations, who are more open to Israeli-Palestine dialogue than ever, and she sees more openness to discussion in the media as well.

After Lynn finished her speech, it was time for her and Rabbi Rosen to take questions from the audience.

Question: A man asked if JVP advocates a one or two-state solution.

Answer: Lynn: JVP advocates a one or two-state solution where everyone can be equal, not an ethnocracy.

Rabbi Rosen: We advocate for a state based in universal civil and human rights; a rights-based approach.

Question: A woman says she feels “let down” by what the state of Israel is doing. She has concerns because of the Jewish ethics she was raised with. She doesn’t understand the appeal of Zionism.

Answer: Rabbi Rosen: “The tragedy of Zionism/nationalism is that it doesn’t make us safe.” He also believes that Jews adapted to living in exile, and perhaps could have found an alternative to taking over what is now the state of Israel. He said that traditional or orthodox Jews have total civil authority in Israel. He says, Why not extend our sense of disenfranchisement to not only Israeli religious women but to anyone who lives there, including Muslims?

Question: A man asks about the Military-Industrial Complex and how does an organization like JVP translate its social media success into AIPAC-levels of support.

Answer: Lynn: JVP has been much more active recently after years of gaining grassroots support and is moving into meeting with representatives and hiring  a “presence” in congress.

Rabbi Rosen: There has always been grassroots support for civil rights movements that eventually translated into political pressure. He thinks that it’s only a matter of time until the “streets wake up.”

Question: A man asks, How do we deal with the violence against Israel, to the people that want to “wipe it off the face of the Earth”?

Answer: Rabbi Rosen: He also worries about this. While not downplaying anti-Semitic emotion anywhere, he thinks this is political more than anything else; it’s a “colonial mindset.” He questions whether or not Israel is really a safe haven for Jews, and believes that Jews live in a state of insecurity there, whereas “America has also been a safe haven.” He points out that we can’t deny Israel has been a place for sorrow, conflict, blood, and tears. Since the Oslo Accords, Arab attitudes have worsened toward Israel in relation to the occupation.

Question: A man mentions the fact that Israel doesn’t have to account for money given to it by the U.S.

Answer: Lynn: JVP wants aid to Israel to comply with international law regarding human rights offenses, and would want Israel to be subjected to the Leahy Law, which would mean that its foreign aid can’t be used against civilians.

Want to find out more about keeping the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue open? Rabbi Rosen recently published a book, Wrestling in the Daylight, on the topic, or you can visit JVP’s website to get more information or to become more active in the movement.

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