Sabeel BDS conference pits local church against Jewish community leaders

On April 29-30 Friends of Sabeel North America organized a highly successful conference in Santa Cruz CA, titled “Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions at the Crossroads of Campus, Church & Community.”  Local rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community, including the director of Santa Cruz Hillel, tried hard to shut it down, focusing on the Peace United Church of Christ that hosted the conference. The juggernaut of pressure, exerted not only on the conference organizers and local Christian clergy, but directly on the lay leaders of the UCC church to prevail on their pastor to block the conference as flagrantly anti-Semitic, included letters and opinion pieces in the local newspaper, The Sentinel. The conference went on, filling the large church with close to 400 attendees.  Having failed to stop the conference, Rabbi Richard Litvak of Temple Beth El and five other Jewish leaders, including two rabbis and the Santa Cruz Hillel Director, published an OpEd that appeared on the Saturday of the conference.

Besides the familiar charges of BDS as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, Rabbi Litvak’s piece included a direct attack on Sabeel and on Naim Ateek. Sadly familiar to us at Sabeel, this attack made the charge that Sabeel “employs disturbing theological rhetoric that misrepresents and denigrates Judaism… [employing] explicitly anti-Jewish imagery, comparing “crucified Palestinians” to “Jesus on the cross,” the victims of an “Israeli government crucifixion system.” The piece also characterized the conference as unbalanced, promoting “a vision of the future for which only one side is entitled to ‘justice’ and for which only Israel is to blame for decades of conflict.” As an alternative to BDS, Rabbi Litvak hailed programs that emphasize “mutual recognition” and the kind contact between Jews and Palestinians that will “prepare both parties to make the painful sacrifices needed for peace and learn to view ‘the other’ as their partner for a shared future.”

The conference featured powerful addresses by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Palestinian American activist Lara Kiswani, Omar Barghouti of the BDS National Committee, and Rev Graylan Hagler of Plymouth United Church of Christ.  I also spoke at the conference, and published the following OpEd, published in The Sentinel in the week following the conference:

BDS not anti-Semitic: it’s the best hope for Israel

By Mark Braverman, Special to the Sentinel

In his April 30 opinion piece Rabbi Richard Litvak names the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.” In so doing he asks us to agree that the intent of BDS is to destroy or end Israel.  This is simply not true.

At the conference at Peace United Church of Christ that has caused Rabbi Litvak and his colleagues such distress I heard incisive, urgent, rights-based criticism of Israel, and it is well-deserved. Hats off to the clergy and laity of the church who held the conference in the face of intense pressure. The organizers understand that BDS is not anti-Semitic, that criticism of Israel has nothing to do with attitudes toward Jews or Jewish tradition.  As a Jew, I understand the reasons for Zionism, which arose out of Jewish suffering and partook of the nationalist spirit of 19th century Europe. But this can not be the basis of a modern nation state, not now, when the trajectory of history is away from ethnic nationalism, the cause of so much conflict and suffering. Israel cannot build its future by privileging Jews over others.

Rabbi Litvak maintains that the return of Palestinians expelled in 1948 would “result in extinguishing Israel as the world’s only Jewish state.”  But, we must ask, what kind of a Jewish state? The world, including many Israelis, is beginning to demand of Israel, as it did of South Africa, that it become a legitimate member of the world community. Peace for Israel will come not with building walls, but with becoming a democracy for all its inhabitants.  Whatever political form Israel may eventually take, anything else cannot be called “Jewish.” Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has said that not only is criticism of Israel’s illegal policies not anti-Semitic, it is the best way to fight anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Litwak misrepresents the theology of Palestinian Rev Naim Ateek. Care for the oppressed is the core of Liberation Theology, and at the heart of the Jewish values I was raised on. I understand all too well the Rabbi’s discomfort with the image of a crucified Jesus being tortured by Jews, an image that has caused our people so much suffering throughout history. But we must turn from a preoccupation with past suffering and toward an acknowledgement, however painful, of how our current quest for safety has turned us into persecutors. The man on the cross stands for those crushed under the heel of oppression in every historical period and place. This is the meaning of Ateek’s crucifixion imagery. It is a tragic irony that those now responsible for Palestinian suffering are the leaders of a Jewish state.  But this only serves to point out that Jews too are capable of wrongdoing. In talking about Israel’s “original sin,” Ateek is doing no more than calling Israel to account, as we Americans identify the genocide of native peoples and slavery as our “original sins.”  In this we are not calling the existence of our country into question – we are taking responsibility and resolving to do better.  To require the same of Israel is not questioning Israel’s “right to exist,” as Rabbi Litvak charges. Rather we are requiring that Israel cease its land theft and its abrogation of the rights of the indigenous Palestinians.

Rabbi Litvak cites programs that bring together Jews and Palestinians. These would be fine if there were movement toward a just settlement.  But after these opportunities, the Jews go back to their lives in Tel Aviv and Haifa and the Palestinians return to the open air prisons of the West Bank and Gaza or to their second-class status in Israel. When rights are restored to Palestinians, we can talk about reconciliation and mutual understanding. Until then, the only responsible actions for Americans are to petition our government to condition military aid to Israel, and to support global, non-violent efforts for a future of dignity for both peoples. BDS is not going away. Tired tropes invoking the specter of anti-Semitism and the empty appeal to the now discredited “two state solution” aren’t going to stop it.

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