I’m always impressed by just how good the haftarot are for special occasions (Just wait for the Yom Kippur Torah Thursday). This Saturday is also the first day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz. As such, we drop the normal haftarah reading from the book of Samuel in favor of the new month reading from the book of Isaiah.

Increasingly, it seems to me, mainstream Judaism in the United States is centered around one value: promoting political suport for the State of Israel. I’ll argue this point in a bit more detail in the future, but to be clear, i’m not saying that Jews in the United States don’t live rich and multifaceted spiritual lives. Rather, it seems to me that mainstream Jewish organizations – and worrisomely, more and more Jews – define their identity primarily by their relationship with the State of Israel.

God, though, does not share these concerns over physical territory. In the opening of the haftarah that we read at the beginning of the new month:

Thus said the Lord:
The heaven is My throne
And the earth is My footstool:
Where could you build a house for Me,
What place could serve as My abode?

God’s domain is heaven and earth, not any one particular location or territory. So if God is not invested in geography, then what does God value? Fortunately for us, we get that in the next verses:

 As for those who slaughter oxen and slay humans,
Who sacrifice sheep and immolate dogs,
Who present as oblation the blood of swine,
Who offer incense and worship false gods —
Just as they have chosen their ways
And take pleasure in their abominations,
So I will choose to mock them,
To bring on them the very thing they dread.

One may make all the oxen and sheep sacrifices (two particularly high-level sacrifices) in the world. But no pious ritual can cleanse you from the sin of killing humans or practicing cruelty. Once again, God is telling us not to use His name or His words as an excuse to be cruel to other humans in our midsts.

Of course, not everyone is prepared to receive this message. But God has a message for them as well:

Your kinsmen who hate you,
Who spurn you because of Me, are saying,
“Let the Lord manifest His Presence,
So that we may look upon your joy.”
But theirs shall be the shame.

Those who choose to justify the actions of the State of Israel in the name of God often declare that Israel’s successes – be they in war, technology, or economy – are proof of its divine providence. You can practically hear them say: “Well, if God is on your side, then why doesn’t He show himself? Throw down the lightning, open up the earth (as He does in this week’s Torah reading), and swallow us whole?”

Isaiah here warns us not judge things as they are, but as they will be in the world to come. In the meantime, he pushes us to work towards realizing that world in our own lives through kindness and justice.


At some point next week, I’m going to publish the first of what will probably be two or three posts about the limits of political discourse about “solutions” to “the conflict” and suggesting some ways to move beyond these limits in an effort to advance more detailed and realistic plans of action.

But I recently received a stark reminder of just how limited any talk about macro-politics necessarily is. I was on a walk with my wife in the beautiful Wadi Qelt in the Occupied West Bank. We were trying to have a normal, romantic day in which we disconnect from the daily racism and creeping fascism that mark life in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, we were not so successful.

While walking back up the very steep mountain to where we parked the car, a Jewish couple driving down into the valley pulled up along side of us:

Them: How is it?

Us: Very nice.

Them: Are there a lot of people down there today?

Us: Nope. There aren’t many people at all today.

Them: I mean, are there a lot of Arabs?

Us: Goodbye, racists.

We left without explaining that there were any number of Palestinian Arabs in the valley, including those who live at or work at St. George’s monastery, shepherds, and several houses inhabited by families.

What is one to do with a place where that sort of conversation is normal? How is one to deal with people who are not only racists themselves, but assume that any stranger they encounter on the street must likewise be a racist?

Come what may after apartheid ends, these people will remain. And, if other post-conflict scenarios are any guide, they will likely maintain at the very least economic, if not political, power. Do we just wait for them to die out and hope that the next generation is better? Do we make all of them go through massive anti-racism training as part of a transitional justice program? Or do we just have faith that, unlike many other places, this time the racists will disappear once the institutions that spawn them are overcome?

In some way these questions need to be tabled, as the political ones are clearly the most pressing at the moment. But, even as the grueling work must be done towards changing an unbearable and unjust political situation in Palestine-Israel, we shouldn’t forget that these sorts of social issues will in some ways be even harder to overcome.

Over the weekend, I saw a number of Israel-apologist on Facebook circulating the following story, whose logic is so powerful it could’ve come directly from the Colbert Report. According to UnitedWithIsrael.org:

South African MP Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, “As a black South African who lived under apartheid, this system was implemented in South Africa to subjugate people of color and deny them a variety of their rights. In my view, Israel cannot be compared to apartheid in South Africa. Those who make the accusation expose their ignorance of what apartheid really is.” Meshoe made this statement upon visiting San Francisco, where he was shocked to learn of posters posted within the city comparing Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The article makes it sound as though your average Joe Southafrican wandered out of his hotel on a vacation to San Francisco and stumbled upon a group of rowdy Palestine solidarity activists and just couldn’t contain his outrage.

Who Is Rev. Dr. Kenneth Meshoe?

In fact, the good Rev. Dr. Meshoe is the founder of the Africa Christian Democratic Party, a conservative Christian Zionist party which currently holds three seats out of 400 in the South African National Assembly. His party is strongly pro-life to the point where they oppose the distribution of condoms and voted against the South African Constitution because it enshrined both abortion rights and contained anti-sexual orientation discrimination provisions. In short, Rev. Dr. Meshoe does not represent the mainstream South Africa political opinion.

Nor was this Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s first foray into Zionist speechmaking. In fact, Rev. Dr. Meshoe is one of South Africa’s leading Zionist activists and a frequent speaker in support of Israel in both his native country and in the United States. He is also one of the founders of “Africans for Israel,” an organization whose stated goal is to “stop attempts to crush Israel.”

Like Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s views on social issues, his views on Palestine and Israel are outside of the South African mainstream. Which is why South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party has been at the forefront of efforts to label goods made in Israeli settlement-colonies beyond the Green Line.

Of course, the mere fact that Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s views are not popular within his country should not invalidate his opinions. But is does raise some serious questions about UnitedWithIsrael’s representation of his op-ed.

Hasbara Through Tokinism

Why is there an attempt to portray Rev. Dr. Menshow as though he were speaking from the mainstream? Why are Israel apologists circulating this article with such glee? And why has this particular article gone viral? (At the time of this writing 3,695 Facebook users have shared the story, according to the counter UnitedWithIsrael’s the website).

The answer, of course, is obvious. They choose to highlight Rev. Dr. Meshoe only because he is a black South African. This is tokenism of the worst sort.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s actual arguments are not important to UnitedWithIsrael. Which is why they only highlight his personal background. When they do approach his own arguments about Israel, the blog rephrases Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s arguments in its own voice, rather than follow through the logic he lays out in his op-ed. Whereas the original op-ed proceeds to focus on areas of life within Israel’s 1948 borders where Jews and non-Jews share physical proximity, UnitedWithIsrael felt that the focus should have been on (misrepresented) legal protections. And so, they ignore the original explanation offered by the author in favor of their own interpretations of what he should have said. Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s opinions – his actual analysis – is not important to them.

In effect, UnitedWithIsrael is placing a black South African front and center not because they think he actually has something relevant to say, but only because his racial and national background make him a convenient face for advancing their own narrow opinions. Hence the reason Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s written argument is minimized in favor of their own. This also explains why none of the people I saw share this article on Facebook  discuss, quote, or even reference Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s substantive arguments. I would guess that the vast majority of the other 3,500 some-odd Facebook shares similarly don’t care about the content of Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s op-ed.

Frankly, the Rev. Dr. deserves better. He deserved to be read and thought about critically, not just paraded around due to the color of his skin and his passport. And so, I now will do something that UnitedWithIsrael apparently has no interest in doing: engage with Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s argument.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe: In His Own Words

The core of Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s argument against comparing Israel’s policies to those of apartheid South Africa boil down to a series of claims about what life in Palestine and Israel is like for non-Jews who live under Israeli sovereignty:

As a black South African under apartheid, I, among other things, could not vote, nor could I freely travel the landscape of South Africa. No person of color could hold high government office. The races were strictly segregated at sports arenas, public restrooms, schools and on public transportation. People of color had inferior hospitals, medical care and education. If a white doctor was willing to take a black patient, he had to examine him or her in a back room or some other hidden place. In my numerous visits to Israel, I did not see any of the above. My understanding of the Israeli legal system is that equal rights are enshrined in law.

These claims (like many other smaller claims made in the article) range from contestable to flat out wrong. The 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip cannot vote for their rulers (at least not beyond their municipal government). Nor can they freely travel the landscape of Palestine-Israel. Even Leftist parties refuse to sit in government with the so-called “Arab Parties” in the Kenesset, effectively barring Palestinian Citizens of Israel from holding high government office. Sports arenas feature some of the most vile and violent racism anywhere in Israel, and that is some high competition. Israel features segregated busses on both sides of the Green Line, not to mention on roads within the West Bank. And health services in the West Bank are disastrous, in large part thanks to the Israeli Occupation, while in Gaza repeated Israeli attacks on basic infrastructure have meant that doctors must regularly work without electricity and clean water, let alone basic medical supplies. Finally, as Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel repeatedly points out, even among the subset of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, the law does not enshrine equal rights for all of its citizens, but rather encodes legal discrimination in all areas of life. And , of course, Palestinians living under Occupation live under a separate system of martial law.

Rev. Dr. Meshoe may not have seen any of this discrimination on his trip through the Holy Land, but it exists. If these are the criteria that he lays out by which to judge Israel, then I think it is pretty clear that Israel meets Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s definition of an apartheid state.

But, of course, the Israel-apologists who have promoted this article could care less about Rev. Dr. Meshoe’s criteria nor the content of his arguments. All they care about is his race and nationality. As such, their own advocacy betrays a deep and worrisome racism that should worry even supporters of the State of Israel. But somehow, I doubt it will.

This week we have one of the most beautiful and straightforward Haftarot of the year from the book of Zachariah. The portion offers one of the clearest condemnation of the particular blend  of militarism, nationalism, and state-driven religion that dominates the government of Israel today.

The prophet Zachariah falls asleep and receives a vision from God of Joshua standing in between Satan (lit: the adversary) and the angel of God. After telling off Satan, God tells Joshua that he shall get to rule over the people of Israel:

So said the Lord of Hosts: If you walk in My ways, and if you keep My charge, you, too, shall judge My house, and you, too, shall guard My courtyards, and I will give you free access among these who stand by.

God proceeds to place a special seven-sided stone in front of Joshua, which in the next chapter (a few verses after the conclusion of the haftarah) it is explained is the cornerstone for the new Temple.

All of the modern elements of religious nationalism are here: political power and religious power stand together, united in the person of Zachariah. However, the Bible specifically warns us against this interpretation, with one of the most famous verses to emerge from the Prophets:

And he answered and spoke to me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.

Or, as I learned this verse back when I was doing labor organizing and (ironically) USY: Not by might, and not by power. But by Spirit alone. Shall we all live in peace!

Though to be honest, I actually like the Chabad translation I am quoting from here better as the biblical word for might – חיל – is the same root that the modern Hebrew word for soldier is derived from.

The Bible recognizes that mixing religion and military power in the way that the modern State of Israel has done is a particularly dangerous combination. In this week’s haftarah we are explicitly warned against thinking that a strong military force has any connection whatsoever to Judaism as God wants it practiced.

We got some changes to the format that we’re working on here at HQ. Until those roll out, however, enjoy my top picks from last week:

  • It’s off our beat a bit, but this Al Jazeera op-ed that places the mass media’s discussions of Chechnya over the past week in the broader history of attempts to manage whiteness in the U.S. “The Wrong Kind of Caucasian” is definitely worth the read.
  • A Knesset member from Yesh Atid decided to visit a friend in Ramallah. She was shocked by what she saw and posted this long, if still somewhat racist, Facebook status explaining her shock at the ways Palestinians are treated. Honestly, it doesn’t even sound like she saw any of the more exceptional forms of violence that characterize daily life in the West Bank: she talks about the Qalandia checkpoint and the daily harassment of the Israeli army. Is it possible that the average Israeli is truly this ignorant of what its government does in the West Bank?
  • An op-ed from Haaretz argues that the most recent extension of Israel’s Citizenship Law makes Israel and apartheid state.

[W]e do not need to replicate exactly the characteristics of South African apartheid within discriminatory practices in civil rights in Israel in order to call Israel an apartheid state. The amendment to the Citizenship Law is exactly such a practice, and it is best that we not try to evade the truth: Its existence in our law books turns Israel into an apartheid state.

  • Noam Sheizaf also takes up the citizenship law, focusing on the importance of paying attention to the 1 in 4 Israeli citizens who are not Jewish:

Palestinian citizens have many rights in Israel – especially compared with Palestinians under occupation – but they are not equal citizens. Even if Israel is forced to end the occupation, only by removing all discriminatory elements from its legal system and adopting a “state of all its citizens” model can it move toward becoming a truly democratic state, rather than a democracy of racial profiling.

  • A group of senior European Union officials released a statement, saying that the Oslo process has nothing more to offer and that by pretending it does, “the Occupation is actually being entrenched by the present Western policy.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disagrees, saying that the window for a two-state solution will close in 12-18 months. We’re not sure what he’s smoking, but we look forward to the United States endorsing a one-state democratic solution by October 2014. 
  • And finally, peaking of interesting U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State John Kerry said he could understand the anger of those who lost loved ones on the flotilla to Gaza, explicitly comparing what they had been through to the loss experienced by Americans who lost loved ones in the Boston bombings.

It’s been a while since I did a Torah Thursday. A big part of that is that lately the Wednesday Racism Roundup has had to document so damned much, that I have little blog-time left. But another part is that we are currently deep in the heart fo Leviticus, where the weekly readings mostly contain long lists of commandments without much exposition or story. And, since I’m not a rabbi I can say this: it’s boring!

This week we get another long and drawn listing of laws, this time relating mostly to the major holidays. Towards the end of the Torah portion, however, we get one of the more challenging stories from the Bible. In the midsts of a heated quarrel, a man pronounces God’s holy name while cursing.

As a frequent curser and person who gets frustrated fairly easily, I sympathize. The Israelites, however, do not. They place the man in prison and ask God what to do with him. In Leviticus 24:13-14, we get the answer:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him.

God goes on to list off a series of punishable offenses, ending his judgement with the infamous “eye for an eye” rule.

To us moderns with our strong commitment to free speech, the sentence seems unfairly harsh. Yet what I find particularly interesting in this passage is not the judgement itself, but the way it is to be carried out.

If God directly commands the death of the blasphemer, then why must the entire community stone him? Surely if God wished, He could have struck down the blasphemer where he stood.

To me, passage cuts to the very heart fo the meaning of political community. If the blasphemer is to be put to death, it is not simply because of God’s will, but also because of the will of the political community. Here, we do not get the single zealot carrying out doctrinal law with the certainty and righteousness and certainty of God on their side (ahem, settler-colonists). Notably, had a single individual decided to mette out punishment on their own, they would have been in the wrong. For what is crucial here is not that the man be put to death, but that the community should act together to do so.

Here, it seems to me, those of us who are uncomfortable with the judgement have an obligation to convince our communities to act according to other standards.  After all, it is the community which determines that the man has blasphemed, the community which imprisons him, and the community which executes him.

Unfortunately, as we know all too well, we will not always win such debates. And when we do, we must recognize our collective responsibility for the group’s actions, even if we may disagree with them. It is somewhat difficult to believe that each and every man, woman, and child in the dessert threw a rock at the prisoner – we’re talking thousands of people! And, in fact, Rashi, the most well-known Jewish commentator on the Torah, maintains that only the direct witnesses actually carried out the physical actions of the execution. However, they do so in the name of the entire community.

It is very easy to try to purge our own guilt for actions that our polities take by noting that we, personally, disagree with those acts. It is very easy to say that I disagree with my government’s funding of the Israeli army and pretend that this puts me above the fray. And yet my tax dollars still go to fund those policies. More so, my government funds and defends those policies in my name and in the name of every other citizen. In these verses, we see that for God, there is quite literally no difference between a representative of the people carrying out the act and the people themselves. If the witnesses carry out the execution, the people themselves carry it out as well.

Recognizing our complicity in government policies that we disagree with should not be a recipe for endless self-inflicted guilt. Rather, it must be a call to action to change the communities in which we live. After all, their action is ours and ours is their’s.

A few days back, my high school alma mater sent out an email, bragging about it’s great educational accomplishments:

Our school promotes a love of Israel in my children – Results: 71% of SSLI parents strongly agreed, giving us the second highest score in the country, and a full 21% higher than our peer schools.

Assuming that “our peer institutions” refers to Jewish Day Schools in the United States (not sure if this would include Modern Orthodox Yeshivas, but I’d guess that it does), this means that fully 50% of young Jews who graduate these schools do not express a “love for Israel,” at least not in the eyes of the parents who sent them there. Thirteen years of an education whose ever-increasing focus is to instill a single political message in their students and, yet, only half express the desired emotional bond? Not too shabby.

Is it possible that young Jews are increasingly skeptical of this narrative, which conflicts with our social values and religious beliefs? Well, I don’t have access to the survey results, so I just don’t know.  But one can certainly hope! And some days, that is enough.

Hat tip to @Shawnabraham for calling my attention to this. 

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