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Rabbi's Week in Review - 8/14/2023

08/14/2023 02:42:25 PM


I am writing in regard to the Roeland Park City Council hearing held Monday, August 7, and specifically to the resolution on anti-Semitism. As I was out of town and could not attend the hearing, my response is actually to the article in the KC Jewish Chronicle covering the hearing. As such, I am assuming accuracy in how the article described the events of the evening, and that those quoted in the article were done so accurately.

I write this with some reticence. My reticence is not due to the possibility that I will raise the ire of some portion of the Jewish community.  (I’m fairly confident I will.) Rather, at a time when reasonable discourse and the Jewish value of Machloket L’Sheim Shamayim — argument for the sake of heaven — are in short supply, I fear that everyone will go to their respective polarized corners. I write this not to demonize those with whom I disagree (and with whom I respect) but to suggest some possible alternative approaches regarding how we address anti-Semitism, and where I believe the greater threats to our Jewish people may lie.

Our Greater Kansas City Jewish Community Relations Bureau-American Jewish Committee (JCRB-AJC) has forged a significant campaign to fight anti-Semitism. This campaign has involved seeking and obtaining resolutions from the Kansas Legislature and several municipalities condemning anti-Semitism and, in so doing, adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of anti-Semitism. 

I applaud their effort to combat anti-Semitism, an effort that dates to when I was a high school student at Shawnee Mission South. I, like many from the Jewish community who testified at the hearing in Roeland Park, have experiences of anti-Semitism that date back to high school. During that time, the then JCRB (not yet adding the AJC) was our hero as we sought to simply be our authentic Jewish selves amidst a sometimes-hostile environment.

As described in the article, there were two of the eight members of the Roeland Park City Council in opposition to the proposed resolution because it was employing the IHRA Definition of anti-Semitism.  Also appearing at the hearing, and the organization most prominent in opposition to the proposed resolution, was the Kansas chapter of the Center for American Islamic Relations (CAIR).  In asserting their respective opposition to the proposed resolution containing the IHRA Definition, they offered an amendment to the resolution seeking to employ the Jerusalem Declaration as an alternative to the IHRA Definition of anti-Semitism.

While my own preference between those two options is for the Jerusalem Declaration, I am not seeking to persuade anyone of its efficacy relative to the IHRA Definition. My concerns are in the characterizations that were directed toward those who stood in opposition to the resolution. These concerns are as follows:

(1) Characterizing those at the hearing (or anyone) who advocate for the Jerusalem Declaration regarding anti-Semitism and opposed to the IHRA Definition as anti-Semites. Again, for me, it is not a question of whether the IHRA Definition or the Jerusalem Declaration is the more right or righteous position.

My concern is in characterizing the debate as “a perfect illustration of the battle with far-left anti-Semitism.” In so doing, the impression is left that those who opposed the main resolution as presented, and in advocating for the Jerusalem Declaration, were anti-Semitic. 

As one who prefers the Jerusalem Declaration, I am quite sure I am not an anti-Semite. I mentioned previously that in my own experience, my encounters with anti-Semitism date back to high school. They actually date back earlier. While my experiences have been relatively infrequent, they have not totally abated.  I have received two death threats during my time in the rabbinate (although not recently, thank G-d).  At this point in my life, I do not need anyone to tell me about the dangers posed by anti-Semites.

Maybe more to the point, amongst the more than 300 signatories to the Jerusalem Declaration are some of the world’s most prominent Jewish scholars and leaders. While not providing the entire list of all the signatories to the Jerusalem Declaration, herein (I urge everyone to read both the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism and the Jerusalem Declaration and decide for yourselves which one you prefer) I think it is informative to name a few. 

Susannah Heschel, a signatory to the Jerusalem Declaration, is the Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, and the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Of greater relevance to this discussion, she was the keynote speaker at the 2005 Martin Luther King Jr Interfaith Service co-sponsored by our JCRB-AJC. Is the JCRB-AJC suggesting that the same Susannah Heschel is an anti-Semite for signing on to the Jerusalem Declaration?

Another signatory, Paul Mendes-Flohr, holds the title of Professor Emeritus from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a leading scholar on Jewish intellectual history, Jewish philosophy and religious thought.

Signatory Rabbi Jill Jacobs was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, is the Executive Director of “T’ruah — the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights” (of which I am a member), and a leading voice addressing the intersection of Judaism and social justice. She has appeared on numerous lists of most influential rabbis. By providing these names, I am not suggesting that you cannot disagree with the Jerusalem Declaration or disagree with these three accomplished contributors to Jewish life. But I do think it is wrong to engage in the debate in a way that lumps them in as anti-Semites for no other reason than their support of the Jerusalem Declaration.

(2) As to the “far-left” part of the reference, I respond that not all anti-Semitism is equal.

I do not think, nor has it been my experience, that there is an equivalence between anti-Semitism on the left and that which has been more openly, pervasively and violently  perpetrated on the right.  My two death threats came from right-wing extremists.  The 2014 murders at our Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom came from a right-wing extremist.  I officiated at the community-wide vigil for the 11 Gute Neshumas (11 good souls, as I referenced them at the vigil) who were viciously murdered as they davened on Shabbos morning at a Pittsburgh shul. Their recently convicted murderer was a right-wing extremist. 

The tiki-torch, neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and stood in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue with semi-automatic rifles to intimidate Jews as they went to their shul for Shabbat were not far-left or left-wing anti-Semites. The 40 congregants who attended services on that Shabbos morning in Charlottesville were forced to leave via the back door in groups.  In anticipation of what might happen, Beth Israel had already removed Torahs from the synagogue, including a Torah that had been saved from the Holocaust.

I belong and/or work with a number of organizations that some may characterize as at least left-leaning (probably not far-left). As it relates to me personally, I reject the characterization as somewhat lazy and lacking a more nuanced view toward positions I take on a number of important issues. At the same time, I am not ashamed or embarrassed and do not shy away from the characterization.

I have never felt any sense of danger nor any sense of hatred or demonization for being the rabbi, the Jew, in the room full of left-leaning activists. Quite the contrary, my Jewish perspective and values, while being on many occasions a contrary approach to my Christian and other non-Jewish colleagues, have always been welcome. This has even been true on occasions when I have (and I have) called out organizations for representing themselves as multi/inter faith when they have instead leaned into a more Christian-centric view that would leave us on the outside looking in.

Naming opponents at the hearing as far-left anti-Semites strikes me as extreme and unwarranted. I think those advocating for the IHRA Definition could have simply explained why it better defines anti-Semitism without setting off opponents as a threat to the Jewish people. My understanding is that CAIR has previously been an ally in speaking out against anti-Semitism. Was there any effort to engage in meaningful discussion with the leaders of CAIR? It seems to me that simply dismissing them as anti-Semitic is an opportunity lost.

(3) As I read both the IHRA Working Definition of anti-Semitism and the Jerusalem Declaration, I think the main issue on which the two depart is where criticism of Israel and Israeli policy crosses a line into anti-Semitism, including advocating for Palestinian rights. I come at this from a Jewish lifetime engendered by love for Israel and what Israel means for our people. 

My early and most prominent Hebrew School experience was all about love for Israel.  My first (and most influential) Hebrew School teacher, Tzivia Gaba, and her husband Joe, z”l — both of blessed memory — were chalutzim, pioneers, in building the modern Jewish state.  All three of my boys went on Israel programs, two of whom did high school semesters in Israel during the second Intifada. Amongst my trips to Israel, I was part of a Jewish Federation mission during the second Intifada when you could roll a bowling ball down Ben Yehuda Street and not hit anyone.

I believe the dividing line over what is or is not allowable criticism of Israel is more an internal debate than an external threat.  At a time when 100,000 Israeli protesters have taken to the streets over the ongoing threat to Israeli democracy, when Israeli military leaders have also recognized the Netanyahu coalition government as autocratic and challenged its authority as invalid, it is difficult for me to sit idly by and not see it as our obligation as Jews to advocate for a different and more just Israel. It is out of love for Israel and my desire to see it survive and thrive as the democratic Jewish state that I join with Israeli/Jewish organizations and their leaders who see the existential threat to Israel as coming from within and are saying enough.

Attendant to the issue of Israeli policy and where opponents to the resolution passed by the Roeland Park City Council are coming from is the issue of Palestinian rights and self-determination.  Without getting into the weeds on this (and where I am sure I fall to the left of many in Kansas City’s mainstream Jewish community), I simply ask that we not demonize and see all Palestinians or their supporters as our mortal enemy. Not everyone who advocates for Palestinian rights is a member of Hamas nor wants to drive Israel into the sea.

In that regard, I recommend two books: The first is I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity, by Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, who lived in Gaza, was trained in Israel and whose three daughters were killed by an Israeli tank shell. The other book is In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation, co-written by Penina Eilberg-Schwartz and Sulaiman Khatib.  Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a writer and the daughter of Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi by Jewish Theological Seminary.

As we come into Elul and look toward the new year, as we rightfully fight for our safety and survival, let us also find ways to engage with voices of reason, with those we disagree, and to embrace the Jewish value of Machloket L’Sheim Shamayim — argument for the sake of heaven — and fulfill G-d’s will for each of us to be a Rodef Shalom, a pursuer of peace.

Fri, September 22 2023 7 Tishrei 5784