I was disurbed by Alice Walker's presentation on Yom Kippur at Beyt Tikkun's service.

Rabbi Lerner on Alice Walker's Talk at Yom Kippur, plus a letter from Rabbi Arik Ascherman, chair of the Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, and their list of sins for which Jews supporting Israel should repent.

 

 

I Was Disturbed by Alice Walker's Yom Kippur presentation  Email Article To a Friend View Printable Version 

      I had never met Alice Walker before, and her recounting of her trip to Gaza which appeared in Tikkun's Sept/Oct 2009 article, while provocative, did not go beyond information that is available to anyone who wishes to know about Israeli human rights violations, and it was balanced by her account of the war between Hutus and Tutis in Rwarnda whose atrocities made Israel's treatment of Palestinians pale in comparison. 

       So I was shocked and disappointed that Alice Walker, whose book The Color Purple won a Pulitzer Prize, would give a talk so lacking in nuance and filled more with attitude than facts or analysis. I had framed her talk by presenting my own brief summary of the history which had led Israeli and Palestinians into this 120 year old conflict, explaining how both sides bore responsibility for the conflict, even though Israel's far greater power in the past sixty years has given Israel far greater moral responsibility to take definitive action to end the Occupation, end the human rights abuses, and provide reparations to the Palestinian people--as part of a peace agreement that would provide security for both Israel and Palestine.  Instead of picking up on that attempt at even-handedness, Ms. Walker's first comments dismissed the history as largely irrelevant. I wonder how she would react if someone were to make that same comment about the past history of slavery and segregation when discussing contemporary levels of crime in the Black community, or even about the past history of women's oppression through ten thousand years of patriarchy.

         Ms. Walker's claims about human rights abuses by Israel are largely substantiated by independent investigations.The Goldstone report to the U.N. only reconfirms what we should already have learned from the meticulous documentation of ongoing crimes of occupation that can be read from B'tselem: The Israeli Human Rights ORganization. 

         However, there are at the moment  no credible reports of Israeli soldiers raping Palestinian women, as Ms. Walker alleges. I did my own post-Yom Kippur web search on this, and remain very doubtful that these charges have been substantiated. It seems possible to me that there may have been some isolated instances of rape--but I have no reason to believe that that "possibility" ever turned into an actuality. It's not the case that rape is beyond the capacity of Jewish men--in Israel there have been numerous cases of Jewish men raping Jewish women. But the variety of human rights organizations seeking to shed light on Israeli offenses have not made the charge of rape, even as they do make the subtantiated charges of torture, murder, etc. against Israeli settlers and soldiers. So I remain deeply skeptical about this charge. This was confirmed for me in the hours after Yom Kippur when I made contact with the Israeli Human Rigths Organization Btselem, and made contact with a Palestinian human rights activist in Bethlehem. At the very bottom of this note I reproduce the note I received from Palestine on this question.

           l believe that Israel and the Jewish people have a lot to repent for in their support for the Occupation and the human rights abuses that have been part of that Occupation and the assault on Gaza. So I was particularly disturbed that Alice Walker's presentation was so unconvincing and missed the opportunity to speak to our hearts, in large part because it felt contaminated by anger and a lack of compassion for the Jewish people and for Israelis. I believe that such compassion must be part of our critique. For that reason, I now regret having had Alice Walker as a speaker. I personally experienced some of her remarks as offensive to me and her manner of talking to us dismissive and put-downish and her perception of the Jewish people seemed largely ignorant of the tradition of Jews that we represent and that has been growing worldwide. So I want to apologize to our community for subjecting you to this talk.  

           On the other hand, the original reason for inviting Alice Walker remains valid: that on Yom Kippur we are not trying to get into a balanced political analysis of the Middle East, but instead are interested in exploring the specific ways that we, the Jewish people, have gone astray. The process of teshuva or repentance is not about explaining away our misdeeds or showing how they really aren't so bad, or really were provoked by others. That may be fine for a poltical conversation, but not for a spiritual one in which our task is to, as the Torah tells us, "afflict our souls" and explore where we have missed the mark. In that context, having someone point to the sins of the Jewish people is appropriate, at least when done within a Jewish religious context in which we take collective repsonsibility for the sins of our entire people. And the sad fact is that Alice Walker was right about one thing: those sins, while amazingly absent from the Jewish media and the public discourse inside the Jewish community, are increasingly obvious to most other people on the planet, and are generating anger toward Jews that will last for generations and place Jews in grave danger in the 21st century. We ignore them at our peril. So this is why I was so disappointed at Alice Walker's presentation--because the way she presented had the opposite effect of waht I had hoped for and expected. Instead of speaking to our hearts and opening us to consider the ways we need atonement, Ms. Walker's talk actually closed the ears and hearts of many of our congregants and made it less likely that we would be able to engage in the teshuva that is really necessary and urgent for our people. I base this on the reactions of congregants both during and after the talk that they conveyed to me. For that, I wish to apologize to Beyt Tikkun.  I say this without in any way wishing to demean the humanity or decency of Alice Walker, who was reporting her experiences through the framework of her own history--seeing the world, just as well all do, through the grid available to her and product of her own life and its impact on her consciousness. Everyone of us sees the world through our own grid, and we need to approach each other with a great deal of compassion and understanding even when, as in the case of some of what Alice Walker said, we might disagree with the perceptions or framework which others bring to their experiences. 

 

    None of this discussion about the reactions to Alice Walker should  provide any of us with a good reason to avoid challenging the moral outrages of the Occupation itself. That remains a central challenge for all of us who wish to remain true to the highest values of the Jewish people, the Torah tradition, and the God of the universe. As a community that is firmly committed to the survival and safety of Israel, we know and need to affirm over and over again that Israel's security depends on the degree to which it can shift its behavior and the perception of its behavior from that of a bully towards an occupied people to that of a people acting with a generosity of spirit appropriate to those who brought to the world the Torah command "thou shalt LOVE the stranger" because we remember that WE WERE STRANGERS in the land of Egypt. Those who defend Israel's current behavior are actually the worst enemies of the Jewish people and have been providing the worst elements inside Israel with encouragement to continue behavior which is not only immoral but also extremely self-destructive to Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people worldwide. For Israel's sake, we must not be silent. 

    --Rabbi Michael Lerner

 

 

 

 

YOM KIPPUR THOUGHTS

Rabbi Arik W. Ascherman

 

I once had a wonderful, committed and active congregant say to me, "Yom Kippur doesn't speak to me because I don't feel that I have anything to repent for."  I probably answered this congregant by firstly expressing my surprise that any human being would not have areas of his/her life that s/he needed to improve.  Secondly, I noted one of the first things I was taught about Yom Kippur way back in Sunday school.  The entire Yom Kippur vidui (confession) we recite time after time throughout the day is said as a collective "We."  As intensely personal as Yom Kippur is, we confess all sorts of crimes and sins that we did not personally commit because we are part of a society in which these sins took place.   I often quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that "In a democratic society a few are guilty but all are responsible."  However the vidui goes even further.  We are all guilty, whether or not we live in a democratic society, for the sins committed by whatever society each of us personally include ourselves in when we say "We." 

 

I put the final touches on our RHR Vidui for 5770 just before Shabbat.  I spend a good deal of time reflecting (The dangerous thing about Shabbat is that I actually have time to think and reflect.) about the vidui.  Both individually and collectively, we are very good at saying "I don't have anything to repent for," and we are very good at pointing our finger at others.  Yom Kippur is an attempt to break through that.  Sure, we in RHR could write a vidui about the sins of the Americans or the Chinese or the Palestinians.  They all have plenty of sins to write about.  We could play the game of holding ourselves responsible for not doing enough to prevent the sins of others, and to the extent that we hold ourselves responsible as part of the global village, we might even mean it.  However, the idea of Yom Kippur is not to be harsh with others, but with ourselves and the society which we refer to as "We."  There might be many very interesting uses of the RHR vidui for those who don't identify with Israel and Israelis as "We," but for Yom Kippur I would recommend doing what we in RHR have done for our society.  Take the traditional text and add after each line examples for which you feel you are speaking to your self as an individual and as a collective "We."   If, as human rights activists, we see ourselves as not responsible for the sins of our society because we are fighting against them, then we should be saying a vidui for the sins of our activist community.   If we don't manage to do this, we have missed the point of Yom Kippur.

 

One of the saddest realizations for me each year is when I see how many of the lines from the previous year's vidui are still applicable.  Among the new lines in the vidui are lines dealing with specific issues, such as Gaza and our treatment of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees.  However, I would like to expand on three lines not referring to any particular ill of Israeli society:

 

1.  For the sin which we have sinned against You by smugly disparaging

Those whose concept of justice is different than ours.

 

There is a great deal of "sinat khinam," unjustified raging hatred directed against those of us who ask questions about the Gaza war.  I haven't seen anything quite like it since the first Lebanon war over 25 years ago.  However, one of the things that fuels this rage, and its lesser forms over the years, is the perception that those of us asking the questions are privileged elitists, looking down on the masses who haven't "seen the light" as we have.  The anger often takes a Ashkenazi-Sefaradi twist as well.  This image has been carefully cultivated by those who wish to make issues of peace and human rights with the Palestinians into issues of class war.  However, that only amplifies the importance that we look closely at ourselves to insure that we do our utmost to rid ourselves of this tendency.  It does exist.  It manifests itself in our private conversations and in the lack of concern so many dedicated peace and human rights activists have towards issues of economic justice for Israelis or rockets falling on Sderot.

 

2.  And for the sin which we have sinned against you through short sightedness

Ignoring education and long term change, and believing we could repair the world instantly.

 

I have always been proud of our educational programs and worked hard to create them, but have learned to appreciate their importance much more this year.  The overwhelming support for the Gaza war, the unwillingness to examine our actions during the war, and the results of the Israeli elections have a lot to do with unawareness that the June 2008 ceasefire had almost entirely stopped the firing of qassam rockets while Israel did not observe our commitment to lift the blockade. The war was therefore seen as a way too late response of a weak government after 6;000 qassam rockets on Sderot. 

 

However, there is another factor that I have become increasingly aware off.  For some 40 years there has been a quiet and patient grass roots educational effort by those who believe that it is incumbent upon us to "redeem" every dunam of the Land of Israel by any means possible, and who have a narrow and exclusivist view of the world which does not view the rights of non-Jews the same way that it views the rights of Jews.  On the economic front, there as been a consistent errosion of the values of collective responsibility upon which this country was founded in the name of U.S. style capitalism and globalization.   We can decry these values all that we want, and will simply be met with blank or angry stares.   I am not at all sure that those who hold these values are the majority.  Opinion polls still show that there is a majority of Israelis who would make major concessions for peace if they believed peace was possible, and there are still many who express outrage at the degradation in which many Israelis live or over the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees.   Unfortunately, those holding the exclusivist and capitalist values are a majority among those who are highly motivated to try to shape the direction of Israeli society.  We can't simply abandon all current struggles in favor of education for 40 years, because it is not clear that there would be a country in 40 years.  However, we must understand that we must swallow hard, accept that there will not be a quick fix for many of the ills that we oppose, and, far from the spotlight, engage in grass roots education.

 

3.      For the sin which we have sinned against You through the desecration of

Your Name         

Fulfilling the commandments of how to treat our fellow human beings only with regards to Jews.

 

 

 

If our sin in terms of economic and social justice is abandoning our values in favor of values absorbed from the outside world, our sin in terms of how we treat non Jews is our desire to shut out the outside world and focus only on ourselves. 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been wont to say for the last year or so that one of the greatest divides in the Jewish world today is between those who interpret the Jewish tradition regarding how to treat our fellow human beings as relating only to Jews (or maybe not all Jews-just those of their insular community.), and those of us who understand our tradition universally.  However, erev Yom Kippur, with all of my understanding that we can not definitively say "Judaism says"  about almost anything, I must express my belief that it is a desecration of God's Name to treat the human rights, needs, feelings and suffering of non-Jews as secondary to our rights, needs, feeling and suffering.  There is a direct connection between this approach, as natural as breathing to so many young Israelis, and the conscious advocacy of the "dakhiya" doctrine of disproportionate force, the expulsion of non-Jews from their homes on the basis of pre-1948 claims without returning them to the homes that they lived in pre-1948, or the use of discriminatory zoning plans.  I am attaching a link to an article which we initiated last week in YNet highlighting how Palestinians were indiscriminately arrested and held for days for alleged arson, while settlers are almost never arrested and immediately released to house arrest.  What doesn't appear in the article is the comment by a senior police officer close to the investigation several days before the suspects were released, who said that he believed that Palestinians had committed arson, but that the arrested Palestinians were innocent.

 

 

 

 

 

May the power of this holy day of Yom Kippur and this season of Kheshbon Nefesh (introspection) prod us to change, growth and greater partnership with You in creating a more sanctified world.  May we overcome our human tendency to excuse our own failures and focus on the failures of others.  May we truly be able to mean "We" when we speak of

 

Israel, Israelis and Israeli society.  May we be more truly able to mean "We" when we speak of all humanity.  May we avoid the sin which we have sinned against You through double standards, be they the double standard by which we Israelis think exclusively of Jewish rights and needs, or the double standard by which those for whom Israeli society is not their "We" look at Israeli sins instead of their own.  May we concentrate a little less on our rights and the faults of others, and a little more on our faults and the rights of others.

 

 

 

G'Mar Khatima Tova (May the Final Seal be for the Good)

 

 

Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel issued the following list of Sins for which Jews Supporting Israel Need to Recount on Yom Kippur:

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through fraud and falsehood

               As we continued to impose a blockade on civilians in violation of the June 2008 ceasefire

               (Which had reduced massive qassam fire to isolated cases)

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by hurrying to do wrongly

               As we abandoned other options and turned to force.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through justifying

               Arguing that all is permissible in the name of our defense.

And for the sin which we have sinned against you through foolish talk

               Excusing collective punishment and harming civilians.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You by keeping ourselves ignorant

               Not wanting to know what really happened during Cast Lead

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by causeless hatred

Towards those who dared to ask questions or present facts contradicting what we wished to believe.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through silence

               When we didn’t protest against the qassams.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You through empty words

               When we professed our concern for Sderot.

 

For all these and more, God of forgiveness, we ask forgiveness, pardon, and atonement.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against you by the closing of borders

               To Sudanese refugees fleeing for their lives.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You through imposing borders

               As we sought to limit where refugees were allowed to live.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through forgetting

               The many times borders were closed for us.

And for the sin which we have sinned against you for forgetting

               Those who helped us in our times of terror, as we seek to make it a crime to help the stranger.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You for forgetting

That we were once strangers in the land of Egypt - exploiting foreign workers and seeking to expel their children.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You in doing business

               Rather than fighting those operating as pimps and trafficking in women.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by hardening our hearts

               Towards all the “others” who live among us.

 

For all these and more, God of forgiveness, we ask forgiveness, pardon, and atonement.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You by indulging in food and drink

              As the social gap has grown.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by hardening our hearts

              To poverty, hunger and despair, allowing the unequal distribution of resources.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through Lashon HaRa (slander)

              Claiming that the unemployed are "faking it” and “parasites.”

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by casting aside the weak

Neglecting medicines for the sick, those requiring assisted living and the mentally ill in the health care budget.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You by desecrating Your name

Abandoning the "agunot" and those women who were not granted a divorce in the name of our religion, and ignoring the solutions which exist in the Halacha.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by scoffing,

              Denigrating new immigrants and failing to honor their traditions and cultures.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You consciously or unconsciously,

When fellow citizens are under-represented in government, academia and business,

And are not permitted to fully be a part of society.

And for the sin which we have sinned against you through limiting our vision

              Not seeing Israeli Arabs as citizens of the state.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through the words we have mouthed,

            As if we truly cared about the weakest and poorest among us.

And for the sin which we have sinned against you through quieting our conscience

               By giving charity without dealing with the roots of poverty.

 

For all these and more, God of forgiveness, we ask forgiveness, pardon, and atonement.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through the desecration of Your name

               Fulfilling the commandments of how to treat our fellow human beings only with regards to Jews

And for the sin which we have sinned against You through insolence -

            Saying that only Jews have rights to the Land.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through deception

               When we said that we would build new homes for those Israelis evacuated from Gaza

And for the sin which we have sinned against you through hard heartedness

               Towards the homeless and by ignoring the bitter cries of the children in unrecognized

               Villages and in the Occupied Territories whose homes we have demolished.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You through hypocrisy

When we didn’t do a thing to stop the rising violence against Palestinians and then

Lamented when the same criminals attacked soldiers.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You knowingly or unknowingly,

Allowing successive governments to steal or prevent Palestinian access to their lands, demolish homes, pave roads, uproot trees, limit water, torture, abuse and humiliate.

 

For all these and more, God of forgiveness, we ask forgiveness, pardon, and atonement.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You by thinking to ourselves and by whispering in closed rooms      About that which we should have shouted from the rooftops.

And for the sin which we have sinned against you through short sightedness

               Ignoring education and long term change, and believing we could repair the world instantly.

 

For the sin which we have sinned against You by smugly disparaging

Those whose concept of justice is different than ours.

And for the sin which we have sinned against You by lack of faith in You, in ourselves, and in our society, 

When we said that Tikun Olam (Repairing the World) is “In the heavens” or “Across the Sea,” and thus beyond our capability. 

 

For all these and more, God of forgiveness, we ask forgiveness, pardon, and atonement.

 

 

May the words and the intentions of our prayer bring us to true teshuva and lead us forward to acts of righteousness and tzedaka, in order to make our world a place in which Shechina can dwell.

 **************************

Dear Rabbi Michael,

Salaam and thanks.  You are most welcome and happy to help.  Well, as I
understand Alice Walker, as much as I love her, as much as I admire her, she
is wrong.  I have never heard of an incident of rape anywhere even in Gaza,
I do not know of any, well, I will ask so we be fair anyway, but I am sure
that there is is not.  Well, here are some cases I know off, in terms of
either rape but they are undocumented by human rights organization as you
know there is no women that will say that she has been raped cause she will
be killed by her family, as you know we live in a men society where women
are persecuted all the time.  In the Illegal settlement of Maale Adumim on
the land of Abu Diss and Aizariyeh, many women from Jericho sneak in the
settlement with no permit, in many of the cases the guards of the settlement
force some women to have sex with them in order to permit them enter the
settlement with not permit from the Israeli army and so on, sadly this
happens documented by Birzeit University.  These are the only cases I know
for sure. 

I will be in the US during November for 2 weeks and hope that we will be
able to cross paths and get together,  Salaam and best regards,

George S. Rishmawi
Coordinator,
Siraj, Center For Holy Land Studies
Beit Sahour, Schoold Street
P.O.Box 48
Palestine
Email: george@sirajcenter.org