Sermon delivered at Beth Israel Congregation, Shabbat Nachamu, August 20, 2016
I have spoken from the bima recently about the power of words in comments on our Presidential election. After I posted one of my sermons on the issue on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends replied with a quotation by Sigmund Freud which read in part: “Words call forth effects and are the universal means of influencing human beings. Therefore let us not underestimate the use of words”.
Today, I want to speak about another use of words which has been terribly difficult for many of us. These words came in a recent statement of principles issued by the Black Lives Matter movement, whose cause I have spoken about previously from the bima, which included these words: “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” It goes on to say: “Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, whether or not one agrees with all of the rhetoric, is raising very significant issues, concerning racial discrimination in law enforcement, in the justice system and resulting mass incarceration of people of color. These issues should be very important to us as Americans and as Jews given our tradition’s absolute commitment to justice as the first priority for building a sacred community.
But, these words hurt and they must be clearly condemned.
I completely and utterly reject the idea that Israel is engaged in genocide. This is a horrible mischaracterization of the situation. I also believe Israel’s policies can not be compared to apartheid in South Africa and reject the comparison.
We can’t ignore these words. They matter. Even if the positions are ancillary to the basic goals of the movement, the leaders felt they were important enough to be mentioned and that is of great concern. These words are hurtful and untrue and, sadly, they do affect how I and many of us will interact with the efforts of this group.
But, our community’s zeal to condemn statements of this kind leads me to a great concern which arises whenever words like these are used about Israel from whatever source.
Too often, we concentrate too much on the words expressed in virulently anti-Israel statements so much so that we allow them to divert our attention from the reality. Granted it is not genocide or apartheid, but Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people are gravely inconsistent with Jewish values and tradition. They must be radically changed and we as a Jewish community, dedicated as we are to justice, must continue to focus attention on these unjust policies.
No, Israel is not completely to blame. Violent terror and rejectionism is a big piece of the story. But, if we care about justice, if we care about ethics, if we care about doing what is right, we can not let the exaggerated words we hear from others divert us from our responsibility to raise our voices against policies in Israel which are unethical.
We are justified in being uncomfortable with how other groups talk about Israel and Palestine, and that includes the Black Lives Matter movement and the Boycott Divestment and Sanction groups. But, it is our critical responsibility to offer a serious, sincere and meaningful alternative to their language which will show that we are deeply concerned and sincerely committed to applying whatever pressure we can on the Israel government to move in a different direction.
I can’t ignore the language of the Black Lives Matter movement regarding Israel. But, in the end, the language doesn’t change the fact that we and every American need to stand up and speak out and take action against the biases which cause so much pain in the black community. We are one nation and this is our fight too.
And, similarly, as Jews the fight for justice for Palestinians in Israel is our fight too.
I believe that we need to dedicate ourselves to being unmistakably clear that, even as we appropriately care so deeply about Israel’s security and survival and reject extreme language, we too know that the Palestinian people are suffering. We must raise our voices clearly, using different, more accurate but serious and clear language. We must use words which convey our deep frustration and, to use an extreme word of my own, but one which I feel is totally appropriate, our heartbreak, at what we see.